Will Dickens: 1879–1918

There are some upsides to keeping absolutely everything, particularly when it comes to finding out what went on in the past. My stepfather was a great keeper of stuff, a trait he'd inherited from his mother. She kept everything that mentioned her father, Will Dickens, and my stepfather in his turn kept everything too. He'd never known his grandfather, for Will was in that sad cohort of servicemen who died after the Armistice was signed.

William Thomas Dickens was born on 27 March, 1879 in Northampton, the son of William and Ellen Dickens. He worked as a carpenter and joiner for Henry Martin Ltd, the same company as his father, and on 14 May 1905, he married Edith Gordon at St Edmund's, Northampton. They set up home at 151 Loyd Road in Northampton and their only child, a daughter, Margaret (Margie), was born on 6 July 1907.

Will was 35 when war broke out in 1914, and he joined up in May 1916 at the age of 37. It seems likely from the date that Will was conscripted. The Military Service Act of January 1916 conscripted single men between the ages of 18 and 41, and a second Act in May 1916 extended it to married men.

Will wanted to join the Royal Flying Corps, and he produced references to persuade the powers-that-be to send him there. Mr Smith, one of his employers, described Will as 'very steady, industrious, and thoroughly reliable, a very good joiner,' and the other references were similarly stellar. It was probably the confirmation of Will's prowess as a joiner and carpenter that sealed his fate: he joined the Corps of Royal Engineers and was sent to Chatham to train.

While he was there, he sent a postcard of the Chatham docks to Margie, telling her that he was working on the bank opposite the picture on the postcard. 'My Dear Margie,' he wrote. 'This is a view of the river. We were working just on the opposite side. Thanks for P.C. I hope Mother and yourself are quite well. Wish I were at home with you for good. Your loving Daddy'

Edith was not forgotten either: he sent her a postcard on 26 August 1916:

Back home, life went on. Will's father wrote to him on 7 September 1916. It was, he said, very quiet in the shop: 'all the men are working in the bottom shop, not a soul upstairs we did not run the machines at all on Friday, Saturday & Monday sent the machinists to Dallington.'

Not only was there very little work, there were very few people to do it. 'I do not know,' he wrote, 'how we shall get on for the unskilled labour, as there are very few about … so it is pretty worrying if you get a job to do, to know how to do it.'

William had missed Will's return home on leave. They hadn't known he was coming, and had gone to Bedford. Will did have at least one other leave, from 4–11 November 1916, by which time he had moved to Chattenden, and was in 2 Company, 2 Reserve Battalion.

It appears that Will remained in the UK until May 1917, when he sent Edith a copy of his will. It was standard practice for soldiers to fill these in before they were sent on active service, and Will sent Edith a copy of his – a spoiled copy, as the original was with the Army, confirming that he'd left her everything.

He was posted to the 486th Field Company, Royal Engineers, and fought in Palestine. The Northampton Independent of 14 December 1918 reported that he had been 'in the thick of the fighting' there. They fought at Gaza and Jaffa in 1917, and at Berukin and Sharon in 1918. The Turks signed an Armistice on 31 October 1918, so war finished a little earlier for Will and his fellows than it did for most: they had survived the fighting.

Northampton had celebrated on November 11:

By one o'clock the main streets were simply ablaze with colour. Nearly every upper window was flying a flag, many persons were carrying a flag or flags and wearing red, white and blue ribbons, motor-cars, horses, vans, and dogs were similarly be-decked, and there were more flags about than have been seen at Northampton at any time during the last four years.
Northampton Chronicle and Echo, November 11, 1918

Margie was probably at school. Schools in Northampton had only just re-opened after being closed for three weeks because of the influenza outbreak. I do not know if Edith went along to the celebrations. I do not know if they knew that Will was ill. I'm not sure if it is worse to hope that they experienced some uncomplicated joy by believing that Will would return to them, or if that made it even more cruel, bearing in in mind the news they would receive just over 2 weeks later. It's impossible, too, to tell if Will was already ill by the time the 31 October Armistice was signed. The Northampton Independent piece described his illness as 'brief', so I hope he at least had some happiness in thinking that he would soon be back with his family.

