One of the most enduring images of the First World War is of the seemingly endless rows of white gravestones, somewhere in a foreign field. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is responsible for maintaining cemeteries and memorials which stretch from the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres to the Helles Memorial in Gallipoli.
Sir Fabian Ware, a British Red Cross commander, started the Commission after being grieved at the number of casualties in the first years of the war. The mobile unit Sir Fabian commanded started to record and care for the graves they uncovered. By 1915, the unit had been officially recognised as the Graves Registration Commission and by 1917 the Imperial War Graves Commission had been granted a Royal Charter.
After the armistice, land and cemeteries for the dead were sought. Three architects were commissioned; Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker, and Sir Reginald Blomfield. Rudyard Kipling advised on inscriptions on the memorials.
Today school groups and tourists visit the war graves, in fact special trips are created for those who wish to learn more about the casualties. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website is an amazing resource which both local and family historians use frequently to find the names and memorials of the fallen.
However, not all casualties of the First World War were buried abroad. The fallen lie buried in our local cemeteries and churchyards too.
For instance, Private Alfred Jackson is buried in Tyldesley Cemetery. He died from wounds suffered at the Battle of the Somme. Alfred had been a member of the 1st Battalion of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who had fought at Gallipoli and then at the Somme.
The Somme was a hideous campaign. It lasted from the 1 July 1916 until November 1916. On the first day alone there were around 60,000 British casualties, 20,000 of whom were killed. Sixty per cent of all officers were killed on that first day too. A letter from a soldier which appeared in the Leigh Journal said that,
‘The trenches were full of dead and dying, and some of them have been 30 hours waiting for attention. Ambulances are running about at full-speed, and everybody is doing his best for them. I have seen over a hundred bodies in one line waiting to be buried’.
After he was wounded, Alfred wrote home to his mother telling her that, ‘we got a terrible handling. One of our men came to see me at the dressing station, and he told me that our battalion losses were very severe. But thank God every regiment did not get as tough a job as we bonnie Scotties’. Alfred also wrote it ‘shall be a good bit before I am right again. My left thigh is broken and they have not got the old iron out of my leg yet’.
Alfred was brought back home by ship but he died of his wounds on the 19 July 1916. Alfred received a military funeral and a firing party came from the Leigh Prisoner of War camp.
Many of those who lie buried in military graves died of diseases contracted whilst serving abroad. Nursing Sister Mary Ann Allen contracted malaria on the Mesopotamian front whilst serving at the 33rd British General Hospital in Basra. Mary recovered but the disease had considerably weakened her. On returning home to Tyldesley, Mary was appointed District Nurse but less than a year later Mary died from her weakened state. She is buried in Tyldesley Cemetery as well.
There are other female casualties who are buried in local cemeteries. Bertha McIntosh is buried in Atherton Cemetery with her family. Bertha died of TNT poisoning contracted whilst working at a National Filling Factory in Morecambe making munitions for battle ships. Both Bertha and her sister Ida had gone to work at the factory. On the 20 April 1917 Bertha had been taken ill, less than a month later she died on the 13 May at Royal Albert Edward Infirmary in Wigan. Bertha’s family received £50 in compensation for her death.
Another young lady called Margaret Ann Silcock also died from the effects of poison whilst working at the same National Filling Factory in Morecambe. Margaret was only 22 years old. She died on the 20 February 1917 at 1 Wright’s Yard, Wigan. Inquests were held for both Margaret and Bertha’s deaths. Both causes were cited as accidental. Margaret is buried at Wigan Cemetery (Lower Ince). Also buried at Wigan Cemetery (Lower Ince), are Samuel and Jane Tomlinson, husband and wife who were killed during the zeppelin air raid on Wigan. Before midnight on the 12 April 1918, a zeppelin dropped bombs on the Whelley, New Springs, Scholes and Lower Ince areas of Wigan. The bombs created huge devastation. Six people were killed, five of them outright, including Samuel and Jane Tomlinson. Samuel, a gas inspector, lived with Jane at 35 Harper Street. On the night of the raid Samuel and Jane were asleep in bed when the bomb fell. The blast from the bomb threw them both through a window and they died from the impact.
There are of course those who fought and survived the First World War buried in local cemeteries. These veterans are not always in graves which have memorials commemorating their service but one that does is that of Alfred Wilkinson, the Victoria Cross winner, who is buried in Leigh Cemetery. Alfred was awarded the Victoria Cross for volunteering to deliver a message under heavy fire. The message was to send assistance to his company who were under attack. The four runners who had volunteered to deliver the message before Alfred had all been killed. Alfred delivered the message through 600 yards of heavy machine gun fire. Assistance was eventually sent.
After the war, Alfred opened a sweet shop at 113 Etherstone Street with his wife Grace but he gave this up to work in the surveyor’s laboratory at Bickershaw Colliery. During the Second World War, Alfred assisted in the home guard. On 18 October 1940, Alfred was found dead at work. He had died from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a bird blocking the ventilation pipe. Alfred was buried in Leigh Cemetery will full military honours.
Over the years Alfred’s grave fell into disrepair. Encouraged by Bert Paxford on behalf of the Old Comrade’s Association of the Manchester Regiment, Wigan Council spent around £250 restoring Alfred’s grave. A black granite cross with the Victoria Cross inscribed on it now marks Alfred’s burial site.
This blog was written and researched by Hannah Turner from Leigh Local Studies.
- Image PC2013.46 Grave of Private Albert Oxley, killed in France in 1917, with a temporary cross to mark the location. Wigan Archives & Local Studies.
- Image PC2010.19 War memorial outside Top Chapel, Tyldesley, c. 1919. Wigan Archives & Local Studies.
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead.aspx
- Wigan & Leigh Archives Online http://archives.wigan.gov.uk/