Billy, Fred and the Importance of Being Ernest: William Meredith’s WWI Medals

Introduction
This article is a little different for me as its inspiration was not taken from a name on a memorial, but a cache of medals from a surviving soldier of the First World War. Dave, a regular at the Harrison’s club in Great Wyrley, mentioned that he had his grandfather’s medals and asked if I would like to see them. I did and he duly obliged. He presented me with a set of four medals that belonged to a William Henry Meredith, but even a basic inspection showed immediately that there was something that wasn’t quite right. Dave knew nothing of the medals and was at a loss when I pointed-out the inconsistencies, so, with his permission I set-off to unravel the Meredith story and the medal mystery. Remember, you can click on the photographs to enlarge them.

William Henry Meredith, as he appeared in the Walsall Observer, 1915. (Walsall Local History Centre)

William Henry Meredith, as he appeared in the Walsall Observer, 1915.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

The Medals
The best place to start is with the medals. As you can see below, Meredith has four war medals and, as there is a large pin on the back, these are set in a row for display upon a uniform or formal blazer. This is very important as it shows that if they were intended to be worn at all, then they must have been worn together.

Billy Meredith's medals, the clasp shows that they were intended to be worn together. 2015.

Billy Meredith’s medals, the clasp shows that they were intended to be worn together. 2015.

Working from left to right (see photo above) , the medals themselves are as follows:

  • The Victory Medal. To qualify for this the recipient had to be mobilised in any service and entered a theatre of war between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918. It is a circular copper medal, with a covering bronze wash. The obverse has the figure of ‘Victory’ and the reverse has the words ‘THE GREAT WAR FOR CIVILISATION 1914-1919′.
  • The British War Medal. The medal was issued to officers and men of British and Imperial forces who had rendered service between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918. This medal is silver. The obverse shows King George V and the reverse shows St George on horseback, armed with a short sword, trampling on German military symbols.
  • The 1914 Star. This medal was issued to officers and men of British forces who served in France and Belgium between 5 August and 23 November 1914 (the start of the War to the end of the 1st battle of Ypres). The medal is in bronze and is a four pointed star capped with a crown and features two crossed swords. The reverse is plain and displays the recipient’s number, rank, name and unit.
  • Military Medal. This was awarded for bravery in the field to soldiers that were not of commissioned rank. It ranked above a citation, but below the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The award allowed the use of MM after their name. Over 115,000 awards were made for actions during the First World War. It is a circular silver medal. The obverse has George V and the reverse has the inscription ‘FOR BRAVERY IN THE FIELD’.
Obverse sides of Billy Meredith's medal set. 2014.

Obverse sides of Billy Meredith’s medal set. 2014.

Having seen a Military Medal, I was naturally curious as to find out as to how he received it. It is at this point the mystery begins. All of the medals Meredith was awarded should be inscribed with his name, rank, number and regiment, either on the reverse (1914 Star) or around the the edge (others). 8493 William Meredith was in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, reaching the rank of corporal. This is recorded on both his 1914 Star and his Victory Medal. Meredith’s medal card shows that he was entitled to the British War Medal, but this medal does not carry his details and worse, Meredith was not entitled to wear the Military Medal at all.

William Meredith's medal card, showing he was not entitled to the Military Medal, but was to the other three.  (National Archives)

William Meredith’s medal card, showing he was not entitled to the Military Medal, but was to the other three.
(National Archives)

The British War Medal was actually awarded to 31944 Acting Bombardier Fred Richardson, Royal Field Artillery. Richardson was in fact entitled to the same medal set as Meredith, only having the 1915 Star instead.

The medal card for 31944 Acting Bombardier F Richardson RA (National Archives)

The medal card for 31944 Acting Bombardier F Richardson RA
(National Archives)

I appreciate it is difficult to see on the photo below, but as the dedication shows this Military Medal was actually awarded to 9487 Acting Corporal E Cash of the South Staffordshire Regiment.

