Soldiers stand to attention and face a fresh grave in Rectory Lane Cemetery, Berkhamsted. With the current focus on World War 1, this could so easily have been a photo of the funeral of one of the 1914-18 ‘fallen’, of which there are 14 in the Cemetery in graves now tended by the War Graves Commission.
But a little research surprisingly proved this assumption wrong. It was in fact taken almost a year prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Men had been encouraged to join the Territorial Army, and Charlie Brewer was one such young man. Berkhamsted born and bred, Charlie lived in Bridge Street with his young wife Alice and Billy (‘Bibby’) their recently born son, and was working as a bricklayer’s labourer at Coopers’ Chemical Works in the Town. The photograph shows Charlie in whites playing for the Factory cricket team – probably only weeks or months before the burial photo was taken.
A popular member of the “F’ Company of the 1st Battalion of the Hertfordshire Regiment, Charles went in August 1913 on a training camp at Dibgate Farm in Kent. Into the thirteenth day, after a morning spent on manoeuvres, he returned to camp for lunch and ‘was looking forward to an afternoon visit to Folkestone.’ But first a tug-of-war competition had been organised – after three successful bouts, Charlie’s team lost the fourth one, ‘and had just crossed to the other side when Brewer threw up his arms and fell to the ground’. Dr J. McBride, the Berkhamsted physician attached to the Battalion, tried artificial respiration but to no avail. In the post-mortem examination, it was revealed that Brewer had consumed a very big meal just previous to the sports. Death was due to an ‘overloaded stomach and the strain of the exercise.’
We can picture the scene on a Thursday afternoon in August 1913, when headed by the Berkhamsted Town Band the mournful procession had left the deceased’s home in Bridge Street and made its way up Castle Street as pictured below towards the Parish Church, which was reached at 3 pm. The coffin was draped with the Union Jack, with the young soldier’s cap, belt and bayonet on top. Beside the immediate relatives, nearly the whole of the members of “F” Company were present, together with members of the Court Brownlow Lodge of Foresters and many of Charlie’s workmates from the Chemical works.
The photo at the Cemetery shows the ceremony being conducted by the Rev. C.E Hudson. At the close three volleys were fired by the Territorials and the “Last Post” sounded over the open grave. Wreaths were laid with messages from his ‘broken-hearted wife’ and ‘To dear daddy from your own little Bibby’.
Charlie was only 24 when he died a year before the war. But what if he had survived? Would he have simply met the same terrible fate of his younger brother Albert, who was killed on the Somme in 1916?
The Gazette August 16th 1913
Dover Express (date) 1913 (Research by Janice Boakes)
Photographs in the BLHMS Collection DACHT: BK 11573, BK 437, BK 6873