L/Cpl Joseph Masters: A Century Past

Like many soldiers, Joseph Masters’ Great War record doesn’t survive and so we have to piece together his story from the few fragments that we have from other sources. This article will not do him justice, especially as I have not been able to try and exploit every source possible (although I will add to it if and when I find out more). Initially, I intended to write this article and publish it on the same day – the 7 November 2014 – as I only found that day (yesterday) that Masters was killed on this day, a century ago. Something made me hold fire – and I am pleased I did, as I managed to get to Cannock Library after leaving the History Centre and I found an obituary in the newspaper. This showed that he was in fact killed on the 6 November, and added a little more biographical detail. I have also offered a few suggestions to make a little more sense of what I do have. Remember, you can click on the photos to enlarge.

Masters is one of a few soldiers that is represented on both the Great Wyrley memorial gates and the Cheslyn Hay war memorial; the Wyrley gates simply list him as Masters, Jos. – while the Cheslyn Hay memorial has him as Joseph Masters. An examination of the Staffordshire Roll of Honour, which was a booklet issued by the Staffordshire War Memorial Committee in February 1926, has him listed on both memorials: he is simply listed as Masters J at Wyrley, whereas he is Masters J. L/Cpl Worc. R. on that of Cheslyn Hay. This was all I needed to start the story.

Joseph Masters on the Great Wyrley memorial gates. 2014.

Joseph Masters on the Great Wyrley memorial gates. 2014.

Joseph Masters was born in the Dudley Port area of Tipton in the last months of 1883. His father was Arthur, his mother Mary. Arthur was from Kenilworth in Warwickshire and was around 32 when Joseph was born, while Mary was from Croft in Leicestershire and was a year younger than her husband. Their eldest child was John, who was born in Hinckley around 1871. By the time their next child, Sarah Ellen was born around 1875, the family had moved to Tipton. By 1891, the family were living at 88 Lower Church Lane, Tipton. The family had grown with the addition of John (born 1878/9), George (born 1881), Joseph (born 1883), Ina (born 1885) and Rose (born 1889/90). Both Arthurs were general labourers, while Sarah was a domestic servant. The elder children were all at school.

1891 census for the Masters family in Tipton. (National Archives)

1891 census for the Masters family in Tipton.
(National Archives)

Arthur senior must have died around 1892, after the births of Ethel and Ernest, however, I cannot trace a death for him. In 1901, Mary is described as a widow and the family is living at 39 Church Lane, Tipton. Arthur junior is still living at home and is now 31 and a gas holder helper. George is also still at home, he is a horse driver at a colliery (below ground) and is now 20. Joseph, now 17, is a hammer driver at a forge. Ina, at 15, is a chaff cutter at a colliery. In the absence of a military record, I suggest that sometime after the 1901 Joseph went into the military – into the Worcestershire Regiment – as a regular soldier. This suggestion is based on two pieces of evidence. The first is the fact that Joseph was in France within a week of Britain’s entry into the War, heavily suggesting he was a already a regular, a reservist, or a territorial.

By 1910, Masters is in Cheslyn Hay. He may have already met, but certainly marries Martha Rose Buckley that year. In 1911 the couple are ensconced in the home of Martha’s mother, which is 188 Station Street, Cheslyn Hay. Martha’s mother isn’t listed as being in the house, but the couple already have a child, Adelaide Doreen Masters – indeed, she was born on Christmas Day 1910. Martha is a couple of years older than Joseph, who is 27 at this point. Joseph has become a signalman for the London North Western Railway; in fact he worked at Wyrley station. He was also well known locally for being the branch secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen. In mid-1914, Joseph K Masters is born to the couple. So, the fact he is newly married with two young children and has a steady job (and is a union official) is very suggestive to me that he does not become regular soldier between 1911 and 1914. I do not believe he was a territorial, as when he attests it is back in Dudley and into the Worcesters; this is more suggestive to me of a return to the colours, as had he been a territorial I would have expected him to move into a more local territorial unit.

