Private Wilfred Wilkins
10th Bn., Sherwood Foresters (Notts and Derby Regiment)
who was killed in action on 3rd March 1916, aged 28
Remembered with Honour
Barrow Hill Memorial
Staveley Parish Memorial
Bedford House Cemetery Enc. No.4 ( XII. B. 3)
Robert Wilkins was working as a farm labourer in 1871 in the small village of Over in Cambridgeshire where his father was the Sexton at the village church. It is likely that he gained employment on the railways and moved to the Staveley area where he met and married local girl, Alice Featherstone, at the Church of the Annunciation in Chesterfield on 20th March 1877.
The couple made their home in Barrow Hill at 9, Furnace Hill, a row of cottages adjacent to the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel. Robert was employed as a Railway Wagon Shunter (Pointsman) and, by 1881, the young family included 2 year old Catherine Elizabeth (Kate) and baby Teresa.
Roberts’ job enabled the family to move into one of the new cottages built at the top of the hill for employees of the Midland Railway Company at 18, Allport Terrace, just off Station Road. By 1891, he had become a foreman in the railway traffic department and the family had increased with the births of sons John, George, Robert and WILFRED EDMUND, who was born on 30th January 1888, and baby daughters, Cecilia and Agnes.
Robert’s elder sons followed him onto the railways and, in 1901, 19 year old John was working as a railway engine cleaner, 16 year old George as a railway engine fitter and 15 year old Robert as a railway engine blacksmith. 13 year old Wilfred had left school and was working underground as a pony driver at one of the coal mines belonging to the Staveley Coal and Iron Company. 11 year old Cecilia and 10 year old Agnes were at school and three younger children, Eveline, Joseph and Leonora were still at home.
At the age of twenty two, Wilfred was up before the County Magistrates for being drunk and violent on 12th March 1910. Although he insisted that he was sober, and had sung his song in the pub at half past ten, he was fined 2s 6d, plus costs.
By 1911, Robert and Alice had been married for 34 years and had 13 children, 10 of whom had survived. Still at home were 27 year old George, who was working as an iron turner at the local foundry, 23 year old coal miner Wilfred, Eveline, pony driver Joseph and dressmaker’s apprentice, 13 year old Leonora.
Wilfred was again in trouble with the local constabulary on 14th December 1912. He was charged with assaulting a police officer and with being drunk and disorderly on Station Road at Barrow Hill. On this occasion, he was fined £3 6s, plus £1 for damage to the policeman’s uniform.
Lucy Wood originated from Seymour, a mining community at nearby Woodthorpe. The 1911 census reveals that she was then working for her brother, Robert, at the Moulders Arms, part of the Lees Buildings on Hollingwood Common. Lucy and Wilfred married in 1913 and their son, Wilfred Reginald, was born on 17th October 1914. It is probable that Wilfred and Lucy lived with her family at Seymour, or that she went to live with them after Wilfred’s death, as his name appears on the Woodthorpe village memorial.
Wilfred enlisted at Chesterfield as Private 20455 with the 10th Bn., Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment) “soon after the outbreak of war.” The 10th Bn. had been formed at Derby in September 1914 as part of K2 and came under orders of 51st Brigade in 17th (Northern) Division. They moved to Wool and on to West Lulworth in October 1914, returning to Wool in December. As with many other divisions, early days were somewhat chaotic, the new volunteers having very few trained officers and NCOs to command them, no organised billets or equipment.
They moved to Winchester in June 1915 and, after receiving an order that the Division would be retained for home defence (subsequently cancelled), advance parties left for France on 6th July. Wilfred landed at Boulogne on 14th July 1915 and joined the units concentrated near St Omer.
During 1915, the Division spent its initial period on trench familiarisation, and then holding the front lines in the southern area of the Ypres salient. In 1916, the Division was involved in fighting at the Bluff (south east of Ypres on the Comines canal), part of a number of engagements officially known as the Actions of Spring 1916.
The Ypres-Comines canal, running south east from the town, cut through the front lines about 3 miles from the Cloth Hall. This was the position at the end of the First Battle of Ypres and it was much the same by 1916, the Second Battle having not altered things. Facing the British, the village of Hollebeke; on the left was the hotly-contested ground of Hill 60 and Zwarteleen, and on the right the hotspot at St Eloi. On the northern embankment of the canal, a curious mound – a spoil-heap, created when the canal was excavated – gave the British front an unusual observation advantage over the enemy. If the enemy held it, the view across the rear areas of the Salient to Hill 60, towards Ypres and down to Voormezele would have made the Salient very difficult to hold. The position just had to be held.
The Division was in action at the Bluff in February and again in March. Two battalions from 51st Brigade, including 10th Sherwood’s, were seconded from 17th Division and were placed under the direct control of 76th Brigade.
The vast list of orders issued from Brigade HQ prior to the assault included the following:
“The 76th Infantry Brigade with 2 Battalions of the 17th Division attached will attack the enemy front from the YPRES – COMINES Canal to the RAVINE I.S4.R.S.1 and will hold and consolidate the line as follows.” “The 10/Sherwoods will be in Brigade Reserve in KINGSWAY DUGOUTS”
Despite this instruction that 10th Sherwoods were to be “in reserve,” the battalion was also instructed to provide men for various duties: to act as carriers for the Brigade grenade reserve, to be detailed in charge of stores and to provide sentries.
The Battalion war diary entry for 2nd March 1916 states that: “At 4:20am in accordance with Operations Orders, the attack was launched. There was a preliminary bombardment immediately before the attack, a desultory shelling having taken place throughout the night to prevent the enemy carrying out repairs to wire etc.”
“The attack was in every way a success. The trench wardens supplied by Battalion found great difficulty in coping with their task of keeping the trenches in repair and eventually it was to all intents abandoned”
“As soon as the assault and burst of shelling was over, what remained of the battalion after supplying the guards, wardens etc was utilised in carrying up ammunition and material to the forward dumps. This continued all day and most of the night, and following morning, the latter under heavy shell fire.”
and on 3rd March 1916, the war diary entry reads: “Bn bombers were used to occupy posts in front line and did good work under Lieut Hoyte.”
“The orders for battalion to be relieved on night of 3rd/4th by 7th Kings Shropshire Light Infantry were received in the early afternoon.”
“Casualties during 2 days. O.R. killed 17, wounded 76 (includes 27 at duty), missing 3.”
Local newspapers reported that Private Wilfred Wilkins was wounded on 3rd March 1916. They stated that, “He had been in all the recent heavy fighting with his battalion, and writing home after the battle of 14th February, he said what a rough time they had had. He had been without food for several days and had lost everything, but was proud to say he could account for several Germans in the bayonet charge.”
The family had not heard from Wilfred since and, “as he was a constant writer, this silence caused some anxiety.” “A brief communication from the War Office briefly stated that he had been wounded, but as to the nature of his injuries and his whereabouts, his friends are still in ignorance.”
This must have been an extremely anxious time for the family. Not only was Wilfred known to have been wounded, three of his brothers were also serving: George was with the R.A.M.C. in Alexandria, Robert with the A.S.C. and Joseph with the Army Cycle Corps. Wilfred’s death on 3rd March 1916 was later confirmed.
Wilfred is buried at the Bedford House Cemetery Enclosure No.4. He may have been re-buried here as, after the Armistice it was enlarged when 3,324 graves were brought in from other burial grounds and from the battlefields of the Ypres Salient.
© Ann Lucas