Gallery: First World War hero left priceless sketchbook of his wartime drawings

He never spoke about his experiences... First World War soldier Sydney Green.

He never spoke about his experiences... First World War soldier Sydney Green. - Credit: Archant

Judging by the way he found slivers of beauty among carnage and inhumanity, Sydney Green was a sensitive soldier – so much so that he blanked the war from his mind when he returned home. Steven Russell hears how he kept quiet about his bravery – forever.

Sydney Green First World War

Sydney Green First World War - Credit: contributed

Ernie Green has precious few mementos of his father – not even a single yellowing photograph – but he does have one priceless treasure. Suffolk Regiment soldier Sydney Green took to the Western Front a sketch book – 40 leaves of cartridge paper bound by Winsor & Newton Ltd of London. At seven inches by four and a half, it was compact enough to slip into a uniform pocket and prove a companion in dealing with the horrors of war.

Mary and Ernie Green last year, celebrating their diamond wedding.

Mary and Ernie Green last year, celebrating their diamond wedding. - Credit: Archant

Sydney certainly had plenty of horrors to bear, although he never talked of them. His younger brother, Audley, had joined up alongside a pal, Ernest Robinson when misguided women handed them white feathers in Ipswich as symbols of cowardice.

Both teenagers were underage and need not have gone.

They were killed by the same shell.

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If Sydney had not already been wounded – recovering in hospital from his injuries – he too would have been at the heart of that dreadful battle. But he never spoke of that either. Nor did he ever mention the five times he was wounded, or the times he was gassed. Or even the Military Cross he won in recognition of his courage, from a grateful country.

About the war that defined him, Sydney Green remained forever silent. But a small consolation for his son, Ernie, is that Sydney’s pictures perhaps speak louder than any words.

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Sydney’s sketch book is faded now, stained a little and spotted with age. But everyone of the nine pictures inside it reveal a little of the man he was.

They show a man who, in moments when the guns were quieter, found time to fill the pages of his sketch book with wonderful line drawings.

There are the ruins of Givenchy Church in the summer of 1916. The violated beauty of Mortagne, its fountain surrounded by debris. A broken bridge at Stambruges in Belgium, destroyed by German forces as they retreated.

Tucked inside, too, are two postcards bearing sketches of youngsters climbing drainpipes, enjoying childhood fun in the midst of despair.

Sydney’s son Ernie, born nearly three years after the armistice, says there is so much he wishes he could have known about his father.

But perhaps, after all, in the pages of his sketchbook, it is still possible to see a little bit of Sydney Green there.

“The War changed a lot of people. I saw some things during the last war, too. It’s bound to affect you,” says 92-year-old Ernie.

Perhaps that explains why his father came home to Ipswich and never picked up his sketchbook again.

What happened to Sydney during the Great War is less of a mystery today however, thanks to Ernie’s nephew, Martin Green, a military historian at the University of Birmingham.

Martin says Sydney was awarded the Military Cross in the King’s Birthday Honours of July 1, 1918. Earlier that year, Sydney – by then a 26-year-old company sergeant major – was building camps with a company of 4th Suffolks behind the 58th Division’s lines.

“He was a master builder by trade and was probably directing the untrained ex-infantry in the building of prefabricated wooden huts,” says Martin.

“Early on March 21, orders came to lay down their tools and pick up their rifles and packs.”

Germany’s spring offensive had begun and allied troops were smothered in a storm of gas, high explosives and shrapnel.

“Trenches and dugouts were obliterated, barbed wire torn aside and telephone lines fractured,” Martin goes on. “The German storm troopers burst through the few remaining positions under a blanket of heavy mist. The allies were unable to see anything until they were overwhelmed.” The Germans gained 40 miles of territory as they swept over the old battlefield of the Somme.

The 4th Suffolks, held in reserve, were formed into columns and briefed by Sydney. “He told them that if they were attacked whilst on the march they were all to get off the road. He would call out the way to go.

“They marched towards the sound of the guns. As a large wood was coming up on the left side of the road, Sydney bellowed ‘left’ – and the company came under attack.

“The men scattered into the wood and by the time he had got them dug into defensive positions, he found he had no officers. He, therefore, commanded the company as the senior rank.

“It is unclear how long they were without officers and whether or not they held this position or fell back. The regimental diary for that period is sketchy as there was no officer to write it.

“However, by the end of May, Sydney wrote to Alice, his fiancée, that he had been wounded by shellfire and was now in hospital on the west coast of France, in Nantes.

“The London Gazette merely published that his Military Cross came ‘for operations in France and Belgium’.

“He was, however, the only warrant officer in the Suffolk Regiment to be awarded this medal.

“It seems conceivable, then, that the award was for commanding a company in the absence of any officers.”

Sydney Green was born in Felixstowe on July 2, 1892. His father, Charles, was a carpenter and joiner who helped build Bawdsey Manor – on the other side of the River Deben. Charles was also involved in the building of an Ipswich landmark – St Augustine’s Church.

Charles moved the family to Hatfield Road in Ipswich and started his own building firm, Chas A Green and Sons, in St John’s Road.

Sydney went to California Boys School in Spring Road and then Nacton Road School before joining the business as an apprentice carpenter/joiner.

