Introduction

The Smith family from Barnard Castle lost 5 out of 6 sons in the trenches of the First World War. Torn apart by grief the father also died in 1918. The only surviving son was pulled out of the trenches by Buckingham Palace and the War Office. He would live to be 72 years old and have 5 children.

Amy Beechey from Lincoln lost 5 of her 8 sons in the war. When she was thanked by Queen Mary during a visit to Buckingham Palace, Amy replied: “It was no sacrifice at all, madam. I have never wanted them to go.”

Annie Souls from Great Rissington in the Cotswolds also lost 5 of her 6 sons in the war. Her son Frederick is still missing, and until her death Annie burnt a candle by the window, hoping her son would at last find his way home.

Of course this is not an all English story!

Canadian Charlotte Wood from Winnipeg lost 5 sons and saw 2 more return to Canada heavily wounded.

The Australian brothers Theo, George and William Seabrook from Sydney went into action for the first time in the Battle of the Menin Road on 20th September 1917. It was their only action in the Great War, as all three got killed. William was buried at Lyssenthoek Cemetery near Poperinge, the other two brothers are listed on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres.

The Christophers family from New Zealand lost 4 of the 5 sons in the war. Only Quentin, who was too young to volunteer, survived his parents Anthony and Juliet. Victor died aged 29 at Gallipoli (1915). Herbert, aged 27, got killed in the Battle of the Somme (1916). Julian, aged 33, died in the aftermath of the Battle of Passchendaele (1917) and the eldest brother Reginald was killed at the age of 36 in the Allied End Offensives of October 1918.

Thomas and Agnes Collins from Ireland waved goodbye to 6 sons during the war. After the campaigns in the Somme and Flanders, only 1 son would return home. 4 sons got killed, 1 went missing.

The Tocher family from Aberdeen, Scotland, also lost five sons in the Great War. All 5 brothers served with the Gordon Highlanders, but went off to war one by one. George was killed along the Menin Road near Ypres in 1915, while three of his brothers were killed in the 1916 offensive at the Somme. Peter was taken prisoner at the Battle of Le Cateau (1914) and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp in Germany. He returned home to Scotland, but died in 1923.

French couple Jules Ruellan and Marguerite du Riveau had 18 children in total. No less than 10 sons were recruited in the French army and served in the frontline trenches. Only 4 of them would return, and 1 of those 4 would die in 1930 from being gassed during the war.

US brothers Governor and Perander Rogers were recruited – one by draft, the other volunteered – in July 1917 and left home in September 1917. After training at Camp David they sailed to France and were involved in the 2nd Battle of the Marne (near Chateau-Thierry). Both brothers were killed on 12th August 1918 when a shell burst close to them. Governor was trying to get his brother to safety as Per was wounded by sniper fire. They were buried side by side in Fimes, but their bodies were reburied at Arlington Cemetery after the war.

Also the story of the youngest German casualty on the Western front is a tale of brotherly love: Walther and Paul Mak volunteered for army service in August 1914. Paul, born on 19th July 1900, died of wounds on 6th June 1915. His brother Walter was with him when he died.

In the Gallipoli campaign 196 pairs of brothers within the Commonwealth troops got killed. Only 13 of them have a known grave. The three Legge brothers – Bertram, George and Cyril – joined the British forces together and fought side by side at Suvla Bay. Both Bertram and Cyril were killed when going over the top on August 21, 1915. George remained in the army and won a military medal for gallantry on the battlefield. He was killed in the Battle of the Selle in October 1918.

The troops of the 1st battalion Newfoundland Regiment lost 255 dead, 386 wounded and 91 missing in the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel on 1st July 1916. Among the dead were 14 pairs of brothers.

All these tragic stories tell of brothers who got actually killed together. Yet, thousands of men lost one or more brothers during the war while fighting in other units. Until now no major research has been conducted about these family tragedies that influenced so many lives, even today.

England’s last veteran Harry Patch, who died at the age of 111, described it as follows: “Too many died, don’t go to war!”

Finding the zonnebeke five

 

This story is that typical “message in a bottle” story. Although it is all but typical. Never before did a message contain that great a story.


During road works to lay a new gas pipe line in the hamlet of Westhoek in 2006, Tom Heyman, operating the machine, suddenly stopped digging and called Johan Vandewalle, an amateur archaeologist. Tom was convinced that he had found human remains just beside the road, and immediately linked them to the battlefield that Westhoek once was. Johan rushed over and could only confirm that these remains had to be those of a World War I soldier. He contacted the police and the Mayor of Zonnebeke, and got green light from Dieter Demey and Archeo 7 to gather a team and start excavating as soon as possible.

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It would be an amazing experience for all of them. After clearing the first grave, they noticed another grave just next to the first one. And then another, and another, and another. In total 5 Australian soldiers were exhumed. The last Australian body, however, was to make an everlasting impression on all who were involved. This fifth body was that of Australian private John Hunter. In all, three of the five soldiers would be identified by DNA research.

The body of John Hunter was not thrown in the grave like the other four bodies. Clearly this man had not been buried like the others, someone had taken great care in laying John Hunter to rest. Research led to the family in Australia, who confirmed that the story in the family was that John – or Jack as he was known in the family – had been buried by his younger brother Jim.

When Johan uncovered John’s head, which was wrapped in his ground sheet, it was as if lightning struck. Johan looked straight in John eyes and with the sunlight in the right angle, Johan could clearly see the colour of John’s eyes. It was an instant moment, but it lasted long enough to be photographed. At the time only Johan experienced this awesome moment, but the photographs will certainly move generations to come.