Cecil was born in Streatham, the first child of Cecil John Heffer and his wife Alice Louisa née Martin, who had been married in the summer of 1892. Cecil Senior, the sixth of the seven children of his father’s second marriage, was described as a Mechanical Engineer in 1901, and 10 years later as an Electrical Engineer but in 1891, still living at home with his widowed mother, he had been described as “Art Decoration Salesman”.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century George Heffer was a Coach Builder in Carlisle Place, Lambeth. His son Henry succeeded him in the business but by 1851 he and his first wife Harriet had moved to Croydon where he was describing himself as “Gentleman”. Harriet died in 1852 and four years later Henry married Clara Ann Cooke whose father was also a gentleman. On census day 1861 Henry had reverted to his professional description, “Coachmaker employing 152 men”. Henry died in 1874 and the probate of his will reveals that the family still had businesses in London as well as in Croydon. Initially Clara took over the Coach Building but, by 1891, she was living off her private income back in Lambeth; Heffers must have retained an interest in the business as Frank, the youngest son, was “Carriage Builders’ Salesman”.
Second son Leslie John, born in 1898 died aged 8 in the first Quarter of 1907, just before his elder brother left home for Dunhurst; two year old Ronald was the sole child left at home. Apart from gaining a total of 5 stars for different activities in the Spring Term of 1910 I can find no mention of Cecil in the Bedales Chronicles. He made his progression through junior and senior schools, presumably gaining “satisfactory” reports and performance in activities but neither excelling nor failing. On leaving school he went to work as a Clerk on the South East and Chatham Railway. It is just possible that he came to this through the family of a fellow pupil, Alex Stanhope Forbes (killed in September 1916), whose uncle was a major figure in the railways of this region.
It is almost as difficult to pursue Cecil’s war service as his school career for his is one of the “burnt records” of the ordinary soldiers of World War One. It wasn’t completely destroyed but is badly charred and some parts of most pages have been consumed by fire, caused by a German incendiary bomb dropped in September 1940 on the War Office Record Store in London. Two thirds of the six and a half million records of NCOs and other ranks were destroyed completely.
The remains of the file reveal that Cecil Howard Heffer attested to serve “for the Duration of the War” on 23rd February 1915. At his medical he was declared to be 5 feet eight and a quarter inches tall and weighed 128 lbs (just over 9st.); his physical development was good. Cecil had been vaccinated, marks – one on his right arm and three on the left – indicated that, but what he had been vaccinated for was consumed in the fire. Cecil was accepted as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, service number 56105.
Presumably the first three months of Cecil’s service involved training at home, but on 25th May he embarked at Southampton and disembarked on 27th at Rouen. Four days later he was posted to the 10th Stationary Hospital at St. Omer. Over the next eighteen months he must have had some period of home leave but the work would have been arduous. On 21st November 1916 Cecil was admitted as a patient in his own hospital with a hernia. The following day he was sent to England and appears to have been in hospital there from 23rd November to 9th January 1917.
There is some confusion over dates (possibly a mistake in my notes rather than in the original file!) but is seems most probable that he was initially on Home Service. Certainly he was in Aldershot on 3rd February when he acquired the sole blot on his conduct record. He was charged with being, “improperly dressed in High Street about 6.30pm ie deficient of puttees”. He had been reported by two corporals and was hauled before Captain Turner and sentenced to “three days G D”. (I am not well informed on military punishments but I think this means Guard Duty.) The typing is very faint but, so far as I can decipher the record, it reads “certified that there is no record of the above mentioned soldier having incurred any further regimental Entry during his service.”
There are two contradictory entries in Cecil’s file but the one I am about to quote is supported by later entries in The Bedales Chronicle and The Bedales Record. On 18th April, he embarked from Southampton on H T Clementine bound for Havre. They then crossed France and on 3rd May embarked on H T Transylvania from Marseilles. Then followed one of the most alarming of Cecil’s wartime experiences. The ship was torpedoed and the crew and military passengers were taken off the sinking ship by H T Savona and delivered back to Marseilles on 10th May. Eleven days later, this time on H T Menominee, they set sail again and on 4th June arrived safely in Alexandria and were sent to the R.A.M.C Base Depot at Mustapha.
On 12th June, Cecil was attached to the HQ of 96 Group of the Royal Garrison Artillery. The next section of the file is damaged and very difficult to read but it would seem that by 27th September Cecil had succumbed to a frequent problem – he was admitted to hospital with dysentery. A month later the Officer Commanding Mustapha recorded that Heffer had returned to the Depot. The entry for November is totally illegible but I managed to discern that on 2nd February 1918 Cecil seems to have been sent for some kind of training. In his “In Memoriam” entry in September 1918 Mr. Badley believed that Cecil had responded to a call for volunteers for the R. F. C and he “was then transferred to the Leinsters.” Clearly, on 16th March, he was then sent on some kind of patrol; two days later HQ reported him missing – “not seen since the 16th”.
The ensuing months reflect the torments many families must have experienced, having been told their son, brother etc. was “missing in action” which was the news received by Cecil John Heffer on 29th March. This part of the file is infuriatingly damaged or only semi-legible. Cecil had been attached to the 1st Battalion of the Leinsters Regiment and on 13th May a report was lodged in Cork with Pte. J Pembroke of B company, in charge of the Records. Cecil had gone out from Noblus: see what you can make of the phrases that survive. “He was hit and I …. him fall the same time as Ellis of ………. …could not say killed for certain. …. was made afterwards & a ……two of our men … in a nullah but we could not ………”. Was it worse to receive this information which implies that Cecil might have lain wounded for hours or even days?
In The Bedales Record for 1917- 1918 Mr. Badley had already presumed Cecil was dead. He wrote, “at roll call he was missing, and though every enquiry has been made, no trace of him has been found”. It wasn’t until 5th June 1919 that it was officially recorded that Private Cecil Howard Heffer was to be regarded as having died on 16th March 1918. He is commemorated on The Jerusalem Memorial, panel 56.
The most personal information I found about Cecil is the list of his possessions amassed on 28th December but not signed for by his father until 9th July 1919. They were:- “Book (Shakespearian Tragedies); Holy Bible; Correspondence; Photos; Pocket Wallet; 2 identity discs; 2 Geneva Crosses (indicating that he was medical personnel and should not be attacked on the battlefield: should he have been wearing one?); Set of RAMC Cloth Numerals.” It would appear he was a serious minded and dutiful young man.