Friday, 5 November 2010

A perfect set

It's never happened to me before, but I've just found a complete set of records for a soldier, that is an entry in the 1901 and 1911 censuses, service records and Medal Index Card. What's more the National Army Museum has his autobiography and some photographs (ref ARC 2002-03-171). The lucky man was 8434 Private Fred Wilkinson, The Buffs (East Kent Regiment). His typewritten memoir was written when he was 75 in 1963. His spelling was erratic and sometimes it can be difficult to work out what he is describing.. He was born into extreme poverty in Woodchurch in Kent one of thirteen childrenl his father was the local rat-catcher and his mother a midwife, although it is unlikely that she had any training.
After minimal schooling, Fred became a labourer. He claims he joined up and saw service in South Africa at the end of the Boer War, but I could find no reference to this. What is certain that aged 15 he got a local girl into trouble, and tried to enlist in the Grenadier Guards but was a quarter-inch under the height requirement. Fortunately the girl's father pointed out that she had had lots of men and it was uncertain who the father actually was (it would be fascinating to find out whether sought help from the local poor law).
Instead aged 18 he joined his local regiment the Buffs. He claims to have reached the rank of Sergeant Major, but his service record suggests otherwise. Fred certainly became a corporal, but returned to the ranks at his own request. The battalion served in Hong Kong, Singapore, India before returning to France in the early months of WW1 Later he was in Egypt and Salonika. He was discharged in 1919 and spent the rest of his life as a labourer and mole catcher (to clear a blockage, he suggests, tying a treacle can to a mole and put him down the drain).
Fred was certainly one of the lads and there are several stories about his drinking exploits and the times he got into trouble with the authorities. His service record suggests he was courtmartialled several times. But unusually for the period he was no racist - he had a Chinese girlfriend in Hong Kong for several years.. Even so the focus of his world was the battalion and his friends.
In 1918 he married Edith Gill. We don't find out very much about her, which is a pity because from her photos she seems to have a real twinkle in her eye.
Fred eventually died in 1975 aged 87.
Unfortunately the couple did not seem to have any children a real shame because these documents are a unique portrayal of somebody who has been forgotten by history. I bet though he would be tickled pink by how much we can find out about him.

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