An Empire hero neglected in his time of need

Here follows a heartbreaking tale, which I first published to mark Remembrance Sunday. It has a sad sequel, too.

As we gather each year around memorials listening to gloomy music or watching warmonger politicians place wreaths on the Cenotaph, perhaps we ought to remember what life was like for ex-servicemen before the Royal British Legion.

This is the story of a gentleman soldier who served his country well, yet died a pauper. I spotted his story in Medway Council’s excellent archives department. It’s not happy reading and poses so many questions on the morality of the Victorians’ sense of charity.

A faded photograph of his gravestone reads: Walter Henry Sargent de Brisac, born March 1824, died December 1893, soldier, pedlar, gentleman.

Accompanying the picture is a newspaper cutting from the 1930s.  The diarist writes: “Hundreds of Chatham folk will remember the eccentric old pedlar, too much of a gentleman to press his wares … To the younger generation he is but a name on a gravestone, yet a strangely fascinating name…

“His is no story of a hero, there is nothing or romance about it, yet the tale of the ragged old solider hermit who peddled his wares in Chatham for years and died a pauper’s death in a hovel is worth telling …”

Indeed it is. Read and weep.

Walter Henry Sargent de Brisac was born in County Cork, the son of a lieutenant in the Royal Marines Light Infantry. At the age of 18 he enlisted in the 28th Regiment of Foot, stationed at Chatham.

In 1844 he embarked with a detachment from Gravesend to join his regiment in China. “That was an evil day for Walter de Brisac,” writes the anonymous correspondent, as he refilled his pen with purple ink. “It marked the commencement of his downfall, which ended years alter in the discovery of his emaciated body, clad in rags, in the hovel he called home.”

Opium wars and a fight for life

While in China, de Brisac would have been protecting British interests in the aftermath of the First Opium War (1839-42). This has become infamous as a particularly spiteful piece of British imperialism — although at the time it was seen as a perfectly reasonable way of preserving trade in the empire upon which the sun never set.

In short, Britain attacked China when imports of opium — the drug of choice in that eastern land — were banned from British India.

After two years in China, de Brisac was transferred to India where he remained for a decade when sickness overtook him and he was invalided home and discharged with an exemplary character.

What sickness is not specified, but the writer adds: “An exemplary character, however, is not enough to keep a sick body and soul together as de Brisac found out when his temporary pension ran out after a year at home.”

Then started the biggest fight of his life, He applied to the Royal Hospital at Chelsea for a pension many times but without success.

Finally he wrote to the Secretary of State for War. After recounting his service, he concluded: “I have since my discharge done all I could to secure a living but, as age increases I begin to find it exceedingly hard to earn my daily bread, especially as everything is now so dear … praying you, if possible, to grant me some small allowance so that I need not be utterly destitute.”

Victorians were harsh. De Brisac never got his pension.

For years he was a pathetically familiar figure in the streets of Chatham. With his collection of soap, buttons and laces he went from door to door. “But one ‘no’ was enough for the old soldier. He never asked you to buy for a second time,” the newspaper reports.

“By his superior manner and always gentlemanly demeanour, de Brisac earned himself a great reputation. He became a great favourite — so popular in fact, that when he died the public subscribed to save him from a pauper’s grave and brought the gravestone to commemorate him.

“Even today it appears de Brisac is not forgotten,” wrote the diarist in the 1930s, “for when I visited his grave this week I found a vase of iris at the foot of his headstone.”

It’s a pity they didn’t remember him in his lifetime, isn’t it?

Dishonoured, even in his final resting-place

Of all the many stories I have covered in my career, first as a reporter, then as a sub-editor and editor, de Brisac’s is one of the most moving.

Last Remembrance Sunday, my wife and I — clutching a bunch of red roses — strode towards Walter Henry Sargent de Brisac’s last resting place, with a map supplied by Medway’s also excellent bereavement services department.

But there was nothing to be found. The whole section had been cleared. Not even the final, pathetic Victorian act of contrition towards a needy man had been left standing.

Perhaps the stone got in the way of the lawnmower or maybe it was a bit rickety and might have fallen on a passing vandal. No matter. It was gone.

I placed a rose as near to the site as I could make out, then walked off, disheartened. On the way back to the gate I spotted the grave of William McCudden, the First World War flying pioneer and brother of James McCudden, VC, one of a whole family of heroes.

I placed the rest of my flowers there and felt a little better disposed to the rest of the world.

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