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