“Dear Mother … I am glad to say I am fairing well, but I can’t see very well with my right eye at present … I have lost all my kit + I want you to bring me a razor about 3/6 from Gage’s also a lather brush + a handkerchief + a 6d packet of State Express cigarettes.
Best love, Charlie” [October 1915, from St George’s Hospital in London]
Ten days later, Charlie was dead. He was Private Charlie Sneezum of Witham, aged 22, and he had been wounded on the battlefield at Loos in northern France. His parents were Arthur and Alice of Park Cottage in Kings Chase; Arthur was the Park keeper.
Because he died in London, Charlie was buried in his home town of Witham. Usually when soldiers were killed, they were buried in foreign places with little or no ceremony. So it was a particularly moving occasion for Witham people to have such a funeral in their midst. There were only about three thousand residents of all ages, so many would have known Charlie and his family.
The Essex County Chronicle reported afterwards that: “Military Honours were accorded the deceased. The cortege was headed by the Town Band playing the ‘Dead March’, followed by a section of Royal Engineers, with reversed arms, who formed the firing party, and a number of Boy Scouts, the rear being brought up by a company of Essex reserves. The coffin was covered with the Union Jack … At the conclusion of the service the ‘Last Post’ was sounded by buglers of the Royal Engineers.”
Meanwhile, Charlie’s older brother George, also in the army, had also been injured, and was in hospital in Belfast. He wrote home to his mother about Charlie’s funeral: “You cannot tell how pleased I was to receive your letter just now, as I did so want to know how the funeral went off. I do hope you will bear up. I did so wish that I could have been there to see the last of my dear Brother, but to think that he is at home is a happy thought … Was pleased to hear that aunt Ellen, Florrie, Daisy and the others came over. I hardly know how I feel when I write about poor Charlie, the last I saw of him was in the trenches on the Saturday night or early Sunday morning I had to pass by him, and I spoke to him, little did I think that it would be the last time that I should speak to him in person.”
George’s own wounds were nearly healed, and he was sent back to the front soon afterwards. I feel that he must have been a very friendly, talkative and affectionate young man. He wrote long letters to his mother, rarely mentioning the unimaginable horrors of the War – he probably was not allowed to. He did say in February 1916, that “where we are at present is a heap of ruins and they shell it every day. I am writing this now and the guns are making such a noise, but we get used to it”. And when he had written to Charlie in hospital, he listed soldiers who had been killed and injured whom they both knew.
But more typical of George was this in June 1915, “I like the cape very much it was just what I wanted. Well dear mother I think I must be one of the most unlucky fellows on the face of the earth as I lost my purse and all my money yesterday… So will you send me 10 shillings as soon as you can, you know those purses that Grandfather used to have, will you try and get one of those. I know I am a bother but still better days in store when this terrible war is over … with fondest love to you all … P.S. The purse will do during the week. Ask Father what he thinks of it”.
At Easter 1916 he wrote “Will you get a wreath and put it on poor Charlie’s grave for me, you cannot tell how much I think and miss him, but we know that he is at rest. I should like a parcel with some cocoa or tea, sugar + milk in, also jam tarts, give my love to all at home, I will close now so with best and fondest love to you and all”.
Then he wrote on 8 May 1916, about Oxo cubes, tea, lice, and his brothers Jim and Percy. Exactly ten days later, he was shot dead near Ypres, and another of those dreaded form letters bearing sad news was received at Park Cottage. He was 24.
Mrs Sneezum also received a letter from Second Lieutenant Burdett, who had been standing next to George. He wrote that “as far as it is possible to know your son suffered no pain. The bullet hit him in the head, he never recovered consciousness and passed away in about 10 minutes. I was with him all the time and had the body brought down and buried at Essex Farm.” Later his mother asked for a photograph of the grave, but was told it could not safely be obtained at that time.
A long and sad letter came from Lily, George’s fiancee, saying that “All our letters were of the future, even his last letter, for I never once thought of him getting killed, I don’t know why I did not”.
Miss Charlotte Pattisson wrote too, saying that “Of all that have gone from Witham, I hoped more than all that George would be spared to you. You are indeed being given much to bear, and I feel that nothing that can be said can really help you just yet.” Miss Pattisson was a kindly and much-loved lady from Pelican Place in Collingwood Road.
This article was going to be about Witham’s soldiers in the First World War. It seems to have almost turned into an article about the Sneezums. I hope that any residents of Sneezum Walk who read this, will feel some new connection with the family.
We only know so much about the Sneezums because of our good fortune that the family were careful to preserve letters and photos. And in particular that Roy Gage, nephew of Charlie and George, has done the same.
About seventy Witham men were killed during the War. We know less about them but of course each death would have occasioned the same dreadful grief. The numbers of the dead increased as time went on. Two families had three sons killed. There were the Rounds of Avenue House, whose father Francis was a retired Colonial Civil Servant. And the Chaplins of Victoria Cottages. Their mother Caroline scrubbed the Red Cross Hospital next to the Bridge Home for nine hours a week.
So far we have been thinking of families losing their sons, but as recruitment increased, there were also families losing their fathers. Robert Brown of Church Street, aged 37, was killed on the same day as George Sneezum in 1916. The Sneezum brothers had mentioned him in their letters. He had worked on the railway at Witham.
In 1977 I was talking to my friend Mrs Dolly Ireland. She had just met one of Robert’s daughters, then grown up. Mrs Ireland had said to her “Oh, I always remember you Armistice Day”. She went on to tell me “their father was killed in the War, with five little children”.
A few years later, she spoke of him again “When that Mr Brown, I often think of him, with five little children, and he was killed, they were killed almost in the week, weren’t they? ‘Cos it was trench warfare, we weren’t prepared. And the Vicar’s son, Canon Ingles’ son was killed. That’s when all the people were taken off from Witham.”