William Charles (Bill) Webber
William Charles Webber was born in 1890 in Dartmouth. He was the second surviving son of Charles Webber and his wife, Sarah Ball Jarvis. Charles was born in Harberton and Sarah in Salcombe. They married in Plymouth in 1880, and first made their home in Salcombe - the 1881 Census recorded them in Buckley Street. At that time, Charles worked as a stone mason.
Around 1883, the family moved to Dartmouth. At the time of the birth of their son, Charles William Webber, on 17th February 1884, they were living at Week Cottage, in Warfleet. He was baptised at St Peter's Stoke Fleming on 21st May 1884. Sadly he died, aged 2, on 9th September 1886.
When the next boy was born, in 1890, he too was named Charles William Webber for the little boy who had died. However, later he became known William Charles Webber (and within the family, as "Bill"), and he appears on our database under that name. The 1891 Census recorded him, aged 1, and the rest of the family in Higher Street, Dartmouth. Charles Webber (senior) was still working as a stone mason.
By the time of the 1901 Census, the family had moved to Lower Street, Dartmouth. William's eldest brother, Sidney, had left home, having joined the Navy as a Boy 2nd Class in 1894. Still at home were Mary Jane, Thirza, William, now 10, and his younger brother and sisters - John Samuel, Florence, and Olive. John Samuel is also on our database.
We know from the report of his death in the Dartmouth Chronicle (see below) that William's first job was that of errand boy to "Mr Dawe, of The Quay" - this probably refers to the business of Charles Henry Dawe, cook, confectioner and baker.
However, some time during the early part of 1911, William joined the Devonshire Regiment. Although his service papers have not survived, the Census recorded him on 2nd April 1911 as a member of the 3rd Battalion Devonshire Regiment, at the Higher Barracks in Howell Road, Exeter. His service number, 9347, suggests he must have joined only a short time before the Census was taken, since number 9218 joined on 4th January 1911 and 9348 on 25th July 1911. From the 3rd Battalion, responsible for recruiting and training, he joined the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment, most likely some time later in 1911. That year, the 2nd Battalion was in Malta, and went on to Egypt in January 1912.
At the outbreak of war, the 2nd Battalion was still in Egypt. After a brief deployment to guard the Suez canal, they were recalled to England, and went to France as part of the 8th Division on 6th November 1914. For their experiences during 1914, see the story of Harry Ridges. William must have been wounded some time during November or December, since his name appeared in a casualty report of 31st December 1914, but we have no further details.
When he returned to the Battalion is not known. For the 2nd Devons' experiences during the first few months of 1915, including the Battalion's role in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, see the story of James Maddick Moses Tuckerman. For their role in the Battle of Aubers Ridge, see the story of Lionel Howard.
The Regimental History observes that:
After this disastrous repulse [at Aubers Ridge] the Eighth Division saw no more heavy fighting for several months ... although offensive operations were resumed on May 16th and carried on at Festubert for over a week in hopes of assisting the French near Arras, the defeat of May 9th postponed till the end of the summer any further British attack, and meanwhile the Eighth Division's front remained quiet and practically unchanged ... The Battalion was in constantly in trenches, usually for six days at a time.
Towards the end of August, however, things hotted up. There were more enemy patrols, more shelling, more sniping, and on the afternoon of 31st August, the Germans suddenly exploded a mine just outside the parapet of the sector of the line occupied by "C" Company, including William. The Battalion War Diary's account goes on:
As soon as the mine was exploded they bombarded the trenches on either side also the 70 yards line with shrapnel and high explosive; this lasted for about ten minutes. In reply we fired about 30 rifle grenades and the trench mortars fired about 20 shells; the supporting battery also opened fire. The Germans replied with trench mortars and rifle grenades. Our field howitzers opened fire on their trenches about 6.30pm firing about 50 rounds. The enemy replied to this with 18 rounds from their howitzers ... Very little damage was done; three men were slightly wounded; one or two dugouts and the parapet [were] smashed by the mine. The crater was about 40 yards in diameter.
William was wounded during this exchange. The Dartmouth Chronicle of 17th September 1915 reported that:
Pte W C Webber, 2nd Devon Regiment, whose parents live at Drake Passage, Dartmouth, has been wounded in the neck. A letter was received this morning from Pte Webber's comrade, who states that he saw him on the battlefield, that he was not seriously wounded, and was quite cheerful. The writer added that Pte Webber has been recommended for the DCM.
