Edward Aulder Benton: A Staffie Among the Roses

I would like to think that I do not get blase about the soldiers I write about, but my next jaunt into our World War One fallen would leave me questioning whether I had or whether I was more wrapped-up in trying to get those names that are wrong altered than I was about treating them as the people they were. While it is true that I identify more with the stories of some soldiers than others, as a father, the story of Edward Aulder Benton is one that left me sullen at best and I found those all too familiar words fall from my tongue – just what was it all for?

Edward Aulder Benton on the Wyrley Gates. 2014

Edward Aulder Benton on the Gt Wyrley Gates. 2014.

As ever, with all the errors on the gate plaques, my first task was to set about proving that the spelling of the individual fallen soldier was in fact correct. Not for the first time, the sirens went off when looking at Benton. Few people put three initials down for an inclusion on a war memorial and I suspected that this was another now an all too familiar error on the gates, where men like Woodhouse and Simpson would have an abbreviated version of their Christian name split into two initials – William Henry should be Wm H, but is in fact W.M.H on the plaque. This suggested to me that E.D.A Benton should in fact be an Ed A Benton – giving a first name of Edward, Edwin or such like.

I went to look at the Great Wyrley Methodist Chapel’s plaque to find if he was one of the soldiers on that, but he was not represented. I therefore checked the Staffordshire Roll of Honour: this was compiled in February 1926 by the Staffordshire War Memorials Committee and contains all the Staffordshire war memorials and the names upon them. This roll has a Benton on it, but with the initials of A.E., a rank of Lance-Corporal and no named regiment.

Gossage, J in the 1926 Staffordshire Roll of Honour (Walsall Local History Centre)

Benton on the 1926 Staffordshire Roll of Honour (Walsall Local History Centre)

To settle the question I looked at two other sources: however, while it did settle the question that it was Edward Aulder Benton I was seeking, it threw up some further issues. The first source was the Commonwealth War Graves Commission entry – it had Benton, also as a Private, in the 13 Battalion Yorks & Lancs Regiment (Barnsley Pals) and this entry linked him directly to Great Wyrley. The second source was his entry for the Great Wyrley Roll of Honour: here again he was a Private, but his regimental number didn’t match that from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Edward Aulder Benton's entry for the Roll of Honour - as a Private.

Edward Aulder Benton’s entry for the Roll of Honour – as a Private. (Staffordshire Record Office)

While I was satisfied that Edward Aulder Benton was the soldier we were looking for and, as such, the gates were wrong, it did need answering as to why his rank and service number changed from source to source. I think, as I went through this personal history, it did manage to achieve an answer to that.

Edward Aulder Benton: Early Life
According to the General Register Office index of births Edward Benton was born in the April-June quarter of 1899, however, as he was baptised at St Marks, Great Wyrley, on 3 April 1899, a birth date in March may be more likely – and I strongly believe it was 7 March. He was born to parents Aulder and Katherine Benton. Aulder Benton was born in 1869 into a mining family on Broad Lane, Essington. Aulder became a farmer’s boy after school, but by the time that the family moved to Clarendon St in Bloxwich, around 1889, he was a miner himself. In 1891, he married Katherine Jackson, she was from Brewood and had lived previously near the Red, White and Blue pub in Featherstone.

The 22-year old Aulder and 24-year old Katherine (the spelling changes frequently between K and C) settled down to life at the Benton family home. It isn’t known how long they stayed with Aulder’s parents, but if they did move they did remain in Bloxwich. They started a family fairly quickly, as a year after their marriage Lilian Annie was born; Elsie Naomi was to follow in 1894 and Edward Aulder in 1899, after which the family would move to the Walsall Road in Great Wyrley. Prophetically, Alfred Whitehouse lived in the house next door – he too was to become a name on the Wyrley gates.

The 1901 Census for Edward Aulder Benton (National Archives)

The 1901 Census for Edward Aulder Benton
(National Archives)

The family continued to grow with Thomas being born in 1902 and Nellie in 1903, but it appears that by this time the family had moved to Essington. 1904 would be the year that Edward should have started school and we know that he went to the Landywood Council school, although that could not be until 1908 as that is when it opened. 1904 would also be the year that Edward’s 10-year old sister Elsie would pass away.

