Wilfred Owen’s Letters Home from Witley Camp

Text by Chris Bent

Wilfred Owen wrote some of the most memorable poems of the First World War. The beauty of his writing can also be found in the many hundreds of letters that he sent to family and friends, mostly to his mother Susan. These letters give us a rich perspective of his life, his beliefs and his values. Those written from Witley camp are a treasure of memories of life at camp and the men who were based there. Extracts from some of these letters are summarised below. Owen was generally very happy at Witley and liked the camp, though initially his arrival there was a shock to the system.

Witley and Milford camps

Got a car from Milford to the Camp 2 or 3 miles off: a vast affair on the top of the hill with Pines interspersed amongst the huts. The Officers’ huts form a big settlement apart….The site is delightful for a camp; but we are all confined to it.  Susan 18.6.1916

I am an exile here, suddenly cut off both from the present day world and from my own past life. I feel more in a strange land than when arriving at Bordeaux! It is due to the complete newness of the country, the people, my dress, my duties, the dialect, the air, food, everything….. I have nearly got together my camp effects, Bed, chair, wash-stand, etc all necessary here. Shall be glad of socks as soon as you can send them. Would you include my enamel mug, left on my dressing table.  Susan 19.6.1916

Food & Drink

Supper was an informal meal today. I was helped to an enormous portion of pies and things. Susan 18.6.1916

Your Thursday Parcel arrived only this morning. Many loving thanks for the Chocs. But you really mustn’t send any more. I fare sumptuously every day. Susan 20.6.1916

The Mess at 8 o’clock is a fairly dignified performance. We get food “a la Grand Hotel” always. Colin 19.6.1916

Soldiers

I know nothing of the officers, other than our Set of “Artists” and nothing of my duties. The men seemed a fairly superior crowd. Susan 18.6.1916

The generality of men are hard-handed, hard-headed miners, dogged, loutish, ugly (but I would trust them to advance under fire and to hold their trench), blond, coarse, ungainly, strong, unfatigueable, unlovely, Lancashire soldiers, Saxons to the bone. Susan 19.6.1916

I am “commanding” numbers of wounded men, now restored. It gives me a great deal of pain to speak severely to them, as now and again need is. I am beginning to pick out the Intelligent and the smart “laads” from amongst the uncouth and ungainly. But I have no individual dealings. My Servant is a Grandfather, with medals of old wars and sons fighting. Susan 3.7.1916

Duties

Had to assist inspection of kit, this morning. I see a toothbrush and a box of polish missing. I demand in a terrible voice “Where’s your TOOTH-BRUSH?” and learn that the fellow has just returned from overseas”…….My most irksome duty is acting Taskmaster while the tired fellows dig: the most pleasant is marching home over the wild country at the head of my platoon, with a flourish of trumpets and an everlasting roll of drums.  Susan 19.6.1916

I am perfectly well, not a bit worried or overworked: though I trod on knife-edges at the first. Susan 20.6.1916

We have been expecting the King to visit our trenches and have worked overtime every day this week. Our anxiety begins again tomorrow! I give an extra ten minutes to shaving every morning in consequence. It is most annoying. Susan 3.7.1916

Training

I have had an exam today: a written one yesterday and an oral one held in the open air this morning. I don’t greatly care if I fail: it means I stay in England longer……We have to get up at 5.45 for strenuous physical drill. Our Sergeant-Major gives it us……I gave “Eyes Front” when I meant “Eyes Left” in passing a guard this afternoon!! The Sergeant Major never even smiled. Nor did I!  Colin 19.6.1916

I often have a Platoon completely to myself on the Moors (The Surrey Downs). Red-Hats gallop up to us at startling speed, or sometimes whizz up in motors, but they never stay long, or criticise. Susan 3.7.1916

I am most frightfully hard-worked. It is one of the worst weeks I ever had in the army. Work begins at 6.30 and never finishes all day. I am deaf with the 7 hours continual shooting and stomach-achy with the fasting from food. Susan late July

I am now as well up in Gas Warfare as can be. It is some satisfaction to feel knowing in these matters, because I am sure it will be used more and more. Gregg and I have devised a slight improvement in the P.H. Helmet but it is not worth noising abroad since the Helmet is really out of date now, displaced by _ But, here I am beginning to “Leak information” (when I have to read daily a solemn W.O. letter, saying that no talk of the War is ever to be indulged in, even in private letters and so on!). Susan early August 1916