The following week, on 24th September 1915, the newspaper had some more detail:
Brave Dartmouth Soldier - Thrown into the Air by Explosion"
As we briefly announced in our last issue, Pte W C Webber ... was recently wounded in action and is now in hospital. Pte Webber experienced a narrow escape from death, and his courageous conduct has been warmly commented upon by Major General H Hudson, commanding 8th Division, who has written:
I desire to express my appreciation of the behaviour, courage and coolness displayed by No 9347 Private W C Webber, 2nd Bn Devonshire Regiment, when, on 31st August 1915, at 5.30pm, a large German mine was exploded close to our lines. Private Webber was thrown into the air, and the bay into which he was posted was filled with earth. He subsequently picked himself up, found his rifle, and joined three other men who had moved on to the next bay, and manning the parapet continued to carry on his duty. He was afterwards slightly wounded by a trench mortar shell.
William and his three colleagues were all sent up for a reward. They all received, not the DCM, but the Military Medal - see below.
It is also interesting to note that a report of his name on casualty lists as wounded appeared in the Western Times on 2nd October 1915, a couple of weeks after his parents had received the letter from William's friend (the name was not quoted in the newspaper).
As before, we don't know when William recovered from his wound and returned to the Battalion. According to the Regimental History, the end of 1915 "brought them few incidents of note". Although 8th Division was involved in an attack at Bois Grenier (just south of Armentières), conceived as an adjunct to the Battle of Loos on 25th September 1915, the 2nd Devons were in divisional reserve. Their contribution was to provide a working party of 450 men to dig a new trench to improve the British line the evening after the action, losing one man killed and ten men wounded. They remained in the trenches during October and most of November (providing working parties when in the rear), and on 24th November went into the Army Reserve for an extended period of rest and training.
The 2nd Devons returned to the line close to where they had left it, near Fleurbaix, and "spent the first three months of 1916 there and in the Laventie sector ... Nothing very noteworthy occurred ... Sniping went on steadily; German patrols were intermittently active, and some sharp little encounters with them cost the Battalion several casualties" (Regimental History). On 27th March, the Battalion, with the rest of 8th Division, transferred to the Somme, reaching Albert on 4th April 1916.
They arrived on the northern sector of the Somme front facing the fortified villages of Ovillers-la-Boisselle and La Boisselle, astride the Albert-Bapaume road. When not in the trenches, subjected to shelling and the occasional attempted trench raid, they were providing the Royal Engineers with large working parties to assist in the massive logistic preparations for the offensive - digging communication and assembly trenches, dug-outs, and equipment dumps; or laying cables, water pipes, roads and railways. There were also practice sessions for the attack itself. On 26th May, 2nd Devons and 2nd Middlesex "practised the attack" and in the afternoon "carried out a signal test with an aeroplane whilst making the attack". On 30th May and 1st June, the officers were taken to Franvillers "to study the ground where the German lines opposite our trenches were marked out by flags". As the preparatory bombardment began, on 24th June, the 2nd Devons were bivouacing in Long Valley, south of Albert - they moved into the trenches on 29th June.
1st July 1916
The 2nd Devons attacked on the right of 8th Division's front, towards the village of Ovillers-La-Boisselle, to the north of the Albert-Bapaume Road. Peter Hart describes the overall situation:
The three assaulting brigades of 8th Division ... were almost entirely dependent upon a successful attack by the divisions on either side of them ... if the 32nd Division ... did not take the Leipzig Redoubt to the north then a blistering enfilading fire would rake their left flank as they advanced in the exposed Nab Valley. Similarly, if the 34th Division to their right failed in attacking the La Boisselle Salient then their right flank would be savaged from the south as it pushed into Mash Valley.
The report of the action in the War Diary speaks for itself:
The advance [from the front line] was carried out in four successive waves in the most perfect order ... Immediately the troops advanced the enemy opened a terrific machine gun fire from the front and from both flanks, which mowed down our troops, this fire did not deter our men from continuing to advance, but only a few reached the German Lines alive. Some of these managed to effect an entry into the German lines, where they put up a determined fight against enormous odds and were soon killed.
At first and for some little time owing to the mist and dust caused by our shell fire, it was difficult to realise exactly what had happened ... the lines appeared at first sight to be intact, but it was soon made clear that the lines consisted of only dead or wounded, and that no one was there to support the few that had got in, and to carry on with the advance... The 2nd West Yorkshire Regiment who were in support ... had been cut to pieces ... the 2nd West Middlesex Regiment on our right and the 2nd Royal Berkshire Regiment on our left ... had also been caught by the hostile Machine Gun fire and had been unable to take the German trenches ...
This information was corroborated by our wounded, who began to crawl back to our lines in small numbers".
The report then comments that "None of the runners sent by Companies reached Headquarters; they were all either killed or wounded".
On the left of the divisional front, there was at first some brief success as 70th Brigade were able to take the German front line, but intense fire over No Man's Land made it impossible for sufficient reinforcing troops to reach those trying to hold what they had taken. Casualties were extremely heavy and ultimately the attack was called off.
Gradually more wounded and some unwounded crawled in. The Division was relieved that night - the 2nd Devons, in the words of the Regimental History, were "a mere wreck". There were 431 casualties in all, eleven officers and 221 men killed or missing, and five officers and 194 men wounded.
