Little support for grieving family of World War One hero
- Credit: Submitted
An In Memoriam family announcement with a difference was published in the Mercury last month, for it appeared on the centenary of the death of a soldier “serving in the front-line trenches and being gassed in France” in the First World War.
The victim is still remembered by his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, it said.
William George Gillingwater, born in 1873 and married to Amelia Jackman at St Nicholas’ Parish Church in Great Yarmouth, would not recognise today’s England as the country for which he died after combat 100 years ago. But some of his descendants were to become well-known in the borough’s business and civic life in the 20th century.
One of those family members is Michael Harvey, of Park Road, Gorleston, who has compiled this tribute to his soldier forebear.
After enlisting in the Norfolk Regiment as a boy soldier, William served under three monarchs, travelling extensively so only one of his five children was born in England, Michael writes.
During his 21 years’ military service he rose to sergeant before being demobbed, returning to Yarmouth in January 1914.
However, before the year was out, he was back in the army!
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The Kaiser, Germany’s aggressive ruler, invaded Belgium in 1914, causing Britain and France to declare war, resulting in the bloody conflict of 1914-1918. William immediately volunteered to rejoin the Norfolks and was posted to the British Expeditionary Force to fight in France. There he was soon in the trenches...but destined not to return as the man who left.
Fighting in France was a war of entrenchment. Both sides dug trenches which would run through villages and towns, fields and woods, streams and rivers. Trenches were frequently muddy and waterlogged. Some were partly underground to provide protection, soldiers dropping into them for rest and safety.
Soldiers had to use the cramped trench conditions to live. Damp, wet, even flooded conditions brought disease, intensified by the pollution of nearby latrines and difficulties in disposing of waste. All this was exacerbated by wearing drenched, smelly, unwashed uniforms for days on end.
“William faced crippling health hazards as well as military risks from the enemy’s sniping, machines guns, mortars and shellfire,” continues Michael. “Germans would also release gas which would poison, and sometimes kill. Unfortunately, William was one of thousands of soldiers subjected to these vile conditions and was stricken by pulmonary tuberculous from which he died.”
While in France, fighting in the front line for about a year, William sent ninth birthday greetings to his daughter, Olive, in January 1916 and she kept the letter as a treasured possession throughout her life.
Her father wrote: “Just a few lines to wish you many happy returns on your birthday, hoping you and the other children are good and do what you are told. You must kiss the baby for me, and Alfred (a son who emigrated to the United States).
“My love to Billie and Hildreth (Hilda) so now I conclude with my fondest and best love to you all from your ever-loving Father.”
Says grandson Michael: “One can imagine his mind-set writing this with the loud noises and smells of the dangerous conditions around. Far away from home and missing his wife and lovely children, he would think about blissful and happier days.”
Pulmonary tuberculosis resulted in William’s repatriation to England in January 1916 to the Tooting Military Hospital in London, followed by a brief stay in Kelling Sanitorium near Holt that April. A few days later he was discharged from the army on medical grounds to return home.
Back in Yarmouth, he was looked after by a demoralised and heartbroken Amelia who nursed him in his pain and agony. His sickness was a frightful experience to her. She saw her once handsome, active and proud husband wasting away – and in torment, waiting to die.Nevertheless, she lovingly comforted and cared for him in his misery and anguish until his death in October 1916, aged 43. In her widowhood Amelia - left with five children to raise without him - would never talk about William as an invalid.
“There was a magnificent military funeral for him which was impressive and moving by any standard,” writes Michael. “So Sgt Gillingwater was even useful to the Government in his death. Nothing was spared for the funeral ceremonies arranged for a military hero to generate nationalistic fever, boost morale and increase hatred against the German foe.”
Yarmouth newspapers reported that the demobbed Sgt Gillingwater “was one of the first to offer his services to the country in her hour of great need against the German foe. Fourteen years of his career were on foreign service. He succumbed after a long and serious illness caused by the effects of being gassed in the trenches in France.
“Full military honours were paid to the deceased and marked respect was shown as the cortege passed from St Mary’s Church in Southtown. Proceeded by the firing party and a military band, the casket draped with the Union Jack was borne upon a field gun drawn by six horses. Many of the floral tributes were carried in the procession by the soldiers while others covered the gun carriage. At the cemetery, the casket was borne to its final resting place by six sergeants. At the close of the service three volleys were fired over the open grave and buglers sounded The Last Post. Despite heavy rainfall there was a large gathering at the graveside.”
Comments Michael: “As far as the Government of the day was concerned, that seemed to be it. The sorrowing wife and young children were given little, if any, support and left to fend and adjust for themselves. Today society would ensure the family continued to be comforted and recently formed charities such as Help for Heroes would provide additional support.”
In adulthood, daughter Olive Gillingwater founded the Olivette’s chain of nine wool shops hereabouts, trading from 1931 to 1994.
She was Mayoress of Yarmouth in 1991 when her husband, Alfred Harvey, was our Mayor; both were borough councillors.