I was on Bomb throwing with real live Mills Grenades. I went to sleep in a safe spot when I had thrown my own; but the noise was too frightful to go on. After lunch I fell asleep; and remained so long after the rest had fallen in! But none noticed me! Arriving back in camp I was called upon suddenly to lecture on Discipline. I was now feeling “rotton” but I thought obedience in this case would make a good opening verse for the Lecture; and so it did. Susan 22.8.1916

Read more about Wilfred Owen in Surrey:

https://www.surreyinthegreatwar.org.uk/story/wilfred-edward-salter-owen/

https://www.surreyinthegreatwar.org.uk/story/wilfred-owen-at-witley-camp/

https://www.surreyinthegreatwar.org.uk/story/wilfred-owen-in-guildford-and-godalming/

https://www.surreyinthegreatwar.org.uk/story/the-poetry-of-wilfred-owen/

 

 

Acknowledgement for the Letters is made to: Wilfred Owen:  The Collected Letters, eds. Harold Owen and John Bell (Oxford University Press, 1967)

Acknowledgement is made to the Wilfred Owen Literary Trust

 

 

Wilfred Owen at Witley Camp

Text by Chris Bent

Whilst teaching in France during 1915 and with conscription imminent, Wilfred Owen decided he should join up. He initially joined the 2nd Artist’s Rifles Officer Training Corps on the 20th October, 1915. For the next seven months he received his training at Hare Hall Camp, Gidea Park, Essex.

Then on the 4th June 1916 he was informed of his commissioning to the 5th battalion of the Manchester Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant. The Regiment were training at Milford Camp at this time.

Wilfred Owen's Army Orders

Title: Wilfred Owen's Army Orders
Description: “Owen's Army Orders,” The English Faculty Library, University of Oxford / The Wilfred Owen Literary Estate via First World War Poetry Digital Archive, accessed October 30, 2015, http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/collections/item/5036. by-nc

On the 18th June, 1916 Owen took the train from London to Milford and then by car to the camp. Whilst the battalion were based at Milford camp, the officers quarters were set apart to the west of Witley North Camp. He was stationed in Block E1.

Witley Camp

Title: Witley Camp
Description: W by-nc

It was twelve days into his time at the camp that the worst single day for deaths and casualties in British Military history occurred. That was the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1st 1916, a date that still resonates with us to this day. Little did Owen know that within six months it would be the location of his first experiences of the Western Front.

Manchester Reg

Title: Manchester Reg
Description: “Wilfred Owen with 5th (Res) Manchesters,” The English Faculty Library, University of Oxford / The Wilfred Owen Literary Estate via First World War Poetry Digital Archive, accessed December 21, 2015, http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/collections/item/5030 by-nc

Owen (seated on the ground second from the right) and his fellow officers of the 5th Manchester’s at Witley in 1916.

Training at Witley was over by the 24th September 1916 when the battalion moved to Oswestry, Southport and Fleetwood. On the 11th December 1916 he received his orders to proceed overseas and was in France by the end of the year.

Orders Overseas

Title: Orders Overseas
Description: Wilfred Owen's Orders Overseas by-nc

Acknowledgement for use of images to: http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/permitteduse

First World War Recruitment at Sunbury Cross

Sunbury Cross

Title: Sunbury Cross
Description: Spelthorne Museum by-nc

A large sign fixed to the Jubilee Clock at Sunbury Cross points the way to the local recruiting office. This was initially at the Council Offices in Church Villa, near St. Mary’s Church, but later moved to Mitchison Terrace at the north end of Green Street, which was more central.

Sunbury Cross Recruits

Title: Sunbury Cross Recruits
Description: Spelthorne Museum by-nc

One of the first groups of volunteers at Sunbury Cross, with the Jubilee Clock in the background, in 1914. By the end of the war 13% of Sunbury’s population had enlisted in some way.

Text and images provided by Nick Pollard, courtesy of Spelthorne Museum. Originally part of the museum’s First World War display.

William Henry Jordan (1886 – 1914)

Our story begins with the only known picture of Private William Henry Lowe Jordan, found in the Woking News and Mail of 19 January 1917.

