6011 Private George Henry Rosser (1885–1916)
2/South African Infantry Regiment
Died in Fulham, 23 July 1916, of severe wounds received on 11 July at The Somme.
We’d planned, yesterday, also to look for the grave of Private George Henry Rosser, who is not buried with his fellow combatants in Section Z, but is in Section W of Richmond Cemetery. I had brought with me a photo of the headstone, which I had found through the South African War Graves Project, and I knew that, like the first headstone erected on Corporal Miller’s grave, it was not a CWGC headstone. These headstones have the advantage of standing out in a cemetery, once you know what to look for, but what I expected to see was two cuboid stones, the lower one larger than the upper one, topped by a stone cross. You can see the now ‘dismembered’ headstone in the photo on the left.
The cycling Patrons of Lost Causes came to the rescue, by mentioning a new CWGC headstone for a South African grave that they had noticed on their way to the South African section. “Was the name Rosser?” I asked. They confirmed that it was the name on the headstone they had seen, and they pointed it out to me after the Two Minutes’ Silence.
The old and new headstones on George Rosser’s grave.
Of all the soldiers serving with the South African forces, and buried in this cemetery, George Rosser was the first to die. His death was registered at Fulham Military Hospital where he was being nursed following the severe wounds he had received in France eleven days earlier. Although the South African Military Hospital in Richmond Park had begun to receive patients that month, it focused on treating people with long term life-changing injuries. He was buried in this grave on 29 July, six days after his death and in Richmond, because his parents still lived there.
This photo shows what you have to look out for in Section W, if you are looking for George’s grave.
It is now over five years since I researched the South African soldiers in Richmond Cemetery, so I took a fresh look this morning at the information I had on him and at the additional information I obtained from the South African War Graves Project (SAWGP) recently.
George Henry Rosser was born in Richmond, the eldest son and second child of George Henry Rosser (1860–1920) and his wife Louisa Ann Keates (c. 1860–1955?). His father was a labourer, eventually working for many years as a Carter for the Corporation (Richmond Council). The family lived for over 20 years at 6 Michel’s Row, Richmond, before moving to 134 Manor Grove, North Sheen, in the first decade of the 20th Century.
George had left the family home by the turn of the century, and may already have gone out to South Africa. Perhaps he went out to work on the mines. We know, that by the time he enlisted in 1915 at the age of 30, his occupation was recorded as ‘Hotel Keeper’. His enlisting in the 2/SAIF, a regiment raised in Natal and the Orange Free State, with some volunteers drawn from the Kaffrarian Rifles, suggests that he was living in the eastern part of the new Union of South Africa. Originally on the strength of a Reserve Battalion, George was taken on the strength of the 2nd Regiment from the date of his disembarkation in Egypt, from HMS Transylvania, on 12 March 1916. Two months later, the South African forces were ordered to France and from 4 May, for two months, the South African Infantry Brigade was initiated into the methods of trench warfare, something they had not experienced thus far in their action in the war, when they had been fighting the Germans and their Allies in South West Africa, East Africa and the Middle East.
John Buchan, the historian of the South African Forces, commented on how the soldiers might have been struck by the similarities of the landscape of Northern France and that of parts of their native country.
The Somme, with its acres of swamp and broad lagoons, was not unlike some river of the Bushveld…As they topped the hill behind Méaulte and faced the long lift of land towards Bapaume, they had the kind of spectacle which is common enough beyond the Vaal. In the hollows around the watercourses was the light green of crops; then a great stretch of unfenced country patched with woods, which were curiously clean-cut, like the coppices of a park round a country house. It was such a reach as a man may see from Haenertsberg, looking north towards the woodbush. The weather too was the soft, shimmering mist of the Berg. Our bombardment had only just begun and the countryside was not yet devastated. Fricourt was still a pleasant woodland village, Bernafay and Trônes were as yet little forests, and the spire of Mametz Church was more than a tooth of masonry. (p.47–48)
And on the eleventh day of July, the day in which George was fatally injured, the 4th Regiment was involved in fighting, near Trônes, with its headquarters and two companies and in Bernafay Woods, and two companies near Glatz Redoubt. They were exposed to a “barrage of fire” from the enemy and amongst the victims was Lieut. Colonel F A Jones, who was the commanding officer of the 4th Regiment. An inspirational leader, his death, as a result of a shell splinter, was a “grievous loss” to the Brigade. Buchan records that ‘Fatty Jones was beloved throughout the contingent for his gay and imperturbable temper, his ready humour and his complete coolness and gallantry.” He had served in the Anglo-Boer War with the Welsh Regiment.
