William Wilkins was born in Clewer in early 1889. He was one of eight surviving children born to John, a bricklayer from Windsor, and his wife Sarah Jane, a laundress from Staines. He had four older siblings, Thomas, John, Fred and Alfred, and three younger siblings, Sophia, Florence and Amos.
William was brought up in Clewer. In the 1891 census the family was living at 2 Beaumont Cottages. By the age of 13, William was working part-time as an errand boy while he was still at school. And in the 1911 census, he and his younger brother Amos, both working as labourers, were living with their parents in four rooms at 3 Vine Cottages, Clewer.
Married life in Datchet
In 1912, 23-year-old William married Ellen Smith. The couple moved to Victoria Place, 210-116 Horton Road, Datchet and had two sons, William born in late 1913, and Charles born in 1915.
William became Private 18805, in the 8th (Service) Battalion of the Princess Charlotte of Wales’s Royal Berkshire Regiment. He enlisted in Windsor in 1915.
The 8th, a Kitchener Battalion, had been raised in Reading in September 1914 as part of the 26th Division. They landed in France at Le Havre on 8 August 1915 where they joined the 1st Infantry Brigade in the 1st Infantry Division of the Fourth Army. The 1st Division suffered heavy casualties during the first year of the war fighting in many horrific major battles including Aubers Ridge (May 1915) and Loos (Sep-Oct 1915). Perhaps to bolster dwindling numbers due to losses suffered in these battles, William was posted to the 8th, arriving in France in October 1915. He died at the Somme the following year.
Killed by ‘friendly fire’?
William died of his wounds on 24 August 1916, age 27, but the date he was wounded is not yet known. He may have been injured on 18 August when one of the Division’s guns was firing short and shells were landing on their own troops, or perhaps in the fighting which ensued.
According to the war diaries of the 8th Battalion (see www.thewardrobe.org.uk) the 8th was at Mametz Wood in August 1916. The following is an edited extracts taken from the battalion’s diaries:
On 18 August 1916, an attempt was made to seize the enemy’s ‘Intermediate Line’. At 12 noon the heavy artillery commenced a bombardment of the ‘Intermediate Line’, unfortunately one gun was firing short and its shells fell on our own front line just at the time when the relief was taking place. The effect of these shells was that many of our men were buried and the trench was so badly blown that intercommunication between one portion of the trench and another was impossible. This caused a good deal of confusion and the Companies were scarcely in their position by the time they had to attack; and the flank attack on “the angle” was impossible owing to the fact that the platoon detailed for this was unable to get into its position in 70th Avenue.
At 2.45pm the front attack was made. At first there was little resistance but when the 1st line had reached a point about 100 yards from the ‘Intermediate Line’ they came under machine gun fire and a heavy barrage of shell was put up by the enemy. The remainder of our men dug in about 150 yards from the enemy’s line but at about 4.00pm they were shelled out of their position and were forced to retire to the original front line. The Battalion suffered heavy losses: three officers killed, four officers wounded, and 160 other ranks killed.
From 20 to 26 August, the battalion remained in the Northern edge of Mametz Wood. There are no records in the diaries of any casualties during this period before 24 August when William died of his wounds.
News reaches Datchet
On 23 September 1916, The Windsor Express reported that William had been killed in action. (His medal records indicate he died from his wounds.) The following month, Datchet Parish Magazine reported, left,: “Among those who have lately laid down their lives for King and Country we have to mention Private Wilkins, Victoria Place, Horton Road. Much sympathy is felt for his young widow who has two tiny boys and for his mother, this being her third son killed.”
(William’s brother Alfred had joined the Navy and died at Gallipoli in May 1915. Brother Frederick had joined the 1st Battalion of the Royal Berkshires; he died in France and Flanders from his wounds in September 1915. Another brother, John, also joined up in 1914, age 35. He was discharged after 14 days under paragraph 392 (iii) of the King’s Regulations which indicated he was passed fit by the medical officer but later rejected by a recruiting officer.)
Burial at Mametz
William was buried at Flatiron Copse Cemetery, Mametz, Somme, ID 45. Flatiron Copse was the name given by the army to a small plantation just to the east of Mametz Wood. The ground was taken by the 3rd and 7th Divisions on 14 July 1916 and an advanced dressing station was established at the copse. (This may have been where William was taken when he was wounded.) The cemetery was begun later that month and it remained in use until April 1917. After the Armistice, more than 1,100 graves were brought in from the neighbouring battlefields and from smaller cemeteries nearby. There are now 1,572 Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War buried or commemorated in this cemetery.
William’s grave registration documents show that no age was put on his headstone and his family did not add an epitaph, possibly because they could not afford to.
After the war
The Soldiers’ Effects document in William’s military records shows that his widow Ellen later became Ellen Harberd. She married Sidney Harberd in Windsor in June 1919 when her boys would have been about six and four. Sidney was a groom and domestic gardener from Clewer. They had at least four more children together.
William was awarded the British War and Victory medals and the 1914-15 Star. He is remembered in Datchet and also in Slough, on the war memorials at St Mary’s and St Paul’s.