The Old Landywood Council School buildings, now gone - Edward attended school here. (GWLHS)

The Old Landywood Council School buildings, now gone – Edward attended school here.

The family were still in Essington in 1907, as Beatrice Ruby was born there that year. Sometime after, and certainly before 1911, they would return to the Wyrley area taking up residence in Upper Landywood. Aulder Benton, now 42, was still a miner. We learn from this census that the Bentons had lost another child by this stage and it would be little comfort that the 4-month old Ethel Grace would be dead by the end of the year. Things would look a little brighter as the War came closer: sister Lilian would marry Henry Evans and Edward would pass his mining exams, which were held at Hednesford, with a second class mark.

Edward Benton’s War
And so the tragedy begins. On 18 March 1915 the somewhat under-age Edward Benton, now working as a collier, decides to take himself off to Wolverhampton and sign-up for the War. Without having to prove his age, the recruiting officer accepted his word that he was in fact 18 years and 11 days old, not what would be 16 and 11 days. He attested into, and was accepted by, the Royal Army Medical Corps and the following day the 5 foot 3 inch lad was in Aldershot. Quite what is family thought about it isn’t clear, they of course may not have known where he was. Quite why Edward did it, well I have no idea of course; I can only think of Wilfred Owen’s line in Dulce et Decorum Est – ‘Children ardent for some desperate glory’. 11713 Private Edward Aulder Benton would remain with the Medical Corps for near two months.

Edward Benton's first War record (National Archives)

Edward Benton’s first War record
(National Archives)

For whatever reason, Benton transfers on Friday 7 May 1915 to the 3rd Battalion Northamptonshire Regiment. It could have pressure from the military or a realisation that he would prefer to go into a more active role, after all could it be coincidence that it was the day of the sinking of the Lusitania? Benton went on to complete over three months training with his new Battalion, until somehow it came to the attention of the authorities that Edward was under-age. One wonders if his parents caught up with him and informed on him. Anyhow, 19314 Private Edward Benton was discharged on the 14 August 1915 with a comment on his good character; his papers say that the reason was that he ‘made a mis-statement as to age on his enlistment’ . They give his age as 15 years and 161 days – taking his birth to 7 March 1900; he was in fact born a year before and he was 16 years and 161 days. The Northampton’s were not to be his last involvement with a ‘rose’ county.

And so our would-be boy soldier returned to Upper Landywood, his experience showing that even the military had to obey the regulations and not all want-to-be heroes got to the front as we so often think. He went back to the mines, seemingly to drive ponies. We know from his obituary that by March 1917 he was employed at Harrison’s pit on what is now Hazel Lane. On 7 March 1917 the lad turned eighteen and he knew what he wanted to do. His experience of the army back in 1915 had clearly only inflamed his ardour and he went back to the recruitment office, this time he went to the Hednesford.

Recruitment was different after conscription was introduced in 1916. Edward attested not into a regiment but into a Training Battalion, which he did on 26 March. What is interesting is that his form is somewhat ambiguous as to the question ‘have you served in a branch of His Majesty’s forces’ – originally he declares he hasn’t served, although a softer written ‘yes’ is placed next to it. Initially, the grey-eyed and brown-haired lad is described as just under 5′ 2″, although he later he grows to 5′ 5″ – it is funny, many soldiers did put on, in average, an inch in height and a stone in weight due to the regular meals, but I think his height was a little exaggerated somewhere along the line! Benton became 73926 Private Edward Aulder Benton 88th Training Reserve Battalion – this was the number on the Great Wyrley Roll of Honour form.

Within a few days Edward would be posted to Blyth, Northumberland. Here he would undergo training, but would also assist with coastal defence against the Zeppelin and aeroplane attacks. Home service was always more of a struggle than being on ‘active service’ and so it proved with Edward. On 4 June 1917, he overstayed his pass and was given seven days confined to barracks as a punishment.

By September he was moved to the Catterick camp. His earlier ticking-off didn’t seem too detrimental, as on 24 September he was appointed an unpaid Lance-Corporal. This rank may have been formalised in the November but according to his record he reverted to Private rank when, on 10 December 1917, he was transferred to another ‘rose’ regiment. Edward was now 59659 Private Benton 3rd Battalion (Prince of Wale’s Own) West Yorkshire Regiment. This Battalion was a reserve battalion and never moved out of England, forming instead a part of the Tyne Garrison (the north-east defences). As he was still under 19-years of age, he couldn’t serve abroad; this is likely why he was moved to this Battalion and was in fact posted up to Whitley Bay.

