Complete Service File available HERE
“Eileen Wykes of Toronto, Canada, seeks information about the Wykes family of Quorn Leicestershire” This entry in the Quorn Website was the starting point for a story that spans two continents, expanded my family connections and led to a lost family member being found in a military grave on the Menin Road in Ypres.
Wykes was the family name of my maternal grandmother. She came from Quorn in Leicestershire and Florence was one of 10 children. What I did not know was that there was a branch of the family that had emigrated to Canada in the latter part of the 19th Century.
Eileen became a dear friend and shared her considerable work on the family tree.
All this happened at a time when my interest in The Great War started to grow following a trip to the battlefields in 2000.
The first stop on that tour was at Hill 62, where the Canadian Division fought in 1916. I did not know then anything about the Wykes Canadian connection and that Great Uncle Fred had made the ultimate sacrifice in those trenches.
The family knew that Fred had been killed in The Great War but there was some mystery about the circumstances and whether he became one of the missing or perhaps had a grave somewhere on The Western Front. Fred’s name is on the Quorn War Memorial along with another relative Ezra Wykes
Eventually, after much searching, I found that Fred was buried in Menin Road South Cemetery, on the Menin Road just to the east of Ypres. Fred lies in a peaceful spot, surrounded by some of his comrades. I have had the privilege of visiting his grave on several occasions, the first member of the Wykes family to do so.
This is my tribute to Great Uncle Fred and to all those who paid the price of ensuring our freedom.Fred was born in 1892 in Quorn. Leicester. His father, Albert worked in the local quarry in Mountsorrel about 4 miles down the road.
When Fred was only a baby, the family moved to Inverkeithing, Scotland were Albert found work once again in the quarrying industry. Information about Fred’s early life is very sketchy.
Fred’s parents took his death extremely hard and it appears that they wanted to have no painful reminders about Fred following his death in the Great War. We can catch a glimpse of his early life through the local Inverkeithing newspaper that published his obituary.
The paper reports that Fred spent his boyhood in Inverkeithing and served his apprentice as a sett-maker in the local whinstone quarries. He emigrated to Canada in 1912 and successfully followed his trade until enlisting.
Photographs of Fred growing up are rare. A family grouping of Fred with his mother, father brother Herbert and sister Pris shows him as the youngest in the family and despite being a boy is wearing a dress—something common at the end of the 19th century.
Fred joins the 60th Battalion CEF
The 60th Battalion was formed in the summer of 1915 under the command of Lt Col F. A. Gascoigne. who had been a railway executive before the war. He was considered to be a good administrative battalion commander, ensuring that the battalion day to day operations was documented but was not so thorough regarding casualties etc. All in all he was not an outstanding battalion commander…but there were worse.
The 60th, nicknamed the “Silent Sixtieth”, was part of the Victoria Rifles of Canada, and had a unit strength of 1024 men and 40 Officers including a bugle band.
After 5 months of rigorous training at Valcartier, the Battalion returned to Montreal and were barracked at the Northern Electric Barracks in Rue Guy.
On 6th November 1915 the 60th Battalion boarded the SS Scandinavian bound for the UK. The Scandinavian was a transport ship, which also carried the 10th Battalion from the Prairies.
The first of Fred’s letters was written in Montreal, prior to his imminent departure to England. Whilst it is undated, there are clues as to when it was written. The Battalion embarked on the SS Scandinavian on 6th November 1915 which was a Saturday. By a process of deduction, it would appear that the letter was written on of the following dates:
Saturday 30th October 1915
Sunday 31st October 1915
Monday 1st November 1915
Pte. F. Wykes
Don’t write at present
Dear Brother, I received your letters OK. I guess the parcel will be up tomorrow. The photo is dandy and if I go to Germany that goes with me to face the foe as we expect to set sail on Friday from here. This is sudden and OK too as the Captain told us tonight not to expect another Sunday in Montreal. He said I am not quite sure but I don’t expect we will; this is what he said. I only wish you could come on Wednesday as it is impossible for me to come up now they have ordered all married men’s kits in tomorrow so I guess it is OK. I feel as happy as King Cole now and am going to make the best of my time here now which I hope is short but a sudden change like this makes one think something is far wrong on the other side but it will turn out OK yet our stay is going to be short here. I guess you can’t come here so letters will have to do us for now. I had put in for a pass but it is no good. I was going to try and be in Toronto next Saturday on a surprise visit but I am better pleased where we are going as I don’t want to be a street soldier which some are here. All they want is Montreal Montreal. I have not said anything about it at home as we were only warned today. Well I must close now hoping this finds you OK as it leaves me. I remain your loving Brother and nephew and Uncle.
