The Sole Society, a Family History Society researching Sole, Saul, Sewell, Solley and similar names

“At the Going Down of the Sun”

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

By Brian Sewell

This article was originally published in the August 2002 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.

We all spend considerable time obtaining information from a wide variety of sources about our ancestors. By definition, most of the information relates to people who have been dead, probably for a considerable time, whether we are routinely searching for births, baptisms, burials, or one of the many other events which contribute to building up a picture of the past.

Recently, extracting Sewells from the Commonwealth Graves commission site, I felt differently as I came across the 300+ Sewell [& variants] listed, which included; Sawell [1], Saywells [23], Shewell [5], Sowell [2] & Sowells [2]. I include these names in the subsequent references to Sewells. All these people had been killed in action, or in the case of the civilians listed, were usually air raid casualties. It led me to think about the scale of all this carnage, however many Smiths & Jones must be listed?

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission looks after 618 graves sites in Belgium alone, with 204,770 men commemorated by name & there are a further 46,210 unidentified victims.

In the First World War, Ypres, Ieper as it is known today, or “Wipers” as British Tommies called it, was the scene of three of the bloodiest battles of the 1914-18 war. In the first battle in 1914, more than 80% of the British Regular Army lost their lives, defending the last few square miles of Belgian soil. The second major battle in April 1917 was notable for the first use of gas by the Germans. The effect was devastating. As the gas rolled towards the Allied lines, the French artillery suddenly fell silent. French Moroccan & Algerian units were killed or incapacitated on a massive scale. Only stubborn resistance, involving a fighting withdrawal by the Second British Army, including a Canadian division, prevented the Allied positions from being completely overrun. The British & Canadian troops gradually learnt to protect themselves to some extent with wet cloths. Nevertheless, Allied casualties were 60,000 against 35,000 Germans.

The third battle was in November that year, when the most costly British advance of the war resulted in a gain of less than five miles of territory at the cost of 250,000 Allied deaths. It is not surprising that many of the Sewell casualties are listed in this area in 1914 & 1917. 37 Sewells are listed at 19 Belgian Memorials/Graveyards, 16 of them are in the West Vlaandderen area, which includes Ieper, 13 Sewells being listed at the Tyne Cot Memorial at Zonnebeke.

I know it is strictly cheating but I would like to add one more name mentioned on the Tyne Cot Memorial. It is my grandfather’s cousin, Corporal Oscar Sewell Ladbrook, 16th Bn, Welsh Regiment, who died on Monday, 27th August 1917, aged 30. In 1914, he had inherited his grandfather’s, Joseph Sewell, hay-dealing business but presumably never really had a chance to run it.

Horrifying as these statistics are, Belgium isn’t the worst country for Sewell casualties. That doubtful honour falls to France. Twelve major areas are involved, of which the Pas de Calais alone, has 34 Memorials/Graveyards with one or more Sewell listed, Arras accounting for 14 Sewells alone. But the dubious distinction of having the most Sewells goes, perhaps not surprisingly to the Somme, with at least 21 Memorials/Graveyards having Sewells, with 14 listed on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ieper & 30 at the Thiepval Memorial.

Of course, many other countries have War Memorials/Graveyards listing Sewells. In other parts of Europe, Sewells are listed in; Germany [10], Italy [7], Greece [2], & one each in Holland & the Czech Republic. As you would expect, many were buried in the United Kingdom. Sixty, including the eight civilian causalities, were buried in church or municipal graveyards, a further three are commemorated at the Runnymede Memorial, whilst 16 are commemorated at the various Royal Navy Memorials, comprising; six at Chatham, five at Portsmouth, four at Plymouth & one at Liverpool. It is perhaps a sign of the times that the authorities now have to restrict the access times at Chatham because of repeated large scale vandalism of the Memorial.

Going further abroad, Egypt is prominent with 12 Sewells listed from WW II & Turkey with 11 Sewells from WW I. As you would expect, the original Commonwealth countries have Sewells on their Memorials/Graveyards but also Malaysia [3] & Singapore [1], being the WW II casualties in Malaya. Other Far Eastern countries covered are; Burma [2] & Papua New Guinea [2]. Many countries have just one name listed, including; Algeria, China, Indonesia, Iraq, Japan, Kenya, Tanzania, Thailand & Tunisia.

A striking feature is the 34% of entries without any relatives mentioned. Arthur Clifford Sewell, Boy 1st Class, Royal Navy, died 21st February 1915, no age given, is just such a case. His name appears on the Plymouth Naval Memorial but nothing else appears to be known about him. The absence of information about their relatives is a serious limitation for researchers.

This is particularly the case of those of the 20 air force & 17 naval personnel where no relatives are listed. Even in the First World War, it should not be assumed that a soldier in one of the county regiments comes from that county, only 30 Sewells were in their own county regiment.

Their Name Liveth for EvermoreOf course, the overwhelming proportion of the Sewells came from the other ranks of one of the forces, including 135 Privates, 27 Riflemen, 12 Gunners, 9 Sappers, 2 Fusiliers, together with a marine, 8 seamen & 4 airmen. At the other end of the scale, there is a Lieutenant Colonel, a Brigadier & a Wing Commander. Sewells did not appear to have reached the higher echelons of the Royal Navy.

There were some very high awards, including a VC, a DSO, a DCM & an MC, no doubt a source of much pride but not much compensation for the loss of a loved one. Many of the Sewells came from another continent, including; 22 Canadians, 21 Australians, 7 from New Zealand & a South African. So often their Memorials/Graveyards are thousands of miles from their home. A massive price to pay in defence of the mother country.

The Commonwealth Graves Commission site is much more than just a list and an aid to our research.

Acknowledgement: Commonwealth Graves Commission.

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