The Old and the Bold


William Frederick Merry

A HERO OF THE ROYAL FUSILIERS

Pte. Merray, of Hounslow, of the 25th Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen), in the graphic description of the battle of Bukoba published in these columns recently, told among other things that when the German stronghold was captured a lieutenant of his corps was the first to haul down the enemy’s flag.  It has now transpired that this officer was Lieut. Wilbur Dartnell, and there is a sad but glorious sequel to his act.  The gazette of honours published on Christmas Eve stated that the King had been graciously pleased to award the Victoria Cross to Lt. Dartnell, for most conspicuous bravery near Maktau (East Africa) on September 3rd, 1915. During a mounted infantry engagement the enemy got within a few yards of our men, and it was found impossible to get the more severely wounded away.  Lt. Dartnell, who was himself being carried away wounded in the leg, seeing the situation, and knowing that the enemy’s black troops murdered the wounded, insisted on being left behind in the hope of being able to save the lives of the other wounded men.  He gave his own life in the gallant attempt to save others. Before the war the deceased officer was an actor, and it is believed that he is the first of his profession who ever gained a Victoria Cross.

First published in;

The Middlesex Chronicle, Saturday, January 1, 1916

Copyright © 2014 - All Rights Reserved - Steve Eeles - www.25throyalfusiliers.co.uk

Back

Notice!

The following text contains words which are now considered offensive in the description of ethnic origin.  I in no way advocate the use of these words to describe ethnicity but as attitudes in 1915/1916 were completely different to those of the present day and in order to retain the historical accuracy and flow of the text I have transcribed the item as printed at the time.

First published in;

The Middlesex Chronicle, Saturday, February 12, 1916

HOUNSLOW FRONTIERSMAN’S CHRISTMAS


After a long silence, another interesting letter has arrived to friends at home from Pte. W. Merray, of Derby-road, Hounslow, who has been serving for several months with the British East African Expeditionary Force in the 25th Batt. of the Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen).  He wrote on New Year’s Day, and in his letter tells how he spent the Christmas season, as follows:-

“Hearing you would like another letter from B.E.A., I thought an account of our Christmas would interest you, as we are not allowed to send any account of the fighting just now.  Well on the 23rd December we had orders at 3 a.m. to entrain as a party of the enemy were seen making for a point on the main line.  We just took a blanket, overcoat and waterproof sheet, thinking we would only be away for a day.  Arriving at a small station 22 miles away, we were told to wait orders.  On the 24th, at 3 p.m., we were entrained again for another station 18 miles further down the line.  We did not mind that, as we were expecting to meet the enemy on Christmas Day, but no such luck; they must have heard we were coming and retired.  Still, we were happy, thinking our things would be sent down to us next day, so we had a very nice sing-song before going to bed, and a very nice bed too – just drop down anywhere and then wake up in the night to find yourself covered with ants.  It was grand!  Everyone was up by 5 a.m. Christmas morning, waiting for the first train.  It came in at 7 a.m., but brought us nothing.  8 p.m., breakfast, one small piece of bacon, then a patrol for two hours in the bush, but found nothing.  At 12, lunch, bread and jam, and tea or burnt water, then a lay down in the shade of the station till dinner time, 5 p.m., when we were given a tin of bully between two.  On opening it we found it was all fat, so gave it to the carriers, and had what was left of the bread, which was dried hard by the hot sun.  The day we had all been looking for for so long had arrived at last, and instead of having the good time we had been expecting, we had the worst day since we arrived.  Next day was just the same, but at 5 p.m. 50 of us were sent down the line another 12 miles, as the enemy were seen near there.  On arrival we just laid down on the station for the night and had a good sleep. Nothing happened until the 30th.  Just as we were going to sleep, five explosions went.  It did not take us many seconds to form up ready for them, but they would not have it, for they just threw the bombs at the line and made off.  We gave them a few shots.  All the damage that was done was one line twisted a little and another plate about a foot blown out.  It was all mended inside of an hour.  They must have heard the troops from the South were coming up, and tried to stop them, but I am glad to say they did not succeed: all they seem to want is to hold up everything out here until the war is over in Europe.  Some that we captured said they know we will win out here, but we cannot win in Europe, and they want to hang out until then.  This is New Year’s Day, and we are still in the same place and still waiting for our things to come down, so as to get a clean change and a good wash, which we haven’t had for over a week.  Get up in the morning; have a wash with the water bottle (no soap), then wipe on a handkerchief.  The enemy’s niggers will have cause to call us the dirty shirts if they meets us now.  They have often said they don’t like to meet the men that make a noise in the bush and also wear dirty shirts.  They don’t mind any of the others out here, but don’t like the good old 25th.  We have not had any more big fights lately – only small patrol affairs, when the enemy’s raiding or bombing parties come over.  Still, things will soon be over out here.  Then for a nice little holiday at home, before going to France or some other place.  Will write again when things liven up a bit.  Best respects to all at Hounslow.  The only pleasure we had on Christmas Eve was some cigarettes and tobacco sent by the ‘Weekly Despatch,’ for which we were very thankful.”

