Wallace Thomas Lawson and When is a Soldier a Soldier?

This article had its origins in a piece of paper I found in the Great Wyrley Parish Council records up at Staffordshire County Record office. Cheerful subject I know, but that piece of paper was a grant, for the cost of a shilling, which gave the Imperial War Graves Commission ‘exclusive right of burial in perpetuity in all those graves in Great Wyrley Cemetery and containing the bodies of members of His Majesty’s Forces fallen in the late War… together with exclusive right to erect headstones over the said graves and to maintain said graves in perpetuity..’ The paper was dated 5th March, 1930.

Great Wyrley Cemetery pass the graves of Sapper Mitchell and Sapper Lawson to the IWGC, 1930

Great Wyrley Cemetery pass the graves of Sapper Mitchell and Sapper Lawson to the IWGC, 1930

The plots listed, B207 and B213, carried the remains of Sapper H Mitchell and Sapper W T Lawson respectively. They intrigued me. The paper said ‘fallen’ in the late War, yet they were buried in a local cemetery. A quick check of the two graves showed that H Mitchell died in 1918, but is on the Great Wyrley Memorial Gates as served though not fallen, whereas Lawson died in January 1919 and is on the Cheslyn Hay memorial. So, I checked deeper into both of these soldiers..

Wallace Thomas Lawson
This this is the story of Wallace Thomas Lawson, well what there is to say as his war record does not survive – and which of course does not do him justice. Remember, click on the photos to enlarge.

Wallace T Lawson, from the Walsall & District Roll of Honour. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Wallace T Lawson, from the Walsall & District Roll of Honour.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

Wallace we know was baptised at St Mark’s in Great Wyrley on the 18th December 1892, to parents Thomas and Emma (nee Dodd). Thomas was a Cannock man and Emma a Shropshire lass, born in Loppington. Thomas was in Station Rd, Cheslyn Hay in early 1881, but married Emma in Shropshire later that year – both were then in their early 30s. They moved to Thomas’ familiar stomping ground in Cheslyn Hay, certainly by 1891. At this stage they had three children; Letitia (7), Ethel (6) and William Frederick (2). Thomas has become a colliery machine clerk – a job which his is father had done and ironically his widowed father, William, is living with them.

1891 Census, it shows the Lawson family in Cross St, Cheslyn Hay (National Archives)

The 1891 Census, it shows that the Lawson family were living in Cross St, Cheslyn Hay.
(National Archives)

By 1901 the family had moved down to Littlewood, the road that led to what was a separate area then, and where the former Woodman Inn used to stand. It appears that the 8-year-old Wallace is the last of the brood, after all his parents are now 50! Letitia and William Frederick are still in the house, however, neither are listed as with any occupation. Ethel seems to have flown the nest – she seems likely to have been working as a domestic servant in Aston.

1901 census, Wallace

1901 Census, Wallace is in Littlewood, Cheslyn Hay (National Archives)

By 1911, the family have moved again. The census shows that they are at now living at 88 Station Rd, Cheslyn Hay. Thomas is still employed in the same job. Both of the girls now seem to have left the family home, while the lads are employed in the edge tool business. William is a wood turner and interestingly, Wallace is an edge tool striker – in other words he swung a lump-hammer to help form the tool in the forging stage – which I think is important to his later military posting. Sadly, the family had at some stage lost a child, although I feel this may have been a sibling Wallace would never have known.

1911 Census, 88 Station Rd, Cheslyn Hay.  (National Archives)

1911 Census, 88 Station Rd, Cheslyn Hay.
(National Archives)

Prior to the War we have some inkling of Wallace’s life: we know that he never marries, indeed he remains at his home address, as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission list his as 88 Station Rd (as it was in 1911). Further, a scan of the newspapers shows that Wallace also appears to have been a keen cricketer. I can’t with any certainty pin-point him playing for anyone, but his brother, William, did turn-out for Cheslyn Hay for many years. I don’t really think Wallace missed much, if the Lichfield Mercury reports are to go by, as they seemed to celebrate wildly if double-figures were achieved by the entire team, never mind an individual batsman 🙂 . Quality aside, he clearly was a part of a team, likely Cheslyn Hay, as many members of the cricket team attended the funeral of this ‘bright’ lad, whose ‘open manner endeared him to all with whom he came in contact’.

According to his obituary he had served four years in the military. If he did, he only received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal and not the 1915 Star. If he attested in 1914 or 1915, he may have been a part of the Territorials, but the absence of the 1915 Star suggests whatever the circumstances of his attestation that he didn’t serve in a theatre of war until 1916. This was in fact to be proved later, when a second obituary came to light in the Walsall & District Roll of Honour. This is a standard source that I check, yet strangely, I must have over looked it and only found his entry when looking for someone else.

Wallace's Medal Card, showing the British War Medal and Victory Medal. (National Archives)

Wallace’s Medal Card, showing the British War Medal and Victory Medal.
(National Archives)

While his military record does not survive, we know that he attested in January 1915 and served in the Royal Engineers, 362nd Forestry Company. There were 11 Forestry Companies formed and they were hugely important, and yet little seems even to be written on their role. From what I can gather they felled and processed (lumbered) trees to produce the millions of duckboards, trench planks, pit props and other vital commodities require to pursue the conflict

The 362nd Forestry Company was a territorial force and were a part of the 59th Royal Engineers Division. Lawson was sent to Luton to undergo basic training, after which, he was sent to Ireland. Lawson was a territorial, so may have only agreed to serve on the home-front. Reading one of his obituaries, it appears Lawson was sent to Ireland prior to 24 April 1916, the date of the infamous Easter Rising. The rising, at the time, didn’t attract too much popular support and effectively only took place within Dublin. Around 1600 men occupied the Post Office and other key buildings, proclaiming Irish independence. The rising was efficiently put down by British soldiers within days. Public disgust, apathy or closet support for the ‘rebels’ would turn into open hostility against the British over what was seen as savage reprisals in the wake of the rising.


