1898 - 1915
Researched and written by Barbara WILLIAMS
Note:- Throughout this research I have come across several variations of the name “Willett” that both the family of Percy and the enumerator used. However I have not edited the spelling in any circumstances.
PERCY WILLETTS was born during the quarter ending March of 1898 in Walsall Wood, Staffordshire, now in the West Midlands. His parents were John (born in 1863 in Norton Canes, Staffordshire) and Martha nee HITCHEN (born in 1865 in Cannock, Staffordshire) They married on 26th Feb. 1891 at Brownhills with Ogley Hay St., James Parish Church. John, aged 29 was a widower at the time of his marriage to Martha, with a child Lottie.
The 1881 census shows John aged 18yrs with siblings George 16, Mary 14, Abraham 10, Joseph 8, Frederick 6, and Richard 3. living with their father Abraham who was born in Markfield, Leicestershire in about 1833. At the time John was working as a miner.
In 1891 the census shows John and Martha newly married and living in Wolverhampton Road, Brownhills which was later renamed Pelsall Road. John is now working on his own account as a haulier owning his own horse and cart which was the usual form of carting in those days.
Ten years later, John and Martha have a family of six children. Lottie 13, Lily 7, Abraham 5, Percy 3, Maud 2, and Alice 2 months. The family are living at 6 The Terrace, Church Road., Clayhanger.
At the time of the 1911 census, several of John’s and Martha’s children are no longer at home but there is an addition to the family, Elsie aged 5. Percy, now 13 years of age is attending school. The family are now living at “Slough House” a dwelling place occupied by John’s and another family, situated off Pelsall Road, Brownhills. “The Slough” and “Slough Cottage” are marked on the 1883 Ordnance Survey map. The area contained old mining shafts and no doubt the ground had sunk and become marshy. “Slough Cottage” was still inhabited in the 1950’s.
The first shots of World War 1 were fired in the Bosnian town of Sarajevo on the 28th June 1914. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the thrones of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, was murdered along with his wife by Gavrilo Princip, a young Serb nationalist. These deaths led to the first general European war since 1815. Crowds of people in Trafalgar Square cheered at the outbreak of war and men of all classes enlisted as ordinary privates.
Our young hero Percy, who may not have yet reached the age of 17, and now living with his parents and siblings in Chase Road, Brownhills, decided to join up. Due to his age, he was unable to enlist as a regular soldier and so in January 1915 he attended the Territorial Recruitment Office in Whitimere Street, Walsall and enlisted as a member of the 1/5th Territorial Force of the South Staffs Regiment.
Up to 1908, Britain had a tradition of organizing local part-time military units known as the Militia and the Volunteers. These had often been created during times of national crisis but, with the exception of service during the Boer War, had generally remained at home as part-time local defence units. In 1908 army reforms did away with these odd units and replaced them with the Territorial Force. It remained a part-time form of soldiering (hence the nick-name “Saturday Night Soldiers”) whose stated role was home defence. Men were not obliged to serve overseas, although they could agree to do so. The Territorial Force was mobilized for full-time war service immediately war was declared. When Territorial Force troops agreed to overseas service they signed the “Imperial Service Obligation” and were issued with a special badge known as the “Imperial Service Brooch” to be worn on their right breast.
Many Territorial Force units also issued distinctive insignia, notably the “Shoulder Title”, a brass badge carrying the name of the unit worn on the shoulder. Below, as an example, is the one for the North Staffordshire Regiment.
On the 15th August 1914, orders were issued to separate the “Home Service” men from those who had undertaken to serve overseas, with the intention of forming reserves made up of those who had not so far volunteered. Those men that did not agree were separated out into the “Home Service” or “Second Line” units. The original units now became known as the “Foreign Service” or “First Line”. These terms are often seen on T.F. men’s service records. In 1915 the “First Line” and “Second Line” units were given a new title:- for example the 1/5th and 2/5th South Staffordshires were what had been the first and second line formed by the original 5th battalion.
Percy landed in the theatre of war on 18th August 1915.
THE BATTLE OF LOOS
The Battle of Loos, which began on the 25th September and finished on the 13th October, involved units from all sections of the British Army, Regulars, Territorials and the first major use of Kitchener’s Volunteer Army. The action was on a larger scale than the previous 1915 battles but suffered from using the same strategy and tactics with the ongoing deficiencies of artillery. The inept use of 150 tons of gas by the British, released despite unfavourable conditions, proved to be counter-productive and did not compensate for these shortcomings.
A report on the Battle follows.
“The 46th (North Midland) Division, having been ordered to capture the HOHENZOLLERN REDOUBT and FOSSE No 8 , the 137th Infantry Brigade carrying out the right attack, the Battalion was formed as follows “A” & “C ” Companies in the front line of assembly trenches, and with two Companies of the 1/6th North Staffs Regt. formed the 3rd line, and were ordered to follow the 2nd line at 200 paces distance, and carry R. E., materials the other two companies “B” and “D”, with 2 Companies 1/6th North Staffs Regiment forming the fourth line, and ordered to at once follow the third line, and occupy DUMP trench on the frontage allotted to the Brigade. The attack was covered by a two hours Artillery bombardment commencing at 12 noon, gas was used at 1pm., also smoke shells which at times completely hid the points of attack. Enemy machine guns were heard ranging on the assembly trenches at 1.30pm and 1.45pm, which was notified to Brigade Headquarters. Having received no message that the front line had not been able to advance, and not being able to see their position for smoke, the two Companies forming the third line followed the second line and suffered very heavy casualties. The fourth line then advanced, and also suffered from machine gun fire from the direction of the South Face. All that remained of the 3rd line reached the fire trench between point 87 and 89 to assist the 5th South Staffs Regt, to hold that portion until this Battalion was ordered to retire at noon on the 14th. The remainder of the fourth line were assembled in the old British front line trench and when reinforcements were called for, were sent up to support the fire trench. The Battalion was relieved in the trenches by the Guards, and billeted for the night at Sailly la Bourse”.
