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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Writing home for someone who can't

This is a story about a boy... actually, a young man, if you can really call a 16-year-old that... who was in an awful hurry to grow up.  His name was Sidney William Watts, a big name that seemed to mark him for big things.  It was a name appropriate for a bank manager... a chairman of the board, maybe... but perhaps a bit too big for a boy in his mid-teens. 

Maybe his friends called him Sid, or Bill or some nickname unrelated to his given names.  I don't know that part of the story because Sidney William Watts was in too great hurry to leave his boyhood behind and make his mark on the world. 

At the age of sixteen when most boys are absorbed with childish pursuits, this young Sidney was looking hungrily out towards a world in turmoil... a world at war. 

How many sixteen-year-olds do you know that follow the news and concern themselves with problems half a world away, much less entertain any illusions of being able to have some personal impact on the world stage?  To put this in perspective,  at that age my biggest concern was getting my driver's license so I could finally take girls out in my parent's car. 

Sidney, on the other hand, seems to have set his sights a bit further from home.  He ran away, lied about his age to a recruiting officer, and joined the army.  It was a time when such things were still possible... when record-keeping was a cumbersome thing of hand-written pages... a time when an able-bodied young man was taken at his word - with a wink and a nod - if he was ready to volunteer to wear a uniform and carry a gun for his country.

Sidney was assigned to the storied West Somerset Yeomanry, trained long and hard alongside men many years his senior, and upon completing training was sent with his unit to Egypt where he quietly celebrated his seventeenth birthday.  As will soon be made clear, by this time his comrades and officers were certainly aware of his real age.

Once in Egypt, his unit was tapped to form the 12th battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry and officially became part of the 229th Infantry Brigade, 74th (Yeomanry) Division, XXI Corps. Palestine.

All around them war was raging.  It was 1917, and although Sidney couldn't know it, the insanity that would later be called the first world war would end in just a few short months.  In fact, it would end, in part, due to his unit's heroic efforts against the Turks defending the seam-line between British strongholds in Gaza and the heart of Ottoman Palestine; Jerusalem. 

Of the 19 battalions raised under the banner of the Somerset Light Infantry during WWI, nearly 5000 men would be killed in battle, and countless more maimed for life.  But to a seventeen-year-old, I'm sure the possibility of a tragic outcome was beyond consideration.  I mean, what teenage boy isn't immune to danger... completely immortal... the center of the known universe?   Surely he was slated for greatness after distinguishing himself in the war!

In late 1917, word arrived on the doorstep of 21 Church St., Sturminster Newton, Dorset, that young Sidney had indeed achieved greatness.  It was a letter informing John William Watts that his son, Private Sidney Watts, had been killed in action against the Turks on November 6th, and that he'd been interred in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in a place called Beer Sheva alongside many of his fallen comrades. 

It was the custom of the time to allow next of kin to select an inscription for their loved one's headstone... and this task now fell to the grieving parents of a young man who ran away to seek adventure, and who would now never have the opportunity to grow into his name.  They settled on "Rest in Peace", likely too distraught to formulate anything more elaborate.

I came upon the details of this small heroic tragedy thanks to someone doing a Google search stumbling across a couple of my posts about the importance of Commonwealth forces in defeating the Turks in Beer Sheva, and how that victory laid the foundation for the British Mandate... and on its heels, the formation of the Jewish State.

The reader who wrote to me was seeking information about a great uncle of his who had run away to join the army and who was buried in Beer Sheva.  He wanted to know if I could visit the grave of this young man and find out a bit about his final resting place. 

What a silly question. 

It was both an honor and a privilege for me to be able to 'write home' on behalf of this young man... and in some small way, put his family's mind to rest as to his whereabouts

Sidney's grave is situated in the front, right-hand block of graves Row 'L' grave 85... very near the great stone monument upon which annual commemorations are conducted by various Commonwealth military societies that visit this far-flung corner of the former British Empire. 

Watts_003

His final resting place is among the friends and comrades with whom he served, and who fell with him during that fateful autumn.   He lies between two fellow privates in his regiment - one aged 29 and the other 36 - with whom he died that day in early November 1917.

  Watts_004

Sidney and his comrades were killed in the fighting that raged durinig the weeks following the fall of Beer Sheva on October 31st.  The fighting was especially heavy as the Turkish forces tried desperately to keep the British and Anzac troops from consolidating their control of the area and advancing towards Jerusalem.  In just over a month General Allenby marched into the old city of Jerusalem and the Ottoman Empire's rule was finished in Palestine.

To the gentleman who wrote to me (and any of Sidney's family who may read this), please know that this brave young man rests in a well-tended cemetery in the heart of a grateful country that might never have come to be without his sacrifice.

Thank you, Sidney William Watts.  You didn't get to grow into your name in the way that your parents would have preferred; as a bank manager... or as a chairman of the board.  But to those with whom you served and died, you were a man... and can rest proudly upon the great things you achieved in your short life.

As you can see (below), his correct age appears on his tombstone.

