William James Willman was not fighting fit when he signed up to play his part in the Great War; sadly, too, it was his health that played a large part in his discharge less than a year later. It is only a hypothesis, but perhaps he was not best suited to life outdoors.
William was born in Satterleigh, North Devon to George and Elizabeth Willman on 25th October 1879, no doubt a very welcome arrival, both for them and their two daughters, following the death of their first son four years earlier aged just nine months old. Both parents were incomers, being born in neighbouring counties but choosing Devon to build their family life.
George was a farm labourer and it is perhaps no surprise that William followed in his father’s footsteps. Over time, he gradually moved southwards through Morchard Bishop, where he went to school, and later to Stoke Fleming where he worked as a day labourer on Woodbury Farm. It was in this coastal village that he met his future wife Sarah Jane Ball, whom he married, rather hurriedly it would seem, at Kingsbridge Register Office on 25th March 1903, just two months before the arrival of a son, Charles William Willman.
Insufficient records survive to indicate as to the root cause of William’s poor health: perhaps working on the exposed hills above Dartmouth didn’t suit his constitution. However, his living conditions were clearly found wanting too, causing him to spend six months in bed with scarlet fever in 1914 when the cottages, in which he was living, were declared uninhabitable: the medical officer of health instructing the rural district council to ensure that the well, from which drinking water was obtained, to be freed of pollution.
William upped sticks once more, finding a new home for his family at East Wray Farm, where he continued working as a labourer. If his intention was for an inland setting to be more conducive to his health, it was not entirely successful: when William reported to Newton Abbot recruitment office on 24th July 1917, he was assigned the medical category B2, indicating that he was not sufficiently fit to take up arms on the front line. He was, though, deemed to be capable of undertaking supporting duties overseas and, accordingly, he was posted to the 13th Labour Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, such units being reserved for those of William’s restricted ability.
Despite his shortcomings, it would appear that this 37-year old man was determined to contribute to the war effort to the best of his ability, his military character being classed as “good” with William being further described as “hardworking, willing and temperate”.
William’s battalion was formed the same month in which he attested, with the unit stationed initially at Cosham in Hampshire before being mobilised to France towards the end of September. Just a few months later, however, he was lying in a hospital in Dunkirk, probably Queen Alexandra Hospital at Malo-les-Bains, having gone sick with bronchitis and emphysema. His medical records suggest that his condition was expected to improve but, instead, he grew weaker and weaker.
Due to the gravity of his condition, he was repatriated and sent to Edmonton Military Hospital (now the North Middlesex Hospital) where, according to the Mid-Devon Advertiser, he was “lying very ill”. Indeed, on admission there, he had been additionally diagnosed with myocardial deprivation, a serious heart condition which was said to be “not the result of, but aggravated by, ordinary military service”.
Although he rallied sufficiently to be discharged from hospital, he was clearly severely incapacitated by his illness and was discharged from the army on 28th June 1917, “no longer physically fit for War Service” after just 340 days of military duty. Either immediately on his return to Lustleigh or shortly thereafter, William lived with his wife at Lussacombe until the 17th January 1919, when he died suddenly, “having never been able to resume work owing to serious heart disease” as recorded by Reverend Herbert Johnson.
Private William James Willman 30273 was buried in Lustleigh Churchyard on Tuesday 21st January, his grave being particularly notable, being the only one in the main graveyard marked by a distinctive Commonwealth War Graves headstone. As well as the British War Medal and the Victory Medal, he was awarded the Silver War Badge which had been instituted by King George V for all those men who had been discharged due to wounds or illness: it bore the inscription “For King and Empire – Services Rendered”.
William James Willman will be remembered on Thursday 17th January when the Bell Ringers will sound a half-muffled peel in his honour.
This story is drawn from various sources including.
- Ancestry & FindMyPast
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission
- The Long Long Trail
- Forces War Records