According to Percy’s medal card he “Died of his wounds” on the last day of the Battle and was awarded the Victory Medal, the British War Medal and the 1915 Star (also known as the 1914-15 Star). See also Percy’s Regimental Number, 194, a small number indicating he was a Terrier”, if he had survived and later enlisted in the regular army the card would have shown a new longer number.
Percy was laid to rest in the Vermelles British War Cemetry in the village of Vermelles, 10 kilometres north west of Lens. His grave reference is IV. J. 33. There are over 2134 First World War casualties in the cemetery and of these 198 are unidentified. The cemetery was designed by Sir Herbert Baker.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Private Percy Willett
Service Number: 194
Died: Wednesday 13 October 1915
1st/5th Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment
Son of John and Martha Willett, of 33, Chase Road, Brownhills, Walsall
Cemetery: VERMELLES BRITISH CEMETERY
Grave reference: IV.J.33
Inscription: HIS END WAS PEACE
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
VERMELLES BRITISH CEMETERY
Region: Pas de Calais
Total identified casualties: 1948
Vermelles is a village 10 kilometres north-west of Lens. From Lens take the N43, towards Bethune, to its junction with the D75 in Mazingarbe. Turn right at this junction and continue for approximately 900 metres when Vermelles British Cemetery will be found on the left hand side of the road.
Wheelchair access is possible to this cemetery. For further information regarding wheelchair access, please contact our Enquiries Section on 01628 507200.
Vermelles was in German hands from the middle of October 1914 to the beginning of December 1914, when it was recaptured by the French. The cemetery was begun in August 1915 (though a few graves are slightly earlier), and during the Battle of Loos, when the Chateau was used as a dressing station, Plot I was completed. It was laid out and fenced by the Pioneers of the 1st Gloucesters, and known for a long time as "Gloucester Graveyard". The remaining Plots were made by the Divisions (from the Dismounted Cavalry Division onwards) holding the line 1.6 kilometres East of the cemetery until April 1917, and they incorporated a few isolated French graves of October 1914. From April 1917, to the Armistice, the cemetery was closed; but after the Armistice some graves were re-grouped and others were brought in (to Plots II, IV and VI) from the battlefields to the East. There are now over 2134 First World War casualties commemorated in this cemetery. Of these, 198 are unidentified and special memorials are erected to six soldiers from the United Kingdom, known to be buried among them. This cemetery also contains the graves of 11 casualties of other nationalities. This cemetery was designed by Sir Herbert Baker.
All armies of the Great War used ‘kid’ soldiers. In the beginning of the war the enthusiasm to join battle was so great that young boys (and even girls) could hardly be stopped from enlisting. Recruiting officers in all countries closed their eyes when eager children clearly under the required age -18 years old- showed up to join their armies. At the end of the war children were even more welcome in the ranks, as the ‘Great Mincing Machine’ continued to require human bodies with astonishing need. Hardly trained the kids were sent to the trenches in Belgium, France, Russia and Turkey where they mingled with the older soldiers and died with them.
The British Army resisted any suggestion the recruits ‘prove their age’ by producing a birth certificate when enlisting. It was a scandal which provoked complaints in Parliament. The National Service League also protested claiming that around 15% of wartime recruits were underage. The Army eventually allowed underage soldiers to be reclaimed by their parents.
Percy’s name lives on, engraved on the War Memorial at St. James Church, Brownhills
Reference, Item and Source
1. Photograph of Private Percy Willett © Walsall Local History Centre
2. Extract from the Marriage Transcription for John Willetts and Martha Hirchens © BFHG Transcriptions
3. Extract from the 1881 Census © Ancestry
4. Extract from the 1891 Census © Ancestry
5. Extract from the 1901 Census © Ancestry
6. Extract from the 1911 Census © Ancestry
7. Photograph of the Imperial Service Brooch © the website http://www.barnesfamilyhistory.org.uk/firstworldwar/imperial_war_service.htm
8. WW1 North Staffordshire Regiment Shoulder Title © British Military Badges website (http://www.britishmilitarybadges.co.uk/products/ww1-north-staffordshire-stafford-regiment-shoulder-title-6.html)
9. British Army WWI Medal Rolls Index Card (1914-1920) for 194 Private Percy Willett © Ancestry
10. 1914-1915 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal © Ghillie Mòr website
11. Casualty Records for Private Percy Willett © Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)
12. Commonwealth War Graves Commission certificate commemorating Private Percy Willett © Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)
13. Vermelles British Cemetery details © Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)
14. Cemetery Plan for Vermelles British Cemetery © Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)
15. Photograph of St. James Church, Brownhills © BFHG (Alan Betts)
16. Photograph of one of the panels on the St. James Church War Memorial, Brownhills © BFHG (Alan Betts)
17. Family tree for Percy Willett's family © BFHG (Barbara Williams)
1. The Pictorial History of WW1 by G D Sheffield
2. Most Unfavourable Ground – The Battle of Loos 1915 by Niall Cherry