Story of a lone World War I Headstone
on APRIL 3,
To a passer-by, the headstone situated in the middle of the field might seem out of place, particularly if they are not aware of the history of the local area. But there are very few passers-by, for this is not your usual churchyard or Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery. There is no cross of sacrifice, no stone of remembrance, no visitors’ book; the headstone is in a field located down a track in a livery yard, largely hidden from public view.
The reason why the headstone is here? This area used to be in the grounds of what was Banstead Asylum, later Banstead Mental Hospital, and then simply Banstead Hospital until it was later demolished, or parts of it incorporated into the nearby prison. An inauspicious end for what was quite an imposing building.
The asylum was built in 1877 and at its peak catered for over 2,500 patients with various mental ailments. I cannot imagine that it was a particularly pleasant place to be, given society’s previous approaches to the treatment of these types of illnesses.
The headstone is that of Sapper Reginald Adolphus Moyse, 31227, Royal Engineers, who died on 28th April 1917, aged 37. He has no epitaph.
Reginald was born in 1879 in Maidenhead and worked as a ‘Composite Typefounder’ in the printing industry. He married Edith Maud Downs in 1905 and their first son, also named Reginald, was born in 1906. A second son, Arthur, was born in 1909, followed by Horace in 1910 and Cyril in 1912. When war broke out Reginald was 35 years old and the family was living in Herne Hill, south east London. He volunteered at the Royal Engineers’ depot at Chatham on December 11, 1914 and became a sapper, enlisting for the duration of the war.
After training at home Reginald landed in France on 22nd August 1915 and was posted to the 9th Field Company. It appears from his surviving pension record that he served with several different companies of the Royal Engineers and was in and out of hospital.
Reginald was sent back to England on 2nd July 1916. A report of a Medical Board dated September 15, 1916 described his character as ‘very good’, and gave the following details about his case:
“Originated June 25th 1916, France. March 1916 he stated that he had been concussed and buried at Vermelles, since that time he has been weak and nervous.”
In March 1916 Reginald had been serving with the 69th Field Company, part of the 12th (Eastern) Division. Vermelles was near the site of the infamous Hohenzollern Redoubt, and during this period there had been a great deal of mining and counter-mining in a period known as the ‘Battle of the Craters.’ On 2nd March the 12th Division detonated four mines under the German lines, and both sides fought ferociously for the craters over the course of the month. For example, the divisional history records
“On the 18th of March, at 5pm, the Germans opened a violent bombardment on the craters, blew some mines and attacked. Vermelles was heavily shelled, and in two hours some 2,000 shells fell in it and in its vicinity.”
It was likely to be during this period that Reginald had been buried. Whatever he had experienced, it had clearly affected him profoundly over the following months. The Medical Board report continued:
“On June 25th 1916 he is described as amicable, simple-minded, as having no sense of responsibility. Following his concussion at Vermelles he was in 13th General Hospital for one month… He is in a facile, euphoric state. Memory is fairly well preserved, but he has no realisation of the serious nature of his illness. His face is smoothed out and expressionless… His speech is sticking and slurring. His knee jerks are diminished, gait is staggering and he has tremor of tongue.”
The Medical Board judged him as being permanently incapacitated and he was discharged as ‘Medically Unfit’ on 6th October 1916, the reason ‘General paralysis of the insane’. By mid-February 1917 he had been admitted to Banstead Asylum; less than three months later he was dead.
The isolated grave is in stark contrast to the endless rows of headstones at cemeteries such as Tyne Cot and Lijssenthoek. Reginald does not lie alongside his friends and comrades, yet in some ways his solitude is almost as striking. However, faded remembrance crosses at the base of the headstone show that Reginald Moyse has at least not been forgotten.
As a postscript it should be noted that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website records 2,288 sites which contain a single casualty from the First World War. In this respect Reginald Moyse is by no means unique. However the majority of these graves (86%) are located within churchyards.