Watts_002_2 

Posted by David Bogner on October 16, 2007 | Permalink

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Writing home for someone who can't:

» Answering the Call from Op For
Albeit a somewhat different call.... Sidney was assigned to the storied West Somerset Yeomanry, trained long and hard alongside men many years his senior, and upon completing training was sent with his unit to Egypt where he quietly celebrated his... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 17, 2007 5:39:42 AM

» Answering the Call from Op For
Albeit a somewhat different call.... Sidney was assigned to the storied West Somerset Yeomanry, trained long and hard alongside men many years his senior, and upon completing training was sent with his unit to Egypt where he quietly celebrated his... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 17, 2007 5:41:38 AM

» Pvt. Sidney William Watts, R.I.P. from THE TEXAS SCRIBBLER
David Bogner's touching tale about a British light-infantryman who died in what is now Israel in 1917.... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 22, 2007 3:08:12 AM

» A series of posts about Australia's role in winning the Middl East in WWI: Part I: Writing home for someone who can't from discarded lies - hyperlinkopotamus
A series of posts about Australia's role in winning the Middl East in WWI: Part I: Writing home for someone who can't [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 1, 2007 3:02:54 PM

Comments

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Not long ago, I went to the museum of the Irgun in Yafo with my father. An older man was there, and was happy to tell us story after story about his adventures in the Irgun, and how he fought the British (after formerly serving as a British soldier.) Only toward the end did he mention that he was only a teenager - maybe 15? - when he started all this.

My father also mentioned something there about how teenagers can be so much more brave, because they aren't aware of their mortality. It's inspiring to hear about these stories instead of those where that lack of awareness leads to equally tragic, but far more pointless, results.

Posted by: Dave (Balashon) | Oct 16, 2007 2:21:51 PM

:: tears in eyes::

Waaaaahhhhhhh!

Posted by: Sarah | Oct 16, 2007 3:56:46 PM

http://www.thedonovan.com/archives/historystuff/lastpost.mp3

Posted by: Karl Newman | Oct 16, 2007 4:20:29 PM

Kleenex alert!!!! Where's the kleenex alert? ;_;

Posted by: Chantyshira | Oct 16, 2007 4:50:47 PM

Beautiful post.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 16, 2007 5:15:57 PM

There's the trep we know and love....pictures and stories we don't her anywhere else. WELCOME BACK!!!!

Posted by: Special Ed | Oct 16, 2007 8:26:04 PM

Hi Trep,

Awesome post! Really enjoyed reading it.

Shalom,
Maksim-Smelchak.

Posted by: Maksim-Smelchak. | Oct 16, 2007 8:38:30 PM

David...thank you so much for honoring my great-uncle's story in your blog...what a moving piece for me to read...I'm firing emails off left and right to my family, both here in America as well as England. The photos printed nicely from your page... the close-up of Sidney's grave ,along with your kind words, have really brought a sense of closure for me to his "unfinished" story. Thanks again, Keith

Posted by: Keith Watts Fox | Oct 16, 2007 11:56:43 PM

That was such a wonderful thing you did for that family.

Posted by: Lynn | Oct 17, 2007 12:20:07 AM

Some threads may be shorter than others, but even before the tapestry is done, what we see of the Weaver's work is breath-taking.

Posted by: Bob | Oct 17, 2007 3:28:12 AM

We were planning on going down to Beer Sheva one of these days for the air force museum. When we go, I'll make sure to stop at the cemetary to pay my respects to this boy and those who fell with him.

Posted by: Baila | Oct 17, 2007 7:12:25 AM

at the end of the month is BeerSheva day, which should feature (90th anniversary) a ride of the Australian Light Horse Association. Look for details at http://www.lighthorse.org.au/beersheba.htm
and in the local press

Also on the 11th of the 11th (at 1015 a.m.) the memorial services at Ramleh cemetery

Posted by: asher | Oct 17, 2007 1:23:44 PM

What is with the navel gazing reference on the side?

Posted by: Jack | Oct 17, 2007 3:58:50 PM

As I was growing up, I walked by this cemetary very frequently. I always wondered what the story behind it was. The plaques in the walls never did give enough information. Thanks.

Posted by: rescue | Oct 17, 2007 5:36:50 PM

Different parties, and the fighting goes on...

Posted by: Mickysolo | Oct 18, 2007 2:25:08 AM

I have really enjoyed your BLOG and pictures... I am a Christian
but have many Jewish friends my good friend Miras aunt met me @ the bus station in Jerusalem when things were not so fraught in 1999... Many of us our praying here about the spirit of ani semitism now in the uk....
We also support Exobus which has been bringing peoples from the land of the north back to ISRAEL.....
As I have been quite sick I can only go on the computer @ the library and for some reason can no longer access my other blog on www.xanga.com/freye
If any of you care to view I would be really thrilled....
There is something on Exobus there...
We are having great weather here in the uk @ the moment in the upper 70's... which after all the rain is good for us...
I share hospitality and if any come would love to share...
Sadly I don't do Kosher.... I did live in the US for 6 yrs where I worked for many Jewish familys
SHALOM and may the G-D of the Patriachs Bless you with all blessings
Sunny

Posted by: sunny/freye | May 14, 2008 7:51:47 PM

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