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Frank Westall

Private 7497 Frank Westall, 1st Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment

 

Frank Westall's grave in France

Frank Westall's grave in France

Frank was born in Shaw in 1886 the fourth son, eighth and youngest child of James Westall and his wife Edith (née Head). James was a farm worker, originally from Boxford, who seems to have worked on the Shaw Estate. The estate spanned the parish boundaries between Newbury, Shaw and Cold Ash (formerly part of Thatcham) and the family can be found in various cottages in census returns.

 

At the time of the 1901 census Frank was a 14-year-old schoolboy, about to leave full-time schooling for the adult world of work.  By 1911 he was working as a general labourer and living with his parents at 32 Shaw Crescent, Newbury.  Between the two censuses it would appear that Frank signed up with the Royal Berkshire Regiment; judging by his service number this was probably in 1903 (aged 17). He would have signed up for a standard 7/5 term – seven years with the regiment as a regular soldier followed by five years in the reserves.  By 1911 he would have been back in civvies, probably thinking that his uniform would only be needed for an occasional training session, perhaps a parade or two; but that all changed in August 1914 when war was declared on Germany. Reservists were immediately mobilised, many arriving with their regiments in the opening days of the war.  Frank reported for duty at Brock Barracks in Reading and was with the 1st Battalion of the Royal Berks when they crossed to France on 13 August 1914.

 

The battalion saw action from the first engagement at Mons, took part in the long retreat back to the Marne, turned and fought the Germans to a standstill, then pushed them back into Belgium where both armies dug in and began the years of trench warfare.
In early 1915 Frank’s father, James, died aged 73. Frank was away in the trenches and was unable to attend the funeral, but he did get home on leave later in the year, returning to his unit on 22 September.

 

A few days later, on 25 September 1915 the British launched an offensive known to history as the Battle of Loos. The battlefield was a coal mining area around the small town of Loos-en-Gohelle, just south of the Belgian border. An early target was a mine known as Fosse 8; German positions on a large slag heap overlooked the British troops advancing towards them and they were able to repel several attacks. On 28 September the 1st Royal Berks were tasked with another attempt on Fosse 8. Against determined opposition the battalion fought its way as far as the slag heap, some men getting half way up it. During the action Lt Alexander Buller Turner from Thatcham won the regiment’s first VC of the war; his, and many other acts of individual heroism were in vain.  Losses were heavy; a total of 13 officers and 275 other ranks were killed, wounded or missing.
Frank was among the 143 men missing, their fate unknown.  His family were informed:

 

Newbury Weekly News, 11 November 1915  - Local War Notes
Pte F Westall, 1st Royal Berks, youngest son of Mrs Westall, of 32, Shaw Crescent, has been reported missing since September 28. A letter from him of that date has been received by his sister, evidently hurriedly written.  A nephew in the same regiment, but in another company, writes that his uncle was killed, but of this there is no confirmatory evidence. His friends would be glad to hear of any information with regard to him. Mrs Westall has two sons and two grandsons fighting in France.

 

By this time everyone knew that ‘missing’ all too often meant dead, but missing men did turn up as prisoners in German hands. Relatives would eagerly read every new list of prisoners of war in the hope of finding the name of their loved one.  Some were lucky, many weren’t. Frank’s family did hear, eventually, that he was taken prisoner, but the news was not good:

 

Newbury Weekly News, 9 March 1916 - Died of Wounds

WESTALL - Died of wounds received in action at Vermelles on September 28th, 1915, whilst a prisoner of war in Germany. Pte Frank Westall, 1st Royal Berks, and youngest dearly loved son of the late James and of Mrs Westall, 32, Shaw-crescent, aged 28 years.

     Far away cross the ocean in a distant land he is laid,

     We do not know the pain he bore,

     We did not see him die;

     We only know that he is gone,

     And could not say goodbye.

From his loving mother and sister Ida.

