Two post-mortem writings on a Hertfordshire airman.
Monday 9 March 2020 [7min read]
The photo was in a book called ‘Talks with Spirit Friends, Bench, and Bar: being descriptions of the next world and its activities by well-known persons who live there, given through the trance mediumship of the late Miss S. Harris to a retired public servant, and recorded by him.’ I’m not sure if copyright law extends the other side of the veil. On earth, the book belongs to the British Library so I shall describe the image only.
The caption reads ‘Second Lieutenant J.W.D. Needham, R.F.C.’ A young pilot is pictured in uniform, without a hat, hands in pockets looking with a thoughtful expression past the camera. He is standing in what looks like a back garden, perhaps ‘Hill Brow’, the family home in Hemel Hempstead. He is the epitome of a ‘schoolboy warrior’.
He had joined the Inns of Court Officers Training Corps 15 days after his 17th birthday and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps in April 1917. So in the picture, he is 18 years old, his slightly baggy uniform looks almost as if it had been bought, like a school uniform, to grow into.
The I.O.C.O.T.C. had sent a draft of 83 men to join the RFC training school at Reading on the 13th March 1917. Walter won his wings at the end of June so perhaps the photo was taken to celebrate his graduation. The leaves are out anyway, suggesting late spring or early summer before he was posted to France.
“11. Oney. – Walter is here, and he is so delighted he has been able to come very close to home. He does want them all to know what a delightful place of existence this is, and how he would like them to see how very happy and well looked after he is. He wants his love given to Hugh [his brother]
Lockwood. – I can’t get the hang of this wireless affair, but certainly these things should be broadcasted, old man.
Sitter to Control. – How has he got hold of that term “broadcasted,” as it was not in use in his time?
Lockwood. – Please remember we have not disconnected our wire with this planet at all; we are still linked on and hold the line.
[NOTE. – Walter, which is his real name, was Oney’s godson, and was an air pilot killed in the war.]”
I like the way that when you study local history, stories often link up in quite unexpected ways. My great uncle’s death in WWI set me researching other members of the I.O.C.O.T.C., I was particularly alert to those members who had also been, like my great uncle, to Berkhamsted School, Walter Needham was one such. Their paths may have crossed – they were both training in Berkhamsted in the autumn of 1915. The recruits were from all over Britain and the empire, so noticing a familiar face will have been quite unusual and may have been a point of contact.
I looked up Walter Needham’s war record and found out that he was the son of the owner (and founder) of the Berkhamsted Gazette, Edgar Needham. I guessed, rightly, that the paper would have covered Walter’s death in some detail. I found the articles and duly re-published transcriptions on my blog.
At some stage, I realized my family had a link to the Needhams. My grandfather owned a print of a photograph published in the Gazette in 1977 showing the Hertfordshire Yeomanry in Watford in 1927. He had written on the back:
‘A troop of 343 Bty. on their way from the Drill Hall to Cassiobury Park. 1st from left, Bdr Goffey, 2nd from left, Bdr. Needham.’
My grandfather’s memories, like anybody’s, are not always reliable, but it certainly looks like him. Perhaps someone will be able to confirm the identity of his fellow bombardier, who I assume to be a younger brother of Walter Needham. The fact that the photo exists at all suggests that the Gazette may have been closer to the story than meets the eye.
My book research has involved contact beyond the grave. ‘My’ Walter, Walter Lightowler Wilkinson, (who was billeted with my great uncle in the family home in Cross Oak Road) spoke frequently to the Scottish writer, Elizabeth Sharp, after his death at Arras on 9th April 1917. I’ve struggled with this part of my story. My journey has been a move from cynicism, not to credulity, but empathy.
The Sharp family very kindly lent me one of Elizabeth Sharp’s journals relating to the years 1918-1919, and 1925-1929. It records Elizabeth’s supernatural correspondence with Walter and her husband, William. (William Sharp had collaborated with W.B. Yeats on devising rituals for a Celtic mystical order and was, Yeats told Elizabeth, the most psychic person he had ever met.)
Both Elizabeth Sharp’s diary and the writing of the anonymous author of Talks with Spirit Friends, seem to me to be a kind of war reporting: dispatches from its long afterlife. Whatever one’s beliefs, there is a value when the writer knows the dead soldier. In Walter Needham’s case, I think the anonymous writer may be a maternal aunt. In Wilkinson’s case, the spiritual researcher is his literary mentor and adoptive mother. Even the most sceptical reader can, by a process of ‘reverse engineering’, find out something about the life left behind from the description of the life beyond the veil.
