This caught my eye yesterday at Rosary Cemetery and I’m not sure how I haven’t seen it before, the war grave of Corporal Alexander Thomas Lewthwaite.
There aren’t that many war graves at the Rosary Cemetery, they’re mostly at Earlham Cemetery which has two areas to commemorate the war dead. There are though 31 war dead at the Rosary Cemetery, with 19 having lost their lives in the First World War and their details are above.
Alexander was born in Manor Park, West Ham in London (although then technically in Essex) in 1896, the son of Robert Kendrew Lewthwaite and Leonora Lewthwaite. By 1901, his family had moved to Croydon Road, Caterham, Godstone which was in Surrey. Alexander was by then five and he lived with his parents, then both aged 40, along with Robert P (aged 9), Leonora Hilda (aged 8) and Evelyn May (aged 6).
The family had moved again by the 1911 census and it’s clear that there was a difference of opinion somewhere along the line between Robert and Leonora, primarily since they had “judicially separated” according to the census. This is a legal term which can still be used today, to signify that the couple are no longer living together, but they do remain married. This wasn’t entirely uncommon at the time, but I suspect that Leonora would have faced some social disapproval when people discovered her arrangements.
Whatever the reason was that Leonora had to move, she was living in Claxton in 1911, along with Leonora Hilda (aged 18), Evelyn Mary (aged 16), Alexander (aged 15), Kathleen Errol (aged 9) and servants. The family moved again over the next few years, this time to 2 Lakenham Terrace in Norwich.
Alexander enlisted into the military (service number 22755) on 4 December 1915, by which time he was 19, standing 5’10” tall and weighing 9 stone. He remained at his home base until 5 December 1915, before returning to Norwich on 22 January 1916, so it doesn’t seem he saw any front line military action. He went to Colchester between 23 January and 16 March 1916, then remained training in Essex.
It was at that training at Ray Farm Encampment (which was near to Parkeston in Essex, next to Harwich) that something dreadful happened. During some firearms training, Alexander was shot by Alfred Ernest Turner and he died nearly immediately from brain injuries caused from that rifle bullet. This was a mystery then and actually still is today, they weren’t using live ammunition and so the death just shouldn’t have happened.
The police came to investigate and an inquest was held the next day which heard from some of the men at the site. There was a decision that this was “an accidental death causing injury to the brain”. Alexander was aged just 20.
This is the letter sent on the day of the death in an attempt to establish the circumstances of what happened. As an aside here, these are part of the burnt documents which were damaged following an air raid in September 1940. The bomb destroyed two thirds of the military records which were stored at Arnside Street in London, about 4 million pages were lost. These ones were salvaged from the fire, but unfortunately were badly damaged.
Sergeant Walter Crane, who was in charge of the recruits, explained what had happened.
William Murrell Claxton came to investigate the matter from a police perspective.
The explanation of the matter to the inquest from Charles Kenneth Hatherall Wyche.
And, the testimony from the man who fired the gun which had fatal consequences, Alfred Ernest Turner.
As for what actually happened, it’s clear no-one really knows. Alfred was clearly questioned about whether he had deliberately killed Alexander, which remains a possibility although there’s no obvious motive.
I don’t understand what happened with Alexander’s grave at the Rosary Cemetery, as it seems that his gravestone was added following his death and there’s no reason why his body wouldn’t have been buried. There was though a new gravestone made in 1996, perhaps just because the old one was damaged. I’m unsure of why his grave is where it is in the Rosary Cemetery, it’s in an unusual place next to an older tomb and that doesn’t seem to have a familial link.
What isn’t recorded is what Alexander’s parents thought of what had happened. It might be enormously difficult to lose a son during the First World War, but the pain of this must have been compounded by the circumstances of how he lost his life. It’s unclear to me whether anything sinister took place or it was just incompetence, but, either way, this was perhaps a life needlessly lost.