I often think of them like chinks of light in the sombre grey. Artfully shaped, curved and purest white. They stand indeed like soldiers, come to bear. I have seen them at Tyne Cot, at Thiepval, at Vimy. You can pinpoint them across graveyards.
They are often a sign of men that made it home, near or far; but they made it home. To lie not in some foreign field as Rupert Brooke wrote, but in some quiet rural countryside churchyard of Britain. Or indeed beyond to where home was; for some so far away. They are often tucked in corners or standing apart. But every time they speak a story; they narrate their own tale. You just have to enquire.
It is set back slightly away from the main road which runs through this sleepy village of Stone in Gloucestershire. All Saints Church. It speaks of a time this village has forgotten; a time that many villages and towns have forgotten. Where men and women lived and worked in the same place, they shopped, they socialised, they knew each other on a local intimate level. Some left, some returned. But they knew each other. For when war came and men left, those who did not return, everybody knew their names, their families, their futures unlived.
Stone graveyard is a story of that unreturned army. An unreturned army of Stone men. If you should venture far, past the schoolkids returning home who cut through the graveyard, there are three official Commonwealth War Graves Commission World War One graves tucked away amongst the others.
Their names, service record and date of death are recorded on those white stones.
Second Lieutenant Cyril George Harding, Royal Air Force, 103rd Squadron, died 9th November 1918 aged 19 years 44046 Private E. G. Hobby, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, died 8th November 1917 aged 20 years 69285 Private E. Trotman, Cheshire Regiment, died 8th November 1919
It didn’t strike me immediately. But these were men who died on or around the same date in 1917, 1918 and 1919.
Not far from the church is that primary school that those school children were fleeing in happy release. But one hundred years ago or more, Mr F. S. Harding was the schoolmaster for Stone village school. Cyril was his son. He had already faced tragedy with the deaths of two sons and his wife; the words that appear on his eldest boy’s grave are perhaps an echo of that: “Thy will be done.”
Cyril passed away in a military hospital on the West Sussex coast from an illness contracted whilst on military service. He had applied for a commission at 18 years from his job as a bank clerk. Cyril was brought home; his funeral complete with a military escort and firing party. He is listed on both the Stone and Berkeley war memorials. His death two days before the Armistice must have been a bitter pill to swallow. Llandeilo War Memorial in Wales also has his name upon it.
Ernest George Hobby
Ernest George Hobby died of wounds in a hospital in Leicester. His father Henry Hobby, of Chestnut Cottage, Lower Stone, Falfield asked that this be inscribed on his headstone:
“Greater love hath no man that this that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Ernest was 20 years old when he died. A man born in Stone, baptised in Stone, educated at Stone and to Stone his body would return to be buried. He belonged to the 8/9th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and died from wounds received on the Western Front in the 1/5th Northern General Hospital in Leicester.
Edwin Andrew Trotman
Edwin Andrew Trotman was called up in May 1918. He was an 18 and a half year old farm hand from Hystfield near Stone. He initially joined as a private with the Gloucestershire Regiment but ended up with the Cheshire Regiment when he was transferred in 1919. He was hospitalised in Bermondsey military hospital in August 1919 – a hospital allocated for patients who needed isolation, those suffering from tuberculosis or dysentery. He had spent just under a year with the expeditionary force.
On the 8th November 1919, Edwin whilst of ‘unsound mind’ died from a self-inflicted wound. He had been released on leave the day before from Bermondsey hospital to go home. He had been admitted to Joys Green Hospital, Dartford after being sent back to Britain with trench fever picked up in Germany, and having developed diphtheria on the way back. There was an inquest and investigation into his death, but it appears that his death was seen as associated to his war service. His death, like any other, a casualty of war. But his name does not appear on any war memorial. Just his grave.
Percy John Whithorn
Beyond those pearly headstones, there is a grave to Charlotte Elizabeth Whithorn (nee Savage) who died on the 25th November 1918, aged 29 years. Below her name is the name of her husband Percy John Whithorn killed in action. Percy grew up around Stone, Woodford and Berkeley but died at Salonika in November 1916 as a Private with the 9th Gloucestershire Regiment. Percy had gone out to search for water for his colleagues and been killed. His body was retrieved and subsequently reburied at Karasouli Military Cemetery in Greece. Charlotte died two years later from Spanish Influenza, leaving three children orphans who would be split up. Percy’s grave may not lie here but perhaps his spirit remains; for Percy once rang the bells of the church on which his memorial now stands.
The men who lay under the white of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at Stone tell of a story of the toll of war – its physical, mental and symbolic costs. An unreturned army, but more than that, an idea that sometimes even the returned never actually made it home. It is a task of remembrance, yes, but understanding when you see that silent unreturned army. They were not all the same, not silent men with war on their mind, but individuals with an experience of their own. A concept of war, of sacrifice, of how much weight a man can bear, of bravery. What makes one man a casualty of war and another man not? Interpretation.