Wire if you do come what time you will get here – say whether CPR or Grand Trunk. The captain just came into the mess room and told us a note has just been put up on the board that we will all be allowed leave on Thursday to say goodbye to our friends hurra. I would have liked to see my nephew. See him when I come back. The officer says he expects every man to do his duty – here is one.
The Battalion sailed from Montreal on 6th November 1915 and was at sea for 10 days, docking in the UK on 16th November 1915.
Whilst on board, Signal Sergeant Timlim produced a magazine called “The Silent 60th”.
In the introduction to the magazine it states: “This little magazine is intended chiefly as a souvenir of the “Sixtieth” when on its way to uphold the Honour and Glory of the ‘Old Flag’”
It gives a fascinating glimpse of the 60th’s life on board ship whilst on its way to war.
Fred and the 60th Battalion went to Bramshott Camp for the rest of their training on arrival in the United Kingdom, the 60th Battalion, was assigned to the 9th Infantry Brigade, 3rd Division. The Officer in Command was Major-General M. S. Mercer, formerly of the 1st Brigade.
They were at Bramshott for a further 3 months before embarking for France.
Fred wrote two letters from Bramshott. The first was dated Monday 14th February 1916 just 6 days before the 60th Battalion sailed for France. What had he been doing since arriving in England on 16th November 1915? Most of the time would have been spent training. A Canadian Grenadier guard said “We thought our training in Canada amounted to something. We found we might just as well be playing croquet. We learned more in the first few weeks in England than we did in 6 months in Canada. Day and night we trained. When we thought we had been driven to the limit, we were told we were to have a period of real intense training to harden us up for the actual fighting.”
Fred says nothing about this training. In fact nothing about this period at all. There are two glimpses of what he did. The first was an entry in his record dated 8/1/16 “Forfeit 4 days pay 4.40; (Dollars?) 8 days Field Punishment No 2 (See Background Information section for details of Punishment system) with forfeiture of pay and allowances—overstaying pass 3/1/16 ‘till 11 p.m. 6-1-16”
Was this a trip up to Scotland? The picture of Fred in his uniform taken with his sister Pris was taken by James Norval of Dunfermline.
The only period he could have made it to Scotland was between arriving in England on 16th November and embarking for France on 20th February 1916. On 4th February 1916 Fred wrote his will on page 20 of his pay book. At the time of writing his 14th February letter, he clearly didn’t know the exact date of departure. He says: “…. when we get to France which is expected to be the end of this week. We are expecting to pull out of here Saturday or Sunday if not then the end of the month at the very longest”.
His second letter from Bramshott is more certain about moving “Just a line or two before we leave here on Sunday sometime” There is a poignant phrase in this letter—”I know mother and Dad will be OK so cheer up old boy and wait for me coming back again” It was an never-ending wait………
On 20th February the 60th embarked for France and arrived at Le Havre on the 21st/22nd February 1916. The Battalion Commander, Lt Col Gascoigne started the Battalion’s War Diary. The battalion entrained at Liphook, bound for Southampton in 3 “train parties”. Different elements embarked and sailed at different time on different ships. The names of two ships are recorded in the diary: “SS Queen Alexandria” that sailed at 5 p.m. on the 20th February, arriving in Le Havre at 11.50 p.m. and SS Mathuan(?) which left at 6.15 p.m. arriving the next morning at 6.00 a.m.
By 7.30 a.m. on 22nd February the whole of the Battalion had arrived in France.
Orders were then received to proceed to Godewaersvelde, not far from the French and Belgian border, approximately 10 miles south west of Ypres. The Tommies referred to it as “Gertie wears velvet”.
During afternoon of 22nd, The 1st detachment of 4 officers and 200 other ranks caught a troop train at 6.00 p.m. expecting it to stop at Godewaersvelde. It didn’t and went straight through to Poperinghe! The detachment had to march back 12 miles getting to their billets at 10.30 p.m. The rest of the Battalion arrived at Godewaersvelde by train 22 hours later after a “cold and trying journey”. After a day settling in, General Mercer inspected the battalion on 25th February.
At the beginning of March, instruction in trench warfare began with half the Battalion going to Locre on 1st March and the other half on 2nd March. The war diary starts to record casualties as the battalion gets nearer to the front line. The various company’s were rotated in and out of the line, attached to more experienced units. At one point “D” company was quarantined as one of the men had measles.
