32371 Serjeant David Alexander Willows,
126 Battery, 29th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery.
Died of Wounds, 21 May 1915,
Buried at Bailleul Communal Cemetery, Nord, France.
“He was my very best Sergeant…”
Alec Willows is not commemorated on the permanent War Memorial for the parish of Ham. However, his name was recorded on a handwritten, temporary Roll of Honour which was recently found in its frame in St Andrew’s Church. It seems that when news of the death of a local serviceman reached the parish of Ham, his name would be added to this list, providing one way for parishioners to learn of deaths that affected their neighbours. We do not know why Alec’s name was not eventually included on the permanent Parish War Memorial, since he had a less tenuous connection with the parish than some others who are commemorated on it.
Initially, identifying ‘Alec Willows’ appeared to be straightforward. He is recorded in the CWGC (Commonwealth War Graves Commission) database as 32371 Serjeant (sic) Alexander Willows, serving in the Royal Field Artillery. There are 19 men with the surname Willows on the database for the First World War, and he is the only one with A as one of his initials. Identifying his link with Ham was not easy. Alec’s situation is unlike that of Richard Greenwood, who is also named on the temporary Roll of Honour, and who was a native of Ham and the great grandson of Cornelius Greenwood, a notable resident of Ham. ‘Sorting out’ Alec’s family background, however, turned out to be more elusive than expected.
From the military records which survive for Alec, we know that he enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery at New Cross in Kent, that he died of wounds in France, and that his sole legatee was ‘Miss Ellen Reason’.
There was a Reason family in Ham, whose eldest daughter, Ellen, was born on 8 August 1880 in Limerick Ireland. This provided the first clue that her father might also have had a military connection. However, there was not, at first, any evidence to link Alec with this particular Reason family, other than his being on Ham’s temporary Roll of Honour, and his having left money to an Ellen Reason, who could perhaps be the Ellen Reason in the parish.
The age (31) given for Alexander Willows in the CWGC record was unhelpful, and there was no matching birth for an Alexander Willows of anything near this age. (Once it was discovered that he had been recorded in 1881 as David Alexander, a search was made also for a matching birth for a David Willows, also without success.)
For the three censuses in which Alec is recorded there is conflicting evidence for his birthplace and for his age. I looked first for him in the 1911 Census, and found him recorded as a Bombardier serving in the Royal Field Artillery at Headley in Hampshire. That census records his age as 28 and his birthplace as Eastbourne. One might suppose, as I did, that the Army would have based this age on some documentation or information provided to them when he enlisted. If this age has been calculated accurately, and if one can rule out a transcription error, at the time the details were transferred to the census summary sheet, this would mean he was born in 1882 or 1883.
I found Alec in the 1901 Census at 26 Southlands Road, Bromley, aged 16, with his birthplace recorded as ‘London’. He was described, moreover, as the ‘adopted son’ of Ellen Tracey, head of the household and a widow, aged 55. If his age was indeed 16, Alec was born in 1884 or 1885. This Census also identified his occupation, somewhat broadly, as a Collector.
Armed only with the conflicting information in the 1901 and 1911 censuses, I eventually also found my target in 1891. Ancestry had unfortunately transcribed the entry with its usual liberality, but Alec is almost certainly the David Alexn (sic) Williams (sic) in the household of George and Ellen Trang, aged 6 and described as a ‘boarder’. The members of the Trang family in this census were found to match closely, apart from surnames, the members of the family of George and Ellen Tracey, transcribed correctly in earlier and subsequent censuses. The age of Alec in this census is consistent with that given ten years later, and his birthplace is given as London—N. K. (Not Known). It’s clear that the Traceys believed their ‘boarder’ turned ‘adopted son’ had been born somewhere in London.
Barely six months after the 1891 Census was taken, Ellen Tracey was widowed with the death of George Tracey in the Eastbourne Sanatorium. The cause of death was given as Typhoid Fever and Cardiac Failure. Fortunately no other close family members seem to have been infected.