The name of 9487 Acting Corporal E Cash, South Staffordshire Regiment on the Military Medal. 2014.

The name of 9487 Acting Corporal E Cash, South Staffordshire Regiment on the Military Medal. 2014.

Of course, without speaking to William Meredith it is impossible to understand how he came by these medals and if he ever wore them; I can offer a suggestion or two, but in order to do that I think it would be nice to but the soldiers into context and tell their stories.

Fred Richardson
Fred Richardson was a Darlaston boy, born in April 1882. He was the son of Thomas, a boot and shoemaker originally from Birmingham, and Mary Ann, who was also from Darlaston. By 1891, the family were living at 10 Cock Street (this is later renamed High St). Fred is one of four children: Samuel being the eldest (10), then Fred (9), Lily (7) and Harry (2). We later learn, from the 1911 census, that there was another sibling at some stage, but that child had passed away. The three eldest children were attending school.

The family are still resident in the same property in 1901. Samuel has followed his father into the shoe and boot trade. Fred, now listed as being 18, had by this time become a drayman: that is a driver of horses pulling a flat-bed wagon, usually being associated with beer barrels. It would be this association with horses and driving that would see him utilised in the Royal Field Artillery when he was mobilised.

Fred Richardson married Gertrude Dandy in Wolverhampton, on 26 November 1906. Gertrude was originally a Willenhall girl, she had lived in The Crescent back in 1901 and had started life as a brass padlock presser. A year after they were married, Gertrude gave birth to Samuel Thomas and in October 1908, Martha Elizabeth was born. Fred lost his father, Thomas, in 1910. By 1911, the family were living at 1 House, 4 Court, New St, Darlaston; and indeed, Fred was described as a brewer’s dray-man. Lily Gertrude was born in November 1913 and things in general seemed to be going well.

1911 Census for Fred Richardson and family. (National Archives)

1911 Census for Fred Richardson and family.
(National Archives)

Then the War comes. Fred Richardson went off to attest at Wednesbury, before formally joining the Royal Field Artillery in Lichfield on 6 January 1915. Richardson stated that he had been in the Territorial Force prior to the declaration of war and was sent for basic training. Richardson was employed for his horse driving skills. He was promoted to Acting Bombardier (the rough equivalent to a Corporal) in August 1915. On 11 September 1915 he sailed from Southampton, landing at Le Havre the following day. He must have had a home pass just before he sailed, as nine months later he had another son! This would be the zenith of his fortunes.

Fred’s casualty form below charts his sudden decline. After being ‘in the field’ for a few months, Richardson was admitted into hospital suffering from a ‘hemorrhage’. He briefly returned to duty before being admitted into the 24th General Hospital located at the main British base at Etaples. Here, Richardson was diagnosed with Phthisis of the left lung, which is another name for tuberculosis. On the 15 December 1915 he was returned to England on board the ‘Newhaven’.

Fred Richardson's casualty record, showing he was in France for just a few months. (National Archives)

Fred Richardson’s casualty record, showing he was in France for just a few months.
(National Archives)

After treatment at home, Richardson had resumed active service by the February of 1916. He did not return to France, but was posted to the 50th Reserve Battery. His service only ‘aggravated’ his condition. Finally, on 12 May 1916 he was discharged from the Royal Artillery with a silver badge (to attest that he served with honour) and a pension to help support the family. Initially this was 20/- per week, with 2/- per child. Richardson received a character reference certifying that he had ‘served with the colours in the RFA for 1 year and 128 days… and is being discharged as he is no longer physically fit for war service… during his military service he has conducted himself well. He is accustomed to driving and the care of horses.’ Twelve days after his discharge, John Frederick Richardson was born.

Fred Richardson's formal discharge, with character reference. (National Archives)

Fred Richardson’s formal discharge, with character reference.
(National Archives)

Richardson was continually assessed over the next few months. The pension did increase, becoming 27/6, with 15/- for the four children. His last assessment, made on the 6 December 1917, was very ominous. It stated ‘total incapacity, permanent. Not likely to live long.’ He died on 22 December 1917 and was buried in James Bridge Cemetery. He was 35.