The 2nd Devons left the Somme shortly afterward, transferring (with the rest of the 8th Division) to the Cuinchy sector. After only few days rest they went into the front line on 14th July. Here, things were far from quiet, with mine explosions, trench raids, shelling, and bombing. A brief account of casualties and enemy action taken from the Battalion War Diary shows how active this sector was:
16th July: two men killed and five wounded: artillery bombardment
17th July: two men killed and five wounded: trench raid, trench mortar fire
18th July: one officer and five men killed, fifteen men wounded: mine explosion, enemy attack on crater, driven off
19th July: one man killed, one officer and twelve other ranks wounded: artillery bombardment, also trench mortar fire and grenade fire
20th July: three men wounded: enemy raid on sap
21st July: nine men wounded: Devons exploded a mine and occupied the near lip of the crater
22nd July: one man wounded during relief
28th July: one man wounded: artillery bombardment and trench mortar fire
There was more of the same in August, with fifteen men killed and over 50 wounded - not always in the front line. There were several casualties while the Battalion was in reserve but providing working parties. By September the Devons were in the Loos area, continuing to respond to a pretty high rate of enemy action, during (quite long) spells of trench duty:
5th September: one man killed and one wounded: artillery bombardment and trench mortar fire
6th September: one man wounded: minenwerfer fire
7th September: one man killed, two wounded: minenwerfer fire
8th September: one man killed, one wounded: artillery and minenwerfer fire
9th September: one man killed, two wounded: minenwerfer fire
10th September: one officer killed, one man wounded: by machine gun fire while on night patrol of enemy saps
12th September: five men wounded
13th September: one man killed, two wounded: minenwerfer fire
14th September: one man wounded: trench mortar fire. The Devons "shelled the Minenwerfer emplacement apparently with good effect as the enemy has not fired from it since" (in fact, this judgement appears to have been premature)
15th September: one man killed: minenwerfer fire
16th September: two men killed, four wounded: minenwerfer and trench mortar fire
17th September: five men wounded: minenwerfer and rifle grenade fire
Despite all this the 2nd Devons were, according to the War Diary, able to make "many improvements in the trenches ... especially at Battalion Headquarters where several excellent dugouts were built and the trenches strengthened and improved. It was afterwards appropriately named "Exeter Castle"".
The Minenwerfer emplacement remained problematic during their next spell in the trenches, though this was much shorter, only four days.
On 5th/6th October, the Devons attempted an overnight raid on enemy trenches. The raiders assembled in the planned position but the enemy was clearly fully prepared - a prior gas attack had evidently had no effect and the supporting artillery bombardment fell short. The party was caught by machine gun immediately the attack was launched - the War Diary states that the officer leading the raid, Captain Arthur Herbert Smith, of C Company, was killed immediately and "most of the leading men were knocked out". The party "became disorganised", as the War Diary puts it, and the rest withdrew.
As well as Captain Smith, 12 men were killed; and three men died of their wounds shortly afterward. A further 21 men were wounded. The Commanding Officer's report attributed the failure of the raid to the immediate loss of leadership caused by the death of Captain Smith, and to the failure of prior action to impact on the alertness and preparation of the enemy. But although the raid had failed, considerable bravery was shown in bringing in the wounded - three were brought in that same night, despite heavy fire; early the following morning, two more were brought in from very close to the enemy wire; and four men went out in broad daylight the following day to bring in another two.
It seems that the Battalion was also able to recover the bodies of some of those who died. Six members of 2nd Battalion Devonshire Regiment who died on 6th October 1916 are buried at Philosophe British Cemetery, Mazingarbe (between Béthune and Lens), one of whom died of his wounds. Two others who died of wounds that day were buried at Béthune Town Cemetery (Béthune was the location of 33rd Casualty Clearing Station). Nine members of the regiment killed in action that day, including Captain Smith, are commemorated on the Loos Memorial.
On 3rd November 1916 the Dartmouth Chronicle carried the following report:
Dartmouth Hero's Death
"Never complained at all"
Mr and Mrs Charles Webber, of Newcomen Cottages, Newcomen Road, Dartmouth, have received an intimation of the death of their second son, Private William Charles Webber, of the Devons, after a period of patient suffering following severe wounds received in action.
The sad intelligence of his death came in a letter from Nurse Dempster, of No. 7 General Hospital in France, who wrote: "I deeply regret to inform you that Private Webber's condition became worse today (October 18th) and that he died at 5.20pm this evening. He was too ill to leave any message. He will have a military funeral, and his grave will be marked with a wooden cross with his name on. His things will be given in charge of the Record Office and sent to England". Sister Dempster very kindly wrote to Mrs Webber again, and the letter was received yesterday morning. In it she said: "He was so good and patient, and never complained at all of pain. You must feel proud of your poor, brave boy".
