The Porthcawl man who died fighting with The Anzacs – local history by Ceri Joseph

Thursday, 1 June 2017

By Contributed Item
in Local People

Porthcawl historian Ceri Joseph, of Porthcawl Museum, continues her series on Porthcawl at war, 100 years ago. This month, it’s June 1917.

In the winter of 1916, General Sir Herbert Plumer had begun making plans for a major offensive at Messines Ridge; the aim of which was to gain control of the higher ground south east of the Ypres Salient, near Hill 60.

From January 1917, the allies, many of them Welsh miners, dug approximately, 8,000 metres of tunnel and placed 600 tons of explosives under the German lines.

On June 7, under Plumer’s orders, a simultaneous detonation of all 19 mines caused such a massive explosion, that it was heard in London.

Under a creeping barrage, three corps, of the British Second Army, were then sent forward and within three hours had captured their primary objectives.

One of the corps involved in the attack, was the II Anzac Corps commanded by Lieutenant-General A Godley. It contained the 3rd Australian Division, experiencing service on the Western Front for the first time.

Further attacks between June 8 and June 14 advanced the British line even further; supported by the 4th Australian Division, they took the German ‘Oosttaverne’ Line from the German 4th Army.

Throughout the assault the Australians lost 6,800 men, one of whom was Private Edward Burnell Wilkins, 44th Infantry Battalion, 3rd Australian Division, who was killed by German shellfire on June 8.

In a letter to his father, Henry Wilkins, Sgt Rumford wrote: “ Ted was on his way to the officer in command of the company with a message, which he delivered after great personal risk. On his way back to his post, he was forced to take shelter for a short period in a shell-hole, when a German shell burst very close to him and caused him instant death.”

One of seven children, Ted was born October 1889, in a cottage, adjacent to the now forgotten Lamb Inn in Nottage, to Henry and Elizabeth Wilkins. Henry was a stonemason and Ted followed him into the trade, being apprenticed, as a bricklayer, to William J Jackson of New Road Porthcawl.

On May 23, 1913, Ted and his cousin Cradock Burnell, also of Nottage, emigrated to Freemantle, Perth, Australia, from London docks, on the RMS Osterley, Within a few years, the ship would be used as an Australian troopship, making 59 return voyages.

Ted settled in Perth and continued his trade, bricklaying, until December 30, 1915 when he enlisted into ‘A’ Company 44th Battalion/ 11th Brigade. Service No 979. On June 6, 1916, aboard the HMAT ‘Suevic,’ the 44th sailed for England, landing at Plymouth on 21st July 1916.

Whilst the battalion was undergoing training on Salisbury Plain, Ted was given a few days leave, which he spent visiting his family in Nottage. On November 25, the Battalion left Southampton for France where, during the following months they spent their time, training or labouring.

On April 14, a couple of months before Messine, Private Edward Wilkins was allocated the duty of being a stretcher-bearer, which he continued to do until his death. He is buried at Kandahar Farm Cemetery, near Ypres.

Notably his gravestone bears the inscription, ‘KNOWN TO BE BURIED IN THIS CEMETERY.’

Unfortunately, as a result of so much shelling and the chaos of war, many Australian bodies proved unidentifiable when the CWGC came to reorder the cemetery. Therefore, although they know that Ted is buried within the cemetery grounds, they could not specify where. Hence, the inscription.

On the day Ted was killed, General John Pershing, Commander in Chief of the American troops, landed at Liverpool, where he was met by King George V. By September 1918, an estimated 844, 000 US soldiers had passed through Liverpool on their way to France.

Many American soldiers were billeted across Merseyside, with an American Army Rest Camp established at Knotty Ash. On June 13, General Pershing and the 1st Division AEF landed in France. Even by October 31, 1917, the AEF only numbered 6,064 officers and 80,969 men, which curtailed American involvement in the war activities of 1917.

However, as a result of the German spring offensive of 1918, in June and July 1918, America sent over 584,000 men. One of them, attached to the 58th US Infantry, would be Private Clifford Prosser Lewis who was also born in Nottage. Private Lewis’s story will be told at a later date.

On June 13, the day the Americans arrived in France, 18 German bombers made a daylight raid on London. The Gotha bombers were deployed from a base in Belgium and left 162 killed, of which 46 were children attending Poplar Infants School that day.

This was the first successful use of bombers, replacing the now defunct Zeppelins and led to official safety measures being devised for civilians. Up to this point few precautions were taken by civilians – many had run into the streets to observe events!

Whilst Porthcawl seemed a long way from such danger, the effects of war continued to touch the town. June witnessed the funerals of two respected residents, who sadly had died through the wounds they had suffered on active service.

Private Ernest Davies, Welsh Regiment, had eventually succumbed to the bullet he had received in the head, six months earlier at the Somme, whilst Corporal Robert John, Royal Engineers, died of the trench fever he had contracted in April.

Both funerals were held at St John’s Church, Newton under the guidance of the Rev Thomas Holmes Morgan, Rector of the Parish.

At their respective family gravesides, a volley of three shots was executed and the Bugle Band of the Porthcawl Voluntary Training Corps, played the Last Post. (Both soldiers’ biographies have appeared in previous issues)

Elsewhere in Porthcawl, Mr Philip and Mrs. Elizabeth Harding, celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary on June 1. Philip Harding had been in the employ of the GWR since 1865; two years more than his marriage.

Arriving from Cornwall, his first job was as gateman on the Porthcawl dock before becoming the railway Station Porter. His intention had been to retire in 1914 but he was heard to say: “I am too old to go and fight, but I will continue to do my duty by remaining here until the war is over.”

Mr Harding having worked for three years at the new railway station, which opened in 1916, retired in August 1919 aged 72. Mr and Mrs Harding had 10 children and 12 grandchildren. Sadly, Mrs Harding died in December 1917. Philip died in 1933 aged 87.

Tragically on Tuesday, June 6, 1917 a soldier, convalescing at the Rest Home, drowned whilst bathing in the sea. Private William Michael Fisk, 9th Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers, entered the water about 100 yards west of the home and swam outwards.

According to witnesses he turned as if to swim along the beach when he suddenly shouted for help. Unfortunately, he disappeared before assistance good get to him. Private Fisk was 31 years old, married with four children and had been a coalminer before the war in Durham.

Finally, it is worth noting that the success at Messines, earlier in the month, had ironically, lulled Allied senior commanders into a false sense of achievement. Bolstered by victory, they became too complacent and naively expected even more success in their next major attack – the Third Battle of Ypres at Passchendaele.

Beginning on July 31, the months that followed would prove to be one of the worst campaigns of the war.

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