Using censuses and birth records, we know that William Henry Lowe Jordan was born in Norwich early in 1886. His mother later married William Lowe, but William retained the surname Jordan, so this may have been her second marriage.

The News and Mail article tells us that William had enlisted, aged 16, in the Hussars and then, later in the Dragoon Guards, clearly against his family’s wishes and they twice brought him home.

He was not, however, to be deterred. Clearly a soldier’s life was what he wanted above all things and in 1904, when he was free of his parents influence, he joined the Coldstream Guards as a career soldier and he remained with that regiment until December 1911.

William Henry Jordan Marriage record 1912 (SHC ref WOK J/2/3)

William Henry Jordan’s marriage record, St John’s, Woking, 1912 (SHC ref WOK J/2/3)

Once he had left the military he moved to Witley, in Surrey, where he became Labour Master at Hambledon Workhouse. Later, in a complete change of tack, he became a touring guide with the Royal Automobile Club.

In early 1912, he married Florence May Hampton from Horsell, affectionately known as Flory and the couple went to live in Warwick Street, St. John’s. When the Great War broke out, he, having remained as a reservist, was immediately called up and rejoined his regiment, the Coldstream Guards. His service must have been pretty exemplary and he was rapidly promoted to Corporal. With his regiment, he was posted to the Western Front, where, on the 29 October 1914, during the first battle of Ypres, he was reported as ‘missing in action’. Flory received confirmation of this on 19 February the following year. The exact circumstances of his death were never known, which must have left poor Flory in a state of painful uncertainty for a while.

She, like so many other widows of the Great War, never had a grave that she could visit in remembrance of him and we can only hope that she may have taken some comfort from and pride in seeing William’s name inscribed on the town’s War Memorial.

Further Reading

Woking’s Memorials
Woking’s Town Centre War Memorial
St John’s War Memorials
William Henry Jordan’s Commonwealth War Graves Commission record
Images of First World War soldiers featured in the Great War editions of the Woking News and Mail
Other images of First World War soldiers on war memorials featured in the Great War editions of the Woking News and Mail

William Edward Medhurst (1875 – 1915)

Hopes that the war with Germany would be over by Christmas 1914 were shattered by September 1914. The German and Allied armies had reached a stalemate with lines of trenches running from the Swiss border in the south to the North Sea coast of Belgium.

Tension was developing on other fronts. In late October 1914 the Allied Governments1. issued an ultimatum to the Ottoman Empire, modern day Turkey, after their warships shelled Russian ports.

On 31 October 1914, the Ottoman Empire formally entered the war on the side of the Central Powers2.

During the early months of 1915, Allied warships attacked forts along the Dardanelles. This strategic seaway controlled access to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and Russia’s Black Sea ports.

Map of the Gallipoli Landings

The Gallipoli Peninsula, on the west side of the Dardanelles was the site of beach landings on 25 April 1915. This started the Gallipoli Campaign. The landings involved troops of many nationalities, including Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, French and British.

William Edward Medhurst, Petty Officer 1st class, was serving on HMS Cornwallis. Sadly, William was shot and died while rowing soldiers to the beaches. He is buried in the V Beach Cemetery in Turkey and remembered on the Woking Town Centre and Pyrford war memorials. After his death William’s picture was published in a 1915 edition of the Woking News and Mail.

Born in Ripe, Sussex, in 1875, William and his family had, by 1881, moved to Grove Heath Farm in Ripley, Surrey. In 1891 the family was living in Pyrford and by 1901 William had already joined the Royal Navy and at the time of the census was stationed in Gibraltar aboard HMS Repulse.

HMS Cornwallis fires a broadside salvo during the evacuation of Suvla, December 1915. IWM photograph Q 13682.

HMS Cornwallis fires a broadside salvo during the evacuation of Suvla, December 1915. IWM photograph Q 13682.

Nearly 100 years later, a copy of his picture was posted on the Exploring Surrey’s Past website and rediscovered by his great-niece. William’s family lived in Pyrford and his mother’s funeral in March 1915 was reported in the Bendigonian, an Australian newspaper. His great-niece was unaware of an Australian branch of the family but research by Surrey Heritage established a connection. Since then more branches of the family have made contact as a result of finding the photograph.

William’s death was a tragic loss, but 100 years on his photograph reunited cousins and a family reunion was held at Surrey History Centre in May 2015.

