The mother who lost five sons: On Armistice Day, the heartbreaking story of the biggest loss by a British family in the Great War
By ANNABEL VENNING
11 November 2011
Barnard Beechey was the first of the brothers to be killed after the battle of Loos in Septmber 1915. Bar's death was followed by the loss of Frank, right, after a shrapnel wound at the Somme in November 1916
The moment Amy Beechey saw the envelope with a French postmark she feared the worst. Sent from a military hospital in Rouen, dated December 29, 1917, it brought the news she had been dreading.Her son, 36-year-old Rifleman Leonard Beechey, wounded and gassed at the battle of Cambrai a month earlier, had died of his wounds. Tetanus set in and the doctors could do nothing to save him.He would, the chaplain told his mother, be buried in Rouen, far from the Lincolnshire countryside where he and his seven brothers had grown up, together with five sisters (a sixth sister had died aged five).
Up and down Britain mothers were receiving similar letters and telegrams containing news that shattered their lives, destroying the hopes and dreams they had harboured for the boys they had loved and nursed through childhood. But few mothers had to bear such a loss as often as Mrs Beechey. For this was not the first devastating letter she had received. She had already lost four sons to the war.
Leonard was the fifth. The fifth son who had written reassuring letters to his mother from the front and to whom she had sent parcels of pork pies, warm socks and letters full of hope and love. The fifth son for whose deliverance she had prayed, each time clinging to the hope that the latest, terrible loss would be her last. Once again her life had been cruelly shattered by the arrival of a brown envelope at 14 Avondale Street, her terrace house in Lincoln. Of her eight sons, she had three left: one had been crippled by the war, another was serving in the Balkans, while her eighth and youngest was already training to be an officer.
Harold, left, had dreamed of having a farm but was the third to die following a shell blast at Arras in April 1917. Char, right, was fourth after being hit in the chest by a bullet while fighting the Germans in Tanzania in October the same year
In the week we commemorate all those who have lost their lives in war, the story of the Beechey family has a particular resonance. Only one other British family is known to have lost five sons in World War I, but little is known of them, beyond a couple of letters. The Beecheys, however, were conscientious correspondents. All eight sons wrote frequently to their mother and sisters. The daughter of their youngest sister Edith (known as ‘Edie’), Josephine Warren, kept all the 300 or so letters. The bundle includes the brief, impersonal Army missives that began: ‘It is my painful duty to inform you . . .’
Author Michael Walsh wrote the brothers’ story using the letters and now Mrs Warren has donated the collection to the Lincolnshire county archive. The archivists have put several on the internet for the public to view, and hope to eventually make the entire collection available online. It will give people an insight, not only into the extraordinary loss of one family, but the vast human toll behind the terrible statistics of World War I — in which nine million were killed and many more injured.
While it is a story of sadness and suffering, it is also a remarkable testimony to love, loyalty and courage. Amy and her husband, the Rev William Thomas Beechey — nearly 20 years her senior — had brought up their 13 children in a spacious rectory in Friesthorpe, Lincolnshire. It was a happy home, but when William died in May 1912, aged 76, his family had to leave the rectory and move into the modest house in Lincoln. By 1914, only Mrs Beechey’s five daughters and youngest son, Samuel, remained at home.
Barnard, known as Bar, her first-born, had become a schoolteacher. A bright boy, he had failed to fulfil his early promise, probably as a result of alcoholism. When war with Germany was declared in August 1914, Bar was 37 and jobless. He immediately enlisted as a private. Char, a year younger, was a respected maths master. Kindly, reliable and his mother’s rock, he was in no hurry to join the young men swamping army recruiting offices in an outburst of patriotic fervour. Nor was Leonard, the third brother, a mild, studious railway clerk. The next brother down, Chris, had worked as a clerk alongside Len but tired of office life — and in 1910 emigrated to Western Australia. He was followed two years later by Harold, the sixth brother. Together they bought a homestead in the dusty outback. But their efforts were blighted by a drought that decimated their crops.
