Together. They wrote. Together. One gravestone re-united one family in death. Here in Christchurch, the Forest of Dean. Mother. Father. Brother. Brother. Sister. From 1918 to 1987. These dates last for seventy years. They encompass a generation or two. They last for entire lives.
William Ebborn Ambury
William Ebborn Ambury was a quarryman; hauling stone, the family business. A common business for the Foresters of the Dean. But for William, drafted into the war in the final quarter, he became a Private in the Royal Marine Light Infantry on the Western Front. At some point in 1918, he was taken prisoner of war by the German army. Taken behind the German lines, he died from disease whilst a POW on the 14th July 1918, and buried in a German extension of a French cemetery in Valenciennes. He was 25 years of age.
William was reported missing on May 14th 1918. He was finally published in the casualty list as died as a prisoner of war in German hands. The date – November 12th 1918. The day after the Armistice.
It must have been hard for families to understand the war; a messy barely functional machine at best. For when William’s parents wrote in the local paper about the death of their son, miscommunication about the fate of their son had occurred.
AMBURY – July 14th, while a prisoner of war in Germany, Private William Ambury, RMLI, son of Mr and Mrs Albert Ambury, Church Farm, Staunton, aged 27 years.
William was re-buried in 1921 from the German grave into a CWGC grave now altered at Valenciennes (St. Roch) Communal Cemetery in France. His grave sits amongst others who took their farewell as a prisoner of war in German hands.
When his mother and father died in the 1930s, his name was added to their headstone in Christchurch Cemetery.
It simply states:
William Ambury On active service 1918
His brother and sister would die well after the second of the world wars.
But for me, it is the word that stands alone. The last line. The final moment for this family.
William’s name would adorn a most beautiful war memorial that hangs inside Staunton All Saints Church in the Forest of Dean. For only two names are written on the gilded acknowledgement to their sacrifice and service. One of them is William Ebborn Ambury.
Please read my blog on Staunton: Staunton, Forest of Dean: A Gilded Farewell to see the wonderful war memorial for William Ambury.
Ernest Charles Henry Doane
Across the Forest villages, from Staunton to Joyford Lonk, Rifleman Ernest Charles Henry Doane was a coal hewer. Another of the great industries of the Forest of Dean. A family man, wife, children. He enlisted part way through the Great War with the Rifle Brigade, 2nd Battalion.
On March 10th 1917, aged 37 years, somewhere on the frontline around Fins and Sorel-Le-Grand, Ernest was killed in action. His remains were marked with a single memorial cross along with eight others, but when the post-war tidy-up of the war graves came, there was no sign of Ernest’s remains. His name, instead, was added to the memorial at Thiepval. His identity, like so many others on that massive memorial to the missing, absent from their bodies; so many absent bodies and missing names from this war.
Frederick John James Collett
Elizabeth and John Collett ran the Post Office in Christchurch. John had been a police officer in Hong Kong for many years before he came back and worked at Tortworth Court estate as a lodge keeper for the Earl of Ducie before he moved to the Forest of Dean. On the 28th August 1917, their son Frederick John James Collett died. His name was placed upon the gravestone inscribed first to his mother in 1927 and then his father in 1931. His name appears like any other in Christchurch cemetery. Except Frederick died serving in the 2nd/8th Worcestershire Regiment. He was a Lance Corporal and was 22 years of age when he was killed in action. He was buried in Wieltje Farm Cemetery, just outside of Ypres.
Born in Berkeley in 1895, he also served as a Corporal for the 2nd Monmouthshire Regiment. Frederick died from wounds and was probably buried very close by at Wieltje Farm Cemetery. His brother William Henry Collett, younger by a year, enlisted with Frederick; with both ending up in 1914 with the 2nd Battalion Monmouthshire regiment. But before the war, Fred had been a carpenter and joiner in 1911, the oldest of four children. Unlike Fred, William survived the war. The 2nd/8th Worcesters had arrived on the Somme in 1916 as part of the new 61st Division and then by the summer of 1917 were in action on the Ypres salient as part of the Third Battle of Ypres known to most as Passchendaele. At some point, Fred joined the Worcesters from the Monmouthshires.
On the 27th August 1917, in the mud and never-ending rain of Passchendaele, the 2/8th Worcesters attacked in a wave near Aisne Farm. Casualties were high. The next day Frederick died from his wounds. The 2/8th Worcesters had in the space of twenty four hours lost 8% of its men. Most of those bodies lost to mankind; in the mud or blown to pieces. Frederick was buried where many of the fighting battalions were based at Wieltje Farm where he remains today.
