Great Uncle Bill

I’ve already given some details in an earlier post but as this is the 97th anniversary of his death it seemed a good subject for the day. It’s also a good day to remind people of one of my regular gripes: this year is only the centenary of the beginning of the war. Many of the events we consider to be important in the Great War are several years away from their centenary. We’ve already commemorated all the dead and most of them were still alive 100 years ago. Most of them probably weren’t even in the army.

Anyway, back to Uncle Bill, or Billy, as my great-grandmother called him. After writing the previous blog I had a chance to read the copies of the letters that great-grandma sent to my grandfather in India. He was wounded in the chest and shoulder late in the day and  died without regaining consciousness. Having read several letters like this in press reports from the war I’m suspicious that this is a standard letter to make the family feel better. However, I do hope it’s true.

If he’d lived his Christmas would have been brightened by a ten shilling note and a cake sent out by his mother just before he was killed. .

Sadly we don’t even have a photograph of him. There is one that my aunt says is a picture of him but the soldier in the picture is wearing the badge of a fusilier regiment, not the York & Lancs. There’s no picture of him in Craven’s Part in the Great War  so I suspect there never was one or they would have let the paper have it at the time of his death.

Frustratingly the picture we have, which I suspect is his brother Francis, isn’t marked and looks nothing like the 1921 family photo we have. However, as he was severely wounded in the 1918 Spring Offensive it’s hardly surprising he looks gaunt compared to the cheery young soldier in the earlier photo.

And no, so far I haven’t been able to trace his regiment to match up the cap badge – with Wilson being the 7th most popular  name in the UK there were a lot of them in the army. I remember once seeing something in a family history magazine saying it is the third most popular name in the North West so it’s tough being a Wilson and doing family history in Lancashire.

Thoughts of beards

Recently I’ve been thinking about beards. This is partly at the prompting of the post I wrote about my great-uncle Bill and the safety razor the army returned in his personal effects, having recently been reading about shaving in the trenches. it was also partly in response to a present from my wife,who recently decided that our 25th wedding anniversary required a special present to mark the occasion. I now have a beard comb, bottle of conditioning oil and a pot of  wax. The comb and oil are great – the wax, when used to twirl my moustache, makes me look like a somewhat seedy cartoon cat.

I’ve had two beards in my life. The first was in the winter of 1981-2. It lasted until the end of the cold snap when the water pipes unfroze. The second lasted from the spring of 1982 until the present day.  Having once had a beard  it was hard to do without one.

This decision was helped by the number of people who seemed to be anti-beard in those days (when I was often asked what I was trying to hide) and I quite like being out of step. Shortly after that I joined the Sealed Knot and found myself in an organisation full of beards.

From there it was plain sailing and I haven’t thought about the beard for years apart from the odd bit of maintenance. It was good to be shown a few photographs of bearded family members from the 1890s because we had always seemed to be a smooth-chinned lot. It was also good to read in none of Francis Pryor’s books that he was told by a Scandinavian archaeologist that people with fair hair and red beards were descendants of  Vikings. So take that, all you smooth-chinned descendants of lesser races!

Now it seems that beards are respectable. I even saw a poster in Moss Bros this morning – a bearded and tattooed man modelling a green plaid suit. Not sure which bit seemed most wrong compared to the Moss Bros I used to know. Even the manager had  tattoos and a stubbly growth that often passes for a beard these days.

It’s a strange feeling, suddenly feeling fashionable in your 50s.

Remembrance Day

This is the war memorial in Slaidburn. It’s one of thousands spread all over the country but it has one feature most others do not.- it commemorates one of my relatives. My dad has a photograph showing the unveiling (sometime in the early 20s I suppose). It shows my great-grandmother standing in the front row as they reveal the name of her oldest son.

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She had a hard war – one son dead, two seriously wounded and a daughter widowed.

William Heseltine Wilson volunteered for service but was sent back to the farm where he worked as a horseman until he was required.  I’m not sure he was much of a catch for the military, being a bit on the short side with slightly flattened feet and another slight condition I can’t quite make out on his records.

By early 1917 the army had used up all its tall, fit recruits and William was called up for training, where he managed to qualify as a second class shot. He then had an active few months on the Continent, being mentioned in despatches and wounded three times. The third time proved to be fatal and he died in a Casualty Clearing Station on 14th December 1917.

The army, being meticulous about these things, returned his personal effects in two installments – a safety razor with blades and tin box on the 30th April 1918. Photos, wallet, cards, 2 cap badges, 2 numerals, a 9 carat gold signet ring marked WHW, a farthing and a bag followed on 4th May.

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There’s nothing special about the story. There were thousands like him – young men who weren’t meant to be soldiers who were sent away to fight. I know he didn’t want to go back after his penultimate wound because he said so in a postcard to my grandfather (who had been medically downgraded and posted to India after being kicked in the chest by a horse). And I suppose that’s the point – he wasn’t not a hero, despite the slack way we use the words these days: he was just one man among nearly nine million who served. It’s just that thanks to the chance preservation of a few of his army records and some letters his mother sent to my grandfather we can add a few details to his story.

Thanks to the internet I’m even able to access a photograph of his grave.