By Shelia Robins
Christened Joannes Francois Vermeulen and born on 13th June 1892, JF Vermeulen was one of nine children, having 2 brothers and 6 sisters. His father was Josephus Vermeulen and his mother was Maria Elisabeth Van Hassendonc. They were farmers from Hotstadem, near Brussels, where his father also worked as a forester. He enlisted in the Belgian Army in August 1914 and in doing so became Private Soldat Jean Francois Vermeulen 59694, and served with Infantry 1 Linie Regiment 2nd Battalion 1st Company of the Belgian Army.
The Battle of Yser
The River Yser (Ijzer or Yzer) originates in northern France before entering the Belgian province of West Flanders then flowing through Diksmuide and into the Northern Sea at the town of Nieuwport. This was the northern extent of the Western Front, a 600 mile ribbon of land from Belgium to Switzerland, which at its maximum width was just a few dozen miles, and at its minimum only a few yards, mostly defended by trenches.
The Battle of Yser took place from 18 – 30 October 1914 between the towns of Nieuwport and Dismuide along a 22 mile long stretch of the Yser River and Yperiee Canal in Belgium. Jean Francois Vermeulen fought for Belgium in this battle.
During the battle, the river was deliberately flooded between Nieuwport and Diskmuide to provide an obstacle to the advancing German Army and keep westernmost Belgium safe from German occupation.
The front line was held by a large Belgian force which included Vermeulen, and which succeeded in halting the German advance, though only after heavy losses, with the Belgian army sustaining 20,000 causalities, and the Germans even more than that. Victory in the battle allowed Belgium to retain control of a sliver of its territory.
It was against this awful backdrop Jean Francois Vermeulen fought for his country, and was injured by shrapnel on 21st October 1914 at Kaaskerke, near Diskmuide.
Vermeulen was one of ten soldiers brought to Stockport Infirmary for treatment, as British hospitals were seen as much safer alternatives for treatment than those on the war-torn continent. Sadly, he died on 28th October 1914 in the infirmary of tetanus from his wounds
His funeral took place on the 31st October with a requiem mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. The coffin was draped with Belgium and British flags and was taken to Willow Grove Cemetery. Jean Francois was the first soldier to be buried within the cemetery in an unmarked grave in an area that had been reserved for soldiers.
During the war, his parents received a message that their son was wounded in action and had been transferred to England, where he died. They did not know where and how this had happened or where he was buried. The only thing that they had was a letter they had received from him just before he died.
‘With this letter, I wanted to let you know that I arrived safely back in Willebroek. I’m very relieved to know you’re still alive and your visit moved me so that I cried all the way back. Never lose hope, dear parents, and the happy time will come when we meet again in good health because I have no intention of dying yet.’
Private Soldat Jean Francois Vermeulen died in Stockport, Cheshire, on the 28th October 1914. He was 23 years old.
**Author’s Note: It took two years for The Friends of Stockport Cemeteries to track down members of JF Vermeulen’s family. Neither his parents nor his other family members knew where he was buried until the group contacted them.
His relatives came to England to attend the The Centennial Commemoration Event at Willow Grove in November 2014 in honour of Vermeulenm who gave his life in WW1 and of all the Military who are buried in Willow Grove Cemetery. They know a nurse was with Vermeulen when he died, and they would love to find her descendants to thank them for her compassion. Can you help us find them?
The nurse was named Marjorie Whittet, and she was a member of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve, Rank: Staff. The War Office has her on their Service Medal and Award Rolls Index, for the First World War, with the Medal Card of Whittet, Marjorie, Corps Regiment No Rank Queen’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve, Staff Nurse, Reference WO 372/23/44680.
Marjorie was born in Scotland, and her parents, Helen and William came from Newport, and we do not believe she ever married. She had 3 or 4 sisters, named Peg, Daisy, and Primi, and she was also a nurse in the Second World War, although we have been unable to find information confirming this. Marjorie also had a nice named Helen, but we do not know her surname. Helen moved to Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire, in the 1940s and was a matron at a local preparatory school there.
Does anyone know what happened to Marjorie after the First World War? Does anyone know of her family members and where they could be right now? If so, please get in touch!