Two local men died on active service on 12th April 1918 – 20-year-old Private James Prentice, 1st Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment and 19-year-old Lance Bombardier Harvey Walter Watts, 378th Battery, 169th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery.
James Prentice was born in Barston in 1898, and was the second-youngest of the 16 children of parents William and Ellen (née Randall) who had married in Barston in 1873. Six of the children had died by 1911 – twins Ada and Annie died in 1879, under one; Thomas died in 1889, aged 13; Agnes Nellie died in 1890, aged six months; Sam Randall died in 1891, aged 25 days
and youngest child, Edward Allen died in 1903, aged two.
The couple had nine sons, six of whom survived to adult, and five of whom served in the First World War. James was the second of them to be killed in the war. The eldest brother, Harry, died on 23rd March 1918 almost two months before his brother was killed.
The 13th child of the couple, Benjamin Prentice (1893-1949), a Lance Corporal with the Coldstream Guards, was seriously wounded whilst bringing in a fellow soldier of his own regiment, and for some time his life was despaired of. He was sent to the Auxiliary Hospital at Hampton-in-Arden in March 1915 to recuperate before further surgery. Information from Barston News Sheet, issue 44, November 2014, is that despite 32 operations, Benjamin’s right leg had to be amputated. The Coventry Herald 22nd December 1917 reports that he was presented with a hand-mechanically propelled chair by Messrs Alldays and Onions. The same article notes that he “was mentioned in General French’s first despatch and has been awarded a Russian Military Medal.” He returned to Barston and made a living as a boot repairer, according to the 1939 National Register.
Two other brothers – William Mark (1882-1968) and Wilfred (1888-1973) – are known to have served with the Royal Garrison Artillery and Royal Warwickshire Regiment respectively.
James has no known grave and is commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial in Belgium. He is also commemorated with his brother on Barston war memorial.
Harvey Walter Watts was born in Rhyl, Flintshire, Wales on 4th September 1898. He was baptised at the parish church there on 15th September 1898, with his parents listed as Walter (a butcher) and Kate. The parents’ address was listed as Stanton House, Birmingham. Both the birth and the baptism entries listed the child’s name as Walter Harvey Watts, so it seems that he was known by his middle name, and the names then later became transposed.
By 1901, he was living in Fern Cottage, Station Road, Knowle with his foster parents, John (a builder’s labourer) and Sarah Adkins. The couple had two other “nurse children” – 9-year-old Elsie Taylor (born in Smethwick) and 2-year-old Frederick Church (born in Kidderminster).
John died in 1905, and it seems that his widow took in more foster children. In 1911, still living in Station Road, her occupation is listed as “Foster Mother”, and there are two additional children – Bernard Vivian (aged four) and Ida Mary Archer (aged one). The older children who were there in 1901 – Elsie (now a 19-year-old dressmaker, listed as a boarder), Harvey and Frederick – were also still living with her and recorded as her foster sons.
Harvey was educated at Knowle Co of E School and was a choir boy at Knowle Parish Church, as well as a member of the Boys’ Sunday School. In 1909, he became a founder member of the 1st Knowle Scout Troop, later becoming Patrol Leader of Peewit Patrol and a King’s Scout. He played for Knowle Old Boys Football Club, and was also a good boxer.
After being brought up by Mrs Adkins, Harvey later became the Ward of Rev. (later Canon) Thomas William Downing, the Vicar of Knowle. He enrolled as a member of Knowle & Dorridge Volunteer Training Corps and enlisted, underage, in the Royal Field Artillery (TF) in May 1915, when he was 16 years old (regimental number 2670). He served with 242 (SM) Brigade and 378 Battery, 169 Brigade Royal Field Artillery with the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders from 1916.
In 1917, he received a new service number – 836220 – and was promoted Bombardier. However, he had to relinquish his rank after he was wounded. He had a narrow escape in September 1917 when he was wounded in both legs by shrapnel. The same shell killed two other soldiers. Harvey was invalided back to the UK and convalesced at Ontario Military Hospital, Orpington, Kent. His guardian, Rev. Downing, wrote to the Scoutmaster of 1st Knowle Scout Troop on 30th September 1917:
“I heard from Watts this morning. He is wounded in both legs but there is only one serious wound which was caused by shrapnel hitting the shin bone, all the others are healing or have healed. He was very lucky as a Sergt. and a Bombardier were killed within a yard of him. You will be able to understand my relief at feeling that he is safe in England.”
Harvey had a premonition that he would not survive the war. After spending his final leave with his guardian in Knowle, he returned to France early in 1918 and was killed in action by shellfire at Gentelles on 12th April. On 19th April 1918, Rev. Downing wrote to the Assistant Scoutmaster of 1st Knowle Scout Troop:
“You will be very grieved to hear that Harvey has been killed on 12th. I am afraid there is no mistake as I had a letter from the O.C. this morning. He was killed by a shell while serving his Gun and was buried close to the Gun.”
His death was reported in Knowle Parish Magazine, May 1918, which noted that he is the “first Scout in the Knowle Troop to be killed in the War.”
Lance Bombardier Harvey Walter Watts is buried at Hangard Communal Cemetery in France. He is also commemorated on memorials at the Army Reserve Centre, Sparkbrook, Birmingham, as well as at Knowle Parish Church, where his name appears on the memorial in the Soldiers’ Chapel, on the Scouts Memorial Hymn Board, on an individual plaque in the Choir Stalls. The vicar himself paid for the plaques, and they are situated where the individual choirboys sat.
The original wooden cross from his grave is also now in the Soldiers’ Chapel. A framed photograph of him is also kept at the HQ of the 1st Knowle Scout Group and is reproduced here with kind permission of Knowle Scouts.
If you have any further information about either of these men, please let us know.
Heritage & Local Studies Libarian
tel.: 0121 704 6977