Richard McComb looks at one man's work rediscovering the graves of Birmingham's forgotten war dead, many of them children.
Almost 68 years to the day since he died, the life of David Thomas Savin will be remembered among the war dead of Birmingham.
A stranger who visits this place often, and whose career has acquainted him with the random nature of death, will place a single red poppy on David’s grave, which is topped with a lichen-stained angel.
The same ritual will be repeated, without pomp or circumstance, a further 339 times within the confines of Brandwood End cemetery, to the south of the city.
To the casual observer, there is little to indicate the bond shared by David and the scores of others whose passing will be marked with the laying of a poppy.
Armistice Day commemorations typically evoke images of shell-blasted battlefields, of infantrymen obliterated by machine-gun fire and airmen shot out of the sky. But David Savin, son of Thomas and Ellen, didn’t die in the corner of a foreign field.
The young lad died where he lived – at 20 Broomhall Crescent in Hall Green. According to his headstone, he was one of the “dearly loved children who were called to Jesus” on November 19, 1940.
David, only seven years old, was a victim of the Luftwaffe, killed during the Blitz, and is one of Birmingham’s youngest victims of war.
His grave is not, in the strictest sense, a “war grave.” There is no official headstone from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), no military insignia, no regimental wreath.
To all intents and purposes, David’s is a “normal” grave. And yet the child indisputably is a civilian casualty of one of the many conflicts to have claimed, and maimed, the lives of ordinary Brummies.
His story, and that of 200 other “forgotten” war-related burials at Brandwood End, has been revealed by Barrie Simpson, a former murder squad detective.
When Simpson started to investigate the extent of the Victorian cemetery’s war graves two years ago, the official listing stood at 144. At the last count, the total was 340. “I keep finding them because I keep looking,” says Simpson.
It turns out to be a prophetic comment. Like me, Simpson is troubled by the inscription on David’s grave, which refers to “dearly loved children who were called to Jesus.” Why children? Why the use of the plural?
The explanation is prosaically, tragically, simple.
A few days after we meet, Simpson returns to Brandwood End, cleans some stains and leaf decay from the memorial and there they are – the names of Raymond John Savin (aged four years) and Kenneth Joseph Savin (aged two years), David’s younger brothers: three little boys who died together on the same night, victims of the Blitz.
It is not often that your blood runs cold on reading an email, but mine did when I learned of Simpson’s latest discovery.
In fact, November 19, 1940, just five days after the infamous bombing of Coventry, was one of the darkest nights of the Second World War for Birmingham.
During nine hours’ of intense bombing, Hitler’s retaliation for British raids on Hamburg, Bremen and Kiel, some 400 people were killed. Fifty workers died at BSA’s Small Heath factory as they took shelter behind blast walls.
During the course of the war, 2,241 people lost their lives in air raids on Birmingham, a graphic illustration of sacrifices made at home, as well as abroad. The discovery of the Savin brothers’ grave is only one of the many emotional jolts one experiences during a walk around Brandwood End cemetery. Among the other child victims is Eileen Florence Wakeman, killed by “enemy action” in July 1942, at her home in Durley Road, Yardley. A clay pipe lies by her grave. Simpson picks it up and rubs off the earth. “It was probably left by the gravedigger. It has been brought to the surface by worms,” he says.
There are stories of unfathomable human loss spanning different conflicts.
Simpson, an honorary research fellow in forensic archeology at Birmingham University, leads me to the Scrivener family grave. Its location, near the Savin plot, hints at the tragedy represented by stark masonry, cloaked as it is in brown and russet leaves. Here are remembered the four dear men in the life of Emily Scrivener.
Emily, of Grace Road, Sparkbrook, lost her husband, Private Samuel Scrivener, in the First World War. The 49-year-old father of three was serving with the Suffolk Regiment when he was killed on August 21, 1918, three months before the end of the war. His mortal remains lie in a military graveyard in Marseilles.
Several days after receiving a buff coloured envelope from the War Office, Emily received a second, informing her that her son, whose name is only recorded as S, had been killed in Northern France – six days after his father. Her 25-year-old son was a private in the Coldstream Guards and is buried near Arras.
The extent of Emily’s loss is difficult to grasp although it would have been a far from uncommon occurrence during the First World War. You might expect she had suffered her share of trauma. But war pays no heed to statistics of loss.
And so it is that the Scrivener grave also bears the names of Emily’s other sons, Albert George and James Henry. The two brothers, aged 50 and 33 respectively, were killed when the Germans bombed the family home on November 19, 1940 – the same raid that cost the lives of the three Savin brothers. Emily lost her husband and three sons to war.
Simpson, who is a member of The Friends of Brandwood End Cemetery, says: “Emily survived and died in 1950, aged 78, and it is obvious from the grave that this was her place of pilgrimage. Now she has passed on, no one attends this family memorial as often as she clearly did. It’s just one story from one grave.”
In another section of the cemetery lies the joint grave of RAF Volunteer Reserve pilot Alfred Douglas Cox, killed in March 1941, and his brother, Petty Officer (Airman) Leslie Kenneth Cox, of the Royal Navy’s HMS Fencer, who died in September 1944. “Two brothers,” says Simpson “Separated by three years – two telegrams.”
Simpson continues to painstakingly scour the 53-acre site, looking for clues on headstones, clawing back the virulent ivy to reveal hidden inscriptions, researching dates, matching names with fatalities.
“You never know which one is a war grave and which isn’t. You need to look, research, go back, see something you didn’t see last time. Things become apparent because of the rain. Sunlight, rain, vegetation – all of it affects what you see,” he says.
There are 84,000 burials at Brandwood End and Simpson believes his ongoing project will pinpoint other forgotten victims of war, both military and civilian. He believes it is only right that all victims should be commemorated in the cemetery’s Remembrance Sunday service. It means there will be a poppy for grave number 7943, dedicated to Sidney Tropman, a member of the National Fire Service, killed in action at Rotten Park Street on July 28, 1942, aged 39. His grave features stone carving of a fireman’s helmet, hose and axe.
There is a military section inside the cemetery, but here there are probably less than a dozen of the distinctive CWGC headstones. Then, as one surveys the seemingly endless rows of graves, it is possible to pick out other CWGC memorials which have been placed on family plots, some of them in shared graves with fellow loved ones, others in single plots.
The recorded deaths defy geographic boundaries and within Brandwood End there are three Australian war victims, three Canadians, two Poles and one American. Each headstone, memorial, plinth and inscription bears testament to a devastating loss.
Simpson, though, finds a visit to Brandwood End an uplifting experience and views his work, commemorating the war dead, as a celebration not of death but of life. “Cemeteries are places to cherish memories – not to feel sad,” he adds.
* For more information about The Friends of Brandwood End Cemetery, go to fbec.org.uk.
Volunteers stage regular litter picks and share the long-term aim of restoring the two terracotta mortuary chapels, a project that will cost well in excess of £1 million.