Granddad Whiles – Wellington Remembers
Peter Riley writes about his experience volunteering with Wellington Remembers – maybe it will inspire you to join the team!
Like most people of my generation who attended primary school in the 1950s I had a grandfather, Enoch Whiles, who had fought and survived the Great War, and yet the subject of his war experience to my knowledge was never discussed in his presence. What information I did glean was from his daughter, my mother, and this was often very limited. I knew that he had served in the Royal Army Medical Corps and along with his brother had survived the whole four years of the war with no physical injuries other than when he joined up in 1914 he had a full head of hair but returned in 1919 completely bald; the result of being rather too close to an exploding shell and spending time in the resultant crater in no man’s land.
A little over a year ago I received some of my grandfather’s possessions; these included military medals and pictures taken during the Great War one of which shows a slim young man along with comrades, all with red cross badges affixed to their uniforms. The men appear to be relaxing outside what appeared to be a metal railed fence to a French house. Who were these men staring into a camera a century ago? My grandfather is on the back row holding a book; he was a bit of a scholar but like most of his generation would return home in 1919 and spend the whole of his working life down the coal pits in the mining village of Great Wyrley. Next to my grandfather stands the comedian wearing a bowler hat and next to him a young French boy with scarf and military hat which probably belonged to the comedian. On the front row there appears to be a man of an age when he should have been home but he has 2 strips so would have been a Corporal and probably the most experienced member of the group. And there sitting cross legged at the other end of the front line is the youngest member of the team with the full innocence of youth written all over his face.
How many of these men would return home to England is unknown and if they did, would they, like my grandfather, keep the horrors of what they had seen and experienced for ever locked away, never to be told or discussed.
I wanted to find out more about the men who had travelled abroad to fight for King and Country. It would have been wonderful to put names to the faces in the photograph but the chance of that was quite remote. But what of other men who had served and died, what lives had they led both before and during the war and in searching their past, perhaps, I was in some small way paying respect to and honouring the lives of my grandfather and his comrades.
It was fortunate for me in having little or no knowledge of to how to investigate the life of a first world war soldier that I came across the Wellington Remembers Group who were already collating information on the lives of the war dead as commemorated upon the lynch gate at All Saints Church Wellington. There are a total of 185 people named on the commemorative plaques: 184 men and one woman all of whom have some connection with Wellington. The task of the group is to create a small biography for each of the people mentioned and then publish this information in 2018, one hundred years after the ending of the war in Europe. With time on my hands and an interest in history I decided to offer my services.
To date I have been involved in around a dozen biographies and each is by its very nature quite unique but all ultimately ending in the death of the combatant often at a very young age. The first person on the list was the only woman commemorated, Miss Laura May Birch. She had worked at the local Lloyds bank in Wellington for some years after leaving school but perhaps seeking adventure went to work at the newly established Royal Flying Corp base at Shawbury in September 1917. On the way home one evening in a car driven by a member of the RFC, Laura was fatally injured when the car ran into the back of a stationary wagon at Battlefields Shrewsbury. Though only employed as a civilian clerk, Laura`s name is commemorated on the lynch gate and her body is buried along with her parents at Wellington Cemetery. Some of the combatants I have researched and perhaps their descendants may still live in Wellington; these include Private John Thomas Bailey who lived at number 10a Tan Bank Wellington and who died on the 6th September 1916 aged 22, whilst advancing on the village of Guillemont near Albert in France with the 6th Battalion Kings Shropshire Light Infantry. Living less than one mile away in Wellington had been Private Thomas Fletcher of Glebe Street who died on the 14th July 1916 aged 21 with fellow members of the 7th Battalion K.S.L.I. advancing on the village of Longueval which is less than 3 miles from where John Bailey would die two months later.
The process of collating the historic information to ascertain the life story of the combatants is relatively straight forward and yet so often frustrating, due to alternative spelling of names, for example Bailey for Bayley, variance in stated age of people within censuses and the repeated use of Christian names where children may have died in infancy. Within the group there are members far more proficient than myself in collating the information but the process is generally the same.
1) Search out combatants’ name in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. This would confirm date of death, Army information and possibly family details plus place of burial or Memorial.
2) Establish birth and any marriage of combatant by searching in Free Birth Marriage Death web site.
3) Use web sites such as Ancestry or Find your Past which are freely available at local Libraries. These sites provide copies of historic censuses, which were undertaken every ten years and would provide valuable family information such as family members, their ages, occupations and current address. These web sites would also on occasions provide school records but most importantly military records such as Medal schedule and war gratuity sheet (wrong names).
4) Searching out the war diaries of the battalion to determine the location and undertaking of the battalion at the time of the combatants death; these are sometimes available on Ancestry or have been purchased by the group.
5) Search military history sites covering specific regiments or campaigns in the war.
6) Read through historic copies of the Wellington Journal held on Microfilm at Wellington Library. These provide fascinating insights into everyday life in and around Wellington during this period.
By working systematically through the above and with more than a little help and guidance from other team members it has been possible for me to produce a small biography on a life cut short by war, but one that should never be forgotten. If you would like to have a go then contact Wellington Remembers.