As promised last month here is some more information about the graffiti that inspired the Scars of War project that took place in West Norfolk this autumn. We are very grateful to Kevin Hitchcock for all the research he has undertaken uncovering the fascinating stories behind the names. This post is all about one man who left his mark, literally in the tower of King’s Lynn library.
Born 1893, died October 1916 Somme.
Aubrey Cato was born in the quiet and picturesque Cotswold region of Oxfordshire. His father was a shepherd, his mother died when he was only a year old, perhaps due to complications caused by child-birth. Before the war he was living in Bampton and working as a farm labourer. Bampton is a small town now famous for being used as a film location for Downton Abbey. They were not a wealthy family and times were difficult for farm workers, but he would’ve been comfortable working with horses, and when war came, Aubrey volunteered to join his county Yeomanry, the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars (QOOH). He did not join alone, his best friend and near neighbour, William Hudson joined too.
The QOOH was a mounted Imperial Yeomanry Regiment with a proud history and illustrious alumni. Perhaps Aubrey wanted to join his friends already in the Yeomanry, perhaps he was looking for adventure or perhaps he saw this as a way out from the rural poverty his family lived in – we may never know. But by June 1915 the 2/1 QOQH were stationed in King’s Lynn and as part of the 2/2 Mounted Division, they were directed to protect Norfolk from possible invasion.
While at King’s Lynn, they put on sporting festivals, horse tug-o-war being very popular with the crowds, Athletics, Cricket and a Divisional Football competition – the final being held at the Walks. They also made many friends and even married some of the locals.
But it was not all fun and games. Zeppelin scares were still common and so Aubrey and William found themselves at the top of the Library tower, looking out for enemy aircraft activity with a hot line direct to the War Office. While staring out across the sky he left his mark on the tower etched into the brickwork. His name, a heart and the symbol of a church. From were he stood, he had a wonderful view of St Margaret’s. These marks remain to this day, as does William’s name.
Sadly, these days of living, playing and loving were not to last. Storm clouds were brewing, the need for men and horses was insatiable. The early optimism of ‘it’ll all be over by Christmas’ had passed and the Lynn News talked about ‘war weariness’. A time of youthful innocence was over.
In March 1916 conscription was introduced and all able-bodied men were liable for foreign service; most of the mounted yeomanry regiments had their horses taken away and were converted into cyclist battalions. Aubrey, along with around 200 of his fellow comrades, found himself transferred to the 6th Battalion Ox Buck’s Light infantry, and by September heading to the rain-sodden mud of the Somme.
By early October, they were moving to the front line trenches, in terrible conditions, about to take part in the last big offensive battle of the Somme, The Battle of Le Transloy. The Battalion was tasked with the job of attacking Rainbow Trench, due to ‘go over the top’ on the 7th October. Aubrey and William would have been aware of the huge losses the British Army had suffered earlier in the campaign. They were under no illusions.
One of those men, Lieut Scribbans, who had also been in King’s Lynn kept a diary and details the following events – these are his words:
We were ordered to parade for the 2nd line trench & set out in battle order at 4 o’clock. We reached the trench, which was violently bombarded at about 7.30. Not being room for us all, a number of us were sent back to a sunken roadway for night. This place proved a terrible death trap. We dug ourselves holes to sleep, Wallie Prickett, Owen Gibbs & I getting down together. No casualties occurred until about 2 am, when a bomb exploded in the very midst of us. All were smothered in dirt. Cato was blown to pieces at our feet.
Aubrey, like many others, has no grave, his name is remembered on the Thiepval war memorial.
He was gone, and his death was witnessed by William who was beside him. There are no known photos of Aubrey. But the graffiti remains, a reminder that Aubrey was real, not a statistic, nor an entry on a computer ancestry site nor a fading image on a black and white photo. He’s not a work of fiction. He lived, he’s real. This is why the graffiti is so important. This act of what some might’ve called at the time ‘vandalism’ is a poignant reminder of his and the many other’s humanity.
It’s possible to stand where Aubrey and William stood and almost feel their presence which is even more important as memories become ever more distant and faded with time. To err is human.
In his poem, The Soldier, Rupert Brooke wrote,
‘If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That shall be forever England’
In King’s Lynn, at the very top of the Library, there is a corner that’ll hopefully be forever Aubrey Cato’s.
Kevin Hitchcock (September 2018)