I think that perhaps this should have just been entitled ‘the Neems Brothers’ – for that is perhaps the history that looms over this little church in Sopworth. A northerly corner of Wiltshire. It is not the only sight and sound of war remembrance, but it is one of the most compelling.
Reginald and Percy Neems were not born here, did not die here and yet their enduring memories lie here until the elements blow them away in the wind and rain. Their names do not even lie on the war memorial.
It is maybe the officer’s hat and sword that strikes the most personal of remarks in this countryside corner of England. Sculpted from granite, sat atop a most impressive obelisk of stone. It seems to tower over all others but maybe the fact that it is tucked away towards the back of the churchyard hides its messages from all but the keenest inquisitor.
In March 1938, a notice was placed in the Western Daily Press:
In loving memory of Reginald Norman Neems, Bombardier, Royal Field Artillery, who died March 20th 1917 from pneumonia when on active service in France. Not forgotten by Father and Mother.
In 1932 the same notice had been placed. And in 1933 and 1934. In 1936 and 1937.
In February 1915, Norman Neems retired as a Sergeant in the Bristol City police force; he had been a copper for 25 years and was allowed to retire on a pension.
In October 1937, a notice was again placed in the Western Daily Press newspaper:
In loving memory of Percy Vincent Nigel Neems, 2nd Lieutenant, 10th Gloucester Regiment, who died on October 9th 1915 from wounds received at the Battle of Loos. Not forgotten by Father or Mother.
Again in 1936, 1935 and in 1934 and 1933. And in 1932.
Norman Neems died in Sherston, Wiltshire when he was 73 on March 9th 1939 before the second of the two vicious 20th century wars could take hold. He was buried in Sopworth. His wife Laura Louise would die over ten years later. Their two boys lost in the Great War.
Percy Vincent Nigel Neems
On the 9th October 1915, Percy Neems died in Millbank Military Hospital in London from pneumonia – a complication which arose from wounds he had received in action in the first day of the Battle of Loos. He was a Second Lieutenant in the 10th Gloucestershire Regiment – having gained a commission in December 1914. He was the younger of two sons of Mr and Mrs Norman Neems, who lived on Thomas Street, St Paul’s, in Bristol.
Just a few days later, on 14th October 1915, City Road in St Pauls was lined with the boys, headmaster and teachers of St Barnabas’ School as well as others who lived or knew him whilst Lieutenant P.V. Neems went for burial.
The burial party was preceded by a firing party and band under Captain Brinkley with his body on a gun carriage and covered with flowers and the Union Jack. A cross from schools and workplaces were also laid upon the carriage. The school flag at St Barnabas was at half-mast and many locals joined the route.
Lieutenant Neems was the first of eight officers (former boys of St Barnabas’ School) to die in the war and the fourth to die through wounds or illness out of 160 old boys serving.
He was an alumni of Bristol Grammar School and was a member of the Officer Training Corps at Bristol University in January 1915 when he was given a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the 10th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment.
He was working at the Yorkshire Insurance Company in Bristol when he enlisted. His older brother Reginald was already serving with the 1st South Midland (Gloucestershire) Royal Field Artillery where they were based in Chelmsford, Essex. Percy joined up with the 10th at Cheltenham where many of the men came from.
The 10th Battalion Glosters arrived in France in August 1915 and were immediately pushed into the line to replace one of the Guards battalion in the 1st Brigade, 1st Division. The new army was replacing the regulars.
The first action of the 10th in the war was the day that Percy was devastatingly wounded – the first day of the Battle of Loos.
On the 25th September 1915, the 10th Gloucestershire Regiment were set objectives to cross no-man’s land and obtain an advance of the line of about 400 metres. They did it that day. Objectives were completed. But at a cost – casualties figures decimated the battalion leaving only 60 men left. Hundreds died that day, men’s bodies lay hung from barbed wire, contorted at angles and the horror of mounting numbers of dead and wounded appeared before the survivors.
In that attack, the area had an uncleared area of copse which was filled with enemy machine gun. The men were cut down as they went over the top. Enfilade fire, they call it. Unavoidable devastating machine gunfire, bullets splicing, tearing, ripping and stilling men as they fell to the floor.
The battalion war diary tells us that:
The officers fell, as the position of their bodies showed, leading their men, and 16 out of 21 officers were lost. The bodies of our dead indicated how they died with their faces towards the enemy…
Captain I R Gibbs, Capt J W C Tongue, Capt E H Moss, Capt E H Sale, Lt G W Robinson, Lt C A Symons, Lt H A Whiffin, Lt G G W Leary and 2Lt G W Field were killed. 2Lt P V N Neems was seriously wounded which required his evacuation to a hospital in UK. He died of his wounds there on 9th October 1915.
He was lucky to survive that day, our Percy. But 19 year old Percy Neems whose only experience was in OTC practice back home and practise over the last nine months, went over the top that day leading his men before machine gunfire and artillery shell blew his body to bits. He suffered seven wounds that day – and still he managed to stay alive.
They evacuated him back to Britain. He ended up at Millbank Hospital in London. When two weeks later, pneumonia took him past the edge of life and into the painless beyond. I hope that his parents got to Millbank to see him before his death. Maybe they were there when he drifted onwards. I have no evidence to say. But I do know that they loved the son they lost that October day. Riddled with bullet holes, shrapnel wounds. One son was gone.
