ON September 7, 1914, Herbert John Ruler, an eager young reservist, from Barming, Kent, joined the British Forces in France. He died, aged 18, on October the 26th in a field hospital after a shell fractured his skull six days earlier. If it had not been for a strange coincidence, I would never of known he even existed.
I do vaguely recall my late aunt mentioning that a distant relative of the Ruler clan had apparently been killed. But it was not until after writing the Bradt guide to cross-Channel France that I had a call from a reader, Sheila Enfield (née Ruler) from Maidstone, Kent, establishing a family link.
Which is how in 2013 I joined Sheila and her husband Ron, then in their early eighties, along with her two brothers, Jack, 73, and Frank 71, to pay my respects to a soldier described by a close friend as ‘a source of courage and inspiration in terrible fighting in which we ultimately lost about 600 NCOs and men.’
Also there amid the calm of the beautifully maintained cemetery at Bailleul, in the Hauts de France, were French colleagues from the tourist office along with correspondents from the regional newspaper and radio station.
‘ I think Uncle Bert would have been gobsmacked at such a gathering,’ said Sheila. ‘ But we need to make sure that he and so many others are never forgotten, and that the younger generation realise the dreadful sacrifice they made.’ For me, it was time to plant a small wooden cross and reflect on the fact that 100 years on ‘Uncle Bert’ died at the same age that I went into National Service. You feel guilt and even anger that his life was so cruelly cut short at Radingham during the First Battle of Ypres 10 kms west of Lille. But I now have newly found relatives with whom, I’m sure, had he been alive today, Herbert John would have proudly shared a beer…
I also know that he was born in Barming a son of Mr Herbert Ruler, head attendant and bandmaster of the old Asylum at Barming Heath. In the letter to his parents, his un-named chum also wrote: ‘Your grief will be somewhat assuaged in the pride you must be feeling at having so a brave a son… when I realised the death he had met it gave me a stiff upper lip.’
Herbert enlisted in the 3rd Btn the Buffs (also known as The East Kents) at Chatham in October 1911 for six years in the Special Reserve. He subsequently enlisted in the East Kent Regiment at Canterbury in April 1912 for seven years in the army and five in the reserve. His trade was recorded as being a hammersmith and blacksmith, working for Mr Hitch, a Maidstone coach builder.
The story does not quite end here. I also have documents from a further branch of the family showing that an Ernest Ruler also enlisted, again with the East Kent Buffs. This stated he had a mole on the back of his neck. Herbert John likewise had a mole on the right of his neck. And, no I don’t, but yet another coincidence leaves me determined to discover what happened to Ernest…
FOOTNOTE: As joint author, with Emma Thomson, I dedicated the Bradt Guide to the World War I Battlefields to Herbert John Ruler. The book remains a best seller with a 2nd edition in 2017. Reviews~: ‘A slim volume, fitting into virtually any bag or pocket, its main achievement is the joining up of the dots along the whole Western Front. It’s an ideal companion for both Western Front novices and more seasoned explorers. ‘- Best of British ; ‘A compact guide covering all the main museums and memorials.’ – France Magazine; ‘This slim volume is the ideal pocket book for anyone planning a visit to the battlefields.’ – Good Book Guide ; ‘Good overview of the main sites.’ – Travel Which ; ‘ Extremely well-written, with some panels reading like pieces of literature rather than some dry guidebook entries ‘– Engineering & Technology Magazine