In the latest in our series of features on the First World War, reporter LAUREN NASH recounts a tale of an heroic act miles from the frontline ... near St Neots. It’s one that might never have been told had it not been for historian Rodney Todman and a remarkable piece of good fortune.
It was a promise never to forget the brave young soldier who gave his life for her mother that brought Rosemary Henderson to his graveside. In a fortuitous turn of events, town council maintenance technician Ian Webb noticed an elderly lady standing beside the newly-restored grave of gunner Walter Taylor in the old cemetery in Cemetery Lane, St Neots – a memorial Mr Webb had helped to restore.
He talked to her and discovered she was the daughter of Maud Andrew, who 17-year-old Walter had saved from drowning in the River Great Ouse when she was just 16.
She told him she was there to honour her mother’s wish, made on her deathbed in 1948. A kind of pilgrimage, she made the regular journey from her home in Southampton to pay her respects.
If it had not been for this chance encounter in August 2004, as 80-year-old Mrs Henderson was making her final visit, we may never have known what became of Maud Andrew.
St Neots historian Rodney Todman, over 10 years, has pieced together the tale of the tragedy that struck the town as the First World War cast its shadow over Europe.
On the morning of August 31, 1914, Walter and three fellow soldiers of the 1st Highland Brigade from Aberdeen went to a bathing shed at Eynesbury Coneygear to change before a swim in the river. However, when they arrived it was occupied by women and they had to wait on the bank.
The drama unfolded as Florence Peacock, 18, Maud Andrew and Alice Mead, both 16, attempted to swim to the opposite bank. While Alice was confident, the other girls were less so and soon got into difficulties.
Walter and his friends rushed to their aid. He brought both of them to the bank and one of his group took hold of Florence. However, with safety in sight, Maud and Walter both went under. They came up again in each other’s arms, before once again disappearing beneath the surface. A punt was used and Maud was dragged on to the bank and revived.
But Walter’s legs became tangled in weeds and he was pulled underwater and drowned.
The following week, Walter’s body was taken to St Mary’s Church, St Neots, for burial on a hand hearse drawn by soldiers.
The soldiers who had been with him at the time of his death were among the pallbearers.
A large crowd of townspeople lined the streets to watch the funeral procession of the Scottish hero.
An appeal for a memorial for Walter raised just over £23 – a significant sum at the time. By the end of January 1915, a memorial had been placed at his grave – a 7ft Celtic cross of Aberdeen granite.
Maud became a seamstress at department store Barretts and married a man from London, before moving to East Sussex. She died of cancer aged just 50.
Her body was brought to St Neots and laid to rest at the nearest available plot to Walter. Her daughter Rosemary, now 90, lives in a care home in Southampton.
Over the years, the memorial fell into disrepair, neglected and forgotten in the cemetery. It was restored in 2004 after Mr Todman, who had been researching the story, approached former town council foreman Geoff Marchant and Mr Webb.
Mr Todman said: “I found a photograph of a military funeral and it is very unusual to have a military funeral in St Neots – in fact, it is the only one I have ever seen and that’s what made me research it.
“I started by getting all the information from newspapers, then I found the grave and just by a miracle that Mr Webb had spoken to Rosemary.
“There is nearly always a story behind every photograph.”