Museum of the Manchester Regiment
The Men Behind the Medals

Robert William Watson

Robert William Watson :

Robert William Watson : (L to R) British War Medal; Allied Victory Medal

(L to R) British War Medal; Allied Victory Medal

Robert was born between January and March 1889 in Lancaster. His father was called William Henry and his mother was Mary Isabella. He had 2 younger siblings called Elizabeth Alice and Herbert. He was known as Will to his parents.

In 1891 William worked in a cotton mill and the family lived at 6 Bryer Street in Lancaster. Ten years later they had moved to 3 Grasmere Road in the city. William was still working in a mill; we know that he was a card room grinder.

He still held this job ten years later, although the family had moved again. They now lived at 37 Ullswater Road. Will also worked, he was a block printer for a manufacturer of table baize. This material is used to cover snooker and pool tables, amongst others.

Between April and June 1914 Will married Olive Jane Penn. Their first child, Olive junior, was born between January and March 1915. By 1917 Olive lived at 3 Grasmere Terrace, off Grasmere Road. We don't know when they moved there.

The First World War broke out in early August 1914 and Will joined the Army on the 2nd September. We believe he first enlisted in the 5th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. This was a unit of the Territorial Force (TF) based in Wigan, Lancashire.

The original 5th Battalion was sent to Egypt a week after Will enlisted. He will have been assigned to the second 5th Battalion (2/5th) that was being formed by new recruits. Later a 3/5th Battalion was formed. This was a training unit that was later renamed the 5th (Reserve) Battalion.

In around March 1917 soldiers serving in Territorial Force units were given new service numbers. The 5th Battalion was allocated the range 200001 to 250000. Will was given 245243. We don't know his original number.

Will made a will on the 23rd July 1917. This suggests that he may have first gone overseas around this date. He left 'the whole of my property and effects to my wife'.

By this time Will had become a member of the 18th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. This was not a TF unit, so Will did not join them until after he received his new number.

The 18th Battalion had moved to the area around Ypres in Belgium during May. They were based there, holding the front line and training, until the 31st July, when they took part in the advance through Sanctuary Wood. This was the beginning of the Passchendaele Offensive.

The Army issued Field Service Postcards to soldiers for them to send home to their families. They were printed with a number of sentences. The soldier could cross out those that didn't apply, allowing him to send basic information about his condition. Will sent one home on the 2nd August saying 'I am quite well / I have received your / letter dated 22/7/17 / Letter follows at first opportunity.'

Will was 'quite well' on the 29th August, but by the 4th September: 'I have been admitted into hospital / sick / and am going on well / and hope to be discharged soon'. He had not received a letter from home 'for a long time'.

By the 8th Will had left hospital and was again 'quite well'. He had also received a letter.

Between the 15th September ('I am quite well') and the 14th October Will was wounded 'and am going on well'. As the card said: 'I am being sent down to the base'. The Base Depot was a centre for soldiers who had recovered from their wounds and were waiting to return to their unit.

We don't know what had happened to Will, but it can't have been too serious as he was again 'quite well' by the 5th November. The 18th Battalion had spent September and early October in the Messines area, taking its turn in the front lines.

Will was wounded again on the 13th November. He was hit in the left thigh by shrapnel. This caused a compound fracture of his femur, or thigh bone, meaning it broke through the skin. Will was evacuated to the 150th (Royal Naval) Field Ambulance. He was given 1/4 grain of morphine by the staff there at 11:15am.

Will clearly needed more specialist treatment so he was passed on to Number 47 Casualty Clearing Station on the same day. The doctors here discovered his femur was 'shattered'. They had no choice but to perform an 'amputation, high up'.

Two days later Will's wound was 'redressed under gas'. It was looking 'very clean' which will have been a relief to the doctors. Before antibiotics infections could be lethal.

The next day, the 16th November, Will was moved to the 1st South African General Hospital at Abbeville. The day after that the Hospital Matron wrote to Olive:

I am very sorry to tell you that your husband 245243 Pte R. W. Watson has been admitted here suffering with wound of thigh and is at present rather bad. He came here at midnight last night + his leg had been amputated before he came. He is feeling a little more comfortable now but still rather tired.

Four days after this, on the 21st, a parcel that Olive had sent to Will arrived at the 18th Battalion. Will had been a member of B Company, so B Company's Quartermaster Sergeant, Harold Clay, wrote to her:

A parcel has arrived here today addressed to 245243 Pte R. W. Watson who I am sorry to say was wounded on the 13th inst. - of which no doubt you have already been informed.

In accordance with the usual custom I have distributed the eatables contained in the parcel amongst the Platoon to which Pte Watson was attached + the letter which was enclosed I beg to return herewith.

I sincerely trust his wounds will not prove serious + that he will make a complete recovery. During the time he was with 'B' Coy he was always a very willing and cheerful chap and we are very sorry to lose him.

The Hospital Matron sent a postcard to Olive on the 25th November. She was 'glad to say your husband is improving', although he was still 'seriously ill'.

Will was returned to the UK on the 13th December aboard the St Patrick. He was sent to the Southmead Section of the 2nd Southern General Hospital in Bristol. Southmead was a specialist orthopaedic hospital.

We don't know how long Will spent in hospital. The war ended in November 1918 and he was finally discharged from the Army on the 27th March 1919. As he was 'no longer physically fit for war service' he received a Silver War Badge, with serial number B235982, to show that his discharge was honourable.

Will returned to his family in Lancaster. Soon after the end of the war the people of Lancaster decided to build a village for disabled veterans who could not return to their pre-war lives. It would also serve as a memorial to the men who had died. It became known as Westfield War Memorial Village. It opened in November 1924.

We don't know when Will moved into Westfield, but the Chairman of the committee established in 1919 to create the village was called Herbert Storey. Will and Olive had a son in June or July 1922 who they named Kenneth Storey. This suggests Will and Olive could have been involved in the project to create the village and may have been two of the first residents, along with their children. They would live in Westfield for the rest of their lives.

Sadly Kenneth was killed in action during the Second World War. He was a member of the Royal Air Force, serving with 405 (Royal Canadian Air Force) Squadron when he was killed on the 27th July 1942. He was 20 years old.

Kenneth was the Engineer aboard a Handley Page Halifax bomber, serial W1186. It was part of an air raid on the German city of Hamburg when it exploded near the city of Stade. Three of the 8 crew were found and buried, but Kenneth and 4 of his comrades have no known grave. He is remembered on Panel 96 of the Runnymede Memorial in Surrey.

Will died between July and September 1955. He was 66 years old. When Olive died on the 23rd September 1964 she lived in Herbert Storey Cottage in Westfield. We don't know whether this had always been her home. She was 75 when she died.

Harold Clay survived the war, and died at the age of 97 in 1982.

Will's medals were donated to the Museum of the Manchester Regiment in December 2000.

Museum of the Manchester Regiment
c/o Portland Basin Museum
Portland Place
Heritage Wharf

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