I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The Reverend Prince William Thomas Beechey ministered to his flock in St. Peter’s church in the village of Friesthorpe in eastern England. He died of cancer in 1912 and left his wife Amy to care for the 14 children the couple had. There were eight boys and six girls. After Rev. Beechey’s death the family moved to the city of Lincoln.
When the First World War broke out, the Beechey Boys were quick to volunteer to "do their bit."
The Battle of Loos
On the morning of September 25, 1915, Sgt. Barnard Beechey joined tens of thousands of other soldiers in a frontal attack on German trenches in north-eastern France. It was the Battle of Loos and he became one of the more than 48,000 British casualties; no part of his body was ever found.
At 38, Barnard was the oldest of the Beechey boys to die. A few days before his death he wrote to his mother “I really am all right and don’t mind the life, only we all wish the thing was over.”
The Battle of Loos was characterized by sloppy planning and, in the end, had no impact on the outcome of the war. There is a memorial in Loos that honours the 20,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who fell in the battle and for whom there is no known grave.
The Dreaded Wartime Telegrams
Families dreaded seeing a telegram boy cycling to their homes, because it usually brought terrible news.
On November 14, 1916, Amy Beechey got a telegram advising that her son Second Lieutenant Frank Beechey had been seriously wounded. There was worse to come. Within hours a second telegram arrived: “Deeply regret to inform you that 2Lt FCR Beechey died of wounds Nov 14.”
Frank was a signaller during the Battle of the Somme, another military disaster of gargantuan proportions. He had crawled out into the battlefield to repair a severed telegraph line. A regimental association describes that Frank’s legs had been almost blown off in a shell burst: “Frank had lain in No Man’s Land under enemy fire from dawn until dusk before an army doctor risked his life to crawl out and administer morphine.”
It was doubly harrowing for Amy as she later received a postcard from her son that was postmarked November 16. How could this be, she inquired? His death was confirmed in the finality of the statement “Regret there is no reason to doubt.”
The War in East Africa
Charles Beechey was a private with the Royal Fusiliers. He too had been at the Somme and had written home that his brother’s death was an enormous shock even though we are “more or less accustomed to death out here.”
Then, he got the good news that he was being shipped out to East Africa. This little-known theatre of war took the lives of 300,000 men, but this has to be considered minor in light of the carnage on the battlefields of Flanders.
After the misery of the mud and trenches, East Africa must have seemed a wonderful relief. Alas, the now familiar fate of the Beechey family caught up with Charles. He took several rounds of machine-gun fire in the chest and died on October 20, 1917.
Two More Beechey Boys
Harold and Christopher Beechey had emigrated to Australia. When the call came for recruits from the Empire the brothers quickly rushed to the colours.
As members of the Australian New Zealand Army Corps they were destined to become cannon fodder at Gallipoli. The ill-conceived plan, in what had by now become a sickeningly familiar pattern, was to land troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey to open up a second front. The soldiers were to march to Constantinople and remove one of the belligerents from the war. Of course, it didn't work out that way.
The Turks had plenty of advance warning the attack was coming so they just had to sit on the cliff tops and take pot shots at the poorly trained Aussies and Kiwis struggling ashore in February 2015.
For eight months, the troops were pinned down on the beach fighting Turks and dysentery. Lance Corporal Harold Beechey stopped a piece of shrapnel but felt himself “Very lucky, nice round shrapnel through arm and chest, but did not penetrate ribs. Feel I could take it out myself with a knife.”
They patched him up and sent him back into the fight in France. There, he encountered a bomb in April 1917. No known grave.
Christopher was also at Gallipoli, but as a stretcher bearer. In May 1915, a sniper’s bullet hit him in the shoulder, which caused him to fall into a ravine. He injured his back so badly that he was invalided out of the military. He returned to Australia a cripple. He died in 1968 at the age of 85 never having seen his mother again.
The Last Beechey to Go
Leonard Beechey was a rifleman with the London Irish Rifles. He took part in the Battle of Cambrai late in 1917. The British brass hats had finally come to their senses, a bit. Instead of hurling waves of infantry into a meat grinder, they tried tanks.
But, foot soldiers were also used and Leonard, being one of that unlucky group, was gassed and wounded in an assault on Bourlon Wood. The medics got him to a hospital but, at the end of December, Amy received a letter from Stanley Hide, a Church of England Chaplain.
“Dear Mrs Beechey,
“I am very sorry to have to tell you your son Leonard died here this morning of the effects of his wounds. He was unfortunately far from well at the time he was hit; tetanus set in about ten days ago and he got gradually worse.”
When Eric Beechey left school he began a dentistry apprenticeship. This was his salvation. The army put him into the Royal Army Medical Corps and posted him to places far distant from the horrors of the trenches. He served out the war in places such as Malta and Salonika, Greece doing tooth extractions and fillings.
Sam was just old enough to join up before the war ended. He shipped out to the Western Front as a junior gunnery officer. He survived the last three weeks of the conflict.
Amy Beechey Animated
- In April 1918, Amy Beechey was presented to King George V and Queen Mary. The queen thanked the bereaved mother for her sacrifice. Amy’s response was that “It was no sacrifice, Ma’am―I did not give them willingly.”
- In 2017, crosses made from limestone taken from Lincoln Cathedral “have been erected across the world in a symbolic effort to reunite the five brothers (BBC).” The crosses have been placed at or near the location of their deaths.
- Peter, George, James, John, and Robert were the sons of Peter and Elspeth Tocher of Aberdeen. They all joined up in the Gordon Highlanders during World War I. Four of the brothers were killed in action and Peter was taken prisoner. In a PoW camp, he contracted tuberculosis from which he died in October 1923.
- “The Beechey Boys.” The Royal Anglian & Royal Lincolnshire Regimental Association, undated.
- “Brothers in Sacrifice: Family Who Lost Five Sons to Horrors of War.” Michael Walsh, Sunday Telegraph, November 5, 2006.
- “World War One: The Symbolic Reunion of Five Brothers Killed in Action.” Martin Slack, BBC News, November 13, 2017.
- “The Five Aberdeen Sons Who Died Due to World War One.” BBC News, November 11, 2016.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on February 06, 2018:
That poor mother! I liked what she said to the King and Queen.