William Ashley, Private 4553, 1st Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers
Reported missing 20th October 1914 in Belgium
William Ashley was born in Bollington on 22 April 1894, the son of Amanda and Thomas Ashley. In the 1901 census, six-year-old William was living at Whiteley Green, where his father was a farmer, with his parents and siblings John (19), Annie (17), Thomas (12), Jane (10), Mary (8), Alfred (4) and James (3). Ten years later in 1911, the family, including another daughter, Amanda (born 1902), had moved to 7 Lord Street, Bollington, where William was employed as a carrier at the printworks and his father was a general labourer.
William enlisted in the 3rd Special Reserve of the Royal Welch Fusiliers in Macclesfield on 22 January 1912. In his service records he stated that he was a labourer at the printworks and was 17 years 3 months old. He was described as 5 feet 6½ inches tall, weighed 126 pounds and had a 32 inch chest measurement, with brown eyes, dark brown hair and a large scar below the front of his left knee.
As a part-time soldier, William was mobilised on the outbreak of war in August 1914 and posted to the 1st Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers on 19th September 1914. The 1st Royal Welch Fusiliers came under orders of the 22nd Brigade, 7th Division and embarked from Southampton at 10pm on 4th October, landing at Zeebrugge in Belgium on 6th October and travelling from there to Bruges by train.
The following story of William’s experiences during the war has been contributed by Dr H J Krijnen:
The Amazing Story of Private William Ashley
On 19 October 1914 the 7th Division moved on Menin in an attempt to recapture the town from the Germans, but had to pull back later in the day because of the menace of the new German 4th Army behind the left flank. The 1st Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers had been in the forefront of the fighting, having reached Klythoek, about two miles from Menin, and had some way to go before again reaching its starting position at Broodseinde. Eleven NCOs and men were reported missing the next day, one of them Pte 4553 William Ashley of ‘A’ Coy, a printer’s assistant from Bollington in Cheshire, who had joined the RWF Special Reserve on 22 January 1912, three months after his 17th birthday.
In the days that followed, many more men would be reported missing. Most of them would be accounted for as their names appeared on lists of prisoners supplied by the German Army or as comrades reported their deaths. But William Ashley remained missing.
Then, in late April 1915, the usual War Office letter, asking Ashley’s father if he had by any chance heard anything from his son, drew an unexpected reply originating from Ashley’s old employers, the Adelphi and Clarence Mills in Bollington, and addressed to the Army Pay Office in Shrewsbury:
With reference to your enquiry of a few days ago as to whether I had heard anything from my son, I now beg to hand you the following copies of two letters received from him.
Thomas Ashley his mark X
Typewritten copies of these two letters are still in Ashley’s personal Army service file. One was from a Belgian gentleman, Monsieur N. Demars, who had escaped the German occupation and had been interned in Sas van Gent in the Netherlands. The Paymaster thoughtfully provided a translation:
22nd April, 1915
Sir, Your son is very well; he is in the house of some friends near to Menin, Belgium. He is not wanting anything. He retired there toward the end of October. He was not able to rejoin his comrades having been surrounded. He has not been wounded, he is well guarded, he sees many things near the front and is waiting impatiently the moment when he can return to the army.
The other letter was in fact a postcard:
I am in the best of health,
from your son Will,
13th April 1915
The Adelphi and Clarence managing director, Mr John Wanklyn, had assisted Thomas Ashley with the letter and was wise enough to think ahead and add a cautious footnote:
Do you advise it as being safe for the parents to correspond to the address given with their son or is it likely to lead to complications?
John A. Wanklyn, Managing Director
The Infantry Record Office in Shrewsbury informed the War Office and also the Officer i/c Infantry Records of the BEF. The War Office in turn answered that the information had been noted and left it at that.
And then, apart from some rather irritated correspondence between Shrewsbury and Whitehall, continuing into 1916, sorting out the confusion caused by Ashley’s name being on the lists of prisoners, more confusion about his number (thought to be 8192 by the War Office) and another letter from the War Office saying that to all intents and purposes Ashley should receive the same pay and allowances as a Prisoner of War, nothing new happened. There is no evidence of letters from Belgium or the Netherlands having been received in 1916 or 1917.
