J Burntwood & District Memorials Project

The Burntwood & District War Memorial Project

Servicemen Biographies

Percy Willett

Burntwood Family History

Researched and written by Barbara Williams

Note:- Throughout this research I have come across several variations of the name “Willett” that both the family of Percy and the enumerator used. However I have not edited the spelling in any circumstances.

(*1) Private. Percy WILLETTS
 
Percy WILLETTS was born during the quarter ending March of 1898 in Walsall Wood, Staffordshire, now in the West Midlands. His parents were John (born in 1863 in Norton Canes, Staffordshire) and Martha nee HITCHEN (born in 1865 in Cannock, Staffordshire) They married on 26th Feb. 1891 at Brownhills with Ogley Hay St., James Parish Church. John, aged 29 was a widower at the time of
his marriage to Martha, with a child Lottie.

(*2) Marriage of John WILLETTS and Martha HITCHENS
 
The 1881 census shows John aged 18yrs with siblings George 16, Mary 14, Abraham 10, Joseph 8, Frederick 6, and Richard 3. living with their father Abraham who was born in Markfield, Leicestershire in about 1833. At the time John was working as a miner.

(*3) Extract from the 1881 Census
 
In 1891 the census shows John and Martha newly married and living in Wolverhampton Rd, Brownhills which was later renamed Pelsall Rd. John is now working on his own account as a haulier owning his own horse and cart which was the usual form of carting in those days.

(*4) Extract from the 1891 Census
 
Ten years later John and Martha have a family of six children. Lottie 13, Lily 7, Abraham 5, Percy 3, Maud 2, and Alice 2 months. The
family are living at 6 The Terrace, Church Rd., Clayhanger.

(*5) Extract from the 1901 Census
 
At the time of the 1911 census several of John’s and Martha’s children are no longer at home but there is an addition to the family, Elsie aged 5. Percy, now 13yrs of age is attending school. The family are now living at “Slough House” a dwelling place occupied by John’s and another family, situated off Pelsall Rd, Brownhills. “The Slough” and “Slough Cottage” are marked on the 1883 Ordnance
Survey map. The area contained old mining shafts and no doubt the ground had sunk and become marshy. “Slough Cottage” was still inhabited in the 1950’s.

(*6) Extract from the 1911 Census
 
The first shots of World War 1 were fired in the Bosnian town of Sarajevo on the 28th June 1914. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the thrones of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, was murdered along with his wife by Gavrilo Princip, a young Serb nationalist. These deaths led to the first general European war since 1815. Crowds of people in Trafalgar Square cheered at the outbreak of war and men of all classes enlisted as ordinary privates. Our young hero Percy, who may not have yet reached the age of 17, and now living with his parents and siblings in Chase Rd., Brownhills decided to join up. Due to his age, he was unable to enlist as a regular soldier and so in Jan 1915 he attended the Territorial Recruitment Office in Whitimere St., Walsall and enlisted as a member of the 1/5th Territorial Force of the South Staffs Regiment. Up to 1908, Britain had a tradition of organizing local part-time military units known as the Militia and the Volunteers. These had often been created during times of national crisis but, with the exception of service during the Boer War, had generally remained at home as part-time local defence units. In 1908 army reforms did away with these odd units and replaced them with the Territorial Force. It remained a part-time form of soldiering (hence the nick-name “Saturday Night Soldiers”) whose stated role was home defence. Men were not obliged to serve overseas, although they could agree to do so. The Territorial Force was mobilized for full-time war service immediately war was declared. When Territorial Force troops agreed to overseas service they signed the “Imperial Service Obligation”
and were issued with a special badge known as the “Imperial Service Brooch” to be worn on their right breast.
 Many Territorial Force units also issued distinctive insignia, notably the “Shoulder Title”, a brass badge carrying the name of the unit worn on the shoulder.

(*7) Imperial Service Brooch         (*8) Shoulder Title
 

On the 15th August 1914 orders were issued to separate the “home service” men from those who had undertaken to serve overseas, with the intention of forming reserves made up of those who had not so far volunteered. Those men that did not agree were separated out into the “Home Service” or “Second Line” units. The original units now became known as the “Foreign Service” or “First Line”. These terms are often seen on T.F. men’s service records. In 1915 the “First Line” and “Second Line” units were given a new title:- for example the 1/5th and 2/5th  South Staffordshires were what had been the first and second line formed by the original 5th battalion. Percy landed in the theatre of war on 18th August 1915.

 THE BATTLE OF LOOS 

The Battle of Loos, which began on the 25th September and finished on the 13th October, involved units from all sections of the British Army, Regulars, Territorials and the first major use of Kitchener’s Volunteer Army. The action was on a larger scale than the previous 1915 battles but suffered from using the same strategy and tactics with the ongoing deficiencies of artillery. The inept use of 150 tons of gas by the British, released despite unfavourable conditions, proved to be counter-productive and did not compensate for these shortcomings. 

