Casualties of the Somme recalled

THE Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest ever recorded, lasted for 20 weeks during which more than one million allied and German troops were killed or wounded.

THE Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest ever recorded, lasted for 20 weeks during which more than one million allied and German troops were killed or wounded. They died in vain, for neither side made any strategic gain.

The 1914-18 war, in sharp focus recently because its three final survivors died this year.

This prolonged carnage on the Somme, one of the lowest points of that war, has resurfaced as the result of a phone call to a former Gorlestonian from a Norfolk family that lost young men in the mud of France in 1916.

Mike King, now of Lowestoft, tells me: “In 1983 an old friend and long-time Gorleston neighbour, Henry Leonard (“Pop”) Gymer, died, aged 80. Later his daughter Lily rang to ask me to visit her at her home off Southtown Road so she could give me some items relating to her father, found in his loft, because she knew of my interest in local and family history.

“Those items made up a small archive of artefacts from the First World War, including: four medals and gold-printed scroll relating to Private John James Gymer, Imperial War Graves Commission book on Grove Town Cemetery in France, 20 postcards of wrecked villages in the Somme area, parcel wrapper sent home from France, and photographs of a large group of people on a railway station and of wooden crosses in a war cemetery.

“Lily explained that John James Gymer was Pop's older brother who was killed fighting on the Somme. The cemetery book's index included an adjacent entry that was also a Gymer, and Lily said these young Gymer men were cousins.”

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Recently Mr King researched the Gymers, discovering that James John Gymer. born in 1896 in Martham, lived with his parents, Henry John and Georgiana, and younger siblings Lily and Henry junior in Anson Road, Southtown. On joining the Norfolk Regiment he was assigned to the 9th Battalion.

Also, his cousin, William Gymer, born 1897, lived with his parents, William and Laura Gymer, and siblings at Cess, Martham. He too joined the Norfolk Regiment as a private, assigned to the 1st Battalion. Henry John and William senior were brothers, sons of John and Sarah Gymer, of Martham. The Gymer family had been in the Damgate area of Martham for several generations.

Mr King mused: “Did James John and William junior know each other? It is possible, but by the 1901 census Henry and Georgiana had moved with their children to Anson Road, before James was four. Certainly they would have known of each other's existence. Maybe either family got on the M&GN Railway at Beach Station in Yarmouth, or Martham, to visit one another!”

He wonders if the Gymer cousins, who fought in that epic Battle of the Somme, were aware they were fighting in the same area? “Were they in touch with each other? We will never know.”

“William was the first casualty, killed outright in September, aged 19. James lasted nine more days before dying of wounds although it is possible he was wounded in action much earlier. By coincidence they are buried in adjacent rows in the Grove Town Cemetery.

“The bodies of the fallen were moved there in April 1917 and the cemetery was immediately closed. This cemetery contains the bodies of 1366 UK soldiers, 14 from Australia, one from New Zealand and one from France as well as 36 German prisoners.

“The cemetery book contains a map of the Somme area showing about 25 war cemeteries in the vicinity of Albert, the largest local town in the Somme area. Soldiers from every regiment and town in the UK are buried here, but very few of them from the Norfolk Regiment - eight from the 9th Battalion and two from the 1st. Private Herbert George Humby, of Stafford Road, Great Yarmouth, is here but he was serving in the Essex Regiment.

“The only other person with a Yarmouth area address buried here is Private Thomas Fredrick Hudson, of the 9th Battalion, a native of Filby, son of Fredrick and Laura Hudson, who died of wounds in October 1916, aged 22.

“The two photographs are quite poignant and I imagine they were hung on a wall in the family home. About 1920, the Government paid for relatives to visit the graves of their loved ones and the first shows a group - mainly female (mothers and widows presumably), on platform one at Thorpe Station in Norwich - of relatives of Norfolk Regiment casualties.

“Many folk from the Yarmouth area were in this group but the only one I can identify is the lady on the extreme right with a white shawl, Georgiana Gymer. In all probability her sister-in-law Laura Gymer is near her. Those who remember Pop Gymer will see that he was the spitting image of his mother!

“The second photograph is of the grave itself, marked with a temporary wooden cross. Georgiana had put a wreath on the cross with the words 'From his dear mother…' Her umbrella and other personal items can be seen leaning against the cross.

“The name of James appears on the war memorial in St George's Park, Yarmouth, and that of William is on the war memorial in Martham churchyard.

As for Pop Gymer, he was born in 1903 and would have been around 12 when his brother left home. At 14 he joined the Great Eastern Railway, working at nearby South Town Station. Eventually he became an engine driver and worked at all of Yarmouth's stations at one time or another, finally retiring in 1968 as a diesel driver.

Mr King recalls: “He often told me about the time during the 1939-45 war when he was driving a train-load of bombs out of Vauxhall Station while an air raid was in progress. He decided to keep going to avoid an even bigger catastrophe!

“He married Margaret and moved to Suffolk Road from where they were bombed out in 1941 in the same air raid that destroyed the adjacent Gorleston North railway station. They were rehoused in 1951 in Lincoln Avenue where they ended their days.

“Pop had a very close shave in 1964. He had been helping to restore a boat at Darby's Hard on Gorleston riverside and had just left to go home for lunch when an American Super Sabre jet crashed on the spot. The boat was destroyed. Nobody was injured.”

Mr King is unaware of any survivors of that Gymer family.