Curator's Choice: Jody East, of Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, on the undercoat of Doug Evershed, a young soldier who died at the Battle of the Somme
“The display gives you the day-to-day objects kept by Vernon Evershed in the trenches, like his diary, his ID tags, his watch.
The letters are so poignantly sort of ordinary but so powerful when you know what happens. One of them is a story from his mother and father on his 21st birthday.
His father’s writing to him saying he wishes he could shake his hand on his son’s birthday. He writes back saying, ‘this time next year I’m going to take you all on holiday to Wales.’
He died two weeks later on the Somme. His brother, Doug, also died two years later on the Somme, in 1919.
Doug had this undercoat which is kind of like a blanket which had been chopped up – you’d wear it to keep you warm under your great coat.
Their great-nephew told us that it had been on their grandmother’s sideboard for years and years and they just thought it was an old cloth. It was only when they were moving her to somewhere else that they asked what it was.
She said, ‘oh, it’s your great-uncle’s coat from the First World War’, and they were like, ‘oh my word, that’s amazing.’
It’s got his name initialled on the inside of it. We weren’t quite sure what it was: it’s not a standard piece of uniform. It’s not a standard piece of kit that you were issued with.
It basically looks like a big blanket. The fact that we know who it belonged to was the main thing behind it for us.
It’s displayed with the telegram telling the family of his death, and then there’s a photo of him as a little baby. It’s a whole life cycle which was cut off before he was 19.
We’ve been tending to work with mainly great-grandchildren or great-nephews, so it’s very, very personal to them, although their memories aren’t as strong as they would be if they were the next generation, from the Second World War.
It was really important for us that the family members were involved. People rightly want you to tell the story correctly, so we were really careful to get the facts right.
The exhibits are totally fragile. People tend to keep them in boxes and drawers.
We’ve been working with a fantastic paper conservator who was able to mount them really safely for us and the light levels are at the right level so that we don’t fade the ink and things like that. You take everything into account.”
Vernon Evershed (1895-1916) joined the Royal Fusiliers in March 1915, aged 19, and died at the Somme on October 7 1916, just weeks after his 21st birthday.
Doug tried to enlist in the 6th (Reserve Cyclist) Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment in 1914 when he was only 16, but was discharged three days later for having ‘made a false statement’.
In November 1915 he enlisted in the Officer Training Corps of the Artists Rifles and received a commission to the 7th London Regiment Reserves. He also died at the Somme in 1918, almost two years after his brother.
Diary extract from Vernon’s diary, October 1 1916:
‘Breakfast and Rifle inspection. Orders given on the move to reserve trenches at Flers holding the village just captured. Had half an hour Platoon drill. Fine day. New draft arrived. Cleaned up and marched off in fighting order (gave packs in) about 4.30pm. Marched five miles, then across country. Smell of dead horrible. Shelling heavy on both sides. Arrived in trenches about midnight and relieved 23rd Middlesex. Slept in a small hole until the morning.’
- War Stories: Voices from the First World War is at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery until March 1 2015.
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