To commemorate the two World Wars the Queen, representatives of the government, the Armed Services and the Great British public will be gathering at Whitehall to pay homage to the dead on Remembrance Sunday, 8th November.
We ask you to join us in remembering the local heroes from your villages, towns and cities; here are a few who we have found close to the Forces War Records office in Melksham:
First British soldier to die after Britain went to war
Private 7297 Joseph Viles of the Somerset Light Infantry, from Bath, died at home aged 27 years on the 4th of August, 1914. He was first British soldier to die after Britain went to war and is buried in Bath (St James’s) Cemetery.
Joseph unfortunately died in a road traffic accident, on being knocked off his bicycle. Although not a casualty as a result of enemy action, Private Joseph Viles is recorded as being the first British soldier to die after Britain went to war in 1914.
Harry Patch – the last fighting Tommy.
On the 25th of July, 2009, Henry John ‘Harry’ Patch passed away at the age of 111. With him died the living memories of the trenches of World War One, for he was the last survivor who served on the Western Front.
Harry Patch was conscripted in October 1916, and by June 1917, aged just 19 years, he found himself on the Front at Passchendaele, serving as a Lance Corporal with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and operating a Lewis Gun. There, he watched in horror as men from the Yorkshire and Lancashire Regiments were ordered to charge over the top into No-Man’s Land, only to be unceremoniously mown down by the enemy machine guns.
In one of the most moving passages of his book, ‘The Last Fighting Tommy’, he recalls crawling past men crying for help all around, both English and German, without being able to stop and help them. He did, however, stop for a young man who was lying ripped open from shoulder to waist, begging to be shot. In the end the kindly bullet wasn’t needed, as by the time Harry had his gun ready the man had died, with a surprised and joyful cry of “Mother” on his lips.
On the 22nd of September 1917 came the worst day of the war for Harry, the day when a shell burst over his Lewis Gun section, killing 3 of his friends. Harry was struck by a piece of shrapnel in the groin, and endured the agony of it being removed without anaesthetic. Life at the Front really did end for Harry that day, as he was invalided home to Southampton and, though he was not demobilised until the end of the war, never returned to the trenches. He did, however, serve as a volunteer firefighter in World War Two, and even worked as a maintenance manager at the US army camp, helping with the preparations for D-Day.
‘Harry’ Patch now lies at peace in the English countryside that he fought to keep free, at Monkton Combe close to his home area of Combe Down, Somerset.
Developer of hospital trains
Frank Marillier received formal recognition for his efforts during the war towards improving hospital trains - with an OBE and a CBE.
The trains would be used in Britain, to transport casualties back from the coastal ports, or in France, to bring them from the Front to the Channel ports. The 3-cot system he instigated allowed stretchers to be placed directly on-board, which saved soldiers a possibly painful transition from stretcher to bed.
In ‘The Official History of the Australian Army Medical Service’ (Vol 2, pp 393-4), Colonel A G Butler notes that by the end of the war on the Western Front, "there had been specially constructed ... between 40 and 50 ambulance trains. At the end of 1917, the general organisation of a standard train was ...composed of 16 bogie coaches... heated by steam from the engine, and fitted with electric light and fans. No 1 coach was a brake van and lying infectious ward; No 2 a staff car with lavatories, dining and sleeping rooms for sisters and medical officers; and No 3 a kitchen and 'sleeping sick officers' car'. The following 8 coaches were 'ward cars' with 36 beds in each. The remaining coaches were a pharmacy and treatment car, sitting infectious car, kitchen and personnel mess car, personnel car (other ranks), brake van and store car."
In total, such trains could carry 306 lying and an average of 60 sitting patients, and between 36 and 40 medical personnel.
A total of 12 full hospital trains were built at the Great Western Railway's Swindon Railway Workshops (Wiltshire), with many of the coaches being converted from passenger types in the coach works department, managed by Frank Marillier, who was also Chairman of the Technical Committee for Ambulance Trains in England, France, and the United States. Marillier was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) post-war for this work, and for developing the adjustable cots, which allowed for a combination of both sitting and lying patients, thus improving comfort.
The real Winnie the Pooh on Salisbury Plain
On the 24th of August 1914 a Canadian soldier, Lieutenant Harry Colebourn, rescued a female black bear cub. He named her Winnie and kept her by his side during the trip across the Atlantic, ending up in Salisbury, where she became an unofficial pet to the HQ unit of the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade. Winnie was very tame, and would follow soldiers around the camp. She was great at boosting morale. When Lieutenant Colebourn was moved to France, Winnie was sent to London Zoo. She was described as one of the tamest and best behaved bears at the zoo, and one who could always be trusted.
Winnie was a popular attraction, and two of her frequent visitors were a certain AA Milne and his young son, Christopher Robin. In 1926, Milne published the first of his Pooh stories, “Winnie-the-Pooh”, inspired by his son’s love of the bear. Winnie died at London Zoo in 1934, aged 20 years.
Wilfred Fuller, V.C., of the Grenadier Guards
Wilfred Fuller enlisted on the 30th December, 1911, and was part of the Regimental Police Staff until he left England to go to France in 1914 to join the 1st Battalion, Grenadier Guards.
On March 12th, 1915, Lance-Corporal Wilfred Fuller was on the Front Line at Neuve Chapelle. Upon seeing a party of enemy troops endeavouring to escape along a communication trench, Fuller ran towards them and killed the leading man with a bomb. The remainder, who numbered nearly fifty, having no means of evading his bombs, surrendered to him. Fuller was quite alone at the time of the attack, and for his most conspicuous bravery he was awarded the Victoria Cross (V.C.), the highest military decoration for valour "in the face of the enemy".
He received his Victoria Cross from King George V at Buckingham Palace, on 4th June, 1915. In September of the same year, at the express wish of the Tsar of Russia, he was also decorated by the King at Sheffield with the Russian Cross of the Order of Saint George, 3rd Class.
Fuller was discharged from the service on 31st October the same year due to being unfit for further service; he then became a Somerset policeman, and served at Milverton, Ilminster, Clevedon and Nunny. His last job was at Rodden Road Police Station, near Frome.
On 22nd November, 1947, Wilfred Fuller died at ‘Far End’, Styles Hill, Rodden, near Frome, Somerset. He now rests in the churchyard at Christ Church, Frome.