The Mystery Surrounding Walter Jacob's First World War Medals!
Rita L. Jacob
This post is dedicated to the memory of Mandy Matthews who sadly died in June 2015. Without the dedication and thoughtfulness of Mandy and her family, Walter’s medals would have never been returned to us, his grandchildren.
My grandfather, Walter Jacob, was the last Salisbury man known to have died before Armistice Day, succumbing to pneumonia on 9 November 1918. For his service in the Royal Engineers, Walter was awarded the War and Victory medals while his widow, Maud, received a Memorial Plaque, commonly known as a ‘Dead Man’s Penny’.
After Walter’s death, Maud and her two children, Ken and Nora, moved several times, 16 Rampart Road being their last address. This house was in a dilapidated condition but, during the Second World War, Maud’s son (my father) had neither the time nor the materials to improve the property.
My parents married in August 1947, Maud having died in the previous year. The house in Rampart Road now became their family home and, by 1955, every room had been transformed, with the exception of the smallest bedroom. This should have been my room but the sagging ceiling was proving a challenge, being likely to collapse completely if the paper was removed!
The last occupant had been a young boy evacuated from Portsmouth, the room still containing a chest of drawers and an old tin trunk. A few other items were also stored there and, near the window, my father had installed a carpenter’s bench. When he was working in the room, I was allowed to play with off cuts of wood, learning how to use some of Dad’s tools. My favourite occupation, however, was delving into the trunk and drawers, these being full of interesting items, including my grandfather’s medals and the memorial plaque. My Aunt Nora, who still lived with my parents, said that she would give these to her cousin’s son and I did not see the medals and plaque again until October 2014!
An Amazing Discovery in October 2014
As part of the First World War commemoration events, the British Legion set up a website, ‘Everyman Remembered’, on which the names of those killed in the conflict appeared. People could then add a tribute to a particular soldier, my sister and I placing one on this website for Walter. What happened next was beyond amazing!
On 21 October 2014, I received a phone call from Mandy Matthews, enquiring whether I was one of Walter Jacob’s granddaughters. When I confirmed that I was, she said that she had Walter’s medals in her possession as well as a touching letter from my grandmother. Mandy and her husband, Elrad, had read our commemoration on the British Legion website and tried to trace us through the Salisbury Journal, also knowing that I was linked to the Milford Street Bridge Project. As their letter had not yet been printed, Mandy decided to work through the Jacobs listed in the Phone Book, there only being a few in the Salisbury area.
When my sister and I met the Matthews on the following day, we learnt that Mandy’s father had found the package containing the medals, plaque and letter under the floorboards of 16 Rampart Road during the latter’s demolition. He and his wife then became their custodians until it became possible to trace members of Walter’s family.
The Matthews lived in Wellow and, as part of the 2014 commemorations, the local school asked Mandy to talk about her grandfather who took part in the Gallipoli Campaign. When Mandy asked her mother if she could take her grandfather’s medals to the school, she was also given Walter’s package! More information now being available, Mandy and Elrad began their search!
We were particularly pleased to receive the letter that accompanied the medals and plaque as we were unaware of its existence, Aunt Nora perhaps adding it after I had discovered the package in the small bedroom. In this letter, addressed to the Red Cross Office in Salisbury, Maud had requested the return of the chevrons sewn on Walter’s greatcoat:
‘I am writing to know if it is in any way possible for me to have the three blue chevrons which was on my husband(s) coat I should very much like to have them to keep for my little children in remembrance of there (their) Dear Daddy’
These chevrons were subsequently attached to Maud’s letter with a reply from the Assistant Commandant Transport Officer written on the reverse, the Red Cross Office stamp bearing the date 27 January 1919.
I wrote the commemoration in the form of a poem but have now added another verse to thank the Matthews and the young boy who helped me find Walter’s name among the children’s crosses displayed in Salisbury Cathedral!
Leaning back in a photographer’s chair,
So like my father; same build, same hair,
A sepia image on an album page,
Surrounded by postcards of a by-gone age.
An internet entry, discovered last night,
While researching genealogy on an ancestry site.
Where you were born, your occupation, too,
Surrounded by details of those closest to you.
A name on a plaque, encrusted with grime,
Some of the letters blurring with time,
One of the city’s glorious dead,
Surrounded, in November, by poppies, blood red.
A grave in a cemetery, shaded by trees,
Dying in England, and not overseas,
Now at peace in a family plot,
Surrounded by loved ones who never forgot.
One of the grandparents I never knew,
Nobody now left to share memories of you,
But with the return of your medals and a child’s simple cross,
Surrounded by others remembering your loss!
On Thursday, 23 October 2014, the Salisbury Journal published the Matthews’ letter which featured this poem