So why did Meredith have the medal? I can only give a guess on this of course. I cannot prove, unless I purchase certificates, that Gertrude ever remarried. With a family of four to feed and the main bread winner dead, she may simply have needed the money and so sold what was a silver medal – husband or not. As to why Meredith may have acquired it, well I can only guess that his own British War Medal was stolen for its scrap value, or he lost it (the ribbon tore for example). At least he was entitled to wear it.

I would recommend readers to check out the Darlaston Remembers blog for further information on the Darlaston fallen:  http://blockall.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/richardson-frederick-actbdr/

Ernest Cash
Ernest Cash has no surviving war record, but I can build just a little of his life from what survives in the census and the newspapers. Saying that, I really want to look at the Cash family as a whole and after reading this part of the article I am sure you will appreciate why.

Ernest Cash was born to parents William Henry Cash and Alice (nee Broadhurst); both were from Walsall and they married back in the tail end of 1893. William Henry was then a 21 year-old blacksmith, Alice a year younger. Their first child, Caroline Cash Broadhurst had in fact been born just before they were married; She carried both names and was named after William’s mother. The second was William Henry junior, who was born on 8 August 1894. Ernest was the third child, born in the early months of 1896. By 1901 the family were settled at 303 Green Lane, Walsall. Thomas Cash, William senior’s father, was also living with them; he is a lodger, despite the fact that he had lived there in 1891. He was at this stage a widower and a carter by profession.

1901 census for the Cash family, living in a courtyard house, Green Lane (National Archives)

1901 census for the Cash family, living in a courtyard house, Green Lane
(National Archives)

1901 would have been the year that saw Ernest start attending school. William and Caroline would have already been at school. We cannot be sure which schools he attended, but we know William Henry junior went to Croft Street and the Chuckery School. Sadly none of the admission records survive for the years in question for these schools, but it seems likely that Ernest went to them too as the family had only moved a couple of houses away by 1911. The census shows the family had moved to House 1 Court XI, Green Lane. This may have been around 1905, when Thomas Cash died. William Henry senior was now described as a striker in a steel tube works. The family have been joined by Evelina (7) and George (2). At 15, Ernest had now left school and was working as a caster’s assistant. The most disturbing fact is that for the first time we can see that the William and Alice Cash had had 14 children by 1911 and 9 of them had died.

1911 census for the Cash family. (National Archives)

1911 census for the Cash family.
(National Archives)

William Henry junior has flown the nest; he had in fact signed on in the navy. William, at 16, was located at HMS Impregnable at Devonport. This was a land base and he was described as a ‘2nd Class Boy’. William would be trained-up as a wireless telegrapher. This showed that either he had been employed at the Post Office prior to joining-up, or he had shown sufficient merit to be worthy of training; but it seems likely to me that he had an interest in telegraphy prior to signing-up and was his reason for doing so.

Before we go on to look at the two boys, I want to say a final word about the rest of the family. At some stage shortly after 1911, the family moved to 32 Duncalfe Street. Losing nine children by 1911 did not seem a deterrent to William and Alice and by 1918 they had had six more; these are easier to trace, as the mother’s maiden name is given on the birth certificate (and index) from 1911 onward. Over the next 7 years; Leonard, Frank, Gertrude, Harriet, Frank (again) and William were all born and all of these children died by the time they were one, except the second Frank. This Frank would only fair better, but still died young: he passed away at the Manor Hospital, aged 19, in 1935. He was buried in Queen Street Cemetery. No inquests were ever performed on the children of this unfortunate family and without purchasing certificate, it is impossible to say the causes of death. William senior died in 1927, when the family still resided at Duncalfe Street; Alice cannot be traced with certainty.

Returning to October 1913, we learn that Ernest was employed as a caster’s helper at Kirkpartick Ltd. At some stage, likely as soon as war broke out, he went to Lichfield and signed-up for the 1st Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment.