The narrative choices of Walter Needham’s spirit biographer say much about an ambitious middle-class family who was proud of academic achievement. His post-mortem CV also hints at a complicated relationship between the writer and Walter’s more sceptical parents, particularly his father.
Any urge to laugh at the material – and the urge is often quite strong – is undercut when seen in the context of what parents might have expected to read about their teenage children in more peaceful times.
A different type of post-mortem narrative is available in Walter’s army file at Kew.
REPORT OF ACCIDENT TO 2/LT. J.W.D. NEEDHAM
Nov. 12th 1917 NESTLE
Fractured skull, injury to chest, compound fracture femur, compound fracture tibia. Died in No. 20 Gen. Hosp. Camiers at 11-15p.m. 12-11-17 Crashed in forced landing owing to adverse weather conditions.
List of Articles of Intrinsic or Sentimental Value
Tunic with collar badges & badges of rank 1 [presumably the one in the photograph]
Undervest woolen 1
Gloves, leather prs 1
Braces prs 1
Despite what the accident report says, correspondence in the Gazette suggests we don’t know why he crashed, although the weather may have played a part. There were no witnesses. His observer, Jack Evans, who wrote an account of the accident for the Gazette, didn’t have time to ask his pilot what was wrong before their plane crashed. He would die of injuries sustained in another crash: his death, on 9th February 1918, unreported in the Gazette.
But you wouldn’t expect it to be – there were plenty of stories with more urgent local interest. Two soldiers had walked into the canal ‘owing to the fog’. A ‘celebrated Russian dwarf’ was entertaining the townsfolk at the Court Theatre with an escape act. The council was taking a butcher to court for allegedly selling horse flesh. Lord Kitchener (presumably the 2nd Earl, the 1st one really would make an interesting story) was staying at Champneys. A Benetts End man was charged with failing to report a case of parasitic mange.
Jack Evans had joined the army in September 1914. He had fought in France in 1915 and been wounded more than once. He had won a commission into another regiment before being seconded to the RFC as an observer. His second crash did have witnesses. The plane crashed soon after taking off: the engine failed. Though why it failed is not known – the crashed engine wasn’t in a state to be forensically examined. Jack died on the way to hospital. He was 24 years old. His pilot escaped, but was injured and took no further part in the fighting.
Jack Evans’s story was reported in the town he grew up in, Pembroke Dock. He left a wife and young son in Barnsbury.
“Sitting, 3rd February 1927
757. Walter and Wilfred Needham. – It is such a comfort to keep mother and dad acquainted, as far as possible, with our lives here, and I do want mother to feel we are having a ripping time in between our studies.”
A post-mortem account of Walter’s life demonstrates the continuing importance of the dead to the living long after the guns have fallen silent. It suggests that grief didn’t fit a neat pattern of mourning and ‘closure’. It suggests too that private grief was not contained by annual public remembrance, but was still being negotiated almost daily, a decade later.
The weight of loss is palpable – even if our tears are prompted by laughter. Whatever one thinks of the writer’s beliefs, her writing seems at least partly inspired by a desire to heal the living. I can’t think of many better reasons to write.
Spiritualist texts are not an obvious port of call for a conscientious historian of WWI, but an open-minded one might find out a great deal, if not about the afterlife, then at least about the lives of those left behind. Through the spiritualists’ insistent search for answers beyond the grave, we might yet catch a glimpse of real lives brutally cut short by war.
Talks with Spirit Friends, Bench and Bar. Sara Harris, Spiritualist.
London: J. M. Watkins, 1931.
Elizabeth Sharp’s diary is still owned by her family.
A more grounded biography of Walter Needham has been written by his niece, Jennifer Honour, and published online in The Old Berkhamstedian, 2019. (Previously published in Hertfordshire People, The Journal of the Hertfordshire Family History Society – No.134, September 2015.)
Walter Needham’s army papers are at Kew under reference WO 339/99877.
‘Yeomanry on the march’ was re-published by the Gazette in May 1977 with the caption ‘Yeomanry in Watford High Street 50 years ago’.