He enlisted with the 4th Battalion Suffolk Territorial Army on March 14, 1912, and was at a training camp in Bury St Edmunds when war began. “He never went home,” says his son Ernie, who lives outside Ipswich. Instead, there were two days of marching to Braxted Park, near Witham, and then to France via Dover.

We know from Martin that Sydney was a lance corporal with the 4th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment in France and first wounded in December, 1914, at Bethune.

“He was sent to hospital in Cambridge, where he was having physiotherapy on his leg when the Battle of Neuve Chapelle was fought on March 12, 1915.”

It was the engagement that killed Sydney’s brother Audley and his pal, Ernest Robinson, who had both enlisted underage.

“Sydney was, therefore, nowhere near Neuve Chapelle when his brother was killed – just as well, as he would have been with them,” says Martin, a retired RAF squadron leader.

Audley and Ernest are remembered on a memorial plaque in Alan Road Methodist Church in Ipswich, which had a long association with their families. Charles Green donated a pulpit to the memory of his son.

After the war, Sydney went back to work at his father’s building firm. He married Alice Robinson, Ernest Robinson’s sister, in the summer of 1920. Alice was a milliner at a shop in Felixstowe Road.

Nine days before the wedding, more than 60 employees of Chas A Green & Sons presented the future groom with a clock. A note said they “will esteem it a great favour if you will kindly accept this presentation as a Wedding Present, with our very best wishes for the future Health, Happiness and Prosperity of yourself and your Wife to be”.

The couple set up home in Parliament Road and Ernie was born in the summer of 1921.

So was there really nothing said while Ernie was growing up about Sydney’s War?

“He never told me. He immersed himself in other things,” Ernie says. “He’d come home at night and do work for the firm, probably up to midnight.

“He wanted to be taken away from the memories, I think. He was a very closed-up sort of person. In my day, people didn’t speak.

“I suppose the war changed him. That battle he was in was one of the worst, I think. For Suffolk, it was a disaster.”

Even Sydney’s injuries were a mystery.

“He did limp occasionally. I think it was in his right leg, and the shrapnel had never been taken out.”

Like his father, Ernie had an artistic side - he studied part-time at Ipswich Arts School - but only until rather-proper mother saw red over the nude life studies and burst the 15-year-old’s dreams of a career as a commercial artist.

“I brought my portfolio home and my mother looked at it and thought they were disgusting! So I was removed, promptly, and sent as an apprentice to the firm.

“But I can’t grumble. I’ve had a varied life myself.”

Father and son worked closely together – Sydney taking care of the estimating and pricing of jobs and Ernie involved in construction.

Ernie had rather hoped his dad (sharing his artistic leaning) would have allowed his art school studies to continue but Alice had the final word.

“My mother was a closed shop too. Sad to say, I never really loved my mother… They weren’t emotionally open and were quite ‘tight’.”

Too old for active service during the Second World War, Sydney “became a ‘Captain Mainwaring’”, says Ernie, by joining the 11th Battalion Suffolk Home Guard in Ipswich. He was a captain – dug out a service revolver left over from 1919 that he shouldn’t have kept! – and looked after local rifle ranges. As in the first war, his priority was always doing his duty for his country.

“Instead of making money with the firm, he immersed himself in war work with the Home Guard,” says his son.

“When I came home on leave one day and tried to get in – it was during the Battle of Britain – a voice said ‘I’ll be with you in a minute…’ He shot upstairs, got changed and came back in his uniform. He thought it was a callout!”

Sydney was always methodical and organised.

Ernie and his wife remember him as a choirmaster at Alan Road Methodist church. A singer once told Sydney he chose the wrong kind of music. The regulars didn’t like it, she claimed. “So my father fished out his book. ‘You call yourself a regular? You’ve been absent so-and-so-and-so…’”

Ernie joined the RAF in the Second World War and was a fitter based at airfields such as Honington in Suffolk and Bassingbourn near Cambridge. There were also three years in Kenya and Egypt.

In time, the family business was sold and Sydney built a bungalow in Woods Lane, Melton.

Ernie, meanwhile, met wife-to-be Mary (a nurse), married in 1953 and moved to west Africa to work. He spent eight years in Ghana – children Anne and Murray were born there, with Hilary arriving later when they returned to Suffolk.

Ernie joined the Suffolk building firm Cubitt & Gotts, then worked for Cosford Rural District Council at Hadleigh and Anglian Water.

Sydney died early in 1977.

Ernie, comfortable with computers, has been putting down some of his own memories.

“I think everyone should write down their experiences,” he says. “I’m 93 this year and I’d like to leave something behind.”

Ernie never remembers his dad sitting in a chair at the weekend, drawing birds in the garden. He never sketched his family or, as far as Ernie knows, ever drew again. For Sydney, after the War, there simply were no pictures. And no words.

So what does Ernie think when he flips opens that linen-covered sketch book and gazes at those drawings made nearly a century ago?

They are drawings that show us glimpses of who Sydney Green must have been: a man who saw beauty in the darkest of places. Ernie pauses for a moment. Then he says: “I wish I knew more about my father, but I lost the chance.”

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