Charles Ingleton Widcombe was born in Datchet in summer 1894 to Alice Mary (née Baigent) and William Harris Widcombe. He was named after his paternal grandfather, Charles, but his middle name came from his mother’s side of the family. Charles’ maternal grandmother was Amelia Ingleton who was born in Brighton, the daughter of Richard Ingleton, a tax officer from the Isle of Sheppey.
Charles’ mother, Alice Mary Baigent (1857-1936) was born in Clewer Green. Her parents, Amelia and Edwin Baigent, ran a fruit shop at 31 Thames Street, opposite Windsor Castle next to the theatre, but both died before Charles was born.
In late 1884, a year when Datchet flooded, Alice married William Harris “Harry” Widcombe, 1859-1940.
The family business
Harry’s family was in the coal business. His father, Charles senior, had started out as coal miner, like his father before him, and had progressed to become a foreman on a coal wharf, then a coal building goods agent. By 1881 he was running his own business as a coal merchant in Datchet, employing seven men and living at Clifton Villa on Horton Road. The 1883 and 1887 editions of Kelly’s Local Directory record Charles as a coal merchant at Datchet Railway Station. His sons, Harry and Arthur, also became coal merchants and remained in Datchet. (Both Harry and Arthur lost a son in WWI.)
Growing up in Datchet
The 1891 census shows Harry and Alice living with their daughters, Dorothy Mary and Sarah Constance, at Myrtle Villa, Back Lane, (off Green Lane). Dorothy was born in 1888 and Sarah in 1891, both in Datchet.
After Harry’s parents died (his mother in 1887 and his father in 1892), the family moved into Clifton Villa and were recorded there in the 1901 and 1911 censuses. Harry was listed as a coal merchant, working on his own account and employing others. Charles was born in 1895, probably at Clifton Villa.
By 1915, the Widcombes had moved to Queensmead, 6 Buccleuch Road. Queensmead was built between 1901 and 1911 although the Widcombes were not the first family to live there. In 1911 it was occupied by a widow, Mrs Lewis. Her census return indicated that the house had 10 rooms, two more than Clifton Villa.
Charles was educated at the United Services College in Windsor (known as Imperial Services College after 1911). He was a keen sportsman. He played rugby and football at school and also coached local cricket and football teams in Datchet.
The army was a large part of his short life. Nicknamed ‘Brownie’, he was in the cadet force of the College for four years up to 1912.
After he left school, he intended to become a chartered surveyor. According to the Buckinghamshire Remembers website, he was a student at the Surveyors Institute.
Life in the military
At the outbreak of war, Charles joined the Public Schools Battalion, Middlesex Regiment. He was listed in the Datchet Roll of Honour in the Windsor & Eton Express on 9 January 1915.
Remarkably, a photograph exists of Charles looking down the barrel of a gun, which has been published on the BBC website.
Charles’ first posting was with the 3rd Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (OBLI) at Portsmouth as a Second Lieutenant. (This was announced in the London Gazette, 16 April 1915, and also in the United Services College Roll of Honour in the Windsor & Eton Express, 24 April 1915.)
In December 1915, Charles was allocated to the ‘Provisional’ Battalion of the OBLI in Mesopotamia (Iraq). Eight officers from the 3rd Battalion of the Regiment, including Charles, left for Mesopotamia in command of a large draft of men for the 2nd Royal West Kent Regiment. These drafts reached Basra on 6 January 1916 and disembarked on the 8th.
This unit was intended as reinforcement for the 1st Battalion OBLI which was under siege at that time in Kut, 100 miles south of Baghdad. (For information about the Mesopotamia Campaign, see the National Archives website.)
The History of the 43rd and 52nd (Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire) Light Infantry, written by Captain J E H Neville, gives the following information about Charles: CI Widcombe, Commissioned from the Public Schools Battalion; to Mesopotamia with draft for the 97th Regiment, December 1915; Attached to Connaught Rangers 12 February 1916; joined 2nd/43rd, 29 February; present at the attack on the Dujaila Redoubt, 8 March; killed in the first attack on Sannaiyat, 6 April 1916.
