Researched and written by Anne Wright
Pte W A Shepherd
2nd Battalion, the Royal Fusiliers
Killed in action, 28.2.1917
William Allen Shepherd was born at Selsey in Sussex in 1883. He was the only child of Allen and Esther (nee Young) who had married the previous year. In 1901 the family lived in Baker Street, Weybridge. Allen earned his living as a coal merchant and William, a former pupil of St James’ School (Baker Street), was an ironmonger’s assistant. Ten years later they resided at Ryedale Stables in York Road, William’s occupation had not changed. He married Clara Louise Priscilla Skinner at St James’ Church on 31 August 1911. She was born in 1878 in Lambeth and had previously earned her living as a dressmaker. In 1913 William, Clara and his parents moved to Reckleford, 69 Kings Road in Walton-on-Thames which was held in joint ownership by father and son.
William enlisted in Weybridge, but when is not known. He was posted to the 2nd Battalion, Royal Fusiliers in the 86th Brigade of the 29th Division. They were in India when war broke out returning to Britain in December 1914. Their next destination was Gallipoli where they were among the first to land at Cape Helles on 25 April 1915. If William was with them he survived. They arrived at Marseilles on 21 March 1916 and the rest of their war was spent on the Western Front; three days later they were in billets at Coulonvillers, near Abbeville. On 22 April they were experiencing ‘wet and uncomfortable’ conditions on their first tour of duty in the trenches near Mailly-Maillet.
They took part in the actions of 1 July 1916, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, which was the worst disaster to befall the British Army. The 2nd Battalion was in trenches at Beaumont Hamel; their task was to engage and hold the German reserves and their artillery while the main action took place south of the R. Ancre. Unfortunately, they were located exactly where the Germans expected the main attack. A large mine was exploded at Hawthorne Redoubt and part of William’s unit rushed forward at 7.25 am to occupy the crater. The Germans were ready for them and they were met with heavy machine gun fire and an artillery barrage, consequently they were able only to reach the nearside of the crater as the enemy occupied the other side; no advance could be made from this position. Few reached the German barbed wire; the British artillery was hitting their second and third line trenches leaving the front line to repulse all attacks on it. This continued until midday when the few remaining men in no-man’s land were forced to retreat. The Battalion’s losses were greater than those they suffered landing at Cape Helles: 3 officers were killed, 12 wounded, 4 wounded and missing and 4 missing; 54 other ranks were killed, 276 wounded and 140 missing. They were relieved on 4 July. Once again, if William was with them, he survived.
Throughout August and September the 2nd Battalion was at Ypres where they spent time on the ramparts, did much work on trenches and considering their location had a relatively quiet time except for enemy snipers. By November they had returned to the Somme country. William’s final Christmas Day was spent in good accommodation with three meals and a concert to follow. January and February 1917 saw his battalion in and out of trenches near Carnoy, Meaulte and Combles. On 27 February they left Combles (16 km east of Amiens) to move forward to trenches in the Sailly sector; they attacked the enemy at 5.30 am the next morning in fine weather. The objective was to test the strength of the German line at this point. At first all went well: the supporting barrage came on at zero hour and they were able to keep well up with it while the enemy barrage went over the British front line; the German front line was well protected by concertina wire but there were gaps through it and there was little resistance in the German trench and they surrendered readily. However, William and his comrades were short of bombs, their new and old front lines were bombarded fiercely by the Germans and they were targeted by enemy snipers with the advantage of high ground. They were beaten back up the German trench they had occupied and by 9.25 pm further counter-attacks were discounted because of the shortage of bombs. William did not survive. He was killed when retiring from a portion of captured trench. There was hope that he had been taken prisoner but this was dashed when he was reported to be dead and to have been buried by another unit. News of his death reached home on Easter Day; a letter to his widow commemted that: ‘Both officers and men of his company thought very highly of him.’
He was laid to rest in Sailly-Saillisel British Cemetery which is located 16 km east of Albert. William’s widow Clara did not re-marry but continued to live with his parents in Walton; both she and her mother-in-law died in 1932. Allen Shepherd remained in the family home until his death six years later.
The British Army in the Great War of 1914-1918, The Long, Long Trail – Royal Fusiliers (City of London) Regiment, www.longlongtrail.co.uk
England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1837-1915, www.ancestry.co.uk
England & Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, 1916-2007. www.ancestry.co.uk
Surrey, England, Church of England Marriages, 1754 – 1937, www.ancestry.co.uk
Surrey, England, Electoral Registers, 1832-1962, www.ancestry.co.uk