“A very dear polite old South African regular”

Unknown Warriors, the sequel to The Anonymous Diary of a Nursing Sister is out.  And the nurse is no longer anonymous. You can read about my attempts to identify her here.

I’d pre-ordered the book, and received my copy today.  The Diary had no mention of South Africans, because they were fighting elsewhere in 1914–1915, but I noticed that the book has an index, and that there were a few references to South Africans.

Here’s one of them:

“A very dear old polite South African regular, all through that and all through this, who was longing to see his wife and children, died of gas gangrene today.  What a life it is!”

“Today” was Saturday, 28th April 1917.

His grandchildren might be alive today.  For their sake, perhaps we could we “rescue from oblivion” the knowledge that he loved and longed for his family .

I looked for all the South Africans who died on that day in Northern France.

These are the filters I used on the CWGC database:

Country: France
War: First World War
Date of death (starting): 28 April 1917
Date of death (ending): 28 April 1917
Served with:  South African Forces

Six South African soldiers died on that day.  They were:

Private James Kelley, 4th S.A.I.R., buried at Etaples.
Gunner John Michael Sherrin, S.A. Heavy Artillery, buried at Tilloy-les- Mofflaines.
Sergeant H. Penny, S.A. Heavy Artillery, buried at Tilloy-les- Mofflaines.
Sergeant Hector George Williams, S.A. Heavy Artillery, buried at Tilloy-les- Mofflaines.
Private James Damoyi, S.A.N.L.C., buried at Arques-la-Bataille.
Gunner William Wilfred Purdon, S.A. Heavy Artillery, buried at Tilloy-les- Mofflaines.

None of them has an entry giving details of a spouse, but those for whom there are details of parents, can probably be eliminated and they are James Kelley, H. Penny, and William Purdon.  My reasoning is that, while a recent marriage might not be entered in the service record, by the time a marriage resulted in more than one child, it’s likely the spouse would be identified as the next of kin.

James Damoyi was buried at Arques-la-Bataille and James Kelley at Etaples, both cemeteries being some distance from where Kate Luard was working.

According to her diary, she was based at a camp at Warlencourt, near Gommécourt, which is not too far from Tilloy-les-Mofflaines.

On balance, we can tentatively eliminate four of the six men on the grounds of their either having parents, but not a spouse listed as next of kin, or being buried too far away from Warlencourt, or both.

That leaves Gunner John Michael Sherrin and Sergeant Hector George Williams, two of the four men in the South African Heavy Artillery (125th Siege Battery) who died that day and who, if wounded, would have been sent to the CCS at which Kate Luard was nursing.

‘Evidence’ for John Michael Sherrin is that he appears on a medal list for the Anglo-Boer War.  (The National Archives, WO 100/139).  So when Kate, who also nursed in that war, described the ‘very dear’ man as  ‘regular’ was she thinking Regular Army?  My money was on him.

The headstone records for John Sherrin do not include next of kin, or any wording on the headstone requested by the next of kin.  Nor do those for Hector Williams, which appear on the same pages in the headstone, grave and burial documents as John Sherrin.  (This omission was not unusual for the Commonwealth soldiers.)

John Sherrin had been a gunner at the turn of the century, and he was still a gunner in 1917.  I’ve viewed his service record on the admirable South African War Graves Project where his next of kin is given as his cousin, Edie Watson, and it is her change of address that is subsequently noted on his record.

Hector Williams’ service record is not available to view online, but the summary on the SA War Graves Project provides the additional information that he was the son of Margaret Williams of Crown Mines.  It notes, also that he is commemorated on the Artillery Memorial in the Company’s Garden in Cape Town.

I’ve noticed that in her diaries, Kate Luard often inserts information after the event.  For example, having prophesied imminent death or promising recovery, she will insert a remark such as “(Died that night).”  When she wrote “today”, it’s natural to assume that she wrote it on that very day, rather than catching up later.  Perhaps she confused the date?  This is unlikely because of the amount of paperwork generated every day in a ward to which the “hopeless cases” were assigned.  (It was actually called the Moribund Ward!”

I put this puzzle aside to simmer on a back burner, at least for now.


About Margaret Frood

Margaret Frood is a Family and Local Historian with an insatiable curiosity about the partially told stories of a family's past. Her six war memorial blogs have been created in the hope that they will help to rescue from oblivion the stories of those listed on the war memorials of Petersham, Ham and Tur Langton, on War Graves that ‘catch her eye’ with an additional interest in Southern Africans commemorated in the UK and in Western Europe.
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