In his book, Neville includes a description of the attack at Sannaiyat which includes the following paragraph:
The leading lines of the 28th Brigade attracted the concentrated fury of the enemy fire. Captain Foljambe was shot through the head, Captain Hammick was hit through the chest and arm; Captain Tatton through both hands and one leg in the first burst of fire. Of the subalterns, Second Lieutenants Widcombe, Davis and Truman were killed. Soon afterwards Major Carter, Lieutenant Firth and Second Lieutenant Gardner were wounded. The heavy casualties were not confined to the leading lines; Major-General Kemball and all his staff were wounded, including Second Lieutenant Field of the Regiment. But although unsupported by artillery fire, the remnant of the Regiment hung on between five and six hundred yards from the enemy’s trenches. Indeed the hail of death prevented any movement either forward or back. Eye-witness Edmund Candler, who was watching this amazing example of courage has recorded that: “A staff officer handed me his glasses. ‘Do you see that line of khaki,’ he asked, ‘about 500 yards from the enemy?’ ‘Yes. Why haven’t they dug themselves in?’ He explained that they were our dead!”
‘Do you see that line of khaki,’ he asked, ‘about 500 yards from the enemy?’ ‘Yes. Why haven’t they dug themselves in?’ He explained that they were our dead!
Of the 13 officers who went into action, five were killed and eight wounded. Of the 266 non-commissioned officers and men who went into action, 51 were killed, 170 wounded and 14 missing; a total of 235, leaving 31 survivors. Of the 14 missing, 11 were later reported killed; of the wounded ten at least died of their wounds and probably more.
According to information in the archives of the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, Charles’s last words before he was killed were ‘What matters who dies, while England lives’, echoing Rudyard Kipling. (We learn later from his sister’s scrapbook that Charles had satirised Kipling’s poem If, which helps to put this quote in context.) He was speaking to his friend Lieutenant H D H Radford; the pair were in action together. Radford, one of the few who survived, said that Charles’s death was instantaneous; he was shot through the head. Radford buried him where he fell but his grave was never found. It is believed it was washed away by the River Tigris.
News reaches home
The Windsor & Eton Express reported on 15 April 1916: “Second-Lieutenant C Ingleton Widcombe, son of Mr and Mrs W H Widcombe, Queensmead, Datchet, of the Oxford and Bucks LI, reported missing on 6 April.”
The Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum has the telegram the Widcombes received, also dated 15 April 1916. It reads: Deeply regret to inform you that 2Lt C I Widcombe Oxford and Buck Lt Infantry previously reported missing is now recorded killed in action. Lord Kitchener expresses his sympathy. The telegram was in a 2016 exhibition at The Glass Tank, Oxford Brookes University.
In May 1916, Datchet Parish Magazine reported: ‘A deep sense of loss has been felt by every man in the parish on hearing of the death of 2nd Lieutenant C Widcombe in the fighting for the relief of Kut. The news came first to his family that he was missing after the battle of April 5th, but was soon followed by a notification of his death from the War Office. His patriotism had led him to volunteer before I came to Datchet but I have since seen enough of him to feel that Christian manliness was the chief mark of his character. We can ill afford to lose such a one from our midst. Our sympathy goes out in full measure towards Mr and Mrs and the Misses Widcombe.’
