This is the story of two men who were born in Sussex at around the same time and just a few miles apart. Remarkably both bore the very same name: George Henry Heasman. Sadly they were to share the same fate and both die in the course of the Great War. Not only that, but both had brothers who would also give their lives for their country.
So far as I have been able to ascertain the two were not knowingly related. The first George Henry to arrive was born into a farming family at Forest Row in 1887, the eldest child of John and Alice Olive Heasman.
Leonard Heasman, George’s younger brother, enlisted at the start of hostilities in 1914, joining the 13th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment. On 30th June 1916, in a diversionary attack the day preceding the Battle of the Somme, Leonard was killed.
His brother George arrived in France in December 1916. On 9th April 1917 the Battle of Arras began. On 14th April George’s battalion was in the line at Monchy-le-Preux. This village had been captured three days earlier and was subject to a German riposte. Sir Douglas Haig described the action: “On other parts of our line heavy counter-attacks developed… the most violent of which were directed against Monchy. The struggle for this important position… was exceedingly fierce… and the enemy was repulsed with great loss.”
On 23rd April the battalion took part in an attack along a nine-mile stretch of the Western Front. Private George Henry Heasman was badly wounded and succumbed to his injuries at a casualty clearing station to the west of Arras. He was buried in Duisans British Cemetery.
The Battle of Arras was fought between 9th April and 16th May 1917 and claimed around 160,000 British casualties.
Now we move on to the other George Henry. He was born on 26th August 1890, the eldest son of Henry Heasman, (described as a “gentleman”) and Eliza Dinah (nee Payne) Heasman of London Road, East Grinstead.
Educated at Lancing College, his father was a racehorse owner who taught George to ride. He spent a season with the Foxhill trainer W.T. Robinson and won his first hurdle race at the Kempton Park January Meeting on his father’s horse “Jeanne La Folle” in 1911.
Upon the outbreak of war, Heasman enlisted in the 19th Hussars and was successful in his application for a commission. He transferred to King Edward’s Horse (Special Reserve) and went to France in May 1916.
However, very quickly Heasman decided on an entirely different war career. Dashing cavalry charges had quickly become obsolete in the faces of massed machine-guns and artillery and I suspect he was mesmerised by the sight of the wondrously new-fangled flying machines soaring over the muddy, stale-mated trenches of the Western Front.
Appointed to the Royal Flying Corps as an Observer, he was posted to 70 Squadron on 20th April 1917 and served with distinction in France. In October 1917 he became a Flying Officer and went on to qualify as an instructor.
On 20th January he took off from Upavon Flying School near Pewsey in Wiltshire in an Avro aircraft accompanied by a student pilot. While undertaking a climbing turn the aircraft stalled and nose-dived into the ground. Heasman was killed outright.
This second George Henry Heasman is remembered on East Grinstead War Memorial and is buried in the town’s Mount Noddy Cemetery. Lieutenant Frederick James Heasman MC, brother of George, died of meningitis on 4th June 1940 while on active service.