When war was declared, patriotism and the prospect of regular pay prompted both brothers to join the Australian Imperial Force, Harold as a private and Chris as a sergeant, though he was transferred to the medical corps after he injured his back. Back in England, the fifth brother Frank, fun-loving but chaotic (he had run up debts pursuing his twin loves of girls and motorbikes) joined the Lincolnshire Regiment. Eric, the sixth brother, a dental technician, joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was posted to Malta leaving his wife Mary and small son, Thomas, behind.
Leonard was the last of the brothers to die after being wounded at the battle of Cambrai on November 30, 1917
Amy Beechey now had five sons in khaki. The first to see action were Chris and Harold. In May 1915 they were sent into battle on the beaches of Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula. Their commanders had anticipated an easy victory, but the beaches turned out to be heavily defended. Turkish soldiers on the high cliffs above poured down devastating fire on the Australian, British and New Zealand soldiers. The beaches were soon strewn with bodies.
When Chris and Harold arrived, two weeks after the fighting had begun, Anzac (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) and British forces had pushed inland a little. Harold’s battalion was thrown into the worst of the fighting. Chris kept a close eye on his younger brother, writing home to reassure his mother: ‘Harold was safe and sound up to last night.’ His job as a stretcher-bearer was no less dangerous than that of an infantryman. Exposed to fire and unable to take cover as they tried to rescue the wounded, their casualty rate was high.
On May 30 he sent a pre-printed postcard home to tell his mother he had been wounded. Shot through the shoulder by a sniper, he had fallen into a ravine. His spine was damaged and his legs paralyzed. The strongest of the brothers, with matinee idol looks, his dreams of farming in the outback were now in ruins. But Chris was not one for self-pity. He was invalided back to Britain where he determined to regain the use of his legs. His mother and brother Char visited him in hospital.
Distraught: Amy Beechey received the news of each of her sons' deaths with sadness
He was soon joined by Harold, who had survived the hell of Gallipoli unscathed but had contracted dysentery, which had swept through the British and Anzac troops. They convalesced together in Harefield Hospital, Middlesex, with Chris slowly getting feeling back in his legs.
Mrs Beechey’s joy at having her sons from Australia back home, albeit in hospital, was short-lived.
Bar had been sent to Flanders and had been sending regular letters, interspersing requests for lice-repellent and extra socks with reassuring words: ‘I really am all right and don’t mind the life, only we all wish the thing was over.’ But ominously, in September 1915, Bar’s letters stopped. In October she received in the post a small brown envelope from the War Office. ‘Madam,’ stated the official form, ‘It is my painful duty to inform you that a report has this day been received from the War Office notifying the death of 13773 Sergeant BR Beechey, Lincolnshire Regiment, on September 25, 1915.’ He had been killed at the battle of Loos, a major offensive on the Western Front. The family spent a sad Christmas without Bar. And 1916 was to bring more tragedy. This was the year of the Somme, the battle that began on July 1 and would cost a million lives. 20,000 British soldiers died on the first day alone.
While Chris had been declared permanently unfit and returned to Australia, followed by his wife, Bertha, whom he had met in hospital and married a few weeks later, Harold had recovered and rejoined his regiment, now in France. They had missed the first terrible days of fighting but at the end of July they joined the front line at Pozieres, a village in northern France where the fighting was among the fiercest.
Tragedy: Explosions and smoke are seen in the distance at the Battle of Loos, where Barnard was killed in 1915
In one week at Pozieres, Australian deaths had almost equalled those for the entire nine months at Gallipoli. The dead lay in stinking, bloated heaps. Harold came through that first week unhurt but on August 6 he was hit. Mrs Beechey received a letter from him from a military hospital in Portsmouth.
Shrapnel had passed through his arm and lodged in his chest — just missing his heart and lungs. It was a good, clean ‘Blighty wound’, enough to get him away from the Somme, for now at least. But any relief that Mrs Beechey felt at Harold’s deliverance would have evaporated when she received a letter from Char, who had joined up earlier that year, to say that he was on his way to the Somme.
