Researched and written by Anne Wright
Pte H Wells
2nd Battalion, East Surrey Regiment
Killed in action, 27.4.1915
It has been difficult to identify H. Wells as one of the ‘Men of Weybridge’ listed on the Memorial. The available evidence suggests that he was Harry Wells who was born in the small village of Puttenham, south-west of Guildford in 1893. He enlisted in Weybridge on 7 September 1914 which may indicate that he lived and/or worked in the town. He was the youngest of eight children born to his parents William and Harriet Maria Charlotte (nee Bolton or Boulton) who married on 17 April 1875 at St John the Baptist Church in Puttenham. His mother already had a daughter, Rose Annie, soon joined by her half-siblings: Elizabeth, William, Charlotte, Kate, Fred, Richard, Albert and Harry. Their last child was baptised on 30 July 1893 in the church in which his parents were married. William Wells was a labourer at this time. The family lived in The Street in Puttenham in 1901 and were still there in 1911, albeit somewhat depleted as Harriet Wells died in early 1911 and William is not listed as being at home in the Census. The household consisted of Fred, Albert, Harry and a lodger. The elder two were estate carters and Harry was a farm carter.
When he enlisted Harry gave his occupation as ‘carman’ which would have meant that he drove a horse drawn cart for transporting goods; such men were often employed by railway companies. He stood five feet and six inches tall, had blue eyes, a fresh complexion and brown hair. Harry was posted to the 2nd Battalion, East Surrey Regiment. They were in India when war broke out but returned and went to France on 19 January 1915. Harry may or may not have been with them. They went into the vicious cauldron of the Ypres Salient and were in trenches to the east of Kemmel in February. The battalion immediately began to suffer the attritional casualties which characterised the fighting in this zone at this time. In mid-February they endured significant losses in trying to capture a lost trench; in two days, 20 were killed, 158 wounded and 52 were reported missing. Of the 20 fatalities, 14 were officers, a huge blow when their routine complement was about 25. Reinforcements began to arrive, 55 men immediately and a further 3 officers and 330 men on 1 March. Harry could have been one of them.
On 10 April the battalion marched through Ypres, past the Cloth Hall with the road lined by their comrades of the 1st Battalion as they made their way to trenches at Zonnebeke, north-east of the city. They remained in the line for four days suffering another 21 fatalities. On 18 April they returned to the front about to face the Second Battle of Ypres which began on the 22nd. This would see the first use of chlorine gas by the Germans on the Western Front. The attack began with heavy shelling and the smell of the deadly fumes emerged. At 5am on the 25 April Harry and his comrades came under attack with heavy shrapnel fire which lasted until 9am when they were bombarded with shells and once again the poisonous fumes enveloped the trenches causing some men to lose consciousness. The enemy then attacked the whole line held by Harry’s battalion and occupied a section from which they could not be removed. At 12.30am and again at 3am on 26 April attempts were made to repel the Germans from the occupied trench but without success. Heavy casualties were inflicted once again; 85 were killed, 114 wounded and 43 were reported missing.
By noon on the following day a further 14 were dead and 19 wounded. The 3rd Middlesex Battalion arrived to relieve the East Surreys but because of important digging work this could not happen. A further 12 men died and 18 were wounded. Harry was one of the day’s fatalities. The fighting of the First World War has sometimes been called a ‘mincing machine’; this seems to be an apt description of what the 2nd Battalion of the East Surreys experienced in the Ypres Salient in 1915. The battle dragged on into late May; the Germans did not take Ypres but they reduced the size of the Salient, took the high ground and could bombard the medieval city into ruins.
Harry has no known grave. He is commemorated on the Menin Gate (Panel 1) at Ypres (Ieper) with over 50,000 others. His brother Fred also served in the war as a member of the Army Service Corps. He survived. Their parents predeceased them; Harriet died in 1911 and William in 1912.
Cropo Family Tree, www.ancestry.co.uk
The 2nd Battle of Ypres, 1915, www.firstworldwar.com
Surrey, England, Church of England Baptisms, 1813-1912, www.ancestry.co.uk
Surrey, England, Church of England Marriages, 1754-1837, www.ancestry.co.uk
Surrey Recruitment Registers, 1908-1932, www.findmypast.co.uk