SERGEANT SYDNEY HIBBETT was officially reported ‘Missing presumed Killed in Action, 1st. July 1916’, in the Battle for Gommecourt Wood, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. He was 22 yrs old.
Members of the Hibbett Family also received messages, by word of mouth, that Sydney was missing and had been seen wounded in No Man’s Land. Their search for him began immediately but it was four years before they received news of his possible grave.
In 1919, Bertie Hibbett designed a Grave Stone for his brother. It has a number of features that were eventually to appear on the official CWGC Grave Stone: Rank, Name & Number, a Cross, the Staffordshire Knot and a saying or biblical quotation at the base. Here Bertie has chosen HAVE MERCY. O LORD, UPON HIM AND LET PERPETUAL LIGHT SHINE UPON HIM.
In MY MEMORIES OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR, 1967, Bertie writes movingly about first hearing his brother had died on the Battlefield.
‘The voyage across the Channel was memorable indeed for, while I was eating a late dinner on board, I heard that my elder brother, Sydney had been seen dead in No Man’s Land. On his breast there had been a small piece of paper on which he had written, ‘Pour a drop of water between my lips, thank you’. Now every Good Friday I am reminded of how the dying do thirst, when we sing (the hymn)‘ ‘His are the thousand sparkling rills … and yet he saith “I thirst”). On hearing the news of my brother I could eat no more, but went straight to my cabin bunk. ‘Two shall be in the field of Battle, one shall be taken and the other left’. ‘
FROM HOSPITAL IN NEW BRIGHTON, Bertie wrote to anyone he could think of for news of Sydney and Venables and other friends. It must have been a great effort writing with his left hand, his right wrist badly wounded. He received sympathetic replies but no further details from Officer H.E.Bird C. QMS; J.Jones R.A.M.C and ‘Your Old Pal Ben’ still holding the Line but some miles north of Fonquevillers & Gommecourt.
OFFICER H.E.BIRD Chaplain QMS to Pte BERTIE HIBBETT 19/7/1916
Dear Bert, I am pleased to hear you have got a Blighty and hope your wound will soon be healed. With regard to your brother Sid, I am extremely sorry to say that I fear the worst has happened. The last thing I can get to know of him, was that he was severely wounded, lying in No Man’s land. He was unable to speak but wrote on a piece of paper that he required a drink of water, which one of our chaps gave him, but could not stay with him. That is the last we have heard of him.
I hope we may hear of him again for he was a brave man and one who did his duty, without fear or favour. If, as I fear, the worst has happened I hope you will try and soften the blow for your parents as much as possible. All papers, letters etc, I have found in pack belonging to you and your brother, I have handed over to Lance Corpl. Jones A.D. as Sid told him if anything happened he was to forward them. Your chum Venables is also missing, we can get no news of him at all.
Kindest regards H.E.Bird, Chaplain QMS. Censor: J.A. Wilkinson?
ON 24th OCTOBER 1916, ARTHUR HIBBETT received the following:-
BRITISH RED CROSS ORDER OF ST.JOHN
Enquiry Department for Wounded & Missing.
To ARTHUR HIBBETT Esq. Education Offices, Walsall.
18, Carlton House Terrace, S.W. 23rd October 1916. Dear Sir, Sgt. S. Hibbett 8830
We are extremely sorry to tell you that we have received a very sad report about your son from Pte W. Morris, 1107, of the same Company and Battalion, now in Spalding Hall V.A.D. Hospital, Hendon. Our information states that Sgt Hibbett was wounded during the fighting at Gommecourt on 1st July and fell in No Man’s Land. When the stretcher bearers reached him later in the day he was found to have died of his injuries. Our informant was not an eye-witness of this event but was told of it by the other men in the Battalion. He adds that he knew your son well and described him as being about 5’ 9 or 10” in height and of a light complexion.
We do not attach much importance to second-hand reports but we greatly fear that there can be very little hope of your son being alive, as had he been taken prisoner we think we should have received his name before now on one of the official lists from Germany.
