‘Won­der­ful news, isn’t it? I’ll be home soon…’

The Daily Telegraph - - First World War Armistice centenary - Joe Shute

‘There is a pho­to­graph of all the fam­ily com­ing to­gether to cel­e­brate them com­ing home, and my gran’s face is the empty one’

At the 11th hour on the 11th month, 100 years from the end of the First World War, Lynda Stone­ham will be be­side a grave in Nou­velles ceme­tery on the out­skirts of Mons, Bel­gium. Far smaller than the nearby St Sym­phorien Mil­i­tary Ceme­tery, where Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May yes­ter­day laid a wreath to the first and last British sol­diers to die in the Great War, the vil­lage burial ground con­tains just nine fallen British Do­min­ion sol­diers.

Among them are an English­man, Welsh­man, Scots­man and an Ir­ish­man. Four strangers from the British Isles, united by the date carved into their head­stones: Novem­ber 11, 1918.

John Stone­ham, Lynda’s great-un­cle, was the Welsh­man. Buried by him are Able Sea­men David Bat­tes (Scot­land), Harold Walpole (Eng­land) and John Joseph Mur­ray (Ire­land). To hon­our each, Lynda will leave daf­fodil bulbs, a peace rose, sham­rocks and this­tles.

“I want to be there on the day also to lay a poppy on each grave,” the 72-year-old says. “Be­hind ev­ery one of th­ese names is a fam­ily tragedy.” John Stone­ham was 19, a pri­vate serv­ing with 2nd Bat­tal­ion, the Royal Ir­ish Reg­i­ment. On the day war fi­nally came to an end, he had been posted near Spi­ennes, a few miles from Mons.

No­body knows ex­actly when on the 11th he died, but hear­ing the Armistice had been de­clared, he wrote a let­ter to his par­ents. “Won­der­ful news, isn’t it? It’s all over. I’ll be home soon”.

Be­fore that let­ter had made it to the fam­ily ad­dress at 3 Rail­way Ter­race in the South Wales town of Blaen­garw, a dif­fer­ent mis­sive ar­rived – a tele­gram stat­ing Stone­ham had been killed.

When his let­ter even­tu­ally slipped through the door some days later, Lynda re­calls, the an­guish of read­ing it turned her grand­mother’s hair pre­ma­turely white. Stone­ham was one of 860 British and Do­min­ion ser­vice­men killed on the last day of the war. In to­tal, the ca­su­al­ties on all sides recorded on Novem­ber 11 are thought to have reached 11,000.

Though the Armistice had been signed at 5am in a rail­way car­riage in the For­est of Com­piègne, near Paris, it took six hours for it to be passed along the lines and for the guns to fall silent.

The fi­nal British sol­dier “of­fi­cially” to die was Pri­vate Ge­orge El­li­son, a 40-year-old York­shire­man serv­ing with the 5th Royal Ir­ish Lancers, who was shot by a Ger­man sniper in a wood near Mons at 9.30am.

Lynda Stone­ham grew up in the Welsh val­leys im­mersed in sto­ries of her fallen great-un­cle. She would brush the hair of her grand­mother, Ce­cilia, 100 times ev­ery night and be re­galed by sto­ries from the war. “She spoke about Johnny a lot,” she says.

He was a stu­dious boy. While oth­ers his age had been sent to work down the pits, he stayed at school – but one day vol­un­teered to fight in the war. When his par­ents found out, they can­celled his ap­pli­ca­tion. While still a pupil he tried again, and suc­ceeded. John was, in fact, Ce­cilia’s step­son. Joseph, her hus­band, un­der-man­ager at Blaen­garw col­liery, had three sons from a pre­vi­ous mar­riage but his wife, Sarah, died from tu­ber­cu­lo­sis in 1908.

They mar­ried in Septem­ber 1916 and had two fur­ther chil­dren to­gether. Their first, Blod­wyn, was born shortly be­fore the war ended. In John’s last let­ter home from the West­ern Front, he wrote: “Look­ing for­ward to see­ing the baby.” In a bit­ter irony, af­ter the war Ce­cilia’s ex­tended fam­ily sud­denly found them­selves anointed in the lo­cal press as “the most blessed in Wales”. All seven of her broth­ers had fought in the war and all seven had re­turned.

“There is a pho­to­graph of all the fam­ily com­ing to­gether to cel­e­brate them com­ing home, and my gran’s face is the empty one,” Lynda says.

On July 1, 1919, Joseph Stone­ham col­lected his son’s per­sonal ef­fects, in­clud­ing £6.6s.4d. He re­ceived £5 from the gov­ern­ment in rec­om­pense for los­ing his son. His son’s fi­nal let­ter stayed with him for many years, but was lost in a sub­se­quent house move.

Like thou­sands of other be­reaved fam­i­lies across the coun­try, the Stone­hams never dis­cov­ered where their son had been buried – although, by chance, they did learn how he died. One day, a smartly dressed man came into the Co-op at Aberys­t­wyth where John’s brother Edgar was man­ager. Recog­nis­ing the name on his badge, he said he had served with a Stone­ham from the val­leys who had died at the end of the war. “The silly bug­ger lifted his head over the para­pet,” he said.

Lynda, who has been mar­ried to her hus­band, Wayne, for 50 years and has two chil­dren and six grand­chil­dren, has lived in south-west­ern France for 20 years. With the ar­rival of the in­ter­net and with the help of the Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion, she tracked John down to Nou­velles. It tran­spired he had been buried in an un­marked grave with oth­ers, but in 1920 their bod­ies were ex­humed and iden­ti­fied be­fore be­ing rein­terred with proper head­stones.

She first vis­ited the ceme­tery on Armistice Day in 2001. “We went through the gates and saw all nine graves. It was ex­tremely emo­tional. It was rain­ing but we stayed. We tried to walk out of the ceme­tery twice, but leav­ing him be­hind was ter­ri­ble.”

Lynda’s fa­ther, Trevor, was too upset to make the jour­ney with her from Wales. In­stead, she gave him pho­tos of the grave and a cou­ple of pop­pies from the wreath she had laid. He kept them by his side un­til his death in 2011.

For this Armistice Day, Lynda and her hus­band were in­vited to the main com­mem­o­ra­tions at Mons to­mor­row but they po­litely de­clined, pre­fer­ring in­stead to be at her great-un­cle’s side; with her thoughts and her mem­o­ries.

Lynda Stone­ham with a pho­to­graph of her great un­cle John, who died on Nov 11, af­ter the Armistice had been signed

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