Innocence captured in Yeovil before brutal end in First World War

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By Western Daily Press | Monday, December 09, 2013, 05:00

Long-hidden photographs of a young First World War soldier who died alongside charismatic military leader Field Marshal Lord Kitchener in the sinking of HMS Hampshire are being hailed as a generous gift to the heritage collection in his home town.

Walter Horace Adams worked at the offices of the Western Gazette newspaper in Yeovil before signing up as a teenage recruit of the Royal Marines Light Infantry.

One of two poignant images shows him sitting, relaxed and smiling, on a rustic fence in the countryside, along with three young friends. Clearly taken some time before his enlistment it is a charming picture of four teenagers with their lives before them.

Walter, second from the left, looks the most relaxed of all, his hands lightly clasped, his boater deliberately titled way back above his slicked hair, looking every inch the pre-First World War version of 'cool'. By contrast his companions, in boater and caps, look far more self-conscious.

It is a summer's day, with bracken in the hedge, and all the time in the world to twirl their canes and show off to girls.

But time was running out, though Walter could not know it. Ahead on another summer's day lay a huge explosion in a fierce sea and an unknown, watery grave.

The second photograph, on a memorial card, is a quiet reminder of his family's grief.

The wording is simple, 'In Memoriam Walter Horace Adams (Wallie)'. The photograph, of a young man standing proudly in his uniform, is framed, strangely, by art nouveau decoration. Even a memorial card has to be of its time.

Walter died, aged 17, on June 5, 1916, along with more than 640 of the 662 men aboard the armoured cruiser.

HMS Hampshire was carrying Kitchener, minister for war, to Archangel, to bolster the Russian war effort when she hit a mine and sank less than a mile off Marwick Head, in the Orkney Islands. The first explosion ripped into her at around 7.50pm and she sank in 15 minutes. In fierce seas the men had little chance, and only 12 survived.

The Ministry of Defence said there were 655 men and seven passengers aboard. One hundred officers and men were found and all but two were buried in a common grave at Hoy.

Kitchener's body was never found, providing fuel for some bizarre conspiracy theories, ranging from the suggestion that his death was a ruse, to the idea that Irish Republicans had planted delayed action bombs aboard when the ship had a refit in Belfast earlier in the year. The most unlikely perhaps was the hoax of journalist Arthur Vectis Freeman who propounded several theories. The last of which ended with his exposure and ridicule.

He claimed Kitchener's body had been found and buried in Norway by a Norwegian seaman, who wrenched an epaulette from the corpse's uniform as a memento. Freeman went to Norway with a film crew and brought back what he claimed was the body, in a coffin. But when authorities in England had the coffin opened to examine the body all that was inside was tar to give the box authentic weight.

This charade, which made headlines in 1926 must have added to the agony of the Adams family back in Yeovil. Kitchener was a huge hero, and the face of the famous 'Your Country Needs You' recruitment posters. Many could not believe that he was dead. Some even believed that, like King Arthur, he would return at his country's greatest hour of need.

Walter's sister, Daisy, treasured the photographs of her brother. When she married a young man named Morgan Davies and moved to Ilfracombe she took the mementoes with her. Morgan's sister, Elizabeth, came to live with the couple in later life, and after Daisy and Morgan had passed away became the guardian of Daisy's keepsakes. After Elizabeth died her friend and carer, Hazel Layland offered the memorabilia, including Adams family medals, and letters to South Somerset District Council's Community Heritage Access Centre.

She said: "I am delighted that they are being put to good use. I could not throw things like this away."

The items inlclude a photograph of the memorial erected by the people of Orkney to all those who died that night. Also included is a memorial card to Archibald Rowsell, believed to be a cousin or friend of Walter's who died of wounds on July 23, 1916, aged 18.

Staff already knew Walter's name from the town's war memorial but the donation has allowed them to build a better picture of his life and achievements and they are hoping to be able to display the donation as part of wider plans to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War next year.

Councillor Sylvia Seal, portfolio holder for leisure and culture said: "To be able to add items to the collection already housed by CHAC will vastly increase the knowledge our staff have gathered through items already donated in order to commemorate the centenary of World War One in 2014."

HMS Hampshire, an official war grave, still lies, upside down, 200 feet below the waves.

To view the donation or any other items in the collection, call 01935 462855 and leave a message or email heritage.service@southsomerset.gov.uk

      

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