World War II: ‘In some corner of a Foreign Field’
Written by Jenny Pigott, with thanks to David Arnold
All the names on the war memorial at St John’s are read out in church every Remembrance Sunday. Many had been fighting overseas, and some have no known grave, but for one young man, Dennis Moppett, we have a vivid picture of his last years, thanks to David Arnold*.
Dennis lived in Abinger Place and was the only son of the family, with two younger sisters, Sheila and Felicity, known as Fi-fi. He was an active member of the church and had joined the Crusaders’ Union. He attended the County Grammar School, and then went to work for a local insurance company.
He served in the Home Guard for a few months before volunteering for the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. After fighting in France, he was sent out to the Far East, where he was captured by the Japanese and held on Java until being moved to Moena Island, South Celebes, in Indonesia.
There he – and so many others – faced terrible privations and were forced to build airfields for the enemy. He spent three years there, before dying of illness and malnutrition in January 1945, at the age of twenty-two.
Despite the cruel regime, Dennis was able to write scores of letters to his family. Knowing he would never be able to post them, he hid them in a bamboo container. They were kept safe by a POW friend who survived the war, and eventually delivered them to the Moppett family in Lewes. They describe not only the terrible conditions in the POW camps, but show how Denis’ faith and his love for his family kept him going for so long.
We were brought here to build an aerodrome but after about a fortnight it was necessary to stop work as we could not raise 800 fit men out of 2000. Over 1400 men are now sick with dysentery….You all seem to be in a far away world, a sort of paradise where this place is forgotten and everything is just the opposite of the way it is here….there is hardly a night goes by when I am not in that world with you…… I have just been reading the 91st Psalm, Mum, and it has such wonderful promises in it. God can most certainly bring us all back together again safely, if it is his will.He was obviously homesick for Sussex too, often referring to places he remembered, such as the entry for 20 December 1943:
I expect everything at home is rush and bustle now preparing for Christmas and I bet Fifi is getting excited, bless her little heart. If only I could pop home for a few hours as I did the Christmas before I came overseas. I have just been shown a photo of Lewes in a ‘Liliput’ annual. It shows Southover Church from the Cockshut with Cliffe Hill in the background.
Dennis died on 6th January 1945 and is buried in Ambon War Cemetery in Indonesia.
He is also remembered in the Memorial Building at the National Arboretum at Alrewas, near Lichfield in Staffordshire.
*We are very grateful to David Arnold for giving us permission to include these details. David has published some of the Moppett letters, together with many other stories in his fascinating book ‘Seventy Years on – a Tapestry in Time’. Crown Publishing Ltd, 2010.