Herbert 'Bert' Gwilliam
Lance-Corporal Herbert ‘Bert’ Gwilliam of the 12th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment was killed in action on October 4th 1917; he was 21 years of age.
Also in memory of Lance Corporal Herbert ‘Bert’ Gwilliam Gloucester Regiment Fifth son of Thomas and Elizabeth Gwilliam Killed in action Oct 4th 1917 Aged 21 years Interred at Tyne Cot Cemetery France Plot 63 Row B Grave 3
You will still find Bert at Tyne Cot. The detail so carefully written on his mother Elizabeth’s grave who died in 1898. His own father Thomas predeceased him by one month. A man who owned a colliery mine and ran the Globe Inn.
Bert was killed in action when the 12th Gloucesters (Bristol) was supporting the 1st Battalion East Surrey Regiment on October 4th 1917. It was the first day of the Battle of Broodseinde on the Ypres salient and their division was aiming for German lines between Polygon Wood and Gheluvelt. In 1921, Bert’s remains were discovered on the battlefield; his pay book and his identity discs enough to identify him. His brother Thomas chose the words that are on his memorial, and are also on his grave in Belgium.
Greater love hath no man than this
Forty five soldiers from the 12th Glosters died that day; the day that Bert died. Forty four other families like Bert Gwilliam’s. A Captain, four Second Lieutenants, a Company Sergeant Major, two Sergeants, a Lance-Sergeant, two Lance Corporals and 34 individual Privates; for just one day. October 4th 1917.
Thomas Wilfred Cooper
Thomas Wilfred Cooper died from wounds on Gallipoli. He had arrived with the 4th Service Battalion South Wales Borderers in July 1915 in the eastern Mediterranean. A Private, he had enlisted in August 1914 at Brecon on the outbreak of war. He worked in the Cannop Colliery in the Forest of Dean, having been born and lived as part of a collier’s family all of his life.
Thomas died on August 10th 1915 from wounds received; the 4th Battalion South Wales Borderers had taken an advancing position trying to move forward across the peninsula. Thomas was buried at the 7th Field Ambulance Cemetery on Gallipoli. Some time after Thomas was killed, the 4th Battalion had the ‘honour’ of being in the rear guard when the evacuation of Gallipoli took place in December 1915; leaving Thomas and many others who had died to the Turkish forces that continued to hold their position. Some would say the Gallipoli campaign had been a foolish escapade; others would say the sacrifice of so many men could never be seen as foolish. In 1919, when officials returned to Gallipoli for the first time, many graves and remains were unable to be identified like Thomas; so Thomas’ memorial states that he was known to be buried in the cemetery.
James Thomas Aston
As it says on his father’s headstone, James Thomas Aston was the only son of George Aston. James Aston also served with the South Wales Borderers, but with the 10th Battalion. He was killed in action on October 8th 1918. It always seems to cruel when death comes so close to war’s edge, except those boys never knew when the end would come. He was 21 years old; too young, too cruel…
His memorial states that he was killed in action at Villers Ontreax, France; close, Villers Outreaux. His name is listed on the Vis-en-Artois memorial; it remembers the missing 9,000 odd men who were lost or disappeared from August 8th 1918 until the armistice on November 11th 1918. Lost in the advance. Lost in the slow victory. So James is just another name on a memorial, he has no known grave.
George, James’ father, died in 1903. He had been a collier, living in Shortstanding, but his mother’s subsequent re-marriage meant that the family moved to Porth, on the Rhondda, South Wales and where James enlisted. The 10th South Wales Borderers were otherwise known as the 1st Gwents; they were in the 38th Division, made famous for its exploits at Mametz Wood in 1916. By all accounts, the 38th took part in one of the heaviest fighting at Villers-Outreaux on October 8th 1918, where they sustained heavy casualties as the German army took a defensive position with heavy fire on the soldiers attacking to the south including the 10th SWBs. Here, James must have faced his final stand.
To return to the first line of this piece.
For that is indeed the phrase that I think best fits this place. For in the top of the Forest of Dean, that overlooks the river and the rolling hills and trees, are the ghosts of the men who marched off to fight a war and whom never came back.
So instead, their families left a beacon of the man for others to see. To maybe understand that loss, complete loss is the most unbearable part of war. But togetherness, family lasts a lifetime and beyond.