How the Great War took its toll on one family

THERE are 75 names on the war memorial at Petworth.

They all lost their lives in the first world war - all husbands, fathers and sons who left their families behind to face the unimaginable horror of the muddy battlefields.

Peter Jerrome has allowed the Observer access to his research on the first world war years to paint a picture of how the devastating years took their toll on the town and its people.

The names on the memorial came from all walks of life. The Leconfield Estate workers, shopkeepers and farmers as well as the Hon William Reginald Wyndham, a lieutenant with the lst Lifeguards Cavalry Division and third son of Baron and Lady Leconfield, who was killed at Ypres. There is also Ned Penrose, son of Petworth rector John Trevenen Penrose.

The Penroses, who came from old-established Ulster families, had two children, a daughter who died suddenly of meningitis in her teens in 1901 and their son Ned, in 1914, a commissioned officer in the Royal Irish Fusiliers.

Ned was wounded in October 1914 and returned to England to recuperate before going back to Flanders in February the next year. On April 25, 1915 he was reported missing near Ypres.

He was never heard of again, although his mother and father never gave up hope of his return.

Five years later, in January 1920, an astonishing letter accompanied by a package, found its way to Petworth rectory from Aix-le-Chapelle.

It came from a German soldier who had found Ned’s diary, written in pencil, in a deserted dug-out on the very day he had disappeared.

The letter was written on January 29, 1920, almost five years after Prof P Langer discovered the diary and it is addressed to Rev JT Penrose, Petworth Rectory, Sussex’.

Translated from its original German, it reads: “Very honoured sir, I found the enclosed diary on April 25, 1915 in a deserted dugout at Haanebeck, north of St Julien near Ypres.

“In sending you this diary, I allow myself the hope that the writer of it has returned home safe and well, Your most humble P Langer.”

It is hard to imagine how his parents felt when they received the diary. Their son had not returned home safe and well, but at least, perhaps it gave them an insight into how he had lived and died.

The diary is now held in the Northern Ireland Record Office in Belfast.

In it, Captain Penrose describes his first day of war after landing at Boulogne and marching to his first camp.

“At 7.30am we fall in and hurry just outside camp, pile arms, sit down and here we wait till 12. During this time two days’ biscuit and bully beef is issued. The men make fires of the boxes and sing round them. This is the only bright spot in a damnable business.”

Two days later he wrote of digging trenches, adding: “We get it done at last and just as we are finished a battery of ours opens near the 78th. A gun replies from Valteys one mile to our front.

“Phibbs with D Coy is out in front and told to retire. The enemy shell him heavily but he has no-one hit. Three or four shells come right over us very close. We all lie doggo. It is my first experience and not half so bad as I thought it would be. The firing dies down and we have to retire. The men all in good form and cracking jokes.”

But a day later the jokes and the optimism are gone when Captain Penrose writes of the battle of Cateau.

“We have to go back over a gradual slope and as we go, shells burst over us like hail. A couple of men start running and I shout to them to walk - one cannot have a panic. It is awful. How we got through I don’t know. The bullets strike all around me and the crack and the wail and bang of each shell is desperate. Little Comesky of my platoon is hit while eating his biscuit. The men are tired and walk so slowly. At last we get over the hill and out of the beaten zone.

“Soon an aeroplane comes over and in ten minutes the enemy start shelling us - very accurately. The birdman has obviously told them. The shelling is damnable. There are 12 guns firing at us.”

His diary was the last contact Mr and Mrs Penrose had with their son. There is no grave for him, but his name is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres.

The Rev Penrose had retired to Wimbledon with his wife, a year earlier, when the diary arrived in Petworth and it had to travel on to London to reach them.

He had been rector at Petworth from 1906 to 1919 and by all accounts left his last full-time ministry an exhausted man in failing health’.

Despite their own devastation when their son went missing, the rector and his wife carried on ministering to the needs of all those around them.

In 1915 he wrote in St Mary’s parish magazine: “Our trouble has also brought us very near in thought and prayer to those of you whose husbands or sons or brothers are braving the dangers and privations of this dreadful war.”

He carried on offering comfort where he could until he retired from Petworth in 1919.

He visited the town and parishioners again in 1926 and it was a shock to them to read of his death just a few weeks later.

Characteristically, although in poor health he had plunged into the sea in Ireland to help three bathers who had got into difficulties. He had a heart attack and collapsed in the sea.

The following is part of a tribute which appeared in St Mary’s parish magazine: “None of us can forget the time of terrible anxiety at the Rectory when his only son was reported missing and the hope was still cherished of his survival - and how the rector put aside his own trouble and spent himself in giving comfort and sympathy to the other families in Petworth who suffered the cruel losses of the war.”

In his History of Petworth, published by The Window Press in 2006, Mr Jerrome recounted: “Writing to Mr Pitfield, the Market Square solicitor, JB Watson, Lord Leconfield’s land agent laments that his lordship’s cub hunters and coach horses have already gone to war and the hunter would no doubt go shortly.

“They have also taken my two cobs, so far I have saved my old horse and the missus’ pony.”

In the early months Petworth was almost overcrowded with troops billeted in the town.

Peter Jerrome records the memories of Richard Foyle in Petworth Society Magazine, no 68, June 1992. His family lived at 273 High Street.

“Petworth was used as a training and staging post for the army recruits before they were transferred to the battlefield of France. The soldiers were camped in canvas bell tents in the lower fields opposite to Petworth House and Park. Those solders not resident in camp were billeted in the homes of the local people.”

Richard’s grandmother had ten soldiers billeted on her, including one of the regimental buglers.

Melicent Knight, daughter of the Pound Street butcher, said: “As happened with other families we soon became very attached to our boys’, my mother treating us all basically as one big family.

“She would make enormous steak and kidney puddings for her boys who had large appetites training all the week and then having Church parade on Sundays. To repay her they would grind out the sausages.”

The troops left Petworth in February 1915.

One of the horrors of the war felt back home, was the dreaded War Office telegram sometimes delivered by children who had no idea of the devastating impact of the news they brought.

In his History of Petworth, Peter Jerrome wrote of Len Cooper’s memories.

“A feature of schooldays at Fittleworth was the daily 3.40pm race from school, over the road through the twitten to the post office to see if there were any telegrams. Often enough we wold be disappointed. It was now towards the end of the war and telegrams could mean anything, particularly there was the dreaded missing presumed dead.’.

It was one shilling and six pence to take one, a huge sum in those days. Mr Hart the postmaster had a rough idea of where we lived and he would give it to the boy whose way home was nearest to the telegram’s destination.”

He added: “I had no idea as a boy of eight how much the sight of one of us boys scurrying across a field towards a remote cottage was dreaded and aprons held to faces.”

Winnie Searle wrote of the impact of a telegram in those war years.

“I remember vividly shouting Mum here comes a telegram boy’. This was a novelty for a child, but my mother knew better. It was what every woman dreaded. It was 1918 and she was now a widow with a young family to bring up.”

The war also had a devastating effect on those soldiers who returned home.

George Baxter, who played in Petworth Town Band from 1921 to 1958, later told Peter Jerrome of the effect it had on band members.

“The band disbanded at the outbreak of hostilities,” he said “and reformed when its members returned. Some never returned and the recollections of those that survived seemed to be mainly of playing in different regimental bands during the Great War.”

He told Mr Jerrome the war had left a scar on the band. “Members who had served and returned no longer mixed easily with the others.

“They tended to keep themselves to themselves and not share what they had experienced, talking only to those who had lived through the same horrors,” said Mr Jerrome.