Autumn tales from the Old Cemetery

17 November 2018

Almost every single Saturday morning I get up early and go off with Commando to parkrun on Southampton Common. Sometimes, when they’re short of volunteers, I help out and very, very occasionally, I walk the route but I never, ever run. People often ask me why I don’t just stay at home in my nice warm bed. The reason for this is mainly because I love my solitary walks around the Old Cemetery while everyone else is running. Commando thinks this makes me a little weird. Perhaps it does?

On days like today, much as I enjoy chatting to the volunteers and runners, I can barely wait for everyone to set off so I can start walking. The weather was cold and crisp and the light soft and golden enhancing the beauty of the autumn leaves. In fact, the colours were so beautiful, I couldn’t quite bear to leave them so I passed the gate where I’d usually use to enter the cemetery and headed towards Cemetery Road instead.

Just beyond the Cemetery Lake gate there is a side trail winding off into the trees with a small, flat wooden bridge to cross one of many tiny streams. It looked so beautiful I had to explore it further. On the far side of the bridge I found a grassy clearing surrounded by trees in all their autumn glory. The colours were breathtaking.

The trail curved through the clearing and into the trees and I followed it. Experience told me it would lead me out somewhere near the Hawthorns cafe. Soon though, it became very muddy underfoot and despite my wellies, I decided it was best to turn back to the main path.

Back on the path I dithered for a moment and then continued towards Cemetery Road once more. The path divides here and I knew the right fork would take me to another cemetery gate. This is smaller than the gate I usually use and the path is narrower and, after the first few yards, quite overgrown.

Part of the reason for coming this way was to see graves I wouldn’t normally pass. Slowly, I walked along, stopping every now and then to read a stone. In the shade of a large tree, the grave of John and Evelyn Chapman caught my eye. Both were born during World War I and both died within a year of each other in the early 1990’s. Near their grave a brightly coloured plastic windmill looked out of place somehow and I windered who had put it there?

On I went, through an archway of bare trees, their lost leaves made a colourful carpet beneath my feet. The next interesting grave I found belonged to Isabella Hancock who died in 1908. The stone was erected by her children and it looks as if two of them, Ada and Sidney, were buried with her. What became of her husband Charles is a mystery though.

There are many war graves scattered in the cemetery and, with the hundredth anniversary of the armistice fresh in my mind, I was drawn to them. The first I saw today belonged to Private J Wright of the Hampshire Regiment. He died on 11 November 1916 during the battle of the Somme. This battle lasted from 1 July to 18 November and cost about one thousand three hundred Hampshire Regiment lives.


The next war grave belonged to Q W Green a fireman on the HMS Asturias, a Royal Mail steam packet requisitioned as a hospital ship at the beginning of World War I. He died on 29 March 1917, when the ship was torpedoed by a German U boat. Although the ship was flooded and rapidly sinking, the Master managed to beach it near Bolt Head. Even so, around thirty five people lost their lives. Another of HMS Asturias’ firemen, A E Humby, was buried nearby.


Then there was the grave of Edward Wykes, an only child, born in Brokenhurst to teachers William and Fanny. This war grave seemed like something of a rarity as Edward was a second lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps. In those days flying was still in its infancy, the first powered flight by the Orville brothers only took place in 1903. In 1914, the RFC had just five squadrons, one of which was an observation balloon squadron, and just over two thousand personnel. Commanded by Brigadeer General Sir David Henderson the planes were used for Ariel spotting and later aerial photography.

The full potential of an Air Force wasn’t considered until late 1917, when South African General Jan Smits presented a report to the War Council recommending forming a new air service to be used in active combat. The Royal Air Force was not formed until 1 April 1918. Edward joined the RFC in August 1916 as a pilot. He was never transferred overseas and, presumably, his role was reconnaissance rather than battle. Sadly he was killed in a crash in March 1918, aged just 21.