Alec was born in London or in Eastbourne and placed at some point in the first five years of his life as a boarder with George and Ellen Tracey and their family who were, at that time, living in Eastbourne. Alec’s first memories may have been of Eastbourne, which could explain why he might have given the Army that information when he enlisted in about 1902, by which time his adoptive family was living at 26 Southlands Road, Bromley.
It is likely that it was, while living in Bromley, he met Emily Hester Spencer, whose relatives believe she was Alec’s fiancée. The Spencer family was then living in Bourne Road, parallel to, and only one block away from, Southlands Road. It is also likely that Alec and Emily were at least ‘close friends’ and she may have been his sweetheart when the photo on the right was taken.
So what was the relationship between Miss Ellen Reason sole legatee of 13 shillings and Alec Willows? Taking the line of Ellen Tracey, Alec’s adopted mother back to her parents, and William Reason of Ham back to his parents, it became clear that Ellen Tracey was the elder sister of William Reason, and thus the aunt of the younger Ellen Reason.
In the photograph above, Ellen is in the middle of the back row. William and Eliza’s eldest children, Ellen, Ada and Arthur were born in Ireland, where their father was stationed. William Reason’s mother had died about the time of his first birthday, days after the birth of a daughter. His father remarried the following year but William and his step-mother did not, unfortunately, get on. Consequently, as soon as possible, William left the family home in Suffolk and joined the army. After 12 years’ service in India and Ireland, it was the recommendation of his Commanding Officer that led to William’s finding work as a Coachman and Groom in Richmond, and ultimately brought the family to Ham. Numerous Army Officers had connections with Ham, and it would be interesting to know whether one of them was responsible for their ending up at 3 Victoria Terrace, home to the Reason family from the mid 1890s, for well over 60 years.
We know from the War Diary for the 29th RFA Brigade—comprised of the 125, 126 and 127 Batteries—that the Brigade embarked at Southampton on H.M. Transport ARMENIAN on 22 August 1914, sailing at 7 p.m. The Armenian arrived at Le Havre the following day, with the disembarkation completed by 6 p.m. On the 24th the Brigade left Le Havre on three trains, bound for Rouen and Amiens. Little could these men in the Regular Army have anticipated how many casualties they would incur in the months to come.
In 1914, Alec’s Brigade was involved in the Battle of the Marne, the Battle of Aisne and the Battle of Messines; and then, in the Spring of 1915, from 22 April to 25 May, in the Second Battle of Ypres, a not conclusively successful attempt to secure the Ypres Salient against a German attack. ‘Second Ypres’ was notable for the role of the Canadian Forces, and for the deployment of poison gas.
The RFA Brigade was responsible for the zone held by the 2nd Canadians with the 45th French Division to their left. May had begun fairly quietly for the 29th RFA Brigade with all three batteries at PLOEGSTEERT in Flanders, and with fine weather, some mist and some days in which none of the Batteries were ‘firing’. They spent time with repairs and improving their dugouts overnight.
Towards the middle of the month there was some movement of the positions of the Batteries, and in spurts of firing, registering and retaliating. From the description given by his commanding officer, Alec and three others were hit by a shell, intended for a French Battery to their rear, which fell short, and one can assume that his injuries were grave. From the War Diary account, it is clear the shell responsible for his death was fired on 20 May when 126 Battery was positioned at B 29 b and engaged in Retaliation. Alec was one of 2 NCOs & 2 other ranks wounded. He died the following day.
