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Bertram Edgar Wickens

Private 200804 Bertram Edgar Wickens 1st/4th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment

 

Bertram was born in Shilton, Oxfordshire in 1888, the sixth of William Maisey Wickens’ nine sons (there were also three daughters). William married twice, his first wife (Ann Collett) was the mother of his first four children, all sons; his second wife Ellen (née Targett) being the mother of eight children born between 1884 and 1894 – Bertram being her fourth child and second son.

 

William Wickens was a baker, grocer and sub-postmaster in Shilton (when William was born there in 1838 Shilton was in a detached portion of Berkshire, the country boundaries were rationalized in 1844).

 

Family home in Pound St

The family home in Enborne Road (now Pound Street). Ilchester is the white painted house on the right.

William, who was twenty years older than Ellen, died in 1909 and, in 1911, Ellen moved south to Newbury. It is not known why she chose Newbury (her family roots were in the Bath area).  The family set up home in a newly built house named llchester in Pound Street, which was then part of Enborne Road). By this date most of the children were old enough to live independent lives, but six of them made the move with their mother.

 

The Wickens boys were apprenticed (which would usually be at the age of 14) into various trades; Bertram and his elder full-brother William Oscar learnt the drapery trade and found employment in Newbury as draper’s assistants.

 

Bertram and his younger brother Cyril enlisted together into the Royal Berkshire Territorials being allocated consecutive regimental numbers. It is not clear whether they signed up at the outbreak of war (as suggested in his obituary) or earlier.  In his obituary (see below) it is stated that he ‘served in the Berkshire Yeomanry and joined up in September 1914’ Official records are sparse but do show he served in the Royal Berkshire Territorials, not the Yeomanry (though he may have served with the Yeomanry at some stage pre-war).  Either way both Bertram and Cyril were with the 1st/4th Battallion Royal Berks by Christmas 1914 when they were among the members of E Company (the Newbury company) at a Christmas dinner in their camp at Chelmsford. On 30 March 1915 the two brothers landed in France with their battalion.

 

During the following two years the battalion learnt all about life in the trenches and took part in several major engagements during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. In the spring of 1917 the Germans rationalized their lines by withdrawing from a salient in the Somme area retreating back into prepared positions known as the Hindenburg Line. As the Germans withdrew the British followed – a dangerous procedure as the Germans fought rearguard actions and knew the ground far better than the British and their artillery were able to fire with great accuracy. At 23:30 on the 16 April 1917 the 1/4th R Berks were ready to carry out an attack on a fortified position at Guillemot Farm near the village of Hargicourt (NNW of Saint Quentin). By chance the Germans were also planning a raid that night; their raiders spotted the British mustering for the attack and rapidly retired to their lines, calling down artillery fire on the Royal Berks when they had barely started their attack. At 01:30 on 17 April the attack was abandoned (by this time the troops had already sought cover in their front line trenches).  The battalion suffered 31 casualties, among the wounded was Bertram Wickens, he died from shrapnel wounds that evening. The local paper reported:

 

Newbury Weekly News 3 May 1917 p8 – Local War Notes
Mrs Wickens, of Ilchester, Enborne Road, has just received the sad news of the death of her second son, Pte Bertram Edgar Wickens who was in the Inter-Com Section, of the 1/4th Royal Berks Regiment. He was seriously wounded with shrapnel while in action on the morning of the 17th inst, and died in the evening. He served in the Berks Yeomanry, and joined up in September, 1914, and was sent abroad in March, 1915. This is the third son Mrs Wickens has lost in action in less than two years. She has still another son in France, and the youngest is still in training. His commanding officer speaks of him as a most excellent soldier, and he died in the service of his country, doing valuable and dangerous work.

 

The article is a little confusing, there was no such thing as an Inter-Com Section, but battalions were supplied with bicycles for ‘intercommunication’ (and absolutely useless in the trenches). Chances are that he was a runner, carrying messages between his company and battalion HQ, or to other companies nearby during battle.  Moving around the battlefield was a dangerous pastime when often the most sensible thing to do was to find a hole and stay in it until dark. However, it was vital work, attacks could flounder and many casualties taken if the company commander could not call down artillery fire on specific enemy strongpoints – before the days of the radio runners were often the only means to get the message back to the artillery or to coordinate an impromptu attack (or withdrawal) with the companies/battalions on either side.

 

The two other lost sons mentioned in the article are William Oscar Wickens, 8th Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment and Gerald Lionel Wickens, of the same battalion.

 

Name on Newbury War Memorial

Bertram's name on Newbury War Memorial, between those of his brothers William and Gerald (bottom right)

Bertram was buried in plot I.B.15 in the Peronne Communal Cemetery Extension  - an addition to the town cemetery started by the 48th Division (the 1/4th Royal Berkshire’s division) in March 1917 after they took the town of Peronne from the Germans as they retired back to the Hindenburg Line.

 

Locally he is remembered on the Newbury Town War Memorial along with his brothers William and Gerald.  Cyril and Raymond (the fifth and youngest of the full-brothers) survived the war; all five served with the Royal Berkshire Regiment.

 

[Thanks to Karen Newbery for her help in researching this soldier.]

 

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22 June 1919
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