When I reached the main path through the cemetery I crossed it and took another of the narrow trail like paths heading roughly towards Hill Lane. The next war grave I came to belonged to J W Medley a gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery. At the beginning of the war the army had very little heavy artillery and the RGA manned the guns of the British Empire forts and coastal defences. Later in the war the gunners were positioned on the battlefield behind the infantry lines with heavy, large calibre guns and howitzers. These were long range weapons aimed at coordinates on a map rather than a visible enemy. RFC pilots used wireless telegraphy to pinpoint specific targets. They transmitted coordinates in morse code and the gunners positioned their guns and fired. If this all sounds a little like the children’s game of battleships, that is because it really was. Exactly how or where gunner Medley died is not clear but it happened in October 1918, close to the end of the war. He was fifty five years old.

The next grave was slightly confusing. It belonged to S W Humby, a stoker on HMS Victory. As the Victory had been in Portsmouth Harbour since the 1830’s and is now an attraction in the Historuc Dockyard this seemed quite strange. A little research told me that, in this case, HMS Victory almost certainly referred to one of several naval bases of that name around the country, including Portsmouth, Portland, Newbury and Crystal Palace. At which of these stoker Humby served, what he did and how he died is a mystery, but it happened on 11 September 1918.

The final war grave of the morning belonged to John Robert Sibley one of seven children born to John and Mary Sibley in Southampton. John was a fireman aboard the hospital ship S S Liberty IV during World War I. He survived the war but died in Southampton on 24 November 1918 of bronchopneumonia, almost certainly a secondary infection of the Spanish Flu that killed so many at the end of the war.

To have survived the war and then to succumb to a mere germ seems a cruel twist of fate but it was a familiar story. The Spanish Flu killed between fifty and one hundred million people, making it far more deadly than the war itself in which around twenty million died.

This particularly virulent form of flu is thought to have originated in the major troop staging and hospital camp in Étaples, France, where conditions were overcrowded and ideal for the spread of infection. With one hundred thousand troops passing through each day the disease rapidly spread around the globe. The name Spinish Flu was coined because early reports of outbreaks in France, Germany, Britain and the USA were censored to maintain morale. The only reports to make the papers were of the epidemic’s effects in neutral Spain.

One of the millions to die was Pappy’s only daughter, Freda. The virus was unusually aggressive, causing rapid respiratory failure and a violent immune reaction. Pappy remembered three year old Freda playing happily one morning and dead by the next day.

My watch told me it was time to head back towards the parkrun finish so I turned back towards the cemetery gate. A strong smell of cut pine seemed to fill the air and it wasn’t long before I came upon the source. At the junction of two paths a large tree has been cut down and the resulting logs piled between the graves. Why the tree was cut and whether the logs will be removed or stay to rot is another mysetery. As the cemetery is also a wildlife haven I imagine they will be left to provide a habitat for fungi. I shall certainly add them to my list of interesting things to look at on future walks here.


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Autumn leaves and a special guest

14 November 2018

Meeting a friend today for coffee was the perfect excuse for a stroll through the enchanted park to look at the autumn colour. A little bird had told me there was a very special visitor in town too so I was keeping my eyes peeled in case I saw him.

As ever, the park did not disappoint. The leaves, in shades from green to deep red, were stunning against the blue sky backdrop. The paths had a satisfyingly crunchy layer of fallen leaves to walk through and Lord Palmerston looked rather satisfied with himself on his plinth in the middle of it all.

We are so lucky to have this ribbon of green running through the centre of the city especially, on days like today, with autumn hues all around and the smell of leafmould heavy in the air. The park keepers do an amazing job of keeping everything looking nice. Today, I noticed, they have swept up a huge pile of leaves, which will, no doubt, be used as rich mulch once it’s rotted down a bit.

The park was so beautiful it was difficult to tear myself away but I didn’t want to keep my friend waiting. Besides, I wanted to see if I could spot the important guest in town.

