The band of brothers killed in action at the front

FEW things bring home more graphically the brutal cruelty and heartbreak of the first world war than the story of the Barrington-Kennett family from Tillington.

Lt Col Brackley Barrington-Kennett had retired from the army and become a royal bodyguard.

Some time after the turn of the century, he moved with his wife Ellinor and their four sons to Tillington House, the large family home which still stands on the edge of the A272 in the village.

It was here that the boys spent their holidays, the eldest, Basil, was around 16 when they moved. His younger brothers were Godwin, Victor and Aubrey.

There were five years between the oldest and the youngest.

They all followed their father into the services and were ready to fight at the outbreak of war in 1914.

Within two years, three of the boys had been killed on the battlefields of France.

The youngest, Aubrey, was hit by a shell just six weeks after the outbreak of war.

Tillington villager Dr Trevor Purnell has been tracing the history of all the 30 names on the village war memorial to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the war.

In August, he will be putting on an exhibition in Tillington Church to tell the stories of the young men who left the village to fight for their country and never returned.

He has shared some of his meticulous research with the Observer.

It is hard to imagine the grief of their parents when those three dreaded telegrams arrived back home, telling the Barrington-Kennetts they would never see their sons again.

But Dr Purnell gained a small insight when he tracked down a children’s book written in 1916 by Ellinor, their mother.

On the face of it, a delightful series of stories about four brothers growing up in the countryside, it is in fact Ellinor’s tribute to her children.

On the last page she writes: “Daddy mourns for his three brave sons and mother feels that life can never be the same without them.

“But she looks forward to meeting them in the land where there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying and where God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.”

Basil was born in 1885. He left Eton in 1900 and attended Sandhurst Military Academy in 1905, leaving a year later to join the Grenadier Guards.

In 1910 he took flying lessons and following a test at the Royal Aero Club, he became the 43rd person in the country to gain his aviators certificate.

Shortly after war broke out on August 4, 1914, he was in France as part of a Royal Flying Crops advance unit.

During the war he became friends with poet Maurice Baring, who kept a diary.

On Monday, September 28, 1914 he wrote Basil had news that his brother Aubrey was missing and wounded. He wanted to go to an advance hospital to get news.

“After a long and very roundabout drive we came to a small field hospital. BK went in and I waited outside. As I was waiting a shrapnel shell burst in the middle of the road we had just left and a second burst in the field beyond the hospital and then a third. BK came out and I said laughing we are being shelled’. Then I saw he had received news his brother had been killed. He had been buried in the little cemetery a few yards off. We went to look for the grave and found it. With others it was just freshly dug, flowers on it and a neat wooden cross. BK saluted.”

Five months later, BK caught influenza and was moved to a field hospital and then to England to convalesce and afterwards he returned to the Grenadier Guards on April 1, 1915, joining the 2nd battalion in Givenchy.

On April 16, his friend Maurice Baring went to Bethune in search of BK.

He later wrote in his diary: “BK was out when we arrived at the billet. But we waited until 7pm when he came in. We had a long talk. He wanted to know how to cook cauliflower. This was the last time I was to see him.”

In command of No 3 Company of the 4th brigade Grenadier Guard, BK led his men to the front line in the battle of Festubert early on the morning of May 17.

Records show the men made slow progress through the maze of old British and German trenches: “because after heavy rain the ground was deep in mud and the many shell holes were full of water. In addition they had to negotiate heavy shelling and raking machine gun fire. It was dark before the battalion reached the front line which was about 800 yards from the eastern edge of Festubert.”

The following morning the battalion was ordered to attack the German line at Cour LAvoue (a farmhouse bristling with German machine guns).

“The first platoon was mown down before it had covered 100 yards and the second and third suffered similar fates.

“Leading his men in the first rush, Major Barrington-Kennet, aged 30 years was killed instantly together with several other officers under his command.”

