It was supposed to be the War to end all wars. “It’ll be over by Christmas” was the optimistic view at the outbreak of hostilities in the late-summer of 1914. Yet it took another four years and over 2.3million British dead and wounded until the fighting finally stopped. The human cost is unimaginable; not just the sheer number of casualties, but also the irretrievable grief caused by each loss to every loved one.
As we approach the first of the five Remembrance Days marking the centenary of the Great War, it is timely to remember those Gislingham men that risked and lost their lives on the battlefields of the Western Front and beyond.
Gislingham was no different to any other village, town or city in seeing its young men leave to fight, many never to return. The rolls of honour, on display inside our church, list those that fought and those that died. Sixty two men went away to war; seventeen of them made the ultimate sacrifice – this out of a village population of 450. Even though the fighting was distant, the impact of war on our village must have been enormous.
Inside the church there is a file containing brief details – including printouts from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website – of those that did not return. From this, it is possible to piece together the family background, the battlefield where each fought and died, and the cemetery where each is laid to rest (or the overseas memorial bearing his name where there is no known grave). The melancholy narrative across the pages also reveals the effect the deaths must have had on Gislingham.
The village’s first losses took place on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916 – the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. The deaths of Frederick Miller and Ernest Stevens were followed in the same month by the loss of two more Gislingham men on the same battlefield. This must have had a profound impact back home.
The year 1917 was even more costly. No less than eight village men perished on the battlefield, all but one in northern France or at Ypres in Belgium. The other, Charles Stevens, was killed in the Second Battle of Gaza against the Turks and is buried in Gaza War Cemetery – still sadly an area of bloodshed, even a century later.
George and Harriett Stevens of Mill Street, Gislingham were particularly badly hit by the village’s sacrifice. Three of their four sons listed in the 1901 census were killed in the space of the 18 months to 26th December 1917. In the depths of such grief, the only blessing was that their other son returned home at the war’s conclusion.
The death of Frederick Walton in the final push to victory in October 1918 was sadly not the last of the losses. Private FW Cook (from Mill Street, but a resident of Mellis at the outbreak of war) died at Ipswich Military Hospital six days after the Armistice on 17th November 1918. He was buried four days later with full military honours in Gislingham Churchyard, the grave listed as being ‘near end of west path’. He was the only one of the men to be buried back home – the others rest forever ‘in the corner of a foreign field’, far away from the familiar Suffolk countryside that they left behind.
Even though the curtain of time has now almost closed across all living memory of the First World War, it is important that we reflect on – and remember – the sacrifice and collective loss suffered by the village in that troubled period of our history.