Museum exhibition tells remarkable story of man ‘lost’ at Battle of the Somme
- Credit: Archant
“I have heard of our post being stopped and everything is being censored. Don’t be scared or worried if a sentence has had a rubber to wash it out.. Tell mother I received Isobel’s letter. I must close now. Love to you all, Vic.”
If the words penned by Islington-born Sergeant Hugh Victor Hember seem ominous, it’s because they are. Written on June 29, 1916, they were the last Sergeant Hember’s family ever heard from him.
Two days later, the man from Tuffnell Park was killed in action at the Battle of the Somme in northern France. In what would prove to be the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army, 19,240 were killed that day: the first of a battle which would eventually claim the lives of over a million soldiers.
Yet it would be nearly ten months before Sergeant Hember’s family received confirmation of his death.
News that he was missing in action was followed by nearly a year’s worth of frantic letter writing from the Hember family in a desperate attempt to find out what had happened to Vic.
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“They were just hoping beyond hope that he was a prisoner of war,” says Ruth Garnsworthy, the niece of Sergeant Hember who has spent the last few years along with her son Chris painstakingly collecting and organising all correspondence from the time.
“They wrote letters to all sorts of people, such as the Red Cross, to try and find out what had happened to him. They even wrote to the King of Spain to see if his ambassador to Germany could confirm anything, and received a letter back saying they’d do all they could!”
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This letter forms part of a vast collection assembled by Ruth and her family, currently on display at the Islington history museum to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.
Among the correspondence are 78 letters Vic sent from the front over the course of nearly two years.
The letters start off on a light note, with the first, sent on Christmas Eve 1914, telling the remarkable story of a Christmas truce along the Western Front. In it, Vic tells how the Germans could be heard singing carols as midnight approached “whilst our men replied with Tipperary.” Each side then left their trenches to “exchange souvenirs,” he says.
However, not all of Vic’s letters are quite so jovial. While he sent many letters to his brother Frank (Ruth’s father) and his mother, his letters to his friends at the Carleton tennis club often revealed the harsh realities of war: “One wonders that men can be such utter fools as to know of no other way of settling their disputes except by causing such destruction to life and property as can never be replaced.”
He also speaks of the squalid conditions on the Western front, which were so bad that photographer Gerard Paterson, a close friend of Vic’s who later married into the family, had to smuggle his film home by hiding it in a hollowed out shaving stick. The British government did not want the public seeing what conditions were like on the Western Front.
But the collection really highlights what war time was like for the families of those serving.
“I think it was such an uncertain time for the family that they had very mixed feelings when they finally had it confirmed for them that he had been killed,” says Ruth.
“I think the collection shows that it wasn’t just the soldiers themselves who suffered, but also those who had nothing to do with the war. It shows the effect on the men’s families, and that’s what makes it particularly poignant.”
To find out more about the exhibition, visit: