Supreme sacrifice never forgotten

Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

Ninety-two years ago this week, the country was celebrating Armistice Day. World War I had finished with the defeat of Germany, but the cost to Great Britain had been enormous.

Although the precise figure of casualties is unknown, it is estimated that the total of dead and wounded exceeded 2,500,000.

During that war, the Battle of the Somme, which lasted from June to November 1916, became a symbol of the horrors of the Great War, resulting in over a million casualties and produced a British total casualty list in excess of 400,000 killed, with over 600,000 wounded or missing.

When Britain’s last ‘Tommy’, Harry Patch, was laid to rest last year, many viewed his passing as the final chapter in the story of World War I and, yet, even today, commemorations like Remembrance Sunday help to make new generations learn a little of what happened then and an ever-increasing number of people are visiting the battlefields to find out more about relatives that were buried there.

More than 200 men from Seaton served either at home or abroad and, of those, 32 were killed, their names secured on the Memorial Cross by the church entrance.

Twenty men from Beer gave their lives for King and Country in the war and a particularly black day for the village was May 31, 1916, when five young men lost their lives in the Battle of Jutland.

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Second Lt Reginald Wilkie Gosney, the son of a Seaton chemist, found himself in France shortly after the outbreak of war. He was on the Indian Army Reserve of Officers attached to the 76 Punjabs and, in 1915, was transferred to Mesopotamia where he took part in the capture of Kut and the ill-advised advance to Baghdad. After the capture of Kut, the British forces, with rifle strength of 13,000, advanced to attack the Turkish position of Ctesiphon.

The Turks numbered more than 18,000 and, after the battle, on November 22 1915, the British retreated with a loss of more than 4,500 men. Casualties were either left of buried by the Turks with no regard to identification.

Second Lt Gosney, who was mentioned in despatches, was killed in the battle of November 22 and his name is inscribed on the Basra Memorial in Iraq to those who have no known grave.

William Walter Hooper, who was born in 1892, came from an old Seaton family. His uncle was George Henry Barton, the Seaton photographer, who recorded much of the town’s past.

William was a Private in the 1st Battalion Dorset Regiment and, in 1915, found himself on his way to Ypres, France. Nothing could prepare anybody for the scene of Ypres. It was during the fighting on May 5 1915 that Pte Hooper was killed.

Frank Akerman was one of the Seaton family who founded the local ironmongers business. He joined the Royal Engineers in 1915 and saw service in France. Frank, a Despatch Rider with the rank of Corporal, was killed in France on August 22 1918 during an air raid and is buried at Duisans.

Private W G Oldridge, who served in the 16th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment and, on October 23 1917, was mentioned in a despatch from General Sir E H Allenby GC MG CB, was killed in the Mesopotamia area fighting against the Turks and Bulgars.

Of all the millions dead on foreign fields in the First World War, only one of the unknown soldiers was ever returned to his native land. Philip Gibbs of The Daily Chronicle captured the mood of the people when he described the processing of the Unknown Warrior for interment in Westminster Abbey.

“It did not seem an unknown warrior whose body came on a gun carriage down Whitehall when we were waiting for him. He was known to us all. It was one of our boys, not warriors, as we called them in the days of darkness lit by faith.

To some women, weeping a little in the crowd after an all-night vigil, he was their own boy who went missing one day and was never found till now.

“To many men, wearing ribbons and badges on civil clothes, he was a familiar figure, one of their comrades.

It was the steel helmet, the old tin hat, lying there on the crimson of the flag which revealed him instantly, not a mythical warrior, aloof from common humanity, a shadowy type of national pride and martial glory, but as one of those fellows dressed in the drop of khaki, stained by mud and grease, who went into the dirty ditches with this steel hat on his head.”

Tears prick my eyes when I think of these young lads and I sometimes wonder, could it be a Seaton or Beer boy buried in that Unknown Warrior’s grave?