Bill Blakey – a Life Cut Short
My Great-uncle, John William Blakey, was born at Hameringham near Horncastle, Lincolnshire on 17th December 1879 – the third child of Tom and Emma Blakey. Eventually he would be part of a family of 9 children: the first, Eliza Mary, being born on 29th September 1876 and the last, Ethel, on 10th October 1892. Tom and Emma Blakey were married on 14th May 1877. His brothers and sisters lived to a ripe old age but Bill didn’t.
Tom Blakey was a farm foreman and Bill seems to have followed in his father’s footsteps by going into farm work. In 1901, aged 21, he was living in the household of Henry Billings, a farm foreman, at Thornton near Horncastle. He was employed as a waggoner. In 1911, Bill still lived in the household of Henry Billings. This time though the address is given as Martin near Horncastle and his occupation is given in the census return as agricultural labourer.
In 1914 Britain declared war on Germany. At first, Britain relied on volunteers to fight the war – half a million men volunteered in the first few weeks. Gradually as enthusiasm for the war waned volunteering tailed off.
Consequently the Government decided on conscription and on 27th January 1916 the Military Service Act was passed. All British men who on 15th August 1915 were ordinarily resident in Great Britain and who were 19 but were not yet 41 and who on 2 November 1915 were unmarried or a widower without dependent children were deemed to have enlisted.
Amongst those to whom this would have applied was the unmarried Bill Blakey. The men were placed into classes according to their year of birth. They were to be called up by class. Class 1 – those born in 1897; Class 2: those born in 1896: class 3 for 1895 etc. William Blakey was in class 19. Notices were put up in public places, stating when each class would be called up. In additional each individual received his own notice. It was up to the individual to report for duty at the appropriate time and place. There were penalties both for not reporting and for assisting others to fail to report.
Conscription was organised at the national level and conscripts could be allocated to regiments anywhere in Britain perhaps hundreds of miles from home. Faced with this prospect, many including Bill opted for their local regiment prior to being conscripted.
Bill, who was living at 43 West Street, Horncastle and was described as an agricultural labourer, was recruited to the 6th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment on 19th June 1916. ‘Agricultural labourer’ was not one of the many occupations exempt from the call up though ‘waggoner’ was.
The 6th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment was part of the New Army or Service Battalions created by Lord Kitchener (Secretary of State for War) in 1914 and based initially at Belton Park near Grantham. The Battalion served first of all in Turkey (Gallipoli) in 1915 and then in France being involved in the Battle of the Somme. This battle – usually dated 1st July to 18th November 1916 – was a counter-attack by Allied commanders which had the purpose of taking the pressure off the French forces beleaguered at Verdun, following a German attack.
The new recruits
Having sailed from Alexandria (Egypt) in July 1915, the 6th Battalion travelled from Marseilles to the battlefields of Northern France, arriving on the front line (the Arras-Beaurain-Bapaume Road) on July 22nd. In the late summer and autumn, the Battalion was in and out of the front line. New recruits joined the Battalion on three occasions during the Autumn: on the 4th of October (4 NCOs and 29 men), on the 17th of November (15 other ranks) and the 25th of November (‘a draft of 103’). Bill Blakey must have been one of these recruits though the records do not specify who joined when.
By the 14th of November the 6th Battalion had returned to the front, ‘to a wretched part of the battlefield, a ravine west of Beaucourt, where the front line consisted largely of shell-holes, unconnected, and full of mud and water’ (Simpson 1931). There the Battalion supplied working parties for the front line battalions. This involved negotiating the road from Hamel to Beaucourt with a high bank on one side and the River Ancre on the other. There was no hiding place from enemy bombardment.
On November 24th the Battalion relieved the 7th South Staffordshire Regiment on the frontline itself. The Battalion held the line on the north bank of the Ancre, a mile east of Beaucourt and just opposite Grandcourt. The weather was very wet and cold and the battalion had to endure particularly heavy shelling on the 25th and 27th of November. The intense German bombardment resulted in six casualties on the 25th and 37 casualties including 7 dead on the 27th. Amongst the dead was Bill Blakey. On the 28th of November the Battalion was relieved by the 8th Duke of Wellingtons Own and moved out of the front line to Forceville.
Bill Blakey’s grave is in the Queens Cemetery, Bucquoy, just south of Arras in Pas de Calais. He is also commemorated in Thimbleby Church near Horncastle. He was awarded the Victory medal and the British War Medal. There are a lot of ‘what ifs’ connected to Bill’s fate. If he’d still been a waggoner or if he’d married or if he’d waited to be called up he would not have been amongst the dead on November 27th. He was though and so is one of the many who gave their lives in a war whose outcome achieved little apart from sowing the seeds for a second world war. Bill will never be famous, was unmarried, left no direct descendants and evidently had few ‘achievements’. He deserves to be remembered nevertheless.
Arthur, M. (2006) Forgotten Voices of the Great War. London: Ebury Press
Simpson, C.R. (Ed) (1931) The History of the Lincolnshire Regiment 1914 – 1918. East Sussex: Naval and Military Press Ltd
Spring, F.G. (2008) The History of The 6th (Service) Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment 1914 – 1919. Raleigh, North Carolina: Poacher Books
Lincolnshire County Council Archives (War Diaries of the 6th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment)
The National Archives (census information and war records)
A version of this article first appeared in Lincolnshire Past & Present No. 90 Winter 2012/13 – a publication of The Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology (slha.org.uk).