Molly uncovers the news of her brother’s death

Captain Charles Wilmot Evans of the 6th South Staffordshires was killed on 1 Jul 1916 on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. At the time, his sister Molly Evans was working at the No 2 General hospital in Le Havre. Below are extracts from her diary that chronicle how she found out the news and how it affected those around her. It contrasts with the account of this very same episode narrated in Alan MacDonald’s Book, “Lack of Offensive Spirit” which is based on the records of her letters to the War Office.

The first significant entry in her diary comes on 20 Jul 1916. She is aware of the major allied offensive taking place, not least as the hospital is busy. Because of lack of any news from Wilmot, in trepidation she goes to the local Inquiry Office in Le Havre. She was working nights at the time.

Off duty 8. Lovely & Hot. Breakfast. Fixed up Boot bag. Caught 9 tram and went to the Inquiry Place. Afraid – 2 efforts – Terrible news. Came back to quarters . Wrote home, had it censored. Waited for them again -passed me. Drowning episode. Very Hot. Back to Inquiry Place. Miss M’s sympathy. Dinner a strain. Bed by 2 On duty 8. Capt Lindsay for tea. Wrote letters all night. Day people

The ‘terrible news’ was that Wilmot was listed as ‘Missing’, which may have just offered a very slight glimmer of hope. The next morning the diary continues with the entry for 21 Jul:

Off duty 8 am..tried to write home breaking the truth – took it to be censored 9 o’clock going on…Slept better. On Duty 8. Cherries to eat. Fairly Slack. Good deal eye treatment . Made pin cushion etc. and wrote to mother …

Molly was evidently very apprehensive how her mother would accept the news and the very slim hope that still existed that Wilmot might still be alive. She continued working nights. On 24 Jul she had gone to sleep and was awakened in mid afternoon by a telegram from her Aunt Nettie, her mother’s sister.

We can suppose that Nettie had travelled up from Cheltenham as soon as she heard the news and was well aware that Florence, her sister, would have trouble dealing with the tragedy. Over the next year Nettie seems to always have been at Florence’s side and going on holiday with her too. Molly’s diary recounts her presence several times at critical junctures.

Florence continued to cling to the hope that Wilmot might have been incapacitated and captured. This was spurred on by the fact that Lyon Hatton, the Evans’ neighbour at Hagley House had also gone missing on 3 Jul 1916. One can imagine that the two anxious mothers, Louisa Hatton and Florence Evans were at this time in daily commiseration and consultation.  News later came in, of Lyon’s confirmed status as a Prisoner of War probably in early Sep 1916.

Meanwhile Molly laboured on. On Friday 28 Jul 1916  she had the whole day off as on Saturday she was moved to a day rota starting at 7.00 am. On the previous ward, where she was working nights, she repeatedly talks about ‘eye treatments’ and was thus probably in a ward of gas victims. The new ward ‘B’ had more demanding cases with head wounds and amputations

On 5 Aug Molly recounts that she received a telegram and in response sent a number of telegrams, but we do not know the subject or how it assisted her in gathering some more details about Wilmot’s fate. It would seem throughout this month, that she was writing five or six letters a day.

On 9 Sep she notes she receives a letter from D.A.G. This would be the office of the Deputy Adjutant General and the organisation in charge of details of those men listed as killed or missing. She makes no comment on it in the diary. This letter would most likely have included the report dated 29 Aug from L/Cpl T Rogers (2723) quoted in Alan Macdonald’s book p 547

Written from ‘somewhere in France’, Rogers restated his conviction that Capt Evans had died from a gunshot wound in the stomach. He wrote that the Captain who commanded D Company was bleeding from the nose and ‘showed absolutely no sign of life’. He went on, ‘Of course as you say people do recover from bad wounds I only wish I could think he was alive even in German hands and that one day I could meet him’

During the weeks of September, Molly talks of her weariness frequently but this was probably caused by the increasingly desperate situation in the hospital, as much as this bad news about her brother. There were huge numbers of new admissions and gruesome entries in her notes such as this for 17 Sep

One maggoty man died, awful ‘creepers’ sucking wounds. No M.O. new one went. Dressed all morning. Hurried dinner. Dressed all afternoon, case after case…. Dressed in huts up till 9 at night. Tired, Supper. Bed

This shift had started at 7.am. By 26 Sep, however, she talks of a “fairly easy morning” and later that day she writes:

Sudden and unexpected appearance of Noel [Downing] Hurried change into clean things. Sat on Cliffs after meeting – a lot of steps. Talked of Wilmot all time. Caught Tram 7.30

Noel Downing was in transit to his new unit in France, having just been awarded his commission as Second Lieutenant in the Welsh Guards. Interestingly the entry for 26 Sep is the first time Molly mentions Wilmot by name for at least three months. The next day on 27 Sep again after work, she continues:

Met Noel just outside Quarters along Rat Path and sat on beach. Walked with me to Hospital, lovely sunny evening. Don’t remember much work. Bed.

and on 28 Sep, Noel’s three day stay in Le Havre is over:

Met Noel sat on bank over cliffs. Thunderstorm. Lover’s talk only. Goodbye. Attic. Bed.

If this marks, as seems likely, an intensifying of the relationship between Molly and Noel, it also brought on a greater sense of anxiety. Noel was now on, or close to, the front line and there was the ever present dread that the same fate could befall him as did her brother.

However, her immediate anxiety was more focused on the state of mind of her mother back in England. The diary mentions nothing of receiving a telegram from ‘Downing’ on 6 Sep 1916 in which we first see the suggestion she should return home. It stated that her mother was ‘ill’. One can imagine that it is part of many such suggestions amidst all her regular correspondence. On 7 Sep she does note that she met with Matron presumably broaching the subject of leave but nothing is written explicitly about this. She states that she ‘felt depressed’ after speaking to her but no more detail. It is clear that all leave was denied.

Because of the intensity of new admissions throughout September the very idea of leave to go home was necessarily sidelined. It would seem that Noel on his visit helped provide some reason to renew the question. She would appear to be writing to her mother three or four times a week throughout this period. Molly’s diary does not discuss the pressures in the build up to her final decision, but it is not until 13 Nov she writes that she has made the decision to resign. Noel’s surviving letter of 11 Nov was probably the final catalyst that triggered it. On 14 Nov she writes:

Matron Accepts resignation….Off duty late. Had it ‘out’ with Sister Schofield. Sat by fire with Molloy, Ashlin.  Sister Salmon cross. Letter Red X. …Bed ……Slept till 4

The acrimony seems to have continued and probably explains why both Molloy and Ashlin left the hospital in fairly rapid succession and the very same three all joined up again in Birkenhead in Mar 1917.

Molly finally got home to her mother on 1 Dec 1916 a full five months after Wilmot had been killed. On 2 Dec with the aid of neighbour Daisy Hatton they got her ‘faint’ mother downstairs for lunch and talked.

As the passage in Alan Macdonald’s book testifies, Molly evidently continued her correspondence with the authorities right up until May 1919 trying to get more details about Wilmot’s fate and convince her mother of the reality of the situation.

On the other hand, Lyon Hatton the neighbour who had been captured on 3 Jul 1916 was released from POW camp on 18 Nov 1918 and was home for Christmas. Lyon remained close friends to Molly and Noel and is recorded as visiting them after their retirement in Upton some thirty years later in 1947.

Sources

  • Molly Evans’ Diaries 1914-1916
  • Alan MacDonald: A lack of Offensive Spirit? The 46th at Gommecourt, 1 July 1916, Iona Books 2008
Last updated on 28 January 2019 by JJ Morgan