Research and text by Dorothy Jones, edited M.A. Jones
The names of 19 British soldiers, including 4 members of the Surrey Regiments, appear on an imposing memorial in the Vestre Cemetery in Copenhagen. All had died between 22 December 1918 and 13 January1919. Amongst their number were a Canadian, an Indian and an Australian from Tasmania. They were all making their way home after having been held as prisoners of war in Germany. After surviving their imprisonment it is very sad that their journey home ended in Copenhagen; they did not get back to their loved ones. The circumstances with regard to why they were in Denmark, what caused their deaths and the funeral ceremonies that honoured them are detailed below.
The Danish Scheme, devised by Captain Charles Cabry Dix, the British Naval Attaché in Copenhagen, was in full swing. It was transporting British prisoners of war who had been held in German camps to the East of the River Elbe to Denmark for transfer to ships that would take them back to the UK. The British Red Cross commission in Copenhagen had set up an Ambulance section under the leadership of Professor Holger Mygind which hired Danish doctors and nurses to attend to the sick and wounded on the ships. This journey often involved a stay of about a week in Denmark. On arrival in Copenhagen or Århus the men would be taken to army camps whilst the majority of officers were accommodated in hotels.
Some of the men still needed treatment for their wounds and some were weak after years of imprisonment. Given professional treatment, tender care, and good food and with the joy of being free and on their way home most of the men would make the journey successfully. Some were too weak to be taken from the lazaretts (prison camps for the wounded) in Germany where the Red Cross sent them comforts. A number of hospital ships were sent to the Baltic to deal with the sick and transport them home. Some didn’t make it and died on route.
The main killer of most of the 19 ex-prisoners of war was the Spanish flu and its complications. The flu was spreading across the world and its victims also included the young, strong and well fed. Many Danes were affected and the hospitals and staff were stretched to their limit. A good number of Prisoners of War succumbed and the hospitals in Copenhagen had to deal with a sudden influx of several hundred foreign patients who also needed their care and attention.
On 26th December 1918, William Church of 1st Battalion the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment died. Before the war he had worked at a gas works. He had travelled from Warnemünde on the Cimbria, a ship from the Danish Det Forenede Dampskibs-Selskab (DFDS) fleet taking part in the repatriation scheme, some few days before. Church’s group had been staying at Skov camp, on Amager. He was the first who died of the Spanish flu and pneumonia. The flu epidemic which in an odd way may have saved his brother’s life. Tom was in the Royal Garrison Artillery, serving as a Signal linesman. In April 1918 he was due to leave for France. He later told his grandson that he didn’t expect to survive, as his job involved repairing broken signal wires under fire, and his trade was known to take high casualties. Contracting the flu he was hospitalised and was still in hospital when the Armistice was signed.
By the end of December 1918 five British soldiers had died in Copenhagen. Captain Andrews, an ex Prisoner of War himself who was now working with the repatriation commission, in a letter sent on 30 December to the Danish Committee (Justitsministeriets kontor for hjemsendelse af fremmede krigsfanger) asked if the men could be buried in Copenhagen. A decision was needed and given the number of men ill with influenza it was probable that more would die in the coming days.
On Saturday 4 January a ceremony was held for the first five in the Vestre cemetery chapel and they were subsequently buried in its precincts. Five white coffins covered with British flags stood in the chapel each with a guard of four British soldiers. Wreaths lay on each coffin. Lord Kilmarnock the British Chargé d’ Affairs, Major Hazard, an ex POW now acting as senior British officer for the British soldiers in Denmark, Colonel Willemoes from Sandholm camp, Captain Kühl, Captain Davidsen liaison officer for the Danish and British authorities, Dr. Würtzen and Mrs Mygind from the British Red Cross commission in Copenhagen were present. One hundred and fifty British soldiers who were billeted at Sandholm camp also attended the ceremony.
Pastor Andreas Vangberg Storm, minister from the Kastel Church performed the service. Before the war he had once been the vicar at the Danish Seamen’s Church at Newcastle. His wife was English. He followed the English burial service and spoke in English. The first psalm was “Lead, kindly light!” and then pastor Storm spoke. He based his sermon on Moses’ story that he from mount Nebo was allowed to see into the Promised Land which he would never enter. Another psalm followed then the English soldiers carried their comrades out of the chapel to Handel’s death march “Saul” played on the organ.
The 1st Regiment’s band was waiting outside the chapel and with a Danish guard of honour led the procession to the graves while Chopin‘s funeral march was played. The Danish soldiers took turns with the British to carry the coffins. The weather was terrible, with rain and wind, the tall leafless trees whistling in the storm over the soggy paths. The five coffins were lowered into the graves by the English soldiers while the band played “Nearer my God to thee”. Then “earth to earth, ashes to ashes …..” was recited, first in English and then in Danish. The band played “The last post” and the Danish soldiers fired an honorary salute at the graveside.
32 year old Frederick William Rayner of 1st Battalion Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment died on 1 January 1919 of the Spanish flu and bronchitis. Rayner who had been born in Croydon, had emigrated to Canada and worked as a moulder in a brass foundry in Ontario. He was one of five British men buried on 7th January 1919 and in much better weather than the last funerals three days earlier. Otherwise things were done more or less in the same way.
