First World War Project

Charles Edward HIGGINS (of Teynham)

b. Q1, 1894
d. 8th April 1915. Aged 21

(BEF HQ and Commonwealth Forces' Hospitals)

Sapper, Service Number 55657
112th Railway Company of the Corps of Royal Engineers
Longuenesse (St. Omer) Souvenir Cemetery
Grave Ref: I.A.77
also Remembered on
South Eastern and Chatham Railway Memorial, Dover Marine Station
and Teynham War Memorial, Church of St Mary
Grave Ref: Memorial Panel
Died of Wounds/Sickness

Longeunesse (St Omer) Cemetery

Charles Edward Higgins is the first "Kingsdown and Creekside" casualty of "Kitchener's New Army". All the earlier deaths were of experienced soldiers who formed the initial British Expeditionary Force.

Charles's family history is largely associated with Eastling, which sits immediately south of Newnham. In 1841, his great-grandfather, John Higgins, set up home as an agricultural labourer living in the "Old Poor House", next to "Church Field House". From that time, most extended family members are agricultural workers but not all – one strand of this family included a shop owner/publican ("The Rendezvous" in Sittingbourne). However, Charles follows his ancestral line of agricultural and general labourers. He was born in Eastling, one of three children of James and Eliza (née Moss) – his elder sister, Florence Lillian, married John T. W. Amos (Faversham/Teynham) and his younger brother, Horace, lived to a ripe old age of 77. Memorial records give his father's home address as 9, Sandown Cottages, Teynham - which explains his presence on the civic war memorial in St. Mary's Church.

In 1901 and 1911 Census's, James appears as a Road Foreman and agricultural labourer living at No.9 Sandown Cottages (opposite Nouds Lane), giving a home by 1911 to his own father, William. In a 1904 Directory James is shown as living for a while in 12 or 13 Castle Hill Cottages, Teynham side of Greenstreet Hill. So James's and his children's association with Teynham Parish is well established but with a firm link with Eastling. In 1911, Charles is a farm labourer lodging in "Lockington Wood" (which I cannot identify), Littlebourne, Canterbury, Kent. It is quite possible that he first enlisted in Canterbury from where he found himself recruited into the Royal Engineers – whose HQ was in Gillingham, Kent. Alternatively, as his home address in 1915 is given as "Teynham" (9, Sandown Cottages) he may have enlisted in either Sittingbourne or Faversham. Records show him attested (date unknown) into the 112th Railway Company (R.E.) in London.

We can infer from this that he was then moved to Longmoor, Hampshire which was the main training centre for Railway Companies. We can also infer that he was an early recruit as he would have needed some training before experiencing active service?

With the war, many new Royal Engineer Corps were created. Early in the War, the locally available resources were rapidly running out and it was clear that the Royal Engineers' skills had to be scaled up massively. They were needed to help build (and repair) the extensive physical infrastructure that makes an army viable. Railways were a key feature of military supply and troop movement.

A recruiting advertisement in the month of Edward's death gives a flavour of the range of skills needed to support the role of Royal Engineers. Although this advertisement was for the Fortress Companies, "Sappers" provided the physical capability of building ground-works and other infrastructures.

Reported in the Dover Express, 23rd April 1915
"FORMATION OF FIELD COMPANIES FOR THE KENT (FORTRESS) ROYAL ENGINEERS. 150 smart young men required as Drivers. Must have some knowledge of Horse Work not necessarily able to ride.
200 more Sappers also required. The following trades preferred:- Carpenters, Bricklayers, Plumbers, Fitters, Blacksmiths, Handymen, also a certain number of Draughtsmen, Surveyors and Clerks. These receive extra engineering pay, according to their qualifications, beyond the usual Regimental pay.
Beside the above, 50 Pioneers are also required, who will receive Pioneer pay in addition to Regimental pay.
To all the above, Separation allowances will be paid on the usual scale. Recruits must be between the ages of 19 and 35 years.
Written application should be made to Major H.F. Stephens, Commanding Kent Royal Engineers, Sub-Mining Depot, Gillingham, Kent."


