Photo:Frank Everest

Frank Everest

Ian Everest

Photo:Harry Everest

Harry Everest

Ian Everest

Newhaven 1917

By Ian Everest

Throughout the war, the local newspapers included a daily summary list of the latest casualties. In some cases, a paragraph of text gave some additional information as follows:

" Mr Mrs Harry James Bannister of High Street, Newhaven, were officially informed yesterday that their eldest son, Rifleman Harry Patrick (familiarly known as Pat) was killed in action on the Western Front on 24 August. The deceased, who was 19 years of age, was educated at Lewes Grammar School and afterwards privately at Hailsham. He had served as an apprentice with Messrs Copestack, Crampton and Company, wholesale drapers, of Bow Churchyard, Cheapside for about 12 months when, unbeknown to his parents, he joined the City of London Regiment in March 1915, when he was 17 years old, afterwards coming home in khaki to break the news to his parents. He was home on leave in May before going to France in the first week of June. Across the Channel he was transferred to another battalion of the London Regiment and after joined the Rifle Brigade with whom he was serving when he met his death. The absence of letters from deceased who was a regular correspondent had caused his parents great anxiety; the official notification was a sad explanation. The deceased was well known in Newhaven and much sympathy is felt for the parents. His father is a partner in the firm of Messrs James Bannister and Sons, grocers and drapers of Newhaven. Mr Bannister's second son, Stanley, only left for Chichester to join up on Monday. He had recently attained his eighteenth birthday, and had voluntarily enlisted some time ago."

"Mr Mrs Tree of 50 Chapel Street, Newhaven have been notified by the War Office that their second son George Robert Tree has died of heat stroke in Mesopotamia where he was attached to the expeditionary force as a first class air mechanic (clerk) in the Royal Flying Corps. The deceased was well known in Newhaven and prior to joining HM Forces was for over 10 years employed as a clerk in the offices of Messrs Bedford and Welstead Solicitors in Newhaven and Lewes. The deceased was a keen sportsman and treasurer of both Newhaven Football and cricket Clubs which existed in Newhaven in peacetime."

I know little more about these two casualties or any of the other men who are listed in this article apart from Frank and Henry Everest, two brothers who died within 64 days of each other. In the absence of any other detail or accounts of men who are named on the Newhaven War Memorial and died during 1917, I hope you will allow me a little self-indulgence in sharing the story of these two men with you. Perhaps it will also encourage you to carry out your own research into one of the "names" on the memorial so that we can eventually know more about these men.

In 1981, whilst I was standing in front of the Town War Memorial I noticed that there were two men listed with the surname of Everest. After that chance look at the memorial, I decided to try and find out if there was a family connection as I knew nothing about them. An elderly uncle, who was aged 13 in 1917, confirmed that they were his uncles (and therefore my great-uncles) and he remembered them both. On asking him how they died, he said that Henry was on a ship which was "blown sky high" after hitting a mine and that Frank was killed by a sniper. That was the extent of his knowledge of them.

From that beginning I decided to try researching my family history and also see if I could find out anything more about them. I recall reading an article about the subject which said that once you start researching your family history, your life will never be the same again. From my own experience, this is certainly the case and out of it came an interest in local history and the Great War. Anyone who has been involved with this type of research will know that there are so many distractions and diversions along the way, with each snippet of information worthy of further investigation!

Apart from the names on the memorial, I also wanted to find out about where my family originated from and how they came to be in Newhaven at the time of the war. So, for the next eighteen months, any spare time was filled with visits to St Catherine's House in London, The Public Record Office (now the National Archives) County Record Offices in Lewes, Chichester and Maidstone, and local reference libraries. Finally, the story of how these two men became casualties of the Great War began to unfold.

In the 1780's my family were living in the East Grinstead area. Throughout most of the 1800's, census returns confirm that they were farm workers - or "Ag.Lab" (Agricultural labourer) as written by the enumerator on the return forms. Over the years the family moved south through Sussex stopping for a few years at places like Lindfield, Ardingly and Scaynes Hill. During the early 1890's my grandfather came down to Newhaven to work as a labourer on the West Quay harbour works. He was single at the time and probably lived in one of the workers' huts. Meanwhile, his parents John and Eliza, were living at Scaynes Hill where John worked as a carter on the Hooklands Estate. In 1897 the family moved to Piddinghoe where John worked at Court House Farm. They stayed there until 1901, when they moved down the road to Newhaven to work as a cowman at New Barn Farm, then part of Meeching Court Farm - later known as Court Farm.

Their son, Henry, worked on the coastal merchant ships and eventually became a fireman (stoker) on board. He lodged with his brother Jack and wife Mercy at 7 Hampden Gardens, South Heighton who, despite having 11 children, found space to give him a bed when he was on leave. During his time there he became a regular member of the South Heighton Cricket Team and played quoits for the Hampden Arms during their cup winning years.

