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Thomas Alfred Stillman

Private 20960 Thomas Alfred Stillman,1st Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment.


Thomas' name on Newbury War Memorial

Thomas' grave in

Orchard Dump Cemetery

Thomas was born in Newbury in 1882 the son of Thomas Stillman and his wife Sarah Ann née Haines. Thomas senior was a labourer and the family (children Herbert William, Thomas, Catherine Annie, Arthur John, and Edward James) lived at 1 Old Newtown Road before moving to 11 Market Street, probably in 1898.


Thomas senior died in 1915, aged  63, by which date the children were all grown, Edward, the youngest was 18, and Thomas was 32. Eldest son, Herbert, and Catherine, the only daughter, had both married in 1909, so their widowed mother would have had the support of a well established family network.


When war broke out in 1914 Herbert was immediately involved, as a member of the National Reserves (see below). Arthur was already in the navy (a stoker on board HMS Drake) and Edward soon enlisted with the Royal Engineers. However, Thomas did not rush to sign up, his regimental service number (20960) suggests that he signed up under the Derby Scheme in late 1915 and was subsequently called up for service in early 1916.  The Derby Scheme (named after Lord Derby, minister for recruitment) was a way of volunteering to serve as and when required.  There was a rush to sign up under this scheme in late 1915, when compulsory conscription was about to be introduced. The benefit of the scheme was that the recruit could volunteer for specific units rather than be conscripted into a national pool of men to be sent to serve wherever at the whim of the army.  Volunteers were called up in age groups; as a single man born in 1883, Thomas would have received his call up papers in mid-February for mobilisation on 18 March (which ties in well with his regimental number). He opted to serve with the local infantry – the Royal Berkshire Regiment.


Berkshire Regiment badge

The regimental badge of the Berkshire Regiment, as used on CWGC headstones.

After a period of training, typically around 6 months, Thomas would have been sent to whichever of the regiment’s battalions where in need of reinforcement. As it happens he went to the 1st Battalion; this was a Regular battalion that had been in action since the opening days of the war.


It is not possibly to know for sure when he joined the battalion at the front, but he would probably have been with them by the time of the Battle for Boom Ravine in February 1917 and would have been involved in the Battle of Arras in April. However, Thomas was not a casualty of a gallant British attack or a desperate defence; he died in a relatively quiet period for the battalion.


On the evening of the 31 May the 1st Battalion Royal Berks moved into the close support trenches between Arleux and Oppy, relieving the 23rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers. Their battalion HQ was at Orchard dugout. This was normal duty for a front line battalion, a few days in the trenches, then back to rest or reserve areas for a week or two, until their turn in the forward trenches came around again. On 4 June they relieved the 1st Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps in the firing line.

 

The battalion’s war diary for 6 June reads: Front line between Arleux and Oppy.  Weather warm, and fine.  Hostile shelling increased during day.   A heavy thunderstorm in the evening flooded the whole trench system.  Casualties other ranks 1 killed, 13 wounded. 2/Lt J.H. Spencer and 2/Lt J.H Johnston joined the battalion.


Enemy shelling was a day to day risk and accounted for a great many casualties through the war. On this day Thomas was one of the unlucky ones; he was almost certainly the ’1 killed’ recorded in the war diary. He was buried in grave VI.D.21 at Orchard Dump Cemetery, Arleux-en-Gohelle (presumably located close to the battalion HQ at Orchard Dugout).


The news reached Newbury:


Newbury Weekly News,  28 Jun 1917 – Killed in Action
STILLMAN – Killed in action June 6th, Thomas Alfred, second son of Mrs Stillman and the late Thomas Stillman, of 11, Market-street, Newbury, aged 34 years.


Thomas' name on Newbury War Memorial

Thomas' name on Newbury War Memorial.

(lower left)


Locally he is remembered on tablet 1 of the Newbury Town War Memorial. Sadly his mother, Sarah, died, aged 65, shortly before the unveiling of the memorial in 1922.  He is also remembered on the memorial board and roll of honour in St Nicolas’ Church.

 

Thomas’ elder brother, Herbert’s service, was as one of the ‘old and bold’ reservists who, as members of the National Reserves, acted as guards at the detention camp at Newbury Racecourse before being absorbed into the Royal Defence Corps. The Detention Camp was a short-lived internment and prisoner of war camp using the Racecourse stables and a tented enclosure; opened in August 1914 it was closed in November that same year. Later he transferred to the Royal Engineers and worked on the railways. In 1909 Herbert had married May Alice Buckell and, in the 1911 census, he, May and their baby daughter, Catherine, were joined by three of May’s sibling in their home at Radnor Villa in Marsh Street.  The eldest of these young Buckells was 14 year old Ernest Buckell, who died, aged 19, when HMS Queen Mary was sunk during the Battle of Jutland.


Herbert (died 1961) and Thomas’ other brothers Arthur (1962) and Edward (1967) all survived the war.

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 Died this day:
27 June 1917
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