This blog post was written by Tony Ashcroft, and was originally published in Past Forward – Wigan’s local history magazine.
In the early years of the First World War there was a call for mobilization and many enlisted. Leigh’s Drill Hall in Ellesmere Street was one of the main recruitment centres. Initially there was a great deal of optimism about the outcome, but by the end of the war families throughout the country had felt the effects of the loss or disability of a loved one.
The enormous effects of war can be mind numbing because of the large number of casualties in an event which occurred a century ago; the reality can be felt more readily today when the details of individuals are known to relatives still alive.
This article is a record of two local brothers from the Firs Lane area of Leigh, by the names of Joseph and Charles Simm whose lives were affected by the events of 1914. One brother survived the conflict; the other lost his life in 1916.
Joseph Simm, D.C.M. (1894-1976)
Joseph, the son of Joseph and Alice Simm (nee Ogden) was born in 1894. The family lived in the Firs Lane area of Leigh. Joseph, like many sons followed his father into coal mining and found work in the Plank Lane Coal Pit (Bickershaw Colliery).
On 21 January 1913 Joseph married Alice Unsworth in St Peter’s Church, Firs Lane. Their first child Elizabeth was born on 5 January 1914 and was aged nine months when her father enlisted in Atherton on 3 September 1914. He had been a voluntary member of the 5th Battalion of the Leigh Territorials as a teenager but had been discharged for not attending drill. His chosen regiment was the Gordon Highlanders. He was in the 1st Battalion and experienced the Gallipoli landings of 1915. Many regiments were engaged in the attack; a large number of local men lost their lives. Luckily Joseph survived when the troops were withdrawn before Christmas 1915.
By 22 February 1916, Joseph had been transferred to the Royal Engineers 182 Tunnelling Company. Serving in France he reached the rank of Lance Corporal. A report in the Leigh Journal of 20 July 1917 states that Joseph had been wounded during the Battle of Arras having received injuries carrying wounded comrades during heavy enemy fire; he was recovering from his wounds at the Fairfield VAD Hospital in Kent. At a later date he was transferred to the Lord Derby War Hospital at Winwick. Whilst recuperating here he received notification he was to be awarded the D.C.M. for his bravery at Arras. Joseph was finally discharged from the forces on 10 December 1918, no longer fit for service.
After the war, he found employment with the Leigh Corporation and lived with Alice at 60 Cowper Street. They went on to have eight more children, their first child, Elizabeth, having died in 1918.
For many years Joseph acted as Mace Bearer to the Mayors of Leigh. His appointment was noted in the Council Finance, Estate and Parliamentary Committee on 29 November 1935, replacing W. Rigby. The remuneration for the post was £12-12-0d per annum. During his time in this position he was in attendance when the town welcomed King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on their visit to Leigh in 1938. Leigh’s V.C., Alfred Wilkinson, was also presented to the Royal couple on this occasion.
The King died in February 1952 and on Friday 8 February the young Princess Elizabeth became his successor. Crowds gathered outside Leigh Town Hall to hear the Mayor, Councillor W. Woolstencroft, read the proclamation; Joseph was in attendance on this special occasion.
After retirement his spare time was taken up with one of his favourite hobbies, gardening. He was a vegetarian and grew all his own vegetables and was particularly proud of his dahlias.
Charles Simm (1896-1916)
Joseph’s younger brother, Charles, was determined to follow in his brother’s footsteps. Although only 16 and not old enough to enlist, he applied to join the South Lancashire Regiment and lied about his age, giving it as 19. He managed to pass the medical examination and joined the 7th Battalion South Lancashire Regiment as a Private.
After undergoing the necessary training this young collier boy became a soldier and was sent to France. On 18 July 1915 he arrived as part of the 56th Infantry Brigade in the 19th Western Division. On 3 January 1916 Charles reported to the No. 7 Casualty Clearing Station at Merville suffering from ‘Inflammation of the Connective Tissue’, a term covering a multitude of muscular and joint problems. From there he was transferred by train to the No.5 General Hospital at Rouen.
The following day he was back in hospital at No.24 General Hospital, Etaples because the tissue in his right foot was causing problems. After treatment he was once again discharged on the 14 May 1916 and was able to rejoin his battalion.
About a month later on 24 June 1916 artillery bombardment of the German lines began and lasted until the start of the Infantry attack on 1 July. It was thought by this time that the bombardment would have destroyed or considerably weakened the German front line. Unfortunately this was not the case as the Germans had constructed deep underground chambers where they were able to wait until the bombardment was over. They then returned to the trenches to await the infantry advance.
The South Lancashire Regiment was given the task of taking the village of La Boisselle, situated on the Albert-Bapaume Road to Gommercourt. The attack was a disaster with over 60,000 casualties recorded in 13 days of fighting. On 8 July 1916, Charles was wounded in the abdomen and thigh, more than likely from fragments of a shell. He was taken to 57 Field Hospital which was just behind the Front Line where he was initially treated before transfer to a Special Hospital at Warloy, an advanced operating centre for urgent cases.
It was here that Charles died on 10 July 1916, aged only 18, as a result of the wounds he had received. His burial plot is in the Warloy-Baillon Communal Cemetery Extension.
Editorial Note: The author would like to thank Mary Halliwell for suggesting the subject of the article and the relatives of the Simm brothers who allowed sight of copies of the genealogical documents relating to the brothers’ war records.