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Benton North Wilby

Private Benton North Wilby, M336042, Army Service Corps (ASC)

Benton North Wilby was born in Ossett in late 1880, the son of John Wilby, a deputy at a coal mine, and Amanda North who married in Summer 1868. The couple lived at Headlands and sadly Amanda died in 1895, at the age of 44, leaving John a widower with five sons and a daughter. He married again in 1905, taking Grace Conyers as his second wife, and they continued to live at Headlands.

Benton North Wilby was 20 years old and working as a brass finisher in 1901 when, on the 6th July, he married 22 year old Mabel Harker, the daughter of cabinet maker, Robert Harker, of Market Place, Ossett. The couple wed at the New Wesleyan Chapel, Wesley Street and by 1911 they were living close to his parents at 13, Headlands, Ossett. By this time Benton was working as a colliery banksman. They had a son, Robert Harker Wilby born at Wycliffe Street, Ossett on the 13th March 1903, and were later to complete their family with the birth of a daughter, Doris May, on the 26th December 1915.

Benton North Wilby and family

Above: The Wilby family. Benton North Wilby standing top left, then to his right, his sister Eva and then to her right, brothers Harvey and John Eli Wilby. Seated L to R: John Wilby (father of Benton) with Robert Harker Wilby (Benton's son), Mabel (nee Harker, Benton's wife), Herbert (son of Benton's brother Fred who isn't shown) and Grace (nee Conyers) 2nd wife of John Wilby.

Benton North Wilby was called up for service and enlisted at Dewsbury on 22nd June 1917. He was graded B1 (free from serious organic diseases, able to stand service on lines of communication in France, or in garrisons in the tropics. Able to march five miles, see to shoot with glasses, and hear well.) He was allotted to the Army Service Corps Mechanical Transport Division (ASCMT) with service number M/336042. His army service record indicates that he was deemed to have enlisted on the 24th June 1916. He was aged 36 years & 40 days (elsewhere, on that date, 36 ½ years), 122lbs weight, 34” chest, 5’ 4” tall, the father of two children, living at 13, Headlands, Ossett and working as a coal depot manager (elsewhere a coal agent & bookkeeper). His medical notes indicate he had flat feet, hammer toes on his left foot, upper plate (?) and history of sciatica. His religion was given as Congregationalist.

He was posted on 22nd June 1917 and arrived at Isleworth, in the London Borough of Hounslow on the 24th June 1917 where he undertook training and passed his "Learners" test on the 3rd October 1917. This qualified him to drive heavy lorries and his Certificate of Trade Proficiency records that he had proved himself of fair ability in heavy lorry driving referring to Halley, Peerless, Dennis & Pierce Arrow vehicles.

Benton was posted to 1013 (elsewhere 1073) Mechanical Transport Company, ASC at Bulford Military Camp on Salisbury Plain on the 27th October 1917. He embarked from Portsmouth on 5th November 1917 arriving at Basra, Mesopotamia (Iraq) on 14th January 1918. On the 5th March 1918 he was posted to the Base Motor Transport Depot (BMTD) "in the field undertaking general duties" until the 26th February 1919. His conduct was marked as good, and he was deemed intelligent and reliable. On the 16th August 1918 whilst in the field on active service he was found guilty of neglect of duty i.e. "when proceeding on detachment duty leaving his rifle and part kit in Troop Hut". His punishment was 5 days confined to barracks.

The Mesopotamia Campaign is an over-looked part of the history of WW1, with most attention understandably focused on the sub-human conditions of Trench Warfare. Yet, conditions for the troops in Mesopotamia were likewise truly abominable: extremes of temperature, regular cases of flooding, and diseases from vermin, flies and mosquitos which rapidly spread through the troops all contributed the high casualties in the campaign. The unexpected and underestimated fierceness of the Ottoman army and the appalling medical and logistical arrangements only made matters worse.

"A campaign with humble beginnings, the British Army had first set foot in Mesopotamia on the 6th of November 1914. The original task of the landing force, consisting mostly of Indian troops of Indian Expeditionary Force ‘D’, had been the 'protection' of the Anglo-Persian oil pipeline, refineries, and tanks which had supplied most of the Royal Navy’s fuel. The initial objective had been achieved without too much bloodshed and the British Government had subsequently ordered the British Army Commander in Mesopotamia, General Sir John Nixon to seize the nearby city of Basra. The city had been taken on the 21st of November 1914 with the loss of a hundred British lives; the Turks had lost nearer a thousand.

