yeovil at War

Wilfred Vernon Matthews MC

Killed while leading an attack on the Hindenburg Line

 

Wilfred Vernon Matthews, was born in Abergavenny, Monmouthshire in 1895. He was the son of insurance superintendent, later Mayor of Yeovil, Jabez Matthews and Martha Dixon née Taylor. By the time of the 1901 census Jabez and Martha had moved to Yeovil and were living at 190 Sherborne Road with their children: Winifred (b 1885), Percy T (b 1886), Harold E (b 1887), Gladys (b 1893), Wilfred (b 1895), Donald (b 1897) and a female servant. Jabez gave his occupation as 'Superintendent of Insurance Agents, Prudential Assurance Co'. By the time of the 1911 census the family had moved to 36 The Avenue and 16-year old Wilfred was listed as a scholar. In the spring of 1917, at Dartford, Kent, Wilfred married Louisa J Bicknell.

Wilfred enlisted in the Army during March 1916 and became a Private in the Dorsetshire Regiment. He was later transferred to the Wiltshire Regiment, promoted to the rank of Corporal and sent to France.

According to later reports in the Western Gazette, Wilfred "participated in some very severe fighting but came through unscathed. He conducted himself so well in the ranks as to win the notice of his officers, and he was taken out of the trenches and sent home for training for a commission. After undergoing the usual training he was gazetted as Second Lieutenant in the Border Regiment and returned to France."

Wilfred served in the 11th (Service) Battalion (Lonsdale), Border Regiment. The battalion fought on the opening day of the Battle of Somme on 1 July 1916 and suffered over 500 casualties out of the 800 men who went into action, including 23 out of the 26 officers. Despite these losses the battalion was reinforced and fought in many other battles on the Western Front from late 1916 until June 1918 when the Battalion was disbanded and most the men transferred to other battalions of the Regiment. Wilfred transferred to the 1st/5th (Cumberland) Battalion, Border Regiment

On 18-20 March 1917, Commonwealth troops repaired the bridge over the River Somme and took the village of Brie during the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line. The village and the bridge were later lost on 23 March 1918, during the German offensive, but were regained on 5 September 1918 when the 32nd Division, including 1st/5th Borders, cleared the village. For his bravery and actions during 5 September Wilfred was posthumously awarded the Military Cross. The London Gazette later reported “when crossing the Somme at Brie, on September 5th 1918, he attacked and captured two machine guns that were hampering our advance. He displayed great gallantry and tactical skill in the method of operation, which was completely successful at the cost of few casualties in spite of heavy artillery and machine gun fire.”

On 1 October 1918 Lieutenant Wilfred Matthews was killed in the heavy attacks on the Hindenburg Line. Wilfred was leading his platoon in an attack, when he was instantaneously killed by a machine gun bullet. He was aged just 23.

The Western Gazette, in its edition of 11 October 1918, reported "Second Lieutenant Wilfred V Matthews of the Border Regiment, son of Alderman and Mrs Matthews, of The Avenue, was killed in action in France on October 1st. Official news to the effect, together with a message of sympathy from the Army Council, was received by Mr and Mrs Matthews on Tuesday morning. The deceased officer joined up in March 1916, and was attached to the Dorsets, being subsequently transferred to the Wiltshires and promoted corporal. He went to France about two years ago, and participated in some very severe fighting but came through unscathed. He conducted himself so well in the ranks as to win the notice of his officers, and he was taken out of the trenches and sent home for training for a commission. After undergoing the usual training he was gazetted as Second Lieutenant in the Border Regiment and returned to France. His Battalion of the Border Regiment is attached to one of the most famous Divisions in the British Army and Lieutenant Matthews was undoubtedly killed in the recent heavy attacks on the Hindenburg Line. He was home on leave about five weeks ago, and had only been back in France about a month when he met his death. The deceased officer was well-known and respected in Yeovil, and before joining up was a cashier at Parr’s Bank, Dorchester. Widespread sympathy is felt with Alderman and Mrs Matthews and family in the heavy blows they have sustained in the war. This is the third son who has died for King and Country, and two other sons are still serving."

The following week the Western Gazette reported "With regard to the death in action of Second Lieutenant Wilfred Matthews, reported last week, Alderman and Mrs Matthews have received the following letter from the Commanding Officer of his Battalion:- “Will you please accept my sincere sympathy, and that of the whole Battalion, in the loss you have sustained by the death in action of your son. He was very gallantly leading his platoon in an attack, when he was instantaneously killed by a machine gun bullet. He had previously performed very good work, and proved himself a fearless and most resourceful leader, so that his loss is keenly felt by his Company and by the whole Battalion. I hope that the knowledge that your son met his death whilst carrying out his duty at the head of his men in an attack on the enemy - literally dying for his country - can prove some consolation to you in your bereavement.” The deceased officer leaves a young widow who is the fourth daughter of Mr and Mrs R Bicknell, Allingham House, with whom the deepest sympathy is felt."

The Western Gazette reported in its issue of 25 October 1918 "Mrs WV Matthews of Allingham House, near Yeovil, has received the following telegram “O.H.M.S. Buckingham Palace. The King and Queen deeply regret the loss you and the Army have sustained by the death of your husband in the service of his country. Their Majesties sincerely sympathise with you in your sorrow. Keeper of the Privy Purse.”

Finally the Western Gazette reported on 21 February 1919 "On October 1st 1918, Second Lieutenant Wilfred Matthews, son of Alderman and Mrs Matthews, The Avenue, was killed in action and shortly afterwards was announced the award of the Military Cross to the deceased officer for gallant conduct during the crossing of the Somme on September 5th 1918. This posthumous honour is now confirmed in the supplement of the London Gazette of January 31st 1919, which contains the following:- Military Cross - 2nd Lieut. Wilfred Vernon Matthews, 11th Battalion Border Regiment, attached 1/5th Battalion T.F., “when crossing the Somme at Brie, on September 5th 1918, he attacked and captured two machine guns that were hampering our advance. He displayed great gallantry and tactical skill in the method of operation, which was completely successful at the cost of few casualties in spite of heavy artillery and machine gun fire.”

Wilfred Vernon Matthews was interred at Bellicourt British Cemetery, Aisne, France, Grave VI.R.2. His name is recorded on the War Memorial in the Borough.

Wilfred lost two brothers in the war - Thomas Percy, known as Percy, and Arthur Donald Taylor, known as Donald.

 

gallery

 

Troops rest at Brie, Somme, during a lull in the fighting.

 

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission certificate in memory of Wilfred Vernon Matthews.

 

Bellicourt British Cemetery, Aisne, France

The Canal de St. Quentin passes under the village of Bellicourt in a tunnel 5 Kms long, built under the orders of Napoleon I. The Hindenburg Line ran west of the village, and the barges in the tunnel were used to shelter German reserves. About 5 Kms south of Bellicourt, where the canal is open, is the village of Bellenglise, where another great tunnel or dug-out was made by the Germans. On 29 September - 2 October 1918, the Battle of the St. Quentin Canal was fought. The 46th (North Midland) Division stormed the Hindenburg Line at Bellenglise and captured 4,000 prisoners and 70 guns. The 30th United States Division captured Bellicourt and Nauroy, which were cleared by the 5th Australian Division. The North Midland and Australian dead of this engagement fill most of the graves in Bellicourt British Cemetery. The cemetery was made after the battle, when 73 dead were buried in what is now Plot I. It was greatly enlarged after the Armistice, when graves were brought from the surrounding battlefields.