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William Ernest SYKES (1872-1915)

Known As
Colonel Sykes; the CO
Biographical Details

Lieutenant-Colonel William Ernest Sykes (1872-1915), known as Bill, was Cyril Sladden’s Commanding Officer in the 9th Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment, whilst Cyril was still training in England.  Lieutenant-Colonel Sykes was in command of the battalion for just under five months from 19th August 1914 to until his death on 8th January 1915.  He sadly committed suicide in January 1915 and is mentioned in a few letters of that period.

Bill was born in Dersan, India on 2nd 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 1881 and the family was living at Poona Villa, Lambeth.

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 10th 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, Worcestershire Regiment.  He was given the temporary rank of Lieutenant-Colonel on appointment to command the 9th battalion, Worcestershire Regiment, that same year, based at Tidworth, Wiltshire.

In January 1914 at St George 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 17th December 1914, a son, Hugh William Bellairs Sykes, was born.

Just over three weeks after the birth of his son, Bill Sykes, aged 42, shot himself with a revolver on 8th 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 Memorial.

Letters mentioning this person: