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The Battlefield Bible

It was 6:30 on the morning of 25th September 1915. The southerly wind was slight and a misty day was dawning. The ground was sodden from the heavy thunderstorms of two days ago which had flooded the trenches. The British artillery fire had grown silent allowing the shrill of a whistle to be easily heard. This was it, the big push. The first large British offensive of the war, the Battle of Loos had begun. It was at this moment that Horace Robert Westlake, a farmer’s Son from South Petherwin, climbed out of the trench that his battalion, the Devon Light Infantry 8th, had inhabited overnight. As the battalion moved over the top into no-man’s land they were confronted with barbed wire that the previous four days of shelling had failed to destroy. Undamaged, the wire proved to be a major obstacle for the Devon’s who suffered high casualties, as the Germans cut them down with machine gun fire. To make an already difficult situation worse, German shells began to rain down on their position killing many men. Men such as Horace, when at 6:36, an enemy shell landed nearby, immediately killing him.

His body was never found such was the devastation on the battlefield, but the following day, after the battle had subsided, a Private Pattison Walton, a Durham Coal Miner, of the 2nd Battalion Border Regiment came across a bible laying in the mud. Inside there was a heavily defaced inscription with only the words,  South, Wesleyan Sunday School, presented to and the date of March 26th 1906 decipherable.

All that Private Walton knew was that it belonged to one of the Devon’s.

50 years later he gave the bible to a friend’s daughter and in what would be along quest for the Bible’s truth began. For many years, Angela attempted to identify the Bible’s original owner, trawling through various records with little success. With the dawning of the internet age she searched through numerous genealogy forums and slowly began to narrow the search down to three places with South Petherwin being the favoured which pointed her towards Horace.

By now she had developed a strong attachment to the Bible and began to wonder what kind of man its owner had been, but still there was no definite answer to that question. Then in November 2012, Angela did another of her routine searches on Horace’s name and found the South Petherwin Parish Website, the site that I run on behalf of the Parish Council. I had only just posted a series of pages adding a narrative to the names on our War memorial so her timing was apt. Realising that she may find a conclusion to her search an email was sent to me detailing what she knew and with a picture of the Bible inscription.

Seeing the potential for a remarkable story but not holding out for anything significant, I published the inscription on the website and also in the Parish Newsletter. How wrong could I have been, as just days after the Newsletter had been printed, I received a telephone call from Horace’s niece, Myra Ellacott. Myra herself was quite taken aback that anyone would be interested in the story of her Uncle after such a long period of time, but gladly offered details of his life including letters from the front, photos and most importantly his commitment to the Methodist Chapel in South Petherwin. This confirmed that the Bible was very likely to be his. However, it was still impossible to state 100% that it was. As things have a habit of escalating, a seed had been sown for the Parish to commemorate the fallen from 100 years ago and a committee was formed to bring this to fruition. With that in mind a letter was sent to the local newspaper seeking any information on the fallen of South Petherwin. With that a lady came forward who was a relation to Fred Jasper and one item of his that she had in possession was his Bible, presented to him by the Wesleyan Chapel on the 26th March 1906, the very same date as the one found at the Battlefield of Loos. Not only that, but the inscription matched as well.

After nearly 100 years Horace’s Bible had been identified, the search for Angela was over. It also brings together the advances made in that time of the internet and also the power of local media. Fred and Horace were quite likely to have been friends, and as Fred served with the 9th Battalion of the Devon Regiment, he too would probably have fought at the Battle of Loos. Fred fought in many battles but was ultimately killed at Flanders some two years after Horace.