Fred Billing was born in Buckland St Mary, Somerset, on 13 August 1882, to a family whose name can be found in the parish registers as far back as the 16th century. His father, John Hake Billing, was an agricultural labourer and his mother, Jane, was from nearby Combe St Nicholas. They had one other child, a daughter, Rosa Jane, in 1887. As a teenager, Fred became a grocers’ porter in Swanage.
Charles Aylwin, a Sussex-born carter, labourer and railway platelayer, moved his family to Burgh Heath in the late 1880s. By 1901, one of his daughters, Amy Augusta Aylwin, had moved to Dorset and was working as a parlourmaid when she met Fred. They married at Wareham in 1903 and had 3 children in Swanage (Grace, Rosa and Frederick) before moving their young family up to Burgh Heath to be closer to Amy’s family, who lived at 5 Oatlands Road.
The Billings lived at 5 Wheeler’s Cottages, which probably used to stand on the Green. Fred worked as a builder’s labourer. Another boy, Frank, was born in 1911 and finally another daughter, Ethel, in 1913.
Fred (32 years old, 5ft 5in, weighing 145lbs with blue eyes, light hair and a fair complexion) joined the 8th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers at Epsom on 7 September 1914, one of the busiest recruiting days of the war.
They arrived in Boulogne on 31 May 1915 and underwent a period of trench training at L’Epinette, spending time in the line alongside more experienced units so as to learn the ropes. They were in the trenches on their own by the end of June.
They were lucky enough not to take part in the Battle of Loos in September but buried the dead from the battle, “a sickening fatigue. Men not able to work at it continuously as all bodies were in advanced state of decomposition.” They took part in their first real action on 18th October, capturing a German trench and then later holding off a counterattack.
They spent much of a wet and cold winter resting and training but were back in the line in February 1916. News of the death of Fred’s mother would have reached him in late February, just days before his own.
The Hohenzollern Redoubt was said to be the strongest fortification on the Western Front and it was in German hands. A carefully-conceived plan, in exhaustive detail, was prepared to capture one of the trenches on its western face.
On 2 March 1916, four huge mines under No Man’s Land were detonated by the Royal Engineers and the men of the 8th and 9th Royal Fusiliers dashed across to capture the German trench known as The Chord from its dazed defenders and to garrison the newly-created craters. Rain and snow had made the ground heavy going and the Bavarians opposite the 8th Royal Fusiliers put up a fight, virtually wiping out their first party of 50 men. The trench was captured but, despite the careful planning, the 8th had suffered 254 casualties, Fred among them. The Chord was not in British hands for long.
Like 37 other men of the 8th Royal Fusiliers who died that day, Fred has no known grave. He is commemorated on the Loos Memorial, on the Buckland St Mary war memorial, on panels in the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Buckland, in All Saints, Banstead, in St Mary’s, Burgh Heath, and in the Burgh Heath War Memorial Hall. He was 33.
Fred was awarded the British War Medal, the Victory Medal and the 1914-15 Star.
Research by James Crouch and Rosanna Barton
Fred was commemorated on the 100th anniversary of his death, at All Saints church, Banstead.