Val Sawyer holding a picture of Private Jake Asbury at the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers Museum.

It was an emotional moment to see where he’d died

Val Sawyer remembers her husband’s uncle, Private Jake Asbury of the 14th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment – the ‘Birmingham Pals’. He was killed during the Battle of the Somme, fighting near High Wood on 23 July 1916.

I first heard about Jake when I was married. I got on famously with my mother-in- law, Doris, and one day, when we were looking at her family photos, she mentioned her older brother, with great sadness.

Even then, nearly 50 years after the Battle of the Somme, she became distressed talking about him, and the subject wasn’t discussed again for another 10 years or more. They had been a very close-knit, loving family, and the memory of his loss was simply too painful to bear.

Val Sawyer holding a picture of Private Jake Asbury at the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers Museum.

Val Sawyer holding a picture of Private Jake Asbury at the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers Museum.

When my mother-in-law moved away from the family shop she’d run for years, she gathered together all the letters, war diaries and medals associated with her brother, and gave them to me for safe keeping.

“I am very glad I came to do my bit to help the poor devils out.” Excerpt from a letter home

Since that day, this photograph of Jake has been displayed in our living room. I know he wasn’t a blood relative of mine but I adored my mother-in-law, as did my son, so it was almost the case that this photo of someone she loved reminded us of her.

It hangs in a place where we pass it several times a day, and I sometimes touch it, and say, ‘Hi Jake.’

When she handed over the letters, she spoke for the first time about how she’d always wanted to see his grave.

“I shall be glad to see it all over… Those poor devils that have been out since the start ought to all have the VC. People at home do not know what it is like or they would think a damn sight more of Tommy Atkins when he comes home on leave or wounded. Most of the soldiers only live to get a wound that will get them back to England and out of this perfect hell on earth, but I am very glad I came to do my bit to help the poor devils out.”

Excerpt of a letter from Jake to his family

Many years later, my husband and I did visit the memorial at Thiepval and saw Jake’s name on it, then we found the spot near High Wood where he would have been buried by his comrades.

We took my son because we wanted him to understand. It was an emotional moment for us all, to be exactly where he’d died, and where he was buried.

Jake pictured in 1915.

When I retired, I researched our family history and found out more about Jake. And when I was given the chance to volunteer at his old regiment’s museum, it seemed an appropriate thing to do.

We’re aware of Jake all the time, not just when the anniversary of the Somme comes around, because he’s here with us. But 23 July has a special meaning for us.

It’s an amazing coincidence that the museum where I’m a volunteer chose that day to have its open day, commemorating and recreating the First World War for the general public.

 

Memorabilia gathered by Jake’s sister, Doris.

So on the centenary of his death, I was there, showing people the distinctive blue training uniform funded by local donations for the Birmingham ‘Pals’ battalions, and thinking constantly of Jake.

I have many of Jake’s letters at home, some of them striking a very sad note, but one of the most poignant is from Second  Lieutenant O’Dwyer, who led his platoon, lamenting Jake’s death in action, and telling us about his burial. The officer himself was only 19 at the time of writing – and met his own death four weeks later.

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