This is the only action I can find for the 11th, but, as an astute reader will have noticed, Rosser’s record links him with various companies of the 2nd Regiment, so I can only speculate as to how he received the injuries which would prove fatal. I think he may well have incurred these injuries on the 10th. Buchan records that A and C companies of the 2nd Regiment had relieved the 6th King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who were holding a “portion of” Bernafay Wood on the 8th July, with D company joining them on the 9th. Buchan notes that “during the 10th” these companies of the 2nd South Africans were relieved by two companies of the 4th. He adds, “The 2nd, during its short time in the line, was most severely shelled and incurred some two hundred casualties.”
As a wounded soldier, George would have been taken to a Casualty Clearing Station, and had his death seemed imminent, he would not have been moved back to England as the journey back to England, by hospital train, would have been deemed too slow, disturbing and risky for the critically ill. Once there, he may have been told the shocking news of the dreadful losses sustained by his brigade, after being sent to Delville Wood, ordered to hold it “at all costs”.
It would have taken some days for George to reach the Fulham Military Hospital, but one hopes that his family had the comfort of being with him before his death. They were perhaps fortunate that he was indeed ‘hospitalised’ back to England, as they could arrange for him to be buried in Richmond Cemetery, a short walk from their home in Manor Grove. He is the first man serving with the South African forces to have been buried in that cemetery. The second was Philip Pitman, who was fatally injured at Delville Wood, and who was buried in the Cemetery on 1 August 1916, but in Section Z which later to be the zone to include all the South African graves. Philip was reburied in another grave in Z section in 1920. George was not reburied with his comrades in the South African section, perhaps because within two months of his burial in 1916, his nephew was buried in the same grave and in 1920, one of his parents was buried nearby.
If George was given a military funeral in Richmond, it may have been conducted in the chapel in the cemetery. If his funeral was conducted in a Richmond Church, then it is likely to have been held in St John’s Church, where his parents were married, and where he, and all his siblings, were baptised.
It was only yesterday that I discovered, from the Burials’ database, that two family members were subsequently buried in George’s grave. The first, buried only two months’ later, was George’s nephew, Frederick George Steel, the ten year old son of his elder sister, Louisa Annie. George’s sister, Annie Elizabeth Lucretia Bedward, was buried with her brother and nephew in 1933. George’s parents were later to be buried in the same section of Richmond Cemetery as their son (in plot W.5377). His father, George, died in 1920. and his mother, Louisa, in 1955, in Yorkshire, but was brought back to Richmond for burial in the same plot, near to the grave of their son, daughter and grandson. The only relative I can place in Yorkshire is their son, Percy.
Buchan, J., The History of the South African Forces in France, London, 1920., p.55
South African War Graves Project, Service Details for G.H. Rosser, Photo 4, http://www.southafricawargraves.org/search/details.php?id=21899, accessed 8/11/2015.
Personal note about Bernafay Wood
Re-reading what Buchan wrote about the South African role at Bernafay Wood, reminded me that my great great-uncle, John Henry Lewin, who lost an arm and an eye at Arras, was to name a Northamptonshire house ‘Bernafay’. Was he perhaps reminded of the pleasant wood, rather than of the losses incurred by his comrades there? His vivid descriptions of life ‘behind the lines’, and a couple of short stories based on his war experience, were published in The Springbok Blue during 1917, while he was a patient at the South African Military Hospital in Richmond. Later that very same year, he was married at the Register Office in Richmond, and went on to stand for Parliament on behalf of the Labour Party, to become known as a fiery Unitarian preacher in the North of England, and, following the death of his wife in 1940, went to the Middle East, where he was to spend four years supporting Allied soldiers at Hibbert Houses in Syria and Egypt, and subsequently at the Y.M.C.A. He returned to the UK in 1946. After his retirement, Jack lived for many years in Onslow Road, Richmond.
[Mottram, R.H.,(comp.) Hibbert Houses: a record, https://www.unitarian.org.uk/sites/default/files/1947_Hibbert_Houses.pdf, accessed 11/11/2015.]