Great Wyrley’s Fallen: Walter Collins and His Five Weeks in France.

Introduction and Identification
Having found myself unexpectedly at home for a day, I thought I would start my next article. I chose to do another soldier, as I want to present the Great Wyrley Parish Council with the amendments needed to the names on the plaques as soon as possible and, added to that, I had simply left the papers for my intended article at work 🙂 . Anyhow, a soldier it was to be and the name I chose, for no special reason at all, was Walter Collins.

Theodore Bason on the Wyrley Gates - can you spot the inconsistency? (2014)

Walter Collins on the Wyrley Gates – remember, click on photos to enlarge. 2014

The regular readers of this blog will know that I have about as much faith in the accuracy of the names on the Great Wyrley memorial gates as I have in that American wrestling is not fixed. So, as usual, my first task was to check the sources to find out if a Walter Collins, or some form of that name, did indeed live in the local area, fight and die during the First World War.

My first port-of-call was, as usual, the 1928 Great Wyrley Methodist Church plaque – but he was not to be found upon it. I then 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 Walter Collins on it, whom, according to the roll, was a driver in the Royal Engineers. The final source I then checked were the original returns for the compilation of the Great Wyrley Roll of Honour, but he was not represented – this is not surprising as it transpired that this roll was collated a year before Collins went to the War.

Collins seemed then to be correct, but a thought then came to mind: I remembered the article I had done on the Walkeden boys from Newtown (in Essington) and was sure that a Walter Collins was on the plaque to the Newtown fallen that is housed in Essington St John’s Church. I pulled up the photograph and sure enough there he was, but Collins, according to this plaque, was a private in the North Staffordshire Regiment.

The plaque to the four 'Newton Lads' in Essington St John's Church. 2014.

The plaque to the four ‘Newton Lads’ in Essington St John’s Church. 2014.

As investigations would show, the Essington St John’s plaque was indeed correct: Collins had in fact been in the 4th Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment. While the sources conflicted over which branch of service Collins was in, they all did agree on his name – and they were right.

Early Life
Walter Knight Collins was born in early 1899 to mother Lucy Collins. He was baptised at Essington St John’s on 18 April 1899. He and his mother lived with her parents in Long Lane, Newtown; indeed, it would be his grandparents, Thomas and Lydia, that would really bring him up.

Thomas Collins was Essington – Newtown more accurately – born and bred, the youngest son of an iron worker. Thomas was born around 1858. Initially his address was simply Newtown, as at this stage Newtown was a lot smaller than it is today. Newtown had two foci: the heart sprang-up opposite the Cannock Lodge Colliery (now where the Lakes nursing home now stands) and a second area of settlement began to appear at the crossroads of Stafford Road, Walsall Road, Hobble End Lane and Long Lane. This too was outside of a colliery, in this case the Norton Cannock Colliery. Both the Cannock Lodge and the Norton Cannock were, by the point of their closure in 1910, owned by the same company. The closure, due to flooding issues, you would have thought would have killed off the small settlement on Long Lane, but it didn’t; although judging by the date-stones and building styles, house-building stopped until the expansions of the 1930s.

Moving back a little, Thomas’ address was given for the first time on the 1881 census. He was the only one of the children left living at home, which at that time was number 1 Providence Buildings. By the end of that year, the 24-year old had married Lydia Wilkes. Lydia was born in Bilston in 1862 and the daughter of a brass caster. By 1881, he had his own business located at The Green in Bloxwich. Prior to her marriage, Lydia was living there too.

Providence Buildings, Newtown... once home to the Collins family - Walter would definitely have visited David, his great-grandfather, here. 2015.

Providence Buildings, Newtown. Once home to the Collins family – Walter would definitely have visited David, his great-grandfather, here. 2015.

The couple remained in Newtown. They moved next door to Thomas’ parents, suggesting they too were in Providence Buildings. Lucy, first born and Walter’s mother, appears in 1882. She was followed by Thomas (1883), Beatrice (1885), Caroline (1886), David (1888) and John (1889).  The family were affluent enough to support Sarah, a 14-year old domestic servant.

1891 Census for Thomas, Lydia and Lucy - likely the Providence Buildings on Long Lane, Newton. (National Archives)

1891 Census for Thomas, Lydia and Lucy – likely at the Providence Buildings on Long Lane, Newton.
(National Archives)

The family had moved further up Long Lane by 1901; it is unclear as to which house, but it was somewhere near Prospect Cottages. Thomas and Lydia were still adding to their family, which meant two of the elder boys were living with their grandparents in Providence Buildings. The family had grown with Albert (9), Hannah (5), Linda (4), Evelyn (2) and William (6 months); however, one has to add to this that the 2-year old Walter is also living there – showing that he had an uncle younger than himself – and an aunt just a few months older.