Be it boredom, high spirits or perhaps nerves as his nineteenth birthday approached, Edward was again to get himself into a little hot water. In the following February he forfeited seven days pay after being absent without leave. It seems to record he is still a Lance-Corporal at this point, but if he was he was soon to lose it again. A few weeks later he was to leave the 3rd West Yorks behind as on 30 March he sailed for France. On 2 April 1918 he moved into another ‘rose’ regiment and became 45234 Private Edward Benton 13th Battalion York & Lancaster Regiment; it was to be his final transfer. The 13th had been one of the Kitchener ‘Pals’ Battalions – and were known as the 1st Barnsley Pals. He joined his Battalion on 6 April and walked into the most desperate of positions.

Towards the end of March the Germans had launched an all-out assault on the allies due to the desperate position on the home front and the fear of the increasing numbers of Americans that were arriving in France. The Brigade and Division of which the 13th Battalion were a part had been mauled on the Somme in first attack, hence Benton being thrown in. There does not appear to be a surviving war diary for the Battalion after March 1918, so taking the Divisional history as a basic guide it would appear that within days he would find himself involved in a series of engagements on the River Lys.

A shell burst at the Battle of Estaires, April 1918. (Imperial War Museum)

A shell burst at the Battle of Estaires, April 1918.
(Imperial War Museum)

In April, the Germans decided to launch an attack at the River Lys – the intent was to take Ypres and roll the British back to the sea. The Lys was at the join of two allied armies. The first attack came at Estaires and we know the 13th York and Lancasters were in the area here. The following day, the Germans launched and assault at Messines. The British were forced back at both locations and, with little reinforcement reaching them, on 11 April Field Martial Haig issued his famous backs to the wall order: ‘There is no other course open to us but to fight it out.  Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end.  The safety of our homes and the Freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.’ At 7 pm on that day the 13th went into action at Outtersteene.

On 12 April the Germans were on the outskirts of Hazebrouck, but failed to break the line in which Edward was fighting. As more troops arrived, the Australians in particular, the line strengthened and the Germans attacked Nieppe Forest – the 31st Division held. German focus would turn elsewhere in the sector and peter out by 29 April.

On 27 June the 31st Division was sent to attack La Becque. The 13th York and Lancasters along with the 18th Durham Light Infantry made an early assault on Ankle Farm just to the north. The main attack followed on 28 June. I am not sure what role Edward played in these attacks but he was posted as missing on that date. It took near a year before an ‘intimation’ was received from the military confirming that he was now classed as killed in action. Aulder received over £10 for his lost son, as well as his Victory and War medals. As for Edward he would, like 11,000 others, have his name put on the Ploegsteert Memorial.

Edward Aulder Benton (Walsall Local History Centre)

(Lance-Corporal?) Edward Aulder Benton
(Walsall Local History Centre)

So why did I end up so sullen after this story? I don’t know if he was one of Owen’s ‘children ardent for some desperate glory’ or whether he was the archetypal backwater mining lad who wanted to go off and do his bit, really it doesn’t matter. What I do know is that Fate gives no quarter – age is no defence – as so many fresh-faced youths found out in the bloody months around April 1918; Benton tried to sign-up a little over the age my youngest is now and was dead at just a little over the age my eldest, that is why.

I found lines from various war poets springing into my head as I followed Benton’s trail: ‘What passing-bells for these who die as cattle’; ‘But he slew his son, And half the seed of Europe, one by one’; however, it is ironically a pro-war poem by Rupert Brooke that left a sardonic taste – ‘If I should die, think only this of me: that there’s a corner of some foreign field that is forever England’ – only there isn’t a grave for this kid – he was likely blown to bits. Sobering. Forgive my digression, this isn’t easy at times.

In Memory of Edward Aulder Benton and dedicated to a fellow Local Historian and one that has worked a lot on this topic, Sue Satterthwaite.

My thanks to:
Walsall Local History Centre
Imperial War Museum
National Archives
Staffordshire Record Office
Great Wyrley Local History Society