10129 Private Walter Stanley Benson
2nd Battalion The Scottish Rifles (The Cameronians)
Killed in Action, 9 May 1915.
Commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial.
Note: Known in the parish as Stanley, it was somewhat confusing to find his army records are filed under the name ‘Frederick Benson”. In writing about Walter Stanley Benson, he is referred to as Stanley, to avoid confusion with his father and his youngest brother, who were also called Walter.
Stanley was the son of Walter Benson Fisher (1863–1901) and Ellen Stevens (1859–1922), and the grandson of Thomas Benson, a market gardener who moved from Twickenham to Ham in the late 1840s, with his wife, Mary Ann Martin and two children. In time, Thomas was to build up a successful business as a Potato Dealer, settling with his family at what was then known as Malt House Cottage (now 26 Ham Common). The youngest of the eight children born to this couple, Frederick James Benson, was born 7 July 1856 and baptised in Ham.
At some point, either before or following the departure from the family of his wife Mary Ann, Thomas embarked on a relationship with Sarah Fisher, whom he was to describe to the enumerator, in 1861, as a ‘servant’. The Fishers lived a few houses away in Ham Street, and it would have been a matter of urgency for Thomas to find help in running the household and caring for his young children.
By 1861 Sarah had given birth to three children—Emily (3), Henry and Joseph—whose births were all registered under the surname Fisher. Emily was born about 18 months after Frederick though not baptised for another five years. Henry had been baptised, privately, in Ham in 1860, but died within days of his baptism, and was buried in the churchyard of St Andrew’s.
Of the ten children in Thomas’s second family, it is only Henry’s birth, which appears not to have been officially registered. Joseph was five when he died in 1866.
When Emily married George Kelly in Ham in 1882, her father’s name was given as ‘Thomas Benson, Potato Dealer’ and her surname as Benson. It would appear that Thomas was probably the biological father of all three children. Sarah’s sister, Harriet, had had an illegitimate daughter some years before Sarah became a mother, and that child was given the name Mary Ann Waterhouse Fisher; Waterhouse is thought to be the surname of his biological father. This may have encouraged Sarah to give her children the middle name of their father.
On 28 June 1863, Sarah took young Emily, as well her infant son, to Twickenham to be baptised. That infant, baptised as Walter Benson Fisher, was the father of Stanley Benson. In the course of the next 12 years, six more Benson Fisher children were baptised in Ham, with their births registered under the surname Fisher, and in most cases with Benson as middle name. In the 1871 census, they are all Fishers, and in 1881, all Bensons. These ‘Fisher’ children either adopted the surname Benson or simply reversed the two surnames after their parents’ marriage, as did Stanley’s father.
Sarah was promoted to ‘housekeeper’ for the 1871 census and to ‘wife’ in 1881. However, their marriage did not actually take place until 1885, some 25 years after the start of their relationship and a decade after the death of Thomas’s first wife.
Stanley’s father, Walter, lived at Malt House Cottage until his marriage, in 1890, to Ellen Stevens, the widow of James Francis Buckner. Walter moved to Ellen’s marital home, 4 Mayleigh Cottages, and became stepfather to her three young daughters. Instead of becoming a potato dealer like his father, Walter trained as a Compositor, a trade he was to follow until his early death.
Walter and Ellen named their first child, a son, Walter Stanley. Documents reveal that he was known, as a young man, by his middle name of Stanley, perhaps to avoid there being two Walters under one roof. They went on to name their youngest child, Walter Henry, but in his case, it was the middle name that was redundant. Born not long before his father’s death, the younger Walter in the family seems to have been known by his first name.
Thomas Benson outlived both his wives, and died in 1900, just a year before the death of his son Walter. By then, Thomas had moved away from Ham, and Walter and Ellen were listed as the occupants of Malt House Cottage. Walter’s early death, in 1901, must have been a considerable blow to Ellen, widowed for the second time, with her six children by Walter all under the age of 11. She seems to have coped financially, since was able to continue to live at Malt House Cottage with all her children, and able to take in a lodger to augment her income.
Within ten years Ellen had her children ‘in work’, except for Florence who provided help at home. Philip had found work as a domestic gardener, Dorothy was a mantle maker and the youngest daughter, Kate, was employed as a ‘nurse girl’. All were living at home, except for Stanley who had taken a different path.
During the first years of the 20th century, unlike their fathers, the young men of the parish began to seek work outside the parish, and in sectors other than agriculture. Many joined the Army, usually for a period of seven years, often acquiring skills in trades during their military service. One former groom in the parish, returned to it after his army stint as a farrier. A smaller number joined the Navy. Most of these became reservists, when they left the army or the navy, and were therefore called up early on in the war, to boost the strength of the regular army.
