Pioneer William Wrightson, Wylam on Tyne, Durham & Newcastle. Died 21/03/1918 age 20. Royal Engineers “E” Special Coy. Service No.214409. Commemorated at Pozieres Memorial, France, Panel 10 to 13.
William Wrightson’s entry on the Central Council Roll of Honour, held at St Paul’s Cathedral
The research below is kindly provided by Helena Bates. Many thanks to the Wylam History Society for their detailed research which offers such a rich insight into William’s life.
William was born in 1898 the first child of Robert William Wrightson of Sunderland who worked as a railway company clerk and his wife Isabella Brown Waugh, a local girl from Wylam Wood cottages. The couple had married the previous year and moved into 5 Burgoyne Terrace, Wylam to share the house tenanted by her grandfather, Michael Varty who was still an active miner at 70, but who had recently become a widower.
By the 1911 census the family were still living at Burgoyne Terrace, but had increased to eight now with three sons William 13, John 11, and Robert 4 and two daughters Lilian 9 and Jane 7, together with grandfather Michael 80 and the parents.
The 1911 census does not record any occupation for William at 13 and the details of his army records and employment when he enlisted have not been traced. However, we know he became a Pioneer in a special company within the Royal Engineers. By chance a brief item in the Hexham Courant 1st December 1917 mentions ‘Pioneer William Wrightson of Burgoyne Terrace is home for a few days leave. We also know that William was a bell-ringer at St. Oswin’s Church, Wylam. He fought at Vimy Ridge and now at Arras. He sees to the gas tanks and one hopes his mixture is more deadly than Keatings. Having celebrated his 20th birthday in the trenches we hope he may celebrate his 21st in the dear homeland.’
Sadly William Wrightson never achieved his 21st birthday; he was killed in action on 21st March 1918. The Hexham Courant reported it on 25th May 1918 under ‘Wounded & Missing’ Pioneer William Wrightson son of Mr. & Mrs. Wrightson, Burgoyne Terrace, Wylam.
The Special Companies Royal Engineers
The Special Companies at the start of the war
No Special Companies existed in 1914. They were a war time invention. The Great War was the first in which chemical weapons were deployed. There was great moral shock and outrage at the first use of Chlorine, released by the Germans against defenceless French troops in the Ypres Salient. The Special Companies of the Royal Engineers were formed to develop the British response. By 1918, gas was used both offensively and defensively, delivered by a range of sophisticated techniques.
The first Special Companies are formed
As early as 3 May 1915 the British Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, authorised the preparation of measures to retaliate against the German use of poison gas. Experimental research work was carried out at Porton, and a laboratory established at Helfaut, near St Omer in France. The Kestner-Kellner Alkali Company, being the only firm in Britain capable of manufacturing Chlorine gases in quantity, supervised trials with the final large-scale one taking place at Runcorn on 4 June. The method – as used by the Germans – was to form a continous cloud by discharging compressed gas from cylinders to the atmosphere, and allowing the wind to move it over the enemy positions.
Special Companies of technically skilled men, under Major C.H. Foulkes of the Royal Engineers, were formed with a Depot at Helfaut, to deal with the new weapon. Nos 186 and 187 Special Companies were formed first, in July 1915, followed by 188 and 189 Companies in August. All of the men were given the rank of Chemist Corporal. On 4 September 1915 the first two Companies, totalling 34 Sections of 28 men, were assigned to First Army for forthcoming operations.
The Special Brigade is formed
Despite the limited results achieved by the cloud gas discharge at Loos, it was believed sufficiently successful to warrant further development. One of the first acts of Sir Douglas Haig on his appointment as Commander-in-Chief was to request that the War Office expand the four Special Companies of the RE into a more substantial force, viz.
• Four Special Battalions, each of four Companies, to handle gas discharge from cylinders and smoke from candles;
• Four Special Companies to handle gas shells fired from 4-inch Stokes mortars. Each Company to have 48 such weapons;
• Four Special Sections to handle flame projectors (throwers);
• plus a Headquarters and Depot, making all all an establishment of 208 officers and 5306 men.
This request was approved and the Brigade built up by adding volunteers from units already in France to the four original Companies. Later, drafts from England would join. The force was designated the Special Brigade. It was placed under the command of Col. C.Foulkes, RE, who was appointed Assistant Director of Gas Services; he reported to Brigadier-General H.Thuillier, RE, Director of Gas Services. Lt-Col. S.Cummins, RAMC acted as Director of Anti-Gas Measures.
By the end of May 1916, No 1 Special Battalion and No 2 (less a Company) were allocated to Fourth Army; No 3 (less a Company) to Second Army; No 4 (also less a Company) to Third Army. No 4A Battalion was provisionally formed from the three detached Companies, and was attached to First Army. No 5 Battalion was the Stokes mortar unit, and had 3 Companies attached to Fourth Army and 1 to Third Army. The Flame Projector Sections arrived in France 26 June 1916. Special units continued to be developed through the rest of the war.
Ringing took place to remember William Wrightson:
Durham & Newcastle Diocesan Association
Wylam on Tyne, Northumberland
Wednesday, 21 March 2018 in 0:46 (22–0–20 in E)
1260 Plain Bob Doubles
Composed by Trad.
1 Graham Wright
2 Joel A Cairns*
3 Barbara Sutton
4 Kevin Webster
5 Andrew J Cairns (C)
6 David L Henderson
Rung half-muffled in memory of Pioneer William Wrightson, “E” Special Company, Royal Engineers, who died this day a century ago and is commemorated on the Pozières Memorial in the Somme.
He was a St. Oswin’s ringer and this quarter was rung by a Wylam band.
William Wrightson, we have remembered you.
The Wylam band, front left to back right.
Wednesday, 21 March 2018 in 44mins
1280 Plain Bob Major
1 Barbara Wheeler
2 Elizabeth Thompson
3 Julie Bell
4 Sonia Thompson
5 Richard M Grainger
6 J Michael Procter
7 Stephen B Bell
8 Howard E J Smith (C)
The bells of this Cathedral Church of St. Nicholas were rung today as part of “Ringing to Remember” – the Durham & Newcastle Association of Church Bellringers First World War ringing commemoration. On this day one hundred years ago a bellringer from Wylam on Tyne was killed. We rang to celebrate his life and the ultimate sacrifice that he made.
Pioneer William Wrightson.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
Sources: UK soldiers died in Great War 1914-1919 Commonwealth War Graves Commission; 1901/1911 Census; www The Long Long Trail; Hexham Courant 01/12/1917 & 25/05/1918