Around 1 o’clock 100 British soldiers who were billeted at Barfredshoj camp and a half company from 23rd. Battalion with the band from 1st. regiment arrived for the service. They stood to attention on each side of the gravel square outside the chapel. Lord Kilmarnock, Major Hazard, Captain Kühl, and Lieutenant Colonel With and Major Cunliffe, Danish and British senior officers from Barfredshoj, attended. Pastor Storm from Kastel Church led the ceremony with the organist and boys choir from the English church St. Albans.
Six British soldiers stood to attention by each of the coffins throughout the ceremony. Each coffin was covered by a British flag and was topped with two wreaths. The organ played and the boys’ choir sang with voices pure and hauntingly beautiful. Pastor Storm spoke about how these five had finally been released from imprisonment only to fall to the last foe: death, whilst still in a foreign country, albeit a friendly one. He told the soldiers that they should take home with them a greeting to those who grieved over the five, and tell them that their graves would be cared for.
The ceremony finished at the graveside with the band playing “Dejlig er Jorden” followed by a threefold volley salute and a trumpeter played “The last post”. In sunshine the English and Danish soldiers marched out of the cemetery in silence. Out on the road the band played “Tipperary” and the soldiers sang along to the tune. Descriptions of the funerals appeared in newspapers and magazines, but it is only in the report of the funeral on 7 January that photos are included. We can see from these photos that others, young as well as old, attended the ceremony to honour these men who after fighting for their country weren’t to see their homeland again.
The next funeral took place on the following day, 8 January: this time for three men. It was almost a copy of the day before with Kilmarnock, Hazard, Kühl and Davidsen as representatives for the authorities and senior military and with Pastor Storm officiating. British soldiers from Sandholm camp and Danish soldiers from 21st. Battalion with band attended.
Two of these men had died on HMHS Formosa; both were “old contemptibles” who had been prisoners of war for more than four years – William George Dimpsey, 1st Battalion Kings Royal Rifle Corps and Fred Papworth, 1st Battalion Bedfordshire Regiment. The third was Alfred Warren, 28 years old, who had been a boat builder before the war and served with 1st Battalion East Surrey Regiment. He had been billeted at Greve camp before being admitted to the Epidemic hospital, where he died of pneumonia on 6th January 1919.
The last three were buried on 17th January. They included George Henry Kelland a 25 year old from 1st Battalion East Surrey Regiment who had died on 10th January. He had been billeted at Barfredshoj camp and died of pneumonia in the Garnisons hospital. Pastor Storm led the ceremony as usual, but perhaps this funeral may have touched him more than the others. He had visited one of the men several times while he was ill and comforted him in his hopeless struggle against death. Lord Kilmarnock, Major Hazard, Captain Kühl and Captain Davidsen, Danish soldiers from 3rd and 4th Machine Gun Corps and some English soldiers attended. A few were still in Copenhagen even though the repatriation for the British was more or less finished.
Lord Kilmarnock thanked, through the newspapers, the Danes for all the sympathy they had shown at the funerals, not least for the anonymous wreaths and flowers. Even before the last Briton was buried a collection had been started for a monument. Contributions could be sent to Mrs. Nanni Jarl, married to Carl Jarl, Professor Holger Mygind and Pastor Andreas Vangberg Storm. All three had been involved in British Red Cross work in Copenhagen during the war years. Other committees also collected for monuments for the five Belgian, forty French and thirteen Italian former prisoners of war who also died in Denmark on their way home.
The English soldiers gravesite was bought as a family plot and most of the soldiers were buried two to a grave, double depth. Each of the prisoners of war have their own headstones. A committee of ladies with Mrs. Mygind as chairman collected funds for the maintenance of the graves. Money streamed in for the monument which was to be a stylish memorial for the poor Tommies who died on Danish soil. A preparatory sketch was made – the little trumpeter, playing “the last post”. The memorial monument was unveiled by H.N. Andersen at a ceremony that took place on the 21 August 1920. The sketch hadn’t been used.
The memorial consists of a standing obelisk with pointed top in Nexo sandstone on a three part pedestal. The obelisk is decorated with a wreath in relief and a tablet in marble. Inscribed on the tablet is ”To the glory of God and in loving memory of the nineteen British soldiers who died in Denmark 1918-1919 on their journey home from captivity.” The Commonwealth War Grave Commission wanted to remove the monument in 1970’s as it was badly in need of restoration. Fortunately the head of funeral services Erik Rafn’s interest was aroused and he arranged for the restoration of the monument.
Vestre Cemetery is the largest cemetery in Copenhagen and the resting place of many notable Danish people, including the sculptor Edvard Eriksen and the composer Carl Nielsen. The section containing the war graves is referred to as Copenhagen Western Cemetery by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
William Church’s story and memorabilia have been handed on to his grandnephew via his brother Tom. Bill’s medals are mounted together with his death plaque, portrait and a photo of an epitaph. The epitaph is placed at the back of St. Alban’s Church at Copenhagen. The fine marble memorial was designed by professor Dahlerup and donated by local British resident and member of the church, William Mau. Following the text inscribed at the centre of the tablet ”Sacred to the memory of the following British sailors and soldiers who served in the Great War 1914-1918 and are buried in this city” are the 24 names. The epitaph was dedicated at the morning service on Sunday March 4th 1923. Andreas Vangberg Storm, the pastor who had performed the military funerals 4 years earlier, took part.
The story of the British ex-Prisoners of War who passed through Copenhagen at the end of the Great War is being told on The Danish Scheme website.
This story is extracted from In Memoriam – Vestre Cemetery, Copenhagen by Dorothy Jones, edited by M A Jones. You can read the full article here.