 

More details were printed in the news columns:

 

Newbury Weekly News, 9 March 1916 - Local War Notes
After nearly six months of anxiety and suspense, official notification has now been received, together with a letter of sympathy from the King, of Pte Frank Westall, 1st Royal Berks, and youngest son of Mrs Westall, 32, Shaw-crescent, who has been missing since the 28th September, 1915 – he has since died of severe wounds received in action of that date, at Vermelles, whilst a prisoner in Germany. Pte Frank Westall was a reservist, and was called up to rejoin his regiment August 6, 1914, and left for France a week later. He was home for a few days leave after 13 months, and was reported missing just six days after he returned to the front. Although prepared for the worst, the sad news is particularly painful to his mother and sister.

 

Later that year his mother marked the anniversary of his death:

 

Newbury Weekly News, 28 September 1916 – In Memoriam

In ever loving memory of Private Frank Westall, of the Royal Berkshire Regt, reported missing after the Battle of Vermelles, September 28th, 1915, reported died a prisoner of war in February, 1916.

     Far and often our thoughts do wonder

     To that grave so far away;

     The unknown grave is teh bitterest blow,

     None but aching hearts can know.

     None know how sad the parting was,

     Or what the farewell cost;

     But God and His bright Angels

     Have gained what we have lost.

Never forgotten by his sorrowing Mother and Sister.

 

Frank’s story was not quite over, in January 1918 a final chapter was recorded in the local paper:


Newbury Weekly News, 10 January 1918 – Local War Notes
News has now been received of the late Pte Frank Westall, 1st Royal Berks, and son of Mrs Westall, of Shaw Crescent, who was first reported missing September 28th, 1915; then later as having died a prisoner of war in Germany between that date and the 5th February 1916. Now a report which has been received by the War Office through the Geneva Red Cross, in which his name appears in the German official list of dead:- “7497 Pt F Westall, 1st Royal Berks Regt, died 3rd November, 1915. Buried Seolin Dep Nord Military Cemetery grave 123.” The deceased was a reservist, and re-joined his regiment in August 1914, going first to Reading and Aldershot, and crossed to France a week later. He came home on leave after thirteen months, and had only returned to the front six days. His last letter was received in September, 1915, two days after he was taken prisoner.

 

Later that year the family remembered Frank on the third anniversary of his death:

 

Newbury Weekly News, 3 October 1918 – In Memoriam
In ever-loving memory of Pt. Frank Westall 1st Batt. Royal Berks. Reg. died a POW in Germany October the 3rd 1915 reported missing in September, taken prisoner 6 days after returning to the front from a few days leave.

How sad is the parting so many now know
No grave to watch oer our great love to show
But well done dear boy you so nobly gave
Your life for your country to free and to save
Not dead to us we loved him dear
Not lost but gone before
He lives with us in memory still and will for evermore.

 

From Mother and Sisters Ida (Shaw Crescent) and Charlie (in France)

 

Frank died on 3 November 1915 and was buried in a German military cemetery at Seolin. After the war there was a large programme of rationalisation of graves during which Frank was moved from Seolin to Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery on the outskirts of the village of Souchez. He lies in grave VIII. J. 12.

 

Frank's name on Newbury War Memorial(centre)

Frank's name on Newbury War Memorial(centre)

Locally he is remembered on the Newbury Town War Memorial, as well as village memorials in Shaw and Thatcham, and a  memorial board in St Mary’s, Thatcham.

 

In the first newspaper item above it is noted that Frank’s mother, Edith, had two sons and two grandsons serving their country. It is not easy to state for certain which of the many Westalls who served were her children or grandchildren but two have sufficiently unusual names to identify them.  These are Edith’s second youngest son, Albert Jesse (Bertie) Westall (Cpl 2397, Army Veterinary Corps), and Jack Claude Westall (Pte 304724, Tank Corps), the son of her eldest son, Henry. More work on the family tree may turn up several others; the article was written in 1915, before conscription would have scooped up some more of Edith’s grandsons.

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 Died this day:
16 August 1917
George Frederick Upstone
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