Researched and written by Anne Wright
Pte F N Wills
7th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment
Killed in action, 5.10.1915
When he enlisted on 30 August 1914, Frank Noel Wills stated that he was 20 years old: he was only 17. He stood almost six feet tall which probably explains how he was able to pass as being three years older. Frank was the only surviving child of Frank and Alice (nee French) who had married in 1888 at St George’s, Hanover Square in London. Their other two children had died by 1911. Frank Snr was born in Cullompton, Devon in 1858 and his wife hailed from Meopham in Kent where she was born in c.1864. In 1891 they lived in St Pancras, Alice’s sister Grace lived with them. Frank was a commission agent, which meant he acted as a middleman between buyers and sellers. His son was born at St Giles in London in early 1897. The family, which still included Grace French, lived at 12, Victoria Parade in Streatham in 1901 with Frank Snr described as an employer. Ten years later Frank and his parents resided at Parkdene, Bridge Road in Weybridge. Frank Snr was now involved in the rubber trade.
Young Frank was educated at The City of London Schools, Cooper Street, Finsbury and he enjoyed rowing and cricket. He was employed as a salesman when he enlisted and spent the earliest part of his training at Purfleet where skilful musketry was the key objective. On 24 November 1914 his battalion moved to Sandling (in tents) and finally to Aldershot on 22 February 1915 which Frank probably found arduous as the route march took eight days! On 28 May the much awaited orders to go overseas arrived. They reached Boulogne at 2 am on 2 June having had a calm crossing on Channel Ship Victoria, escorted by two destroyers.
The battalion went into the trenches for the first time on 30 June; they found that a great deal of work was required as most of the sandbags were old and no longer bullet proof. For the next three months they were either in billets at Le Bizet or in the trenches at Le Touquet. This first period of their active service was easy from a fighting point of view but very hard work; they often had to spend four hours a night digging when they were in billets. They prided themselves on the skill of their snipers who accounted for 55 Germans during this time, much aided by the use of telescopic sights. Even the enemy complained of their accurate shooting. By the end of August Frank’s battalion had suffered 13 dead, 62 wounded and 43 laid low by illness.
On 24 September Frank’s battalion was notified that the French and British First Army were to launch a general offensive the next day. This would become known as the Battle of Loos which lasted until 18 October. It was the first major British offensive on the Western Front and the first occasion on which they used poison gas. Initially, the East Surreys were not at the centre of the battle but required to hold their line and to move into the Le Touquet salient if the Germans vacated it. This did not happen. On 29 September they were transported south to billets at Vermelles and their officers inspected the battlefields in front of Loos the next day. Although the British had made encouraging progress on the first two days of the battle they were unable to capitalise on it, partly because their support troops were too far in the rear.
Frank and his comrades moved up to the old British trenches on 3 October which were very crowded. They came under much shelling during the following day and sustained 2 dead and 6 wounded. It was very difficult to get water to the men as the water carts came up at night and nearly all of them were out on working parties creating a new trench. At 8am on 5 October a battery in D Company’s trench was severely shelled; Frank was one of the three men to be killed. Nine were wounded. His battalion was relieved later that day.
According to his Platoon Commander he was given a battlefield burial but his body was not subsequently recovered; Frank is commemorated on the Loos Memorial (Panel 65 to 67), along with over 20,000 others. It is situated in Dud Corner Cemetery, 1 km west of the village of Loos-en-Gohelle, which is 5 km north-west of Lens. He was 18 years old as was John Kipling, the only son of Rudyard Kipling, who was also killed in the Battle of Loos. Frank’s Platoon Commander, 2/Lt G N Knight wrote a poignant letter to his parents:
I want to offer you my sincere sympathy in your very great loss, which is mine also. Your son was always with me in No. 13 Platoon, at Purfleet, at Sandgate, Aldershot and out here. He was one of the original members of it, of whom, too few, alas! remain…..Please let me say how much I valued your son. He was always cheery and plucky and a fine soldier. We were all greatly fond of him, and shall miss him exceedingly.
He is one of the three youngest soldiers to be commemorated on the War Memorial.
British Army WW1 Service Records, 1914-1920, www.ancestry.co.uk
England & Wales, Civil Registration of Birth Index, 1837-1915, www.ancestry.co.uk
London, England, Church of England Marriages & Banns, 1754-1932, www.ancestry.co.uk
UK, Soldiers Died in the Great War, 1914-1919, www.ancestry.co.uk
Hit By A Shell, How Pte Wills Died, Surrey Advertiser, Saturday, 16 October 1915