Three local men lost their lives on 7th June 1917 during the Battle of Messines in West Flanders, Belgium: Captain Harold Jackson, Royal Flying Corps; Private William Charles Sumner, 33rd Battalion Australian Infantry; and Private Almon John Wills, 10th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
Harold Jackson was the fifth of the six children born to parents Frederick Thomas Jackson and his wife, Lottie (née Hatton), who had married in 1888 at Holy Trinity Church, Coventry. Harold was born on 15th June 1895 and baptised at Holy Trinity on 22nd July 1895. His father, Frederick, was listed as a manufacturer.
Harold became a boarder at Solihull School in 1907 where, according to Solihull School during the First World War by John Loynton, he won prizes for Divinity and English in 1911 and played for the 1st XI cricket team as “a young bowler of much promise”. He also won prizes for academic achievement, Maths and Science in 1912, his final year in school. After leaving school he became an engineering apprentice before undertaking flying training at Hendon Aerodrome and obtaining his pilot aviation certificate from the Royal Aero Club in May 1915. He flew out to France on 1st October 1916, being promoted to Captain and Flight Commander in March 1917.
On the day of his death, he was out on patrol and, as reported by his commanding officer in a letter to his father:
The weather became very bad and he evidently went down quite low to engage infantry and transport on the road quite a long way over the lines. Whilst doing this he was hit by a shell and wounded seriously. He brought his machine the whole way back over the lines apparently quite under control. He was obviously trying to find a landing ground, but there was no suitable place, and on landing the machine, hit a tree, otherwise I think he would have landed it safely.
He asked for an officer, and a Colonel who was running to the machine spoke to him and gave him morphia. This Colonel I saw myself afterwards, and he spoke to me also. He said your son was absolutely wonderful, perfectly calm and collected and not complaining. He was at once taken to the dressing station, where he died quite peacefully and without any pain about three-quarters of an hour later. He was as brave as ever to the end, and the impression made on the infantry and the clergyman and doctor who were with him was immense.
Harold’s mother, Lottie, had died in June 1914, so was spared the knowledge of the death of her youngest son. His father died in March 1918, after apparently being ill for some time. The remaining family members, having lost their mother, brother, and father within the space of four years, expressed their intention of erecting two memorial windows in Stoke parish church, Coventry, as well as making a considerable donation to the cost of a reredos and oak panelling for the sanctuary at the church.
A poignant entry in the birth, marriages and deaths column of the Coventry Evening Telegraph on 7th June 1918, the first anniversary of Harold Jackson’s death, indicates that he was engaged to be married at the time of his death:
JACKSON – In proud and ever loving memory of my dear fiancé, Capt. Harold Jackson, R.F.C., who died from wounds received in action at Messines, June 7th, 1917 – “Billie.” Per ardua ad astra.
William Charles Sumner was born in Solihull on 6th June 1881, and was baptised at St Alphege Church on 31st June the same year. He was the second of the five children (three boys, two girls) of parents, George (a carpenter) and Mary Elizabeth. By 1891, the family was living in Drury Lane, Solihull, and they then moved to Station Road, Knowle between 1891 and 1896.
By 1911, when William was a 28-year-old carpenter, the family was still in Knowle, but he emigrated to Australia in 1912. He volunteered for the Army in January 1916, giving his father in Knowle as his next-of-kin, and was sent to France in November 1916.
He was wounded in action on 1st June 1917, receiving a gun shot wound to the abdomen and chest. He was transferred to the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station on 2nd June 1917 but died four days later. He is buried at Trois Arbres Cemetery, Steenwerck, and is also commemorated locally on memorials at Knowle Village Cricket Club, and in the Soldiers’ Chapel at Knowle Parish Church.
His brother, Cecil Minett Sumner (1890-1967), a motor mechanic, was called up in May 1917 and served with the Army Service Corps.
Almon John Wills was born in Chepstow, Monmouthshire, in 1875. He was the seventh of the eight children (five boys, three girls) of parents Samuel (a railway labourer from Exeter) and Ann (née Forward), a laundress born in Wiltshire. The couple married in 1854 in Wincanton, Somerset. They seem to have moved around fairly frequently – their first two children, William and Samuel John, were born in Cardiff between 1859-1861; the next two, Mary Jane and William Henry, were born in Pontypridd in 1863 and 1864; then the couple moved to Bedminster, where their children Enoch (1869-1921) and Minnie (born 1873) were born; with the youngest two, Almon John and Mary being born in Chepstow in 1875 and 1877.
By 1881, the family had moved to Hillmorton, Warwickshire. Samuel died in Hinckley, Leicestershire in 1890, aged 69. By 1891, his widow, Ann, was living in Coleshill with her 15-year-old son, Almon John (who seems to have been known by his middle name) who was working as a groom. Ann died in the Coleshill area in 1897.
Almon John Wills married Emily Hands in 1902 and, by 1908, they were living in Erdington. They were still there in 1911, with their only child, Iris Hetty (1903-1972). Tragically, Emily died in 1915, aged 39, so Iris was orphaned at the age of 13 when her father was killed. John must have moved to Shirley by the time he joined the Army, as Soldiers Died in the Great War records Almon John Wills as born in Chepstow and resident in Shirley. He was killed in action on 7th June 1917 and is buried in Oosttaverne Wood Cemetery, Belgium. He is also recorded on the Shirley war memorial.
Heritage & Local Studies Librarian