Although the entry in the CWGC register for Lieutenant Francis Herbert THORNDIKE, 11th Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, contains no additional information, I had a very strong feeling right from the start that there was more to discover about him. It was what I now refer to as ‘my Sybil Thorndike moment’. As I left Duisans British Cemetery I couldn’t help wondering whether he was related to the renowned actress of her day, Dame Sybil Thorndike, and for some unknown reason I had a very strong feeling that he was. When I got home I looked her up, not literally, I hasten to add – she died of a heart attack in 1976.
I was immediately encouraged once I discovered that Frank had shown a keen interest in music and drama at school, not least because Sybil had been a concert pianist until nerve problems in her hands forced her to take up acting. Eventually, my initial suspicions were confirmed; Frank was indeed Sybil’s brother. It would appear that she seldom spoke about his death and she was even said to have been little troubled by it when she heard the news. This was in sharp contrast to her father’s reaction, who was deeply affected by his son’s death and died not long afterwards. She, on the other hand, believed that when people died they went to a happier place, so why be sad for them?
In 1908 she had married the actor, Lewis Thomas Casson, who, politically, shared the same socialist leanings as his wife. When war broke out both of them were against it, believing it to be imperialist and also immoral. Her two brothers, Russell and Frank, however, believed it was their duty to fight, as did Lewis’s own brother, William. After further reflection Lewis decided to enlist, initially serving with the Royal Army Service Corps. Whilst stationed at St. Albans he met up with his friend, the actor and playwright, Harold Chapin, who had also chosen to enlist. Both men subsequently served on the Western Front and took part in the Battle of Loos where, sadly, Harold was killed in action with the 1/6th (London) Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps, on the 28th September 1915. Three days earlier, on the opening day at Loos, William Casson was also killed in action with the 7th Battalion, London Regiment, aged 42. Lance Corporal Harold Chapin is now commemorated on the Loos Memorial and Major William Casson, who held the Territorial Decoration, is buried nearby at Loos British Cemetery.
In 1916 Lewis Casson accepted a commission and joined the Special Brigade, Royal Engineers, whose role it was to handle the discharge of gas. The fact that he had studied chemistry before the war was no doubt a factor. He went on to take part in the Battle of the Somme and was wounded in the shoulder by shrapnel the following year at Arras. He spent some time back in England, but then returned to the front, serving there until the final stages of the war when he was posted to the United States where he spoke on behalf of the British Army about the use of gas in warfare, a subject about which he had now become very knowledgeable. For the operation at Arras, where he had been wounded, he was awarded the Military Cross. The citation reads:
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He, on three separate occasions, has shown courage and determination in connection with gas operations. His personal supervision and remarkable coolness have enabled him to carry through the most intricate operations with success.” The citation appeared in the Edinburgh Gazette dated the 20th July 1917.
If anything though, his attitude towards war hardened after the Armistice; nevertheless, when war broke out in 1939, he went on to work with the Air Raid Wardens’ Service, even though Sybil, along with their son, Christopher, and their daughter, Anne, refused to have anything to do with the war. Later, however, when Lewis realized the extent of the devastation that had been caused by the bombing of Germany’s cities, he was highly critical, believing that much of the damage and death had been inflicted disproportionately on working class districts. Ironically, his son, John Casson, had been shot down over Norway while on a bombing mission and had initially been posted as missing in action, believed dead, though he was subsequently confirmed as a prisoner of war.
Although enlistment was an easy choice for some, for others, like Lewis Casson, it posed a huge moral dilemma. By contrast, Sybil’s conscience was always clearer and remained consistently at odds with the attitude taken by her brothers, Russell and Frank. In her younger days, as a pianist, she had worked with many German musicians, and throughout her life she always maintained that she had found the German people agreeable.
The link between Frank and Sybil was one of the many enjoyable discoveries I made while researching Duisans British Cemetery for ‘Arras North’, proving at the same time that simple hunches sometimes pay off. Curiosity regarding Frank’s grave ultimately led me to the story of two families whose members held widely differing views on the question of war and military service. Whatever differences there were between Lewis and Sybil, it would appear that theirs was a strong and happy marriage. She was once reputedly asked whether she had ever considered divorce. She replied: “Divorce, never. Murder, often!”