Frank Harry Wells

Frank Wells was the first Welford man on active service to die in the war.

He was born at Brightwell, near Wallingford, on 8th May 1881, to William Wells, a railway labourer, and his wife Emily, née Wing.  By 1891 the family had moved to Welford, with William now employed as a farm labourer.

Frank and his older brothers Robert and Frederick all followed their father into farm work, but at some point between 1901 and 1904 Frank enlisted in the Royal Berkshire Regiment; he appears in a photograph (in the possession of the Regimental Museum) taken at Inkerman Barracks, Woking in 1904, of the ‘Cubiclemen’ (i.e. barrack room orderlies) of ‘E’ Company, 1st Battalion.  At this time Frank held the rank of Private, regimental number 6581, but he was subsequently promoted to Lance Corporal, the rank he held at the time of his death.

In Frank’s time, a recruit would join for twelve years; he would serve the first five on active service, following which he could take a civilian job but would be eligible to be kept on the reserve for the remaining seven years.  He had to attend annual summer camp and was liable to be recalled to the colours in the event of a national emergency.

Frank returned to the parish on completion of his active service and took employment as a roadman with the Newbury Rural District Council.  The 1911 census shows Frank, age 31, and his brother James (both single) living with their widowed mother Emily at Wickham.  Frank’s occupation is given as ‘Roadman to District Council’.

On 7th June 1911 Frank married Elizabeth Annie Wilder of East Shefford, the daughter of Charles Wilder, a farm labourer, at his bride’s parish church.  The couple set up home at Old Inn Cottage, Church Hill, Wickham.

Following the declaration of war in August 1914, Frank would have been one of the hundreds of Reservists travelling to Aldershot to be assigned to his unit, issued with his uniform and equipment, and given any training necessary to bring him back up to standard after his years of civilian life.  Three of Frank’s brothers also enlisted in the early months of the war; Robert’s regiment is not known, but James served with the Wiltshire Regiment and Fred with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.  

The 1st Battalion Royal Berks was assigned to 6th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Division within the original British Expeditionary Force, and on 12th August 1914 they were taken by train to Southampton and then by two transport ships to Rouen, arriving on the 13th.

Following a short period of intensive training in camp near Le Cateau, the Battalion moved on into Belgium, and dug in about five miles from Mons with the rest of the Brigade, where they had their first experience of enemy shellfire.  On the 24th August they received orders to retire; from that date until 5th September they were part of the general retreat from Mons, by the end of which they had marched over 230 miles, and the subsequent advance back across the Aisne.

In mid-October the Battalion were moved north to Flanders, as part of the general relocation of the BEF, reaching the Ypres area on the 20th.  The town was being heavily shelled even as they arrived, and almost immediately they were thrown into action, for it was at this moment that the full force of the German army was being turned against the British and French lines to the east of the town in a sustained effort to break through to the Channel ports, at the beginning of what is now known as the First Battle of Ypres. 

On the 21st the Brigade marched north-east to Wieltje to join the rest of 2nd Division which was already in action either side of the Passchendaele road.  During the next few days they were in the thick of the fighting.  On the 24th they led the left of an attack to retake advanced trenches of 7th Division along the Passchendaele - Becelaere road, which was successful but resulted in heavy casualties amongst their officers; and two days later, 25 other ranks were killed by heavy shelling in the Battalion’s trenches.  Not surprisingly, these few days left the men exhausted and they were withdrawn to rest and reorganise.  Even in reserve, however, there was no respite from the enemy shelling, and further casualties were incurred.

At the end of October, the battle north of the Menin Road entered its decisive phase.  Through sheer determination, the BEF managed to hold onto its positions between Polygon Wood and Gheluvelt Château but there were now no reserves left to fill the gaps, and 2nd Division was almost down to Brigade strength.  The 1st Royal Berks held their line despite the fact that by now only one of its companies was able to put more than about 65 men in the field.  They were relieved on 6th November and spent a short period in reserve at Westhoek but were soon back in the line again, taking over positions on the Zonnebeke road from the Highland Light Infantry.  Like many of the units defending Ypres at this time, they were now well under half strength and exhausted; however, the Germans themselves were now sharing this exhaustion and their assault was beginning to run out of steam. 

Nevertheless, the shelling continued, and until they were withdrawn from the front line on 16th November for a month’s rest and refitting, the Berkshires continued to take casualties.  On the 12th the French troops on the left of the South Staffordshires lost some trenches and the enemy were observed crossing the Zonnebeke – Becelaere road within 600 yards of Battalion HQ; it was therefore decided to retire to a new line just east of the road.  ‘D’ Company were left in a forward position to hold off the enemy during the withdrawal but were driven out the following day, suffering some casualties in the process.

Frank Wells was killed in action on Saturday 14th November.  Although the Battalion War Diary for that day does not record any general engagements with the enemy, the trenches were being heavily shelled yet again and a large number of reinforcements were being brought into the line.

Frank’s wife suffered a long period of anxiety between receiving indirect information of his death, and the official postal notification on 4th January 1915.  In a cruel turn of events, she had already received a letter from the Record Office by the first post the same day, stating that her husband was probably well and serving with his regiment.

In paying tribute to Frank, the Welford Parish magazine described him as a man ‘highly respected by all who knew him’.

For the remainder of the war, the area in which Frank died was on or near the front line, and as a result most of the battlefield graves from this period were lost or destroyed by later fighting.  Frank Wells himself has no known grave, and is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing at Ypres.