I was about ten years old when I was first shown a photograph of my grandfather in the uniform of a soldier of the Great War, along with his discharge papers and medals. I was, I suppose, instantly hooked on the entire subject: of course, my first question was what happened to him? What did he do? My Dad didn't know, as he was only six years old when his father died in 1941 aged 55.
It was not until some eight or nine years later when I was able to do some proper research, that I was able to seek answers to these questions. I started with the information I already had.
My grandfather was born on 14th February 1886 at West Ashton near Trowbridge in Wiltshire. He had two brothers and three sisters. His mother, Hannah, was a laundress, and his father, Alexander, was a hard-drinking Scotsman, a Gunner in the RHA serving in India for 15 years out of a total of 22 years service. On the 1881 census his occupation is given as Chelsea Pensioner.
The army discharge papers told me that 9930 Pte Ronald Stuart Mckillop had served in the Wiltshire Regiment in France and Flanders between 6th March 1915 and 19th April 1914 and was discharged on 31st May 1916, as he was no longer physically fit for War Service. His character was described as very good, sober, hard working. His distinguishing marks were a limp on his left foot, and a scar on his right leg.
My first call for some serious research was to the offices of the Wiltshire Times to look through the back issues around August 1914. I scanned the papers which measured about 3ft x 2ft!
West Ashton: Saturday 29 August 1914 - a recruiting meeting was held in the schoolroom. Lord Long called for recruits; twelve men stepped forward and Dr Bond accepted ten after examination. The ten men accepted were Frederick Barnett, George Coombs, Joseph Doel, Leonard Doel, Herbert George, George Harrison, Walter Hoddinott, Ronald Mckillop, Charles Sallabanks and William Sweetman.
So I already had more than I had hoped for - not only the date my grandfather had attested, but also a list of the men he had volunteered with - Ten of the First Hundred Thousand.
Lord Long who had addressed the meeting was Walter Long MP. His estate at Rood Ashton covered West Ashton and local men found employment either at the house or on the estate, including my grandfather. In his speech, Lord Long had said that if he had ten sons he would give them to his country, and implored the people of the village to do likewise. However, he also asked them to please give thought to gathering in the harvest from his estate before they enlisted!
Lord Long did indeed give two sons to his country. One, Brigadier General Toby Long C.M.G. D.S.O. served with the Scots Greys and was killed by a shell on 28th January 1917 whilst commanding 56th Infantry Brigade, 19th Division. He is buried at Couin.
Further reading of the columns then told me that, on 31st August 1914, the ten men who had attested on Saturday night were invited to breakfast at Rood Ashton House by the Rt. Hon Lord and Lady Long before travelling to Devizes by motor car to enlist. Crowds of wives, parents, and sweethearts cheered them off.
The Rood Ashton Volunteers after breakfast at Rood Ashton House 31st August 1914. (from Left) Ronald Mckillop, Walter Hoddinott, Herbert George, George Coombs, Frederick Barnett, Joseph Doel, Leonard Doel, Charles Sallabanks, George Harrison, William Sweetman.
One of their number, Charles Sallabanks, must have been in his element - he was butler at Rood Ashton house.
At Le Marchant Barracks, Devizes, home of the Wiltshire regiment, my grandfather enlisted with his fellow recruits, and got down to basic training. Six months later, my grandfather was put on a draft to the 2nd Btn Wiltshire regiment and arrived in France on 6th March 1915.
The 2nd Btn (regular) was part of 21st Brigade, 7th Division. This division was made up of regular battalions recalled from overseas garrisons, and had landed in France on 7th October 1914. The Division suffered losses of 10,000 men in three weeks and thus became known as the 'Sacrifice Division'. This draft of 85 NCO's and men joined the battalion at Estaires on 9th March 1915. The next day the Wilts were sent into action at Neuve Chapelle; the plan was to break through to Aubers Ridge a few miles behind the village. The attacks met with initial success by units of the 8th and Indian Divisions and the Wilts were held in reserve at an assembly position known as Cameron Lane, and were not called for until 2.30 p.m. that afternoon. They were ordered to assemble between a farm known as the Moated Grange, and the orchard, and to attack north eastwards There was a delay and it was not until 5.30 p.m. that the Wilts began sweeping northwards from the Moated Grange and captured one enemy officer and 180 men of the 13 Infantry regiment. After an advance of 200 yards they reached a wide ditch, which the Germans had hurriedly built into a flank position facing south, and after hand-to-hand fighting, progress came to an end. On 11th March little happened save for incessant shell and rifle fire.
On 12th March at 5 am a party of enemy who had crossed the maze of trenches attacked the Wilts. This assault was checked and held. Again at 9.30 am large numbers of the enemy attacked, moving forward along the old German trench line towards them.
In order to fight and drive the enemy back, General Watts' 2lst Brigade requested the loan of extra bombers from 20th Brigade. Bombers from the Wilts and Borders supported by the Scots Guards and the Border Regt advanced with great gallantry along the trenches to meet the Germans, forcing the enemy back to its main trench and quickly capturing 40 yards of it.
Almost 200 Germans surrendered to the right and left of the main trench, and 2 Coys of Wilts and 2 Platoons of Green Howards were rushed forward to occupy the trench in strength. The new line was established 150 yds from and parallel to, the Mauquissart - Chapigny road. The battalion was relieved on 14th March and marched into billets in 3 farms, half a mild north of Cameron Lane.
My grandfather came through the battle of Neuve Chapelle unwounded. The 2nd Wilts had losses of 58 killed, 167 wounded, and 2 missing. I came across a letter in the Wiltshire Times from a Sergeant of the Wilts to his wife who lived in Devizes. "The battalion has been doing great things, the Wilts and Borders took 350 prisoners, but have had very narrow escapes - bullets through trousers and coat!". Overall the Battle of Neuve Chapelle could be counted as a blood-soaked draw with about 12,000 casualties on either side.
During the following week the Wilts were held in reserve, cleaning up and refitting, and training for the next attack (Aubers Ridge). My grandfather was listed as wounded on 23rd March 1915. As the battalion was not in the line, I can only guess that it happened on a working party, by machine gun or shellfire There was a story that my grandfather had lain on the battlefield for three days and nights before being rescued - its difficult to say whether its based on fact. But some years ago I had the privilege of meeting a Veteran of the 2nd Wilts battalion who remembered rescuing some wounded men from No Mans Land about that time, so who knows? My only clue came from my grandmother who told me that the scar on his right leg was shaped like a huge maple leaf, and he had trouble using some of the fingers on his right hand. I assume my grandfather was shipped to hospital in England on 19th April 1915 when his service with the BEF ended. I know that he was in hospital in Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham. So ended by grandfather's active war service with a total of six weeks at the front.
Only one man from the original ten volunteers from West Ashton was killed. 9927 Sgt Leonard Doel MM 1st Wilts, died of wounds on 10th September 1916 at Abbeville, aged 21. He is buried in Abbeville Communal Cemetery, plot 6, row c, grave 18. He received his Military Medal for devotion to duty.