9163 Private Sidney Wilson, 1/East Surrey Regiment,
Killed in action, 22 July 1916, during the Battle of the Somme.
Buried at the Quarry Cemetery, Montauban, France.
Since I gradually developed a bit of a soft spot for Sidney Wilson, his story ought to have featured on Petersham Remembers long ago, rather than its being one of the last posts to be uploaded. Matching Sidney to the ‘correct’ soldier was initially a little tricky. He was not the only Sidney Wilson from his battalion to be killed in action; the Petersham Memorial has his name as ‘Sydney’ and a Sydney Wilson was another East Surrey casualty. There were other complications in the research, which I describe, for those who are interested, at the end of this post.
Sidney Wilson’s childhood home
It appears Petersham’s Sidney spent most of his childhood with a foster mother, Jane Dulley, at 10 Mayfield Cottages, Petersham. It is likely to have been a happy household, because Sidney chose to return there when he left the Regular Army in 1912. Like many of the young men of Ham and Petersham at the turn of the century, Sidney had taken the opportunity to enlist in the Army for a specified period. At the time he was working as a gardener, perhaps at Sudbrook Park, where his foster-sister’s husband, Thomas Henry Burrows, was employed.
Sidney was to serve in the 1/East Surrey Regiment for over 5 years, transferring to the Reserve in June 2012. The forms summarising his service at the end of that period show that the Army had offered the young gardener the opportunity to acquire additional skills. He worked as a Librarian for a year although the career he hoped to follow, after leaving the army, was noted as ‘Carman’. (‘Footman’ had been written down first, and then struck through.) We learn also that he had a fresh complexion, hazel eyes, light brown hair and was 5′ 10″ tall, with tattoos on his arms. Sidney’s conduct and character were summarised as ‘Good’.
He was back with his regiment just over two years later, probably within days of war being declared. Within a month, he had received a shrapnel wound to the head, which required a stay at a Convalescence. His medical records show that from time to time he was recorded with skin infections such as Impetigo and the umbrella term of “I.C.T.” an umbrella term for a parasitic skin infection, common in the inhospitable and crowded conditions in the trenches.
His records give us no information as to how he was killed, but we can gather something of his last day of life, from his Battalion’s War Diary. And therein lies another reason for my soft spot for Sidney, because he was involved in attempts to recapture Delville Wood. Its very name is today still closely associated with the South African Brigade, which, ordered to hold the wood at all cost, did so, at great cost. Only a week before Sidney’s death, my grandfather had been one of those fighting to hold the wood, under the battering of 400 shells an hour. A handful survived.
On Wednesday 19 July, Sidney’s battalion had moved from their bivouac at Becordel, east of Albert, to Longueval, a village, by then in ruins, on the western edge of Delville Wood. With more trenches having to be dug to provide accommodation for the whole battalion, just as they were settling in, they were suddenly ordered to relieve the remnants of the 22nd Brigade in Longueval and to take up a position with the DCLI [Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry] to their left and the 18th Brigade to their right.. Doesn’t remnants say it all?
The East Surreys can have had no doubts that life was precarious and that the days ahead would be harrowing. At 3.25AM, on Thursday (20th) the 2/Suffolks proceeded to attack the enemy from the sunken road west of the wood. The two leading companies lost communication with the rest of the battalion and were believed to have been mown down by concealed machine guns, since none returned. The 1/East Surreys spent the day, in the words of their adjutant, “rendering our surroundings a trifle safer by digging, and more sanitary by burying the dead of various units who were lying in and above our trenches”. Throughout, the Surreys were subjected to heavy shelling.
On the Friday, enemy planes flew high above them, leading the Allies to believe it was their observation of the activity below that was responsible later that morning for the heavy shelling of the Surreys’ No.1 Company, “causing casualties to the company and to the cooks as well as three of the cookers”. The afternoon and evening seem to have passed without further incidents.
Here follows an extract from the War Diary of the 1st Battalion of the East Surreys for Saturday 22 July 1916, the day on which Sidney lost his life:
TRENCHES N[EA]R LONGUEVAL, Saturday July 22nd 1916.
Ref. Map Longueval 57C S.W.3
Enemy shelled us all day and towards evening with great vehemence, finally about 10PM he opened a fierce rifle and machine gun fire against our trenches, at the same time sending up numerous red flares.
Everything pointed at this moment to a possible attack and, taking into consideration the weakness of our position (our right flank being “in the air”) the S.O.S. signal by both Co[mpan]y Com[man]d[e]rs in the front line was by no means unreasonable.
The artillery reply was vigorous and only a most determined Infantry attack would have succeeded against our barrage. About midnight conditions became more normal.
Total casualties up to 12 noon 4 officers 132 O[ther] R[anks]. A large proportion of these were wounded and practically all the casualties were from shell fire. 2/Lieut[enant] Cooper was sent to instruct at a Machine gun school. 2/Lieut[enant] MAZENGARB took over command of the Lewis Gun detachment. About 10PM orders were received from the 95th In[fan]try B[riga]de H[ead]Q[uarters that the 5 Division would co-operate with the 3rd Division and take by assault the portions of LONGUEVAL and DELVILLE WOOD previously taken from us on the evening of the 19th inst[ant]. The attack was to commence by the usual artillery bombardment lifting at 3.40AM (23rd) at which hour the 9th B[riga]de of the 3rd Div[ision] would continue with the 95th B[riga]de in making an attack on certain strong points W[est] and N[orth]W[est] of the village. At the same time the 13th B[riga]de would attack from the line HIGH WOOD to R[oa]d junction S 10 d 8/9.
