Eternal brothers-in-arms

Shared First World War grave brings families from England and Newfoundland together

Published on August 13, 2014
The shared grave of Richard J. Maddigan, Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and Isaac Moss of the South Wales Borderers in France. Almost 100 years since both men were killed on the same day on the bloody battefield of the Somme, their descendants are finally connecting. — Submitted photo

Two women on opposite sides of the Atlantic are connecting this week, after realizing their great uncles have shared a First World War grave for the last 100 years.

Margaret Hodgkins is a retired schoolteacher from Staffordshire, England. She’s had a keen interest in her family’s history after coming into possession of her grandmother’s bible, which was stuffed with family documents and pictures — one of which was of a young man in uniform. Curious as to his identity, Hodgkins discovered the man to be her great uncle, Isaac Moss, who died in the First World War at the Battle of the Somme.

Moss was buried with a Newfoundlander — R.J. Maddigan.

Hodgkins has always been curious about who Maddigan was. He and her uncle shared a grave for 98 years, yet their respective families have never known anything about each other.

On the 100th anniversary of the declaration of First World War, British citizens were asked to turn off their lights and light a single candle. Reflecting by candlelight, Hodgkins’ mind wandered to the identity of the mysterious Maddigan.

“I was sitting in the candlelight, just looking at this picture, and I thought — I wonder who he is? I wonder what he was like? I wonder if he knew Issac? I wonder if they were buried together?” said Hodgkins. “And I thought, somebody else somewhere might be sitting, thinking, I wonder who Isaac is? I wonder why they’re buried together. And I thought, wouldn’t it be lovely if in this 100th year anniversary, those two families could answer each other’s questions and find out a bit more about the man their relative is buried with.”

So Hodgkins decided to do some digging.

After looking into archives and war records, she found the R.J. stood for Richard Joseph. A member of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Richard lived on Water Street in St. John’s, where he worked as an office clerk. He was declared missing on July 1, 1916, after which his brother, John, wrote several letters asking urgently about his whereabouts. On Sept. 27, he was officially declared killed in action.

Maddigan was later buried in No Man’s Land with Isaac Moss. They were both 19.

Hodgkins proceeded to look up St. John’s online, hoping to find some clue as to whether Richard had any living family. She came across The Telegram, and reached out for help.

“All my family are very ordinary people that all work in the pottery industry, in the coal mines. I think I was probably the first person to go to university in the family. We’re just grassroots,” she said.

“And when I read a little bit about your area, I thought well it sounds like a lot of people there are grassroots as well, in the fishing industry. And I just felt a link between them.”

“I just got this feeling this year that I want to put another photograph in my album. I want to have that grave in the middle. I want to have Isaac’s photograph on one side, and I’d love to have Richard’s photograph on the other.”

Fortunately for Hodgkins, The Telegram was able to locate the family of Richard Joseph Maddigan.

Judy Newton is the granddaughter of Richard’s brother.

“I didn’t know he shared a grave with him! I didn’t know that!” said Newton, when told by The Telegram.

Newton’s father died when she was very young, so she lived with her grandfather growing up, calling him ‘Dad’ all her life. Although she knows his immediate family very well, she does not know much about Richard. She does know he lied about his age and was around 16 when he enlisted.

“It’s too bad my mother isn’t alive, because she’d know so much about him,” Newton lamented. “In hindsight, you wish you’d asked so many more questions. But of course, you don’t think about that when you’re young.”

Newton is excited to get in contact with Hodgkins as she, too, is very interested in her family’s history.

“It’s good to know what your ancestors did. It’s a part of your history knowing their history,” she said. “It’s a part of you. I think you need to know the line from which you came.”

Hodgkins is extremely excited to make the connection; she says that after doing so much research, she feels a very close connection to Richard.

“I feel like I almost know him now, having read through all these letters that went backwards and forwards trying to find him,” she said. “I feel quite close to him, actually. It’s a funny feeling; I can’t really explain it.”

As with Richard and Newton, Isaac was Hodgkins’ grandfather’s brother.

He came from a very devout Methodist working-class family. He had two sisters and a brother. As a young boy he went to work in the coal mines, something Hodgkins thinks might have prepared him for life in the trenches.

He enlisted in the South Wales Borderers in November 1915, where he served for less than a year before he died.

Although she has no living relatives who knew Isaac, Hodgkins has cobbled together information on her great uncle from archival records and mementos in her grandmother’s bible.

“If he was anything like his family, he was probably very musical, probably not terribly literate, a crafter, a worker. He wasn’t afraid of using his hands, and not afraid of using his head either. And that’s really all that I know.”

The two women will make contact in the coming days. Both are thrilled to find out more about their families’ intertwining stories.

Although nearly a century has passed, for Hodgkins and Newton, their ancestors’ stories are far from over.