Reflecting on the War Memorials Project, I am so pleased that, what started as a passing thought, has developed into such a success, with the lives of nearly 150 men having been researched and written up.
At the Armistice Day service at Bepton in November 2012, while the names of the fallen from Bepton, Cocking and West Lavington were being read out very solemnly, I wondered who these men were. After the service, I asked the rector if he knew anything about the men. “No”, he replied. “Perhaps you’d like to find out.”
At first, I dismissed the idea, as I had no clue how to go about it. A few months later, I was taking my dog for a walk past the memorial in Cocking. I paused to read the names of the 15 men and started thinking about the matter again. I then found out that the memorial had originally stood right outside my house, before it was moved to accommodate road improvements, so from that point on, I was determined to find out more. I was soon hooked, perhaps even fixated on the idea.
I discussed the idea with the rector, who supplied me with the church’s list of the men commemorated on the 3 memorials for which he was the priest. On Googling “Cocking War Memorial”, I quickly discovered the excellent “Roll of Honour” website, which gave some background information about the men, albeit with one man they were unable to identify. I then visited the Records Office in Chichester; I had never previously researched archives and had no idea where to start. The wonderful staff at the Records Office pointed me in various directions and spent a long time showing me what could be discovered on the Ancestry.com website.
The man we decided to research initially was Tinney Keat Sweet. We chose him because he had such a distinctive name, which made the research easier. I soon found him on the 1911 census and then we found his service records which included his disciplinary record and his medical records. He was a bit of a naughty boy, getting drunk and swearing at his superiors. There was also mention of a bed wetting incident, which brought home to me that these were young men, probably quite anxious about their situation.
I had already decided that as well as researching the lives and deaths of the 15 men, I wanted to find out more about the history of the war memorial itself. We tried to find the parish archives but these are not in the Records Office. The archivist then suggested that we try to find the parish magazine from 1920. She couldn’t find these, but did produce the Midhurst Deanery News from 1919 onwards. This gave me the first of many Eureka! moments during the research. Whereas many of the parishes around Midhurst published little other than details of forthcoming church services, the Rector at Cocking liked to write and used the newsletter to keep parishioners informed. Most months, there was an article by him about the war memorial and the progress that was being made, culminating in two pages giving full details of the service of dedication in October 1920. I have passed a copy of this to the present Rector, The Revd. Colin Bradley, who has used it to help him plan the service of re-dedication planned for 3 August. The material from the Midhurst Deanery News formed the basis for my article about the war memorial which appears on our website, and has also been published in the quarterly magazine of the Midhurst Society and in the Cocking parish magazine.
After my initial visit to the Records Office, I discussed my researches with Ian Buckingham at a U3A meeting and he very enthusiastically took it on-board and started the ball rolling to set up the War Memorials project. I also discussed my researches with Cocking Parish Council, who at first were supportive but not enthusiastic. I persevered with the parish however, who eventually warmed to the idea of commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the start of the First World War.
As well as researching online, I visited all three churchyards where I found many graves of families of the soldiers. In Cocking churchyard, I had another Eureka! moment, when I found the grave of William and Emma Cook. Up to this point, I was struggling to identify William John Cook, who had also defied the Roll of Honour website. I guessed that William jr. was probably related to William and Emma, so checking on Ancestry, I found the family on the 1911 census, so I was sure I had the right man. I still couldn’t find out details of his military career or his death. I had spent hours scouring the numerous William and John Cooks on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website without success until I decided to look under Cooke, and Bingo!, there he was.
One of the greatest pleasures of undertaking this research is making contact with the families of the men, generally through Ancestry. I have contacted the families of five men from Cocking. With one unfortunate exception, the families have been very helpful and interested in my researches, and have supplied photos, family history and copies of memorabilia, all of which I have incorporated into my researches. I have sent copies of the biographies to the families, and it’s very rewarding to get messages back from them thanking me. Often, I was able to tell them things about their ancestor that they didn’t know.
In April this year, I went with my son to visit several of the war memorials and cemeteries in northern France and Belgium, including attending the very poignant Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres. At the Thiepval Memorial in the Somme, I had yet another Eureka! moment. I had been struggling to find any link between Charles Rapley and Cocking. At Thiepval, they are creating a database of the 72,000 men commemorated on the memorial, which is about 15% complete. As three of the local men are commemorated at Thiepval, I looked them up in the database. Two of them were not yet recorded, but for Charles Rapley, they had a copy of his obituary from the De Ruvigny Roll of Honour, which I had previously overlooked. Not only did this have his photograph, but it also said that he had served as the Cocking village constable between 1911 and 1914.
Only one man from Cocking is still not fully identified. We know who James Robert Kingston was and have his military history but still cannot link him to Cocking. Hopefully, one day we will be able to fill in the gaps in his story. Maybe the 1921 census will help when this is released in a few years’ time.
Not only have I researched the men on the Cocking, Bepton and West Lavington war memorials, but also those at Trotton and Heyshott. Altogether there were close on 50 men whose stories I have researched and written up, with help from Andrea Fox and Alison Goodenough.
As well as publishing the biographies on our website, these have been made available to the villages. In Cocking, abbreviated versions are being published in the parish magazine and will also be displayed at a small exhibition in the village hall on the weekend of 2/3 August.