Most written histories of war have focused on the role of men. Yet, behind the familiar narratives of male courage, honour, and death on the battlefield are less well-known stories of female fortitude, anxiety, and loss on the home front. One such story is that of Chertsey mother Eleanor Hunt and her Irish daughters-in-law Jane and Elizabeth.
At the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, Eleanor Hunt was living at 33 Grove Road in Chertsey. She had just turned 60 and had already been widowed for six years. Eleanor’s four sons were all serving in the British Army and, less than six weeks into the conflict, her two older sons had been killed at the front. Shortly afterwards, Eleanor would be thrust into what constituted the public spotlight of the time.
Eleanor was born on 6 March 1854 and brought up in Windsor Street. In 1881, she married William Hunt, a local carpenter two years her senior, at St Peter’s Church. They raised their sons Richard (born in 1882), Herbert (in 1886), Archibald (in 1888), and Frederick (in 1892) at a house in Drill Hall Road. When William died in 1908, Richard and Herbert were already in the army.
Richard had worked in his father’s trade as a carpenter before enlisting in the 1st Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment in August 1903. Three months later, Herbert left his plumbing job and enlisted in the same battalion. Herbert was a little too eager to follow in his brother’s footsteps as he was still four months short of the legal age to join up. He was accepted after adding a year and declaring he was 18 years and 8 months.
And so Richard and Herbert Hunt began life in the army as career soldiers. They spent most of the next eleven years serving in Ireland, which was then part of the United Kingdom. Herbert had an early brush with the military authorities in 1904 when he was severely reprimanded for being drunk in the high street, and a longer health scare when he was hospitalised for 88 days due to enteric fever (typhoid), possibly caused by contaminated shellfish. Herbert must have regained his strength as the brothers were All-Ireland bayonet-fighting champions in 1911, 1912, and 1913. Both attained the rank of sergeant, a clear official recognition of their commitment and skill as regular soldiers.
In October 1913, Richard married Rebecca Jane Wood, known as Jane, at a registry office in Dublin with Herbert acting as one of the witnesses. Richard and Jane’s first son Richard George was born two months later. Herbert married Elizabeth Cummins in her hometown of Kinsale in County Cork less than a week after the birth of Richard’s son. The distance to travel, recent fatherhood, or military duties could all be reasons why Richard did not act as a witness for his younger brother. Given the distance and expense involved, Eleanor Hunt is very unlikely to have attended either wedding.
The worlds of Eleanor, Jane and Elizabeth were to be thrown into turmoil within a year. In August 1914, the 1st Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment including Richard and Herbert was deployed to France. Their pregnant wives and young Richard, who was then just eight months old, remained in married quarters at Wellington Barracks in Dublin. The following month, both brothers were killed in action at the Battle of the Aisne, Herbert on 9 September and Richard on 14 September. When Elizabeth gave birth to a boy on 16 September, she was probably unaware of Herbert’s death. The child was later named Herbert Charles Aisne in memory of the place his father died. Richard’s death was not confirmed until early October. Six months later in April 1915 Richard and Jane’s second son Lawrence Henry was born.
The Battle of the Aisne saw the French and British forces reverse the tide of the German invasion and was a major turning point in the opening stages of the war on the Western Front. But the deaths of these two young English soldiers had left a mother grieving two lost sons, two young widows and three babies without a father.
Richard and Herbert Hunt were hailed as heroes after both were mentioned in dispatches for ‘conspicuous conduct’ by Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force. Each had rescued officers and comrades under enemy fire and Herbert was also awarded the Médaille Militaire, a major French military award for bravery. Their recognised gallantry led to considerable public interest in the Hunt brothers and the double loss suffered by their mother.
On 27 October 1914, Eleanor received Herbert’s Médaille Militaire with an accompanying letter from Lieutenant-Colonel Langley, commander of the 1st Battalion. In his letter, Langley asked Eleanor to pass on the medal to Herbert’s ‘poor widow’, and added:
I recommended your other son also for a similar decoration, they were both equally deserving of them, but unfortunately there was only one allotted to the battalion, and that was awarded to Herbert.