The story took a dramatic turn in 1918, when the Adjutant of the RWF Depot in Wrexham received another report on Pte Ashley’s peregrinations:
13th Febry 1918. Zeerust Hotel
Schcueningen, [sic] Holland
When I was in Holzminden Camp, in Germany, a man, apparently a Belgian Civilian, working outside the wire- told me- on about 25th November 1917- in English that he was in 1st Battn Royal Welch Fusiliers and that he had been in my Company; I am afraid that I could not recognise him but he knew me and had enquired for me from other officers walking round, so I have no reason to doubt him. It was difficult for me to talk to him, being not allowed, and I got into touch with the man later, through the orderlies, when they were working outside the Camp; among these orderlies was a man of my Company who recognised the “Belgian” he found out that the man was No 4553 Pte William Ashley, who joined the 1st Battn, from the Depot, at LYNDHURST, after their arival [sic] from Malta at the end of September 1914.
On 19th October while retiring from N of MENIN, Pte Ashley, so he said, became separated from the Battn, and to avoid falling into the hands of the Germans he hid in a Belgian cottage, disguising himself as a Belgian peasant; he hoped to escape from here later but was unable to do so. He lived there as a Belgian until he was removed in, I think June 1918 to Germany with a large part of the Belgian civilian population. He was most anxious that his true identity should not be disclosed, as it would get him, and his friends who had sheltered him, into serious trouble. I did what little I could for him while there, and told him that I would endeavour to send him things when I got to Holland; I am now aranging, [sic] through a Belgian relief committee to send him parcels. He gave me as the name of his Next of Kin Mrs Chester 7 Lord Street Burrington [sic] New Macclesfield. I have written to Mrs Chester, but I did not tell her the name under which he was now living, being afraid she might write to him and “give away” who he was. His assumed name and present address is.
[bottom of page damaged]
[..…] but I should not say he was in the best of Health, owing to a shortage of food.
Sd. – J Smyth Osbourne Captain
1 Royal Welch Fusiliers
There must have been another communication, now lost, concerning William Ashley as the Infantry Records Office informed Thomas Ashley on 22 October 1918 that his son was still alive:
With reference to your son, the above named soldier, I am instructed to inform you that information has been received in War Office that the above was alive in September 1918. I am also to impress upon you that under no circumstances whatever should you attempt to communicate with him, as any attempt will endanger his life, and the lives of others who are assisting him. I would also advise you to warn any of your friends who might write to your son, that they should not do so for the reason stated above.
No records survive to tell us how William Ashley returned to the Army. We can assume that he was one of the many returning Belgian deportees, as there is a short and barely legible note on his Medical History sheet that he was admitted to 229 Field Ambulance (then stationed between Tournai and Brussels) with bronchitis on 11 December 1918. He was transferred to 51 Casualty Clearing Station the same day and a few days later evacuated to the UK on the Belgian steamer Pieter Coninck, then was admitted to Hammersmith Hospital on 17 December and discharged to the Depot on 17 December. He was granted a furlough from 20 December to 20 February 1919, and during his leave he was transferred to Class Z, returning to civilian life but with the obligation to return if called upon to do so.
There appears to have been little official recognition for his amazing adventure. He did not receive any medals apart from the 1914 Star and the British War and Victory Medals. On 2 April 1919 the War Office decided that he did not qualify for the bounty of 15 pounds given to serving soldiers.
After returning home, William married Sarah Ann Bradley at St John’s Church, Bollington on 13 February 1919. In 1939, the couple were living at 11 Lord St, Bollington, just a few doors away from William’s childhood home; William was employed as a builder’s labourer, and Sarah was a cotton doubler. William died in 1964 and was buried on 6 March 1964 at St John’s Church, Bollington. There is no memorial stone for the grave.
Brother of John Ashley, who served as Gunner 159379 with the Royal Field Artillery and survived the war; Alfred Ashley, who served as Pioneer 28644 with the Royal Engineers and was killed in action in France on 26 Sep 1915; and James Edward Ashley, who served as Private 34871 with the 20th Hussars and survived the war.
SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
GRO (England & Wales) Index: Births, Marriages, Deaths
Cheshire BMD: Marriages
Census (England & Wales): 1901, 1911
WWI British Army Service Records 1914-1920
WWI British Army Medal Rolls Index Cards
WWI War Diaries (France, Belgium, Germany), 1914-1920: 22nd Brigade, 7th Division
WWI Absent Voters Lists: Knutsford Parliamentary Division
FindMyPast: The 1939 Register
Bollington Parish Register transcriptions: Burials
Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
Thanks to Dr H J Krijnen for his assistance in compiling this information, and to Ian Worthington for providing the photograph of William Ashley and who retains the copyright of the photograph.