(Adapted from an article which appeared in the Woking Residents Magazine Spring 2015 edition. Text reproduced courtesy of Woking Borough Council.

Notes:
The Allied Governments were the members of the original Entente Alliance of 1907: the French Republic, the British Empire and the Russian Empire; Italy ended its alliance with the Central Powers and entered the war on the side of the Entente in 1915. Japan was another important member. Belgium, Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, and Romania were secondary members of the Entente.

The Central Powers consisted of the German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the beginning of the war. The Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers later in 1914. In 1915, the Kingdom of Bulgaria joined the alliance.

Pte Harold Brown (1899-1955), a Black Tommy on the Western Front

Former Tottenham Hotspur player Walter Tull, who achieved the rank of Lieutenant, is probably the most celebrated Black British soldier of the First World War but relatively little is known about other Black British soldiers who served in the war. Among them was Harold Brown of the 3/4th Battalion, Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment (QRWS).

Harold Brown was born on 23 May 1899, in Bromley-by-Bow, East London, to parents John Benjamin Brown, a West Indian seaman, and his wife Elizabeth Emma (née Cross), a white Londoner, who had married in Poplar in 1898. His address is given as 49 Oban Street, Poplar (East India Docks), and two years later the 1901 census records young Harold living with his mother and baby sister, Ada, at the same address. Ten years on, the 1911 census records him as a schoolboy in Canning Town, at 4 Watford Road, Tidal Basin, Victoria Docks, living with his mother, sister Ada, five year-old brother Gordon, and a boarder, Joseph Reid, who was a Jamaican seaman.

Baptism entry for Harold Brown, son of John Benjamin Brown, a seaman, and his wife Elizabeth Emma, of 49 Oban Street, baptised at St Michael’s church, South Bromley [Bromley-by-Bow], on 7 June 1899. (Courtesy of Ancestry)
Baptism entry for Harold Brown, son of John Benjamin Brown, a seaman, and his wife Elizabeth Emma, of 49 Oban Street, baptised at St Michael’s church, South Bromley [Bromley-by-Bow], on 7 June 1899. (Courtesy of Ancestry)

About 60% of First World War soldiers’ service records were irretrievably damaged or lost completely as a result of enemy bombing in 1940 and it seems that Harold’s papers were among these as they do not appear to have survived. Neither do all the enlistment registers for the eastern recruiting grounds of the QRWS but we do know that Harold enlisted at Canning Town, was given a general army number G/24948, and served initially with the 3/4th Battalion QRWS up to 1917.

 

Pte Harold Brown, in uniform of the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment, with a colleague, nd [c.1915] (Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum; IWM ref. MISC 2816-5579-5)
Pte Harold Brown, in uniform of the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment, with a colleague, nd [c.1915] (Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum; IWM ref. MISC 2816-5579-5) >

The 3/4th QRWS was initially a Territorial battalion officially formed in April 1915, engaged in home service and training. From October 1915 to July 1916, the battalion was billeted in Reigate, and amongst other duties, carried out training marches to Godstone, and musketry training at Rye, East Sussex. Following transfers-in from the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in April 1916, the 3/4th Battalion reached full strength (1200) and in August 300 men were sent overseas to join The London Regiment. It was not until May 1917 that the remainder of the unit sailed from Southampton to France. Once in France, it was attached to the 21st Division and in July fought at Arras; by September it had moved to Zillebeke Lake, Ypres. On 2 October, the men joined the 8th Battalion Leicestershire Regiment on the front line, just east of Polygon Wood, where Harold’s first Certificate of Gallantry was earned. The conditions here were not good: the war diary reports that

this ground had been churned by the continuous shelling to an almost impenetrable morass’;

the whole area was also covered with barbed wire and concrete block houses manned with machine guns.

Gallantry certificate for Harold Brown for his ‘fine work’ in the action at Polygon Wood, 2 to 7 October 1917 (Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum; IWM ref. MISC 2816-5579-2)
Gallantry certificate for Harold Brown for his ‘fine work’ in the action at Polygon Wood, 2 to 7 October 1917 (Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum; IWM ref. MISC 2816-5579-2)

In this action, the 3/4th helped capture a German concrete fortress occupied by soldiers recently arrived from the Eastern Front. Fighting was fierce and intense, with severe losses: three officers and 61 men were killed, 17 officers and 241 men were wounded, and 21 men missing – over one third of the battalion. The war diary for 8 October (Appendix 12) records that a number of awards for conspicuous gallantry were made, including seven Divisional Commander’s Cards of Honour from Major H C Cannon MC, Commanding Officer of the unit. One of these cards was received by Harold Brown, who

set a fine example of physical endurance carrying on throughout the whole of October 4th although severely wounded at the outset’.

