The sad end of the Sergeant Major’s Career
by Alan R. Anstee
Whilst researching for the Swale 20th Century Defence Project a number of interesting and at times odd events concerning the military were seen in the local newspapers from the early years of WWI when large numbers of troops were based in and around Sittingbourne. Perhaps the oddest of these was first seen in the 23rd January 1915 edition of the Kent Messenger. This reported on the trial of John Murphy, alias Hugh Charles Caston a Royal Engineer Company Sergeant Major.
This account of the trial and another in the East Kent Gazette told how this man had entered the house of Mrs Mary Tidy in Church Lane Newington on 12th January 1915, whilst she was out. She came into the house about 20 minutes to four and found the C.S.M. entering the front room of the house from the next room carrying a box she knew was kept upstairs. She challenged him and he said he was there to pay the money she was owed for the soldiers billeted on her and to inspect the billets. He paid her the money and left, she went to look upstairs finding it ransacked with several items missing and at once sent a neighbour to fetch the police.
The evidence of PC Post stated that he arrived at the house about 4 p.m. spoke to Mrs Tidy and went to look for the C.S.M, finding him in the Bull Inn. He then took him to Mrs Tidy’s house finding the missing items on him when searched. He then took the man to the police station, presumably for formal charging and on the way was offered a bribe of a sovereign to let him go.
The Kent Messenger stated that a medical certificate was produced at the trial stating, to use a modern term, that he was mentally ill. The statement given by Caston, to use the name in his army record, which is extant, stated that he had travelled around Kent that day and had been in several pubs, perhaps implying that he was drunk.
Caston’s service record shows that he was a regular soldier who enlisted as a musician on 1 August 1896 aged fifteen, had served in Malta and had been awarded the Good Conduct and Long Service Medal. He seems then to have been an exemplary soldier for most of his career, being promoted to Acting Company Sergeant Major on the 1st October 1914. He had completing a number of courses and was well qualified for his job of training Territorial Soldiers. However for whatever reason in January 1915 something had gone wrong. After the above incedent he was taken to Chatham Military Hospital (Fort Pitt) and on the 15th of January 1915 was transferred to D Block of the Netley Hospital. The medical report written then stated that he was excited, obstinate and inclined to be aggressive. The medical report also stated that he had delusions that he was about to be promoted to the rank of Major, believed that he was a wealthy man, often ordering his car to be sent round to take him for a drive, he also said he wanted to provide Egyptian Cigarettes to all the other patents. The report dated 20 January 1915 finally recommended the he be given a medical discharge as no longer fit for military service. His discharge was dated 2 February 1915, a sad end to a career lasting over eighteen years.
He died in Dartford on the 18th of June 1917 and is buried in Woodlands Cemetery Gillingham.