Plant Collections of Rifleman John Divers

During their First World War research, Dr James Wearn and Andrew Budden at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, discovered plant specimens gathered from close to the River Thames in the environs of Richmond and Twickenham. This is not notable in itself, but their re-discovery in Kew’s Herbarium (of upwards of 7 million preserved specimens) suddenly gains poignancy through their collector – former Kew gardener John Divers, who was (and still is) missing on the Somme. These carefully dried, pressed plants are a very moving local material link with this infamous battle, and were collected just four years before John was killed.

Divers, K000773536 Dianthus from Twickenham (July 1912)

Dianthus deltoides, Twickenham July 1912

The specimens shown here are Glechoma hederacea (‘ground ivy’) collected in April 1912 from the bank of the River Thames [near Richmond] (accession K001189122) and Dianthus deltoides (‘maiden pink’) collected in July 1912 at Twickenham (accession K000773536). Both sheets bear the Royal Gardens – Kew ink stamp dated 20th April 1918, when they were officially added to Kew’s Herbarium.

Upon John’s death in October 1916, his father donated John’s collection of over 400 plant specimens to Kew. A note within the in-house journal at Kew that year stated positively that John’s specimens “have been selected with exceptional care and are well displayed on the sheets on which they are mounted” (Bull. Misc. Inf. Kew 1918(4): 157). The majority had been collected in Leicestershire, near to where he had lived and worked (Belvoir Castle Gardens) prior to joining Kew in March 1912. Whilst John was at Kew he added more local specimens, and was promoted to Sub-foreman in the Herbaceous and Alpine Department in 1913.

Divers, K001189122 Glechoma as Nepeta from Thames (April 1912)

Glechoma hederacea, Richmond April 1912

In December 1914, John joined the 25th London (Cyclists’) Regiment, transferring to the 1/9th Battalion (Queen Victoria’s Rifles) of the London Regiment as Rifleman 7056. He arrived in France in that fateful seventh month of 1916, and found himself on the Somme.

On 8th October 1916, during the Battle of the Transloy Ridges, 1/9th London (169 Brigade) and 1/3rd London (167 Brigade) attacked Dewdrop and Spectrum trenches (NE of Les Boeufs) but by nightfall these British units had withdrawn to their starting position. During the night of the 8-9th October, John was among a patrol party of 20 men and 1 officer, sent out into no-man’s land to gather information about the enemy. All but four of these men were killed and no-man’s land was too dangerous to be thoroughly searched so, sadly, John’s body was never found. He was reported as “missing, believed killed”. John, therefore, has no marked grave and his name appears on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (pier 9, face C), close to the name of fellow Kewite Herbert Martin Woolley who was also missing (killed) in action on the same day on the Somme near Combles.

Front Cover 2016

Rifleman John Divers 

This June, James and Andrew will be returning to the locality of John Divers’ final action on the Somme as part of a larger collaborative project between Kew and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). An event at Kew on 6th July called Somme 100 at Kew will convey a unique perspective of the Somme: considering plants, people, conflict landscapes and remembrance.

Rifleman Divers features as the cover image of this year’s Commemorating the First World War in Richmond upon Thames, Events 2016 brochure.

Event details for Somme 100 at Kew can be found at http://www.kew.org/visit-kew-gardens/whats-on/somme-100-kew

Article by James Wearn & Andrew Budden

Images reproduced with kind permission of the Board of Trustees at Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

Somme100

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