Alec was just one of over 59 000 soldiers of the British Empire who were reported killed, wounded or missing during the five weeks over which this Battle ran. His key mourners would be the members of his adoptive family, the Reasons, and none among them more so than Ellen Reason of Ham. It is the understanding of relatives of Ellen Reason, that at the time of his death, their great aunt was Alec’s fiancée. There is much evidence that she was important in his life: a letter survives which he wrote to her younger sister, Beatrice, enclosing the ‘German bullets’ she had requested, and it was to Ellen Reason that Alec’s Commanding Officer, Major Harry Miller Ballingall, ‘a Scotchman’, wrote, as follows, on 2 June 1915:
Dear Miss Reason
As sergt Willows’ Commanding officer, I take liberty of writing you concerning his Death. I dont know his poor Mother’s address or I should write to her too. it is a sad blow and I am terribly grieved to lose him. — a gallant fellow and one who stood high in my esteem, it happened one evening that a French Battery behind us was being shelled—not our Battery at all; and he was one of three unlucky fellows who was hit. Please accept my heartfelt sympathy and kindly tell his relations that he died a noble end, as he lived, doing his duty always keenly and smartly and a great credit to the Royal Regiment of Artillery. one and all of us miss him now, and I most of all here for he was my best Sergeant, and a very good comrade. If there is anything further I can do, Please ask me and I shall be only too willing. I think he was buried at Bailleul, not far from here.
Com[man]ding 126 B[atter]y
Alec’s relationship with the Reason family was strong enough for him to have been deemed ‘belonging’ to Ham, when news came of his death. It’s difficult to understand, therefore, why this soldier was not commemorated on the war memorial, when some, with no personal connection with the parish, were.
I have been told that Ellen was so deeply affected by Alec’s death, that she never married, and that she cherished a locket, containing a lock of his hair, until the end of her life. Ellen lived on in the family home, 3 Victoria Terrace, until her death in 1961. Alec continues to be remembered by Ellen’s great nieces and nephews and by Emily Spencer’s great niece.
Sources of images
All but one of the photographs of Alec and of members of the Reason Family are used with kind permission of Christopher Reason. I am also grateful to him for the sharing with me the letter written by Alec’s commanding officer and the letter he sent to Beatrice, enclosing ammunition.
The photograph of Alec as a young Bombardier was uploaded to Ancestry by Emily Spencer’s great niece, Claire Edge, who recently came across this blog post, and met me to share her research into Alec Willows’s life and his connection with her great aunt.
Further Reading on the 29 RFA Brigade
The Long Long Trail, ‘ CXXXIII, CXXIV, CXXV AND CXXVI (Howitxer Brigades (37th Divisional Artilllery)’ http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/army/regiments-and-corps/the-royal-artillery-in-the-first-world-war/batteries-and-brigades-of-the-royal-field-artillery/cxxiii-cxxiv-cxxv-cxxvi-howitzer-brigades-37th-divisional-artillery/, accessed 3/7/2019.
Wartime Memories Project, ‘126 Battery, Royal Field Artillery’, https://www.wartimememoriesproject.com/greatwar/allied/fartillery.php?pid=11365, accessed 3/7/2019. This contains a brief summary of how and where 126 Battery was deployed in the First World War.
Woolmer Forest Heritage Society, ‘The Military History of Louisburg Barracks and Broxhead House’, http://woolmerforest.org.uk/page_Louisburg.php, accessed 18/3/2019. This was interesting in the information it gives about Alec’s military base in 1911.
Sources for Descriptions of the Second Battle of Ypres (22 April –25 May 1915)
Commonwealth War Graves Commission, ‘The Second Battle of Ypres’, https://www.cwgc.org/history-and-archives/first-world-war/campaigns/western-front/second-ypres, accessed 3/7/2019.
The Great War 1914–1918, ‘The Prelude to the Second Battle of Ypres’, http://www.greatwar.co.uk/battles/second-ypres-1915/, accessed 3/7/2019.
History Crunch, ‘Second Battle of Ypres’, https://www.historycrunch.com/second-battle-of-ypres.html#/, accessed 3/7/1915.
The National Archives, WO 95/1466/5. ‘War Diary of 29 Brigade Royal Field Artillery’, 1 August 1914–31 January 1918, 20 May 1915. Note, if downloading this file, 20 May 1915 is Image 81 on the first pdf for this period, covering the period 22 August 1914 to 22 July 1916..