Joseph Masters, living at 188 Station St, Cheslyn Hay in 1911. (National Archives)

Joseph Masters, living at 188 Station St, Cheslyn Hay in 1911.
(National Archives)

And so, around the time of the birth of his second child, Joseph Masters is with the 3rd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment. The Battalion would become famous on 26 July 1915 for the largest single act of British ‘military justice’, when five of its men were shot on the ramparts at Ypres. Returning to Masters, while is War record does not survive, we can trace his movements through the whereabouts of the Battalion. At this point I have to mention the superb website of the Worcestershire Regiment: http://www.worcestershireregiment.com/ , from which part of the following is extracted.

When war was declared the 3rd Worcestershire Regiment were at Tidworth Barracks on Salisbury Plain. For a week, the Battalion were making ready for embarkation and awaiting reservists to arrive and make the Battalion up to strength – likely Masters was one of these. Readying involved the issuing of equipment and ammunition, medically inspecting the officers and men and ‘most precious of all, the Colours of the 3rd Battalion, the symbols of their history and of their loyalty, had to be laid away. They were taken to Worcester by special escorts and handed to the care of the Dean and Chapter to be preserved in the Cathedral until the Battalions should need them’.

Tidworth Barracks, Salisbury Plain. Masters found himself here for mustering prior to embarking for France on 13 August 1914. (Source Unknown)

Tidworth Barracks, Salisbury Plain. Masters found himself here for mustering prior to embarking for France on 13 August 1914.
(Source Unknown)

While the movement of the British Expeditionary Force to France had started a few days before, the Battalion received their mobilisation orders on the 12 August 1914; interestingly, this is the date that Masters’ medal card has him as entering the theatre of war, but in fact the Battalion didn’t leave Tidsworth until 5 am on the morning of the 13 August. The Battalion headed to Southampton, where they embarked on the SS Bosnian at around 7 am. The ship sailed on the 14 August, but it wasn’t until 9 pm on the 16 August the Battalion disembarked at Rouen. The Battalion paraded through Rouen on the following day, on its way to the station. After a somewhat convoluted journey, they headed to Mons on 23 August.

And so Joseph’s war really started. For two days the Battalion were involved in the first major engagement of the War; taking front-line positions at Mons and facing shelling and fronting up to a direct assault on the second day. Although the regulars were holding the Germans up, as the French 5th army retreated, the British forces were forced to retire and fight a rearguard action through Solesmes on the 25 August before turning to fight again at La Cateau on the 26 August. The Battalion, like the British forces, found themselves overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers and were again forced to retire fighting further rearguard actions until they reached the River Marne in the first week of September. This must have been a depressing time for Masters, as it was for all the British regulars as they never really felt themselves beaten yet always seemed to be retreating.

The Marne was a turning point. Here the Germans were finally held-up and forced to abandon their Schlieffen Plan – that is the rapid advance and encirclement of Paris that would lead to the collapse of the French before turning their attentions to Russia. The Battle of the Marne (really a series of engagements) lasted from 5 September to 12 September 1914 and resulted in the Germans being forced to retreat some 40 miles back to the River Aine where they dug-in and so started the trench warfare that turned the mobile conflict into a static one.  The battle is perhaps best remembered for the French military’s use of hundreds of taxis to ferry men to the front. Anyway, Masters fought here before the advancing to pursue the Germans to the Aisne.

Masters’ likely feeling of triumph after the Marne success, especially after the weeks of the great retreat, would be short lived. The German occupation of the high ground left the allies exposed and so they ended-up digging-in too. For around three weeks, Masters would likely have been employed in trench digging as each side tried to outflank the other. The trench lines were thus extended in a period known as the Race for the Sea.

The 3rd Worcestershire Regiment, as a part of the 3rd Division within II Corps, were commanded by Horace Smith-Dorrien. After the trench digging, around 12 October 1914 Masters would find himself in the front-line between La Bassee and Armentieres. There were a number of engagements that took place between his arrival and the 18 October: La Bassee (10 Oct – 2 Nov), Messines (12 Oct – 2 Nov) and Armentieres (13 Oct – 2 Nov). As October wore on, the concentration of hostilities centred more on what was to become the grinding machine of Ypres.