A report on the Battle is as follows – 

“The 46th (North Midland) Division, having been ordered to capture the HOHENZOLLERN REDOUBT and FOSSE No 8 , the 137th Infantry Brigade carrying out the right attack, the Battalion was  formed as follows “A” & “C ” Companies in the front line of assembly trenches, and with two Companies of the 1/6th North Staffs Regt. formed the 3rd line, and were ordered to follow the 2nd line at 200 paces distance, and carry R. E., materials the other two companies “B” and “D”, with 2 Companies 1/6th North Staffs Regiment forming the fourth line, and ordered to at once follow the third line, and occupy DUMP trench on the frontage allotted to the Brigade. The attack was covered by a two hours Artillery bombardment commencing at 12 noon, gas was used at 1pm., also smoke shells which at times completely hid the points of attack. Enemy machine guns were heard ranging on the assembly trenches at 1.30pm and 1.45pm, which was notified to Brigade Headquarters. Having received no message that the front line had not been able to advance, and not being able
to see their position for smoke, the two Companies forming the third line followed the second line and suffered very heavy casualties. The fourth line then advanced, and also suffered from machine gun fire from the direction of the South Face. All that remained of the 3rd line reached the fire trench between point 87 and 89 to assist the 5th South Staffs Regt, to hold that portion until this Battalion was ordered to retire at noon on the 14th. The remainder of the fourth line were assembled in the old British front line trench and when reinforcements were called for, were sent up to support the fire trench. The Battalion was relieved in the trenches by the Guards, and billeted for the night at Sailly la Bourse”.
 

According to Percy’s medal card he “Died of his wounds” on the last day of the Battle and was awarded the Victory Medal, the British War Medal and the 1915 Star. See also Percy’s Reg. No., a small number indicating he was a Terrier”, if he had survived and later enlisted in the regular army the card would have shown a new longer number.

(*9) Medal Card

(*10) Victory Medal     (*11) British War Medal     (*12) 1915 Star Medal
 
Percy was laid to rest in the Vermelles British War Cemetry in the village of Vermelles 10 kilometres north west of Lens. His grave reference is 1V. J. 33.  There are over 2134 First World War casualties in the cemetery and of these 198 are unidentified. The cemetery was designed by Sir Herbert Baker.

(*13) Casualty Results

(*14) Cemetery details                     (*15) Plan of cemetery
 

All armies of the Great War used ‘kid’ soldiers. In the beginning of the war the enthusiasm to join battle was so great that young boys (and even girls) could hardly be stopped from enlisting. Recruiting officers in all countries closed their eyes when eager children clearly under the required age -18yrs old- showed up to join their armies. At the end of the war children were even more welcome in the ranks, as the ‘Great Mincing Machine’ continued to require human bodies with astonishing need. Hardly trained the kids were sent to the trenches in Belgium, France, Russia and Turkey where they mingled with the older soldiers and died with them. 

The British Army resisted any suggestion the recruits ‘prove their age’ by producing a birth certificate when enlisting. It was a scandal which provoked complaints in Parliament. The National Service League also protested claiming that around 15% of wartime recruits were underage. The Army eventually allowed underage soldiers to be reclaimed by their parents. 

Percy’s name lives on, engraved on the War Memorial at St. James Church,

 
Percy’s Family Tree
 
Abraham WILLETT = Sarah Jane TIMSON
 c. 1833 Leic’s            b c. 1855 Leic’s
                                                                                   d c. 1887 Brownhills
|
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
|           |            |           |          |           |            |             |            |             |          |
William   Louisa   Thomas   John   George   Harry   Abraham   Joseph  Frederick   Richard  Sarah
                                                b 1856  b 1858   b 1860   b 1863  Alfred   b 1867   b 1871    b 1873    b 1875     b 1878  b 1879                                                                       |      b 1865                                                                       |                                                   (1) Unknown = (2) 26. 02. 1891 Martha nee HITCHEN                                                                                       |           b 1867 Cannock                                                                                       |                                           -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------                                          |                  |                   |                 |               |               |                |                                         Lily          Abraham          Percy          Maud          Alice          John           Elsie                                      b 1894         b 1896           b 1898        b 1899       b 1901       b 1902        b 1906                                                             d 13.10.1915 

Reference, Item and Source:-

 (*1) Photograph © Walsall Local History Centre

(*2) Extract from Transcription © BFHG

(*3) Extract from 1881 Census © Ancestry

(*4) Extract from 1891 Census © Ancestry

(*5) Extract from 1901 Census © Ancestry

(*6) Extract from 1911 Census © Ancestry

(*7) Print © The Long Long Trail

(*8) Print © The Long Long Trail

(*9) Medal Card © Ancestry

(*10) Photograph Victory Medal © Alan Betts BFHG

(*11) Photograph British War Medal © Alan Betts BFHG

(*12) Photograph 1915 Star Medal © Alan Betts BFHG

(*13) Extract Casualty Record © CWGC

(*14) Extract Cemetery Details © CWGC

(*15) Extract Plan of Cemetery © CWGC

(*16) Photograph Brownhills War Memorial © Alan Betts BFHG

 

 

 

(C) Mike Woolridge - Site Last Updated 01 November 2014