This story is the result of an investigation of documents held by Surrey History Centre. The file (SHC ref. CC7/4/4, nos. 1-50) contains correspondence and insurance claims on behalf of Surrey County Council Education Department employees who had been killed in action during the Great War. The cases date from 1915 to 1918.
Name: Walter Norman Welton
Occupation: Woodwork Instructor
Birth Place: Attleborough, Norfolk
Residence: Wallington, Surrey
Date of Death: Died 26th June 1916
Age: 31 years
Location: No. 4 Casualty Clearing Station, Beauval, France
Regiment: 1st Battalion, Special Brigade, Royal Engineers
Regimental Number: 128805
Walter Welton was born in 1885 and was originally from Attleborough, Norfolk, and the son of George, a former school master, and Elizabeth Welton, of Norwich. He married Alice, a farmer’s daughter from Norfolk, that same year, and in 1915 he became the father of a son. They were living at 8, Demesne Road, Wallington, Surrey when he enlisted.
During the early 1900s, he specialised in woodwork and learnt his trade by attending the Norwich Technical Institute. He became a certified teacher of practical skills at Bandon Hill Manual Training Centre, South Beddington, from 1913 onwards. His will suggests that he also worked at the Coulsdon Roke (Surrey) Handicraft Centre.
In a letter after Welton’s death, dated 12th July 1916, the Surrey Education Committee described Walter as ‘…one of the Committee’s Instructors of Woodwork’.
Walter was living and working in Wallington when he volunteered for the 4th Battalion Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment at the start of the war. His technical skills were probably soon recognised and likely led to his transfer to the Royal Engineers.
There is no evidence of when Walter went to France with the Royal Engineers. On his death he was a pioneer, the equivalent of a Private, with the 1st Battalion, Special Brigade, Royal Engineers. The Special Brigade was responsible for one of the most controversial elements of the Great War, poison gas.
Poison gas was first used on the Western Front by the Germans against allied units in the Ypres Salient in 1915. The British developed their own response and, according to the official history of the war, its use at the Battle of Loos had warranted ‘further development’. In January 1916, Kitchener agreed to expand the original four gas companies of the Royal Engineers. By May 1916, five ‘Special Brigades’, containing four battalions, each of four companies, were ready; initially manned by volunteers and then ‘drafts of suitable men’. Each ‘Special Brigade’ was attached to an army group in France, and Walter’s 1st Special Brigade went to the 4th Army, which was preparing to fight the Battle of the Somme.
There is evidence from war diaries and histories that Walter and his comrades were part of the preparations for the Somme offensive. A 4th Division report states that the Special Brigade had taken casualties on the night of 25/26th June. Shrapnel hit one of the phosgene gas cylinders the men were handling causing a leak. Walter and several of his comrades were evacuated to No. 4 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) located at Beauval.
A letter from H.B.W. Denison, Chaplain, No. 4 CCS letter dated 27th June 1916 completes the story:
‘It is with deep regret that I write to tell you of the death of your husband, Pioneer Welton, in this hospital. He was admitted yesterday suffering severely from gas poisoning and he died during the evening. Everything possible was one for him and for his comrades suffering from the same horrible gas, but it was of no avail. I am burying him with four of his comrades this afternoon in Beauval cemetery.’
The R.E Record Office confirmation of his death, dated 4th July 1916, states that Walter ‘died from Drift Gas’.
After his death, Walter’s wife, Alice, pursued an insurance claim with Surrey County Council, who had taken out an insurance policy on behalf of Walter. In correspondence with the Council Alice makes the point that she has a son to look after. A letter from the Surrey Education Committee to the Clerk to the County Council states that Alice is ‘badly off and is (going back) to live (in Norfolk to) get work of some kind’. She is described as ‘a capital young woman and deserving of all help’. Alice would have eventually received approximately £100.
Walter is buried at the Beauval Communal Cemetery, Somme, France where his inscription reads “In Ever Loving Memory of My Dear Norman Rest in Peace”.
His name also appears on two memorials in Norfolk and a school memorial in Wallington. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/56145028
In addition, his name appears on the “Beddington & Wallington” War memorial, which is close to where his widow lived for at least two decades after the war. An image can be seen online here:
Walter was entitled to the War Medal and Victory Medal
Surrey History Centre Files CC/7/4/4
J. E. Edmonds, Military Operations France and Belgium, 1916: 2nd July to the End of the Battle of the Somme, (MacMillan & Co., London, 1932).
War Diary – 4th Division
The Special Companies of the Royal Engineers (poison gas), (‘The Long, Long Trail’, 30th July 2015), https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/army/regiments-and-corps/the-corps-of-royal-engineers-in-the-first-world-war/the-special-companies-of-the-royal-engineers-poison-gas/
Commonwealth War Graves Commission – https://www.cwgc.org/
Ancestry website – https://www.ancestry.co.uk/