Behind Southwell MInster in the Nottinghamshire town of Southwell, there’s an ivy covered wall, and on that wall there’s a mouldering wooden cross. The metal plate on it says:
‘In memory of Major J P Becher DSO (1/8th Sherwood Foresters) who died on 1.1.16 from wounds received in the attack on the Hohenzollern redoubt 16.10.15. Sans Peur. Sans Reproche.’
It is an original wooden grave marker as used on military graves just after the Great War, There were many styles of cross as they were often put up by comrades of the dead men and they made them out of whatever was available. When they were replaced by the neat white markers that we now find so familiar, the families were given the chance of having the wooden ones sent home. Many of the ones that were returned were put in local churches, but Major Becher’s family put his up outside. So far it has lasted 100 years, but every time I go to look at it, I worry that it will have disintegrated.
This isn’t the place to go into the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but the logistical effort of returning the markers, at a time when they were still recovering bodies by the thousand, must have been tremendous. There were, according to this article, 10,000 crosses sent back to families so they could have something tangible to link families to the graves of their loved ones.
Though they didn’t realise it, they were the lucky ones. It haunted my grandmother all her life that her father had no known grave. He is listed on the Thiepval Memorial, but it isn’t the same as having a grave, even if the family never visited it.
That’s the Thiepval memorial. There are over 72,000 names on it – 72,000 people who have no known grave.
To be honest, I was amazed by the number of markers that were returned. It’s a small number compared to the total of the losses but it was still a huge logistical effort, particularly for a government that is usually portrayed as callous and unfeeling.
This is John Pickard Becher DSO.
There’s no reason why you should have heard of him. He was a country solicitor from Southwell. I assume he pursued the life of an English provincial gentleman in the years before 1914. His name is mentioned numerous times in the period before the war, though always in connection with legal matters, and with no personal stories attached. The only non-legal matter I can find is his entry into the volunteers in 1906 when, on November 1st 1906 ” John Pickard Becher, Gentleman,” was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 4th (Nottinghamshire) Volunteer Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire) regiment. The Volunteers were the ancestors of the Territorial Army, which was formed in 1908. Becher’s battalion became the 8th battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, based in Newark
Nothing is heard of him from 1912 to 1915. He was obviously embodied with the battalion in 1914 and went overseas with them in February 1915. The battalion was quickly in action and in April 1915 he performed the first of several acts of gallantry that would lead to the award of the Distinguished Service Order, one step down from the Victoria Cross.
This was his citation, published in the London Gazette.
‘Conspicuous gallantry and good service on several occasions. On April 4th 1915 at Kemmel when part of his trench was blown in under heavy fire he personally assisted in repairing the parapet and digging out buried men. On June 15th at Kemmel when part of his trench was blown in by mines, shells and trench mortars, he displayed great gallantry and coolness in reorganising the defences. On July 30th and subsequent days at Ypres he displayed great coolness, cheerfulness and resource under trying circumstances when in temporary command of his battalion.’
Of course, it didn’t last long. On 15th October 1915, the British attacked the Hohenzollern Redoubt as a follow up to the Battle of Loos. Pickard was seriously wounded and lay out in No Man’s Land for 48 hours. He died nearly three months later of blood poisoning. These were the days before antibiotics.
Both his brothers in law, Everard, and Basil were also killed in the attack. Neither of them has a known grave and they are both commemorated on the Loos Memorial.
They are quite well commemorated around Nottinghamshire as we are lucky in having a number of volunteers who have helped build an on-line Roll of Honour.
Some of you will have noticed the poppy on Becher’s cross. That’s in memory of Squadron Leader John Henry Becher RAF, who was killed in a plane crash in 1940. He was the son of J P Becher and his wife Gertrude who, with a husband, son and two brothers, really had more tragedy in her life than anyone should be expected to bear.
I noted, when researching this post, that he is commemorated in the Minster – I’ve visited several times but never knew about this.