yeovil at War

William James Axe

20-year old lad, killed at the Somme


William James Axe, known as James, was born in Yeovil in 1895. He was the only son of rural postman Reginald Axe and his glove maker wife Elizabeth, both originally from East Chinnock. In the 1901 Census five-year-old William was living with his parents at 28 Huish. In 1904 Reginald and Elizabeth had a daughter Louisa, and by the time of the 1911 census the family had moved to 11 Orchard Street. Reginald listed his occupation as a rural postman while 15-year-old James gave his as an apprentice leather glove cutter. James worked at Thring & Luffman's glove factory.

In April 1916 James enlisted at Taunton and became Private WJ Axe (Serial No 22573) of 1st Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry.

After his initial basic training James, during the early summer of 1916, would have joined his unit in France where the 1st Battalion were in action during the Battles of the Somme.

The Battle for the Somme has a unique place in British military history. Haig was in the middle of preparations for a British offensive but came under strong pressure to mount an attack due the French commitment to the Battle for Verdun, a city which held an important place in the nation's psyche and that the Germans had attacked in February 1916. Any Allied offensive would therefore have to be carried mainly by the British. Haig was therefore forced to undertake an offensive near to where the British and French lines met, near Bray-sur-Somme in Picardy, although he would have preferred to attack further north and to have had longer with which to prepare his new army.

The Regimental History of the Somerset Light Infantry describes in detail what happened to the 1st Battalion during the late summer of 1916 - "The 1st Battalion was withdrawn from the front line after its terrible losses during the Battle of Albert (1-13 July). Eight weeks of that period had been spent amidst the discomforts and the horrors of the Ypres Salient, whither the 4th Division had moved towards the end of July. The 1st Somersets entraining at Doullens on 22nd and, travelling via Hazebrouck to Esquelbecq, detrained and marched off to Wormhoudt, which had been allotted to the 11th Brigade as its billeting area.... The 4th Division relieved the Guards Division on 25th, 26th and 27th of July, the 1st Somersets taking over front-line trenches from the Scots Guards on the latter date. But the tour, which ended on 31st, was uneventful and the second tour, however, just as the Battalion was being relieved by the 1st Rifle Brigade on eight August, the enemy (about 10:30pm) made a violent gas attack, accompanied by heavy shelling. Dense clouds of the noxious fumes floated over the trenches and, although the Somerset men had only three casualties from shellfire, 12 officers and 161 other ranks became casualties from gas poisoning. Of these, six officers.... and 27 other ranks died from the effects of gas.... The gas, a mixture of chlorine, phosgene and prussic acid gas, was very insidious and clung to the ground and the men's clothes, so that if a man slept in his equipment he invariably developed gas poisoning and had to be evacuated to a hospital. On 11th the Battalion moved back from the Canal Bank to Elverdinghe, whence motor-buses conveyed the men to "J" Camp."

It was while at "J" Camp that James axe was severely wounded by shellfire and died of his wounds on 19 August 1916.

On 6 October 1916 the Western Gazette reported "At the time of the death in action on August 19th last of Private JW (sic) Axe no particulars on his death were to hand. Mrs Axe of Orchard Street, has since received another letter from the Commanding Officer of his regiment, informing her that her son was killed by shell fire on the date published. Private JW Axe who was the only son of the late postman Axe, was employed as a glove cutter at Messrs. Thring & Luffman’s factory, and joined the Army last April. Private JW Axe was of a kind-hearted and bright disposition and was loved and respected by his fellow workmates and friends who feel the deepest sympathy for his mother and sister in their sad loss. Mrs Axe and Miss Axe desire to express their sincere thanks to the numerous friends who have extended sympathy with them in their bereavement."

James was Interred in Authuile Military Cemetery, Somme, France, Grave F.12, and his name is recorded on the War Memorial in the Borough.




The Commonwealth War Graves Commission certificate in memory of William James Axe.