Carlby mother who lost four sons to the Great War

Harold and Edgar Stooke, two of seven brothers from Carlby who fought in the First World War. Harold survived but Edgar did not. Photo: Robert Rowlands. EMN-140818-113709001
Harold and Edgar Stooke, two of seven brothers from Carlby who fought in the First World War. Harold survived but Edgar did not. Photo: Robert Rowlands. EMN-140818-113709001
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Seven brothers went out, yet only three came back.

It is a story that my family has only uncovered in recent years – almost a sort of strange, unspoken secret from the First World War.

The tale is both shocking in scale and, unfortunately, all too common in the grim chronicle of death from the Great War.

To lay it out in black and white, Frank, Arthur, Frederick and Edgar Stooke all died on the battlefields.

In number, they would almost have been enough for a five-a-side team.

Curiously, though, for a story that until lately we knew nothing about, the tragedy is well documented online. Indeed, this is where we found much of the detail – along with detective work from my sister Kimberley and another relative.

The Stooke family grew up in Carlby in south Lincolnshire. Their dad John was a headmaster at a school in Rutland until they moved two miles over the border to live in Carlby.

John died in 1910 and his wife Christiana ran the Plough Inn in the village.

They raised 20 children in total, but could have had little inkling of the bleak fortunes that would befall so many of the young men they brought up.

Frank died on May 16, 1915 from a bullet wound at Boulogne, in France where he is buried. He was 30.

He had been married to Ellen May Stooke and they had three daughters together.

Chillingly, a letter was sent by him to the Grantham Journal and published on January 9, 1915.

It says: “I wish to thank the donors of Essendine, Ryhall and Belmisthorpe [all places near Carlby] for their kind gift of tobacco, cigarettes, matches and pipe, which I received safely. I hope to be able to thank them all personally soon.”

Arthur died on January 3, 1917 at the age of 27.

There is still in existence a Christmas card that he sent the family from the Curragh in Ireland, where he was probably training.

It chirpily states: “With hearty Christmas greetings and best wishes for a bright and happy new year.”

Frederick Stooke died on April 13, 1918 at the age of 20.

Just 13 days later, and about seven months before the war ended, Edgar was killed at the age of 18 near Ypres.

In a surviving photograph of him in uniform taken some time before his death, he can be seen standing next to brother Harold, who survived the war and lived to be 90.

All of this has been recorded.

We have no records of how their mother reacted to the news of each of the deaths of her sons.

Nor are there any written details of how she coped with the loss of the four boys in day-to-day life.

There are families who endured greater losses, although I am not sure how many.

Research reveals a family from Gloucestershire who lost five brothers, and one in Ireland that lost six.

The numbers are so big as to seem almost too much.

Four, five, six brothers – all future dads, with future children scurrying in the back garden, with pleasant future wives and safe, steady future jobs. All futures that for most of them never were, of course.

I remember going to St Stephen’s Church in Carlby to look for the plaque there which honours them.

The doors were shut on that hot day, and no-one was around, but by peering through a window you could make out the plaque on one of the interior walls.

Below a legend stating: “In grateful memory of those connected with this parish who gave their lives from home and country in the Great War”, it listed seven people from the parish who died:

Frank Stooke – Royal Engineers, May 17, 1915

Arthur Stooke – Royal Flying Corps, January 3, 1917

Frederick Stooke – Coldstream Guards, April 12, 1918

Edgar Stooke – Sherwood Foresters, April 26, 1918

Three others are also listed – Ernest Couzens, Edward Green and Frederick Holmes.

At the time, I thought little of it. It was a family curiosity and not much more.

My dad wanted a picture, so I took a couple of blurred ones on my phone. We drove away and went for lunch.

During my dad’s childhood, the deaths went undiscussed. My great-grandmother must have been devastated, but if she was, she never let on – not when my dad was around anyway.

And he never knew a thing – until about four years ago, when a friend started some research into his family tree.

Within half an hour, the story was out: four brothers dead in the war. It sounded shocking, it almost sounded difficult to believe. It almost sounded like Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan – and only three brothers died in that story before the military stepped in.

But what did my dad know about it? Almost nothing at all, he told me.

“I started to piece it together with a friend for a couple of hours,” he said.

“I remember my grandmother saying she hated Lincolnshire, but I never knew why,” my dad told me. “She said it had nothing but pig manure and tall hedges. But maybe it was something to do with what happened to her brothers? Whatever it was, she never mentioned it.”

As a ten-year-old boy busy listening to the cricket on his wireless, details about a long-ago war would have seemed less interesting than England’s fortunes in a summer test series.

But, ever since he first heard about it, the story has always been an odd one for the family.

For the family, it was a tragedy, of course, but one that was so distant in time that it is now hard to understand.

However, looking at the pictures of them in their uniforms, the connections start to be made: that one had Dad’s face, or – does that one have my eyes?

What happened to the Stookes – who, through a long chain of events have now become the Rowlands family – was an almost minuscule part of the overall conflict between 1914 and 1918.

Every county, most towns and many families can relay – and even boast about – similar tales.

But perhaps it gets to the truth of the Great War as well as anything else. A family ripped quietly to shreds on foreign fields. A grieving sister who was glad to leave behind a county filled with terrible memories. And distant relatives who look back and think: What a waste, what a sad, silly, futile waste.

Written by Robert Rowlands.