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  • Claire Jordan

For Sam

Updated: Aug 20, 2022

There is precious little engraved on this headstone at Hop Store Cemetery just outside Ypres to hint at the man buried beneath it.

“85874 Drive S Woods, Royal Field Artillery, 6th August 1915, aged 35.”

That’s it; no lovingly-chosen epitaph, not even his first name.

The CWGC which keeps his headstone so beautifully tells us he was the son of the late John Woods and his wife Mary, of Darlington, Co. Durham and that he served in the South African War.

A place to start, at least.

So let me tell you what I have found out about this brave man.

His name is Sam.

In 1881, there he is in Darlington, aged 1, his parents’ first (and maybe only) child; Dad is a 27 year old Irish-born wood sawyer and Mum a local girl, barely 20 years old.

Ten years later, little Sam is living alone with his Uncle Samuel and Aunt Elizabeth and their family in Stockton and when he enlists into the Army Service Corps aged 18 and a half, he gives his Uncle as his Next of Kin.

He has been working as a groom; he has blue eyes, brown hair and scars on both his legs.

He spent a year in South Africa, fighting the Boer War, looking after the horses with the Army Service Corps through 1899 and 1900, and was discharged to the Reserve after serving his agreed three-year term of engagement in 1902.

He stays in London and finds what work he can as a groom, horses being his solace and refuge in life, his friends who he understood and who understood him, but it was hard to get regular work and misfortune dogged him. He seems to have had no support network back home, no Alamo, on which he could count.

We next find him, still unmarried, still technically a groom, but alas adrift, taking refuge in the spring of 1911 at the Workhouse in Whitechapel. He must surely have been pretty miserable without the company of horses he was so used to.

As with so much of Sam’s story, officialdom has muddled his details. His First World War service papers were destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1940 so we cannot know for sure if he had re-joined the Army by August 1914, or if perhaps this new War gave this weary old soldier a new reason to get up in the morning.

Unusually, the Army Medal Office made a mess of his campaign medal entitlement and leaves it entirely unclear whether he first goes to France in August 1914 or not until February the following year.

At any rate, he re-engaged at Woolwich and he went to France – at some point – in the first six months of the War with the Royal Field Artillery, with the rank of Driver, meaning he is in charge of one of the pairs of horses pulling the field artillery guns along muddy, shell-holed tracks.

His 87th Battery RFA fired Howitzers.

These were field pieces which lobbed shells almost vertically up into the air on a high trajectory, dropping them down onto enemy positions behind hills, into slit trenches, onto machine gun nests in ways normal field guns with flatter trajectories could not. It was a difficult, deafening, dangerous job.

Sam had to get his horses to safely pull the Howitzers into position and then would be part of the team operating the Howitzer once in its designated place.

I have the utmost respect for the horses who served in the Army during the War; they had no choice, they were so brave in their own right and they so often died alongside the men who loved them, men like Sam Woods.

So we’ve gotten him from Darlington, to the Transvaal, to Whitechapel, to Flanders.

What happened to him on Friday 6th August 1915?

Sam’s Hop Store Cemetery is close to a village called Vlamertinge, a couple of miles to the west of Ypres. It was within range of enemy artillery for most of the War, but our own heavy artillery units and field ambulances were nevertheless stationed there.

There are six other Gunners of Sam’s 87th Battery RFA and a lad from the Divisional Ammunition Column buried at Hop Store in a row alongside him who all died on 6th August 1915.

It alas does not merit a mention in the Brigade war diary, but we can make a reasonable guess that a German shell found their gun position – and probably their horses too - that day.

Sam’s name is spelled variously Wood and Woods. He is not on the Darlington War Memorial.

It doesn’t seem right that the details of this brave man’s life and death have slipped through the cracks of time, due perhaps in part to the fact that, for whatever reasons, his childhood may not have been a very easy one, and that he did not marry during his 35 years here or leave behind children and then grandchildren who would keep a candle burning for him.

But he did himself leave one tantalising little detail for me to find all these years later.

His entry in the Register of Soldiers’ Effects gives the sole legatee of his monies-owing (that is: £8 6s 9d) to “Miss Lily Davidson.”

Let’s hope that Lily Davidson was his Person; he didn’t manage to marry her, clearly, but he left her everything he had and I truly hope she loved him back.

So this is for Sam, who loved Lily Davidson and horses, who had a tricky, lonely time of it but who did his level best and who stood up twice for his country, for us all, when it counted: you matter and you are Not Forgotten.

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