His brother’s baptism into WWI would sum-up the family luck. He had been posted as a telegrapher to the light-cruiser HMS Amphion. The Amphion was to be the first British ship sank in the War. It was leading a flotilla that spotted a German mine-layer in the Thames estuary on 5 August 1914. The mine-layer, the Königin Luise, was sunk but the Amphion went on to strike a couple of mines that had just been laid by it. The ship lost half its 300 crew, Cash being the only telegrapher saved.

The HMS Amphion, sunk after hitting mines on 6 August 1914, Cash was the only telegrapher to survive. (Imperial War Museum)

The HMS Amphion, sunk after hitting mines on 6 August 1914, Cash was the only telegrapher to survive.
(Imperial War Museum)

We have little idea as to when Ernest went to France, but he was deployed on the Somme prior to the launch of the battle. The Battalion (as a part of the 91st Infantry Brigade) was given the task of capturing the village of Mametz and they ‘went over the top’ at 7.30 am on the 1 July 1916. The unmarried 20 year-old didn’t last the day.  In February 1917, Ernest’s parents were presented with a posthumously awarded Military Medal. I currently do not know the reason for the award, but the medal now resides in Meredith’s collection. He resides in the Dantzig Alley Cemetery, Mametz.

Ernest Cash MM, killed on 1 July 1916 - the first day of the Somme. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Ernest Cash MM, killed on 1 July 1916 – the first day of the Somme.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

In the September of 1917, William returned home on leave for 12 days. No doubt the family grieved together. By October he was back as the leading telegrapher on board his ship, the class M destroyer HMS Marmion. On 21 October 1917, the Marmion and the Tirade were escorting a convoy in the North Sea. In the bad weather the two ships collided with the Marmion coming off worse. An attempt was made to tow the Marmion to port, but the ship foundered and William’s body was never recovered. The local newspaper report would claim it was the result of an enemy submarine. The unmarried 23 year-old would be commemorated of the Plymouth memorial.

William Henry Cash, killed after the Marmion collided with the Tirade near the Shetlands 21 October 1917. (Walsall Local History Society)

William Henry Cash, killed after the Marmion collided with the Tirade near the Shetlands 21 October 1917.
(Walsall Local History Society)

As you can see, this is just a tragic family. Only six of twenty children survive infancy. Of those, two are killed in WWI and a third died in hospital at the age of 19. It is possible that a family devastated in such a way simply didn’t want the reminder that the posthumous medal continually brought with it, especially after the death of William. We have no understanding as to how and when Meredith acquired the medal, as I cannot trace a link between the two families; the only thing we can say with certainty is if he wore it (and we cannot be sure he did), passing it off as his own, it is a little naughty.

William Henry Meredith
Meredith is an interesting character and seemingly elusive in his early life. All that we know for certain is that he was born in February 1885 in Walsall. We really know nothing of him until 1901, other than he must have lost his father at an early age, as by then his mother had married a Lawrence Thompson and the family had settled at 13 Peal Street, Walsall. Lawrence was a second-hand dealer and William already had several brothers and sisters. The most important thing on the 1901 census is that it is showed he was 16 when it was taken (which would have been 31 March).

The 1901 census for William, where he is aged 16. (National Archives)

The 1901 census for William, where he is aged 16.
(National Archives)

The 4 March 1902 would see William attesting for the Royal Warwickshire Regiment as a full-time soldier. He lists his age as 18 and 1 month, but his birth certificate and the last census show he was only 17. William stated that he was a groom by profession and that he was currently serving in the 3rd Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment, which was a militia battalion. It is possible he simply wanted to get involved in the Boer War before it was all over, but whatever his inspiration, he signed on for 3 years initially. It is possible he went to Birmingham to attest in the Warwicks, as the Staffs may have knew of his real age. It was the start of a long career with the army, despite having an anchor tattooed on his left forearm!

