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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