Lieutenant-Colonel, 9th Battalion, The Worcestershire Regiment
Committed suicide at Tidworth, Wiltshire on 8 January 1915, aged 41
Buried at Holy Trinity Church, Coleman's Hatch, Sussex

Holy Trinity churchyard and William Sykes' gravestone
(Click to enlarge)

William Ernest Sykes, "Bill", was born in Dersan, India on 2 December 1872, the fourth of six children of Major-General Henry Peter Sykes (Bombay Lancers) and his wife, Mary Albina (née Bellairs). Major-General Sykes had retired by back to the UK in 1881 and the family was living at Poona Villas, Rosendale Road in Norwood, South London, with his parents and his brothers, Frederick, George, Clement, William, Alexander and his sister Ida, in addition to Ernest. All his siblings (and his father) were born in India apart from Clement who was born in Oxfordshire a year before Ernest. The family had a cook and a housemaid at this time.

On leaving school, Bill became a professional soldier. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the York and Lancaster Regiment and was promoted to Lieutenant into the Lancashire Fusiliers on 10 August 1900. In the South African War of 1899-1902 he served first as Lieutenant and then as Captain. He was mentioned twice in despatches for his gallant service.

On the outbreak of the First World War, Bill was a substantive Major attached to the 5th battalion, the Worcestershire Regiment. He was given the temporary rank of Lieutenant-Colonel on appointment to command the 9th battalion, the Worcestershire Regiment, that same year, based at Tidworth, Wiltshire.

St George's, Hanover Square, Mayfair, W1
(Click to enlarge)

In January 1914 at Saint George's, Hanover Square, London, Bill had married his first cousin, Olive Beryl Bellairs (known as Beryl), 18 years his junior. Beryl was the daughter of his uncle, Alban Bellairs, his mother's brother.

On 17 December 1914, a son, Hugh William Bellairs Sykes, was born. Hugh married and had two children. He died at Abbotts Ann, Andover, Hampshire, on 2 March 2005, aged 90. He also served in the army, rising to the rank of Major in the Yorkshire and Lancaster Regiment. He married Lucille Hemard of New Orleans in December 1952 in Heidelberg, Germany. In 1953 he was serving in Khartoum in the Sudan where his daughter was born.

Just over three weeks after the birth of his son, Bill Sykes, aged 42, shot himself with a revolver on 8 January 1915. The cause of his suicide was given as "overwork". Reports in various different newspapers of the time gave the following details:

"Forgive me for what I am doing. My brain seems incapable of doing anything, Bill." Such was the purport of a note found in the bedroom of Lieutenant-Colonel William Ernest Sykes, commanding the 9th Worcestershire Regiment at Tidworth, who killed himself with a revolver, as the result of overwork and worry over military details.

At yesterday's inquest, the Jury returned a verdict of "Suicide during temporary insanity." Major Moss, of the same regiment, said he saw the deceased on Thursday afternoon lying insensible on his bedroom floor with a bullet wound in his head, and a revolver was lying near. During the last two or three months the Colonel had been in a very nervous state and worried over details. He was doing far too much work. The Battalion, witnesses might add, was not wrong financially in any department.

The tragic discovery was made by Captain and Adjutant Godfrey, of the 9th Worcesters, at four o'clock on Thursday afternoon, when he was looking for the deceased at the request of the Brigade-Major. The last time witness saw deceased alive was about eleven o'clock on Thursday morning when he was looking very ill and seemed worried over everything. About two months ago deceased went away on sick leave on the recommendation of the General.

Lieutenant Burnlys said the fatal bullet had gone through deceased's head, struck the ceiling, and splintered a curtain-pole. It was a hopeless case from the start, and the Colonel died in hospital 23 hours later.

Colonel Andrus, in command of the Staffordshire Regiment, which occupies the same barracks as the Worcesters, said that latterly Colonel Sykes had told him he had not slept at all. Witness could see he was wearing himself out and going into details which he should have left for another officer. Deceased was working practically night and day, with scarcely any rest.

The day before the tragedy deceased told witness when out riding that he could not sleep and could not concentrate his mind on details. He said he would see a doctor but, so far as witness knew, he did not do so.

Lieutenant-Colonel Sykes was 42 years old and leaves a widow and child.

Bill was buried in the churchyard of Holy Trinity church, Coleman's Hatch, East Sussex. He is also commemorated on the Forest Row war memorial. His mother and father-in-law are also buried in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church dying in 1951 and 1925 respectively. The memorial book is signed by G Bellairs, his mother-in-law, of Stone House, Forest Row.

His estate was left to Reginald Nigel Bellairs, a lieutenant in the 9th Worcester Regiment. The value was £635 12s 11d. Reginald was the elder brother of Ernest's wife Olive. He was born in 1884. Reginald served in the same regiment as Ernest Sykes and fought at Gallipoli. He married Kathleen Mabel Niblett on 18 June 1916 at Redmarley D'Abitot, Gloucestershire. He went on to be a company director, travelling to Asia and Argentina in the 1920s and 1930s. He died in Guernsey in 1979. According to the 1911 census, Reginald Bellairs was listed as a stockbroker and was living at Stonehouse Park, Forest Row with his parents and sister Olive (who appears as Beryl in the census). Reginald Bellairs was appointed temporary lieutenant on 7 September 1914. The Bellairs were recorded as living at Stone House in Forest Row in 1906, but in the 1901 census they lived at Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire.

Carol O'Driscoll


Newspaper report: www.badseysociety.uk/sladden-archive/