Both the Surrey Herald and the Surrey Advertiser published reports describing every detail of the medal, and Major Treeby, who was commander of the East Surrey Depot at Kingston upon Thames, visited Chertsey to offer his sympathies. Public awareness reached another level on 5 November 1914 when a photograph of Eleanor holding the medal was published on page two of the Daily Mirror.
Eleanor also received a visit from the local MP, Donald Macmaster, on 7 November. Macmaster offered Eleanor both his condolences and congratulations for the posthumous honours bestowed on her sons. Eleanor thoughts on the visit were not recorded but, on the same day, she learned that her youngest son Frederick had been wounded while serving in the 1st Life Guards. He was treated for a bullet wound in the right elbow and dislocation of the bone. Eleanor visited Frederick at the Connaught Hospital in Aldershot the following day where she had to inform him of the deaths of his two brothers.
Over the following months, stories about Eleanor Hunt and her two sons were published in newspapers across the country, including Aberdeen, Yorkshire, Birmingham, and Suffolk. A report even appeared in the Hamilton Daily News in Ontario, Canada. A syndicated photo story featured Eleanor holding her grandson, where the boy wears one of his father’s medals.
On 1 February 1915, a report appeared in the Surrey Advertiser about a recruitment meeting at which the newly promoted Colonel Treeby spoke of Eleanor’s noble spirit of patriotic self-sacrifice and how she had told him proudly that she had two more sons in the army. In a quote which Treeby attributed to Eleanor, she is said to have added:
And I am quite willing that they as well shall lay down their lives for their country.
Whether Eleanor said these words, or even agreed with the sentiment, cannot be verified. Treeby had met the grieving Eleanor three months earlier and may have taken her words out of context to suit his recruitment objectives. By February 1915, the rate of volunteers enlisting was beginning to slow as the reality of the conflict became evident. Eleven men including the Hunt brothers who were later named on the Chertsey Town War Memorial had already lost their lives.
In newspaper photographs, Eleanor is soberly dressed and looks older than her 60 years. It is difficult to gauge the wider reaction in Chertsey to the attention paid towards the Hunts. With other families losing loved ones, or seeing the wounded return, there might have been a degree of resentment. The quote attributed to Eleanor about being prepared to lose her other two sons is an odd thing for a mother to say and, whether true or not, could have been construed by some as callous.
With their husbands now deceased, the two young widows were unable to remain at Wellington Barracks and, as single mothers, they had to make practical decisions. Jane moved temporarily to England to live with her mother-in-law and registered the birth of her second son Lawrence in Chertsey. On 30 November 1915, Jane received a letter at Grove Road which was sent on behalf of King George V expressing His Majesty’s consolations on her loss and his ‘high appreciation of the services of the late Sergeant’.
In 1915 Elizabeth also sought family support and returned to Kinsale where she received Herbert’s medal and his personal effects: two photographs, a letter, a postcard, a lock of hair and an identity disc. In 1918 Elizabeth married Harry Morgan, a soldier who had served with Herbert. She then moved to England with her son and lived in married quarters with Harry at Bordon in Hampshire.
‘In memoriam’ messages from ‘their sorrowing wives and mother’, most likely placed by Eleanor, appeared in the Surrey Herald in September 1917, 1918, and 1919. Jane returned to Ireland and died young. Her sons Richard and Lawrence were brought up in a boys’ home in Dublin. Elizabeth passed away in London in the 1970s. Eleanor died in 1924 and was survived by her sons Frederick and Archibald.
Acknowledgements and postscript
Thank you to Stephen Raftery, great-great-great-grandson of Eleanor Hunt and great-great-grandson of Richard Hunt for sharing his family history research so generously. Stephen is currently trying to locate Herbert Hunt’s Médaille Militaire.
Eleanor Hunt was not the only Chertsey mother to lose two sons in the Great War. There are six other confirmed pairs of brothers named on the Chertsey Town War Memorial: Christopher and Jesse Arnold, George and William Brunning, Joseph and Oliver Roberts, George and Hezekiah Sympson, Alfred and Frederick Wakeford, and Frank and Herbert Warinton. Albert Hill is named on the memorial, but his brother Norman was omitted.
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (London: Virago, 2018) – A moving account, first published in 1933, of separation, loss and bereavement suffered during the Great War.