They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but should you judge a war hero by his headstone? Not every war grave is for a hero, or so it seems.
In the Second World War Commonwealth War Graves section of Falmouth Cemetery stands a headstone to a seaman called Leslie Drakard. He hailed from Borrowash near Ockbrook in Derbyshire and was serving on a vessel based in Falmouth.
On Christmas Eve, Tuesday 24th December 1940, the 20-year-old Leslie had made his way into Falmouth for a drink. He’d had a pleasant evening and on returning to the Docks was stopped by the policeman on duty at the gate who was concerned at his drunken state. When three other naval men came back, they said they knew Leslie and would see that he got back to his vessel. As the policeman was satisfied these three were not under the influence of drink he released Leslie into their care. On the way, Leslie recovered a little and became merry and started to sing. His companions halted for a few seconds and on turning round saw Leslie running towards the jetty. They shouted to him to come back but he replied that he knew where his vessel was moored. He was then lost to view in the pitch darkness of the wartime blackout. When the three men reached his ship they discovered Leslie had not boarded and so a search was made without success. No splash was heard and it was pitch dark.
Leslie’s body was found under a jetty on Monday 3rd February 1941. At the inquest two days later the coroner, Mr L.J. Carlyon, returned a verdict of death from misadventure as it was felt the deceased’s unfortunate decision to run off into the darkness led to his demise.
In the cemetery on Liskeard Road in Callington stands a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone to a soldier in the Pioneer Corps called Private Ernest Kitchener Johns. Ernest had been born in Kingsbridge, Devon, on 17th September 1915 but by 1939 was living in Dawlish.
It appears Ernest had deserted from his unit, had shown up in Gunnislake on the Cornwall-Devon border where he had made himself useful doing odd jobs and D-I-Y tasks for the womenfolk who were missing their menfolk away at war. Eventually, the Military Police caught up with him and came and marched him off down the main street. Ernest tried doing a runner, got cornered on the banks of the River Tamar and plunged in to escape his pursuers. He drowned in the swirling waters of the Tamar and was buried in Callington. During the war, his grave was left unmarked, but the CWGC then placed a headstone on the grave some years later.
Barrie Roberts, a folk singer, author and criminal lawyer who died in 2007, took up the story. He wrote: “In 1960 I spent some time in Callington, working for HM Government, and stayed at Chubbs' Private Hotel, kept by the 3 maiden ladies Chubb. Because I kept odd hours and frequently worked evenings, the proprietors would sometimes invite me into the back kitchen late for a cuppa. Chubbs was primarily a commercial hotel, full of reps & travellers, but a woman had stayed there on her own for one night that spring and the owners seemed to know who she was. They told me Ernest’s story and told me that their guest (who was the dead man's sister) came every spring from somewhere near London to trim her brother's grave.
“I always thought it might make a good song, but it never seemed to jell, so I laid it aside. In 1973 I was on a North Sea ferry, bound for Denmark, and sharing the boat with the Birmingham Mail Ladies' Group, or some such, most of whom were completely kalied and falling about noisily. Sitting alone in the lounge, watching the sea and listening to the distant thud of falling drunks, I recalled the old Victorian hack ballad 'The Deserter' and started to set Ernest’s tale to it.” You can hear his version of the story in song in the video below:
I have yet been unable to ascertain the reason for Ernest going AWOL. I have learned, however, he was married and had three children. In 1939 he and his wife, Evelyn J.A. Johns, whom he had married in June 1937 in Totnes in Devon, lived at 12 Barton Villas in Dawlish. After Ernest’s death Evelyn remarried, an Alexander Tarbet, a Scotsman born in Falkirk in 1899, and they had seven children. Evelyn died, aged 71, in 1986.
So was the visitor to the grave every spring, Ernest’s sister or was it his widow? What had led to Ernest ending up in Cornwall and away from his unit? If anyone reading this can shed some light on the details, rather than just the folklore of the song, please email me or leave a comment.
So before you cancel these two men with war heroes headstones, stop and reflect a little more. Think as Ray Stevens, who had a No 1 hit with The Streak in 1974, used to sing: “Walk a mile in my shoes before you abuse, criticise and accuse.”
By the time Leslie slipped into Falmouth town centre for a Christmas Eve drink, Falmouth had seen, since the fall of France in June, 144 air raid alerts with 147 men, women & children being killed as a result of the bombing, or the dropping of mines from the air into the sea at the entrance of Falmouth harbour. Leslie’s ship was His Majesty’s Trawler, HMT Fir, a minesweeper, whose crew knew every time they cast off from the jetty they could be blown to kingdom come, as several of their fellow minesweepers had been whilst keeping the channels into and out of the Category A harbour – to be defended at all costs – open. Leslie would have known men from HMT Rinovia, HMT Comet, Lady of the Isles & AN2 and other Falmouth based vessels that had been sunk by mines. Few would deny anyone who had lived for months under that kind of stress a Christmas Eve drink. A misplaced step in the pitch-black darkness of the wartime blackout was all it had taken for Leslie to end up in the water. It was an accident that happened to a very brave sailor.
Leslie was the only child of Thomas Henry & Phoebe Doris Drakard from Borrowash. They had his headstone inscribed “Treasured and loving memories of our darling son, safe in the arms of Jesus.” Leslie’s father died in 1956 and his mother just a year later. Leslie deserves his hero’s headstone.
While the detailed explanation of how Ernest ended up in Gunnislake has yet to emerge, one may never fully appreciate the stresses and strains of being a soldier in wartime. We don’t know what experiences he had lived through, and while he was serving in the Pioneer Corps, their light engineering role was a combatant role. They had seen combat in Belgium and France, had helped establish the perimeter around Dunkirk, had thousands of their men evacuated in Operation Aerial that saw hundreds of ships come into Falmouth crammed full of men and refugees and had lost an unknown number when the Lancastria was sunk off St Nazaire in June 1940. Their work in dealing with the aftermath of the Blitz, clearing away the rubble and finding the bodies, rescuing people from damaged buildings, led to an award of the George Cross and thirteen George Medals. Being in the Pioneer Corps was no soft touch.
As we are learning with the survivors of more recent combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, post-traumatic stress disorder is a reality for many veterans as they struggle to cope with daily life. In World War Two it was not as well understood as today and its sufferers were thus less tolerated. Ernest obviously felt the need to get away, whatever the reason, and without a full understanding of his story, we should refrain from judging.
One mistake, one wrong decision, one imperfection does not define a person and the woke generation pursuing a cancel culture would do well to remember that. We are all flawed human beings. None of us is perfect. Yes, there are times when we need to be corrected, and even punished, but that should be done justly to affect the rehabilitation of the one in need of correction, not to the destruction of reputation and work and assassination of character. We should debate with, not destroy, those that we disagree with. That is the mature, sensible and mutually enriching approach. In his sermon on the hillside, Jesus said, “Do not judge or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Matthew 7 v1-3.
Maybe at the start of this new year, we can all make a resolution to only say those things that will build others up, edify and encourage them, rather than being quick to judge, tear down, and cancel. At first glance, it may appear a drunk falling over the quayside on Christmas Eve or a deserter trying to flee his arrest party are the last people who deserve the headstone of a war hero. But when you stop, consider, find out a fuller picture, those first assumptions are weak and ill-informed at best and dangerous at worst. I, for one, consider they both deserve their accolade for their part in the victory that gave me the freedom and the peace that I enjoy today and will continue from time to time to visit their graves to pay my respects.
Finally, may I wish you and yours a Happy and Harmonious New Year and share with you the words and tune of Auld Lang Syne and an 18th-century blessing.