Entry from the war diary of 3/4th Battalion QRWS Regiment citing Harold Brown’s Card of Honour, 8 Oct 1917 (SHC ref QWRS/7/1)
Entry from the war diary of 3/4th Battalion QRWS Regiment citing Harold Brown’s Card of Honour, 8 Oct 1917 (SHC ref QWRS/7/1)

The card was sent from the Twenty First Division British Expeditionary Force and reads

Your Commanding Officer and Brigade Commander have informed me that you distinguished yourself in the Field between the 2nd and 7th October 1917. I congratulate you on your fine work’.

The War Office Weekly Casualty List for 8 November 1917 reports Harold wounded along with a number of Queen’s men.

 There is no mention of Harold being sent home for hospital treatment and the 3/4th remained in the area, their strength a little over 600 men. Christmas was spent at Heudicourt, and in January 1918 the unit moved north of Peronne. By mid-February the 3/4th was disbanded and the men posted to other battalions; Harold became part of the 1/6th Battalion QRWS, which was attached to the 12th Division and based in northern France. From the documentation at the Imperial War Museum, it seems that at some point his regimental number changed to 207431.

A small collection of material relating to Harold is held at the Imperial War Museum and he was featured in their 2008 exhibition ‘From War to Windrush’. Harold’s papers include a second Divisional Certificate of Gallantry signed by Sir Henry Rawlinson (General Officer Commanding, Fourth Army), along with printed Army Orders issued from the Fourth Army Headquarters awarding him the Military Medal, in December 1919. The war diaries of 1/6th for that date show the battalion based in Auberchicourt, northern France, engaged in daily routines of salvage work, church parades, and recreational training but they do not cite a specific action for which the medal was awarded. Harold’s previous bravery may have been a factor. The Supplement to the London Gazette for 11 February 1919 lists Harold as being awarded the Military Medal. Click on the images below to see larger versions.

Medal Index Roll entry for the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment, showing that Pte Harold Brown, G/24948, of the 3/4th Battalion and then the 6th Battalion, was entitled to the Victory and British War medals. (Taken from the World War One Service Medal and Award Roll, 1914-1920 (piece 0650); courtesy of Ancestry)

Medal Index Roll entry for the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment, showing that Pte Harold Brown, G/24948, of the 3/4th Battalion and then the 6th Battalion, was entitled to the Victory and British War medals. (Taken from the World War One Service Medal and Award Roll, 1914-1920 (piece 0650); courtesy of Ancestry)

It is unfortunate that no other reference to Harold can be found in the regimental archives, or personal papers and photographs at Surrey History Centre. Memoirs of Black soldiers are rare and we can only wonder whether he served with other Black soldiers, or if other Black soldiers in the Surrey regiments received Gallantry awards or bravery medals?

Like many servicemen, Harold was not demobbed until April 1919. He went on to work as a seaman and a docker at the Royal Albert Docks in the East End of London until he died in 1955.

Black Tommies: the true picture

At least 10,000 Black Britons, many of African and West Indian heritage, fought in the First World War. Whilst being discouraged from active service alongside white soldiers, the enormous losses, and the influence of King George V, made this inevitable and Black recruits could be found in all branches of the armed forces, making a vital contribution.

British and French colonies in the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and elsewhere, provided a valuable source of volunteers. When war broke out West Indians donated large sums of money and resources to aid the war effort and also volunteered to fight for Britain, joining the British West India (Indies) Regiment (BWIR). Although Indian soldiers had fought in the trenches from 1914, Caribbean troops did not arrive until 1915. These troops were used as non-combatant soldiers in Egypt, Mesopotamia and parts of Europe, and assigned jobs such as loading ammunition, laying telephone wires and digging trenches. Conditions were appalling. Some Caribbean soldiers were involved in combat in France and by the end of the war over 15,000 West Indians of the BWIR had experienced military service. 60,000 native South African and 120,000 other Africans had also served in uniformed Labour Units. After the war, many Black soldiers from the colonies decided to make Britain their home and by 1918 it is estimated that the Black population here had trebled to 30,000.

