From Thiepval to Tyne Cot

 

Well I had a very pleasant surprise the other day, and all I can say is “well done to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission”!

If you have been reading this blog for some time you may remember that I have written before about William Neighbour Wakefield, my Great Uncle who was killed in WW1.

Wakefield
William Neighbour Wakefield

For a long time I had been aware of confusion surrounding the date of his death, since the family is in possession of a number of letters with slightly conflicting information.  Was it on the 9th April 1918, as communicated in a letter from the front, or the 12th April as stated by the War Office?  Enquiries by his family finally resulted in a letter from the War Office in July stating “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”.  At any rate, he was killed in Belgium.

However, at no point was it suggested that he had been killed on 12th March. And yet that is the date that for some unknown reason found its way to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (previously the Imperial War Graves Commission).  When I first started researching William’s war service, that was the date of death recorded on their website, which also helpfully told me that he was commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial near Albert in France.

Although a Woking lad, William found himself in September 1917 being compulsorily transferred to the 8th Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment.  His service record indicates that he joined the British Expeditionary Force on 21 January 1918.  The Battalion was at that point part of the 57th Infantry Brigade and using the Unit War Diaries at the National Archives I was able to follow their movements, which led to a memorable holiday in France and Flanders in 2009 during which we were able to retrace their steps.

Having been in France in March, and been involved in the Battle of St Quentin and then the Battle of Bapaume, they were moved across the border to Belgium at the end of that month, eventually joining the front line at Messines.

William Wakefield was killed in action, aged 21, on 12th April at Messines during a successful counter-attack.  The war diary entries certainly give a flavour of the confusion which must have reigned.   The handwritten letter from the front on 22nd April conveying the news to the family states:  “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”.  Was the bit about being “buried by his friends” a standard phrase commonly used in order to bring comfort and reassurance to the families?  If the location of his grave was known at the time, then that was obviously not the case some months later when the war dead were systematically being removed to the new war cemeteries.

William Wakefield
Letter from the front

Also in the possession of the family are William’s spurs.  I have no idea how they made their way back to the family, but it is very touching to think that perhaps it was a fellow soldier, a young mate of William’s, who either retrieved them from the body or from William’s personal possessions and was thoughtful enough to think that they might be treasured by his grieving family.  Who brought them to Woking and how is now unknown.

William’s spurs

 

 

As a soldier with no known grave killed in Belgium, William’s name should of course have been on one of the Belgian memorials.  However, 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 they responded by amending the entry on their website www.cwgc.org .  I also at that time sent information about William which is now on the database held at the visitor centre at Thiepval.  (See http://www.greatwar.co.uk/somme/museum-thiepval-visitor-centre.htm for information on the Thiepval Database Project).

With the centenary of William’s death coming up next year I started to put together some plans for revisiting Thiepval and the Messines area.  For some reason the other day I thought I would just look up his entry on the CWGC website.  Initially I was frustrated not to find him, but remembering that ‘less is more’ I gradually took out various search terms including the country of commemoration (which I thought I knew!).  Imagine my surprise and shock, then, when his name came up – commemorated on the Addenda Panel at Tyne Cot!!!

How recently this has happened I don’t know – on the website it also says “The commemoration for this casualty has recently been transferred to this Memorial. However, it will not be possible to add his name to the Memorial immediately. Please contact the Commission before planning a visit, for more information.”  So I have done that and am currently awaiting a reply.  I have also asked whether his name will continue to appear on the Thiepval Memorial.

Quite coincidentally, I have just read that today (20 May 2017) sees the opening of the CWGC Centenary Exhibition at Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey.  http://www.cwgc.org/news-events/events/launch-of-exhibition.aspx The exhibition runs until November, so I must definitely pay a visit.

So now I have another location to factor into the itinerary next spring.  And hopefully I’ll be able to see William’s name on a memorial to the missing in the country in which he fell.  Well done Commonwealth War Graves Commission – and thank you!

 

 

 

 

 

A Walk round West Grinstead

(OS Explorer Map 134)

My visit to the exhibition at Partridge Green a few weeks back made me think how lovely it would be to explore some of the footpaths in that area, and dry weather over the Easter weekend was a perfect opportunity to do so.

We drove over to West Grinstead and parked at what used to be West Grinstead station, just off the A272.  The platform  and station sign are still there, the line having now become the Downs Link walking and cycle path which eventually ends at Shoreham.

West Grinstead station
West Grinstead station

We walked north on that path for a little way, before bearing off to the left through some beautiful bluebell woods en route to Newhouse Farm.  From there we headed south, crossing the A272, and walking straight through Park Farm.  This is now the setting for a number of exclusive-looking houses, but somewhere amongst them must be the house where my great great grandparents, Thomas and Eliza Philpott, lived.  At this point I was particularly excited  – Granny’s other Grandfather, Thomas Mitchell, was a woodman on the West Grinstead estate, and as we passed lots of coppiced woods I could imagine that perhaps he had once worked in those woods – they were beautiful, with bluebells, primroses and orchids. 

We joined Green Lane and continued to cross West Grinstead Park.  The house itself is long gone, but my ancestors would have been very familiar with the terrain.  A couple of women were tending to some sheep in a pen.  On enquiry I learned that they were South Downs Sheep – a most attractive breed, with their lovely, woolly round faces.

South Downs sheep

 

Park Stews WG

 

 

 

 

The Park Stews which we crossed presumably once supplied fish for the big house.

As we headed towards the B2135 we had a lovely view of the Steyning Road Lodges, where my Granny had lived.

Steyning Lodges WG
West Grinstead church

 

 

 

 

 

Crossing the road, the path rose to a crest, from where Chanctonbury Ring was clearly visible.  I had never realised that before.  West Grinstead church then came in sight, and we entered the churchyard through a rear gate.

Within a few moments I was able to locate the grave of my great grandparents, William and Mary Mitchell, due to its strange shape.

Grave of William and Mary Mitchell
Interior West Grinstead church

 

 

 

 

 

The Church being open was an added bonus, (Easter flower arranging being in progress), so we took the opportunity to look inside.  I had forgotten that the pews had the names of the properties on them, presumably where families paid to have that particular seat.

Crossing back over the B2135 the path then cut across the corner of West Grinstead Park, past another copse with beautiful bluebells, and came out onto Park Lane. Thomas Mitchell might have walked that path on his way to Church. The footpath the other side heading due East rose to rejoin the Downs Link path, where we turned north to arrive back at the station car park.

We had planned to have lunch at the Green Man at Jolesfield (my Granny’s father’s cousin George Mitchell had been the licensee there at one time), but despite advertising ‘bar meals’ outside, the choice of food seemed to be rather ‘gastro’ and with no staff in evidence to serve us anyway, we abandoned that idea and went down to the Partridge at Partridge Green where we enjoyed a very nice bar meal.

The Green Man, Jolesfield

It was a very pleasant walk and the opportunity to walk the paths trodden by my ancestors, appreciating the landscape they knew, was very special.