When war broke out, the Government requisitioned hundreds of merchant ships, which became known as the "transports", and they spent the next four years conveying government supplies over to the French channel ports. In 1982, I was fortunate enough to be able to talk to a Newhaven man who served on the transports. He said he remembered sailing to such places as St Valery-sur-Somme, Dunkirk, Boulogne, Calais, Cherbourg, Le Havre, Treport and Dieppe. After the ships were loaded, they waited off the breakwater until dusk, when a tugboat came alongside each ship and gave the captain his instructions for where he was to sail to. As with all operations at the port, the whole matter involved a high level of secrecy. Those ships which were to sail up-channel, sailed closely to the coast up to Dungeness where they turned in the direction of France. Each convoy had an escort of Royal Nav y ships . The crews of the transports kept to simple working hours - 4 hours on, 4 hours off - for the duration of the outward and return journeys. During 1917, Henry (more commonly known as Harry), was serving on The Duchess, one of the seven ships owned by J.Hay and Sons of Glasgow using the port of Newhaven during the war. The others in the J.Hay fleet were The Duke, the Monarch, The Emperor, The Queen, The Sultan and The Viscount. Records show that prior to the war, the Duchess plied her trade between a multitude of different ports - over a period of two months she visited Galway, Whitehaven, Limerick, Glasgow, Dieppe, Alderney, London, Sunderland, Yarmouth, Goole, Plymouth, Cork, Ayr, Dublin, Troon, Cardiff and Honfleur.

At   09.08pm on 30th June 1917, the Duchess slipped out of Newhaven Harbour and assembled off the breakwater with 27 other ships. These comprised of Transports, Torpedo Boats, Mine-Sweepers and other escorts vessels. Later in the evening they set off along the coast towards Dungeness. I have not been able to find any records of her cargo; it could have been anything from munitions, oats and hay for the horses, coal, food, ordnance stores, canteen stores or uniforms.

Until I was able to check the appropriate records, the only information I had was the anecdotal memories from my family. Now was time to find out if this was correct. The Duchess didn't hit a mine, but it was very likely that it was "blown sky high". One of the escort ships, Torpedo Boat 3, included the following information in the ship's log:  "1 July. 12.15am: Transport and HMS Cossackcollide. Depth Charges from Cossack blew up the Transport which sank 12.16am. Closed Transport searched for survivors. Picked up 4 survivors of Transport SS Duchess 02.00am. Proceeded to thee Assistance of Cossack - took in tow. Arrived Newhaven and discharged survivors"

Another escort ship HMS Leven, had a similar entry in her log - "Went toassistance of HMS Cossack in collision. Arrived on scene and found Cossack safely afloat, her stern being badly damaged"

Henry's work as a Fireman would have seen him down in the engine room at the time of the collision. Clearly not the safest place to be, as the ship sank within a minute of the collision and explosion. Wreck charts show that the Duchess is about seven miles off Eastbourne and just to the east of the Royal Sovereign Light Tower -  (Location: 50°41'57''N; 00°29'02"E). Diving reports say that although the ship is fairly broken up, it is still possible to discern what various features are e.g. the boiler which Henry fuelled with coal is still in place. Apart from his name being on the Town War Memorial, it is also on the memorial at St. Michael's Church, Tarring Neville Church, The Newhaven Transport Memorial and the Mercantile Marine Memorial at Tower Hill, London.

Only a few weeks later, John and Eliza were to receive a telegram telling them their youngest son had been killed in action. The only information I had been given, was that he was killed by a sniper. However, my research into the family led me to a distant relative in Bromley. While visiting her, she surprised me by giving me Frank's war medals and "Dead Man's Penny" - the commemorative brass medal that was presented to the next of kin. The medals gave me details of his service number, rank and regiment; he was serving in the 1st Battalion, Royal Marine Light Infantry, the Royal Naval Division. This rather strange Division was the brainchild of Winston Churchill who was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time. It comprised of Royal Navy and Marine Volunteer reserves that could not be found jobs on any ships of war.

In the early days of the war, the men in the Division caused extreme annoyance to the men in the regular army Divisions by being allowed to retain their sea-going slang, grow beards and retaining their individuality.

Frank did not sign up at the start of the war. He was working alongside his father as a carter on the farm. Whether his employer applied for exemption status, I do not know, but I can be sure that he signed the attestation papers at Brighton on 10th November 1915 and entered the war as a Driver in the Divisional Train, Royal Naval Division. This was the naval equivalent of the Army Service Corps. His service records show that he trained at Blandford Camp before departing to the Base Camp at Etaples near Boulogne. After spending nine months in the comparative safety in the supply lines, Frank was transferred into the infantry and joined the Battalion. During September 1917 he was in the front line at Gavrelle, a small village just to the east of Arras. The Battle of Arras had taken place between 9th April - 16th May 1917, and Frank's battalion were holding trenches in open fields that a few months earlier had been in German control. Following a visit to the Public Records Office at Kew (now the National Archive), I was able to look at the Battalion's War Diary and trench maps showing its position on the day he was killed.

The diary entry for this day, 3 September 1917 read, "Holding Gavrelle Sector. 2Ordinary Ratings Killed - I wounded. Very Quiet"

This page was added by Jackie Blackwell on 24/11/2007.

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