A Soldier’s Grave…

I first stumbled across it by chance..!   It was tucked away in the corner of the churchyard surrounding Twyford’s beautiful Parish church and, being off the main pathway, it had long given up the struggle against ivy and long grass. I think it was the shape that caught my eye as I wandered absent-mindedly through that tall grass and I stopped, picked away at some of undergrowth that had attached itself to the headstone and, underneath years of neglect, there appeared some metal lettering affixed to the concrete face…

It read:  ‘Private John Douglas Small of the London Regiment ‘Kensingtons’. Son of Albert and Emmie Small of Elfords, Hastings. Died at Hazeley Down Camp, Twyford September 29th 1916 aged 18’.

The words said everything, yet told me nothing. Who was this young soldier who had been stationed at the big First World War pre-embarkation camp in the village? That, in the third year of that terrible conflict, this soldier, not long out of basic training, had died at such a young age was obvious… but how and why?

Had he made it to the Western Front and returned to die of his wounds? Had he been taken ill awaiting the move to the trenches of Flanders?… or was there a more sinister story behind this innocent headstone? More intriguingly, why did this soldier’s grave have a private headstone whilst other soldiers who’d died at the camp, and were also buried here in Twyford’s churchyard, have the instantly recognised white official military headstone with Regimental badge?  So many questions, but where to begin to find the answers?

Having lain undetected for so long, the answers were not to be eventually found locally, however a letter to a local newspaper in the Hastings area appealing for information brought a breakthrough for me. Several Hastings residents remembered the family of John Douglas Small, then came the big tip-off: ‘Douglas’, as he was apparently affectionately known, had a younger sister who was actually still alive and living in a nursing home in Battle and, armed with this information, I made my way to Sussex to meet Constance ‘Connie’ Small.  A former school teacher and now in her nineties, this lovely old lady was as bright as a button and, obviously touched that I had taken over the tending her late brother’s grave, she talked to me about his tragically short life.

Douglas was her favourite older brother and on leaving school at 16, he took a job in his father’s motor-vehicle garage. Called up at 18, he enlisted in Chichester as 6120 Private Small in the 13th Battalion, the London Regiment,  a Territorial unit known colloquially as the ‘Saturday Night Soldiers’. Following basic training, his Regiment was despatched to Hazeley Down, Twyford, in preparation for its transfer across the Channel to France and the Western Front.

But on the morning of the 26th September 1916, as the lads were called to muster at 7am ready for the ‘off’, Douglas could not be roused from his bed; the camp doctor was called and he was transferred to the military hospital at Haslar in Gosport down on the South Coast, where meningitis was diagnosed. Tragically he died three days later and his body was returned to Twyford and the Hazeley Down camp.

By his untimely death, Douglas Small  was spared the horrors of the Western Front, but I asked Connie how her brother came to be buried in Twyford: “My father made that decision. In those days getting around the country was not easy and as Douglas loved Twyford and was a popular figure around the village, my family thought it would be fitting for him to be buried there and a private headstone was bought”.

The ‘War Casualties’ listing in the Hastings & St Leonards Observer on 7th November 1916 confirmed her brother’s popularity: “Private John D Small was buried with full military honours in the Twyford Village churchyard. There was a very large attendance at the graveside: about a thousand military and civilians being present, including the Officers, NCO’s and men of the Regiment and the Regimental Band”.

Sadly, today very little remains of the 105 acres of this enormous camp other than a distinct echo of military boots, barked orders, and the long shadows of thousands of young men on their way to an horrific war from which they would never return. A scene belying its previous frantic activity, lines of impressive trees now mark where the camp’s roads once ran, whilst the odd First World War-constructed hut still lines the grassed valley of our very historic village.

The Ministry for War first commandeered this rich farming land, owned by the Best family, in 1915. Work immediately began to build a massive wooden military complex to house the young ‘Pals Regiments’ on their way to the docks at Southampton to join the vast Allied armies at war with the Kaiser’s army in France. To this day some elderly villagers still remember the vast khaki columns as they marched from Hazeley Down into Twyford, either to pick up the troop trains at close-by Shawford railway station or to continue through the village on a full route-march down into the Port of Southampton.

In addition to Douglas’ London Regiment, (known fully as Princess Louise’s Kensingtons), Hazeley Down Camp was also home to the 14th Battalion (London Scottish),  15th Battalion (Prince of Wales Own Civil Service Rifles), 16th Battalion (Queen’s Westminster Rifles), 17th Battalion (Poplar & Stepney Rifles), 20th Battalion, (Queen’s Royal West Kent), the Royal Garrison Artillery, The Tank Corps and, representing the British Commonwealth, Canada’s Royal Newfoundland Regiment.

Finally the Great War came to an end on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 and Twyford’s Hazeley Down, the scene of much hectic war-time activity, became a holding base, garrisoned by a few ‘old salts’ of the regular army until 1921. Then the entire camp and its contents were sold off by auction on the orders of the Ministry of Munitions in that year and the land reverted back to its peaceful and most beautiful of pre-war farming days.

Hazeley Down briefly hit the headlines again in the Second World War when a Luftwaffe Junkers 88 engaged in bombing Southampton docks, overshot and was attacked by a marauding Spitfire on August 15th 1940, at the very height of the Battle of Britain. Struggling to stay in the air, the pilot, (who, incredibly, studied at nearby Winchester College before the war, so knew exactly where he was!), eventually jettisoned his entire bomb-load across fields around the site of the former camp and crash-landed in the valley, the crew being rounded up by Twyford’s local Home Guard detachment and escorted away as Prisoners of War… their war over!

Having located these impressive bomb-holes in my youth, some years later I was given a large piece of the original perspex from the JU-88’s cockpit canopy; thence a few years on, a former crew member’s summer Luftwaffe flying suit was located in the shed of a former Home Guard member and this was also gifted to me.

Other souvenirs were spirited away at the time, for the Canadian fighter pilot who despatched this German bomber, circled the crash site before carefully landing his Spitfire on the grass-strip alongside where the stricken bomber made its wheels-up landing. Then in front of the astonished Twyford Home Guard members, the fighter pilot jumped down out of his Spit’s cockpit, ran over to the JU-88, leaned inside its now canopy-less cockpit and, with a practiced twist of his wrist & a flick of his fingers, unscrewed the bomber’s dash-board clock, stuck it in his flying jacket pocket, ran back to his idling fighter and took off, never to be seen again..!

In addition, I had long heard that the pilot’s Luger pistol was still lurking somewhere in the village, having been surrendered to the Home Guard; but despite my regularly pumping the elderly locals for gen, ( at least once a week), in our former local, The Dolphin Hill, despite many winks & ‘knowing-nudges’ of each other, I never got a straight answer as to its whereabouts. So one lightly-used Luftwaffe-issue Luger is still sitting hidden somewhere here in my village of Twyford and that, sadly, is how it will probably stay… unless I get lucky and someone weakens under my ceaseless interrogation!

Meanwhile back to Hazeley Camp, where today an imposing cross, erected by the Best family as a memorial to the tens of thousands of young men who passed this way, can be seen, set back from the Hazeley Road amidst the few remaining wooden barracks from the First World War that still dot the hillside…

As for the grave of her brother that Connie never got to see, it is now lovingly cared for in Twyford’s little Parish church, by myself and latterly the War Graves Commission, its sad history now finally known!

Connie died shortly after I visited with my photos of her beloved brother’s grave and I take comfort knowing I was able to show her where ‘Douglas’ was laid to rest and assure her his grave was now looked after and that each November a British Legion Red Poppy is placed upon it…

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

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