Tag Archives: Wales

CWG: Serjeant Major Charles Willcox

Sergeant Major Charles Willcox

The early life of Charles Willcox is a bit of a mystery. From fragments of information, we can determine that he was born in 1893 and had a brother called Edmund and a sister called Beatrice. His mother was a Mrs S Willcox, who, by the early 1920s was living in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Piecing together the tiny pieces of information online, it seems likely, therefore, that his parents were Frank and Sarah Willcox. Frank was a cabinet maker and upholsterer, he and Sarah were from Bridgwater in Somerset, and they had eleven children.

By 1895, Frank had moved the family from Somerset to Cardiff; Charles was the last of the siblings to be born in England. The family did eventually move to South Africa – alongside Sarah, both Beatrice and Edmund lived and died there in their later years.

Back to Charles and, once the Great War started, he was quick to enlist. He joined the Somerset Light Infantry in August 1914, and had a narrow escape in October of that year. The Bridgwater Mercury reported that he was in the trenches and had had a near miss when his backpack was hit by a shell.

Corporal Willcox was wounded at Ypres in November, when a piece of shrapnel hit him in the shoulder, went through the lung and had to be cut out of the centre of his back. He was expected to make a full recovery within a year. Charles was also awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions in the battle.

In September 1915, Sergeant Willcox received another award; the Russian Cross & Order of St George; the Bridgwater Mercury noted that Charles was the first man from the town to be awarded both this and the DCM. The town’s mayor also subsequently presented him with a gold watch and chain on behalf of the town.

Promotion continued for Charles, and, by 1917, he had been elevated to Company Sergeant Major. He was heavily involved in recruitment for the Somerset Light Infantry, and it is likely that, standing at a strapping 6ft 4ins (1.93m) tall and weighing in at 17st (107kg), he would have been the perfect advert for the battalion.

When the war came to a close, things quietened down for him. A keen sportsman – he played rugby for Somerset – he had been a gym instructor in the army, and had taken up boxing around 1912. He entered a novices’ boxing competition in Southampton in December 1919, and found himself up against Seaman Merrilees, from the HMS Hearty.

In the fight, Charles received a body blow and a blow to the jaw, he fell to the floor, landed awkwardly and was knocked out. Attended to by doctors in the sports club, he was sent to Charing Cross Hospital when he did not regain consciousness after a couple of hours.

At the hospital, bruising was reported to Charles’ eye and cheek, but no skull fracture was found. They operated on him, two pieces of bone were removed, and a large clot on the left-hand side of his brain discovered. Sadly, the operation did no good, and Charles died that afternoon, the 4th December 1919. He was just 26 years old.

His death was recorded as concussion and a cerebral haemorrhage, attributed to the fall he had had in the ring. An inquest was held, although one report suggests a verdict of accidental death, while another states excusable homicide by misadventure.

Charles Willcox lies at rest in the Wembdon Road Cemetery in his home town of Bridgwater in Somerset. His gravestone remembers that he lived for sport, died for sport and always played the game.

Image from wembdonroadcemetery.com

CWG: Private William Collins, AKA Geoffrey Clark

Private Geoffrey Clark / Private William Collins

One of the things I have found during this research is that occasionally a mystery will come to light. In the case of the gravestone in the Somerset village of Coxley – nestled on the main road between Wells and Glastonbury – it was the very identity of a person buried there that threw me.

The headstone in question simply says “WG Collins served as Private G Clark in the Army Veterinary Corps”, but the research tools I normally use drew blanks.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website confirmed that the second name is Geoffrey Clark, but does not give full names for WG Collins.

Unfortunately, the Findagrave website does not have the burial listed under either name, so that too was a dead end.

The British Newspaper Archives site – a record of media across the UK covering 250 years – similarly has no entry for either name around the time of his death, which suggests it was either not ‘out of the ordinary’ (not headline-grabbing) or his death and funeral were just not submitted to the local paper.

Fold3 – which stores military records – has a record for 9978 Private Geoffrey Clark. The Register of Soldiers’ Effects confirms that a war gratuity was awarded to his sister, Ada Jane Waldron, after his death.

And, as it turns out, it was Ada who proved the key to the mystery of her brother. Working on the basis that Ada’s maiden name was Collins, I used Ancestry.co.uk to try and track her down. The site presented a family tree featuring both an Ada Jane Collins and, more importantly, a William George Collins, and the game was afoot…

William George Collins was born in the Somerset village of Coxley in the summer of 1889. He was the youngest of seven children – Ada was his oldest sister – to James Collins, an agricultural labourer, and his wife Jane.

Following the death of his mother in 1901, and his father a decade later, it’s evident that William wanted to make his way in the world. By the 1911 census, he had moved to Wales, working as an attendant at the Glamorgan County Lunatic Asylum. The asylum, which was in Bridgend, South Wales, was home to nearly 900 patients, and William acted as one of the 120 staff looking after them.

War was on the horizon, however, and the mystery surrounding William returned once more. Military records for William (or Geoffrey) are limited; he enlisted in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps in the summer of 1915 and was shipped to France in September of that year.

There is no record why he enlisted under the name Geoffrey Clark, nor does there seem to be any evidence of either names in his family. As to his passing, there is nothing to give a hint to how he died. All that can be confirmed for certain is that he passed away at the University War Hospital in Southampton on 25th October 1918, at the age of 32.

William’s probate records give his address as Railway Terrace in Blaengarw and show that his effects went to his sister, Ada.

William George Collins – also known as Geoffrey Clark – lies at peace in the graveyard of Christ Church, in his home village of Coxley.