As so often in this research, teasing out the story has proved more complicated than at first thought. There are two French brothers on the Blackham Roll of Honour – Herbert and Ernest – but they had two other brothers in the conflict, one of whom used Blackham to ensure he saw some action. We include all four here. Herbert and Hannah Jane French and their large family moved around quite a lot. In 1881 they are at Hawkhurst where most of their children were born; ten years later at Jessops in Ashurst and by 1901at Lidget’s Farm near Stone Cross. And as they got older, their children moved around too. Ernest Victor was born in Hawkhurst 1886. By 1911 he worked as a carter, living at Crippenden Cottage, Edenbridge with his wife Alice (nee Atherall) and baby daughter Doris. We don't know when he enlisted, or into which regiment. He first went to France with the 2nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers, a London Regiment which drew men from Home Counties units to replace losses. He died in 1957. Walter James was born in Jessopps Cottage, Ashurst, in 1890, Walter was a stoker in the Royal Navy from 1908 to 1921. Herbert William was also born in Hawkhurst in 1888, just before the family moved to Ashurst. In 1911 he was boarding at the home of Elizabeth Sales and working as a self-employed shoe repairer. Also living there was his future wife,
Herbert died in 1958 and in 1965. Frank Reuben was the youngest brother, born Penshurst 1894. In 1911 he was boarding with John and Annie Weekes at School House Hill, Withyham and working as a farm carter. Frank wasn’t built like a warrior. His record shows he was 5'3” tall with a 34inch chest. Nevertheless, on 8 September 1914 he enlisted into the Royal West Kent regiment at Tunbridge Wells. He was posted to the 3rd battalion, the reserves, as Private G2970. Patience was not his virtue and he was keen to get to the front. When the 6th and 7th battalions left for France 30th May 1915 he'd had enough. On 4 June he deserted. At this time the Royal Naval
Division was training its excess reservists as infantry and were busily recruiting. On 8 June Frank enlisted with the RND. To shake off his pursuers he altered some personal details on the enlistment form. He dropped his middle name and changed his date of birth. He gave his address as Stepnetts Cottage, Blackham, probably using brother Herbert’s address. He was accepted as seaman Z2214. The Army caught up with him in October and requested his return. Alas, said the Navy, he had just left for Gallipoli. He may have seen some action in the dying days of that ill-fated campaign, after which, in February 1916, he faced questions about his desertion. He explained that nine months training with the RWK got him nowhere, four months with the RND and he was in Gallipoli. The RND accepted him permanently. The action was now in France and the division arrived at Marseilles 22 May 1916. After a period of training for the different conditions the division's first major action was on the 13 November. Called the Battle of the Ancre, it was the last big attack of the Somme campaign before winter brought this whole tragic event to a halt. Casualties were heavy. Frank was wounded on the first day of the battle and was evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station. He died of his wounds on the 16 November and is buried at the military cemetery at Puchevillers.
The French brothers
Four young men caught up in conflict
Thanks to Frank Wiltshire for another professional piece of detective work
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Elizabeth's daughter Laura (Bessie). It would seem likely from the census return that they lived at Stephnetts Cottages (above), which was significant in another part of the story. Herbert first saw action in France with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. He was possibly a conscripted man in 1916 because there is no obvious reason why he should join a Welsh regiment. Later he was transferred to the Cheshire Regiment. The 23rd battalion arrived in France on 21st May 1918 and fought there until the end of the war. Somehow he managed to get back to Blackham and marry Laura in the July-Sept Quarter of 1918. Both had lost close relatives during the war years and Laura's four young nieces and nephews needed guardianship. It seems likely that Herbert and Bessie looked after four Divall children, orphaned when their Father Frederick was killed in the war and their mother Bertha, soon after, seemingly from grief. The full story is told here.
Frederick Divall Frederick Divall