WJ Woolner: young soldier, young deserter

21 Jan

This Londoner was not decorated for valour or feted by his local community. He joined up and served underage, was wounded in battle and deserted from the army.

William John Woolner was the son of a Carpenter, born in Harringay in 1896. He lived with his family in Tottenham in 1901. By 1911 they, like thousands of other Londoners, had moved to Southend – helping to make the Essex coastal resort one of the fastest-growing towns in England. After leaving school, he became a clerk.

In September 1914, he joined Essex Regiment in Southend. Although underage – he was only 18 and the lowest age for joining the New Armies and serving overseas was 19 – he joined up anyway. He simply added a year to his age when he told the recruiters his date of birth:

After a few months of training, he went to France with the 11th Battaltion in August 1915.

Less than a month later, on 26 September 1915, the battalion attacked the German lines on the second day of the Battle of Loos – at the time the largest battle in the history of the British Army. They advanced and had to retire before the end of the day. The ever-reliable Long, Long Trail website has a good summary of the battle; they state the 11th Essex’s casualties in their attack around the Chalk Pit as 371 killed, wounded and missing.

One of those was Woolner, who suffered a gun-shot wound in his left leg and was invalided back to England.  After recovering from his wound, he was sent to a new battalion. A month later, in December 1915, he disappeared – he had deserted from the army:

There is no way of knowing why Woolner deserted. Was it because of what he had seen in battle? According to Nick Lloyd’s excellent book on the battle, the area that the Division attacked became known as the ‘corpse field’.

Or was it something more personal?  We can never know.

What we do know is that Woolner disappeared from the army for over two years. He was caught in January 1918 and put on trial in a few weeks later.

As a deserter, he was shot at dawn, of course…. except that he wasn’t: like almost all men who deserted from the army, Woolner was given a prison sentence. In fact, most of those who were executed were repeat offenders, and had deserted from the area near – but usually not in – the front line. Woolner’s Court Martial hearing in February sentenced him to two years detention, but his sentence was reduced to 112 days. In the end he was allowed back into the ranks in May 1918, this time in the Labour Corps.  He served out his time and was demobilised in June 1919.

Woolner's 1914-15 Star

Oddly, although his time in the forces was essentially restarted from scratch in February 1918 as part of his punishment, he was still awarded a campaign medal for serving overseas in 1915. The medal shown here is the 1914-15 Star awarded for that earlier service.

1 Comment

Posted by on 21 January 2012 in Ordinary Londoners


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One response to “WJ Woolner: young soldier, young deserter

  1. SilverTiger

    13 February 2012 at 11:04 am

    One can understand why desertion is considered a serious offence and punished accordingly: otherwise it would be too easy for men just to walk away from the danger zone.

    However, I do feel great sympathy for those who deserted, either because they were traumatized by the dreadful conditions they faced in war or because they suffered battle stress (“shell shock”) which affected many survivors for the rest of their lives.

    In recent times, our wars have been fought by professional soldiers who have enlisted voluntarily (which is not to say that they do not suffer from post-traumatic stress) but during the two World Wars, of course, ordinary men from all walks of life were drafted, whether they wanted to join the war or not. These men faced conditions they could never have imagined in their worst nightmares and were traumatized as was only to be expected. The psychiatry of the day was not always able to distinguish genuine cases from lead-swingers and the temptation was to simply label all deserters as “cowards”. I think it is in some ways surprising that the rate of desertion was not greater than it actually was.

    I am glad that the subject of your post was not shot and that, by the standards of the day, he got off relatively lightly. I hope the rest of his life was much happier.


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