Postcard sent to Margie from Egypt
While he was stationed in Palestine, he wrote to Margie: the letter is missing its original stamps, so it's impossible to date. Margie's birthday was in July, so he might have been writing before July 1918, or after that hoping he would be home by July 1919.

My dearest Margie
Just a line or two to tell you I am getting on a little better now and hope to keep so now.

I hope you are getting on all right & are taking care of Mother for me. I am sending you these few stamps which Freddie got me from Port Said. I hope you will like them as they are rather interesting and unusual.

Write and tell me if you receive them safely. Kiss Grandpa, the girls & mother for me. I do not think it will be long now before I see you. Even at the very latest I hope to be home in time for your Birthday.

Night night and God bless you 

Your loving Daddy

Without a date, there is no way of knowing if Will was writing about the illness that killed him. On 17 November, he was admitted to the military hospital in Cairo, suffering from broncho-pneumonia, brought on, it was thought, by influenza. The so-called Spanish flu had cut a swathe through the world-wide population in 1918, and pneumonia as a result was very common. In the pre-antibiotic era, it was invariably fatal.

Will died on 24 November 1911.

By the time he reached hospital, he was already gravely ill. The sister who had nursed Will wrote to Edith on the day he died:

My dear Mrs Dickens
 Ere this you will have received the sad blow of your dear husband's death. This is just a few lines of sympathy from me, the sister in charge of his ward, and to let you know of his last hours.

 I enclose a letter from the Medical officer telling you what the cause of his death was.

 He was only with me for six days and was very ill all the time on Friday he seemed a little better but on Saturday at 2.30 he got much worse and from then seemed to realise that he was going. At 10 pm he asked me to write to you and say good bye and tell you to take good care of his little Margaret and that God would look after you both. He was so short of breath that he could not talk much but smiled very sweetley [sic] and said he was not afraid to die and he had always had a happy life.

 At 12 o/c he became unconscious and passed very peacefully away at 2 pm on Sunday morning.
He was laid to rest in the English cemetry [sic] in Cairo among all the other brave lads.

 Please accept my sincere sympathy in your sad loss. Your husband must have been a good man to have met his good shepherd and calling as he did.

 I pray that same good shepherd may take you and his little Margaret under his arms and give you true comfort.

I am yours very truly, Constance [surname illegible]
Sister i/c

P.S. all his little articles were collected and will be sent through the War Office to you

Edith received the telegram giving her the news on 28 November 1918.

Will's father died that same day. The Northampton Independent of 7 December 1918 reported the story, saying that he had died from shock at the home of his daughter-in-law. The effect on the family of this double tragedy is unimaginable.

William Dickens

Will was buried in Egypt, in the Cairo War Memorial Cemetery. Edith paid 4 shillings and 11 pence to have his gravestone engraved with 'Until the Day Breaks', but neither she nor Margie ever managed to visit the grave. They, in common with so many other families, just had War Office photographs of the grave. My stepfather managed to visit Will's grave not long before he died.

And what of Will's family?

Edith remarried in 1921. Margie's scrapbook, given to her on her fifth birthday by her parents, had its last pages decorated with cut-outs of World War I medals.

Margie kept everything that her mother passed on to her: alas the collection of silk postcards she and Edith received from Will has gone missing, but I hope that one day I will be able to track it down and complete this history.

Margie, who was known as Margaret in later life, married local artist Thomas Pote in 1933, and had one son, my stepfather, Alan Pote. She lived in Northampton all her life, not far from where I now sing with the Northampton Bach Choir.



Val said…
That was a very touching tribute ..thank you for sharing
callmemadam said…
Such a touching story and no doubt one of thousands more. Thank you for sharing.
Jane Badger said…
Thank you both - I know you must have your own stories too.

Popular posts from this blog

The Way Things Were: Pony Magazine in the 1960s

Archibald, don't eat the bedclothes

Lauren Brooke: Heartland