Wilfred James Simmons

Wilfred was born on 11th September 1893 in the upper lodge to Wormstall Estate, on the Wickham to Newbury road.  He was the eldest surviving son of Samuel John Simmons (1860 - 1929) and Mercy (1854 - 1943), née Hughes.  Both of his parents were of well-established families in the parish.  Several generations of the Simmons family had lived at Hoe Benham, and Samuel, a bricklayer by trade, was a Lay Preacher at the Primitive Methodist Chapel at Wickham Heath.  Likewise, the Hughes family had been well known in the Welford and Wickham area for many years as sawyers and carpenters.

Wilfred attended Wickham School until the age of 12, when he took and passed the Labour Exam at the Wesleyan School in Hungerford, enabling him to start work before the normal school leaving age of 14.  He became a carpenter, working with his father as a two-man team, not for one of the local landed estates as most of their neighbours did, but on their own account.  Some of the farm buildings they worked on in the Hoe Benham area are still standing today.

Wilfred was a keen cyclist, and he and his brother Samuel, who were great friends, went everywhere by bicycle together, going as far afield as Reading, Swindon, and Andover, where they visited cousins.  He also enjoyed woodcarving in his spare time, and examples of his work are still preserved by the Simmons family.

It is believed that at some time during his civilian life, Wilfred tried to join the Police Force but was turned down, apparently for being half an inch too short.

The 1911 census shows Wilfred, age 17, living at home, with his occupation described as ‘assistant to father – building’.  At this time, and at the outbreak of war, the family home was one of the cottages at the foot of Fir Tree Hill, now known as Lipholt, then owned by the Charrington family of Wormstall House.  Wilfred was engaged to a Hungerford Newtown girl named Jenny Holmes. 

Wilfred enlisted for military service in October 1915 - at Newbury, according to official records - but refused to be a combatant, and so volunteered for service as a Private with the Royal Army Medical Corps, becoming a Stretcher Bearer with 35th Field Ambulance, service number 12670.

Two of Wilfred’s brothers were also to see active service in the war.  Richard (b. 1896) went to France as a Driver with the Army Service Corps, having previously been an apprentice at Plenty’s engineering works in Newbury.  Samuel (b. 1894) belonged to the Newbury branch of the Red Cross and went from there to the Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley, doing the journey by bicycle whenever possible.  However, some service with the Berkshire Yeomanry had shown him to be a first-class shot, and later in the war he was posted to the Western Front with the Machine Gun Corps.

Wilfred first joined his unit in Egypt, where as part of 11th (Northern) Division, it was employed on ‘A’ Section of the Suez Canal Defences, following its withdrawal from Gallipoli in December 1915.  With him he took his carpentry manuals, bought in Swindon before the war, a reminder of more peaceful times.

In late June 1916 Wilfred found himself shipped to France with his Division, landing at Marseilles in July.  That year they saw action on the Somme, at the Battles of Flers-Courcelette and Thiepval.  By 1917 they were in the Ypres Salient, taking part in many of the actions which made up the Third Battle of Ypres, including those at Messines, Langemarck and Poelcapelle.

Stretcher Bearers like Wilfred carried out unrelenting, backbreaking toil in the face of constant danger.  Besides dealing with casualties in the field and transporting the wounded, they also often found themselves employed on burial duties in the graveyards developing around many of the dressing stations.  Thus, even when not at immediate risk from enemy action, they always faced the prospect of contracting an illness or disease in the course of their everyday work.

Wilfred died of a chest infection/fever while on active service in France on Monday 31st December 1917, at the age of 24.

He is buried in Chocques Military Cemetery, which is set in farmland just outside the small town of that name, about four kilometres northwest of Béthune.  No.1 Casualty Clearing Station was situated here from January 1915 to April 1918, and most of the burials from this period are those of men from both sides who died at the Clearing Station from wounds received in the fighting on the Béthune front.

The Newbury Weekly News reported that over 80 of Wilfred’s comrades voluntarily attended his funeral to pay their respects, his Colonel writing: “Throughout his service he was one of the most useful and popular men in the Field Ambulance.  As a carpenter his work was of great service to the country, and those who knew him will miss him sadly”.

To Wilfred’s headstone has been added the inscription:

In loving memory of our dear son and brother, fiancé and friend.