The 5′ 6″, blue eyes, brown haired lad was passed as physically fit and after a short spell at the depot was posted to the the 4th Battalion. He remained with this battalion, on the home front, until October 1905. It was a mixed experience for him.  Things started well, as he passed his 3rd class education certificate in October 1902 and received a good conduct pay award in March 1904. This was followed by his extending his service to eight years, tellingly on April Fool’s Day of the same year. Two weeks later he was raised to Lance-Corporal and further pay awards followed. 1904 finished on a high, with him passing his 2nd class education certificate.

1905 would be a year of change for him. On 14 May he was busted back to private for misconduct, he had in fact been caught gambling with other ranks in the barrack room after a military tattoo. On 12 October he was formally transferred to the 3rd Battalion and shipped out to South Africa. While in South Africa he regained his Lance-Corporal rank. He remained there until February 1907, when he was posted to the 2nd Battalion back in England. 1907 was the start of the transfer of home rule to the former Boer Republics and his posting may be to do with this.

Things seemed to be on the up again for William. On 4 March 1907, on account of his 5 years service, he was granted a pay award and the return of his good conduct badges (without pay). This would not last and by the end of the year he had forfeited one of the badges for some misdemeanor. 1908 would herald new challenges for William. In the July he was sent to Longmoor Camp in Hampshire to train as mounted infantryman and was assessed as ‘good’. Then, on 13 December 1908, he married Eliza Booker at St Paul’s Church, Walsall. A few days before, he had his second good conduct badge restored.

As 1908 went well, 1909 would be another bad year for William’s military career: however, I think this is directly linked to his changing family circumstances. On 15 September his first child, Doris May, was born. After this things go a little awry and I feel it is the frustration of the separation. Within a few weeks, on 29 September, he loses one of his good conduct badges; and on the 9 October, he loses the second. Finally, on 16 November he was again busted to private after imbibing one too many pops.

And so the first phase of William’s military career was to end. He left the army after his 8 years of service, on 4 March 1910. Despite his misdemeanors, his conduct was described as ‘good’ on his leaving form (actually a transfer into the Army Reserve). He was also described as having employment. His address was given as 17 Newhall St, Walsall. It is interesting to note that, at leaving, he had grown by over two inches! On the 1911 census the family are at 22 May St, Walsall. A second child, William Henry junior, had just arrived and William was employed as a tram conductor by Walsall Corporation.

1911 Census for William and Eliza Meredith. William is a tram conductor with Walsall Corporation, but will be a motor driver by 1914. (National Archives)

1911 Census for William and Eliza Meredith. William is a tram conductor with Walsall Corporation, but will be a motor driver by 1914.
(National Archives)

The few years that William had out of the army saw additions to the family; Irene in August 1913 and Winifred in December 1914. William may well have been a conductor in 1911, but by 1914 he was a ‘motorman’.  When the War started in August 1914, Meredith was one of 13 reservists and 4 territorial soldiers that were called-up from the Tramways Department. The Tramways Committee agreed to pay half-wages to the wives and dependants while the men were fighting. At this stage he was living at 202 Blakenall Lane, Leamore.

William was recalled to 2nd Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment on 5 August, as a private soldier. The Battalion remained in England until October and was then sent to Belgium, being positioned around the La Bassee region. In February 1915 William was taken prisoner of war, a fact that is recorded in the Walsall Observer. He was sent to a camp in Germany, but he escaped and made his way back to allied lines in December 1915. Even the Tramways Committee minuted his achievement and wished him the best for the future.

Immediately after his escape, William was posted to the 3rd Reserve Battalion back to England. William, I feel, struggled to cope with postings on the home front. Within days he was in trouble, as on 3 January 1916 he was admonished and fined two days pay for overstaying his pass after a military tattoo. He was again in trouble in March, first being confined to barracks for 8 days after breaking regimental orders and using somewhat fruity language (3 March) before being fined 6 days pay for overstaying his pass for several days! (28 March). Finally he was fined for missing a tattoo in May. Fortunately this seemed to be the last of his troubles and William was again promoted to Lance-Corporal in June 1916.

