FEATURE: The first Bostonians killed in the First World War

The grave of Major Dickinson
The grave of Major Dickinson

George Herbert Payne had almost completed his degree at Jesus College, Cambridge, when war was declared on August 4, 1914. Just 22 days later he was killed in action, one of the first Bostonian casualties of the First World War.

Historian Willam M. Hunt, author of A Town Remembers, spoke to reporter Duncan Browne about some of our townsfolk who gave their lives for their country...

In Le Cateau Military Cemetery in France lies a grave with the inscription ‘Tell England Ye Who Pass We Died For Her So Rest Content’.

That spot - plot three, row C, grave three - is the final resting place of Lieut George Herbert Payne, one of the first Bostonians to be killed in action during the First World War.

Lieut Payne had already fought at Mons before losing his life at Le Cateau, just three weeks and one day after Great Britain declared war on Germany.

He was 21 years old, and close to finishing his degree at Cambridge’s Jesus College.

A young George - the only son of a farmer by the same name - grew up in Sleaford Road and had been educated at Boston Grammar School before continuing his studies in Wellingborough, and then moving on to Cambridge.

He had already decided on a career in the military, and had joined the Officer Reserve at school and he had been gazetted into the 3rd Battalion, Suffolk Regiment, on June 13, 1914.

When war broke out he gained a commission in the 2nd Battalion and he left for the continent on August 11.

Despite being killed in action, he was initially reported as missing and his family began enquiries to discover his whereabouts, first through the regiment, then through the War Office and the Red Cross.

In May 1915 they had a letter from the War Office stating - ‘... a communication lately received from the German Government through the American Embassy, contains a list of officers reported ‘... dead - buried at a place unknown’ ‘

Lieut G.H. Payne, of Suffolk Regiment, was on the list. The letter continued - ‘The Military Secretary is of opinion that this evidence, combined with the fact that the officer had been so long missing, must be taken as conclusive proof of death ...’

This information confirmed the message from a postcard to George’s sister, received on January 14, 1915 from Company Sergeant Major W.A. Read – a prisoner of war at Doeberitz, in Germany.

He wrote: “I regret to state that your brother ... G.H. Payne died nobly on August 26, 1914, at Le-Cateau while defending the position in which he had been placed.”

Some years later, Lieut Payne’s body was found and identified.

Lieut George Herbert Payne was the first Boston man to die in the war whose name is engraved on Boston war memorial.

However, he was not the first Bostonian to be killed in action.

That unfortunate accolade belongs to Private Thomas Henry Kennedy of the 1st Boston, Lincolnshire Regiment, who was killed in action on August 24, 1914.

Born in Boston and enlisted at Lincoln, Pte Kennedy is buried in Frameries Communal Cemetery, Belgium.

Little is known about Pte Kennedy, but his death occurred during the Retreat from Mons, when the 1st Lincolns were acting as a rear-guard for the 9th Brigade.

Boston’s first casualty of the Great War was Major Walter George Burnett Dickinson, who died just 36 hours into the conflict.

He did not die in battle, but in Lincolnshire and became the earliest Major and second earliest officer to die during the war.

Walter went to Boston Grammar School, the Paris Ecôle de Veterinaire and the New Veterinary College and Surgeons’ Hall, Edinburgh.

He was admitted a Fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and, in 1902, a Fellow of the Royal Society, Edinburgh. He took over his father’s veterinary practice in Boston in 1881, marrying two years later.

He joined the Lincolnshire Garrison Artillery Volunteers in February 1902, as Veterinary Officer, and was promoted to the rank of Captain in 1905, and then Major a few years later.

He belonged to the Territorial Force, the 1st Battery, 1st North Midland Brigade, Royal Field Artillery.

When the threat of war increased in July 1914, the government took the precaution of buying horses from farmers across the country to meet the requirements of possible mobilisation.

Walter’s military position and veterinary standing made him the first choice to do this in the Boston area.

On August 6, two days after war was declared, he was visiting a Butterwick farm and, having purchased some horses, he returned to his car and collapsed.

Walter, who had a history of heart disease, was killed by arterio-sclerosis and syncope. He was 57.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s definition qualifies this as a ‘war death’.

He is buried in Boston Cemetery.