One death in millions unites villages across Channel
This year is the centenary of the end of WW1 and the sacrifice of one soldier just three weeks before the Armistice has created an unforeseen bond between Bray-sur-Somme in northern France and Old Coulsdon in south London. Connexion writer Sally Ann Voak, who lives in Old Coulsdon, explains
Genealogist Carole Skinner and her neighbour Sally Ann Voak, pictured [right to left] were planning a First World War exhibition when they discovered a historical link between their village of Old Coulsdon and Bray-sur-Somme.
Sally said: “Carole was researching the life stories of the 41 men whose names are engraved on our war memorial when she found that 12 Old Coulsdon soldiers are buried in France.
“With the help of the team at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, we learned that one of the 12, Major Frederick Barberry Bennett, was laid to rest in the Bronfay Farm Military Cemetery on the outskirts of the village of Bray, which is similar to Old Coulsdon with a thriving community spirit, and strong history of wartime heroism.”
Before the war, Maj Bennett worked in the City of London as a stockbroker and lived with his family in a comfortable detached house surrounded by rolling chalk downs and wooded valleys.
He was called up in 1914 and died on October 22, 1918, aged 38, in a field hospital near Bray after being wounded and gassed in the battle of Le Cateau-Cambrésis.
“Sadly, like many others, he was killed during the final days of the war,” said Sally. “He had already fought in one heavy conflict near Bray and had been made up to acting lieutenant colonel just before the disastrous Cateau battle in which over 600 men of the Royal Artillery were killed.”
Carole discovered pre-war pictures of Fred and his wife Ethel, including a wedding picture, and Sally said: “Fred’s story and those wonderful black and white photographs touched our hearts. We wanted to know more about his life – and death.”
Their researches uncovered fascinating insights into the life of the 6ft soldier, one of the 9.7million military personnel and 10million civilians who died in the Great War.
“We started by contacting Fred’s granddaughter Penny Bennett, who now lives in Australia, then, through her, his great-nephew Bob Bennett, whose home is in Horsham, Sussex.
“Bob had never visited Maj Bennett’s grave or our own village memorial but had already begun to investigate the life of his ancestor so was keen to share any information we might find.” Carole dug into army records: “Fred’s first overseas expedition was in October 1917. At the end of the war, he served in some of the bloodiest conflicts – he was awarded the Victory and British medals and, like many others, he was an unsung hero.”
She and Sally decided to make Maj Bennett the focus of the Old Coulsdon commemorative exhibition. They contacted Bray local councillor and war historian Jean-Michel Battut.
“Jean-Michel said the French villagers were also arranging an exhibition, a parade, and other events and were interested in swapping ideas with us Brits,” said Sally.
From that initial link, the friendship between the villagers in France and England has blossomed: “Our schools, churches, libraries and community groups are sharing WW1 art, songs, and exhibits as part of both villages’ commemoration events.
“Carole has made a short film about Maj Bennett, to be shown in Bray and Old Coulsdon during November.
“A group of our schoolchildren have made a recording of The Anthem for Peace, which will be played in the church at Bray on November 11, and others have produced drawings of cornflowers (France’s commemorative flower), and poppies.”
Older students at Oasis Academy, Old Coulsdon, created a series of dramatic panels depicting the British troops which are now hanging in schools in Bray. One panel features a Christmas Eve football match played in 1914 during the short truce between Allied and German forces.
Bray historian Mr Battut said of the truce: “There are many stories of football matches in no man’s land up and down the Front, including near the Somme villages of Cappy, Dompierre and Fricourt.
“Details are scant because officers stopped keeping records after they received an edict from military HQ saying this fraternisation with the enemy should not take place.”
Two very different wars for Bray and Old Coulsdon
With its cobbled streets, its 12th century church, flowers and surrounding fast-flowing streams and tranquil ponds, Bray-sur-Somme (population 1,700) is a haven for tourists and anglers. But its six cemeteries and history of destruction are a sad reminder of World War One.
Retired teacher Jean-Michel Battut, a municipal councillor, is an expert on the occupation and liberation of Bray.
He said: “When the war started, we French had to fight but the Allies and soldiers from the Commonwealth like Major Bennett came to our aid voluntarily. We will never forget this.”