Wallace’s Obituary in the Walsall & District Roll of Honour (Walsall Local History Centre)

It isn’t clear how long Wallace remained in Ireland for, but it must have been for a considerable time and through a period of significant tensions. All we know is that in January 1917 he was to be posted to France; and by 1917 (after conscription), it would not matter if he only wanted to serve on the home-front – he could be sent anywhere. We know from one of his obituaries that he was to be at Lens in August 1917. Predominantly Canadian led, the Battle of Lens (and Hill 70) were diversionary attacks on the Germans in order to prevent them from moving troops and equipment to the Ypres salient. It had limited success, although Lens wasn’t captured. It saw extensive use of poison gas, including the new mustard agent by the Germans.

After this, Lawson would find himself in the October/November of the same year, being embroiled in the infamous Passchendaele campaign. This was a series of battles with the immediate aim to control strategic ridges and high-ground that surrounded the Ypres salient – that is a ‘bulge’ in the allied lines around the Belgian town of Ypres.  The whole campaign is famed for ‘mud’ and countless accounts can be found both in print and from television documentary interviews about men that fell from duck boards simply being lost in the mud – it is a safe bet to assume that Lawson would be providing the planks for such walkways.

The vista of Passchendaele, 1917. (National Library of Canada)

The vista at Passchendaele (Ypres), 1917.
(National Library of Canada)

The final battle mentioned in his obituary was his involvement in the Battle of St. Quentin. St. Quentin was the culmination of a series of engagements that took place between the August and September of 1918 in which the Germans had been pushed back to the Hindenburg Line from outside Amiens. The outskirts of Amiens had been reached after the German offensives in March 1918, launched from the Hindenburg Line; so St Quentin had seen not only the recapture of the ground lost then, but the breaching of the formidable German defences on the Line. It was really from this point that the German military position became untenable. Lawson continued to support the infantry for another 6 weeks after St Quentin, doubtless being involved in further battles to some degree.

On 11 November, it was all over.

Wallace saw and celebrated Armistice Day, like many others. As someone with an industrial skill, or perhaps because he was an early volunteer, Wallace was heading for home in January 1919. His obituary takes up the story… ‘The deceased, after four years of military service, was on his way home for demobilisation, and through the inclement weather at Dunkirk, caught cold, which developed into pneumonia. He was sent to Clipstone Military Hospital (Notts), and after five days’ critical illness, passed away on Tuesday January 14, to the great regret of all that knew him.’

Cannock Advertiser, January 1919. Wallace's obituary.

Cannock Advertiser, January 1919. Wallace’s obituary.

Wallace was returned to Cheslyn Hay, where he was laid to rest at Great Wyrley Cemetery. The obituary paints the picture… ‘The coffin was carried to the graveside by six soldier friends, and escorted by a cordon of 24 soldiers, who were at home in the village.’ Although it has subsequently become a Commonwealth War Grave, the family actually provided a headstone at the time, which is now sadly broken and missing some of its lettering.

Wallace's broken gravestone, with missing letters. 2014.

Wallace’s broken gravestone, with missing letters. Note the ‘late R.E’s’ under his name. 2014.

Wallace is on the Cheslyn Hay War Memorial – as to me, quite clearly, he should be. Whilst he died in 1919, he is classed as a serving soldier – the newspaper account states he was heading for demobilisation and hadn’t even left France before he fell ill. If he were demobilised at Dunkirk, while ill, he would be on ‘final leave’ and entitled to medical care, which he did receive at Clipstone. However, if he were on ‘final leave’, it is my understanding that he is still technically a soldier.

Wallace Lawson signed-up in January 1915, serving with a territorial outfit. He was posted to Ireland and rode out a tense period, before being posted to France. The man saw out 1917 in mud, lived through the German offensives of early 1918 and was a part of the counter offensives that led to the collapse of Germany and the end of the War. The fact that his grave is in Great Wyrley Cemetery, in a somewhat tatty condition, is not something we should be proud of, but does give a far more visible local reminder than a grave in France. Lawson lies here because of a cruel joke – being plucked on his way home to see his family after the fighting was done. He even received a wound stripe; although we don’t know for what; he was every inch a soldier. I look at his grave and stone, and somehow feel that the cordon of 24 soldiers that circled that space in 1919 seems so distant now.

Cheslyn Hay's War Memorial. It makes no mention of Wallace Lawson. 2014.

Cheslyn Hay’s War Memorial. 2014.

Thank you to:
National Library of Canada
Staffordshire Record Office
National Archives
Cannock Library
Great Wyrley Parish Council

Walsall Local History Centre

  1. Flanders Field says:

    Again another great piece of research for one who deserves nothing less.

  2. Flanders Field says:

    The CWGC replace worn or damaged Headstones on official War Graves, which Lawson’s is, true it is not an ‘official headstone’ but it might be worth the local Royal British Legion branch putting in a request.

    They may need the permission of the plot-holder.

  3. David Brown says:

    Without publications such as these we would not be enriched with the knowledge of the loss at Passchendale. The history of the mud slides and the bombing making recovery of equipment man and beast impossible. Our children and their children need more of this in the National Curriculum and less of non existent importance from eastern bloc Countries.

  4. Violet Leach says:

    Another brilliant piece of writing

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