Maurice Baring wrote: “If ever a man deserved a soldier’s death, to die leading the men of his own regiment into battle it was BK. But of all the bitter losses one had to bear throughout the war, it was, with one exception, this particular loss I felt the most, minded the most, resented most and found it most difficult to accept.

BK is buried in Le Touret Military Cemetery at Richebourg-L’Avoue.

Aubrey was the youngest of the four boys, born in 1890 and educated at Radley College and University College, Oxford, where he joined the officers training corps.

He trained with the second battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and was later commissioned as a second lieutenant on March 2, 1913, joining C Company 2nd battalion in September.

In August the following year the battalion was mobilised and landed at Boulogne and the soldiers swiftly moved to the Western Front where the battalion took part in the first Britsh battle of the war at Mons, defeating the German forces.

From September 5-9, Aubrey was also involved in the Battle of Marne during which the German advance towards Paris was halted and a little later in the first Battle of the Aisne.

On September 19, Aubrey and his men were sheltering in caves when they were ordered to the trenches where they endured heavy artillery fire and 35 men were killed, including two officers.

The diary of a fellow officer recorded: “A few were hit between the farm and the caves and unfortunately Barrington-Kennett was among them. Though badly hit he refused to allow the men to carry him to the cave in which the dressing station had been established. When eventually brought in he was very cheerful though rather badly wounded in the neck, jaw and back. He was got away to hospital at night but the next day he died at Viel Arcy.”

Writing to Aubrey’s father, Lt Col Davies said: “He was very plucky about it, would not allow the two men with him to carry him to a safe place, but in order to save them from being hit ordered them each under cover and remained in the open himself till the brunt of the shelling was over.”

Aubrey is buried at Vailly British Cemetery.

Godwin was the second son of the family, born in 1886.

The first trace Dr Purnell found of him in adult life was on December 1, 1909 when he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in the 4th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment.

By 1914 Lt G A Barrington-Kennett had now found his way to South Africa where he has joined Ross’s Scouts.

By January 15 1915, he had joined C Squadron of the East African Mounted Rifles

Strangely at this time his medal card shows his rank as Private 500. However, the London Gazette August 28 1917 records that G A Barrington-Kennett was promoted to be temporary lieutenant for service with the Kings African Rifles on December 21 1916 and he remained on active service in East Africa.

The London Gazette January 7, 1919 reported G A Barrington-Kennett had relinquished his commission and retained the rank of Lieutenant on account of ill health contracted on active service.

From his medal card, however, it would appear that he did not retire from the army until March 9 1922.

Victor was the third BK’ son born in 1887.

He went to Eton and up to Bailliol College, Oxford in 1906.

He graduated in 1910 and a year later joined the London Balloon Company Royal Engineers, territorial force as second lieutenant.

In August 1913 he was appointed to the Royal Flying Corps Special Reserve which in August 1914 was reformed as an aircraft squadron, and in the same month Victor was promoted to flying officer.

The squadron left for France and their base at St Omer on March 7, 1915 and began their bombing attacks a few days later.

Victor took part in the Battle of Loos in special aerial bombing operations directed at trains on the move and in January 1916 was appointed squadron commander, moving to no 4 squadron as commanding officer.

But less than a month later he was killed while, said the official history of the squadron, in pursuit of an enemy aircraft’.

In fact his plane was shot down at 12.55pm on March 13, 1916 by the German flying ace Max Immelmann, known as the Blue Max, and Victor became his tenth victim.

Such was the sense of chivalry between opposing officers that soon after Victor’s death, a note was delivered to the Royal Flying Corps from German aviators

It read: “Flying machine with Major V Barrington-Kennett has fallen near Serre.

“Pilot dead.”

An anonymous tribute in the May 1916 edition of Flight magazine said: “I feel for his gallant father Lieut Col Barrington-Kennett who by this death loses his third son in this war leaving but one of four brothers fighting for the King.

“Poor BK’ he was everybody’s friend and it grieves me that I shall never again see him skulking the plain at Salisbury with a cheery word for all.”

He is buried at Miraumont Communal Cemetery in northern France.