L/Cpl Benjamin Willson 21689 Royal Engineers 308th Road Construction Company

who died on 10 April 1918

Family History

Benjamin Graham Willson was born on 21 March 1891, the son of Thomas and Mary Ann (Kitty) Willson. He had 7 siblings, 2 of whom died in childhood.

In 1891 the family was living in St. Leonard’s Road, Clarendon Park. Thomas was working as a joiner at the time and Benjamin was listed as Ben Graham, aged 1, on the census.

By 1892 the family was probably living in Evington as five of the Willson children were baptised there on 25 September. By 1901 they had moved to 16 Bartholomew Street, Highfields and in 1911 were living at 49 Biddulph Street and Benjamin was working as a bricklayer.

Benjamin was a keen rugby player and vice-captain of the Oadby Rugby Club in their final season before the war. Oadby was a popular and successful club. In the 1913-14 season they had won all of the local trophies available. Many players from outside Oadby would travel to play for the club and to join in the town’s social activities. This is very likely how Benjamin met his future wife, Thebais Maggie Weston.

Benjamin and Thebais married on 13 April 1914 at St Peter’s Parish Church, Oadby. Their daughter Edna Edith was born on 1 January 1916. Thebais was one of the ten children of Samuel and Maria Weston of East Street, Oadby. Two of her brothers were career soldiers in the Leicestershire Regiment. Samuel was killed in 1901 during the Boer War and George whilst serving with the Australian Infantry Force at Gallipoli in 1915. George E Weston is commemorated on the Oadby War Memorial also. After Benjamin enlisted Thebais and baby Edna moved from the marital home in Highfields to Cross St, Oadby.

Military Service

Benjamin attested on 9 December 1915, giving his address as 23 Laurel Road, Leicester and his occupation as bricklayer. During the winter of 1915 all men of military service age were required, under the Derby Scheme, to attest of their willingness to serve if called upon. They were placed on the army reserve awaiting call up. Most married, family men were not called up until after May 1916 but Benjamin was mobilised on 20 March 1916. He joined the Royal Garrison Artillery as a gunner and was posted to Bordon Camp, Hampshire for basic training. After a month he was promoted to an Acting Bombardier but five days later, at his own request, he reverted to the rank of gunner. During July Benjamin lost 3 day’s pay for being absent without leave from 12pm on 12 July to 11pm on 13 July.

Bordon Camp, Hampshire where Benjamin underwent basic training.

 

Benjamin embarked for France with the 160 Heavy Battery on 30 July 1916. In August he joined the 117 Heavy Battery. Heavy Batteries of the Royal Garrison Artillery were equipped with heavy guns, sending large calibre high explosive shells in fairly flat trajectory fire. The usual armaments were 60 pounder (5 inch) guns, although some had obsolescent 5 inch howitzers. As British artillery tactics developed, the Heavy Batteries were most often employed in destroying or neutralising the enemy artillery, as well as putting destructive fire down on strongpoints, dumps, store, roads and railways behind enemy lines.

A Heavy Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery towing 60 pounder guns

In March 1917 Benjamin was attached to the Advanced Transport Depot for duty with the Road Construction Unit.  On 20 April 1917 he formerly transferred to the Royal Engineers and was posted to 308th Road Construction Company on 2 May. As well as building roads, the Royal Engineers maintained railways, bridges and inland waterways, all essential for the movement of troops, equipment and supplies. They also maintained the telephones, wireless and other signalling equipment, all vital for communication.

Men of the Royal Engineers employed in railway construction

From 3 November to 17 November 1917 Benjamin was granted a furlough which we can probably assume was sufficient time for him to return home to Oadby. In March 1918 Benjamin was promoted to Acting Lance Corporal.

On 10 April 1918 Benjamin received a ‘Comminuted Fracture of the Skull’. A comminuted fracture is a break or splinter of the bone into more than two fragments. Since considerable force and energy is required to fragment bone, fractures of this degree occur after high-impact trauma such as in an artillery barrage. He was admitted to the 58th Casualty Clearing Station at Lilliers but was pronounced dead on arrival. Private Benjamin Willson is Buried with Honour at the Lillers Communal Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France.

Phone message and telegram informing of Benjamin’s death

 

Memorials

Benjamin Willson is Buried with Honour at Lilliers Communal Cemetery grave reference VF39. He is also remembered on the Oadby War Memorial.

Lillers Communal Cemetery

Benjamin Willson’s headstone in Lilliers Communal Cemetery

Lilliers Communal Cemetery was used by several different casualty clearing stations located in the area during the war years. Benjamin’s grave would have originally had a simple wooden battlefield marker. During the 1920s the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission established formal cemeteries with distinctive uniform headstones. Many of the original crosses were returned the casualties’ families. Benjamin’s was placed by the family in Oadby Cemetery. It is no longer there and enquiries suggest that, sadly, it was vandalised and removed

Benjamin’s original grave marker before it was removed from Oadby Cemetery

 

Other Family Members

On 17 September 1918 Benjamin’s widow, Thebais signed for his personal possessions which included letters, photographs, a wallet, a broken watch and fountain pen and a guards purse containing a key, a silver chain and 2 locks of hair.

Thebais never remarried. In 1937 their daughter Edna Edith married Robert W Bishop, a butcher. In 1939 Thebais was stayng with the couple and her grand-daughter Jillian at 52 Beaumont Leys Lane, Leicester.

On 6 June 1956 Robert and Edna Bishop emigrated to New Zealand with their four children, Jillian, Michael, Judith and Stephen, aboard the ‘Tamara’. The following year, on 7 June, Thebais joined them, sailing from London to Wellington, New Zealand on the ‘Eangitata’. At the time she had been living at 116 Moat St, Wigston Magna.

In 1972 Thebais was recorded on the electoral roll in Tamaki, Auckland, New Zealand along with her daughter’s family.