Contributed by Phillipa Malins
Lance Corporal George Botting was born in Cuckfield in 1888 and worked as a nurseryman at Charlesworth Orchids in Haywards Heath. He was a keen sportsman and appears in early Cuckfield Football Club photos. He was also a well known local athlete, winning events at Haywards Heath Athletics Club. In Feb 1916, he married a Cuckfield girl, May Wells, who worked as a dressmaker and they made their home at 4 Jubilee Cottages in Broad Street.
In Dec 1915, before the Military Service Act and conscription was introduced, he enlisted in the Royal Marines Light Infantry. Following training and embarkation, George served eight months on the Western Front and was made a Lance Corporal. At the beginning of August 1917, he started working behind the lines as an instructor but on August 23rd he was tragically killed when a faulty grenade exploded prematurely. The wooden ‘ditty box’ in which he kept his most personal belongings was sent home to May. Largely intact, it contains George’s diary, his writing and wash things, pipe and tobacco pouch (still with shards of tobacco), a case with his last two cigarettes and all May’s letters and postcards.
George’s diary recounts day to day life on the Front: “June 24th, 1917 – Fell in at 5.30am and after a walk of 4 miles over the open and through trenches reached our job close to Gavrelle, clearing a trench for stretchers only. Very risky job in daylight.”
Being a countryman George was interested in the life in the French countryside which somehow continued: “Aug 16th 1917 – Weather lovely and warm and all farmers very busy harvesting, mostly women and old men working though very few young men about excepting the miners, we being in the centre of a large mining district.” George’s last diary entry was on August 20th: “Day of rest. Go to Auchel in the evening for a walk… Buy a pocket wallet for a photo of the best little Girl in the World.”
May’s letters paint a vivid picture of life for a young married couple separated by war and her last letter to George written on August 16th is particularly poignant in her belief that he will now be safe behind the lines: “I feel more contented over you than I’ve done since you’ve been out, fancy 8 months… it hardly seems possible does it, we have been married 18 months.” She also makes the extraordinary observation that “The guns have been awful this morning. The windows are chattering away with the guns.’” The bombardment in Northern France could be felt in Cuckfield.
After George’s death, May never remarried but looked after her mother at 4 Jubilee Cottages. Mrs Wells died in 1950 at the age of 100, May died in 1957 at the age of 70.The ditty box was given to the Museum by George’s nephew, Tom Wells, and is one of the jewels of our collection. It is on permanent display in the Museum. Click here to see Corporal Botting’s ditty box on our Display page. More information about George and May Botting and Cuckfield during the First World War can be found in the publications ‘A Small Town at War’ by Alan Miller and ‘Cuckfield Remembered’ by Shirley Bond.