As the centenary of the start of the First World War approaches, the Gazette has teamed up with the Alnwick District WWI Centenary Commemoration Group to shed more light on some of the area’s stories from the conflict. In this article, JOYCE BRISON, a member of both the Western Front Association and the Royal British Legion tells the tale of the district’s first casualty of the Great War.
John Willcox’s war only lasted 20 days. He died on August 24, 1914, from injuries sustained during the retreat from Mons.
My brother-in-law, John Thompson, regularly spoke about his Great Uncle John Willcox who he knew had been killed at Mons in the early days of the First World War. I was at Bailiffgate Museum one day looking through some old Northumberland Gazettes when I noticed a photograph of John Willcox, and was struck by the family resemblance.
I decided to investigate further and discovered that he was, in fact, the first local man to be killed during the conflict.
His family was not told officially until March 1916 that their son had been missing since August 24, 1914, presumed killed during the retreat from Mons and his body had never been found. Two death certificates were issued for John, the first in 1914 and the second in 1915.
The information about his call-up through to his death comes largely from a transcript of the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers’ official war diary.
The information in the diary is sketchy and sometimes difficult to follow, but it’s been copied faithfully, as have the newspaper reports, which at times show conflicting information – for example, the Newcastle Chronicle and Journal report of July 26, 1919, reports the correct date of death on the second line, yet a couple of lines later it refers to ‘…killed in action on September 29 1914…’.
John Willcox was born at home in the Turks Head Yard, Alnwick, on June 11, 1884, the first child of Charles (b. 1855), who was a tailor, and Elizabeth Willcox (b. 1856; née Dixon) from Tenter Hill, Wooler.
In the 1891 census John is listed as living in Clayport Street, Alnwick, with his father Charles, younger brother, Charles Henry (b.1886), and his mother’s sister, Mary, who is listed as a visitor. His mother at the time of the census was with her parents at Tenter Hill. Also listed at Wooler are two more children, daughters Mary E (b.1888) and Georgina who was four months old.
Moving forward to the 1901 census, the family was living in Dispensary Street, Alnwick. Charles was still a tailor, and his son Charles Henry, age 15, was a watchmaker. The younger children were scholars.
John, by this time age 16, was a cellarman brewery worker and lodging with Christopher Howe, his wife Mary and their daughter, Mary Ann, at 32 Narrowgate, Alnwick, next to Ye Olde Cross Inn, known locally as the Dirty Bottles.
In 1902, John joined the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers as a regular soldier and served on the north-west frontier of India. He was listed in the 1911 census as a 26-year-old Private at the barracks of the battalion. John must have left the regular army sometime between 1911 and 1914 and become a reservist. Unfortunately, the records from this time were completely destroyed during the bombing of London in the Second World War.
When it became apparent that war was imminent in 1914, Regimental No. 737, Private John Willcox, aged 30, was called up and rejoined his old regiment.
A piece in the local paper at the time, under the heading Called Up, reported: ‘Amongst those who have been called up in Alnwick, some of whom have gone through former campaigns, are, Tommy Scott and Tommy Allen, Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders; Flaxton Orange, Irish Fusiliers; J. Dixon and J. Willcox, 5th Northumberland Fusiliers; James Veall, 41st Regiment of Foot. There are several others, but their names were not readily ascertainable.’
The 1st Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers had returned from India only months before the First World War began, to start its home tour of duty at Portsmouth as one of four battalions in the 9th Infantry Brigade.
Entries in the battalion’s war diary show that the order to mobilise was received at 6pm on August 4, 1914. By 7.15pm an officer and NCO had been despatched to Newcastle to collect reservists flocking into the regiment’s depot to bring the battalion up its established war strength.
The following day, the battalion moved to Portsmouth Town, to undergo a medical inspection. Horses were also moved with more being collected on the way and were given veterinary inspections.
During the following week more horses were brought from Hilsea and local farms and estates. Reservists arrived from various locations and, by August 9, the battalion was ready to parade at war strength in full service order in front of Brigadier-General FC Shaw, Commanding Officer of the 9th Infantry Brigade (which formed part of 3rd Division).
