While visiting Hawthorn Ridge in the mid-1980s I happened to notice that one of the graves in Hawthorn Ridge No 1 Cemetery had a small plaque against it. Looking up the young officer whose grave it was, Eric Rupert Heaton, it seemed his family lived in Sussex, where I was living at that time. On my return home, some research put me in touch with his sister Irene, who shared some of her brother’s history which I later used in Walking The Somme.
Eric’s story is a short, and tragic one. He joined up in 1914 and was commissioned the following year, being posted to France in early 1916 where he joined the 16th Battalion Middlesex Regiment. He served with them on the Somme and the men of his platoon named one of their trenches, dug close to the village of Auchonvillers, after him. On the First Day of the Somme he led his platoon up the slopes of Hawthorn Ridge to their objective – the mine crater, blown earlier that morning. He was last seen falling into the grass with a leg wound. Posted as ‘missing’, for months the family hoped beyond hope that he was alive in a German hospital or prison camp, but his body was found when the battlefield around Beaumont-Hamel was cleared in the winter of 1916/17. His brother, an army chaplain, visited the grave in 1917 and sent a small snap of it home; this started something with Eric’s father, who only a few months after the war was over led the whole family to Eric’s final resting place; seen in the photograph above, with the parents standing behind Irene Heaton, kneeling at her brother’s wooden cross. They placed a small plaque against the cross on that visit in 1919, and it remains there to this day; a small symbol of one family’s grief and a beacon to the families who returned to the shattered landscape that was the Somme in the post-war world.
Eric had hoped to follow his father and brother into the priesthood. His was a life unfulfilled but he left behind a remarkable last letter home, written on the eve of the Somme before he moved up to take part in the Great Push.
‘I am writing this on the eve of my first action. Tomorrow we go to the attack in the greatest battle the British Army has ever fought. I cannot quite express my feelings on this night and I cannot tell you if it is God’s will that I shall come through but if I fall in battle then I have no regrets save for my loved ones I leave behind. It is a great cause and I came out willingly to serve my King and Country. My greatest concern is that I may have the courage and determination necessary to lead my platoon well. No-one had such parents as you have been to me giving me such splendid opportunities and always thinking of my welfare at great self sacrifice to yourselves. My life has been full of faults, but I have tried at all times to live as a man and thus follow the example of my father. This life abroad has taught me many things chiefly the fine character of the British race to put up with hardships with wonderful cheerfulness. How I have learnt to love my men; my great aim has been to win their respect which I trust I have accomplished and hope that when the time comes I shall not fail them. If I fall do not let things be black for you, be cheerful and you will be living then always to my memory.’
I never tire of reading that inspirational note, even more amazing when you consider the writer was only twenty years old.