Service number: 154643
Rank: Lance Corporal
Regiment / Service: Royal Engineers
Family information: Son of Matilda Ann Wilson of Low Street Brotherton and the late John Wilson
John William Wilson enlisted in Pontefract and wat attached to the Royal Engineers 478th Company, in the 61st (2nd South Midland) Division.
The date of joining this company is not known but as he was not entitled to the 1915 Star he would not have been involved in action in France until sometime in 1916.
In early January 1915 the units moved and concentrated in the Northampton area. Drafts began to leave for the 'first line' units, and their places taken by new recruits. In April 1915 the Division moved to Chelmsford and soon afterward the number 61 was issued and the full title became 61st (2nd South Midland Division). The units were inspected by Lord Kitchener on 6 August 1915.
The war of 1914-1918 relied on engineering. Without engineers there would have been no supply to the armies, because the RE's maintained the railways, roads, water supply, bridges and transport. RE's also operated the railways and inland waterways. There would have been no communications, because the RE's maintained the telephones, wireless and other signalling equipment. There would have been little cover for the infantry and no positions for the artillery, because the RE's designed and built the front-line fortifications. It fell to the technically skilled RE's to develop responses to chemical and underground warfare. And finally, without the RE's the infantry and artillery would have soon been powerless, as they maintained the guns and other weapons. Little wonder that the Royal Engineers grew into a large and complex organisation.
In 1914, each infantry Division included two Field Companies. A third was added during January 1915, as more units came up to strength and passed training. The Field Company was composed of 217 men, as shown here.
Major in command of the Company
Captain second in command
3 Lieutenants (or Second Lieutenants), one each commanding a Section
23 NCOs (Company Sergeant-Major, Company Quartermaster Sergeant, Farrier Sergeant, 6 Sergeants, 7 Corporals, and 7 2nd-Corporals [a rank peculiar to the Royal Engineers and Army Ordnance Corps])
- 186 other ranks (1 Shoeing Smith, 1 Trumpeter, 1 Bugler, 138 Sappers, 37 Drivers, 8 Batmen)
- 2 attached Privates of the Royal Army Medical Corps for water duties
- 1 attached Driver of the Army Service Corps (not counted into strength as officially he was part of the Divisional Train)
A detachment of the Field Company (a proportion of the above) was left at the Base, as reinforcements.
The men were organised into two areas: Mounted (which included the CQMS, the Farrier, the Shoeing Smith, trumpeter, 3 NCOs and the drivers and batmen) and Dismounted. The latter represented many kinds of trades required by the army in the field, including in the numbers shown above 15 Blacksmiths, 20 Bricklayers, 40 Carpenters, 5 Clerks, 12 Masons, 6 Painters, 8 Plumbers, plus surveyors, draughtsmen, wheelwrights, engine drivers and others.
The Field Companies relied on horses for transport and had an establishment of 17 riding horses for the officers and NCOs of the Mounted Branch, plus 50 draught heavy horses, and 4 pack horses. There were also 5 spare draught horses as replacements.
With the exceptions of the Trumpeter and Bugler, all other ranks were armed as infantrymen, carrying the SMLE rifle.
The list of Field Company equipment is far too long to detail here, as you might imagine. As an example, the Company had in its care 111 shovels and 107 pickaxes. It also carried a store of sandbags and guncotton charges.
In February and early March 1916 the Division moved to Salisbury Plain. King George V inspected the Division at Bulford on 5 May 1916. The Division was warned in May that it would go on overseas service and entrainment began on the 21st. By 28 May the Division, less the Ammunition Column (which was still at Le Havre), had concentrated in the area of Merville - Gonnehem - Busnes - Thiennes (to the west of Lille and Loos).
The Division then remained in France and Flanders and took part in the following engagements:
The first major action in which the Division was engaged turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. An attack was made on 19 July 1916 at Fromelles, a subsidiary action to the much larger battle taking place further south on the Somme. The Division suffered very heavy casualties for no significant gain and no enemy reserves were diverted from the Somme. Such was the damage to the Division and its reputation that it was not used again other than for holding trench lines until 1917.
The German Retreat to the Hindenburg Line
The 61st was one of the Divisions employed in the cautious pursuit of the enemy, when the Germans carried out a deep withdrawal from the area of the Somme to formidable pre-prepared positions that the British called the Hindenburg Line, in March 1917. On 17 March, it captured Chaulnes and Bapaume.
The battle marked * are phases of the Third Battles of the Ypres
In late August and early September the Division was involved in the efforts to push the line forward at positions around Schuler Farm and Aisne Farm near Kerselaar.
The German counter attacks
In late November 1917, the British Third Army made a highly successful attack, using massed tanks for the first time, near C 61st Division was initially held in reserve and was still in the area when the enemy made a determined counterattack on 30 November. The Division was ordered up to reinforce the units under attack in the area of La Vacquerie and for some days was involved in a hard fight to stem the enemy attack.
The battles marked ~ are phases of the First Battles of the Somme 1918
On 21 March 1918, the enemy launched what was intended to be a decisive offensive, attacking the British Fifth and Third Armies on the Somme in overwhelming strength. The 61st (2nd South Midland) Division was holding the forward zone of defences in the area and lost many men as it fought a chaotic but ultimately successful withdrawal back over the Somme crossings over the next ten days. In the initial clash, the South Midland faced three enemy divisions and only began to retire on 22nd March when ordered to do so in consequence of the enemy's progress at other parts of the line.
John William Wilson was killed in action on 22nd March 1918. He is remembered at the Loos memorial.
John William or Willie as he is referred to in the 1911 Census was then 18 years old and employed as a 'general labourer'. All other family details can be found in the previous account relating to his brother Harry.