On August 13, the battalion left Cambridge Barracks, Portsmouth, by two special trains for Southampton and embarked on SS Norman, with transport and horses embarking on SS Italian Prince. Embarkation was completed at 3pm and, an hour later, the first ship sailed for an ‘unknown destination’.
The 1st Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment and the Headquarters of 9th Infantry Brigade were also on board. When they had been at sea for about an hour, it was given out that they were destined for (Le) Havre which was sighted before midnight.
At 3am on August 14, the SS Norman tied up at (Le) Havre. After disembarking, within an hour the men were marched five-and-a-half miles NNE to a rest camp. The weather was very hot and 82 men fell out during the march.
The camp was not really ready to receive them and there was no water to wash or drink. Quite how long it was before water carts were available is not recorded in the war diary.
After a 12-hour delay at (Le) Havre, the horses and transport made their way to the camp. Some of the wagons broke down on the way, further delaying the convoy, and it was after midnight before the majority arrived.
August 15 was very wet and the remaining transport had a slow, difficult climb up the two-mile hill to the camp because of the heavy conditions.
At 5pm that evening, orders were received for the battalion to move to the railway station in readiness to entrain at 3am the following morning. It continued to rain until after midnight and the wagons had to be manhandled onto the road. The battalion paraded at midnight in the drenching rain, ready to move off.
The transport and horses moved off first. It was very dark and the horses were tired and caked in mud. The men soon followed but were held up for over one-and-a-half hours because both water carts belonging to the battalion overturned in the narrow lane leading from the camp.
It was 3.45 am before the men arrived at the railway station, which was only three-and-a-half miles away. The whole battalion was put onto one train and left for Rouen, arriving at 10.45 am, where the men spent an hour drinking coffee provided by French officials.
The battalion’s destination was Busigny. During the journey, they were greeted by enthusiastic crowds who gave them fruit, cigarettes and flowers. On arrival, at 9.55pm, they were told that they had to travel on to Landries where they arrived at 11.30pm and detrained.
The men were billeted in barracks evacuated by French troops who had been sent to the front and the officers were lodged in the local girls’ school, also evacuated.
Next day, the 17th, the battalion marched six miles to Noyelles and were billeted in barns and farm houses. They remained there from August 18-20, only leaving their billets for short route marches.
At 5.45,am on August 21, the men left Noyelles and marched the 12½ miles to Longville where the battalion was billeted. At 5.45am the next day the march continued to Cuesmes, near Mons in the province of Hainaut. B and C Companies were detailed to take up an outpost position on the Mons-Conde canal.
AUGUST 23, 1914: THE BATTLE OF MONS TAKES ITS DEADLY TOLL
B and C Companies, still in the position they had taken up the previous day, were strengthened by barricading the three bridges in their area and by fortifying the houses and barricading the streets south of the canal.
The line was continued to the west by the Brigade and on the right by the Royal Scots Fusiliers. At 11am, C Company was attacked by heavy shell fire which turned onto B Company at noon accompanied by heavy rifle fire.
The enemy gradually massed in large numbers in the dead ground in front of B Company and were able to bring two field guns to within 150 yards of the main barrier which was blocking the street leading to the bridge head.
The company were unable to locate the exact position of the enemy due to smoke from the guns and house fires, but they were under the impression that the Germans had suffered heavy losses.
Three men from the company were holed up in a house next to the bridge when the house was shelled. One man was killed and the other two made their escape through the cellar. The bridge was now undefended and within 10 minutes of the explosion, German troops began to stream over.
Meanwhile, at 10am A and C Companies were sent to the northern outskirts of Cuesmes to take up position to cover the retirement of the support line. At 2pm, they were again ordered to retire and followed B Company west to Frameries. Unfortunately, they were attacked from the west by a force of Germans who had followed behind.
The Royal Scots Fusiliers were the first to meet this attack and suffered heavy casualties.
A and D Companies – John Willcox was a member of the latter – were sent to their support and continued doing a flank guard movement until dark when the battalion concentrated on the high ground west of Frameries. The Lincolns were on the right and the Worcesters on the left.
