World War One: Casualty was soldier before hostilities began

Francis Webster's name in the Book of Remembrance in Drighlington Parish Church.

Francis Webster's name in the Book of Remembrance in Drighlington Parish Church.

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In the latest in our series, World War One researcher Philip Wheeler tells the story of Francis Webster, the second soldier from Drighlington to die in the fighting in 1914.

Francis Webster is unusual on the Drighlington War Memorial because he was actually a regular soldier before the war began, and had been so for at least three years.

Francis Webster's name on the Menin Gate Memorial.

Francis Webster's name on the Menin Gate Memorial.

The fact that he died early on in the war shows that it was the regular army which bore the brunt of the early fighting as the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were sent across the channel first to fight.

Walter Metcalf was also a regular soldier and was to die shortly after the war began. The census for 1911 records him as living at the Candahar Military Barracks at Tidworth, which is a garrison town 10 miles away from Andover in Hampshire. He was 22 years old in 1911 and may well have been a soldier for some time then.

The website ‘Ancestry.com’ wrongly transcribes the 1911 census for Francis (or Frank as he was known), stating that he was born in Darlington. However, the place of birth of Drighlington is clear on the 1911 census form and the soldier above is recorded as being born in Darlington, hence the error!

Francis Webster was born in 1889 in Drighlington. He was the son of Abraham and Sarah Webster who had five other children in 1901. The Webster family lived in Moorside, Drighlington at the time of the 1901 census. Ten years later the Websters were still living in Moorside, with Abraham at 66, still working as a coal miner at the coal face, being recorded as working as a coal ‘hewer’. Four children were still living with the family even then and as they had only three rooms and the children were aged from 36 to 13 space must have been tight.

At some stage Francis Webster was to marry his wife Annie. We know this because of the entry in the book of remembrance in Drighlington Parish Church. However, despite extensive searches of online records no marriage between the two can be found as being recorded.

When war broke out in August 1914 Francis was living in barracks in Dublin as his regiment was posted to city, which was then part of the United Kingdom.

The war diary for August 2 shows that they were at Portobello Barracks in Dublin on August 4, that on August 5 however they were to embark for service overseas. The diary records:

“Thursday August 13 1914, 11.30am. The Battalion parade for embarkation on SS Gloucestershire in two train loads, leaving barracks at 11.30am. The battalion and transport were all embarked by 6pm.

“Friday August 14 1914, 1.30am. The Battalion sailed from Port Dublin at 1.30am. The quarters on board were very close but all officers had sleeping berths in cabins and were comfortable”.

The ‘Dukes’ landed at Le Havre in France on Saturday August 15, disembarkation took place throughout the next night, though due to heavy rain the battalion had to house their men and equipment in buildings at the docks.

A few days later Francis Webster and his fellow soldiers were in Belgium and taking part in the Battle for Mons, one of the first engagements of World War One.

Within days they had lost many of their officers, either being killed, wounded or captured and over 300 other ranks were casualties.

For the next three months the Duke of Wellingtons were heavily involved in hand to hand fighting and rear-guard actions as the German army advanced through Belgium to northern France. By November 1 the battalion found themselves in Bailleul. On November 5 the battalion marched through Ypres to take over trenches near Menin Road.

They were either shelled or fell victim to German snipers as a dozen or so of the battalion were wounded along the march.

Sadly the diary for the day of November 8 is missing and so it is impossible to know exactly what happened on that day when Francis Webster is reported to have died.

However, he was to lose his life defending Ypres in the very earliest stages of the First World War.

The medal card record for Francis Webster does still exist and it simply reads ‘Pres. Dead’.

The remembrance book also notes that he was: “Reported missing on November 8 and presumed dead”.

His body was never found and his name is now carved upon the Menin Gate Memorial.

Francis Webster was the second Drig lad to die in action.

It was to be some eight months later that the third, Fred Speight, was to lose his life.