” I received the parcel safe and ain’t it a good one too?”
This is what William Wakefield wrote home to his mother just before Christmas 1917, whilst stationed at Wallsend near Newcastle. He’d just had his 21st birthday, but was worried about being short of cash over Christmas and wrote that he intended to ask his sister Nell for a loan! Barely a month later shortage of cash would be the least of his troubles in the trenches of France and in less than four months he would have given the supreme sacrifice on the battlefields of Belgium.
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 4 generations of William Wakefields.
When he was about 12 the family moved out of London to Woking, Surrey. His father worked as a billposter and the 1911 census shows the 9 surviving children living with their parents with 14 year old William working, possibly in his first job, as an errand boy for a printers.
By 1914 he was working as a butcher, 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. He was certified fit on 27 January and in June he was requested to join for ‘training in camp’ and was referred to as a ‘driver’.
In September 1917 William was compulsorily transferred to the 8th Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment, whilst stationed at Wallsend (Newcastle). On 21 December 1917 William wrote to his mother: “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,
His 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 Regt was at that point part of the 57th Infantry Brigade. I have transcribed entries from the unit war diary from February 1918, at which point they were in the frontline trenches near Bapaume .
The diary records marches and train movements to different parts of the front, Church Parade, training, reconnaissance and (strangely) “Christmas festivities – sports and dinner for men” (in February!).
Towards the end of March they seem to have been involved in the Battle of St Quentin, having moved to Bertincourt, and then the Battle of Bapaume.
Having been in the areas of Albert and Bapaume for around 2 months, on the 29th 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 them through the night to Caestre on the Belgian border.
They then transferred to Lindenhoek by lorry (south of Ypres, on the road to Kemmel) and by the 31st they were at Wulverghem. A draft of around 200 Other Ranks joined them in the first few days of April and they spent some time training and “cleaning up”.
The situation was hotting up: “about 4am news came through that the enemy was attacking on our front and Battalion was ordered to stand by awaiting further orders. About 8.30am 57th Brigade issued orders for two of our companies to move up at once and occupy the Corps front and Support lines in front of Messines and A and B Coys moved off to do so.”
On the 11th April the unit war diary reads: “During the morning enemy attacked 25th Division on our right and made progress towards Hill 63. The left was secure. In the afternoon a heavy barrage was put down on our front and enemy attacked from right of Messines but was repulsed. The pressure on the right however was increasing and orders were issued that a withdrawal was probable and the Bttn was to concentrate at Spy Farm.”
Commencing at 1am on 12th April the Battalion moved via Wulverghem, Daylight Corner to Lindenhoek receiving en route the orders that they were to hold the army line north of Lindenhoek and not Spy Farm.
William Wakefield was killed in action on 12th 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 22nd 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 6th 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 11th May refers to her letter on 7th. 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 20th May also stated that his death was on 9th 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. Small compensation for the loss of a much-loved son and brother.
Just to add to the confusion, William is commemorated, not on the Menin Gate in Ypres as one might expect for someone with no known grave killed in Belgium, but on the Thiepval Memorial near Albert in France. This appears to be because the Commonwealth War Graves Commission made a mistake and recorded his death as 12th 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 has now been amended on their website. I also sent information about William which is now on the database held at the visitor centre at Thiepval. His name can be found on Pier and Face 14B and 14C.
William received the Territorial War Medal, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal – these and the scroll of commemoration, a dog tag and his spurs are still held by the family. 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.