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.
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.
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.
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!