History

Lest We Forget

‘Lest We Forget’. The 2nd Lieutenant Victor Bracey, Royal Flying Corps, and Private William Cottrell, 44th Battalion Canadian Infantry, War Graves Appeal.

The Isle of Wedmore suffered 60 fatalities out of an estimated 600 men who volunteered for or were conscripted into the armed services between 1914-18, with the largest number of war dead coming from Wedmore and the neighbouring hamlets of Heath House, Sand, Stoughton, Crickham and Clewer. The 32 men whose names are recorded on the war memorial outside St Mary’s Church and listed inside on a large tablet – ranging in rank from Captain to Private and from 16 to 49 in age – were killed in action, succumbed to wounds, died of disease or paid the ultimate price in accidents while on active service. They served in a wide range of regiments and corps of the British Army, with three being part-time soldiers in the Wedmore Troop of the Army Service Corps (part of the Territorial Force). Others served in the Royal Marine Light Infantry, Indian Army, the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force, the Australian Imperial Force and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

The bodies of most of these men now lie in beautifully tended Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemeteries in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Greece, Turkey and India. Two have no known grave and are remembered respectively on the Menin Gate at Ypres and the Australian Villers-Bretonneaux Memorial on the Somme. Four soldiers of the Great War lie closer to home and are buried in St Mary’s Churchyard, having died officially ‘at home’ in the United Kingdom from disease, wounds suffered while on active service and accidents during the course of training. With one exception their families opted to commemorate their lives with private memorials instead of having standard CWGC markers on their graves. While the headstone belonging to Lance Corporal William Collard, Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), is periodically cleaned and maintained by workmen from the commission, the care of the three others from the outset has been the sole responsibility of each family. Two of these war graves have now fallen into a serious state of disrepair, however, since the families concerned have either died out or have moved away from the area.The Isle of Wedmore suffered 60 fatalities out of an estimated 600 men who volunteered for or were conscripted into the armed services between 1914-18, with the largest number of war dead coming from Wedmore and the neighbouring hamlets of Heath House, Sand, Stoughton, Crickham and Clewer. The 32 men whose names are recorded on the war memorial outside St Mary’s Church and listed inside on a large tablet – ranging in rank from Captain to Private and from 16 to 49 in age – were killed in action, succumbed to wounds, died of disease or paid the ultimate price in accidents while on active service. They served in a wide range of regiments and corps of the British Army, with three being part-time soldiers in the Wedmore Troop of the Army Service Corps (part of the Territorial Force). Others served in the Royal Marine Light Infantry, Indian Army, the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force, the Australian Imperial Force and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

The grave in St Mary’s Churchyard in most urgent need of renovation belongs to a young subaltern who served in the newly-formed Royal Flying Corps – 19 year old 2nd Lieutenant Victor Charles Edelston Bracey – who was born on 20th October 1897 at Billinge, near Wigan, the only son of Dr William Edelsten Bracey MRCS (1873-1952) and his wife Florence Marion (nee Goold) (1872-1953). The family lived at ‘The Uplands’, Grants Lane in Wedmore where from 1898 his father worked in general practice. During the early years of the Great War Dr Bracey served at Suvla Bay at Gallipoli during the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign and in Mesopotamia as an officer in the RAMC until wounded. Ill-health eventually forced him to resign his commission in December 1916 with the rank of Honorary Lieutenant.

Victor was educated at St Peter’s School, Weston-super-Mare and at Blundell’s School at Tiverton between 1911-15, where he was a boarder and an enthusiastic member of the Officers Training Corps. A keen sportsman and athlete throughout his short life, Bracey played cricket, football and hockey in inter-house competitions and for the school and later while undergoing training for the army. In February 1915 he passed the Army Entrance Examination and a month later Bracey joined the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. From 16th December 1916 he continued his military instruction as a Private in No. 6 Company of the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps at Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire, before completing his training at No. 1 Officer Cadet Battalion at Newton Ferrers in Devon. On 5th August 1916 Bracey successfully applied for a commission in the Royal Flying Corps.

Victor Bracey was gazetted a 2nd Lieutenant on probation on the General List (for RFC) in April 1917 and obtained his wings three months later. On 27th July 1917 he was confirmed in rank as a Flying Officer. He joined the newly-formed No. 79 Squadron RFC, undergoing training before departing to France, where he completed 85 solo flights and given his evident skill as a pilot was appointed as a flying instructor. On Sunday 23rd September 1917 Bracey was killed while testing a new French-built Spad VII fighter, fitted with a 150 Horse Power engine, at Beaulieu Aerodrome in Hampshire. While flying a circuit of the airfield Bracey turned downwind, but since his engine lacked sufficient power the biplane stalled (a particular vice of the Spad VII) and went into a fatal spin. Since he was flying at only 200 feet Bracey did not have time to recover. The stricken biplane plunged downwards into the ground and Bracey was mortally injured when he was thrown forwards against the gun mounting. Although still breathing when he was recovered from the wreckage, Victor died without recovering consciousness half an hour later. In a letter to his parents a fellow officer wrote:

I think you might like to hear how very much your son was liked, and how much we all feel his loss. He was a universal favourite, always so cheerful and utterly fearless. His death was due purely to misadventure, which even the most skilful pilot could not have prevented.