Eight Northumberland Fusiliers were killed and 11 injured, although other regiments also suffered sometimes heavier losses.
On August 24, at about 3.30am, the Germans had located the battalion’s position and opened heavy shell fire. The British guns were unable to respond for some time.
At 7am, the Germans were held in check for a short time after being targeted by British artillery.
However, the brigade on the right of the Fusiliers started retreating and, soon after, the 9th Brigade was ordered to retire and fall back through the town of Frameries, where some street fighting took place.
After leaving Frameries, the brigade formed up four miles WSW of the town and were halted for about four hours to allow the transport to get clear. In the evening, the brigade continued the retirement and came into bivouac at Bermerries at 10.30pm.
John Willcox’s war was over. It is not clear at which point he lost his life, but he was part of D Company which was sent to support the Royal Scots Fusiliers. According to 1st Northumberland Fusiliers’ war diary, he had been wounded during the retreat, but, according to his death certificate, his date of death was August 24, 1914, and he was missing presumed dead.
BACK IN NORTHUMBERLAND
Back in Alnwick, Charles and Elizabeth had no contact with their son since his mobilisation. Their second son, Charles Henry, aged 26, who was a miner at this time and married with two small children, joined up on September 1, 1914.
The family believes that Charles wanted to go out to France to look for his brother. He was later invalided out of the army and received an army pension. His name appears on the Roll of Honour in The Northumberland Hall in Alnwick.
On April 17, 1915, the local paper reported: ‘Alnwick Soldier Reappears – Private Jack Willcox, 1st Battalion Northd Fusiliers, son of Mr Charles Willcox, Alnwick wrote to his mother last week that he was all right and coming out of the trenches for two days. Private Willcox has been out at the Front since the war began and this is the first that has been heard of him.’
A week later the same paper reported: ‘Private Jack Willcox, Alnwick – We now learn from the parents of Private Jack Willcox, 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, son of Mr Charles Willcox, Alnwick that he had not written home as stated last week.’
On September 25, 1915, the paper carried a photograph of John, headed ROLL OF HONOUR – Wounded and Missing. ‘Private John Willcox. No. 737 was wounded in action on 27th September 1914 place not known. He is the eldest son of Mr and Mrs Charles Willcox, Dispensary Street, Alnwick. Any information will be thankfully received by his parents from any of his comrades of friends. (other papers please copy)’
The dates of publishing – over a year after he was last heard of – show that no one actually knew what had happened to John. Two death certificates were issued for him, one for August 1914 and another for 1915. His body was never found.
Charles and Elizabeth Willcox were not told until March, 1916 that their eldest son had in fact died on August 24, 1914.
John is ‘Remembered with Honour’ on the La Ferte-Sous-Jouarre Memorial, which is located 66km east of Paris. The memorial, unveiled in 1928, commemorates 3,740 officers and men of the British Expeditionary Force who fell at the battles of Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne, and the Aisne between the end of August and early October 1914 and have no known graves. He is also remembered on several memorials at Alnwick, notably the war memorial at the junction with Denwick Lane and the Roll of Honour in the town’s Northumberland Hall.
On July 26, 1919, the Newcastle Chronicle and Journal reported: ‘Willcox,Pte. J., 1914: On the La Ferte-Souse-Jouarre Memorial is the name of 737 Private John Willcox, serving with the Northumberland Fusiliers who died 24/08/1914. Mr and Mrs Chas Willcox of the Town Hall, Alnwick, have received the Mons star and medal, to which their son, Private John Willcox, was entitled, but who was killed in action on September 29 1914. Private Willcox had seen 12 years’ service with the 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers and held the medal for the Indian Campaign with clasp. He was on the reserve when the German war broke out.
John Willcox is fondly remembered by his extended family who brought his story to my attention.
Sources: The battalion’s war diary, The Long, Long Trail – www.1914-1918.net
Others include: North East War Memorial Project website – www.newmp.co.uk; Find My Past website – www.findmypast.com; records held by Adrian Ions and at Bailiffgate Museum; family members, in particular John Thompson, great nephew of John Willcox and grandson of Charles Henry Willcox.