William Kirkham was born on 9th August 1879 in the School House, Cockshutt. His parents, Thomas and Sarah were lodgers of Miss Emma Graty who was both schoolmistress and postmistress. Sarah had been born in Bettisfield and Thomas was a native of Cockshutt. Thomas was an agricultural labourer employed at Petton Estate, then owned by William Sparling. Attendance at school had been mandated by law in 1870 and William began his education in 1884. This would have lasted until he was 13, an age when the children of working men themselves became workers to help support their families. At about this time the family moved to Church House, Petton. Eventually William was employed at a railway wagon works near Liverpool and was an army reservist having already served a minimum of seven years’ in the army.
On the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 William joined his regiment, The King’s Liverpool Regt., and immediately went to the front. He had been an ‘Old Contemptible’, a member of the elite among Britain’s comparatively small army of professionals who had served within range of German guns in France or Belgium between 5th August and midnight on 22-23 November 1914. As a reservist recently recalled to the Colours from civilian life he was entitled to the coveted bronze bar bearing those dates. He was one of the survivors of the more-than 200 mile Retreat from Mons remembered by all as a time of pain and exhaustion.
On 1st September, the King’s men were up before dawn. By early afternoon they were three miles south of Villers-Votterets when they were ordered to turn back to assist the 4th Guards Brigade in their fighting withdrawal through a dense forest. During the frenzy of this action, the 1st King’s advanced under severe shrapnel fire, losing about seventy men in half an hour but enabling the Royal Field Artillery to save their guns from almost certain capture. At 3.45 am on the following day, the battalion began a gruelling twenty-four mile march. By noon the heat was intense and the walking wounded hobbled on as best they could until they reached Trilbardou at 8 pm. There the exhausted men slept at a farm, only to resume the march at 2.45 the next morning
In Petton, the Kirkhams, like all other parents of soldiers in battle, must have been worrying about their son. Casualty lists were being published regularly, and families throughout the land were dreading the sight of telegraph boys bearing heart-breaking messages. By the end of 1914, 90,000 officers and men of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders had been listed as killed, missing or wounded. In the 1st Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment alone, thirty-three officers and 814 other ranks had been listed as casualties.
The King’s men could be proud of themselves. On 11th November – with little to sustain them beyond biscuits and rum – they had helped to bar the way to Ypres in the face of an entire division of the Prussian Guard. Exhausted and caked with mud when relieved in the rain and cold, they had been in battle for three straight weeks.
On 25th April 1915 five officers and sixty-three men under Lieutenant A.D.Jones arrived at Bethune as a reinforcement for the 1st King’s Liverpool Regiment who were in billets in the Rue d’Aire. A diary kept by his colonel shows that 9070 Corporal Kirkham was one of those men. Earlier in the month, he had been hospitalised for Enteric fever, probably caused by filthy water.
The British Army’s first big night attack of the war, later to be known as Festubert, was launched on 15th May. William was in comparative safety waiting to be called up as needed. At 6 pm on the 16th, the 1st King’s and 2nd South Staffordshires were ordered to relieve elements from three other battalions. By 11.30, the King’s men held about one hundred and fifty yards of what had been the enemy second line. It was raining and the trenches were thick with mud. Eventually, water and food arrived but the Germans still kept up a murderous fire on the right flank. At some point during 16th May, William Kirkham was severely wounded and evacuated to No.1 Casualty Clearing Station. This had been set up four months earlier in the village of Chocques, about eight miles west of the Festubert battlefield. There was little anyone could do for him and he died on the 18th. Ten days later, his father, Thomas Kirkham was dead.
He lies buried on the South side of the church he had, for twenty one years served as verger at Petton. The grave stone gives his date of death as 28th May 1915 aged 71. The Petton Parish register shows that Mrs Kirkham was paid on 14th April 1916 for cleaning the church. By the following April, Church House, Petton, was vacant because Sarah Kirkham had moved to live at Starleigh Cottage in Weston Lullingfields. Mrs Cunliffe of Petton Hall had provided this cottage for her for life rent free. There she remained until 1934 when illness required that she move to Lincoln to be with her younger son where she died three years later aged 97.
The Border Counties Advertiser, for 21st July 1915:
“Corporal Kirkham who comes from Cockshutt went out with the expeditionary force at the beginning of the war, was in the retreat from Mons and fought in many actions. He was only absent from the front for a very short time owing to sickness. He had several hairbreadth escapes. Corporal Kirkham was wounded on May 16th and died on may 18th. His father, a respected oddfellow, died about the same time at Petton. Corporal Kirkham was educated at the village school, Cockshutt.”
To the left of the entrance in Plot 1. Row C, in Chocques Military Cemetry is Grave 34 which bears this simple inscription:
The King’s Liverpool Regt.
18th May 1915
William Kirkham’s name is inscribed on the War Memorial on the north side of Petton Church. Inside the church his name is preserved with the names of the other fallen in a ‘war shrine’ mounted on the north wall.
I gratefully acknowledge information provided by B.Cory Kilvert who has the medals of William Kirkham in his collection.
Images Copyright Meres & Meadows Messenger