It is every parent’s nightmare: losing a child. Yet it happens all too often that parents have bury their children. These sad events happened all too frequently during the First World War, when over nine million people were killed. Losing one son was terrible, but lots of families lost more than one son in the Great War.
The Smith family from Barnard Castle lost 5 out of 6 sons in the trenches of the First World War. Torn apart by grief the father also died in 1918. The only surviving son was pulled out of the trenches by Buckingham Palace and the War Office. He would live to be 72 years old and have 5 children.
Amy Beechey from Lincoln lost 5 of her 8 sons in the war. When she was thanked by Queen Mary during a visit to Buckingham Palace, Amy replied: “It was no sacrifice at all, madam. I have never wanted them to go.”
Annie Souls from Great Rissington in the Cotswolds also lost 5 of her 6 sons in the war. Her son Frederick is still missing, and until her death Annie burnt a candle by the window, hoping her son would at last find his way home.
Of course this is not an all English story!
Canadian Charlotte Wood from Winnipeg lost 5 sons and saw 2 more return to Canada heavily wounded.
The Australian brothers Theo, George and William Seabrook from Sydney went into action for the first time in the Battle of the Menin Road on 20th September 1917. It was their only action in the Great War, as all three got killed. William was buried at Lyssenthoek Cemetery near Poperinge, the other two brothers are listed on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres.
The Christophers family from New Zealand lost 4 of the 5 sons in the war. Only Quentin, who was too young to volunteer, survived his parents Anthony and Juliet. Victor died aged 29 at Gallipoli (1915). Herbert, aged 27, got killed in the Battle of the Somme (1916). Julian, aged 33, died in the aftermath of the Battle of Passchendaele (1917) and the eldest brother Reginald was killed at the age of 36 in the Allied End Offensives of October 1918.
Thomas and Agnes Collins from Ireland waved goodbye to 6 sons during the war. After the campaigns in the Somme and Flanders, only 1 son would return home. 4 sons got killed, 1 went missing.
The Tocher family from Aberdeen, Scotland, also lost five sons in the Great War. All 5 brothers served with the Gordon Highlanders, but went off to war one by one. George was killed along the Menin Road near Ypres in 1915, while three of his brothers were killed in the 1916 offensive at the Somme. Peter was taken prisoner at the Battle of Le Cateau (1914) and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp in Germany. He returned home to Scotland, but died in 1923.
French couple Jules Ruellan and Marguerite du Riveau had 18 children in total. No less than 10 sons were recruited in the French army and served in the frontline trenches. Only 4 of them would return, and 1 of those 4 would die in 1930 from being gassed during the war.
US brothers Governor and Perander Rogers were recruited – one by draft, the other volunteered – in July 1917 and left home in September 1917. After training at Camp David they sailed to France and were involved in the 2nd Battle of the Marne (near Chateau-Thierry). Both brothers were killed on 12th August 1918 when a shell burst close to them. Governor was trying to get his brother to safety as Per was wounded by sniper fire. They were buried side by side in Fimes, but their bodies were reburied at Arlington Cemetery after the war.
Also the story of the youngest German casualty on the Western front is a tale of brotherly love: Walther and Paul Mak volunteered for army service in August 1914. Paul, born on 19th July 1900, died of wounds on 6th June 1915. His brother Walter was with him when he died.
In the Gallipoli campaign 196 pairs of brothers within the Commonwealth troops got killed. Only 13 of them have a known grave. The three Legge brothers – Bertram, George and Cyril – joined the British forces together and fought side by side at Suvla Bay. Both Bertram and Cyril were killed when going over the top on August 21, 1915. George remained in the army and won a military medal for gallantry on the battlefield. He was killed in the Battle of the Selle in October 1918.
The troops of the 1st battalion Newfoundland Regiment lost 255 dead, 386 wounded and 91 missing in the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel on 1st July 1916. Among the dead were 14 pairs of brothers.
All these tragic stories tell of brothers who got actually killed together. Yet, thousands of men lost one or more brothers during the war while fighting in other units. Until now no major research has been conducted about these family tragedies that influenced so many lives, even today.
England’s last veteran Harry Patch, who died at the age of 111, described it as follows: “Too many died, don’t go to war!”
Finding the Zonnebeke Five
This story is that typical “message in a bottle” story. Although it is all but typical. Never before did a message contain that great a story.
