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World War I research at the Cathedral Archives

World War I research at the Cathedral Archives

I have been fortunate to be part of the ongoing project to research collections held in the Cathedral Archives for the commemoration of the centenary of the Great War.

I commenced assisting with the project in October 2013. I didn’t fully appreciatee at that time, the wealth and scope of the information I was about to discover. I began by examining the meticulous records of the Canterbury and District War Work Depot, which provided socks and shirts not only to soldiers fighting at the front, but also, along with blankets, bandages and other supplies, to many hospitals at home and abroad. In particular, it sent to the Serbian Relief Fund much-needed women’s and children’s clothing, and to the British Red Cross in Malta lavender bags and muslin squares, for use in sick wards for the treatment of dysentery and enteric fever. Closer to home, many of the local VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) hospitals were to benefit from the formation of this organisation. For instance, there are a number of letters from the Commandant of the VAD hospital in Ash, near Canterbury, requesting items such as bed jackets, pyjamas and slippers. By return there were then grateful letters of acknowledgement.

I also read about the work performed by the Canterbury Dane John VAD hospital, used for the reception of sick and wounded soldiers, with 115 beds. In examining the admissions and discharge books, I saw the many varied cases treated on a short-term admission basis, prior to being transferred to the military hospital at Shorncliffe, Folkestone. The men received treatment for such ailments as a sprained ankle, tonsillitis and of course shell-shock. Then in 1918, there were many cases of influenza following the outbreak of the Spanish ‘flu pandemic. It was good to see that the Commandant Miss Alexandra Alberta Russell was later appointed MBE for her services to the war effort.

In reading the Occasional Papers covering the period of the war from St Augustine’s College (also used as a VAD hospital), I found many moving letters sent home by former college students in the services from across the globe. There is a letter from Second Lieutenant Horatio Rowsell on 27th June 1916, who wrote ‘in the event of my death some of my savings are to be donated to St Augustine’s College.’ This was followed by a letter from his brother stating that he had died from wounds sustained on 1st July 1916, just four days after his letter, whilst serving with the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont Hamel, in what was to become known as ‘the Battle of the Somme.’

In The Cantuarian (the King’s School magazine), I made a chance discovery in finding a relative of mine! Basset Wright had won a scholarship to King’s and was at the school briefly from 1904–5. He was erroneously reported as having served in the Australian Army. I found that this has been rectified on the King’s School’s roll of honour website, which shows he had served in the 20th (3rd Public Schools) battalion of the Royal Fusiliers City of London Regiment. He was lost along with many others from his battalion in the abortive fighting to capture High Wood on 20th July 1916, again during the Battle of the Somme.

Another former OKS (Old King’s School) boy, Arthur Fleming-Sandes, however, had a different outcome from the war: he received the Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery at Hohenzollern redoubt on 29th September 1915, ‘although very severely wounded almost at once by a bomb (grenade), he struggled to his feet and continued to advance and throw bombs until he was again severely wounded.’ Happily he recovered from his wounds and went on to provide serve as a judge in Sudan.

Finally, it was interesting to read about the King’s School memorial scheme to create an appropriate and lasting memorial to the school war dead. A collection was launched in March 1918, with a plan to dig a memorial court in the school grounds. The actual labour for this part of the project was provided by the school boys themselves to make a saving of £150! The final memorial was a cross made from Cotswold stone measuring 19ft 6in high, bearing a sword and the school arms on the reverse side. This was a fine tribute to 146 OKS killed during the war, and became one of over 100,000 memorials to be erected in cities, towns and villages up and down the country, as the nation tried to come to terms with the impact of the war.

David Ross

Published 6th March 2014

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