With renewed assurance of our sincere sympathy,
Yours faithfully, K. Robson for Earl of Lucan.
The Grammar School Flag will be flying at half mast tomorrow (Tuesday) for dear Sydney. We will send Mr. Marshall’s letter for you to read, when we send the parcel. I will write tomorrow. Love Ida.
AFTER THE ARMISTICE, NOVEMBER 1919, the War Office came under immense pressure from families for information about the fate of their loved ones, especially those reported ‘Missing’. In 1919, emotions were running high when it became generally known that the bodies of those who had ‘died for King and Country ‘ would not be returned Home .
IN MARCH 1919 an article appeared in Walsall’s Express & Star: ‘NOTES OF A VISIT TO THE BATTLEFIELDS OF FRANCE’ by Major H.B. Lane, one-time Medical Officer with the 6th S. Staffordshire Regiment.
This article would have been highly significant to the Hibbett Family as 5th & 6th S.Staffords alternated every five or six days between the Trenches & Rest/ Reserve Camps. Members of the Family would have taken some comfort in Major Lane’s assurance that the graves of the fallen were being well cared for by the Graves Registration Unit (forerunner of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission). But the y would have been dismayed by his comment that ‘it was impossible, despite all efforts, to identify the remains and the graves’ of those who fell in the Battle for Gommecourt.’
BERTIE HIBBETT appears to have been so affected by this article that he copied it out by hand, as well as adding his ink design for Sydney’s eventual Grave Stone:-
PRESS CUTTINGS BOOK – dating from March 1919.
NOTES OF A VISIT TO BATTLEFIELDS IN FRANCE by H.B.Lane (Major RAMC) one time M.O. 6th S.Staffs. British Expeditionary Force. March 16.1919.
Sir – Last week I had the privilege of viewing most of the Battlefields upon which the 46th DIVISION (North Midland) has fought and I thought that perhaps a few comments which I could make would be of interest to many old 6th S. Staffords men, as well as give some comfort and gratification to relatives who may be wondering what trace remains of graves sacred to them after the full tide of battle had crossed and recrossed these spots.
I first visited the old spot where the Division first had the honour to take their share in combating the enemy.
NEUVE EGLISE & WULVERGHEM.
Bulford Camp (Cemetery) had long since been removed and had been re-erected at Aldershot Camp, the resting spot of the N. Staffords, when out of the trenches. This I believe was done before the Messines Battle in 1917.
All the houses are totally destroyed, including the old Head Quarters of the 1/3 NM Field Ambulance, though oddly enough the main dressing station – the French Customs House – still stands.
NEUVE EGLISE is totally destroyed and indeed it is hard to recognise in that desolate spot the comparatively intact village we knew (the Church & the private house on the outskirts, with the statuette in the garden and the bath house). I visited the British Cemetery, which was in a portion of the Churchyard & found it in very good order.
THE GRAVES REGISTRATION UNIT are doing magnificent work both here and everywhere I went, restoring the cemeteries after battles. All the graves have been renovated, and, where needed, fresh crosses erected.
WULVERGHEM was a distinct shock. There does not remain one stone in the whole area to denote that there was ever a village there. If it had not been for the cross-roads and the ruin I doubt that I should have known where the village had actually been.
Of SOUVENIR FARM, North Midland Farm, South Midland Farm and the two old estaminets (cafe/bars) which formed the BATTLE HEADQUARTERS and the REGIMENT AID POST, there is not a trace. Yet it is a freak or can it be put down to the hand of Providence? – the Old Cemetery standing immediately behind the dressing station – not only stands but the original crosses stand also. There is Lance Corporal Norton’s grave, with his cap still hanging on the cross. I remember it being up away back in 1915 …
There are those who know, but let me assure them this or that grave stands well looked after and ready for their visit.