A memorial plaque
Charles is remembered in St Mary’s Church. There is a brass plaque which reads: To the Glory of God and in loving memory of Charles Ingleton Widcombe of this Parish, aged 21 years, 2nd Lieutenant, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, who was killed in action at Sanna-i-yat Mesopotamia in the gallant attempt to relieve the beleaguered garrison of Kut, April 6th 1916. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
On Saturday 4 August 1917, there was a ceremony to unveil the plaque. Datchet Parish Magazine wrote: ‘We are thankful indeed that this date was fittingly observed here, and there cannot be the slightest doubt that an effort was made by many, even at personal inconvenience, to take their proper part, as far as they could. The day proved a very full one, from start to finish. At 7.45am, the brass tablet, to the memory of Charles Ingleton Widcombe was formally dedicated, in the presence of a number of friends and relations. At 8 o’clock, there was a celebration of Holy Communion at which the recently issued Form IV was largely drawn upon for Intercession and Thanksgiving and there were just short of 30 communicants. The church presented a striking appearance with its red hangings and a plentiful supply of red flowers in the vases both on the altar and war shrine; while close to the latter was hung appropriately enough, a beautiful silk Union Jack, which we hope will remain in that position until peace is declared. In the middle of the day there was a ‘war wedding’ when a good many of the bridegroom’s friends were present in khaki. At 7.15pm a short service was held which was attended by many representatives of local bodies including ladies from the War depot in uniform, members of the Parish Council, local fire brigade, special constables, etc. Our friends at Ditton (we must not particularize too much) were strongly represented, and a good deal of khaki could be also seen in the congregation which nearly filled the church. …/… A very large concourse had gathered at the Memorial Cross on the Green by 8pm where a big Union Jack had been hoisted all day.’
Remembered in Iraq
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website informs us: ‘Until 1997 the Basra Memorial was located on the main quay of the naval dockyard at Maqil, on the west bank of the Shatt-al-Arab, about 8kms north of Basra. Because of the sensitivity of the site, the Memorial was moved by presidential decree. The move, carried out by the authorities in Iraq, involved a considerable amount of manpower, transport costs and sheer engineering on their part, and the Memorial has been re-erected in its entirety. The Basra Memorial is now located 32kms along the road to Nasiriyah, in the middle of what was a major battleground during the first Gulf War.
‘While the current climate of political instability persists it is extremely challenging for the Commission to manage or maintain its cemeteries and memorials located within Iraq. Alternative arrangements for commemoration have therefore been implemented and a two-volume Roll of Honour listing all casualties buried and commemorated in Iraq has been produced. These volumes are on display at the Commission’s Head Office in Maidenhead and are available for the public to view. The Commission continues to monitor the situation in Iraq and once the political climate has improved to an acceptable level the Commission will commence a major rehabilitation project for its cemeteries and commemorations.’
Charles’ family received his Victory and British War Medals in September 1921. The records say he was ineligible for the 1914-15 Star and the General Service Medal.
After the war
Coal merchants, Widcombe & Co, were still trading at Datchet Railway station in 1931 and were listed in that year’s Kelly’s Directory. Charles’ mother died in 1936 and his father in 1940.
Charles sister Sarah, known as Sadie, had trained as a piano tutor. (Windsor & Eton Express announced in May 1915 that she had obtained the relevant certificate and become an Associate of the Royal College of Music.) She made a scrapbook about her brother and the war which is held at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum. Some of these items were on display in The War Beyond the Western Front: Hidden Histories of the First World War, an exhibition at The Glass Tank at Oxford Brookes University in 2016. A document about the exhibition explains: “Far from the scene of battle, the sister of Lieutenant Charles Widcombe compiled an album including photographs and contemporary newspaper accounts. Sadie Widcombe’s scrapbook is a eulogy for her brother and includes photographs of his earlier life and officer training. Newspaper clippings illustrate the campaign and some of the issues raised at home about strategy and lack of support. The only time we hear Charles Widcombe’s voice is in a poem he wrote satirising Rudyard Kipling’s poem If. For Widcombe the war ended almost as soon as it began. He was killed within 10 minutes of his first action, one of over 31,000 British and Indian casualties of the campaign.”
The exhibition included the following images from the SOFO archives:
Another Datchet soldier, William Poole was a prisoner of war at Kut. He is also remembered on Datchet’s War Memorial.
In the photograph at the top of the page, of Harry during the 1884 floods, his neighbour in Horton Road, James Hale Pearce, is in a bowler hat, third from the right. James’s son, James Hale Pearce, the second, also moved to Buccleuch Road and was a near neighbour of the Widcombes. He lost his son, James Hale Pearce, the third, in WWI. His son was a close friend of Charles’s cousin, Arthur Widcombe, who was also killed.