The Faversham and North East Kent News recorded Charles's death on 12th June [The East Kent Gazette carried the same piece on 19th June 1915.]
"Sapper Charles Edward Higgins, 11th (sic) Railway Co., Royal Engineers, who died in hospital at St. Omer, France, was a son of Mr and Mrs James Higgins, of 9, Sandown Cottages. He was 21 years of age, and joined the Engineers in the early part of last year, prior to which he had been employed on the Railway at Sittingbourne. He went out to the front just before Christmas. His death was due to scarlet fever."

The Circumstances of Charles Edward Higgins's death

Since first writing this entry for one of our local casualties in December 2014, we have found the 112th Railway Company diary (1915-1919). Understanding the exact nature of Charles military experience in training or what his tasks were is in some measure hampered by the way that military history is generally discussed and recorded - e.g. through newspapers. There are many more reports focussing on the Territorial Battalions, but far fewer reports on the Royal Engineers attached to them or HQs. A more detailed study of the Royal Engineers can only take place by travelling to Kew or (perhaps) the R.E. Library, Museum and Archive in Gillingham, Kent. Official records associated with this man and his effects remark that he died of scarlet fever in Gillingham, Kent. This is wrong, as he died near St. Omer (confirmed in Faversham and North East Kent News, 5th June 1915).

Charles's war records are amongst the majority of soldier's war records that were destroyed by fire during the Second World War. Charles's Medal Card does show that he entered active service when the 112th Railway Company landed in France on 16th February 1915 having embarked the day before. He served only 51 days in France before losing his life on 8th April 1915 at the age of 21 through sickness. For this short service he was entitled to the Victory, British and 15 Star medals.

The 112th (Railway) Company, Royal Engineers, Diary opens on 26th November 1914: "London. Recruiting. First batch of men sent down to Longmoor (Military Railway)". Longmoor, Hampshire, had been long established, since 1903, as a training centre for soldiers on railway construction and operations. 8th December: "Recruiting completed. Company training commenced". So we can speculate that Charles began his service at roughly this time.

The Diary continues:-

"29th December 1914: "Half the Company No's 1 & 4 platoons went on leave."
5th January 1915: "Half the Company Nos 2 & 3 platoons went on leave. Nos 1 & 4 platoons returned.
13th January: Sapper Lawton died suddenly at 8.0 a.m. in his hut, cause unknown.
14th January
: Inquest on above, verdict death from pneumonia of very rapid development.
15th February: 10.30 am. Entrained for Southampton 5 officers and 223 other ranks. Southampton – 5.30 pm Embarked on SS Duchess of Argyle. 4 motor lorry drivers joined here.
Havre: 16th February: 1.0 am: Arrived alongside quay. 8.0 am: Disembarked. A French interpreter joined 11.0 am. 3.0 pm: Marched to No2 Rest Camp.
Haver: 17th February: 9.0 am: Inspection by Camp Commandant. 11.0 am: Medical Inspection. 2 pm: Left camp and marched to the Gare des Marchandines.

The 112th then entrained for Abbeville and, on 7th March, arrived at Audruicq (near St. Omer) a location best known as an Ammunition centre. Given Charles' own fate, it is noteworthy that on 26th March "3 cases of measles sent to hospital and two vans isolated." The Diary next records the death of Charles on 8th April: "Sapper Higgins died in hospital from scarlet fever following on measles." This is the second recorded death in the 112th Railway Company Diary from sickness in the early days of its formation.

During April, the strength of the Railway Company was added to with sappers, officer and other ranks; still in Audruicq. From that time on, parties/"trains" were sent to other places to undertake work programmes.

What might his Memorial tell us?

He is "Remembered with Honour" in the Longuenesse (St. Omer) Souvenir Cemetery among 2,874 known Commonwealth casualties. This Cemetery is most closely associated with the Military Hospitals for Commonwealth casualties and hosted the principle convalescent hospital.

St. Omer was also the location of the General Headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force from October 1914 to March 1916.

Official records of his 'effects' confirm he died at No.10 Station Hospital, St. Omer, from Scarlet Fever. His father, James, was his sole legatee and received Charles's effects that included £10 2s. 6d. Later his father received a further £3 "war gratuity".

The desperate position after the Allied retreat from Mons, the establishment of a 'stable' Front, and subsequent "Race for the Sea" (1914/early 1915 when 150,000 Allies faced 600,000 German troops) meant that the two established (8th and 10th) and three reserve (Depot, Royal Anglesey (1 Company) and Royal Monmouth (2 Company) British Railway Companies that existed at the outbreak of war had to be very rapidly expanded from its opening complement of 23 officers and 651 other ranks.