It may also have been the end of his troubles, as he was again mobilsed. On 7 July 1916 he was posted to the 9th (Service) Battalion of the Warwicks. While the Somme offensive had just started and Ernest Cash killed, Meredith was sent to Mesopotamia. He was to join a battalion that had been mauled in Gallipoli before going on to be mauled by the Turks at Kut just a few months before.  At his posting, the Battalion were in the front line at Sheikh Saad; he may well have joined the weakened force there, or when they were pulled from the line in October and sent for training at Amara.

The Battalion returned to Sheikh Saad the following month, becoming a part of the British push towards Baghdad early the following year. A large offensive was launch on the 25 January 1917, which saw William receive a bullet wound to the right hand that warranted him receiving a ‘wound stripe’. It isn’t clear how long he was off active service, but by February the Battalion was back at Kut and by March it had took Baghdad. The advance stopped here and the Warwicks settled into a camp at Deltawa. William was promoted to Acting-Corporal in June and this became a formal appointment the following month. The Battalion was fairly inactive from the March until the 3 December, when they engaged the Turks at Suhanniyah. They then had a second period of inactivity at Abu Saida.

This inactivity would change in  July 1918. With Russia’s collapse, the Warwicks were moved to check the Turks at Baku (now the capital of Azerbaijan) on the Caspian Sea. Throughout August and September he was involved in intermittent and at times heavy fighting against the Turks. Baku was to be lost and the Warwicks, along with the other British forces, were evacuated on 29 September. William would find himself at Krasnovodsk (modern Turkmenbasi), over the Caspian. The Battalion was used to combat the Bolshevik movement in Turkestan and to assist General Malleson, who was in command of a mission operating on the railway from Krasnovodsk to Meshed.

William would see out the War here. While the battalion remained at Krasnovodsk until April 1919, he would be posted to Salonika on 2 January 1919. He served there until the end of April, when he returned to Blighty. He remained with the colours until 28 May 1919, after which he was transferred to the class Z reserve: this means he was liable for call-up should Germany break the armistice. This reserve was abolished on 31 March 1920, when it was clear it was no longer needed.

Billy Meredith returned to his Leamore home in 1919, and went back to work on the buses with Walsall Corporation. He was certainly a driver still in the 1930s, as he was awarded medals and clasps for being ‘accident free’. The couple would stay in Leamore and go on to have several more children; Edna, Hilda and Alan, Dave’s father, who was born in 1926. William passed away in 1965, at the age of 80. Eliza died the following year, at the age of 79.

William's driver medals. 2014.

William’s driver medals. 2014.

While compiling this article I asked Dave about what he remembered of his grandfather. He didn’t remember a lot, other than he worked on the buses, he liked to gamble the odd shilling and drink the odd pint (both of which were illustrated in his military career 🙂 ). He went on to say that felt he had been a bit of a ‘Jack-the-lad’ in his day, but he never spoke to him of the War and his experiences. Why he has the medals he does is impossible to say and maybe he has tried to pass the Military Medal as his own, but in his defence he was hardly a ‘slacker’. Whatever, I hope Dave has learnt a little more about William’s military life and understands more about the medals and those men that were awarded with them.

In memory of Fred Richardson, Ernest and William Cash and Billy Meredith.

My thanks to:
Walsall Local History Centre
National archives
Imperial War Museum
Dave from Harrison’s

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Comments
  1. Clive says:

    Nice one Paul very intresting indeed.

  2. davidh936 says:

    thanks very interesting

  3. Brilliant piece of research, but then we expect nothing less from this author.

    Thank you for the mention of Darlaston Remembers in relation to Fred Richardson and is it OK for me to post a link the this article on D R?

    Fred’s widow Gertrude Richardson did re-marry, about 9 months after Fred’s death, in the summer of 1918. Her new husband was Sidney Frederick Wood.

    Unfortunately this does not seem to provide any help with the medal mystery.

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