William Neighbour Wakefield was given his mother’s maiden name as his middle name and was born in Brixton on 17 November 1896, the eldest son of William and Annie Wakefield and destined to be the last of four generations of William Wakefields.
When he was about 12 the family moved out of London to Woking, to 193 Church Street, a house owned by Kerrisons, for whom his father worked as a bill-poster. The 1911 census shows 14-year-old William working, possibly in his first job, as an errand boy for a printer. By 1914 he was working as a butcher, employed by Watkins of 206 Walton Road, Woking, this being the information he gave on 2 January that year when he voluntarily enlisted for the Surrey Brigade Company of the Army Service Corps, a territorial force. (His WWI service record is available on Ancestry, although I had previously found the information at The National Archives.) The enlistment notes that he had belonged to the ‘CSB’ Cadet Unit. He was certified fit on 27 January. In June that year he was requested to join for ‘training in camp’ and was referred to as a ‘driver’. It looks as though he was transferred to a different unit in July 1915 (illegible from the documents) and in December 1916 spent five days in a Reception Hospital in Canterbury, possibly with influenza (again the document is hard to read). The following May there is a note: ‘object to vaccination’ for Driver Wm Wakefield, T/4 239088.
On 6 September 1917 William was compulsorily transferred to the North Staffordshire Regiment, initially to the 3rd Battalion and then to the 8th, and at that time appears to have been at Wallsend (Newcastle). On 21 December 1917 William wrote to his mother from Carville Schools, Wallsend, Newcastle, where he was in training (8 Platoon, B Company, 3 North Staffordshire Regiment). In his letter he says ‘I daresay you will be glad to know that our Indian draught has been cancelled and now I have got to do my firing course. I shall be in England for about another 2 months yet’. He speaks of having some leave after his firing course, being short of cash over Christmas and his intention of asking his sister Nell for a loan!
William’s service record indicates that he joined the British Expeditionary Force on 21 January 1918, in other words going to France somewhat earlier than he had anticipated in his letter. The 8th Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment was at that point part of the 57th Infantry Brigade.
In the unit’s war diary (The National Archives [TNA], WO 95/2082 [8th Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment]) it is possible to trace the movements of the regiment from Trescault, east of Bapaume, France (where it was transferred to the 56th Infantry Brigade), to Salamanca Camp near Barastre (south-east of Bapaume), to a camp near ‘Aveyoy’ (probably Aveluy), north of Albert. By early March it was involved in reconnaissance in preparation for a counter-attack, moving to Alma Camp, Beaulencourt and then Havrincourt (east of Bapaume). On 21 March, an enemy attack was announced and it had orders to stand by. The Battalion moved to Bertincourt (east of Bapaume) and at 8pm moved to Gaika Copse. This would seem to tie in with the Battle of St Quentin, involving the IV Corps, 3rd Army. The following day it marched via Haplincourt, taking up a position on the Bapaume-Camrai Road. The 24 March saw it on the front line on ‘Green Line’, followed by a retreat to Grevillers and then Achiet-le-Petit-Irles. These entries would seem to correspond with the Battle of Bapaume, involving the IV Corps, 3rd Army.
Having been in the areas of Albert and Bapaume for around 2 months, on the 29 March the Division received orders to proceed to the 2nd Army, which meant a long journey to Belgium. The Battalion marched to Candas, boarding a train there to take it through the night to Caestre on the Belgian border. It then transferred to Lindenhoek by lorry (south of Ypres, on the road to Kemmel) and by the 31 was at Wulverghem, where it spent the first few days of April training and ‘cleaning up’.
On 9 April, with the enemy breaking through the Laventie front, the regiment moved to occupy the Corps’ front and support lines in front of Messines. On this day the Battalion suffered heavy casualties – several officers were killed or wounded and about 150 soldiers were killed and wounded.
William Wakefield was killed in action on 12 April at Messines during a successful counter-attack. The war diary entries give a flavour of the movements of his unit and the confusion which must have reigned. A handwritten letter from the front on 22 April conveyed the news to the family:
‘he was killed during an attack on the 9th in Flanders and his death is felt keenly by all ranks because he always showed himself a loyal comrade and a good soldier. He was buried by his friends after the action near the scene of his death’.
On 6 May the family received this from Lichfield:
‘It is my painful duty to inform you that a report has been received from the War Office notifying the death of 48852 Private Wm N Wakefield 8th North Staffs Regt which occurred “in the field” on the 12th April 1918 “killed in action”’.
It would seem that sister Annie, on behalf of the family, wrote back straight away asking for further information, as a letter written on 11 May refers to her letter on 7 May. In this letter we learn of the counter-attack at Messines, but ‘it is regretted that no further information is available’. A subsequent letter sent from Captain A.E. Gore on 20 May also stated that his death was on 9 April and the exact date was not clarified until a letter from the War Office in July stated ‘the report that he was killed in action on the 12th April 1918 is confirmed. The Battalion was not in action on the 9th April 1918′.
In August the family received notification that they would receive ten pounds, nineteen shillings and five pence, being the balance of pay due to William, which certainly seems small compensation for the loss of a much-loved son and brother.
Just to add to the confusion, William has until recently been commemorated, not in Belgium, but on the Thiepval Memorial near Albert in France. This appears to be because the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) made a mistake and recorded his death as 12 March, at which stage the unit was, indeed, in France. Following our visit to Thiepval in the summer of 2009, I sent a copy of the War Office letter to the CWGC and the entry was duly amended on their website (www.cwgc.org). His name has now been added to the memorial at Tyne Cot, and on the 100th anniversary of his death I was able to visit and see the entry for myself. At Thiepval his name can be found on Pier and Face 14B and 14C. At Tyne Cot his name is on Panel 124 – 125 in the South Rotunda.
William received the Territorial Force War Medal, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. My family has the medals, the scroll of commemoration, a dog tag and his spurs. It would seem that William rode horses. Possibly they were pulling artillery or other equipment and supplies.
William’s name appears on the Woking Town War Memorial.
Read about William’s younger brother John Henry Wakefield here.