On Tuesday over 100 people gathered under clear skies at Seaford Cemetery to commemorate the fallen of the First World War who are buried there.
Unlike many other local cemeteries, Seaford is a war cemetery. It contains 273 Commonwealth War Graves graves of which 253 are from the Great War. It is one of the largest War Graves in the south of England and is still immaculately maintained by the gardeners of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Seaford had been used as a training ground for the military for decades, it was a particular favourite venue of the Honourable Artillery Company, the oldest regiment in the British Army, who used the open downland and coast for their war games. When war was declared, Seaford was an obvious venue for training camps.
It had not only been used before, but it was close to the strategic port of Newhaven with its direct links to the Western Front. Two huge camps grew up, originally tented but by November 11, 1914, the first troops were moving into purpose built huts. Many of the soldiers were billeted in the homes of local people and one of them was a Birmingham City policeman, 43-year-old Daniel Feasey of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. He had served with the regiment during the Boer War and died in Seaford just three days after war was declared.
The camps soon began to fill. The population of Seaford at the start of the war was about 4,000 but, when both camps were fully operational, it rose to about 25,000 (larger than the population today).
Inevitably, there were fatalities. The soldiers, died of natural causes, accidents, and suicide. Two were murdered (by fellow soldiers I hasten to add, not by the good people of Seaford).
On July 18, 1915, 36-year-old Thomas Pollock from County Down leapt into the sea near the Buckle Pub to assist a teenager, Robert Wilson of the Royal Army Service Corps. Sadly both men drowned.
Their funeral was held with full military honours. The procession from the camp to the cemetery was led by 15 men from the Royal Irish Rifles, marching slowly with their guns reversed. Next were the bands of the Royal Irish Rifles and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, their drums muted with black cloth. Next were two horse drawn carriages carrying the union-flag draped coffins of the men, their caps, belts and guns had been placed on top and the carriages which were awash with colourful wreaths. The carriages were followed by the families of the men. At the end of the cortege were the two horses usually ridden by the dead soldiers. Their jackboots had been reversed in the stirrups as a sign of mourning. As the men’s coffins were lowered into their graves, a firing party fired three volleys and the last post was sounded. This sad procession was repeated time after time.
The Canadians arrived at the camps in 1916 and soon the whole town was ful of strange accents and curious soldiers who had left their country for the very first time. Sadly the majority of the scores of Canadians who died succumbed to influenza known at the time as the ‘Spanish Flu’.
As the war was coming to an end in October 1918, 60 Canadian soldiers died in just a few days; each victim receiving a full military funeral. Of the many Canadians graves at Seaford, at least 16 contain Americans. The USA did not join the war until April 1917, but many young men travelled across the border into Canada to join the army there.
Twenty-nine-year-old Howard Jenkins was from Iowa but died in Seaford as a member of the Canadian Engineers. His death was attributed to ‘pneumonia following gas wounds’. His grave is endorsed ‘He played the part of a man in the Great War Drama’ nearby are the graves of Jack Carr from Washington and Allan Thompson from New York both were just 20 when they died.
Seaford Cemetery also contains the graves of 19 West Indians and, at the ceremony on Tuesday, members of the West Indian Ex-Servicemen’s Association made their annual pilgrimage to the coast to pay their respects. One of their number was the great-niece of two of the solders, Nelson Fevrier and his brother from St Lucia, who both died in Seaford in January 1916.
The Seaford Branch of the Royal British Legion hosted this moving event led by their chairman, Ken Jupp, and the Reverend Paul Owen. For the soldiers who died so far from their homes, Seaford is a ‘foreign field’ but their families across the world know that they have not been forgotten.