Alfred William Willis

Alfred was born on 17th March 1895, the eldest son of Alfred and Florence, née Merritt.

The Willis family were farmers, originally hailing from the Faccombe area of Hampshire, who took on tenancies at several farms in Welford parish from the 1880s onwards.  Their headstones line the south path at Welford churchyard.  The head of the family, Alfred Thomas Willis (1844 -1928), Alfred William’s grandfather, farmed first at Tullock, and then at Sole until 1917.  His son Alfred (1870 – 1954) married Florence, daughter of William Merritt, landlord of the Bell Inn at Boxford, in 1893, and farmed at Wickham Green Farm around the turn of the century before moving on to Elton a few years later. 

Alfred William, however, was actually born at Purley Downs, Sanderstead, Surrey, when the area was still an agricultural upland; perhaps his father had taken the tenancy of a farm there for a short period.

The 1911 census shows Alfred, age 16, living at home at Elton Farm, with his occupation given as ‘working on farm’.

Alfred enlisted at Newbury in early 1917, joining the 6th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, number 32836.  The 6th was a Service Battalion, chiefly composed of men from Berkshire, Birmingham and South Wales, which formed part of 53rd Brigade, 18th Division.

After enlisting, Alfred was released for a time to work on his father’s farm, then called up and sent to the Front in June 1917.  The 6th Royal Berks were in training in the Brigade Support Area at this time, and in the rest area at St Amand.

A major offensive - now known as the Third Battle of Ypres - was to commence on 31st July and the Battalion were to take part in the main British attack around the Menin Road.  On 3rd July the Berkshires began their move up to the Front, going by train to Cassel, then marching to billets at Steenvoorde, where they went into training specifically related to the forthcoming offensive, practicing on a replica of the combat area.

The 6th Royal Berks’ involvement in this attack, which proved to be a bloody affair for the Battalion, was a major event in their history; several pages are devoted to its description by the Regimental history, and it would not be possible to give a detailed account here.  In brief, the plan of attack was for 30th Division to capture the so-called ‘Black Line’ (which ran east of Shrewsbury Forest, Dumbarton Lakes and Inverness Copse and through the centre of Glencorse Wood), following which the 6th Royal Berks and other elements of 53rd Brigade would perform a ‘leap-frogging’ manoeuvre on this line and push forward to the final objective, Polygon Wood, 800 yards further on beyond the Menin Road. 

On the night of 30th July the Berkshires marched fully equipped for battle to Dickebusch Camp, a few miles south west of Ypres, from where they moved by platoons to their assembly positions on the west of Sanctuary Wood.  This march alone incurred casualties of two officers and 17 other ranks. 

The British attack began at daybreak the following morning and at 7:15am, despite the lack of confirmed reports that 30th Division were progressing as planned, the Berkshires began to head for their own forming-up position on the western edge of Glencorse Wood.  Enemy shelling caused several casualties as they crossed Sanctuary Wood, with the barrage becoming very heavy as they reached its eastern edge. 

The progress of the attack was now characterised by one of those tragic miscalculations which can all too frequently occur in the ‘fog of war’ and particularly in the type of conditions in which much of the fighting on the Western Front took place.  Reports were received by the Berkshires that Glencorse Wood had been taken as planned, and they therefore tried to push on to their forming-up position, despite the heavy German machine-gun activity to their front and left which seemed to contradict this information.  In fact, 30th Division had not taken Glencorse Wood at all, but had lost their direction and occupied Château Wood to the north, and 53rd Brigade therefore found themselves having to take by force positions they expected to have already been secured.

The Menin Road was reached, but the supporting tanks – about 17 in all – were ditched due to the marshy ground, and the Berkshires were unable to bring up their machine gun section or trench mortars.  The men were advancing in extended order, with casualties mounting from the deadly German machine gun fire, and the attack became somewhat disorganised, with progress only being gained by the individual actions of small groups of men edging forward from one shell hole to the next.

The Berkshires made a valiant attempt to form up and attack as originally planned, but as the Regimental history puts it, this was ‘nipped in the bud’ by enemy fire as the men rose.

It finally became possible to consolidate a line in the neighbourhood of Surbiton Villas, north of the Menin Road, with three companies holding the front line, a fourth in support in shell-holes 100 yards behind, and Battalion Headquarters set up on the road itself.  An expected counter attack did not materialise and the 6th Royal Berks were relieved at 2:30am the following morning by the 17th Liverpool.

Battalion casualty figures for the day reflected the formidable opposition they had met: Officers, three killed, five wounded; other ranks, 41 killed or died of wounds, one wounded and missing, 177 wounded, missing 27.

The news of Alfred Willis’ death in action on 31st July was initially conveyed to his parents by letters from two of his comrades, Taylor and Rogers, and also his Platoon leader, 2nd Lieutenant Edward Deane, before the official confirmation was received.  Their son had been killed by a shell blast which had caused his instantaneous death and severely wounded Rogers, with whom he was working that night.  Deane described him as ‘one of the most willing and likeable men in my platoon’.  He had been at the Front for approximately six weeks.

Alfred Willis has no known grave and is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres.