180123 Sapper Ernest Wheeler,
106th Field Company, The Royal Engineers,
Killed in Action in France, 22 March 1918.
Sapper Ernest Wheeler served in the Royal Engineers, in the 106th Field Company and died on 22 March 1918. He was the son of Edward Wheeler and his wife, Alice Jane Marshall. Edward was born and grew up in Water Lane, Richmond, and, like his father, William, became a boatbuilder in Richmond. Edward was appointed a Queen’s Waterman, continuing as a King’s Waterman after Victoria’s death.
After their marriage in Richmond at St John’s Church, Edward and Alice began their family life at Grosvenor Cottage in Grosvenor Road, where their first three children were born. After Ernest’s birth, the family moved to Petersham where the youngest four children in the family were born. One of Ernest’s great-nieces has told me that not one of Edward’s children was induced to follow their father in the family tradition of working with boats. The family moved around a bit in Petersham, living at 3 Mayleigh Cottages and then at 4 Park Place. Later his parents moved to 10 Catherine Villas, in New Road, Ham, where they were recorded in the 1911 census. By that time, of their seven children only Walter and Aubrey had not yet left the nest.
Ernest, who for much of his working life was employed as a domestic gardener, was by living and working in Putney. Later that year, he married a Scottish lass, Mary McLennan, in the Strand Registration District.
Since Ernest’s service records are among those destroyed in 1940, we can only speculate when he might have enlisted. He was awarded the campaign medals known affectionately as Mutt and Jeff, the British War Medal and the Allied Victory Medal respectively. This suggests that he enlisted no earlier than 1916, at about the time that conscription was introduced. This was a time when the army’s need for experienced diggers and tunnellers was increasing, so Ernest’s background in horticulture would have appealed to the Royal Engineers.
The 106th Field Company, in which Ernest served, was one of the Royal Engineers’ Field Companies established as part of Kitchener’s 4th New Army. This field company supported the 25th Division from January 1915, to be joined in February by the 105th Field Company and in May, by the 130th.
The Field Companies provided the various Divisions in the British Army with technical support. At the start of the war, the British Expeditionary Force was made up of Six Divisions, and the decision was made to reorganise the existing 13 Field Companies, into 12 companies and to allocate two to each division. A month later, it was realised that more were needed and a third field company was provided. This was not nearly sufficient for the needs of a division.
Ernest’s older brother, Frederick William, Wheeler, Petersham’s postman in civilian life, also enlisted in the Royal Engineers, as a Sapper, and was fortunate to be based at Sandwich, in Kent, for his entire military service.
This postcard, which has an aerial view of Rouen on the reverse, was sent by Ernest to his nephew Maurice Edward Wheeler, always known as Dicky. Dicky was the son of his brother Frederick.
It is difficult to see the faded words without enlarging the image. The card reads:
from Uncle Ernie,
Somewhere in France.
While the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has Ernest’s date of death as 22 March, this is at variance with the following report of his death in the Richmond and Twickenham Times of 6 April 1918.
News has just reached us of the death in action in France on the 28th ultimo of Ernest Wheeler of the Royal Engineers, second son of Mr E. Wheeler, King’s Waterman and Mrs Wheeler of Sandpits Cottages, Petersham, with whom and the widow great sympathy is felt. The dead soldier was well known and respected in the parish and his death is regretted by a large circle of friends.
Like so many of those killed during the last week of March 1918, during the German Spring Offensive, or ‘Kaiserschlacht’, Ernest has no known grave. Besides his being commemorated on the Petersham Memorial, he is also listed on the Pozières Memorial to the Missing, which lists the names of 14 657 British and South African soldiers killed in the German Spring Offensive, who have no known grave.
There are six other Wheelers on the Pozières Memorial, one of whom was apparently ‘serving as Whelan’. Discovering there were at least six Ernest Wheelers serving in the Royal Engineers alone, with another among Richmond’s war dead, reminded me how popular the name Ernest had become in the fourth quarter of the 19th century.
Following Ernest’s death, Mary’s sister, Flora McLennan, came south to live with her sister in Islington, where Mary died in 1960, and her sister in 1962. A family photo suggests that, from time to time, over the years, these “Scottish aunts” came to Ham to visit Mary’s in-laws.
We have previously observed, in researching the people commemorated on the Petersham Memorial, how often the loss of a child on military service, was followed by the death of one or both parents. Sadly, Edward Wheeler, Ernest’s father, was one of those. He died in the autumn of the same year.
Photographs of Ernest Wheeler, in the possession of one of his relatives, are used in this post with her permission.
The Long, Long Trail, ‘Order of Battle of the 25th Division,’
http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/army/order-of-battle-of-divisions/25th-division/, accessed 29/12/2016.
The National Archives, WO 95/2235/4, War Diary of 106 Field Company Royal Engineers, Sep 1915–Feb 1919.
The Richmond and Twickenham Times, 6 April 1918, p.3
Houses in Petersham and Ham that are associated with Ernest Wheeler
Any relative wishing to know the current street addresses for the houses associated with the Wheelers, should feel free to contact me, using the Comment facility. For those not living in this area, I am willing to take photographs of all of them.
Update on changes to this post
The CWGC database provides no family information for Ernest, and it is only from the above report, mentioning “the widow” that this researcher became aware that there might be records of a marriage. Once the Register of Soldiers’ Effects became available for scrutiny, it revealed that Ernest’s sole legatee was his widow, and that her name was Mary. Research did locate a possible marriage for an Ernest Wheeler and a Mary McLennan.
At the time of first uploading this blog post, I could not, without paying for a copy of the certificate, have sworn in court that this was the correct marriage for Ernest and his widow, Mary. Ernest Wheelers were then marrying in significant numbers. In that first post, I indicated that I hoped one of Ernest’s relatives might be able to confirm this. One could.
When Ernest’s relative replied to my inquiry, she told me that I had solved a family puzzle for her. When younger, she had seen a photo of her grandmother holding her younger brother, in which two women, unfamiliar to her, were standing behind her grandmother. When she had asked who they were, they were explained to her as “the Scottish aunts, Mary and Flora”. When I had asked her if she could confirm that Mary was “the widow”, the penny dropped for her. Realising in turn, that the photo must have been taken after 1939, I was soon able to find more about Mary and Flora for Ernest’s great niece. Mary Wheeler and Flora MacLennan (sic) were recorded in the same household in Islington in the 1939 Register.