The little wooden huts of the German Christmas Market have appeared in the Above Bar precinct since my last visit. November seems a little early to me but I did enjoy strolling along looking at all the bright shiny things they had on offer and the smell of roasting chestnuts and cooking donuts made me want to stop and eat.

The percinct was busy with people getting some early Christmas shopping in but the venerable visitor was nowhere amongst them, unless of course, he was in disguise. When I reached the Bargate, I saw his sleigh and reindeer high up on the roof, so I knew he must be around somewhere.

I thought, perhaps, he might be hiding under the Bargate arch. When I walked through though, he wasn’t there. I may not have seen the illusive Santa, but, on the other side of the arch, inside the walls of the old town, I did spot another of the silent soldier statues. Moments after I took his photo, my friend arrived. My little walk through the city might have ended but the fun was about to start!

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One hundred years

11 November 2018

Originally my plans for the morning were to walk to the military cemetery at Netley with CJ. The weather forecast was not good though and, after getting soaked through yesterday, it didn’t seem worth the risk. Despite the distinct possibility of rain Commando was going out for a run with the fast boys. He suggested we get the train to Hamble and walk from there. Once he got back from his run he’d pick us up in the car. He might even get there before the silence at eleven o’clock. It sounded like a plan so, after a swift check of the relevant train times and prices, we set off for Bitterne Station.

The train arrived on time and we arrived, warm and dry at Hamble station at ten o’clock. At this stage the weather was dry, bright and cold. Ironically, it would have been perfect walking weather but you never can tell with these things.

We had an hour to walk the mile and a bit to the military cemetery and a choice of two routes. The rail trail would be more scenic but a little longer. The road route, down Hamble Lane to Lover’s Walk, more direct but less interesting. Usually I’d go for long and interesting over short and boring any day but I had a feeling the rail trail would be very muddy after all the rain so road route it was.

In fairness, as road walking goes, Hamble Lane is quite nice. It’s leafy and the road is quiet on a Sunday. The sun was still shining, even if it wasn’t providing any heat and walking kept us warm.

Lover’s Lane was a little further down the road than I remembered but we reached it soon enough. Now the pretty walking could begin. The lane runs between some playing fields and the fields beside the aircraft factory. It’s leafy, quiet and tarmacked so mud was not an issue. We strolled along slowly, enjoying the smell of decaying leaves and the light through the trees.

We met a couple of dog walkers and CJ stopped to pet the dogs. Pretty soon we’d reached the gate at the end of the lane and we were entering Victoria Country Park. Now we turned right onto the causeway that leads to the military cemetery. If anything, our walk got prettier. The colours of autumn were all around us and above us the sky was blue. The weather forecast seemed overly pessimistic.

We reached the cemetery gates just before twenty past ten. We were very early but, with only one train an hour there was little choice in the matter. Still, it gave us plenty of time to wander around the cemetery so neither of us was complaining.

Outside the gate we stopped to look at one of the war department boundary stones that are hidden everywhere in Hamble. There are lots of them and, some time ago I was sent a map of where they are. One day I might get around to searching for them all. CJ and I both like a boundary stone quest after all.

Today was not the day for thinking about boundary stones though. It was a time for reflection on the hundred years that have passed since the armistice and all the young men who lost their lives. Just inside the gate is a small hill topped by gravestones and trees. The stones cast long shadows with the low November sun behind them but we passed them by. Our aim was a little further on.

The deeper into the cemetery we went the more vibrant the autumn colours seemed to get. A carpet of golden leaves surrounded the graves and the blue sky above added contrast. These graves are some of the oldest but they weren’t the ones we’d come to see today and we slowly walked on by.

A splash of red amongst the gold and blue was a sign we’d almost arrived at our destination. A flaming maple stands close to the tall war memorial amid the World War I graves like an eternal flame of remembrance.

Despite the vivid colours, this is a somber place. The rows of white gravestones are a reminder of the sacrifices made a hundred years ago. The sleeping soldiers lie in peace beneath the ground. That peace was hard won and the price was their lives.

