John Wilden

Corps. Suffolk regiment, 12th Battalion. Formerly Bedfordshire Regiment, 31313.
Rank Private
Service No. 47637
Date / Place of entry Enlisted at Kettering
Date of death 24 March 1918. Died of wounds
Memorial/Grave 1C7 Bac-du-Sud, British cemetery, Bailleulval

John Wilden was born in 1894 and grew up in Clophill, Bedfordshire, a village just outside Ampthill on the A6 and some thirty five miles from Cottingham. His father Frederick (1855 – 1929) was the village carrier to Bedford for around forty years. Frederick and his wife Sarah nee Daniels (1856 – 1933) brought up a family of eight, two sons and six daughters, in a rented four-room cottage on the High Street, one of six brick built properties facing the village green. John was their seventh child and second son.

Clophill itself was a largely agricultural community where most of the boys became farmworkers but brickmaking was a major industry in the Luton area, and brickworks sprang up across Bedfordshire from the 1850s onwards. John’s grandfather George Wilden was a brick maker until his late forties when he set up as a carrier. The main female cottage industry had been plaiting straw to supply the hat and bonnet making businesses centred in Luton.

John’s grandmother Eliza Wilden nee Grummett worked as a straw plaiter as did his aunts, her daughters, from the age of six. In fact pretty well every working female in the village was a straw plaiter until the1870s when cheap straw imported from the Far East destroyed the local industry. Many families moved to the towns to find other work so by 1911 the population of Clophill was considerably reduced, to well under 1000. It was nevertheless an active community and contained both a Primitive Methodist and a Wesleyan Methodist chapel alongside its parish church.

In 1911, the seventeen year old John was employed as a domestic gardener, as was his father; elder brother George Wilden was a market gardener. Both sons were still living in the family home with their sisters Annie and Rose, hat machinists and their youngest sister Kate, a schoolgirl.  Their eldest sister Emma had got married in 1909 to William Copperwheat, youngest son of the landlord of the Flying Horses public house on the village green. Their next sister Ada married a leather cutter, Alfred Edwin, in 1905 and moved to Chatteris.

Sometime after 1911 John moved to Northamptonshire, probably in the company of his brother George; both men are entered on Wilbarston Roll of Honour. John married Alice Caroline Aldwinkle of Cottingham in the autumn of 1914. Soldier Edwin Towndrow married Frances Bamford at Cottingham around the same time.  Alice was a few years John’s senior, daughter of William Edwin and Elisabeth Aldwinkle of Water Lane, and gave birth to a daughter, Vera, later the following year.

It’s not known what first brought John and George here from Clophill. Possibly they knew someone who had previously moved into the area. There were some people from Clophill living in Rothwell in 1911; Mary Ann Joy nee Chapman, born in Clophill and widowed young, moved with her three sons in the 1890s to Rothwell, where she married a bricklayer, Charlie Butlin. The Wildens would certainly have known her as she lived near them on Clophill High Street.

There were other Bedfordshire connections in Cottingham. William White, a master brick maker from Riseley was living with his family living in Brickfield cottages on Rockingham Road in 1881. His son Charles, born in Dean near Rushden, married neighbour’s daughter Sarah Ann Sturman in 1882 and the family were still at Brickyard Hill in 1911. Their neighbours included Sarah Cook, a widow from Marston, just a few miles from Clophill.

There were two more people living in Middleton who’d been born in Dean. George Morris was a blast furnace man and Frances Smith a shepherd’s wife living at Cox’s Lodge.

John’s army records have not survived but we know he enlisted at Kettering and became a private in the Bedfordshire regiment. (There was a soldier from Clophill serving in the 2nd Battalion of the Bedfordshires in 1911; William Herbert was five years older than John and then stationed in Bermuda.) The Bedfordshire was also the first regiment of George Thomas Goode from Middleton; he too enlisted at Kettering and the two men were to die within two months of each other.

There’s no way of knowing the exact date when John enlisted, or which battalion he joined. His initial service number suggests it was in August / September 1916 after the Military Service Act 1916 introduced conscription; if so he is likely to have gone to France in Spring 1917.  He may have fought with the Bedfordshires or been immediately transferred to the 12th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment, where he was serving when he died in March 1918.

The Suffolk regiment was an infantry regiment formed in July 1915 and attached to the 121st Brigade in the 40th Division. It landed at Le Havre and went to the Western Front in June 1916. The Regiment took part in the fighting on the Somme including the battles of Albert, Bazentin, Thiepval, Ancre, Passchendaele and Cambrai.