1901 walter

Walter on the 1901 census. (National Archives)

The landscape that Walter was born into was not only one of coal mines, there were also a couple of farms (Hobble End for example), a mission church on the corner of Long Lane and the Walsall Road and, at that time, one of the Woodbine Cottages was actually a grocer’s shop. Walter, we know from his obituary, would grow-up and attend the St John’s School in Essington (at the bottom of Hobnock Rd); he should have started school in 1904. In 1905, Lucy Collins married John Hewitt, a miner from Brownhills, and moved into Providence Buildings. The following year, Doris, Walter’s sister was born.

1911 census (National Archives)

The 1911 census, Walter is living with his grandparents.
(National Archives)

By 1911, we know that Walter had another sibling but sadly the child had died; Lucy and John did go onto have several more children over the next few years. Walter is still living with his grandparents on Long Lane, with his mother living over the road. Walter’s grandparents were still having children, with Edith (1903) and Rex (1906) joining the household. Thomas was still a miner, and 53 years of age. In 31 years of marriage the couple had had 15 children, all but two had survived.

Walter left school and followed in the footsteps of his grandfather in becoming a miner. We know from his obituary that prior to his departure for war in 1918, he worked at Harrison’s pit on Slacky Lane (now Hazel Lane). His working at Harrison’s may not simply be due to the closure of the Newtown mines in 1910, but also the fact that his grandparents had relocated to ‘Ivy Dene’ at some point between 1911 and 1918: this was a house somewhere on the Walsall Road in Great Wyrley.

The War
Unlike for many of the Wyrley fallen, we do have some service records for Walter – albeit somewhat damaged. The fresh-faced Collins was called to the War in April 1918, signing-up officially on 23 April. He was described as 19 years of age, 5′ 5″ in height, 128 lbs (9 stones, 2 lb) in weight and of good development. His physical features were having ‘very dark brown hair and blue eyes’. He was of course unmarried.

Walter. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Walter.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

Walter stated at his attestation that he had not served in any capacity prior to enlistment. He was drafted into the 4th Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment; this was an Extra Reserve Battalion, its original purpose being to train troops prior to their move to France. However, with the shortage of soldiers, it too had been deployed in the field by October 1917.

Walter's attestation, 23 April 1918. (National Archives)

Walter’s attestation, 23 April 1918.
(National Archives)

So either directly at attestation or after his period of basic training, Walter found himself in the North Staffordshire Regiment. His Battalion was a part of the 105th Brigade, 35th Division. His training consisted of around three months and in early August he moved to the coast to embark for France.  He landed on 7 August 1918.

The position that Walter and the British Army were now in was far different from that when Walter had signed-up. Back in the April, the Allies were very much on the defensive: the Kaiser’s Battle (or Ludendorff Offensive) had been launched on 21 March and had succeeded in pushing the Allies back. As Walter signed his name, the original German push began to lose its momentum and finally petered out. As Walter trained, further German offensives were launched, but each was less successful than its predecessor. Literally, as Walter landed, the German forces had shot their bolt and the energy had moved to the Allies. The Battle of Amiens started on 8 August and it succeeded in braking through German lines – it was, as Ludendorff described it, ‘the black day of the German army’. The Allies now started what would be later termed the ‘Hundred Days Offensive’, the push aimed at defeating the German army in the field and even to enter Germany itself. It led to the armistice.

It isn’t clear as to when Walter met-up with his Battalion, but I wouldn’t have guessed it was too long after his arrival in France. The 35th Division had been fighting on the Somme earlier in the year, but redeployed to Flanders as a part of the Allied offensive. We know Walter was with them. Walter and the 4th Battalion were to take part in the 5th Battle of Ypres; this was to reclaim the territory lost after the Battle Of Lys (the 4th Battle of Ypres and a part of the German offensive a few months before).

Walter's obituary in the Walsall pioneer, October 1918. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Walter’s obituary in the Walsall Pioneer, October 1918.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

The battle commenced on 28 September. Again, from his obituary, we know that Walter was in it from the start. It is difficult to define what role Alfred and the 4th Battalion actually accomplished, but in general the ‘Allied Army Group of Flanders’ attacked and broke through the German lines to the north, east and south of the city of Ypres. The Group comprised of British, French and Belgian divisions and was actually under the command of King Albert I of Belgium.

