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Bloxwich family's service and sacrifice in the Great War

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: May 13, 2014

By Dan Shaw

  • Oscar Whitehouse, killed in the Great War

  • Jean Mills' father William Whitehouse

  • Thomas Eccleston as a Walslall policeman

  • Tom's wife Ethel as a tram conductress

  • Tom Eccleston with the Royal Field Artillery

  • Tom Eccleston (right) with an unknown group

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OUR interest in the First World War is undimmed, in fact it seems to be growing stronger and stronger in this centenary year.

One reason may be that those who fought in the war were reluctant to talk about it afterwards. People today who research what their parents or grandparents did in the war are uncovering details and stories that they never knew before because in the immediate aftermath of the war they were never spoken of.

Jean Mills of Stonnall, Staffordshire, is one of those who has looked into her family's involvement in the war. She has uncovered details of her father's war service, and that of her uncles too, and along the way she has been introduced to members of her wider family who she had never met before.

Jean writes, "My father was a soldier of the First World War, although I hardly remember him. He died in 1942, when I was three years old, so I never had the chance to ask him any questions.

"I had two older brothers and an older sister and it was almost 14 years after our youngest brother was born that my mother gave birth to my twin sister and myself in 1939.

"In our home we had many old photographs; as time went by my sister and I would get them out and ask Mother who the people in the photographs were. As children we were satisfied with just names and rarely asked for more details. Occasionally, as we got older, we began to ask a few more questions about the people in the pictures.

"We both have an interest in family and local history now; how we wish we had asked more questions, but we are the last of our family, so it is too late.

"As was common with other servicemen of the time, my father had told my mother very little about his wartime experiences, although she did say that he had had to swim for his life at the Dardanelles. In our family we have my father's three war medals, mementoes of Jerusalem, certificate of transfer to the reserves on demobilization, certificate of identity and, of course, the photographs.

"My father, Pte Walter William Whitehouse, was born in Bloxwich on January 31, 1896. He lived with his parents, George and Mary Ann (née Sleigh), his two brothers and a sister. At the time of the 1911 census he was working as a 'mopper and bobber' in the manufacture of bridle bits. It was said that when he joined the army he was underage.

"He was demobilized from the Royal Irish Regiment in March 1919. His documents state he enlisted in April 1915 for the Royal Field Artillery and also served in the Royal Irish Rifles. One certificate puts his birth year as 1894, but I believe he may have given the wrong age in order to be accepted. He may even have served for a time in the regular army. He saw service in the Balkans, Gallipoli and Egypt.

"He was usually known as Bill or, according to correspondence from his own family, Will. I have a postcard from his sister, who wrote, 'I reckon you will know by the time you get this as our Oscar as had to go.' Sadly, their brother Oscar did not survive the war. On returning home, my father was met with the news that his mother had also recently died.

"Several years ago, soon after the Commonwealth War Graves Commission made their information available on the internet, my sister and I found information about Pte George Oscar Percy Whitehouse (my father's brother) and Cpl Thomas Frederick Eccleston MM (my mother's brother).

"Oscar Whitehouse was a single man, a colliery labourer, and he lived in Bloxwich with his parents and brothers and sister. Oscar served in the 2/6th North Staffordshire Regiment. He attested in February 1916 and was drafted to France in May 1917. He was reported missing November 30, 1917, presumed dead after action on the Cambrai front in Bourlon Wood, when his battalion was heavily shelled with shrapnel and mustard gas. He is commemorated on the Cambrai Memorial, Louveral.

"Thomas Eccleston was born in Cheslyn Hay on March 21, 1892. With his parents Charles and Agnes Zillah (née Winfer), one sister and three brothers, he moved to Bloxwich in about 1895. Another sister, my mother Edith Agnes Eccleston, was born in Bloxwich in 1896.

"Tom was a police constable and he volunteered in April 1915 in Birmingham, enlisting in the 2nd Warwick Battery, 11th South Midland Brigade that later became B Battery, 242nd (Territorial Force) Brigade, Royal Field Artillery.

"He was awarded the Military Medal in June 1916. The citation in the London Gazette reads – 'For gallantry and devotion to duty on the night of 15/16 June, 1916, when the battery was in action and under fire. A heavy shelling from a hostile enemy burst inside one of the shell pits killing and wounding the whole attachment. Part of the ammunition dumped around the gun was destroyed and the cordite of several rounds was exploding and burning. Gunner Eccleston was the first in the pit when inflammable material was burning near the ammunition shelves, and to extinguish the flames by beating them with a spade and by using water, Afterwards he rendered excellent service in assisting the wounded men and other work under trying circumstances.'

"This act of heroism was reported in the Walsall Observer – 'The heroism of two more local soldiers has been recognised by the award of the Military Medal. One of them is Gunner Thomas Eccleston, of the RFA, whose wife resides at New Street, Bloxwich, and who was formerly a member of the Walsall Police Force. He has received a congratulatory message from General Aylmer Hunter Weston.

"'In a letter describing how he won the medal Gunner Eccleston writes:- Well, the night I got it we had a bit of bad luck in our battery. We had a shell come through the mouth of one of our pits and six were killed, and one severely wounded, but he died after he had been in hospital about four hours, and it set the pit all on fire, and I put the fire out and helped to get them out. I won't tell you everything I did, it's impossible to remember, and you don't think what you are doing when you have a chap shouting, "For God's sake come and help us". It's a sight I shall never forget as long as I live.'

"Sadly, Thomas died in France, from the effects of influenza and pneumonia, on November 17, 1918. He is buried at Lille Southern Cemetery, Nord, France.

"He married Ethel Wilson on November 20, 1915. She never remarried and during the war she became a 'clippie' on the trams.

"My sister, Edna Marshall, began to enquire into the whereabouts of a Bloxwich war memorial that had been removed from the demolished T.P. Riley School, where it had been installed when it was removed from its original position at Elmore Green Central School many years before. Eventually, it was located and arrangements made for its reinstatement in the original position where in 1920 it had been dedicated to the memory of old boys of that school who had died in WWI.

"Meanwhile Ken Wayman and Barry Crutchley had begun research into the war records of all the soldiers on the memorial. They had appealed for photographs and information from relatives. Believing that we were the only surviving relatives of Thomas Eccleston from our generation, we were surprised to find that Geoff Deakin had come forward as a relative. We had not considered that Aunt Ethel, Uncle Tom's widow, might have nephews and nieces. Aunt Ethel was the sister of Geoff's mother. We all remembered Aunt Ethel and were able to exchange information and photographs.

"At the rededication of the memorial at Elmore Green School in 2011 we met two more members of the Wilson family. We were delighted to learn from these elderly gentlemen that my mother and her family were neighbours of the Wilsons and they were able to tell us stories about our grandmother who had died before we were born. Mother had told us that she had a shop and they said the Ecclestons were a lovely family and they used to buy their sweets there and that my grandparents were generous people who would give them the unsold fireworks after Bonfire Night.

"At the time of my parents' marriage in 1920 my grandfather was under manager at Broad Lane colliery. Although the coal mine is gone, their shop still stands but it is now a house."

Have you a family story or pictures from the First World War? Please contact dshaw@black countrybugle.co.uk or write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

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