Germany had colonies in Africa and included Black soldiers in their units, whilst Turkish forces comprised an African and a Muslim contingent. Entering the final phase of the war, the US army also had a large number of African Americans.

Changing racial awareness

There was growing racial tension following the end of the war. Race riots occurred in pockets across the country, as white ex-servicemen returned to find unemployment where jobs had been filled by black workers. Unemployment led to areas of unrest, particularly in cities such as Cardiff. Race riots occurred largely around British sea ports, with memorandums issued by the government to try to protect black workers and their families. Records held at The National Archives show an increasing racial awareness which led to the establishment of campaign groups fighting for racial equality in Britain across the British Empire.

Sources:

  • Marriage entry for John Benjamin Brown and Elizabeth Emma Cross, 20 June 1898, All Saints Church, Poplar.
  • Baptism entry for Harold Brown, son of John Benjamin Brown, a seaman, and his wife Elizabeth Emma, of 49 Oban Street, baptised at St Michael’s church, South Bromley [Bromley-by-Bow], on 7 June 1899. Held at London Metropolitan Archives (and online via Ancestry).
  • 1901 census (Ref.RG13/347/47) and 1911 census (Ref.RG14/9488/228) returns were searched by address (online via Ancestry).
  • The Imperial War Museum (IWM) featured Harold Brown in their 2008 exhibition ‘From War to Windrush’ and on the ‘Lives of the First World War’ online resource https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/lifestory/5011575. Original documents at the museum relating to him comprise: 2 Divisional Certificates of Gallantry recording his actions while serving in October 1917 in the 3/4th Battalion the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment) (attached 21st Division, signed by GOC Major General Sir David Campbell) and the 6th Battalion the Queen’s (12th Division, signed by GOC Major General H W Higginson), together with a printed certificate ‘signed’ by General Sir Henry Rawlinson (GOC Fourth Army) and printed Army Orders issued by Fourth Army Headquarters in December 1918 recording the award to him of the Military Medal, his Certificate of Demobilization (AF Z21, April 1919), his birth certificate and two photographs, including one of him in uniform. (Ref. IWM MISC 2816-5579-1-5).
  • Harold’s story is featured in Stephen Bourne’s book, Britain’s Black Community and the Great War: Black Poppies (The History Press, 2014), SHC ref 940.03, p.43.
  • World War One Service Medal and Award Roll (aka the Medal Index Roll), 1914-1920 (piece 0650), entries for the QRWS Regiment (online via Ancestry).
  • Military Medal card for Pte Harold Brown, 1919 (online via The Genealogist).
  • The London Gazette, 11 February 1919, citation for Pte Harold Brown’s award of the Military Medal (online via The Genealogist).
  • QRWS Regiment 3/4th war diaries, including appendices and brief history of the battalion (SHC ref QRWS/7/1 & 3).
  • QRWS Regiment 1/6th war diaries (SHC ref QRWS/14/1/2).
  • The First World War diaries of the Surrey regiments can be searched on the website of the Surrey Infantry Museum.
  • The War Office Weekly Casualty Lists, 8 November 1917 (No.5411, Pt 2; online via The Genealogist).

Further reading:

Find out more about the Surrey in the Great War: A County Remembers project.

Dabydeen, David, et al, The Oxford Companion to Black British History, 2007

Find out more about the Black History campaign and Black soldiers in the First World War.

Find out more about Black soldiers at the Britain’s Black presence website.

Discover more about the British West India Regiment and read about the regiment on The Long, Long Trail website.

See an online article by Simon Rogers, ‘The Forgotten Soldiers’, The Guardian, 2008.

Read the BBC History feature ‘A White Man’s War? World War One and the West Indies’.

Read more about Black activism in Britain after the First World War on The National Archives Blog.

Note

The London Gazette is the official paper of the government in the UK and the ‘Supplements’ section contain citations of gallantry awards and promotions, including The Victoria Cross (V.C.), the Distinguished Service Order (D.S.O.), the Military Cross (M.C.) and the Distinguished Conduct Medal (D.C.M.), and the Military Medal (M.M).

Captain Richard Willis VC (1876 – 1966)

Copy of a painting of the Hermitage, Woking

Copy of a painting of the Hermitage, Woking

Richard was born in Woking in 1876. He lived in the Hermitage area of Woking with his mother and brother and sisters while his father worked in India.