On 28 September, the ridge at Messines was retaken – and it may have been this assault that is referred to in Walter’s obituary regarding his ‘utter disregard for enemy fire’; the following day saw the recapture of the infamous village of Passchendaele (location of the Tyne Cot Cemetery). The advance continued the day after that, the day that saw Walter Collins ‘face a trail of machine-gun bullets… where only the bravest could advance.’ Collins didn’t advance, he was shot and taken from the field.

Walter was sent to the 10th Casualty Clearing Station. A CCS was the next stage after an Aid Post or Field Ambulance. As the name suggests – Clearing Station – it moved men quickly, either back to the front after minor injuries or onto a hospital. Clearing Stations moved frequently during the period of mobile warfare between March and November 1918. In September 1918, the 10th CCS was located at Arneke, which was some way from Ypres.

Looking at it, I doubt Walter got there as he isn’t buried in the cemetery at Arneke. His death was signed-off on 1 October by the Officer-in-Charge of the 10th CCS, but I suggest he had died en route. Walter Collins was buried at the Lijessenthoek Military Cemetery, just 12 kms to the west of Ypres.

Walter would, in due course, have the British War Medal and the Victory Medal conferred upon him. His effects, which amounted to £2 2/9d, with the colossal 3/- gratuity for the few weeks that he served, were paid not to his mother, Lucy, but to his grandmother, Lydia. Walter never married, so had no family of his own. The family that he grew-up with was that of his grandparents. Thomas died in 1938, aged 80 years; Lydia lived until she was 91 years of age, passing away in 1954.

Walter Collins – I don’t know which is sadder, just 19 years in the making or just weeks in the destruction.

In Memory of Walter, Thomas and Lydia.

With Thanks to:
Walsall Local History Centre
National Archives
Essington St John’s Church

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Comments
  1. […] Great Wyrley’s Fallen: Walter Collins and His Five Weeks in France. […]

    • Brian says:

      Great article again Paul somehow I can just imagine him walking the mile or so to Harrison’s pit tragic tale

  2. Graeme says:

    Morning Paul,

    Curiously, taking into account the letter home, the battalion did not take part in any action on the 30th but did take a few casualties, presumably to shellfire. It was on the 29th when the actions took place.

    The War Diary records,
    “28 October 1918 – The battalion took part in an attack for the first time since it came to France. Assembly was completed successfully by 3am. The objectives of the battalion Triangular Bluff and Buffs Bank.
    Zero was at 5.30am and by 8am the battalion had gained all objectives, capturing some 300 prisoners, 1 field gun, 1 heavy and 2 light trench mortars, 10 machine guns.
    Casualties 3 officers wounded, 5 other ranks killed, 29 wounded, 4 missing.
    The behaviour of all ranks throughout the battle was magnificent and the battalion was complimented on its work by the Brigade and Divisional Commanders.
    Night spent in consolidating the position.
    29 October 1918 – At 5.30am the battalion moved to Klein Zillebeke from thence to Zandvoorde, which latter place was reported to be held by us but was in reality held by the enemy. The brigade was held up outside Zandvoorde by machine gun fire.
    The 15th Cheshire Regiment attacked unsuccessfully at 12.30pm.
    At 3pm the 4th North Staffs. and 15th Sherwood Foresters attacked Zandvoorde. The battalion was met by heavy machine gun fire on coming over Zandvoorde Ridge which caused the leading companies to lose direction slightly. This however was at once rectified and the battalion advanced under very heavy machine gun fire and captured Zandvoorde.
    The night was spent consolidating the ground gained on the line Zandvoorde – Tenbrielen.
    Casualties were as follows:- 1 officer killed, 2 officers died of wounds, 17 other ranks killed, 143 wounded and 24 missing.
    30 September 1918 – At 6.15am the brigade continued its advance on Wervicq. The battalion was in reserve and did [not] get into action that day, night spent in Renbrielen.
    Other ranks 2 killed, 1 wounded.”

    Regards,

    Graeme

    PS. Curios, too, about the 10th CCS.

  3. Graeme says:

    Hi Paul

    Sorry about that, got excited !!

    Yes all in September 1918. Interesting, too, is the mention of the first attack since coming to France as they appear to have been moved to France in October 1917.

    Ive looked through the diary and although the battalion had been ‘in the line’ and suffered casualties, this was their first actual attack.

    Regards,

    Graeme

    • wyrleyblog says:

      I would hazard a guess that he was wounded on the 29 Sep, I can imagine that a number of letters to relatives ‘invented’ circumstances in order to given comfort and a bit of context.

  4. SJ says:

    Very sad, only 19 years of age wicked waste of life, pity they were so naïve, for King and country surely was a joke.

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