Remembering Great Uncle Fred

Val Taylor

Anyone who has travelled through northern France will have witnessed the acres and acres, mile after mile it seems, of Commonwealth War Grave Commission (CWGC) cemeteries with their neat rows of Portland Stone headstones and carefully tended lawns and gardens. They have transformed former battlefields of unimaginable carnage into something poignant and beautiful. Many of us will have ancestors from either or both World Wars commemorated somewhere.

Fredrick William Woolley was born in 1894, the youngest of Edward & Susannah Woolley’s four sons. He was my Mother’s Uncle and my Great Uncle, but of course neither of us ever knew him.

After war was declared in August 1914, Fred enlisted that autumn with the 3rd City Battalion at Moseley College in Birmingham. In the photo, a group of men are wielding digging tools and standing in a half-dug trench. Fred, on the left, has a pick-axe over his shoulder and a fag dangling from his lower lip. They look scruffy, but comradely and Fred, at least, looks quite cheerful.

So off went Fred to France, now having joined the 16th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Sadly, I don’t have much information about his movements before the day he died on 27th May 1918. He had, at least, attained the rank of ‘Serjeant’. From references in Terry Carter’s excellent book Birmingham Pals, I think Fred must have been wounded during the Battle of the Lys (9 Apr 1918 – 29 Apr 1918) and subsequently died at the Medical Unit that was based in Aire-sur-la-Lys, Pas du Calais.

Fred’s parents were sent a sombre photograph of a wooden cross in a field of wooden crosses. I managed to read enough of the information tacked on the cross, so I contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who were able to tell me where Fred is buried. The regiment on the wooden cross was wrong (16th Royal Welsh) – he was, in fact in the Royal Warwickshire Regt. but many such errors must have occurred in the chaos of so many casualties. They got it right on his Portland Stone headstone.

My daughter Joanna, her husband Tom and I went to Aire-sur-la-Lys to seek Fred’s grave. We found it in the Commonwealth plots at the back of the rather austere, ‘gothic’ Aire Communal Cemetery on an appropriately drizzly grey day. The burials here were made from medical units stationed in Aire: 865 British, 15 Canadians, 6 Australians, 1 New Zealander, 4 Indians, 3 British West Indians, 3 French and 7 German Soldiers.

What a waste of young lives.
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