In the Spring of 1918 the 40th Division formed part of the Third Army under General Byng. By this stage of the War there was a severe shortage of manpower which resulted in the reduction of battalions per brigade in the British divisions from four to three and the disbanding of 141 wartime-raised battalions. We do not know the date when John transferred from the Bedfordshire Regiment but possibly it was as a result of these reductions; two other Clophill soldiers were initially with the Bedfordshire’s but then transferred.

On 3rd of March 1918 Russia withdrew from the War and thus enabled Germany to deploy army divisions from the Eastern to the Western Front. The British Line was held by the 3rd Army under Byng and the Fifth Army under General Gough, neither of which had enough men to adequately cover the entire distance. In the north the Third Army had sixteen divisions covering twenty eight miles, while at the southern end the Fifth Army had only fourteen to cover forty two.  Both armies were therefore highly vulnerable to attack.

The German Spring Offensive began from behind the Hindenburg Line near St Quentin on 21st March.. The ensuing battle is variously known as the Battle of St Quentin, the 1st Battle of the Somme 1918, or the 2nd Battle of Picardy. During the following two weeks’ fighting John Wilden and several other men from Cottingham and nearby died:

22 March – Francis William Muggleton
23 March – Harry Fisher
24 March – John Wilden
28 March – Roland Ingram
1  April    – Joe Goode
The German artillery opened fire shortly before 5.00am on the 21st in dense fog. The war diary records the fog persisted through the morning, as did the artillery bombardment; the enemy fired more than three million rounds on that first day alone. The German infantry broke through the British Forward Zone and advanced on the right flank of the Fifth Army, which sustained serious losses and was forced to retreat. The right wing of the Third Army also retreated to avoid being outflanked. British troops isolated in the redoubts had to be left behind; some carried on fighting but most surrendered and were taken prisoner.
Over the following two days the British troops continued to fall back, again having to defend their position under a thick fog which lasted into the afternoon. There were innumerable small engagements in the confusion, many soldiers being cut off from their comrades and unsure of British or enemy positions. There was a real danger that the Third and Fifth armies would become separated.
The 24th March was Palm Sunday. The two disintegrating British armies continued their retreat under heavy enemy shelling and by the evening the British had lost almost all the line of the Somme and had to evacuate Bapaume, which the Germans captured the following day.
John Wilden died on this day of wounds received and was buried in Bac du Sud British cemetery in Bailleulval, about thirteen kilometres south west of Arras, alongside 687 fellow Commonwealth soldiers. The cemetery had been constructed earlier that month by Casualty Clearing Stations.

John is commemorated on Cottingham War Memorial and on the Rolls of Honour at Wilbarston, and at Clophill where he is one of twenty four local men who died fighting in the War. One of John’s cousins, Ernest Arthur Pitts of Leicester, also died in the fighting. John’s widow Alice married Osborne Almond in 1921. He was the older brother of Herbert Almond, a Cottingham publican who had married her sister Lillie in 1906. Alice moved to Helpringham, a village on the edge of the Fens a few miles from Sleaford where Osborne had a butcher’s shop.

Among the twenty four soldiers on the Clophill Roll of Honour are some who were near neighbours of the Wildens:

Herbert Charles Webb (no. 23189 4th Bedfordshire Regiment) was killed in action on 13 November 1916. His brother Augustus (no. 23751 2nd Bedfordshire Regiment) was killed in action on 23 October 1918. Both men were nephews of William Webb who lived next door but one to the Wildens. They were twenty nine when they died.

Cyril William Smith (no.276526 1/6 Essex Regiment, formerly 6220 Bedfordshire Regiment) died on 22 November 1918 in the Lebanon. He too was twenty nine. Cyril lived four doors away from the Wildens in the 1890s and was his parents’ only child. He is buried in Beirut War Cemetery.

Cecil Roberts (no. 41465 10th Battalion Essex Regiment, formerly 27132 Northamptonshire Regiment) was killed in action on 23 March 1918, the day before John died and on the same day as Harry Fisher. Cecil was one of the large Roberts clan into which John’s Aunt Priscilla had married and grew up in Back Street, about 300 yards from John’s home.

Ernest Herbert (no. 33117 6th Battalion Leicestershire Regiment, formerly 7775 Bedfordshire regiment) died of wounds a week after John on Easter Sunday, 31st March; he too lived on Back Street.