Stanley was one of those who joined the Regular Army, signing up as a private in the 2nd Battalion of The Cameronians. By the time war was declared, Stanley had been in the Army for at least three years. While his service records have not survived, he was listed in the Military Enumeration Schedule for Meeanee Barracks, Colchester, on 2 April 1911. His entry describes him as Walter Benson, a Private in 2/Cameronians, born in Petersham and aged 20. All correct.
Stanley’s card in the Medal Rolls Index shows that he was awarded all four medals and also that his qualifying date was 5 November 1914, probably the date that he disembarked on foreign soil. Interestingly, he seems to have become known as Frederick, but whether he changed his name to reinvent himself is not clear. This name change caused some hitches to those researching his military career.
Because of the loss of so many service records, where these are missing, I have resorted to the War Diaries to provide some background to the incident that resulted in loss of life. In doing this on Stanley’s behalf, I came across the speech Field Marshal Sir John French, had made when he addressed the 2nd Battalion, recognising their valour and sacrifice. This personal address to the battalion was no doubt intended to build up their spirits for what lay ahead ahead. An extract follows.
I come here as Commander in Chief of the Force to express to you my heartfelt gratitude for the splendid part which you took in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in the middle of last month. I know what a terrible time you had—I know what awful losses you suffered. I know the gallantry you displayed on that occasion has never been surpassed by a British soldier. You came up against the enemy’s wire because the Artillery was unable to get at it. You showed the utmost gallantry and bravery—I deeply regret the terrible losses you suffered on that occasion, 22 officers being killed or wounded. The Officer Commanding your splendid Battalion, Colonel Bliss, being included amongst the losses…
I do not mean to say it was too much, I want you all to realise that. I am sure your Officers will always lead you on, it may be to die, but follow the right gallantly. I know how splendidly you will…
So, with the words of the Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, ringing in his ears, Stanley faced his next action against the enemy.
The War Diary for 9 May, the day on which Stanley lost his life, reads as follows:
The artillery bombardment commenced at 5 a.m. & at 5.40 a.m. the infantry assault by the 24th and 25th Infantry B[riga]des commenced on the right and left of the SAILLY—FROMELLE Road respectively.k The 23rd B[riga]de was in Divisional reserve & had orders to follow the left attack. About 6.30 a.m. an order was received from the Brigadier to advance in support of the 2nd Rifle B[riga]de; this was done in the following order in lines of 1/2 co[mpan]ys on a front of 125 yards, C, D, A & B. During the advance to the fire trenches recently held by the B[attalio]n some Casualties were suffered especially when crossing the open ground immediately in rear of the fire trench where enfilade fire was brought to bear on our advancing lines from our left. Lt Col Vandeleur was wounded shortly before reaching the fire trench & Major Carter-Campbell assumed command of the B[attalio]n. Here orders were received for the B[attalio]n to occupy the trenches on the left of the Devons; previously to receiving this order some men of the leading companies had crossed our first trench, some of whom succeeded in reaching the first German trench; later orders were received to send 3 machine guns to the B[attalio]n bombers to support the 2/Lincolns, who were occupying part of the German trench; in moving out to and occupying this trench some losses were suffered, among which was L[ieutenan]t Orton in command of the Machine Gun Section, who was killed. All day the B[attalio]n was under heavy shell fire, but suffered few casualties from that cause. At dusk the B[attalio]n was withdrawn to its assembly trenches.
In the course of 9 May, five officers were killed and six wounded, with one officer wounded and missing. Under ‘Rank & file’, 23 were killed, 94 wounded, 7 were wounded and subsequently missing, with 22 missing. Stanley has no known grave, so is likely to have been in the 29 who were missing. I think it likely that he was killed near the fire trenches, where subsequent shelling may have buried his body.
The National Archives, ‘War Diary, 2 Battalion Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)’, WO 95/1715/1, 9 May 1915.
The matching of W.S. BENSON to the military records of F. BENSON is described in this post on my professional blog.
The disappearance and bigamous marriage of Thomas’s first wife is outlined in Secrets and Lies—the bigamous marriage of Mary Ann Martin. This link also takes you to my professional blog. In this post I also clarify why we can fairly safely attribute all of Sarah’s children to her relationship with Thomas.
The Cameronians, ‘Lieutenant Colonel Crofton Bury Vandeleur’, http://cameronians.siteiscentral.com/1901/people/vandeleur, accessed 27/1/2018.