The Man Behind the Medals
In this new blog series, SOFO Museum's Research volunteers look at the stories behind some of the medal sets in the museum's collection, from those that can be seen on a visit in our dedicated Medals display to some of those that are still tucked away in the archive.
While medals will tell you a little bit about a soldier's service, it's only with further research that their full story can be revealed! SOFO's Research volunteers respond to enquiries we receive through our Research Service, helping people find out more about their relatives who served in the county regiments, and raising funds to support the museum in the process. Using a combination of the museum's records and those available elsewhere, they piece together stories like this one.
Private 21275 William John Watts
William John Watts was born on 20th October 1892 in Headington, Oxford, the son of Francis Watts (a clockmaker) & his wife Eliza. By 1911, William’s father had died, and William lived with his widowed mother in lodgings in Headington, working as a gardener.
William joined the 6th Bn O&BLI as Pte. 21275 on the 15th November 1915, and served with them in Flanders from April 1916. The 6th (Service) Bn had been formed in Oxford in Oxford in Sept 1914 – part of Kitchener’s 2nd Army – and went to France in July 1915 with 60 Bgd in 20 Division. William’s attestation record notes that he was then living in Farnham Royal and worked as a gardener.
Through the winter of 1916/17, the 6th Bn were in the line near Guillemont, and many men suffered severely from trench foot in the conditions, with 140 men recorded as being treated. One of these was Pte Watts, who suffered badly from trench foot whilst serving in C Coy with the 6th Bn, being treated at a CCS & Field Hospital in Feb 1917. Following medical treatment, he was posted briefly to the 2nd Garrison Bn of the O&BLI in June 1917 for a month, for service away from the front line. However, after a month he was again posted - on 10th July 1917 – to the 2/4th O&BLI who were then serving in the Ypres Sector. The 2/4th were at that time near Monchy as part of 184 Bgd in the 61st Division, preparing to take part in the Battle of Passchendaele or 3rd Ypres.
The 2/4th played a key role at Pond Farm in the Battle of St Julien on 22nd Aug 1917 and suffered over 150 casualties. Following this, the 2/4th were assigned to a quiet section of the front to recover and rebuild, receiving some 300 men as replacements from the 6th Bn when that unit was broken up in February 1918.
Hence on 21st March 1918 they were holding a section of front near Ham, northwest of St Quentin when the last great German offensive (Operation Michael) of the war began.
By the end of that day, the 2/4th O&BLI had lost over 120 men killed with over 400 men missing and had ceased to exist as a fighting battalion. The remnants pulled back and reformed with other shattered units, returning to the front near Bethune – where they were again in the path of the next German offensive (Operation Georgettte) in April 1918.
Pte Watts was amongst those missing on 21st March, being taken prisoner before being held in a POW camp in Germany. Following the Armistice, he was repatriated, arriving back in Hull on 20th Dec 1918. He was demobilised on 13th March 1919, and eventually awarded a 20% disability pension (for gastritis) of 8s per week for one year.