THE LOST SOULS; On Remembrance Day, a story to remind us why we must never forget Tragedy of five brave brothers who went to war and didn't come back.
POIGNANT lists of the Fallen will be read out at Remembrance Day services this morning. Every town and village has been touched by the tragedy of war.
But no mother suffered a graver loss than Annie Souls whose FIVE sons died fighting for their country in the Great War. Incredibly, the only memorial to their sacrifice is five fading photos in their village church.
So today MICHAEL WALSH and RACHAEL BLETCHLY tell the story of an amazing Band of Brothers. Lest We Forget.
PROUD Annie Souls hid her fears behind a brave smile as she waved her five sons off to war.
Farm lads Albert, Fred, Walter, Alf and Arthur longed to do their bit for their country - and their mum thought it her patriotic duty to encourage them.
What happened to those much-loved boys is a stark and chilling reminder of why we must mark Remembrance Sunday today - and every year.
For none of the Souls brothers came back from the Great War. Annie waited with her sick husband William and their three daughters, praying for her boys to return.
But only the telegram lad came to the family's cottage in the Cotswolds. Five times he bore the same bleak message - another brother had been killed on the Western Front.
Twins Alfred and Military Medal winner Arthur - born an hour apart - died within five days of each other.
More than 80 years later, Annie's grandson Victor Walkley says: "The village postmistress's son had to deliver all the telegrams. He told me years later how he dreaded it.
"He'd cycle up to Annie's house and she'd meet him at the gate. She'd look at him and whisper, 'Oh no, not another'."
Today, five pictures in St John the Baptist Church in the family's home village of Great Rissington, Gloucs, honour the lost Souls:
-PRIVATE Albert Souls, 20. Killed in action, France, March 14 1916.
-PRIVATE Frederick Souls, 30. Killed in action, France, July 19 1916.
-PRIVATE Walter Souls, 24. Died of wounds, France, August 2 1916.
-PRIVATE Alfred Souls, 30. Killed in action, Flanders, April 20 1918.
-LANCE CORPORAL Arthur Souls, 30, killed in action, France, April 25 1918.
Astoundingly, the fading photos are the only memorial to the family's combined loss.
But Victor, 78, is telling the brothers' story today - when November 11, Armistice Day, coincides with Remembrance Sunday - in the hope that they will never be forgotten.
"Annie made the greatest sacrifice of any mother in the Great War or any other conflict, yet her sons have never been properly honoured," says Victor. "I can't imagine how she coped. She must have missed them every day.
"She even lost her sixth son, Percy. He was too young for the trenches but died from meningitis. How much tragedy can one family bear?" The story is even more poignant than that of America's Niland brothers, who inspired the hit movie Saving Private Ryan.
Two Niland boys had died in the Second World War when President Roosevelt ordered a mission to pluck their younger brother to safety.
There was no such effort to end Annie's mounting anguish.
She hid her qualms as Albert and Walter left to volunteer soon after war broke out in 1914.
They joined the 2nd Worcesters. Annie thought at least three of her sons would be safe when Fred, Alf and Arthur found they were not tall enough to be accepted.
But they joined the 16th Cheshires, a "Bantam" battalion for undersize recruits.
Albert and Walter were unscathed in the disastrous Battle of Loos in 1915, when there were 50,000 casualties, and they later transferred to the Machine Gun Corps.
On March 14 1916, the Corps' 5th Brigade reported a lone casualty. The telegram boy pedalled to the Souls' cottage...and Annie learned Albert had been killed.
THE War Office sent condolences and there was the promise of a shilling-a-week pension.
Annie consoled herself with the thought that she had four soldier sons alive - but four months later she was struck an appalling double blow.
Fred had gone into action with the Cheshires on the Somme, northern France, on July 19, and was listed as missing presumed killed.
Annie's granddaugher, Katherine Hall, 87, recalls: "When Fred was reported missing, gran kept a candle burning in the window just in case he came home."
No one knew how Fred died and he has no known grave. But there was even worse news for Annie in the post.
Walter, sent to the Somme the day after Fred's death, was wounded and taken to hospital in Rouen. He seemed to be recovering but died on August 2.
The matron wrote to his mother: "I much regret to tell you that your son died very suddenly. He came to us with a wound in his left leg and had an operation, but he rallied and seemed to be better.
"He was quite cheery, and then next day he quite suddenly collapsed and died instantly from an embolism (or clot of blood) in the heart.
"I am enclosing a postcard which he wrote on the day he died. He will be buried in the little cemetery where lie other brave lads who have fallen."
Only the twins were left. "Surely they won't be taken from me, too," Annie prayed.
For more than 18 months her prayers were answered but the dreaded telegrams were to arrive twice more.
Alf, by then with the 11th Cheshires, survived much fierce fighting until he met his fate during the great German offensive in spring 1918.
He was killed as his unit made a desperate stand to hold Ploegsteert Wood in Flanders on April 20.
Family tradition insists that Arthur, by then a lance corporal with the 7th Royal West Kents, lost the will to survive after hearing of his twin's death.
He was among men killed battling for the key point of Villers Bretonneux, Somme, on April 25 - and won his Military Medal posthumously for his part in the action.
As if the appalling loss was not enough to cope with, Annie faced taunts about the pensions the deaths had brought her.
Katherine says: "Someone cruelly said she must be well off with the money for losing five sons. She just replied, 'I'd rather have my boys'."
Annie received an official letter after her first three sons had died, expressing the "sympathy of the King and Queen".
It did not prevent her grief turning to bitterness before she died in 1935.
Katherine says: "She refused to stand for the national anthem because she blamed the King for her boys' deaths.
"She came to my school when I was 14 and they played God Save the King. I begged her to stand. She did, but I could see how it hurt her.
"Her sons had been fine, handsome boys who didn't hestitate in doing their duty.
"Poor grandmother must have hated waving them off to war. And after Albert died, then Frederick, she must have carried a terrible dread inside."
Victor - born five years after the last of his uncles was killed - wrote to the Queen and Tony Blair asking if they could be officially honoured. He was told there was no suitable public memorial for the names.
Victor, of Holmfirth, West Yorks, said: "Five brothers ...that's too great a price to pay without lasting recognition."
He will leave the brothers' medals to a museum so they are not forgotten.
"It's the least I can do," he said. "They gave all so future generations could live in peace."To send a donation to the Royal British Legion's Poppy appeal call 0845 845 1945 or try www.poppy.org.uk
LOSS: Grief-stricken Annie; SING: Fred was never found; TRAGIC: Walter died in hospital; BATTLE: Alf was killed in 1918; TWIN: Arthur died days later