On 2nd December 1915 my great great uncle, Charles Sylvanus William Guilford, married his sweetheart Rebecca Fawcett at Woolwich Parish Church. The Great War had been raging for almost sixteen months, and whilst Charles was working as a chef at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, he was soon to leave for the front, serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade.
The couple must have been aware of his impending departure and, on what was meant to have been the happiest day of their lives, must have been filled with mixed emotions. No doubt the newlyweds exchanged many letters writing of their hopes for their future lives together, including having children. All of this was of course shattered when, at the end of January 1918, the telegraph boy handed Rebecca an envelope containing a letter from the War Office saying that her beloved husband was dead.
Charles had died of his wounds in a hospital behind the lines on 21st January 1918, whilst his regiment were in training. So where had he sustained his injuries? There are several incidents noted in his unit’s war diary in the days leading up to his death, but as he would have been listed as O.R. (other rank) we will never know for certain:-
Wieltje-St Jean Area
13.1.18 – H.Q. A & B Companies moved from Junction Camp to join remainder of Battalion at California Camp. Working Parties. 1 O.R. Wounded
14.1.18 – Working parties. Casualties 2 O.Rs killed 4 wounded
15.1.18 – The Battalion relieved 2nd Bn The Devon Reg at Bellevue. Casualties Lt-Col J.B.B. Cole M.C. wounded by shell fire. Relief carried out in heavy snow storm. Captain F.D.R. Milne took over command.
16.1.18 – Battalion relieved the 1st Royal Irish Rifles in the line (left sub-sector). Condition of posts were extremely bad . Enemy activity slight. Casualties caused by our own artillery. 2/Lt W.M. Gardiner killed. 2 O.Rs killed 6 O.Rs wounded 7 O.Rs missing
17.1.18 – Battalion holding the line – working on improvement of posts at night – conditions continued very bad . Enemy Artillery inactive. Slight shelling of Battalion H.Q. (pill box 83) Casualties 1 O.R. wounded
While Charles was lying in a hospital bed dying, his battalion were relieved and transported to billets for resting, cleaning up, refitting and then training. Whether Rebecca knew of the exact circumstances of his death is unknown, but it does seem possible that he was injured through ‘friendly fire’, which makes his death even more poignant.
It seems likely that Rebecca also worked at the Royal Arsenal manufacturing artillery which was to make other women widows just like her. Her husband may have died, but the war was not over and she had to carry on. Armistice must have felt bitter-sweet, what was she to do now?
Her brother, Richard, had emigrated to Australia some years previously and must have invited her over as a chance to get away from England. On 21st August 1920, 30 year old Rebecca Guilford boarded the ‘Ormonde’ of the Orient Steamship Company bound for Sydney, Australia. In the column of the passenger list asking for the ‘country of intended future permanent residence’, Rebecca answered ‘Australia’. So it seems that she had every intention to make it her new home, leaving behind England with all its shattered hopes and dreams.
The ‘Debt of Honour’ register on the CWGC’s website, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, records shows her living at her brother’s address at Kentville, Park Avenue, Westmead, New South Wales, Australia. However, on 13th June 1924, Rebecca boarded the Orient Steamship Company’s ship ‘Omar’ in Sydney, bound for London. She gave her address in England as Kirkley Street, Welling, Kent. She stayed in England for the rest of the summer and the autumn, returning to Australia on board the company’s ship ‘Orama’ on 15th November.
Rebecca made her next visit to England on 5th June 1933, sailing from Sydney to Southampton on board the Aberdeen and Commonwealth Line’s ‘Moreton Bay’. She again gave an address in Welling, Kent – this time as 117 Lewes Terrace. Even though she described herself as a tourist, she stated that England would be her permanent place of residence.
She was to stay in England until October 1946, no doubt a lot longer than planned because of the Second World War. She was listed and crossed out on passenger lists on both 2nd July 1940 from London to Australia, and 24th Sepember 1940 from Liverpool to New Zealand. Others too were listed and then crossed out – I expect they had second thoughts after booking their passage, fearful of German uboat attacks.
The passenger list of 24th September gave her address as ‘Sylvanus’, Douglas Road, Herne Bay, Kent. I thought that she was perhaps staying with relatives whilst in England, but the fact that she used Charles’ second name of ‘Sylvanus’ to name this property, suggests that this was actually hers. It’s heart-warming to know that she thought so much of my great great uncle that she named her home after him.
Yet she was to stay in Australia for four years, finally returning for the very last time, embarking from Sydney, on 27th November 1950, when she was 60 years old. She returned to Herne Bay – well placed to visit Charles’ sisters who lived in the neighbouring towns of Margate and Ramgate at the time. Rebecca never remarried like many women of her generation in the same circumstances. She died of thrombosis at the local hospital in Herne Bay on New Year’s Day 1961, finally reunited with the husband who had been denied to her for so long.
The members of the Great War Forum have very kindly helped me research Charles’ military service. One particular member took a photograph of his grave at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery near Poperinge in Belgium. The inscription reads:-
21ST JANUARY 1918 AGE 29
At the very bottom of the headstone, partially obscured by a crop of perennial geraniums, is an inscription arranged by his wife Rebecca:-
IN LIFE I LOVED YOU DEARLY
IN DEATH I’LL DO THE SAME
FROM YOUR LOVING WIFE
It would seem that she kept that promise…
© Velma Dinkley 2010