The First Battle of Ypres lasted until late November 1914. It saw the Germans gain the high ground at Messines and the formation of a salient that would see two more battles during the War, including the infamous Passchendaele offensive. Masters would be beyond caring at that point, as he was shot in the head and killed immediately on the 6 November 1914. His death was reported by his friend, Private Evan Joseph. It would be he that would forward the Masters’ last letter (found on his body) to a W Buckley, likely his wife’s brother.  Initially, I would have suggest he was the victim of artillery fire, as he has no known grave – he being represented on the Menin Gate; however, the newspaper account clearly states that he was buried in a grave at Plogstreert, Belgium. There is still a cemetery at Plogstreert, but no name similar to Masters is mentioned. This would mean either his grave was later destroyed, or if it is in that cemetery it is now lost.

Cannock Advertiser, 21 Nov 1914. An account of Masters' death. (Cannock Library)

Cannock Advertiser, 21 Nov 1914. An account of Masters’ death.
(Cannock Library)

Quite why Masters would be on both memorials is a moot point. He isn’t the only one, but there is evidence linking him to both Cheslyn Hay and Landywood: in 1911 he was living in the house of his mother-in-law in Station St, Cheslyn Hay and on the UK Soldiers Died in the Great War database (below, via Ancstry.co.uk), his residence is listed inaccurately as Sandywood, Staffs. This is clearly Landywood.

Name: Joseph Masters
Birth Place: Tipton, Staffs
Residence: Sandywood, Staffs
Death Date: 7 Nov 1914
Death Place: France and Flanders
Enlistment Place: Dudley, Worcs
Rank: L Corporal
Regiment: Worcestershire Regiment
Battalion: 3rd Battalion
Regimental Number: 7854
Type of Casualty: Killed in action
Theatre of War: Western European Theatre

So that may be the reason why Joseph appears on both memorials. It almost seems to become repetitive to say that his son grew-up never knowing his father, but that is the case. Sadly for Joseph K Masters, I am near certain he died in 1939 at the tender age of 25. The following year, Adelaide married Griffith Jones in the locale, going on to have a couple of children. She died in 1993, at the grand age of 82. Joseph’s wife, Martha Rose, never remarried. She died in the locale in the early months of 1959, she was 77.

In Memory of Joseph and his family

My thanks to:
The National Archives
Cannock Library
The website of the Worcestershire Regiment: http://www.worcestershireregiment.com/
The person whose photo of Tidworth I used

  1. Clive says:

    Nice one Paul; I do like to read about this people that have been lost in time, and then someone like youself to show us all that they had a life other than on a battlefield. Keep up the great work mate.

  2. Clive says:

    This should be these, how is it i notice the mistakes after i have pressed the enter button!

    • wyrleyblog says:

      Thanks Clive, it frustrates me that i cant do better, but it was collated and put together in 24 hours. Great thing about the blog is that it can be added to be author or reader!

  3. Martin Woodhouse says:

    Dear Sir

    I’ve been follow your blog for some time and truly enjoyed hearing about the area and it history. My family has been there for many years. I’ve just read the most recent article and noticed the picture you had posted. The sign post lists a Woodhouse at the bottom. I have pretty decent history on the Johnston side of the family. One of my relatives received the Medal of Merit – see the Litchfield Cathedral roll of honour, Walsall roll of honour. On both there are spelling mistakes. However I have little or no info on the Woodhouse side prior to 1930. Anything you could tell me would be great. If you need reference material I can help with pictures family trees and contacts.

    Martin Woodhouse

    • wyrleyblog says:

      Hi Martin, i am in the pub and merry as hell but wanted to answer this as it is remembrance day on sunday. The woodhouse is an error, the name should be reginald coley woodhouse, i think he was in the household cavalry. I am doing mr higgs next, then i shall look at mr woodhouse, especially for you.

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