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  • Christina Drummond

Second Lieutenant Eric Rupert Heaton, 16th Battalion, the Middlesex Regiment

Remembering the Fallen: on this day in 1916, Second Lieutenant Eric Rupert Heaton, 16th Battalion, the Middlesex Regiment, was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. On that day he led his platoon up the slopes of Hawthorn Ridge to their objective, a mine crater which had been blown earlier that morning. It is believed that he is the soldier at 30.54 in this video, leading his men over the top: - The Battle of the Somme, 1916, shot by two official cinematographers, Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell.

One of five children of a Church of England vicar, he was educated at Guildford Grammar School and had intended to study for the medical profession. Instead, he and his two brothers enlisted in the army at the outbreak of the Great War; both brothers survived the war and returned home, one of them following their father into the church.

Second Lieutenant Heaton at first saw service as a subaltern with the 14th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, then in early 1916 he joined the 16th Battalion for service on the Western Front. His battalion was one of the main units leading the attack towards Beaumont Hamel and Hawthorn Ridge, they were in full view of the enemy on higher ground. Ordered to advance along a hundred yards of front line, they came under immediate machine-gun fire. Second Lieutenant Heaton was shot in the leg and that was the last that was seen of him – by way of tribute, his men named one of the trenches after him. He was listed as missing, and for several months his family held on to the hope that he was either in a German hospital or being held as a prisoner of war, but when the battlefield was cleared in the winter of 1916 his body was found. He was buried on the battlefield, but was then recovered and moved to Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery No.1, Auchonvillers, Somme, France.

His last letter home, written on the 28th of June, 1916: “My Darling Mother and Father, I am writing this on the eve of my first action. Tomorrow, we go to the attack in the greatest battle the British army has ever fought. I cannot quite express my feelings on this night and I cannot tell if it is God’s will that I shall come through – but if I fall in battle then I have no regrets save for my loved ones I leave behind. It is a great cause and I came out willingly to serve my King and Country. No one had such parents as you have been to me giving me such splendid opportunities and always thinking of my welfare at great self-sacrifice to yourselves. This life abroad has taught me many things, chiefly the fine character of the British Race to put up with hardship with wonderful cheerfulness. If I fall, do not let things be black for you. Be cheerful and you will be living life always to my memory. Well I cannot write more now. You are all in my thoughts as I enter this first battle. May God go with me.”

Eric, born in Rochdale but raised in Cornwall and Somerset, was 20 years old.

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