Fred by now was in “C” Company and had his fair share of this training. His next letter describes the move from Le Havre to Godewaersvelde. It ties in neatly to the Battalion War Diary. He reports that “there is a lot of snow and pretty cold too.” He comments on the long train journey—”We came 2 days in cattle cars from______ to where we are now.” During the process of rotation in and out of the front line, on 6th March 1916, “C” company was moved to Battalion HQ. The War Diary reports that no arrangements had been made for them but eventually they were billeted at “Stink Farm”. Fred’s next letter confirms this move as he gives his address as, “Head Quarter Company, Scout Section”
For the first time, (but not the last!) Fred asks for a pair of socks—this becomes a recurring theme in his subsequent letters. He says: The snow is going very fast now – good job as it is not very comfortable under foot – wet feet all the time. Send a pair of socks along once in a while. If I get too many some of the boys can wear them.
He also reports that he had seasickness in the short Channel crossing, the sea being rough.
At the time of Fred’s death, 60th battalion’s Operation order No 21, dated 20th April 1916, (see copy) outlines the distribution as the Battalion as follows:
“A” Company in Zillebeke Bund* and stray points.
“B” Company in R S 8.
“C” Company left of Battalion Frontage and support points. (Fred’s company)
“D” Company right of battalion Frontage.
Scouts in Battalion Headquarters.
*A bund is a small low walled enclosure usually surrounding some liquid storage and there to stop leaks spreading. Fuel and chemical stores usually have them.
It is likely that this means the retaining walls of the Zillebeke reservoir. It is reasonable to assume therefore that the 60th Battalion were in and around the area of the Zillebeke Reservoir. This is marked with a red star on the map.
Chronologically, Fred’s time in the trenches was sandwiched between the Battle of St Eloi Craters in April and the Battle of Mount Sorrel in June 1916.
On Good Friday, 21st April 1916, members of “C” Company 60th Battalion were at work repairing trenches. The Battalion’s War Diary describes the trenches as being” in a very bad condition, knee deep, and over in slimy mud”
It is believed that at some point Fred volunteered to carry out a job in an exposed position saying that he’d do it as he was single and didn’t have any responsibilities
On the German side of the line an unknown German sniper lay in wait for any Allied troops brave enough to show themselves above the trench parapet. At some point Fred came into the sniper’s sights and the inevitable happened. Fred’s army records show that he received a gunshot wound to the head and died instantly.
In a letter to his sister, dated 24th April 1916, Fred’s platoon commander Lieutenant Harold Gallen wrote: “You have heard of the loss of your dear brother and it may be some consolation to you to know that he passed away without any suffering whatever, as his end was instantaneous.
He died in the performance of his duty and we feel his loss greatly as he was so reliable and trustworthy and highly respected by all his officers and comrades.”
The day before, his company commander, Captain W. R. Crighton had written to Fred’s sister describing his death. “Your brother was at his post of duty when the end came in the shape of a sniper’s bullet which passed through his steel helmet and his head. He was brought out last night and buried near the dressing station.”
Fred’s Army records recorded his death with a terse economy of style. His Army Form B.103 “Casualty Form Active Service “states:
21st April 1916—Killed in Action (G.S.W. in head)
The letter that Harold Gallen wrote to Fred’s sister has a sad postscript.
The “Silent 60th Magazine” had an item referring to Gallen’s recent marriage:
We feel heartily sorry for Lieutenant Gallen of No 10 Platoon “C” Company. (Fred’s platoon) He was married only one day before sailing. Captain Shires was wiser that that”
Lieutenant HAROLD. GALLEN, “C” 60th Btn Canadian Infantry, was killed on 4th June 1916, aged 26 during the Battle of Mount Sorrel.
His wife of one day never saw him again.
The famous poem “In Flanders Fields” was written by Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian, who at the timing of writing the poem, was based at the Casualty Station at Essex Farm, near Ypres.
A number of poems were written subsequently as a reply to the thoughts set out in John McCrae’s poem.
During the writing of Fred’s story, I felt Fred’s influence very strongly and I believe that he has been the guiding hand on this project. I am certain it was no coincidence that the very first battlefield I visited was Hill 62 and the Canadian War Memorial there—the very place Fred fought and died.
At the time of that first visit, I knew nothing of the Wykes family connection with Canada and nothing about Eileen and her family. But Fred knew and brought us together with the ultimate result that his story has now been told.
It therefore came as no surprise to get a strong feeling that Fred wanted me to use the poem “In Flanders Fields” as a basis for a poetic tribute.
This is my tribute to Great Uncle Fred.
In Menin Road so long ago
Fred Wykes was laid, we did not know
Of that sad place and now we try,
With grateful heart, but tear wet eye
His story tell. He faced the foe.
Then news so dread, a crushing blow.
He died, we mourned and now we show
Our family’s thanks to one who lies
In Flanders Fields.
My story tell so all will know
Of what we did, so long ago.
Remember us, remember why
We gave up all and went to die.
As now we sleep where poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.
4th May 2020