Postcard from World War One prompts new display at Cuckfield Museum

The Post Office Rifles assembled in Cuckfield High Street
The Post Office Rifles assembled in Cuckfield High Street

A postcard from a young soldier to his mother during the First World War has prompted Cuckfield Museum to set up an Armistice display.

The display – 1915, remembering events at home and away – will run until the museum closes for the winter on December 12 at 1pm.

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Phillipa Malins, museum curator, said the postcard was one of a collection belonging to Sylvie Gray, who was evacuated to Cuckfield during the Second World War. She and several other evacuees return to the village every year for a reunion lunch.

The card was given to her by her brother Ray Newton, a postcard dealer. It was sent in December 1914 and the wording made it likely the sender was a soldier billeted in Cuckfield.

Phillipa said: “We knew that the 2nd Battalion of the 8th City of London Regiment Post Office Rifles were in the village for six months between November 1914 and May 1915, training before leaving for France.”

The information on the postcard was investigated by Sarah Mees, who is a researcher at Kew and daughter-in-law of evacuee George Mees. She found the sender was George Gates. His mother, Mrs Sinnamon, had been widowed and remarried in 1910. Phillipa said: “It’s interesting to see that George has misspelt the new surname of his mother!”

The Knight family at home in Brainsmead with their four PO Riflemen

The Knight family at home in Brainsmead with their four PO Riflemen

George was 20 when the Great War started and had been working in the Post Office as a telegraph messenger boy, hence joining the Post Office Rifles. He had a sister Helena who could have been the Nellie in the card as the name was frequently shortened.

George survived the war and worked all his life for the Post Office. He married and had two children and died in 1970.

Phillipa said: “We thought how fascinating to build up a picture of a life from this message on the back of a postcard.

“We are including Sarah Mees’ more detailed research into George’s family and his war record in a file accompanying the display.”

Ralph Chalkley in the Officer Training Corps at Sherborne School in 1912, aged 16. Two years later he was fighting a war

Ralph Chalkley in the Officer Training Corps at Sherborne School in 1912, aged 16. Two years later he was fighting a war

The diaries from the front line

Two diaries from the Gallipoli campaign of 1915/16 will be among the exhibits at Cuckfield Museum’s Armistice display.

They were discovered recently in a house clearance in London Lane and had belonged to Col Robert Sayer, who had been a Gunner at Gallipoli in the 26th Battery RFA, 17th Brigade, 29th Division. One is the official military diary for the Battery and the other is the personal, pencil written diary of one of the officers, 2nd Lt Ralph Chalkley.

Museum curator Phillipa Malins said: “We are displaying the pages in the diaries which describe the terrible chaos of the retreat from Gallipoli in January 1916 when equipment had to be abandoned, efforts to blow up the equipment failed and horses had to be shot.

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“The Battery subsequently moved to Flanders where Ralph Chalkley was Mentioned in Dispatches and Robert Sayer was awarded the DCM and granted a commission in 1917. He went on to become a career soldier and was awarded the OBE as Regimental Paymaster for the Royal Army Pay Corps.”

Research into Ralph Chalkley’s life revealed he attended Sherborne School and was a member of the school’s Officer Training Corps in 1912, aged 16.

He is pictured sitting second from the left in the front row. It’s hard to believe the baby-faced lad would be fighting a war two years later.

The second picture shows four men of the Post Office Rifles with the Bennett family at their home in Brainsmead. The photo belongs to Eric Nicholls, whose mother, Minnie, was the daughter in the photo.

Phillipa said of the Regiment: “Because they were billeted in families, the village became very attached to them. The Regiment put on entertainments for the children at Christmas. The villagers were allowed daily rations by the Army for the soldiers and we have the billeting letter which went out.

“The amounts of meat and bread were generous (1lb meat and 1 1/4 lb bread respectively) and families benefited from the extra food.”

Original memorial plaque on display

Cuckfield Museum’s new display – 1915, remembering events at home and away – will be open until December 12 at 1pm.

One of the exhibits will be a plaque which was erected in the churchyard in 1968 in memory of the men who didn’t come back.

Soldiers who had been billeted in the village in 1914/15 returned for the ceremony and one met with the family who had looked after them so many yeas before.

A replacement for the original plaque was recently set up at the church.

The museum is at Queen’s Hall, High Street, Cuckfield RH17 5EL. It is open on Wednesday from 10am-12.30pm and Friday and Saturday from 10am-4pm.

For more information, log on to www.cuckfieldmuseum.org or telephone 01444 473630.

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