Lest we forget.
Today being the 11th of November I thought it fitting to remember a soldier from my family who died at the end of the Great War of 1914-1918. Thank you to mynwent for kindly allowing me to use the photograph.
My mum has written his story for you….
Daniel Thomas Kay was born in Stepney, London on the 11th October 1896, the son of Robert McGowan Kay and Ellen Catherine Nolan. As was often the case in those days he was named after his grandfathers. The Nolans had lived in the area for many years but the Kay family had moved from Oxfordshire where Roberts Scottish grandfather had worked for the Churchill’s at Blenheim Palace.
The young family lived and worked in East London, Robert was in his early 20’s and worked in a horseshoe factory as a labourer, possibly keeping the fires hot enough to melt the metal or moving sacks of coal around to the blacksmiths. It would have been hot and uncomfortable work. Ellen was a seamstress before her marriage and probably continued sewing to help support the family.
Three year old Daniels life changed for ever when, on the 2nd of March 1900, his father died from pneumonia and his maternal grandfather, Thomas, succumbed to bronchitis. Daniel and his mother seemed to part ways at this point, the little boy moving in with his widowed maternal grandmother Joanna and her children, while his mum, who was just 21 years old, moved in with her in-laws. Life was hard in those days with no real financial help for families where the breadwinner had died. It must have been a difficult time for Ellen – living apart from her son so she could support him and herself by returning to work.
The following year, when the 1901 census was taken, Daniel was still living with his grandmother, his uncle Thomas and his aunts Teresa and Annie where, according to family legend, he was spoilt rotten. Meanwhile a couple of miles away in Poplar, Ellen was still with the Kay family. Amongst the family there was her widowed brother in-law Charles and his 4 year old daughter Jane. Charles and Ellen became a couple soon after this and happily Daniel was re-united with his mother. Ellen married Charles in 1908, by this time I think it was almost acceptable for this to happen – before that it was illegal. As Ellen was a catholic I won’t mention the fact that they had already had two children together!
A month before the 1911 census the couple had their 5th child, Ellen. 14 year old Daniel was working in a paint factory with his stepfather Charles, and his stepsister Jane was a feather curler – curling feathers for ladies hats, which for some reason gave the family a great deal of amusement.
On the 9th of September 1914, just over a month after Britain entered the Great War, Daniel went to the local recruiting office and signed up. He was a few weeks short of his 18th birthday but gave his age as 19. His service records tell us he weighed 118lbs had dark brown hair, blue eyes, was 5 feet 4 and 3/4 inches tall. He joined up at Greenwich and joined the London Rifle Brigade. He was then sent off for basic training.
By the autumn of 1915 he was in the trenches somewhere on the front line in France. On the day of the 23rd of September he came face to face with a German soldier of about the same age. The two youngsters hesitated while they took the situation in for a couple of seconds. Finally a decision was made and the other soldier fired. The bullet hit Dan’s chest pocket containing his grandmother Joanna’s bible and entered his upper arm. He was reported as missing in action, and later his family were told he had died of his wounds.
However, it later transpired through the Red Cross that he had been taken prisoner and had had to have his arm amputated. He was among first of 300 British officers and men to be sent to neutral Switzerland where he arrived on the 30th of May 1916. These men were chosen from German prisoner of war camps because they were regarded as being unable to take any further part in the war due to their injuries and wounds.
As they arrived in Switzerland people came out to cheer them along their way. Many of these men were suffering from terrible depression after being held prisoner for so long. The men made their own entertainment in their new home, they put on concerts and plays and those that were able could enjoy some freedom by walking and exercising. They could write to their loved ones and receive parcels from their families. Efforts were made to enable wives and mothers to visit them while they waited to be allowed home and many women did undertake the rather perilous journey across the sea to spend a few weeks with their men.
His mother Ellen made several attempts to see him, once her boat had to turn back after being torpedoed, but eventually she did manage to see him and when he told her about his grandmother’s bible saving his life she told him that Johanna had died at about the same time. Ellen reported back to the family she had left him in good spirits and they had talked about him returning to England after the war.
Unfortunately they were not to meet again. Daniel died from pneumonia, a complication of the influenza he fell ill with in November 1918. On the evening of the 5th of December a Catholic Priest sat with him briefly on his ward visit as he did each evening with many of sick and dying men, and later that night Daniel passed away in his sleep. He was just 22 years old.
Daniel was buried in a small graveyard and later he was re-interred in the larger cemetery at Vevey, Switzerland in a commonwealth grave. He is with 87 other men who died of wounds or influenza while waiting to go home to their families. His mother was allowed to choose the words to go at the bottom of his headstone – He died that we might live.
His brother and sisters had happy memories of Daniel. Ellen was three years old when he left for war but always remembered him swinging her round and making her squeal with laughter.