The body of the young pilot was quickly returned to his grieving family in Wedmore for burial. On Wednesday 26th September 1917 an elaborate funeral service was held at St Mary’s conducted by the Reverend G. Norris in a church packed with local villagers eager to pay their respects to the Bracey family. For many whose own sons, brothers or husbands would not return from the war, it was no doubt a poignant opportunity to remember their own loss. As an eyewitness who watched the funeral procession recorded:

The Union Flag floated at half-mast from the Church tower, and in every portion of the parish was evidence of mourning. The plain unpolished oak coffin, covered with the Union Flag, was conveyed on a gun carriage with two horses, and was escorted by three officers and nine men, by bearers from 79th Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, one NCO, one driver RFA, and two NCOs from the Cheddar Company of the Somerset Volunteer Regiment.

Victor’s final resting place in the north-western corner St Mary’s Churchyard was marked with a large marble private memorial, elaborately carved with the cap badge of the Royal Flying Corps at its base and on the cross itself a Sopwith biplane. In addition to the war memorial and the tablet inside St Mary’s, Bracey’s name was later also commemorated on the Blundell’s School War Memorial at Tiverton, Devon. Dr and Mrs Bracey also commissioned a highly decorative large commemorative wooden font cover for St Mary’s as a further war memorial, with the motto of the RFC – ‘Per Ardua ad Astra’ – carved into the wood. A fund for the relief of the poor and sick in the Parish was also set up in his name by his parents. Unfortunately his grieving mother never recovered from Victor’s death and spent much of her time staring from her drawing room window, in the family home on the hillside above Grants Lane, across Wedmore at his grave just visible in the distance in St Mary’s Churchyard. Both parents were finally laid to rest in the same grave as their beloved son in the early 1950s.

The second war grave dating from the Great War in need of restoration belongs to a Canadian serviceman – Private William Cottrell, 44th Battalion Canadian Infantry (New Brunswick Regiment), Canadian Expeditionary Force. Born in Bampton on 21st April 1885 William moved to Wedmore during the early 1900s where he married Maria Wall, whose family lived at Church Villa near St Mary’s. The young couple emigrated to Canada in May 1907 and eventually settled in Winnipeg in Manitoba. The 30-year old William enlisted into the Canadian Expeditionary Force at Winnipeg on 24th August 1915 describing himself on his Attestation Papers as a labourer by trade. Following basic training at Camp Hughes, on 5th April 1916 the 61st (Winnipeg) Battalion embarked aboard the SS Olympic at Halifax for the voyage to the UK where it immediately began further instruction at Bordon Camp in Hampshire for duty in France and Flanders. The 61st (Winnipeg) Battalion was not destined to serve in France, however, and on 12th May 1916 William was amongst a draft of 586 men transferred to the 44th Battalion, Canadian Infantry (The Manitoba Regiment) at Shorncliffe. Following an initial tour of duty in the trenches in a ‘nursery sector’ near Ypres, it redeployed to the Somme as part of the newly-formed 4th Canadian Division. On 25thOctober 1916 the 44th Battalion Canadian Infantry launched its first major attack against a strongly held German position in Regina Trench. A combination of poor planning and execution meant it was doomed from the outset and William, seriously wounded in the left arm and shoulder by machine gun fire, was amongst 200 casualties suffered that day. Following an extended convalescence in the UK recovering from this flesh wound, William returned to his unit in November 1917. The following summer and autumn the 44th Battalion Canadian Infantry took part in a series of major offensives fought by the Canadian Corps as the Imperial German Army was steadily forced to withdraw from northern France. On 27th September 1918 Private William Cottrell was seriously wounded for a second time during the Battle of the Canal du Nord, when a bullet badly fractured his left femur, and was immediately evacuated from France for treatment. On 9th January 1919 he finally succumbed to his wounds, however, dying following an operation on his shattered leg at the 1st Eastern General Hospital at Cambridge. The body of William Cottrell was quickly returned to the family and on 15th January 1919 was laid to rest in St Mary’s Churchyard in a grave almost in direct view of the family home at Church Villa, where Maria wife and his four young children now lived after returning from Canada in 1916.

The elaborate marble private memorial in St Mary’ Churchyard commemorating the short life of Lt Victor Bracey has steadily deteriorated following the death of his parents (Victor was an only child) and will soon be lost if urgent remedial action is not taken. The cover stone over the grave now lies broken, the marble kerbs are coming apart and the elaborate memorial cross itself is loose and in imminent danger of toppling forward into the grave. Although the condition of William Cottrell’s gravestone is better, it was laid flat on the ground following the last health and safety review by Somerset Country Council. Regrettably no official sources of funding to restore these two graves can be found after an exhaustive search primarily because they are private memorials, with the CWGC only having responsibility for ensuring the naming remains legible. As works of art in their own right, officially recognised war graves and a pieces of local history there loss would be a tragedy. £1650 is urgently needed to carry out a full renovation of Victor Bracey’s grave and a further £750 to restore William Cottrell’s headstone. While some support has already been forthcoming from local charitable organisations and various private individuals who recognise these memorial’s importance, more money is urgently needed to ensure the long-term survival of these historic war graves. Any donations towards this worthwhile project would be greatly appreciated.

    

Donations can be made in a number of ways:

  1. By cheque sent direct to the Victor Bracey and William Cottrell War Grave Appeal c/o Eglantine House, Sand Road, Wedmore, Somerset, BS28 4BY and made payable to: St Mary’s Church PCC. If a Gift Aid Form (available by request or to download at the HMRC website) accompanies the cheque we can reclaim an additional amount of tax – 25% – on each donation.
  2. By Paypal using a Credit or Debit Card by visiting the following website: www.wedmorewargraves.co.uk

For further information or a Gift Aid Form please do not hesitate to contact me at: tim@moreman.gb.com

© TR Moreman 30/1/12

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