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

L/8823 Lance Cpl. W. Solley

East Kent Regiment (The Buffs)

9th April 1917

By Keith M Parry

This article was originally published in the April 2001 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.

As a child, I remember my mother speaking with affection of her Uncle Bob. Ten years older than herself, he was killed in the Great War. In September 1939, she was very melancholy at the beginning of another conflict, speaking of many men, like her uncle, who would never return home. Following my mother’s death, among her possessions we found correspondence from Uncle Bob, which he had written from the trenches. We glanced at the letters, which my mother had obviously treasured, and then put them aside in a safe place. It was many years later, when doing our research that we looked at the letters again. The correspondence has proved to be so enlightening about Uncle Bob himself, together with life and conditions in the trenches.

Bob was the family name of Walter Frederick Solley. He was born at Richborough, near Sandwich, Kent in 1897, the youngest son of William and Charlotte Solley. Bob grew up in a family consisting of thirteen children, of whom four died in infancy. The Solley’s had farmed at Richborough throughout the nineteenth century. His great grandfather Thomas (1772-1845) and grandfather George (1814-1899) were both yeoman farmers. Bob’s father, William was employed as a farm bailiff. Farms were unable to provide employment for all the menfolk in an extended family. Some men had to look to other occupations and Bob’s choice was the Army.

Bob enlisted in the Buffs, at their Canterbury depot in 1910. Later in that year, the 1st battalion was posted to Fermoy in Ireland, returning to England in August 1914. The absence of his record, like those of many who served in the Great War, makes our research challenging. On September 11th 1914, his Battalion went to France. The first letter was written on October 7, only three weeks later. Letters ceased after August 1915, when Bob may have returned to England. In 1916, he married Lily Stevens and their daughter Marjorie was born on October 17 of that year. Bob had returned to France early in 1917, as a Corporal in the 6th Battalion. A letter to him, written on April 12 by my mother, was returned to her bearing the handstamp ‘PRESENT LOCATION UNCERTAIN’ and in pencil the note ‘wounded on 9th April 1917’.

Such letters were commonplace and received by families with great anguish, only to be compared with final dreaded notification. Bob was killed on April 9, the first day of the Battle of Arras.

All correspondence from the Front, including printed post cards, was censored, allowing only personal information. But letters gave a picture of life in the trenches, together with the family's concern for Bob. His letters often began, "I can not thank you enough", for he regularly received parcels containing hard tobacco, matches, cocoa, candles, gloves and writing paper. A shirt and socks were sent each month. He also wrote, "thank you for the penknife, we have lost all our knives ……..a smoke is the only comfort we get".

Extracts from Bob’s letters also reflected the progress of the war. "The Germans have taken on too much this time!" "Had no wash for a month, a shave is out of the question, my face is like a broom ……..clothes covered with an inch of mud". "They issued us with fur coats, we look like Teddy Bears". "The weather is not fit for a dog." Bob wrote after his return to France, "Glad that Lily and the baby are well", and then poignantly only three before he was killed, "I shall be glad as you, when we are all together again".

I ascertained from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, that my great uncle had a marked grave at Tilloy British Cemetery, 3km from Arras. A group of parents and friends from Wilmington Grammar School, where two of our grandsons are pupils, were going on a day visit to Arras and the Somme. I joined the party on September 23, 2000, hoping that when in Arras, I would have been able to make own way Tilloy. The group kindly made a diversion on leaving the town, and I found my visit to this beautifully maintained cemetery most moving. I am unaware of any other relative having visited the grave. I felt that my visit was particularly on behalf of my mother.

During our visit, we reflected on some of the contrasting poetry of the Great War that expressed the glory, compassion, anger, frustration, suffering and the stupidity of war. A complete change in mood from the patriotism in ‘The Soldier’, by Rupert Brook in 1914, to the later protest poetry. Wilfred Owen, who was killed in 1917 had emphasised the futility and horror of war. It was Siefried Sassoon, who expressed anger at the way that generals were directing the war. Both of these poets were heroes and holders of the military cross. I came away knowing that Uncle Bob was one among the millions who died, on both sides, in that horrific conflict. For the future the divine words of truth still cry out, ’Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God’

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