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William Tomlinson

Private William Tomlinson, 7727, West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales's Own), 1st Battalion

William Tomlinson was born in Leeds in early 1885, the fourth of six children born to Edward Tomlinson and his wife, Susannah (nee Bowman) who married in Leeds in late 1875. All of the family were born in Leeds.

In 1891 and 1901, Edward, formerly a shoemaker and latterly a wool operative, was living with, his wife and children, including William, in North Leeds. In the latter year, William Tomlinson, aged 16 years, was also a wool operative.

On the 30th June 1902, when only 17 years of age, William, a boot checker, of 3 Middleton Avenue Leeds, attested for the term of six years (provided His Majesty should no longer require your services) as a Militiaman for the County of the West Riding of Yorkshire to serve in the West Yorkshire Regiment. William was 5’ 3¼” tall, 106lbs weight a chest measurement of 30½” with blue eyes, brown hair and a fresh complexion. He claimed to be 18 years and 7 months of age which overstated his age by a year or so.

William was embodied or mobilised on the 16th August 1902 and posted on the 27th August 1902 but "disembed-ed" on the 1st October 1902. There is no explanation for this, but it is possible the army discovered his true age and on the 23rd February 1903, he was discharged by purchase at a cost of £1.0.0. The probability was that his parents bought him out of the army. His parents’ address at that time was 8, Middleton Street, Leeds, whilst William lived at 3, Middleton Avenue, Leeds.

He returned to the colours on the 19th October 1903, when he enlisted for the second time and agreed to serve for six years in the West Riding Regiment. He was now living with his parents at 8, Middleton Street, Stoney Rock Lane, Leeds, aged 18 years and 11 months and working as a boot finisher. He indicated on his Attestation that he had previously served in the 3rd Battalion West Yorkshire and the reason for his discharge was given as Purchased. Since his previous enlistment he had grown by ¾” and put on 3lbs weight. He joined the West Yorkshire Regiment on the 18th November 1903. His siblings were named as Walter and Ada Tomlinson and Florence Turnpenny.

By 1911, William was serving in India with the 1st West Yorkshire Regiment indicating that he had extended his term of engagement beyond the six years he signed for in 1903. It is possible that at that time he had extended his service in the colours and also agreed to this being followed in the reserve so that by the time he married on the 7th July 1913 he was a reservist working as a postman. At the Mount Zion Primitive Methodist Chapel, Ossett Green, on the 7th July 1913 William, of Wesley Street, Ossett married Mary Ann Audsley, a rag sorter, of Headlands Road, Ossett. In their short time together the couple did not have children.

Whilst William’s pre-WW1 army service record has survived, his service record during WW1 has not, but it is known that he was living in Ossett when he enlisted, in Selby, and joined the 1st Battalion, Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire) Regiment. Private William Tomlinson, regimental service number 7727, embarked for France on the 8th September 1914 and was killed in action two weeks later on the 22nd September 1914 and was posthumously awarded the 1914 Star in recognition of his service between the 5th August and 22nd November 1914. The award was made with the clasp indicating that he had served under fire in that period. He was also posthumously awarded the British and Victory medals.

The 1st Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales's Own) was in Lichfield in August 1914 when war broke out, on the 7th August they moved to Dunfermline then six days later they transferred to Cambridge. They proceeded to France, landing at St Nazaire on the 10th of September 1914, with 18th Brigade in 6th Division to reinforce the BEF on the Aisne. They remained on the Western Front throughout the conflict, seeing action the the Battle of the Somme, at Hill 70, on the Lys and the Hindenburg Line. After the Armistice, 6th Division were selected to join the occupation force and they moved into Germany in mid December, being based at Bruehl by Christmas 1918.

On 20th September 1914, the 1st Battalions of The West Yorkshire and The East Yorkshire Regiments took part in the actions on the Aisne Heights (a development of the First Battle of The Aisne). This three day engagement was an attempt to break newly established German line north of the River Aisne which had been established a week earlier after the German retreat from the Battle of the Marne.

During heavy fighting at Bourg on the 20th September at Bourg, the 1st Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment lost 7 officers killed, two wounded and eight missing and in other ranks, 71 killed, 110 wounded and 436 missing. It seems that the majority, if not all the missing, were taken prisoner, when the Germans advanced under a white flag. Thinking that the Germans were surrendering, the West Yorks moved forward to meet them and were quickly surrounded and heavily fired upon. Many were killed. A few escaped, but most were captured.

This corroborated account of the white flag treachery by the Germans is related by a British soldier:

"I recollect Sunday afternoon, 20th September 1914. I remember the date because I had 12 months' service, all but two days. We were entrenched across the Aisne about 400 or 500 yards, as a rough guess. We went into those trenches the evening before. I was on the right of my regiment's trenches.

"The West Yorkshires were entrenched about 40 or 50 yards to our right. There was a ridge about 200 yards in front of us which sloped down so that the ground in front of the West Yorkshires was quite flat. There was a turnip field there. Our patrol (six men and an N.C.O.), which had been on top of the ridge in front of us came in about 2.45 with the news that the enemy were advancing on the right. I was the third man from the right of our trench. About half an hour later I saw the enemy advancing in column of fours opposite the West Yorkshires. There was a man in front alone carrying above his head a white flag on a stick. All the men in the ranks had their arms above their heads with their rifles over their heads. There were 600 or 800 of them. I saw them first when they were about 300 yards off the West Yorkshires. We started firing at them as soon as we saw them as we got orders; they were whispered along from man to man. Private S . . . can speak to the white flag incident.