The 112th R.E. Railway Company was the fourth new Company to be raised for the France and Flanders Theatre. As a Sapper in the 112th Railway Company, Charles might well have expected to help to prepare ground-works to integrate and repair railway systems close to the rear of Allied forces under attack. An account from "The Long Long Trail" web site explains,

st_omer map in 1915

"Sappers were assigned to a Construction Train .... [that] would have a complement of up to two complete Railway Companies, with a Captain as officer commanding the train. This enabled the sappers to carry both themselves and all their necessary tools and equipment to and from wherever the next work was required. The Companies would pitch tents for accommodation, as required. Large-scale work would include the construction of the major stores and ammunition dump at Audruicq, ten miles from Calais. Here, and at numerous other locations such as the nearby major ammunition dump at Zeneghem Yard, there was great use of Chinese Labour and R.E. Labour Companies to prepare the ground, ready for the platelaying sappers.

A primary objective was always to take standard gauge railways as close to the front as possible, to lessen the demands on light railway systems, horsed transport and manpower. For the sappers, work could mean toiling around the clock, especially where lines had been cut by shellfire. Inevitably there were casualties; analysis of the records shows that 173 men from Railway Companies lost their lives."

The largest losses in the field at around the time of Charles' death were associated with the Battle of Neuve Chapelle (10th-13th March) and St. Elooi (St.Eloi) (see map).

The next major encounter was not until the beginning of the Second Battle of Ypres (from 22nd April). This was also the time when poison gas was used for the first time. So, Charles died in a relative lull in hostilities along this part of the Front.

From the 5th April 1915 Official Despatch covering part of this period, it is clear that the joint British and French Railway Companies had been in the thick of it.

"11. The increased strength of the Force and the gradual exhaustion of the local resources have necessitated a corresponding increase in our demands on the Line of Communications, since we are now compelled to import many articles which in the early stages could be obtained by local purchase. The Directorates concerned have, however, been carefully watching the situation, and all the Administrative Services on the Line of Communications have continued to work with smoothness and regularity, in spite of the increased pressure thrown upon them. In this connection I wish to bring to notice the good service which has been rendered by the Staff of the Base Ports.

The work of the [BRITISH] Railway Transport Department has been excellently carried out, and I take this opportunity of expressing my appreciation of the valuable service rendered by the French railway authorities generally, and especially by Colonel Ragueneau, late Directeur des Chemins de Fer, Lieutenant-Colonel Le Hénaff, Directeur des Chemins de Fer, Lieutenant-Colonel Dumont, Commissaire Militaire, Chemin de Fer du Nord, and Lieutenant-Colonel Frid, Commissaire Regulateur, Armée Anglaise.

The Army Postal Service has continued to work well, and at the present time a letter posted in London is delivered at General Headquarters or at the Headquarters of the Armies and Army Corps on the following evening, and reaches an addressee in the trenches on the second day after posting. The delivery of parcels has also been accelerated, and is carried out with regularity and despatch."

Other Family Members in WW1

Younger brother, Horace (b. 13 May 1896), was initially a labourer in the Faversham munitions works. Described as 5 foot 7½ inches tall; chest of 37 ½ inches; dark brown hair; grey eyes and fresh complexion. Later in the war than his brother, Horace enlisted with the Navy in Chatham and survived the War. He appears with different Admiralty service numbers, corresponding with his service and rank. He enlisted on 1st March 1917 at HMS Pembroke (II) [Chatham Dockyard] as Stoker (2nd Class; No. 12496) until 1st August 1917. From 2nd August he served on HMS Indomitable [Service number 271] achieving the rank of Stoker 1st Class on 10th January 1918. On 18th March 1919, Horace was onshore and demobilised, with a "very good character". He died at the age of 77 years in Canterbury.

The extended Higgins/Higgens Family

Originally of Eastling (John Higgins) but later spreading to Ospringe, Faversham, Teynham and Sittingbourne. At times and in different records, the family name spelling varies - Higgins/Higgens.
Click on image to enlarge.

Higgins family draft family tree


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