The 4th August 2014 marked exactly 100 years since Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, and marked the beginning of a war of attrition which would claim the lives of over 16 million people from the armed forces and civilian ranks and wound over 20 million more. To this day, it is still recognised as one of the deadliest conflicts ever fought.
100 years on, massive efforts are being made to ensure that the individuals who sacrificed themselves for our freedom would be remembered. We’ve held candlelight vigils, the programmes detailing the atrocities and demonstrating just how brave and valiant our ancestors were are being broadcast round the clock, and the Tower of London is currently host to an artistic tribute of ceramic poppies created by artist Paul Cummins. Each poppy represents a fallen soldier.
Whilst these are all impressive means by which to remember the fallen, the most special by far has to be The British Legion’s Every Man Remembered campaign. This website contains the name and regimental number of every single man and woman who served in the Commonwealth forces and, tragically, lost their lives. It’s an incredibly simple and easy website to use. When you arrive at the home page, you are given the option to commemorate someone you know, or to commemorate someone who is unknown to you and your family. You can choose a namesake, someone from your local area, or commemorate someone who died on a particular day all those years ago. This is all an effort to put faces to the names of those who died; to rehumanise them and ensure that every single fallen hero is remembered by at least one individual who acknowledges their sacrifice.
Being from a military family, this has been an incredible resource for myself and my family, as we have finally been able to trace the burial locations of family members that we lost during the First World War. We have also been able to find other family members who died that we were unaware of, by whittling down the search results by battalion, regiment and location. I have learned so much more about them and their sacrifice than I could ever have hoped to and, finally, put faces to their names. I can’t even begin to describe how overwhelming it was to eventually look into the faces of men I had heard stories about, but never put a face to. The family members that I have been able to locate so far are John Collett, Ernest George Collett, James Gilmour Wilson and Rupert Edward Miles. As I discover more about my family, I will be updating this list (as amazing as this tool is, I haven’t had enough spare time to explore it fully).
Ernest George Collett was born at Stratton St Margaret on 20th July 1889, to William John Collett and Ellen Beams, his wife. He was the second of thirteen children that they would have together. He married Ellen Iles in 1914 and later that year, they were both blessed with a daughter who would affectionately become known within the family as Nelly.
Five of the thirteen children born to William and Ellen would eventually volunteer to fight in the war in France, and Ernest was the first of those five to join up and see active service. He became Private 7646 with the 1st Battalion Wiltshire Regiment and, tragically, was killed on12th March 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres. His name appears on Panel 53 of the Ypres Menin Gate Memorial.
John Collett, who was affectionately referred to as Jack by his family and friends, was born at Stratton St Margaret on 11th April 1891. He was the third of thirteen children who would be born to William John Collett and his wife Ellen Beams. Like his brother Ernest, John saw active service in France. However unlike Ernest, John was a professional soldier. He enlisted shortly before his seventeenth birthday, on the 8th March 1908, and would see active service in South Africa and Gibraltar before the outbreak of the war in 1914. When the war broke, he was Sergeant 8108 with D Company of the 2nd Battalion Wiltshire Regiment.
John’s war began on the 17th February 1915, when his regiment boarded the SS Tinteretto and sailed across the English Channel for France. Unlike many of the young men who made this voyage with him, John had never had the time or opportunity to find himself a wife or a sweetheart due to his deployments. So, while they carried pictures of their other halves tucked inside their clothing and kit, John instead carried a picture of his mother, Ellen, which never left the inside of his army tunic. This was for two reasons, the first being that he and his mother were extremely close. The second was that he used the space on the back of the photograph to secretly record the regiment’s movements as they travelled across Northern France.
The first of John’s scribblings relates to the sea crossing which took him to France, and from there charted his journey. They went straight to Boulogne, and then moved to Merville which is where he was stationed on the 21st February 1915 when the 20th Russian Army corps historically surrendered. It would then appear that the soldiers travelled in a circular movement, travelling to Saint Omer, Amiens and then, finally, they arrived in Le Havre on the 28th February 1915 before returning back to Boulogne. At the end of March, John and his battalion are recorded as being based in Laventie which is situated to the west of Lille, and a month later are entrenched in the nearby town of La Gorgue. At the end of April, the British army made major advances towards the Border of Belgium and John found himself moving through Strazeele and then up to Caestre but, by the 5th May, John found himself back on the outskirts of La Gorgue, to the north in Estaires. Unfortunately, due to the amount of moving his regiment had done, there was no more space on the back of his mother’s portrait to record any more details, and so no more details are evident from the photograph.
John writes of a second list of places which detail the second phase of his campaign. This time, they were fighting to the south of La Gorgue, including the areas encompassing Richebourg to the north of Lens, and then Albert and Fricourt to the south of Arras. His second to last entry names Bray-Sur-Somme to the south of Albert and the east of Amiens as his place of entrenchment and then, finally, Flixecourt to the north west of Amiens. It would be reasonable to assume that John’s presence at Fricourt coincided with the Battle of the Somme, which began in the 1st July 1916, as the Allied line ran right up to a crossing on the Albert Road in the village. Although the village was not subject to direct attack initially, the Allied troops cut off all supply lines to the village which resulted in its capture that same day. However, the loss of life us recorded as being horrendously large.
After seeing a lot of action, and coming out of some hideous situations in one piece, John’s luck finally ran out on the 9th April 1917. Two years after he first set foot on French soil, during a successful attack on the small, German-held village of Neuville-Vitasse, John was killed. He is buried at the Neuville-Vitasse Road Cemetery which is located to the east of the village that he gave his life to liberate. His grave reference is B13 .
James Gilmour Wilson
James Gilmour Wilson is a relative from my mother’s side of the family who was tragically killed on the 15th February 1917 at the Battle of Ypres. Sadly, I have not been able to uncover many details about his campaign due to records being lost when his sister, my Great Aunt, was moved into a home. What I do know, however, is that James was an unbelievably courageous individual, posthumously being awarded the Military Cross in recognition of heroic actions on the battlefield. Unfortunately, I know no more than this as his citation is nowhere to be found. I am, however, extremely proud. He was just 19 years old when he died.
Rupert Edward Miles (see featured image)
Strangely, Rupert isn’t listed on the Every Man Remembered website among the dead by the name which is given on his death plaque, which is odd. I would know, since the plaque currently has pride of place on my mantelpiece at home. Due to his employment at the Great Western Railway, I was able to ascertain his identity. Instead of being listed as Rupert Edward Miles, he is commemorated as Rupert E. H Miles. He is remembered in the Great Western Railway Magazine, Volume XXVIII (No.6): June 1926, p. 146. He was a sapper in the Royal Engineers, serving with the 77th Field Company and was killed on the 14th February 1916, aged just 22. He is buried in Bedford House Cemetery. Prior to the war, he had been a fitter for the Great Western Railway in Swindon.