First published in;

The Middlesex Chronicle, Saturday, March 11, 1916

A WATER HOLE IN EAST AFRICA

Pte. W. Merray, of the 25th Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen), whose home is at Derby-road, Hounslow, and who is still serving with the British Force in East Africa, writes: “I am sending you an account of our last two weeks at a water hole on one of the hills out here, as it may interest you.  A party of 25 were sent out at daylight to take the hill and look after the water.  We thought then we were in for a good time, away from everyone, and plenty of good water, but what a surprise we got!  At first it looked grand, all thick bush and long grass, and in the centre was all rock with just a small dip in the centre which caught and held all the rain-water.  Of course we were all very dry and went for a drink, only to find it was all green and full of frogs, so we left one man and the black carriers to boil some for tea.  While it was boiling you have to take the green off with a spoon, and it looks like tea before you put tea near it.  I think the cook used to hold the tea-tin over the top, then take it away again, and give it to us for tea.  At first we had bully beef and biscuits and jam, but the biscuits ran out, so we had some flour served out every morning – one pound with a little baking powder.  There was that much you could not tell if you had any or not.  Also we had two pieces of bacon.  Well, we made a fire; got all the fat from the bacon; and then mixed a little with the flour and water.  Sometimes we would make it into a dough and cover it with the ashes in the fire, and at other times into a paste and fry in our canteen lids.  When they were done you had to eat them right away, for if they were left to get cold they would be like lead, and you could do nothing with them.  Still we did not mind, for we knew we would get relieved some day, and we did, but not until a few were ready for the hospital.  The enemy must have heard we were coming, for they had gone when we arrived, but our chaps caught them three days later in the thick bush further down the line.  They were lucky, for if it had been a bit open none would have got away, but our black troops fired into the bush anywhere until the Germans retired.  The next morning one of the enemy’s sergeants gave himself up, and he says they lost over 30 killed and wounded.  I am glad to say we had only three blacks and two whites wounded.  Our fellows had some fresh stretcher bearers and carriers out with them, and the first shot that was fired they dropped everything and ran.  That’s the sort of niggers we have.  We had a grand time yesterday on arriving in camp, for the ladies of India had sent some Christmas puddings and cigarettes; also some cigarettes from Queen Mary.  Then there were our own parcels waiting for us, so we did not do badly at all – far better than on Christmas day, when we only had bully beef and biscuits, with tea and jam.  We hope to be on the way home shortly, as there are only a few of us left now, and when it comes to a scrap we can only find about a quarter of what we left home with.  We are living in hopes of being in at the death in Europe, and we don’t care how soon it comes.  Best regards to all at Hounslow, and good luck to the Hounslow boys in France.”

William Frederick Merry

William Frederick Merry was born in Hounslow, Middlesex during the second quarter of 1891, the fifth and last child of William Frederick and Esther Agnes Merry he was baptised in the parish church of St. Stephen, Hounslow on 10th May 1891.  William’s father, after whom he was named, was employed as a general labourer and the family were living at the time on Derby Road, a home they were to remain in until after the Great War.