Not content with the capture of the oil fields and Basra and with no definite military advantage to be made, the British had eventually embarked on an advance northwards with the intention of capturing the whole of Mesopotamia, including the city of Baghdad, which lay almost five hundred and seventy blistering miles to the north of the Persian Gulf. Without realising the difficulties that lay in store for an army stretching its supply lines to the limit as it had moved further upstream from the Gulf. There had never been enough shallow draught boats, nor enough mules or camels to adequately supply the fighting forces that would eventually be up to five hundred miles from their base depots at Basra.

The British offensive in Mesopotamia had continued during the autumn of 1917. By the end of September Ramadi had been captured, a month later they had marched into the dusty town of Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein. In the middle of what had seemed a run of British triumph, disaster had befallen the Army with the death from Cholera of its fifty-three year old Commander in Chief, Brigadier General Frederick Stanley Maude on the 18th of November. The saviour of the British effort in Mesopotamia, Maude had become what Kitchener had been to the British armies in Europe and his loss had been a bitter blow."

Mesopotamia WW1

Above: British troops toil in the desert heat in Mesopotamia (Iraq) during WW1.

Basra is a town on the west bank of the Shatt-al-Arab, 90 kilometres from its mouth in the Persian Gulf. The cemetery is about 8 kilometres north-west of Basra. Not everyone who served in Mesopotamia was fortunate enough to survive and more than 2,500 men lost their lives there in WW1. Basra was occupied by the 6th (Poona) Division in November 1914, from which date the town became the base of the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force (MEF). A number of cemeteries were used by the MEF in and around Basra; Makina Masul Old Cemetery was used from December 1914 to October 1916 and the Makina Masul New Extension was begun alongside the old cemetery in August 1917. These two sites, enlarged later when more than 1,000 graves were brought in from other burial grounds, now form Basra War Cemetery. The cemetery now contains 2,551 burials of the First World War, 74 of them unidentified. The headstones marking these graves were removed in 1935 when it was discovered that salts in the soil were causing them to deteriorate. The names of those buried in the graves affected are now recorded on a screen wall.

Benton sailed home on the SS "City of Sparta" on the 9th March 1919, arriving back in the UK on the 16th April 1919. He was granted 28 days furlough and was demobilised on the 13th May 1919. As was the practice, he was transferred to Reserve in the event of emergency requiring the re-engagement of demobilised servicemen.

Benton North Wilby’s Obituary is reproduced here from the "Ossett Observer", dated 5th July 1952:

"OSSETT MUSICIAN’S DEATH MR. B. N. WILBY

An Ossett coal merchant who was well known in local musical circles of a generation ago died in hospital on Wednesday. He was Mr. Benton North Wilby, of 29 Westfield-street, Ossett, who was within a month of his 72nd year. He had been ill for the past six months.

He belonged to a musical family – his father, the Mr. John Wilby, was a double bass player, and all five sons were instrumentalists. Mr Benton Wilby was a pianist and cellist, also a singer; he was a member of the old Ossett Choral Society and a player in the old Ossett String Band which was the forerunner of Ossett Orchestral Society. He took a wide interest all musical subjects and was producer of many operettas performed in connection with The Green Congregational Church in the years preceding the first world war, including "King of Sherwood" and "Princess Ju-Ju". At Ossett Liberal Club, of which he was a member, he was secretary of the club’s male voice choir which was very successful in musical festivals in various parts of the country. He was for many years a playing member of Ossett Cricket Club bowling section.

SON OF COLLIERY OWNER

Mr. Wilby retired about four years ago after being in business as a coal merchant since 1920, being succeeded by his son. Previously he was manager for J.C. Brook coal merchant of West Wells. His late father was partner in the firm of Wilby & Mortimer, owners of a colliery in Healey-road, Ossett.

During the first world war Mr. Wilby served in the motor transport section of the R.A.S.C., being stationed for 18 months at Basra, in the Persian Gulf, where he was a member of the unit orchestra. Stationed near him was the late Mr. A.C. Marsden, of Ossett, who was in the R.A.M.C.

Mr. Wilby leaves a widow (they celebrated their golden wedding about a year ago), one son (Mr. R.H. Wilby, Dearden Street), and one daughter (Mrs. R. Grace, Westfield-street); also two brothers, Mr. H.E. Wilby, Springstone-avenue, and Mr. J.E. Wilby, Dewsbury-road. The funeral took place yesterday at St. John’s Methodist Church, South Parade."

Benton North Wilby of 29, Westfield Street, Ossett died, aged 71 years, at the General Hospital, Staincliffe, Dewsbury on the 2nd July 1952. Probate was granted to his son Robert Harker Wilby, Coal Merchant. His effects were £2,655 6s 8d.