BAILLEUL is but a shell of its former self. The only place that has any semblance to a building is the asylum, best known to both officers & men for the most excellent bathing facilities offered.
From there I quickly got down to the HULLOCK area, passing slowly by the HOHENZOLLERN REDOUBT, with its poignant memories of the most awful blow that has ever been for both us comrades in arms and many homes of Walsall & Wolverhampton.
The Cemetery on the plain by VERMELLES is gradually being restored to order. The other in the quarries has much to be done, having been in the hands of the Bosche for many a month, but it will be restored.
Moving still further south I visited LA TARGETTE and NEUVILLE St VAAST – the scene of operation in March 1916. Neuville St Vaast was noted then by its state of destruction, but La Targette was a village. It now shares the same fate as Neuville St. Vaast.
Behind here, between MONT St ELIOTT & ECOUVRES, is perhaps the biggest Cemetery in the Battle zone in France, at that time it held over 4.000 graves. Now there are more than double that number – a terrible & yet wonderful tribute to the self-sacrifice which has made our victory possible.
At GOMMECOURT everything is as it was when the Division left it in March 1917. For Gommecourt did not come into the battle area again: – but the distressing thing is that so much time elapsed between our fight there in 1916 and the time the Bosche retired, that it was impossible, despite all efforts, to identify the remains and the graves.
All of those crosses standing in NO MAN’S LAND, almost in all instances ,To an Unknown South Stafford killed in action, July 1st 1916.
There is a very nice Temporary Monument standing just in front of the old German Trenches on the side of the Gommecourt Road: To the Memory of the Officers, Warrant Officers, N.C.O.s and Men of the 46th Division who fell on July 1st 1916.
A similar Monument with this inscription stands in FONQUEVILLERS CEMETERY where many more named Staffords lie buried. The Monument is a plain oak cross, with a brass tablet standing about five feet high. Our trenches are surrounded by barbed wire and are being preserved, I believe for all time, as one of the sacred spots of the War.
At BELLINGLISE, the scene of our great triumphs, here is another similar monument. All these monuments are to be replaced by more substantial lasting tribute to the gallantry of those who so magnificently gave up their lives to the call of King and Country.
H.B.Lane (Major RAMC ) one time M.O. C. 6th South Staffords.
On 18th APRIL, 1919, almost three years after his son’s death, ARTHUR HIBBETT wrote again to the War Office. He received the following reply, dated 12th May.
War Office. 12th May , 1919.
In reply to you letter of 18th April, 1919 I regret to say that the grave of Sergeant S. Hibbett has not yet been located, but enquiries are being made, and I will write to you again as soon as I am able to obtain any information.
I am very sorry not to be able to send you a more satisfactory reply.
Typed addition: Regarding visits to France, I regret very much I cannot give you any definite information on this subject. This question is now under discussion and I hope to be able to send you a definite answer in the near future.
Yours faithfully. H. Willis – Major for Major General, Director General of Graves Registration and Enquiries.
On 16th MAY, ARTHUR HIBBETT wrote yet again to the War Office and received, by return, the following acknowledgment regarding ‘this subject’. It is evident by the change of address that the War Office was overwhelmed by enquiries.
War Office, London, S.W.1. 16. 5. 1919.
SIR, I am commanded by the Army Council to acknowledge the receipt of your letter received 16.5.1919 on the subject of Sgt. HIBBETT S.Staffs. A further communication will be addressed to you on this subject.
I am, SIR, Your obedient Servant, R.N. Drades.
Any further communication on this subject should be addressed to The Secretary, War Office, Winchester House, St, James Square, Pall Mall.
By AUGUST 1920 SYDNEY’s GRAVE was still not found and my Uncle, BASIL HIBBETT (Lieut. Manchester Rgt) set off for France in search of his brother.
BASIL HIBBETT: POSTCARD to his Mother, Mrs.A.Hibbett, Foden Road, Walsall, Angleterre. Sunday 29th August 1920. 11 am.