William only shows with the family on one census return, that of 1901, as a nine year old, and by the time of the 1911 census he had moved out of the family home at 31 Derby Road but his whereabouts haven’t as yet been found.

When authorisation to form the 25th Battalion Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) was finally granted in February 1915 and the call came for men to join the new battalion William was at the forefront of those volunteers.  Enlisting on the 13th February 1915, William joined the battalion as a Private, was allocated service number 12830 and proceeded overseas with the battalion aboard the “Neuralia” on 10th April 1915.

As with many others William’s service record no longer survives and so the exact details of his service overseas with the battalion are unknown. The Royal Fusiliers’ medal roll entries show that he arrived in the East African theatre with the battalion on 4th May 1915 and that he served overseas until 28th January 1917 when he was invalided back to the UK.

On arrival back in the UK William would have been posted onto the Royal Fusiliers’ Depot strength for administrative purposes whilst he was possibly treated for his illnesses and then, after a brief furlough, would have been posted to one of the Royal Fusiliers reserve battalions at Dover.

Whatever the cause for William’s return to the UK it wasn’t bad enough to see him medically downgraded as with a large number of returnees from East Africa.  Instead, as he had previously expressed a wish for in his letters home, he was to find himself heading to the Western Front.  Initially posted as part of a reinforcement draft to the 2nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers he arrived in France on 29th March 1917.  It is likely that William never reached this battalion in the field and probably got no further than the Infantry Base Depot as less than three weeks later, on the 19th April 1917, he was posted to the 9th Battalion Royal Fusiliers who formed part of 36th Brigade in the 12th (Eastern) Division.  It is likely that William was part of the draft of 126 other ranks that arrived with the battalion at Mondicourt on the 22nd April 1917.

Seven months were spent with the battalion and then, on the 20th November 1917, whilst the 9th Battalion Royal Fusiliers were occupying trench positions at Gonnelieu, they were part of the offensive against the Hindenburg Line as the Battle of Cambrai commenced.  William Merry, presumably serving with a battalion machine gun section, was killed in this action.

The 9th Battalion Royal Fusiliers’ war diary for that date has the following entry;

“6.20 a.m. Zero hour for attack on HINDENBURG LINE with Tanks & artillery.  Preparations had been very secret all movement being carried out by night while artillery had not registered.  Eight guns were barraging as above and eight moved forward with infantry.  No.2 Section under Lt. MANSELL moved with 7th R. SUSSEX and proceeded to first objective taking up positions as follows.  Two guns on S. of CAMBRAI Rd near SOMMET FARM and facing BANTEUX.  Two on N. of CAMBRAI Rd (one in HINDENBURG FRONT LINE and one in second line both at junction of SONDENBURER WEG).

No.4 Section under Lt. COOPER A. proceeded with 11th Middlesex to final objective in HINDENBURG SUPPORT LINE.  There was practically no opposition and all guns reached their objectives up to time.  Artillery and MG fire (hostile) was rather heavy.  CASUALTIES. No.2 Sect. – 8, No.4 Sec. – 2.”

Due to the nature of the battle and the subsequent German counter-attack William has no known grave and is instead commemorated on Panel 3 & 4 of the Cambrai Memorial in Louverval.

For his overseas services with the 25th, 2nd and 9th Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers William Frederick Merry earned the 1914/1915 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal.


Sources:

British Army WW1 Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914-1920

WO 329/2634: 1914/1915 Star, Royal Fusiliers other ranks, Medal Roll

WO 329/763: British War & Victory Medal, Royal Fusiliers other ranks, Medal Roll.

WO 95/1857: 9th Bn. Royal Fusiliers War Diary.

Soldiers Died in the Great War.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

1891, 1901 & 1911 England Census

England & Wales Birth Records

London, England, Births and Baptisms, 1813-1906.