Museum of the Manchester Regiment
The Men Behind the Medals

William Joseph Pearce

William Joseph Pearce :

William Joseph Pearce : (L to R) Queen's South Africa Medal with clasp 'Natal'; Delhi Durbar 1911 Medal; 1914 Star; British War Medal; Allied Victory Medal; Long Service and Good Conduct Medal

(L to R) Queen's South Africa Medal with clasp 'Natal'; Delhi Durbar 1911 Medal; 1914 Star; British War Medal; Allied Victory Medal; Long Service and Good Conduct Medal

William was born in around 1883 in Warley, Essex. His father was called George and his mother was Alice. He was one of at least 6 children. His older siblings were Charles, James and George, and his younger siblings were Albert Edward and Arthur Dudley.

George senior was a soldier in the 96th Regiment of Foot, which later became the 2nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. He was serving with the 1st Battalion when William was born. We believe he died between 1896 and 1898. Alice remarried between January and March 1899 to John Charles Onn, a Corporal in the Royal Engineers. They had at least one child, John Charles junior, on the 7th June 1901.

Like most of his brothers William followed in his father's footsteps. He joined the Manchester Regiment in late 1896 or early 1897 and was given the service number 4983. He was living in Colchester when he joined the Army. He was around 14 when he enlisted, and would be classed as a Boy until his 18th birthday.

By mid 1899 William was a member of the 1st Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, stationed in Gibraltar. During this year tensions between British and Boer settlers in South Africa were rising, and in August 1899 the British Government decided to send the 1st Battalion to South Africa in case war broke out. William sailed to Durban and was stationed in the small town of Ladysmith in Natal when war was declared on the 11th October.

We know very little about William's service in South Africa. He received the 'Natal' clasp, instead of the 'Defence of Ladysmith' clasp awarded to most members of the 1st Battalion. This suggests he did not take part in the British defence of the town, which was under Boer siege by the end of October. We know William had been 'invalided' out of South Africa by the 1st August 1901, and this suggests he could have been forced to leave South Africa within the first few weeks of the war.

William's Army career is a mystery until 1911. By this year he had returned to the 1st Battalion. He had been promoted to Lance Corporal. The battalion left Kamptee in India that December to take part in the Delhi Durbar. At this ceremony King George V, the newly crowned Emperor of India, received his Indian subjects. The 1st Battalion took part in the Durbar itself on the 12th, and the spectacular military parade on the 14th. It also provided many guards of honour for dignitaries. A total of 100 Delhi Durbar 1911 Medals were allocated to the 1st Battalion, and one of them went to William.

After the Durbar was over William and the 1st Battalion moved to Jullundur in the modern Indian Punjab. He was promoted to Corporal on the 3rd November 1912. They were still there when the First World War broke out in August 1914.

By the end of the month the 1st Battalion had mobilised and set sail for Europe. They arrived in France on the 26th September and after another month they were in combat around Fromelles.

Conditions on the front line during the early part of the war were bad. It was wet, cold and dangerous, and for soldiers used to the heat of India things must have been even worse.

The 1st Battalion served in France until December 1915, seeing combat at Givenchy in December 1914, Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 and the 2nd Battle of Ypres in April. In December they sailed to Mesopotamia, now Iraq, to fight the Turks.

The 1st Battalion arrived in Basra on the 8th January 1916. They took part in attempts to relieve the British forces trapped in Kut al Amara. One of these attempts took place on the 8th March, when they attempted to capture the Dujeilan Redoubt from the Turks. They captured the position, but took heavy casualties and were forced to retreat when the Turks counterattacked.

Kut fell on the 29th April. This led to a period of quiet for the British. They did not mount any large operations. Despite this, Mesopotamia was still a dangerous and unhealthy place. Although we don't know the circumstances, William died on the 13th June. He was 33 years old. We know he was not killed in action, and that he did not die from wounds inflicted during fighting, but we don't know what happened to him. He could have died from disease or been killed in an accident. He had been promoted to Sergeant before his death.

William was buried in Basra War Cemetery in Basra, alongside 2840 other men. His modern grave reference is V. M. 21. As of 2013 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is not able to maintain this cemetery because of the political situation in Iraq. They have produced a Roll of Honour listing all these names and put it on display at their Head Office on Marlow Road in Maidenhead, Berkshire, SL6 7DX.

Alice was living at 48 Lisle Street in Colchester, Essex, when William died. John Onn had died between October and December 1914.

Albert, Arthur, Charles and James also followed their father into the Manchester Regiment. We believe they all enlisted as Boys, like William. William was the 2nd of 3 brothers to die on active service. Charles died on the 24th January 1901 in South Africa during the Boer War. Arthur died on the 23rd April 1917 during fighting near Arras in France.

James survived both wars and Albert lived through the First World War. They both went on to have long careers with the Regiment. James died on the 7th October 1948 and Albert on the 23rd December 1958. John Charles junior died in August 1996.

The medals of all 5 brothers and their father were donated to the Museum of the Manchester Regiment on the 16th April 1960. William was also eligible for the '5th Aug.-22nd Nov. 1914' clasp for his 1914 Star. His Long Service and Good Conduct Medal was awarded for 18 years Army service. William doesn't seem to have been recommended for the medal until 1917 though, so we don't know whether he ever wore it.

Museum of the Manchester Regiment
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Telephone: 0161 342 5480
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Trustees of the Manchester Regiment Museum & Archive and Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council