We cycled here from Ypres yesterday & found an English hostel, St Barnabas. We are off for Loos and Arras today. Have got in touch with the graves people at Arras about Sydney & Alfred * & if the graves are there I shall find them alright.
Good weather so far. Much love, Basil.
NB * possibly a cousin.
1st JULY 1916 Anniversary TELEGRAM from BASIL HIBBETT: Cricklade, 30. 6. 1956 to Reverend Arthur Hibbett, Gedney Hill Vicarage, Spalding, Lincs.
Forty years on, few words. Many thoughts. Love Basil.
FROM WOODEN CROSSES to GRAVE STONES – from SMALL CEMETERIES to LARGER ONES.
Between 1920 and 1925 the graves of the small Cemeteries, lying within No Man’s Land at Fonquevillers, were brought together in Gommecourt Wood New Cemetery, Fonquevillers.
It was then that the WAR GRAVES REGISTRATION, by process of elimination, decided that the body of ‘An Unknown Sergt. South Stafford’ was most probably that of Sergt. Sydney. Hibbett 8830 1/5th. thus confirming the story that Basil had brought Home in 1920.
The War Graves Registration Unit contacted families to discover what saying they wished to have engraved on their loved one’s stone and what flowers they wanted planted beside the grave.
SYDNEY HIBBETT was given a special CWGC GRAVE STONE with the inscription ‘BELIEVED TO BE BURIED IN THIS CEMETERY’ The biblical quotation at the base reads simply ‘Thy Will be done’.
THE GRAVE OF THE UNKNOWN WARRIOR. Nov. 1920.
I remember as a child my father telling me that he imagined the Unknown Soldier could be that of his brother, Sydney. Families of the Missing took great comfort from the idea that their lost son could be buried in Westminster Abbey with full military honours .This action by the War Office was inspired and met a very human need.
**********************************************************************BATTLE OF SOMME ANNIVERSARY VISIT, 1962: BASIL & BETTY HIBBETT & their son TIMOTHY: POSTCARD to The Revd A. Hibbett, South Kelsey Rectory, Lincoln, England. Posted 5.7.1962.
Wed, July 4th (1962)
Tim is bringing us back by car & we stopped here tonight. So I tramped the cobbled streets of Ypres once again after 45 years & heard the Last Post sounded at Menin Gate at 9.pm. Very impressive and moving. Will write more fully later. We cross via Ostend tomorrow. Basil.
I first visited Gommecourt Wood New Cemetery in 2003. I took with me a photo of Sydney’s Grave taken by a kind member of the Western Front Association (South East). It showed a rose bush beside the grave which pleased me as I knew from Bertie’s letters that roses were his Mother’s favourite flowers, he found her a wild June rose to send in his last letter Home; a rose is most probably what she asked for. All the Battlefield Cemeteries I have visited are beautifully kept by the volunteer gardeners, who take a great pride in their work.
My third visit to Gommecourt Wood New Cemetery was on 1st July 2016, with my sister Rosamund Hibbett, when we were glad to share our father’s drawings of Fonquevillers Church (& its famous sign‘To Berlin. Up Traffic only’) with many other visitors. Since creating this website I have been much moved by the knowledge that people, other than the Hibbett Family, have been visiting my Uncle Sydney’s Grave. My grateful thanks to Paul Hughes of QMS, Walsall who visits the grave ‘regularly’ and to John Vallance & other researchers in Staffordshire and Bedfordshire who have taken an interest in Sydney Hibbett’s story. Elizabeth Webb.
One thought on “In Search of the Missing: Battlefield Visits 1919 –”
What a marvellous story and so grateful you have posted. We ourselves have just completed a comparative volume for the 5th North Staffords.. some 1000 pages of their time on the Western Front. A sister battalion also in the 137th Staffordshire Brigade. Every man 966 visited who fell across Flanders, France, Germany…thankfully we did not loose any in Egypt. God bless Bertie… shall think of him and the other boys again this year when we visit.