Category Archives: Suicide

Postcard to Mum Down Under From, #Folkestone #FWW #WWI

A dreich morning, it is the only way of describing it. I am cold, wet and miserable standing here by Williams grave. My hands are a ghostly shade of pale. The camera is soaking and I have the shivers. My head is close to the dark place it often haunts. A bad morning and the photo is crap, but the day and I are in paradise compared to William’s last morning ninety-nine years ago today. The morning of the 17th April 1917 was to be William’s last.  An Australian Infantryman he was due to return to France from Folkestone that day.  He had been wounded in action in October 1917. On the 12th April, he had gone A.W.L. from Tattoo for three days. He was to receive 14 days Field Punishment No.2 (F.P.2) and forfeit 17 days pay for this crime. F.P.2  the prisoner was placed in irons or fetters, subjected to hard labour and had to carry out all normal duties. It is during these last few days that William wrote a postcard to his mum.

“Dear Mother The military has sent me over to France to be wilfully murdered as I knew to much for them I gave them the best snye system the world could ever be produced ending up with their ruin writing”

He gave the card to another soldier to send. on the 17th William went to the medical offices at No.3 Rest Camp Earls Avenue Folkestone

Not long after 9 a.m.  on the 17th William went to the medical offices at No.3 Rest Camp, Earls Avenue, Folkestone. Sometime after 9:20 the medical orderly left the room to go into the medical officer’s room next door. The orderly, Lance Corporal Hooke, stated at the inquest “I heard a noise as in a man in a fit. I went back into the room and saw deceased. he was lying down on the bed, his head rather inclined the blankets kicked over part of his face, he was kicking his legs up and throwing his arms about. I saw that he had cut his throat.”IMG_8393

William was given a military funeral at Shorncliffe Military Cemetery. His coffin was draped in a Union Jack. The Canadians provided a firing party and played the Last Post, Australian representatives from the Australian Imperial Force in London were in attendance.

William’s parents were informed by letter, that he had committed suicide while temporarily insane and, that they had buried him on the South side of the garrison church.

Source: William Burn Gemmell’s service record.


1WW My Suicide Blog.

Through early morning fog I see

Visions of the things to be

The pains that are withheld for me

I realize and I can see…

That suicide is painless

This the long awaited suicide blog. The blogs are about The Great War, not about me. At a rough guess I should be able to write at least another two thousand blogs on the Great War, so I apologise if a) I scared you, or b) You were looking forward to my early demise. Suicide was as it is now not uncommon. I have always believed that if life can not get any worse it must, by definition, get better. Apart from which I want a telegram from someone on my 100th birthday. So for me there is no reason. There follows the story of two suicides. One, the first happened during the war, the other because of the war. The first a soldier is not commemorated on any memorial, apart from his Imperial (now commonwealth) War Graves headstone, the other an American National hero. One ignored, the other feted.


Private M1/5741 John “Jack” Johnstone, committed suicide on the 7th July 1916. Why it is hard to even guess a reason. Perhaps it was because of the date, he killed himself soon after the opening of the Battle of the Somme. Jack was only 21 he had his life in front of him. He was born in Grantown-on-Spey, the son of Jessie and the Reverend J Johnstone of St James’s Manse Kirkcaldy. At the time of his enlistment circa 26th October 1914 Jack was a resident of London, I think he had travelled to Rifridlo in Italy to visit his mother and enlisted while there. He was awarded the 1914 Star, British War and the Victory Medal. In 1920 we know his mother applied for the 1914 Star. Therefore we are fairly safe in an assumption that his mum at least was proud of him. Sadly Private M1/5741 John “Jack” Johnstone is not commemorated on any local war memorial. A sign of the times? We don’t know, but when the names are read out as they surely well be over the next four years, he will be ignored. Not for him and others like him, is there a campaign to get the forgotten suicides of the Great War commemorated. He was not shot at dawn, in the Chinese Labour Corps, mixed race, coloured, played football, or a national hero such as Colonel Charles W. Whittlesey.


Charles Whittlesey was the commander of the 1st Battalion, 308th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division of the United States Army, the “Lost” Battalion. During the First Meuse Argonne offensive Whittlesey and his battalion had already been isolated and had to be rescued. On the 2nd October 1918 they were going to be cut off again. After successfully breaking through a line of German defenders during an attack across a ravine the 1st Battalion found themselves surrounded. In an area of roughly 75 yards by 350 yards (I work in real money, you can convert it into metric if you wish) they fought off machine guns, shock troops, flamethrowers rifles and mortars. On the 5th October they were shelled by French Artillery. It never crossed Whittleseys mind to surrender, the Lost Battalion fought on. Finally on the evening of the 7th October lead elements of the 77th Division broke through. 191 men of Whittlesey’s Battalion walked out, another 479 were dead or seriously wounded. A legend was born. The reality was that nothing had been achieved by the Battalion and the death toll played on Whittlesey’s mind. He was given a field promotion and awarded the Medal of Honor. At the funeral of the American unknown soldier he was one of the pallbearers. An American hero. Everywhere he went he was asked about the Lost Battalion. Before joining a ship bound for Cuba he confessed to a friend he could no longer bear it. On the 26th November 1921 he jumped overboard. His body was never found.


Charles, and the lost battalion, unlike Jack will not be forgotten.