Richard Willis Baptism St John the Baptist 1876

Richard Willis’s baptism at St John the Baptist, Woking, 1876

While still a young boy, his family moved to Devon where he attended Totnes Grammar School before, at the age of 14, moving to Harrow Public School. After Harrow he chose a military career, attending the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He was commissioned in 1897, joining the Lancashire Fusiliers and posted to India. In 1898 he was posted with the regiment to Sudan’s Mahdist War where he fought under Lord Kitchener and later alongside Winston Churchill. He subsequently returned to India where he remained until 1915.

Richard Willis (centre) with his brother Evelyn Stewart Constantine Willis to his left (others unknown). Taken at cadet school St Omer, June 1916

Richard Willis (centre) with his brother Evelyn Stewart Constantine Willis to his left (others unknown). Taken at cadet school St Omer,
France, June 1916

Now a seasoned professional soldier, it wasn’t until early 1915 that Major Willis’s regiment, the Lancashire Fusiliers, was sent as part of the expeditionary force to attack the Ottoman Empire. On 25 April 1915, his regiment was ordered to advance on a beach named “W” on the Gallipoli peninsula. The objective was to secure the beach head and clear any Turkish forces on and around the beach and surrounding cliff top. By early morning, Willis (then a Captain) led his men forward out of open boats to be met almost immediately by fierce Turkish opposition. Hundreds of men were killed before they even got to the beach and those that did reach it were met with heavily barbed wire, preventing immediate advance and causing further casualties with men exposed to fire from all fronts.

“They dropped us in the water but not to any extent on the sand. As ordered, the men ran up to the wire and lay down waiting for the wire cutters to get to work” he wrote in a letter to his father.

Surrounded by this carnage and against all the odds, Captain Willis continued forward into enemy fire, leading his men by example and eventually scaling the cliffs to take the Turkish positions.

“On 25 April 1915, three companies and the headquarters of the 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, in effecting a landing on Gallipoli Peninsula to the west of Cape Helles, were met by a very deadly fire from hidden machine guns, which caused a great number of casualties. The survivors, however, rushed up to and cut the entanglements, notwithstanding a terrific fire from the enemy, and after overcoming supreme difficulties, the cliffs were gained and men engaged in the most hazardous enterprise, Captain Willis, Sergeant Richards and Private Keneally have been selected by their comrades as having performed the most signal acts of bravery and devotion to duty.” Extract from London Gazette dated 14 August 1915.

With Captain Willis at the helm, the Lancashires eventually broke through the barbed wire and managed to reach the cliffs on either side of the beach. However, the battalion suffered 533 casualties, over half its strength. By mid morning, reinforcements were landing, and the lines of trenches were captured and the beach secured. Captain Willis was awarded a VC for his actions, the last of the “Six VC’s Before Breakfast”. The others were Cuthbert Bromley, John Elisha Grimshaw, William Keneally, Alfred Joseph Richards and Frank Edward Stubbs.

“Captain Willis’s haversack which was worn in the battle was emptied in front of me and every paper, book, and article inside it had holes in it and bullets came falling out of the holes. His cap was pierced more than once by bullets and his water bottle and field glasses that hung off his Sam Browne webbing were shot to pieces. His waterproof is riddled with shot holes and smeared all down the shoulder with the blood of his comrade Major Adams who was shot through the head by his side and died leaning against him.” Statement made after the battle by Alexander Temple, Major Willis’s father-in-law.

Major Willis’ medals. VC far left

Major Willis’ medals. VC far left

Group photo Blendecques, St Omer France 1915

Group photo Blendecques, St Omer, France, 1915

Major Willis retired from the army in 1920, aged 44, and took on an education role within the RAF before working as a teacher. Richard died on February 9 1966, aged 89, at the Faithful House Nursing Home, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. He was cremated on February 15 and his ashes scattered in the Garden of Remembrance at Cheltenham Crematorium. His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Imperial War Museum, London.

Exactly 100 years to the day since his heroic action, on the 25 April 2015, Woking honoured and remembered one of the outstanding heroes of the First World War, Major Richard Willis VC, in a special service and ceremony. A plaque was laid the town square to mark the award of his VC.