Private Webber was at one time errand boy at Mr Dawe's, on the Quay, but he had been in the Army about six years, and was drafted to France from Egypt at the outbreak of war. He was a despatch carrier, and it was while engaged on duties of this nature that he was riddled with machine bullets down his side. One of his arms had to be amputated, and a serious operation performed on one of his legs in the hope of saving his life, but his condition was hopeless from the start.
It is possible that William was wounded whilst carrying messages during the 2nd Devons' attack on the first day of the Somme - as noted above, the report of the action included a reference to all the runners being sent by Companies being killed or wounded.
On the other hand, William does not seem to have been reported wounded in any published casualty list (other than that announcing he had died of wounds). This may suggest that he was wounded fairly soon before his death. The account of the raid on 6th October is broadly consistent with the circumstances described above, though there is no mention of the raiding party sending a runner back.
In the same edition of the Chronicle, the family placed two announcements:
Webber - October 18th, of wounds, in France, William Charles Webber (Bill) of the 2nd Devons. Still fondly remembered by his loving sister Mary Hanlon.
Webber - October 18th 1916, of wounds, in France, Pte W C Webber. Ever remembered by his sorrowing mother, father, sisters and brothers.
Another announcement appeared in the Chronicle two weeks later, from another of his sisters:
Webber - October 18th, of wounds in France, William Charles Webber (Bill) of the 2nd Devons. Still fondly remembered by his loving sister Eliza, Bob and the boys, Bobbie and Stanley, residing in Milford Haven.
William died at 7th General Hospital, which was at the time based at St Omer (along with many other hospitals and casualty clearing stations). Nurse Dempster's letter, and hence (presumably) the family's announcements, referred to William's death as having taken place on 18th October 1916. However, later Army records (the Soldiers' Effects Register), and Commonwealth War Graves Commission records, show his date of death as 19th October 1916. We have used the latter date.
The Dartmouth Chronicle further observed (3rd November) that:
Much sympathy will be extended to the family in their bereavement. Mr and Mrs Webber have two other sons serving - one with another battalion of the Devons in France, and another on HMS Tiger.
The same post which brought the sad news of the death of Private W C Webber brought also a letter containing the information that Mr and Mrs Webber's youngest son had been wounded in the back and head by shell fire, but we are glad to hear that he is now better and has been able to return to the trenches again.
William's eldest brother Sidney Ball Webber had joined HMS Tiger on 3rd October 1914. She was his last ship and he remained with her throughout the war. He was presumably one of those present at the Battle of Jutland. He survived the war, having joined the RFR on 10th September 1917, while continuing to serve in Tiger. He was demobilised on 17th March 1919.
William's younger brother, John Samuel Webber, was amongst the group of young men from Dartmouth who had joined up at the beginning of the war and had joined the 8th Devons. His story will be published next year.
On 27th October 1916, only a few days after William's death, his award of the Military Medal was gazetted (Supplement 29805). The Military Medal was created on 25th March 1916 to be awarded to "non-commissioned officers and men for individual or associated acts of bravery on the recommendation of a Commander in Chief in the Field". The names of those receiving the award were published in the London Gazette, but (almost always) without details of the circumstances.
William is buried in the Longuenesse Souvenir Cemetery in St Omer. Nurse Dempster's letter referred to his grave being marked by a wooden cross - today it is marked by a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone.
As one of the 579,206 casualties in the region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, William is commemorated on the new memorial at Notre Dame de Lorette, "The Ring of Memory".
In Dartmouth, he is commemorated on the Town War Memorial and the St Saviours Memorial Board.
Quotations from the Battalion War Diary are taken from The 2nd Devons War Diary, by Martin Body, 2012, Pollinger in Print.
See also an article by Martin Body about the 2nd Devons on the Somme and the attack on 1st July 1916
The Devonshire Regiment 1914-1918, compiled by C T Atkinson, 1926, London and Exeter
The Somme, by Peter Hart, 2006, Cassell
Army Service Numbers, Devonshire Regiment
Information Held on Database
|Military Unit:||2nd Bn Devonshire Regiment|
|Date of Death:||19 Oct 1916|
|Age at Death:||26|
|Cause of Death:||Died of wounds|
|Action Resulting in Death:||Not known - see story|
|Place of Death:||7th General Hospital, St Omer, France|
|Place of Burial:||Buried Longuenesse (St Omer) Cemetery, France|
|Born or Lived in Dartmouth?||Yes|
|On Dartmouth War Memorial?||Yes|
|On St Saviour's Memorials?||Yes|
|On St Petrox Memorials?||No|
|On Flavel Church Memorials?||No|
|In Longcross Cemetery?||No|
|In St Clement's Churchyard?||No|
|On a Private Memorial?||No|
|On Another Memorial?||No|