The West Yorkshires ceased firing when the Germans were about level with the ridge. The Northamptons had told us when we relieved them that the Germans had tried the white flag game on them, and that it was a trap. The Germans got right up to the West Yorkshires' trenches, and a nice few of them got beyond the trenches. The Germans advanced diagonally from left to right. They stood over the West Yorkshires with their bayonets, and compelled two companies to surrender. After that they started to fire at us with rifles; we had a lot of casualties.

Some of the Germans doubled back to their own lines with the West Yorkshires prisoners: some stayed and blazed away at us; they were lying down and kneeling. Our supports the Notts and Derbys came up, and we were then able to compel them to retire. There was another lot of Germans that too, with another white flag, came from behind the ridge, and made for a haystack about 500 yards away, on the right of the West Yorkshires. They had machine guns and were compelled to retire after our supports came up."

Out of a total strength that landed at St Nazaire on the 10th September 1914 of 27 Officers and 959 Other Ranks, all that was left at the end of the 20th September was 5 Officers and 339 Other Ranks that made up the 1st Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment. It is likely that Private William Tomlinson was wounded on the 20th September and subsequently died of his wounds. His body was never recovered.

William Tomlinson is not included on the dedication programme for Ossett’s War Memorial, which stands in the town centre. He is, however, one of fourteen Ossett men remembered on the Central Baptist Church Roll of Honour. For these reasons William Tomlinson is also now remembered in this 2014 biography and Roll of Honour.

William Tomlinson’s widow Mary Ann (nee Audsley ) remarried on the 20th May 1916 when Harold Warburton became her second husband. Both were living in Ossett before the marriage; Mary Ann, aged 28, a tramcar conductress of 25, Headlands Road, Ossett and Harold, a 26 year-old electric tramcar driver of Denholme Drive, Ossett. The couple had two children, Joyce born 1918 and Irene born 1920.

1914 German propaganda postcard

Above: A German propaganda postcard from 1914, Germany/Austria-Hungary versus Allies - Two to Seven.

Private William Tomlinson died on the 22nd September 1914 from wounds received on the 20th September and is remembered at the La Ferte-Sous-Jouarre Memorial, 1 Seine-et-Marne, France. La Ferte-sous-Jouarre is a small town 66 kilometres to the east of Paris, located on the main road (N3) running east from Paris. The Memorial is situated in a small park on the south-western edge of the town, on the south bank of the River Marne, just off the main road to Paris, The Memorial Register is kept at the Town Hall.

The La Ferté-sous-Jouarre Memorial commemorates 3,740 officers and men of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) who fell at the battles of Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne and the Aisne between the end of August and early October 1914 and have no known graves. The monument is constructed of white Massangis stone and surmounted by a sarcophagus onto which military trophies are laid. At the four corners of the pavement on which the monument stands are stone columns supporting urns which bear the coats of arms of the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom. The memorial was designed by George H. Goldsmith, a decorated veteran of the Western Front, and unveiled by Sir William Pulteney, who had commanded the III Corps of the BEF in 1914, on 4 November 1928.

Close to the bridge on both banks of the river stand the stone columns which make up the 4th Division Royal Engineers Memorial. The columns are surmounted with the flaming grenade of the Royal Engineers and mark the spot at which British sappers constructed a floating assault bridge under German artillery fire on 9 and 10 September 1914.

By the beginning of September 1914, the German Imperial Army had swept through much of Belgium and north eastern France and was fast approaching Paris. By 3 September, the British and French forces had been retreating south west for over two weeks, German victory was a definite possibility, and the Allied Commander, Général Joffre, prepared to launch a major counter offensive. As night fell on 5 September, the men of the British Expeditionary Force began to halt approximately 40 kilometres south east of Paris and their gruelling retreat was at an end. For the next two days, British I, II and III Corps advanced north eastward, encountering only minor resistance from the German forces in the area, which had reached the limit of their advance and were now carrying out a tactical retreat. On 8 September, British infantry brigades advancing toward the Marne came under heavy machine-gun and artillery fire from German units in La Ferté sous Jouarre and on the north bank of the river where they had formed a bridgehead. The British withdrew, began bombarding the German positions, and by mid-afternoon had entered the town in force. Both of the local bridges had been blown, but the Royal Engineers immediately began to construct a floating bridge, over which III Corps crossed the Marne on 10 September and joined I and II Corps which had crossed the river further to the east the previous today.

The German armies were now in full retreat to the north and east, hotly pursued by the combined British and French forces. Retreating German units fought rearguard actions under heavy rainfall throughout the day on 11 September and by the morning of the 12th they had occupied defensive positions on the high ground overlooking the northern banks of the River Aisne.

The Battle of the Marne, referred to in the French press as the ‘Miracle of the Marne’, halted the month-long advance of the German forces toward Paris and decisively ended the possibility of an early German victory. The battle also marked the beginning of trench warfare as Allied and German forces entrenched during and after the Battle of the Aisne in mid-September. By November battle lines had been drawn that would remain virtually unchanged for almost four years. The British Expeditionary Force suffered almost 13,000 casualties during the Battle of the Marne, of whom some 7,000 had been killed.


1. Commonwealth War Graves Commission web site