(Adapted from an article which appeared in the Woking Residents Magazine, Spring 2015. Text reproduced courtesy of Woking Borough Council. Images courtesy of Major Willis’s family.)

Francis Octavius Grenfell VC (1880 – 1915)

Born on 4th September 1880 to Pascoe Du Pre and Sophia Grenfell at 69 Eaton Place, Guildford, Surrey, Francis Grenfell joined the 3rd (Militia) Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders in 1899 and served in the South African War (Second Boer War). During the First World War he served with the 9th Lancers (The Queen’s Royal).

The 13th November 1914 edition of the London Gazette explains how Francis got the Victoria Cross:

“For gallantry in action against un-broken Infantry at Audregnies, Belgium, on 24th August, 1914, and for gallant conduct in assisting to save the guns of 119th Battery, Royal Field Artillery, near Doubon the same day.”

During this action, which was part of the Battle of Mons, he was severely wounded following a mounted charge on a large body of German infantry. Despite his wounds he assisted 529 Alexander drag the guns out of enemy range under a hail of enemy fire.

He later died on 24th May 1915 aged 34 near Hooge, Belgium, after being shot in the back. He is buried in the Vlamertinghe Military Cemetery at Ieper (Ypres), West-Vlaanderen, Belgium. He will be remembered for his bravery in warfare.

Francis bequeathed part of his estate to John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps. Miss M D Grenfell applied for his 1914 Star in February 1918.

Francis is commemorated on the Beaconsfield War Memorial, a memorial window in Beaconsfield Parish Church and a memorial in St George’s Church, Ypres. His name is listed on the 9th Lancers Memorial in Canterbury Cathedral.

Alfred Victor Smith VC (1891 – 1915)

Born in 1891 to William Henry and Louisa Smith in Guildford, Surrey, Alfred is shown in the 1901 census living at 3 Drummond Street, Cambridge, and 10 years later in the 1911 census he is listed as living in Burnley, Lancashire. Before the First World War, he was a Police Officer and on 10th October 1914 he enlisted with the East Lancashire Regiment as a Second lieutenant.

The 3rd March 1916 edition of London Gazette reports how he got the Victoria Cross;

“For most conspicuous bravery. He was in the act of throwing a grenade when it slipped from his hand and fell to the bottom of the trench, close to several of our officers and men. He immediately shouted out a warning, and himself jumped clear and into safety, but seeing that the officers and men were unable to get into cover, and knowing well that the grenade was due to explode, he returned without any hesitation and flung himself down on it. He was instantly killed by the explosion. His magnificent act of self-sacrifice undoubtedly saved many lives.”

He died aged 24 on 22nd December 1915, and is buried at Twelve Tree Copse Cemetery in Turkey. His Victoria Cross is displayed at Towneley Hall in Burnley, Lancashire.

Garth Neville Walford VC (1882 – 1915)

The son of Selina Walford and Neville Walford, who served with the Royal Field Artillery in Frimley, Garth was born on 27th May 1882, in Sandhurst. Educated in Eastbourne, he was commissioned with the Royal Field Artillery in 1901. In late December 1907 he married Elizabeth Katherine Mary Trefusis.

During the First World War, the 22nd June 1915 edition of the London Gazette reported how Garth got the Victoria Cross;

“26th April, 1915, subsequent to a landing having been effected on the beach at a point on the Gallipoli Peninsula, during which both Brigadier-General and Brigade Major had been killed, Lieutenant-Colonel Doughty-Wylie and Captain Walford organised and led an attack through and on both sides of the village of Sedd el Bahr on the Old Castle at the top of the hill inland. The enemy’s position was very strongly held and entrenched, and defended with concealed machine-guns and pom-poms. It was mainly due to the initiative, skill and great gallantry of these two Officers that the attack was a complete success. Both were killed in the moment of victory”

He died on 26th April 1915 aged 32 and is buried at V Beach in Gallipoli, Turkey.

In November 1921 Garth’s widow applied for his medals while she was living at 4 Down View, Bude, Cornwall.

In the First World War officers had to apply for their own medals. For those that had died, it became their family’s responsibility to apply for them. The soldier was given a ribbon bar to sew on to their uniform. The ribbon described which medal they were awarded, while the actual medal was being engraved with their name, rank, number, and regiment. The medal, when received, would include a full length of ribbon with the medal attached.