Reginald Norman Neems
Reg was overseas when his brother died in hospital in 1915. News may have come in a letter or a telegram. But what more could he do for his little brother Percy cut down by bullets in a muddy field in October 1915? He was standing on that frontline. It was all that he could do.
Reginald Neems was 20 years of age when he signed up for one year’s territorial service at home in September 1914. He was working for the Royal Insurance Company in Bristol and had seen some military experience with an OTC. He too had attended Bristol Grammar School. But in March 1915, he was posted overseas to the Western Front.
B Battery of the 240th Brigade R.F.A. had an 18 pounder heavy artillery gun. The battery supported the infantry in the field with wire-cutting and shelling. Reg was a gunner and an acting bombardier.
In March 1917, the 240th Brigade R.F.A. were chasing the Germans as they withdrew to the Hindenburg Line. It was the closest they came to open warfare.
On March 20th 1917, Reginald died from pneumonia in the field. He was 22 years old.
Reg’s pneumonia took hold in the open air and movement of the battery as they headed towards Peronne on the Somme in northern France.
His death at Eclusier where the 55th Field Ambulance held a position briefly meant that when he died, only 22 other British soldiers shared this cemetery along with many French soldiers.
But for Norman and Louisa Neems, the war had taken their two sons. Their only children.
Percy’s name resides upon the Bristol University War Memorial Tablet which is sited in the Wills Building in Bristol. But Reginald never made it home. The only memorial to him is the one they made themselves.
Upon Percy’s grave in Sopworth churchyard in Wiltshire is an obelisk to his memory and to his older brother Reginald:
This memorial is erected by
Norman and Louisa Neems
In memory of their two
Dearly loved sons
Percy Vincent Nigel Neems
2nd Lieutenant 10th Service Battalion
Wounded at the Battle of Loos
France September 25th 1915
Died October 9th 1915 aged 19 years
And Reginald Norman Neems
Bombardier Royal Field Artillery
Who died from pneumonia
While on active service in France
March 20th 1917 aged 22 years
Buried in the cemetery at
Eclusier near Peronne France
‘They gave their lives for their country
The best are the first that are called on to die’
The Neems brothers.
There are others here at Sopworth. Colonel Arthur Dashwood Buckeley Buckley CB died of pneumonia in 1915. He had offered his service to the war office. Buried here at Sopworth, the beloved son of the rector of Sopworth and Badminton.
The war memorial mentions two local men who did not return. No mention of the Neems brothers or Colonel Buckley. But perhaps the words chosen to stand here count for all:
Ye that live on mid English pastures green
Remember us and think what might have been
Here at Sopworth too, those memorials and graves belonging to the Second World War.
Lance-Corporal Arthur Thomas Kington who died in November 1944 and Private Henry George Harris who died in 1940.
But not far from their graves, a memorial to one who did not make it home from World War Two.
Maurice George Thompson
On the grave of Dennis George Uriah Wookey and his wife Hephzibah Anna, is a loving memorial to their grandson:
Also in loving memory of their grandson
Maurice George Thompson
Beds and Herts Regt
Killed in action Cassino May 16th 1944
Aged 29 years
Maurice George Thompson served in the 2nd Battalion Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment. The 2nd Battalion saw action in France from September 1939 and were part of the evacuations from Dunkirk in 1940. They were on home duty defending the nation until 1941/42 when they were then sent to North Africa and from thence the Italian campaign before ending up in Greece at the end of the war.
Maurice died in Cassino otherwise known as Monte Cassino in Italy on May 16th 1944.
The 2nd Battalion was a territorial unit, they served with the 4th Division in Italy. In the Fourth Battle of Monte Cassino in May 1944, the battalion had to cross the Gari river on Royal Engineer constructed bridges like the Amazon Bridge. It allowed the allies to break the Gustav Line in Italy and push back Nazi forces. The campaign led to many, many casualties on the allied side – American, French, Polish, Commonwealth and British.
Maurice died on May 16th 1944, part way into the Fourth Battle. He was killed in action and buried at the Cassino War Cemetery in Italy. He was 29. He was married in 1940. He was the son of George and Emily Thompson.
There are over 4,000 British and Commonwealth graves at Cassino war cemetery from that period of action in the Second World War. Many more lie in French, American and German cemeteries that surround Cassino.
There is a memorial to the men and officers of the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment who died in World War Two in Kempston, north Bedfordshire. There is also a memorial to the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment in Italy.
To commemorate the gallantry and sacrifice of all ranks of the 2nd Battalion the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment who fought in the Battle of Cassino 1944.
And in memory of all the members of the regiment who gave their lives in Italy.
His name lies on the war memorial in the churchyard at Sopworth in Wiltshire.
These are the men who never returned from the Great War and the Second World War whose memorials lie at Sopworth in Wiltshire:
Gunner/Bombardier Reginald Norman Neems
DoB 1894 Bristol DoD 20th March 1917 age 23
825474 and 1644 B Battery 240th Brigade (South Midland) Royal Field Artillery
Buried: Eclusier Communal Cemetery, Eclusier-Vaux, Somme, France
2nd Lieutenant Percy Vincent Nigel Neems
DoB 1896 Bristol DoD 9th October 1915 age 19
10th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment
Buried: Sopworth St Mary Churchyard, Sopworth, Wiltshire
Second World War
Private George Maurice Thompson
DoB 1915 Bristol DoD 16th May 1944 Italy age 29
6028601 2nd Battalion Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment
Buried: Cassino War Cemetery, Italy