We do not know at what point Sidney was killed but it is likely to have been during that heavy bombardment. He was buried alongside three other soldiers from his Battalion who died on the same day. They were: Private T Bone, aged 20, Private Albert John Phipps, aged 24 (in the A Company of the ESR, and Private W.A. Young.
According to the Grave Registration documents, a Memorial Cross was later erected to these men in the Quarry Cemetery. A note records that the cross is “to the memory of these 16 British soldiers killed in action in July 1916 and buried at the time in Quarry Scottish Cemetery, Montauban, which was destroyed by the enemy. Their glory shall not be blotted out.” Sidney is one of the sixteen soldiers, whose graves were lost.
The search for Sidney’s story is ongoing
We do not yet know who Sidney’s parents were, or how he came to be fostered by Jane Dulley. His service record states that he was born in Clapham, and viewing the age he gave when enlisting on 29 January 1907, 18 years 2 months, it is likely that he was born in the last quarter of 1888 or the first quarter of 1889, since they had six weeks in which to register a birth. This is fairly close to that derived from the age of 23 years and 8 months provided on the documents relating to Sidney’s transfer, on 7 June 1912, to the Army Reserve. There is no matching birth registration in the Wandsworth Registration District at the time that Sidney claimed to have been born in Clapham.
In updating this aspect of my research (in the last days of 2016) I decided to cover Sidney’s possible exaggeration of his age, when first enlisting in 1907, I looked for births of a Sidney or a Sydney Wilson, in England and Wales, and then sifting out those in the Greater London area—not just those born in Wandsworth and Lambeth—for the period 1 January 1888 to 31 December 1890, with 52 results. I extended the time range because I thought it possible that Sidney might have joined the army in preference to continuing to work as a gardener. I looked for a further two years, until the end of December 1892 in Wandsworth and Lambeth but found only the two already included in the 52 results.
I extended the area within which I searched, partly because Sidney was fostered as a child, and we cannot assess how reliable this information was. Who was the informant? The birth registrations of the 16 Sidney/Sydney Wilsons born in the Greater London area in that three year period, all noted a mother’s maiden name. It will take some time to follow up the 16 family units into which these children were born, and I may not have time to do this until the summer.
Even though Sidney’s military service records have survived in the so-called the Burnt Records’, the page for his next of kin is blank. This lack of information, meant that it took some time to match him to a Petersham family but the service records did, however, reveal that he lived at 10 Mayfield Cottages, and that he named his his foster mother, Jane Dulley, as his next of kin.
Following Jane Dulley’s death, in 1919, Mrs Hammond went on to claim Sidney’s medals, which had been sent to Jane Dulley, who had been named as Sidney’s foster mother and next of kin. The War Office subsequently wrote to ask Sidney’s foster-sister, Ellen Burrows, asking her to return his medals, so that they could forward them to Mrs Hammond. This Ellen was clearly reluctant to do, replying pointedly that she did not know the address of “the person” referred to in their letter of such and such date. Perhaps she felt that Sidney had been neglected by the person claiming to be his aunt?
Reconstitution of the family of Jane Dulley did not flag up a possible connection with Sidney Wilson. What I am now attempting to understand, is Sidney’s relationship with a woman claiming to be his aunt, in the hope that this will lead me to one of Sidney’s parents. She appears first, as Mrs J. Hammond, and the Register of Soldier’s Effects more helpfully records her as Jane Hammond.
Two addresses for Mrs Hammond, one at Egerton Cottage, in Paradise Road, Richmond and one at 59 Alexander Road, were listed in Sidney’s service records, so I spent quite a time looking at various records for those addresses for the period 1917–1922. I could not find a record listing a Mrs Hammond at either address. This does not rule out her being in the house, perhaps as an employee. Nor does any of the 16 “mother’s maiden names” suggest a connection to the two Jane Hammonds under scrutiny. There is no record of Sidney being admitted to a workhouse in Wandsworth.
I found a family of Hammonds in Richmond, at 15 Hill Street, including Jane Elizabeth Hammond, née Currie, (1831–1921) who had an unmarried daughter, Jane, born in 1855. We can’t rule the latter out as Sidney’s ‘aunt’. There is another Jane Hammond, née Guns (1855–1903) to consider, who lived all her life in Kingston, but as she died in 1903, she can’t have been the person striving for medals after Jane Dulley’s death in 1919.
The Register of Soldiers’ Effects has recently been digitised and Sidney appears on it. Equal payments of £7 13s 3d were made in 1917 to Jane Dulley and Jane Hammond, but a somewhat later supplementary payment of £5 10s was made to Ellen Burrows, Jane’s daughter and to “d[aughter] of Jane Hammond”. Was this because both the original legatees had died? If so, it may be relevant since Jane Dulley died in 1919 and Jane Elizabeth Hammond (née Currie) in 1921, aged 90 leaving four daughters, including a Jane, and two sons, any of whom might have had a role in Sidney’s life.
National Army Museum, Soldiers’ Effects Records, 1901-60. [NAM Accession Number: 1991-02-333; Record Number Ranges: 343001-344500; Reference: 181.]
The National Archives, WO 95/1579/1, War Diary for 1 Bn East Surrey Regiment, 22 July 1916.