This month’s blog has kindly been contributed by Judith Hewitt, Manager of the Devil’s Porridge Museum in Dumfries and Galloway.
“In him we have lost a very able and gallant gentleman, as well as a friend who endeared himself to all” – Mr G Batley Godwin, Manager in Mossband Farewell (1).
In November 1918, a young Belgian man died, far from home in Gretna, South West Scotland. His funeral was impressive but he was buried in a temporary grave, in a sealed lead coffin within an oaken box. The intention was to re-patriate him to his homeland so he could be interred with his family but this never took place and he lay in an unmarked grave in a quiet Scottish graveyard for over one hundred years. Judith Hewitt takes up his story.
Joseph van Ruymbeke came to work at HM Factory Gretna in 1915. He was one of the key specialists required to build the new state of the art factory which would help deal with Britain’s shell crisis and turn the tide of the war. He was an elderly Belgian gentleman, chosen personally by Kenneth Bingham Quinan (an American who was managing De Beers Dynamite Factory before the war and the presiding genius behind the Explosives Department in the Ministry of Munitions). So essential was his work that it was said, “…there is practically no other person amongst the Allies who understands these plants.” and “…there is no other man …who is capable of giving the final advice” (2). He was paid over £2000 for his work constructing the Ether and Glycerine Installations and given first class fares as well as a Class A Food Allowance.
In January 1916, Joseph van Ruymbeke requested that his son, Sergeant Lieutenant Vesale van Ruymbeke be granted leave without pay from the Belgian army. This was due to the heavy workload and important work done by his father and the skill which Vesale had acquired in these areas before World War One. The request was sent through to the Belgian officials by special request of Lord Moulton, Director-General of the Explosives Department and renewed every three months for the remainder of the War. Such was the important nature of this work that a fit and able soldier was removed from front line duties to work in munitions.
Vesale van Ruymbeke travelled to HM Factory Gretna and mainly stayed in the English side of the Factory (based around Longtown in Cumbria). He was engaged as a technical adviser and “…his services…have proved inestimable to this country” (3) After a time, his father Joseph began travelling back and forth from France to Gretna. He was no longer on the ground full time as he deputised to his son who remained working in the munitions plant for over two years where he seems to have been a well liked young man who was eye catching in his military uniform. Vesale would have been present for the Armistice celebrations which took place at the Factory on November 11th: a brass band played in the streets, there were speeches, flags were raised, the national anthem was sung, people cheered and held a dance as well as a commemoration service for those who had died.
On Sunday 17th November 1918, Vesale van Ruymbeke fell ill. He had contracted the Spanish flu and was critically ill by Tuesday November 19th. When his father arrived, he believed that Vesale had not been given the correct care and the Factory authorities called for, and paid for a specialist, Sir Robert Philip, who stated that everything had been done correctly and there was no medical error. Vesale died on 22nd November 1918 at midday. He was 28 years old. Vesale died on the same day as his King, Albert I of Belgium triumphantly re-entered Brussels.
Joseph van Ruymbeke was taken ill after his son’s death but he was keen to have him re-patriated to Belgium for burial in the family plot.
“Mr Van Ruymbeke was very anxious to have his son’s body embalmed, but it was practically impossible to get this done in time, and consequently, with the Medical Officer’s approval, the body has been placed in a hermetically closed lead shell within an oaken coffin” (4)
He was given three choices for the temporary burial of his son and he chose to have the body interned at the cemetery at Rigg, near Gretna and a funeral took place on Thursday 28th November 1918 at 2.30pm.
The funeral was quite an occurrence. It took place within the Roman Catholic Church on Victory Avenue, Gretna which was filled ‘to its utmost capacity’ (5). At the end of the service, the Factory band played the ‘Funeral March’.
“The route from the church to the cemetery [over a mile] was lined with people, who paid their last respects to one who had been so closely associated with the factory” (6).
A full list of the funeral procession (from the Dumfries Standard Newspaper):
“Buglers supplied by the Royal Defence Corps, Gretna
HM Factory Band
Firing party (one NCO and eight men of the Border Regiment from Carlisle Castle)
Hearse containing coffin covered with the Belgian flag
Pallbearers (6 men mainly military)
Carrying party furnished by the military units in the area
Reverend Father Trainor
The Chief Mourner, Joseph van Ruymbeke with Mr J C Burnham (Superintendent of the Factory)
Military representatives (4 people)
Lieutenant’s escort of 40 men under the command of Lt R A Barraman of the Border Regiment
Officials of the Factory including Mr G Batley Godwin (manager Mossband) and Mr H B Ferguson (manager Dorncok) along with 23 other named people who were eminent within the factory
Mr E A Harlan represented the Whessoe Foundry Company” (7).
Vesale was buried in a shallow grave in a sealed lead casket within an oaken casket labelled with a solid brass mount inscribed “Vesale Van Ruymbeke, died 22nd November 1918, aged 28.”
“At the conclusion of the ceremony at the graveside three volleys were fired over the grave and the ‘Last Post’ sounded”. (8)
At the time, people assumed that his body would be removed within a short time and returned to Belgium. Local people even believed it had happened. In 1924, the clerk of the cemetery authority, Mr Kirkpatrick, was looking over the records of the war years. He had been on active service and someone else had filled in for him. He was shocked to discover that Vesale van Ruymbeke was still lying in his temporary, unmarked grave six years after his burial. Mr Kirkpatrick demanded that he either be disinterred and re-buried elsewhere or be given a proper burial in Rigg Cemetery. After much discussion (the museum houses several letters and documents relating to this decision), it was decided to bury him in the usual fashion (six feet down with a stone slab on top, in line with public health requirements).
We don’t know why Joseph van Ruymbeke didn’t fulfil his original plan to move his son’s body but he lay in an unmarked grave for over a hundred years. In November 2018, I was invited to appear on an ITV Border News feature on Belgians in our region in the Great War. My colleagues at the museum had researched Vesale in the past so I was aware of his story and happy to share it. A local stonemason, Peter Rae, saw me speaking on the television and took it upon himself to try to right this historical wrong. He made a headstone, received the official certification and erected in the cemetery (he generously did this all with his own money and in his own time). The Devil’s Porridge Museum held a memorial service and unveiling in April 2019 in his final resting place.
(1) Devil’s Porridge Archive
(2) Letters from the National Archives, copies held in Museum Archive.
(3) Letter from the National Archives, copy held in Museum Archive.
(4) Letter from the National Archives, copy held in Museum Archive.
(5) The Dumfries Standard.
(6) The Dumfries Standard.
(7) The Dumfries Standard.
(8) The Dumfries Standard.
To contact to Judith to discuss anything related to this blog, her email address is: email@example.com.
The Devil’s Porridge is an award-winning, 5 star Museum with state of the art facilities. It was voted TripAdvisor number one thing to do in Dumfries and Galloway. To find out more or plan your visit, go to the website.
Do you have interesting material to contribute to our blog? We are always looking to uncover histories of Belgian refugees in the UK during the First World War, so if you know of a local story, or have a family history to share, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.