Mr Battut said 1918 was decisive: “In March, the village was taken by the Germans, who used it as a base for provisions and communication.
“Before they arrived, older folk, children and women were evacuated towards Amiens to leave nothing for the enemy. Roads and houses were destroyed in the ensuing bombardment and Bray was finally retaken by the Australians on August 24.
“Once the armistice was signed, we had to feed people and animals who were starving. The countryside, including Bronfay Farm opposite the cemetery, was planted with root vegetables, especially sugar beet.
“It sounds brutal but had to be done quickly to save lives. Many workers had been killed or wounded, so the government brought in labour from Belgium to help. Some Bray residents are descended from those workers.”
Old Coulsdon (population 5,200), formerly in Surrey, is in the London Borough of Croydon and is the southernmost village of the capital.
Its surrounds are now built up for more than 5,000 residents but the centre has not changed for centuries, with its 1,000-year old church of St John the Evangelist, village pond, and 16th and 17th century buildings.
The war dead are buried in local churchyards. Some gave their lives (during the world wars) while at nearby RAF Kenley. As in France, the graves are cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
During the First World War, the old Guards barracks (now a housing development) was a centre for army units, nursing corps, equipment and horses before they went to the Front.
A nearby church was a Red Cross hospital and soldiers with shell shock went to the old Cane Hill Hospital.
Many residents have photos and letters from relatives who gave their lives in both world wars and the park has recently been dedicated to the fallen of the First World War.
A life of service, a loving marriage... and a grave in rural France
Fred Bennett, born in June 1880 at Upton Park, Essex, was one of five children and went to school in Orpington before moving with his family as a teenager to Croydon.
He and two of his brothers worked at the London Stock Exchange.
He married Ethel Violet Day in April 1910 and the couple lived in a detached Edwardian house with their two children: son Denis (an RAF pilot during the Second World War who received the Distinguished Flying Cross) and daughter Avis.
Fred served with the Royal Naval Volunteer Force in his 20s so when he was called up for military duty in August 1914, he was swiftly promoted. In February 1915, he received his commission in the 2nd Welsh Brigade Royal Field Artillery.
Like other officers, Fred was moved between battalions, and at the time of his death was with C Battery, 84th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, to support infantry division actions.
The Brigade took part in the battles of Vimy Ridge, Messines, and the counter-offensive of August 1918.
War diaries show that Fred was first wounded on December 13, 1917 during intense shelling, then recovered and went back to the Front.
In mid-October 1918, all batteries moved into Le Cateau to support an attack by the 4th Army. Fred was gassed and wounded on October 16, then taken to No 37 Casualty Clearing Station, where he died on October 22. His resting place is among the 525 graves of Bronfay Farm cemetery, in the last row. Ethel chose the simple inscription “Faithful until Death” for his white Portland stone headstone.
In 1918 the Front was just a few yards from the farm but today fertile fields surround the cemetery.
Remains and artefacts are still discovered in the area and every recovered soldier, regardless of nationality, receives a proper burial.
Ethel died in 1952 at the age of 70. She never remarried.
Old Coulsdon will have the WW1 Centenary Exhibition from November 5-10, with exhibits and pictures from Bray-sur-Somme, flags, music, poetry and messages of friendship.
Bray-sur-Somme has its Exposition Grande Guerre 14-18 from October 19-21 that covers the war. It has a special section on Major Bennett and the link with Old Coulsdon.
Our French friends keep wartime history alive
Bob Bennett, grandson of Fred’s brother George, visited Bronfay Farm Military Cemetery with his wife Julia.
It is one of six war cemeteries near Bray-sur-Somme and Bob, 61, said: “I learned more about the First World War in one weekend in Bray than in school history lessons.
“My grandfather died in 1977 but, before our trip, I knew little about Fred’s army service. Anyone who has a relative who perished in the Great War should go to where they fought and chat to people in tourist offices, bars and libraries. They all have stories to tell.
“After being at Fred’s graveside with friends from Old Coulsdon, Jean-Michel Battut gave a tour of the Somme, including Pozières and Lochnagar memorials.
“It is comforting that my great uncle is buried in a peaceful place where the memory of the allies’ sacrifice is kept alive.”