Frank, the fifth brother, was already there. As a signals officer with the 13th East Yorkshire Regiment, he had the dangerous job of going into exposed open ground, to fix telephone wires that had been blown apart. On November 14, Frank volunteered to go over the top to fix the wires. He had gone only a few yards when a shell-burst blew his legs to pulp. He lay in agony until a medical officer risked his life to go to him. As he tended Frank he discovered that they had been to the same boarding school. But there was little he could do for Frank. This time the news came not by post but telegram. A messenger drew up on a bicycle outside 14 Avondale Street and handed a brown envelope to Mrs Beechey. Inside was the news that 2nd Lt FCR Beechey was dangerously ill.
Distraught, Mrs Beechey summoned her sixth son Eric’s wife, Mary. She was there when another telegram arrived that afternoon. Together they read the fateful words:
‘Deeply regret to inform you that 2 Lt FCR Beechey . . . died of his wounds.’
Char, who had joined up earlier that year and who was in another part of the Somme battlefield, wrote to commiserate with his mother. ‘These last three years seem so awful to us after the 20 we spent in such peace and enjoyment at Friesthorpe, so let me now hope that we have had our share of the losses.’
Disastrous: Soldiers clamber over the trenches at the Battle of the Somme, one of the worst scenes of WW1 and the fighting that claimed the life of Frank in November 1916
His hopes were in vain. On April 10, 1917, Harold, who had returned to the Somme after his convalescence, having been denied leave to go and see his mother, was killed by a shell blast at Arras. It took three weeks for the news to reach Mrs Beechey: the letter had been addressed to the long-dead Bar. The Australian Red Cross reassured her that Harold had died quickly. She wrote back: ‘I am thankful he did not suffer long. This is the third of my eight sons (all in the Army) who has lost his life in France . . . poor boy.’
Len too was in France, having left behind a wife, Annie ,whom he had married in 1915, while Char was fighting the Germans in Tanzania.
Char may have been a reluctant soldier, but he was a brave one. On October 10 he left his machine gun post to get more ammunition, exposing himself to gun fire. A bullet hit him in the chest and he died within two hours. Mrs Beechey received the news on a standard Army form. ‘Poor mother,’ wrote her son Len to Edie, his youngest sister. ‘It does seem hard on her. I wish he could have come safely through. It seems more terrible each time.’ But Len, the gentle family man, was about to add to her sorrow. In December she received a letter written in a feeble, spidery hand. ‘My darling Mother, don’t feel like doing much yet, hope you got my postcards, with lots of love, Len.
He was already ill when he was wounded and gassed at the battle of Cambrai on November 30, 1917. At first he seemed to rally, but then tetanus set in and in the last few days of 1917, Mrs Beechey learned that Len had died.
Now only three of her eight sons were alive.
Eventually the newspapers picked up the story of Mrs Beechey’s fivefold bereavement. In April 1918 she was presented to King George V and Queen Mary. When the Queen commented on her great sacrifice, she responded: ‘It was no sacrifice, Ma’am. I did not give them willingly.’
Her troubles were not over. Eric was still with the medical corps in the Mediterranean and in October 1918, Sam, the baby of the family, followed his brothers to France. For three awful weeks Mrs Beechey waited and prayed. Then on November 11, 1918, an Armistice was declared. Sam was spared. But it seemed that fate had one more tragedy in store for the Beecheys. Eric arrived back in Britain in 1919 only to fall ill with Spanish flu, then pneumonia. For a while he hovered near death, but eventually he pulled through.
Soon after the war, Mrs Beechey moved out of the house in Avondale Street, where she had received so many brown envelopes bearing terrible tidings. In 1919 she visited Friesthorpe, where the family had been so happy before the war, to unveil a plaque in the church to her five boys. But it is the family letters, more than any memorial, that remain the most poignant tribute to the terrible price of war paid by one ordinary family.