During road works to lay a new gas pipe line in the hamlet of Westhoek in 2006, Tom Heyman, operating the machine, suddenly stopped digging and called Johan Vandewalle, an amateur archaeologist. Tom was convinced that he had found human remains just beside the road, and immediately linked them to the battlefield that Westhoek once was. Johan rushed over and could only confirm that these remains had to be those of a World War I soldier. He contacted the police and the Mayor of Zonnebeke, and got green light from Dieter Demey and Archeo 7 to gather a team and start excavating as soon as possible.
It would be an amazing experience for all of them. After clearing the first grave, they noticed another grave just next to the first one. And then another, and another, and another. In total 5 Australian soldiers were exhumed. The last Australian body, however, was to make an everlasting impression on all who were involved. This fifth body was that of Australian private John Hunter.
In all, three of the five soldiers would be identified by DNA research.
The body of John Hunter was not thrown in the grave like the other four bodies. Clearly this man had not been buried like the others, someone had taken great care in laying John Hunter to rest. Research led to the family in Australia, who confirmed that the story in the family was that John – or Jack as he was known in the family – had been buried by his younger brother Jim.
When Johan uncovered John’s head, which was wrapped in his ground sheet, it was as if lightning struck. Johan looked straight in John eyes and with the sunlight in the right angle, Johan could clearly see the colour of John’s eyes. It was an instant moment, but it lasted long enough to be photographed. At the time only Johan experienced this awesome moment, but the photographs will certainly move generations to come.
About Johan Vandewalle
Johan Vandewalle (°1961) grew up amid the stories of the Great War and as a child played on the former battlefields, often stumbling upon bunkers, dugouts and remains of trenches. Johan developed a passion for the so-called underground warfare, and did magnificent work as an amateur archaeologist excavating tunnels and dugouts from the First World War. He worked on television documentaries, such as The Underground War / Zero Hour, Vampire Dug Out, Lost In Flanders and several Belgian documentaries. Together with historians Peter Barton and Peter Doyle he wrote the book ‘Beneath Flanders Fields’ and he was involved in excavating the mass graves of Australian soldiers in Fromelles (2008). Johan Vandewalle is passionate about the history of the war and is always trying to learn more…
About the Hunter brothers
John Hunter was the eldest of 7 sons of Henry and Emily Hunter from Nanango, Queensland. Father Henry’s health was deteriorating and the boys needed to help out in the sawmill their father ran. 25-year-old Jim wanted to join the military to fight in Europe. He volunteered on 23rd October 1916. As older brother (and close friend) John thought it his duty to protect his younger brother and volunteered as well two days later. John and Jim left Sydney aboard HMAT Ayrshire on 24th January 1917. They were drafted to the 49th battalion, a unit that consisted of mostly Queenslanders. They sailed to Egypt to complete their training and were taken to France nearly a year later. Jim was quickly promoted to Lance Corporal, but was satisfied with the rank of Private if he could stay with his elder brother John.
49th Battalion was sent up to the front line for the Battle of Polygon Wood. At dawn they would attack, but just before the attack started, John was sent out to investigate a piece of shiny metal in no-man’s land. As John crawled out, he was thrown back by the explosion of an artillery shell and was severely wounded. He managed to crawl back to his own trenches, but died in his brother’s arms. Jim had to go in for the attack, but later brought the body of his elder brother John to a temporary cemetery at Westhoek and buried him with his own hands. He lovingly and carefully covered the body with a standard Army issue ground sheet, so it would preserve the body well. Jim promised to come back after the war and take the human remains of his elder brother John back to Australia. He did indeed return in 1918, only to see that the terrain was so badly destroyed by artillery shelling that he had no idea where the graves were, and he had no idea where to start digging for the body.
Also Jim was wounded later on in the war, one of those wounds sustained in a gas attack. He managed to survive the hell, though, and returned to Australia. Back home he married Esme Margaret Bulter, with whom he had 6 children. When a dementing Jim drew his last breath, he called out the name of his brother who lay buried in a faraway place called Flanders Fields.
The name of John Hunter was listed on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in 1927, but through DNA research the body was identified in 2007. It was Mollie Millis, John’s niece, who provided the matching DNA. 90 years after his death John was reburied with full military honour at Buttes New British Cemetery in Polygon Wood, together with the other 4 soldiers that were exhumed by Johan Vandewalle and his team.