John (Jack) Wakefield of Woking and Guildford
On the day that his brother William died, Jack was probably digging a support line somewhere south-east of Hazebrouck in France, near the Belgian border, having experienced heavy enemy attack all day.
My granddad, John Henry Wakefield, known as Jack, was born on 18 February 1899 in Brixton. He would have been about 9 when the family moved out of London to Woking, to 193 Church Street, a house owned by Kerrison’s, for whom his father worked as a bill-poster. He attended Maybury School (his name appears in the punishment book in 1912 and again in 1914!) (SHC ref 8101/2/5). On leaving school his first job was minding bikes at Woking station and later he worked for a butcher (as did his older brother William, whose name appears on the Maybury School war memorial and whose story is also published on this site).
At the outbreak of the First World War, Jack was keen to be in on the action like his older brother William, who had joined the Army Service Corps. Jack joined the Royal Sussex Regiment in October 1915 (aged 16!), but was discovered to be underage and was discharged seven days later in Chichester, his Certificate of Discharge stating that he was ‘well conducted during his seven days service’.
Less than 18 months later he successfully re-enlisted to the 21st Training Reserve on 5 March 1917. He also served in the 51st Battalion Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment before joining the Royal Fusiliers. (This information is given on the Certificate of Transfer to Reserve on Demobilizabtion, 1919.)
The Medal Rolls (available on Ancestry.com) indicate Granddad’s rank as Private GS/75946, 2nd London Regiment of the Royal Fusiliers, and this was part of the 86th Brigade, 29th Division. Jack’s medal card indicates that he joined the British Expeditionary Force on 20 March 1918 (see medal roll books, The National Archives [TNA] WO 329/773. Jack’s full service record does not survive).
The unit war diaries at TNA (WO 95/2301: 2nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers) indicate that the battalion was in the Passchendaele area at this time, sometimes on the front line being subjected to gas attacks and sometimes working on the Gravenstafel defence line, which is very near the present-day Tyne Cot cemetery.
After a brief respite from the front line, during which time there was opportunity for baths and de-lousing, on 4 April the Battalion relieved the 4/King’s Liverpool Regiment near Zonnebeke. The instructions in the war diary note:
‘rations will be carried on the man, including one Tommies cooker. 8 tins of water per company. All water bottles to be filled before leaving camp. Blankets rolled in bundles of ten and labelled with company label, packs and great coats. Tea and rum will be issued before leaving camp’.
After a few days on the front, just a few miles from where his brother William was on the front at Messines, Jack’s regiment was moved south, across the French border, to the Merville area, which suffered heavy shelling on 10 April. (The Orders of Battle, part 1 [TNA 940.4 BEC], indicate that the Battle of Estaires took place on 10 – 11 April.) On 11 April in the defence of Doulieu, it experienced ‘sharp fighting all that afternoon and night’ and subsequent entries indicate that it was part of the Battle of Hazebrouck, which took place on 12 – 13 April, one of the Battles of the Lys.
On the day that his brother died (12 April 1918), Jack was probably digging a support line somewhere south-east of Hazebrouck, having experienced heavy enemy attack all day. On the 13, during a retreat, 23 other ranks were killed, 156 were wounded and 145 were reported missing. A composite Brigade was formed of the survivors, with the men spending some days trench-digging and wiring.
On the 24 April, 12 days after his brother William’s death, Jack was captured by the Germans. The Battalion seems to have spent the day on trench construction and there is no mention in its war diary of soldiers missing, nor in the subsequent few days, though on the 28 April one man was missing after a reconnoitring patrol unexpectedly came upon an enemy outpost and had to retire, leaving one Lewis Gun behind.
Less than a month later, Jack was able to write a letter home from his prisoner of war (POW) camp. The letter is marked ‘Gustrow’, but by this stage of the war many POWs were actually held much closer to the frontline. Gustrow may have been the ‘parent’ camp, but Jack may not have actually been held there.
19-year-old Jack writes: ‘don’t worry about me for I shall look after my-self while here’. It must have been painful for his family to read ‘all I hope is that Will is safe’, since by then they knew that his brother had been killed in action. He goes on to say ‘I should like something to eat, you know a good big cake and some tobacco’ and tells his mum that she can find out at the Post Office what to put in a parcel. However, the letter must have taken at least 2 months to reach home (the postmark is 10 July 1918), before which he had written again. Still hopeful of a parcel (‘do your best to send me a parcel as soon as you can’) and still hopeful of a good big cake, he mentions a letter ‘with that paper in it that you said went to Frank and Will’, which he had received before his capture. Frank must be Frank Bookham, his sister Annie’s husband. He also refers to ‘Em’, who appears to be his sweetheart back home. This letter is also postmarked 10 July. We have a postcard written at the end of September where he says he has not been able to write for the last two months because he has been in hospital, but is ‘much better now’. ‘Please don’t forget the parcels’. This card was postmarked 30 October.
In her book Tracing Your Prisoner of War Ancestors – The First World War (Imperial War Museum, 2012), Sarah Paterson notes that POWs could be sent a parcel by their family of a maximum 11lb in weight. These were sent via the Post Office with blue labels and were subject to Post Office censorship. Items that could be put in included: pencil, toothbrush, tooth powder, shaving brush, razor, hankies, insecticide powder, comb, chocolate, mittens and socks – but not cake!
A letter from Jack postmarked 14 November reads ‘it would be nice to get a line from dear old Woking. I have not had a word since I was taken prisoner 6 months now.’ Whether letters and parcels were indeed sent from home or not, we shall never know, but Jack obviously did not receive anything – possibly because he was not actually being held at Gustrow, or possibly because the situation in Germany was by this stage of the war so chaotic. ‘The war seems as though it won’t be long before it is all over’, he writes. The date he wrote this is missing, but of course by the time of the postmark it was indeed all over. A postcard postmarked ‘Dover 22 November 1918 5.30pm’ is of Balatre – La Place. L’Ecole des Filles, and Granddad writes ‘this is my last internment camp’. ‘Dear Mother, Just a few lines to let you know that I am in dover and shall be home Saturday do not no [sic] what time. Get plenty of grub in for I been starved’.
Granddad was awarded the Victory Medal and the British War Medal.
After the war Jack followed his father into the bill-posting trade, working for Kerrison’s in Guildford, where he lived until his death in 1985, with wife Lily and twin children John and Jean, born in 1927.