Whether we are visiting the battlefields of the Great War or a cemetery near to home, it’s likely that the most visible reminder of the war will be the bright, neat headstones of the war dead or the tall Cross of Sacrifice – the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The Commission’s archive catalogue is available online, with many items digitised and newly accessible to us all from home. Using those archives, this blog post tells the story of two ex-serviceman brothers from London who spent their post-war lives working for the Commission, helping to create and maintain the memorials to their fallen comrades.
The Imperial (since 1960 Commonwealth) War Graves Commission was established by Royal Charter in 1917, with the mission of caring for the graves of the fallen and memorials to the missing, following the earlier decision not to repatriate the bodies of those who died overseas during the war. It was a huge task, as their website says: “The Commission’s work began in earnest after the Armistice. Once land for cemeteries and memorials had been guaranteed, the enormous task of recording the details of the dead began. By 1918, some 587,000 graves had been identified and a further 559,000 casualties were registered as having no known grave.” The last of its Great War memorials was completed twenty years after the war’s end, only a year before a new war engulfed the continent.
Two of those who helped to create and maintain the war cemeteries we now see in France and Flanders were the Bicknell brothers from London.
Ernest Hugh Bicknell and his brother William George were born in Battersea, the sons of William George Bicknell, a butcher, and his wife Emily (née Self) who had married in 1897 at St George’s Church in Battersea. William junior was baptised in the same church the following year, although the family’s address by then was in Rawlings Street, Chelsea. Ernest was born in June 1899. The boys were therefore both under two years old when William George senior died in early 1900. In 1901, Emily and her two sons were living at 13 King’s Street, Chelsea (they were one of two families living in the property in what is now St Luke’s Street, close to the church).
It would have been very difficult for a working-class woman to raise a family alone at the start of the twentieth century and, by 1911, the two boys were living at the School of Handicrafts For Poor Boys in Chertsey. The Chertsey Museum Interactive website tells us that:
The School of Handicrafts in Eastworth Road, Chertsey, was founded in 1885 by Dr Thomas Hawksley, an East London doctor. It was established as a school for needy boys and its primary purpose was to give the boys a trade.
There were problems in the early years; children were taken home or ran away, staff resigned and there were complaints that the food and clothing were inadequate. It was not long, however, before the school gained a well-respected reputation.
The boys, who came from all over England, received a basic education until the age 14. Then for a further two years they trained in boot-making and repair, carpentry, farming or gardening. Boys who did not find employment straight away on completing this training could then work at the school in various capacities.
The lifestyle at the school was Spartan. The day beginning at 6:30 a.m. and the diet was described as “wholesome but plain”. Discipline was generally strict but many old-boys, however, look back on their days at the school with fond memories.
In keeping with this description, the 1911 census describes the younger boys (including the two Bicknells) simply as pupils, but those aged 15 and 16 were listed with trades such as tailor and gardener, with ‘pupil’ added in brackets. The census return lists 55 ‘elementary scholars’ and 44 of the older ‘trade pupils’.
By the time the Bicknell boys were in their late teens, following this education in Chertsey, Europe was at war.
William George Bicknell enlisted in the army in May 1916 at the age of 18 and three months. He lists his and Emily’s address as 31 St George’s Square, Pimlico SW1, and gave his employment as messenger. After six months training, he joined 398 Battery Royal Field Artillery in December 1916. A year later he joined a reserve battery, before moving to the Central Signalling Depot in Swanage in January 1918; the medal roll for the RFA lists him as a signaller.
Ernest Hugh Bicknell served for more than two years in the 2nd Battalion, Middlesex Regiment. The medal roll indicates that he served overseas – the battalion was in France and Flanders from 1914 to 1918 – but, as with his brother, it is hard to tell when and where he served.
At the end of April, Ernest applied for the job of garden labourer with the Imperial War Graves Commission. A few weeks later, on 20 May, he took up the role and went to France with a salary of £2 per week. His UK address is given as 51 Lupus Street, just up the road from the St George’s Square address in Pimlico. In 1922 he was appointed as a general clerk.
We have to assume that Ernest enjoyed working for the Commission, as six months later his older brother applied. Although William applied to be a clerk, he was also appointed as a garden labourer and went to France in November 1920, becoming a gardener in 1923.
When Ernest applied for his role in March 1920, the Commission had 721 staff in France and Belgium; by March 1921, there were 1,362 staff in the region, largely organised into five (soon to be eight) ‘camps’ covering different areas of the former battlefield. The Bicknells were among 876 gardeners employed at that point.
Even the dry words of the annual report tells us something of the difficulty of undertaking gardening work in the ravaged landscape of the Western Front:
Owing to difficulties of accommodation in some parts of France and Belgium, particularly in the devastated areas, it has been necessary to form travelling gardening parties. These parties are provided with tents, bedding and cooking utensils, and leave Area Headquarters each Monday morning, returning at the end of the week.
The annual report refers to 948 cemeteries having been ‘treated horticulturally’, of which 557 had been sown with grass seed; 15.5 miles of boundary hedges had been planted, along with 75 miles of flower borders and 195 acres of grass – a reminder effort that went to turning the battlefields and the wartime cemeteries into the tidy sites of mourning and pilgrimage we know today.
The Commission’s archive includes an excellent photo album from 1919/20 that provides an interesting contrast with the same sites once the Commission had completed their work.
Faubourg d’Amiens cemetery, Arras, Feb 1920 (Copyright CWGC)
Both Bicknell brothers spent the rest of their lives with the Commission, each becoming a Senior Clerk after the Second World War, although William reverted to his previous role of gardener caretaker before the end of the 1940s. In 1928, Ernest married a Marie Louise Angèle Becourt in her hometown of Beaumetz-lès-Loges, west of Arras; they had at least one daughter (mentioned on his staff card).
Their work was, of course, interrupted by the Second World War in 1940, when the German army rapidly overran France and Belgium. The Commission managed to get 325 of their staff back to the UK ahead of the German advance, but another 212 did not make it out. The 1940-41 annual report says that of those who were not evacuated 158 were interned, 43 were believed to be at liberty, 5 had died and 6 were unaccounted for. Ernest Hugh Bicknell was one of those who got back to the UK; he was loaned out to the Air Ministry in Bloomsbury in 1943. No particular mention is made of the Second World War on William’s staff card; since other staff cards refer to periods of internment, I would assume that he too was able to get back to the UK.
In January 1945, the Commission began to re-employ people who had remained in France and Belgium during the occupation, or who had already been released from internment. By the end of March (5 weeks before the end of the war), 90 of the 540 who had worked for the Commission in the region in 1940 were back at work, another 266 were waiting in the UK to return to work and 32 were still detained by the Germans (the remaining 152 had resigned, retired or died); by the end of 1945, 245 were back at work. Both Bicknell brothers returned to work in France and Belgium.
William George Bicknell died while still employed by the Commission on 19 March 1955, and was buried in Albert Communal Cemetery in France. Sadly, he did not live to see his brother honoured for his work with the Commission: Ernest was awarded the MBE in the New Year’s Honours list in 1957 and presented with his insignia by the ambassador in Brussels later that year, with his family present.
At this point, Ernest Hugh Bicknell was senior clerk in the North West Europe Region, which covered Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Sweden (in the last of which there were 118 war graves). He retired from the Commission in 1964 aged 65 and died four years later, living in Amien.
These are sketched biographies of two brothers among the thousands of people who worked over the decades after 1918 to make the cemeteries and memorials on the Great War battlefields what they are today. I’m sure the CWGC archives holds many more stories that remain to be found and explored.