Beneath each stone someone had placed a rose, some were white, others red. Who put them there and whether there was any meaning to the colours is a mystery but it made me smile to know these men were remembered.

There was a lantern and flowers on the memorial too. CJ went to look at them and, while he stood in quiet contemplation, I looked around. We were the only living people. Every year I’ve come here a small group have gathered to honour the silence but it looked as if it would be just us two today. Then I spotted another man, quietly walking along the rows of graves. It was still early, just before half past ten, perhaps others would come?

In silence we slowly walked along the rows of white stones, pausing every now and then to read an inscription. Many simply had names, dates and regiments, others had more detail. Private G M Pirrie, a Canadian, had a maple leaf to go with all those scattered in the ground. He was just twenty-one in 1915, when he died.

Then there was Frank Leedham of the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards. He died of wounds incurred in France at the Military Hospital aged just nineteen.

As we walked I became aware of my phone buzzing. It was Commando. For a brief moment I thought he was calling to tell me he was in the Country Park and would be joining us soon. He wasn’t though. He was actually sitting in the decking at home, having realised he’d gone out for his run without taking any door keys. He was wearing just shorts and a vest and was cold and cross with himself. There was little I could do apart from promise to get back as quickly as I could after the silence.

While I’d been talking to Commando I’d also been walking along the lines of graves. When the call ended I found myself in front of the grave of Eugene Nirke, the only Jewish grave in the cemetery as far as I can tell. Unlike all the other graves, this one is topped with dozens of pebbles, placed as a mark of respect by those who have visited.

Eugene did not die in World War I like the soldiers all around him. In fact he was born at the beginning of the war and died in February 1950 aged thirty five, making his grave quite incongruous here amongst the Great War dead. It isn’t certain where Eugene was born but he enlisted in the Gloucestershire regiment in Burma in 1941 where he fought against the Japanese invasion. His father was living in Shanghai at the time but it’s doubful Eugene was born there.  After a period of illness, or possibly an injury, he was transferred to the intelegence corps in India in 1944. Over the next few years his intelegence corps work took him to many places, including Ceylon, Bombay, and possibly even Russia. There is some suggestion he might have been a spy. In October 1947 he became a British citizen. 

Throughout this time though, his health was poor and he was listed as unfit for service on several occasions. This was probably a manifestation of the tuberculosis that eventually killed him at the  Douglas House Sanatorium in Southbourne, Hampshire on 22 February 1950.

Another slightly incongruous grave is that of private Horace N Jones. Unlike the other plain white stones, his has a prettily curved top. Horace was an Australian soldier who died of his wounds at Netley in 1915. His sisters erected this small stone for him.

Scattered here and there amongst the allied graves are the graves of German soldiers, prisoners of war who died at Netley. In life, they may have been the enemy but all are equal here in this quiet place of peace. The only difference between them now is the pointed tops of the German stones and the curved tops of the allies,

Slowly, while we’d been walking up and down the rows, other people had arrived. Amongst them I recognised a familiar face, the piper who’d played amazing grace the first time I’d come to remember here. He spotted me too and greeted me like an old friend. I was pleased to see he had his bagpipes with him. He told me he didn’t have the breath to play much any more but he would try today. He’d also prepared a list of the numbers of those fallen in all the battles since the hospital was built here. He asked if I would like to read it out before the silence but I declined. Honoured as I was, I knew there was no way I could do it without crying. In the end his wife did it. I still cried.

The few of us who’d gathered here to remember kept the silence impeccably, although we could hear a football match going on on the playing fields behind the trees. It seemed a shame they couldn’t stop for just a minute but I suppose a hundred years seems too long ago to think about for some people. Without those brave men though, the world today would be a very different place.

The silence ended with the wailing of the pipes. A fittingly mournful sound for this sad occasion. Then I wiped the tears from my eyes and CJ and I headed back towards Hamble and home.

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