William Westlake

Service number: 9241 | Rank: Private | Regiment: Northumberland (Fusiliers) Regiment

Died, March 4, 1918. in UK.



William was born in the summer of 1883. For reasons unknown he was brought up by his grandmother, Elizabeth Cock, also known as Betsy, and his grandfather, James Cock, who was a machine fitter. In 1891 they were living in Water Lane, Thetford. At this time Betsy was 44 and James was 65. James died in 1897 and so Betsy brought William up on her own and by the 1901 Census they were living at 8 White Hart Street in Thetford. At this time William had left school and was a labourer at a blacksmith. In 1907 he married Brandon girl Eliza Lavinia Edwards. By 1911the couple had set up home along Thetford Road in Brandon and William was working for an ironmonger and he was making wrought iron. This involved hammering the iron over an anvil and constantly reheating it in the furnace and striking it with a hammer. On the 1911 Census he listed himself as an engineering blacksmith striker in a puddling furnace. By now the couple had a 3 year old daughter named Gladys and twin boys, William and Robert, aged 1. Eliza’s sister, Milly, was also living with them at this time. The couple had another daughter in 1912. She was named Lily but sadly she died in infancy. In his spare time William was a bell-ringer at St Peter’s church in Brandon.

William was an Army Reservist in the Northumberland Fusiliers and it is likely that in October 1914 he was drafted into the 1st Battalion because they had suffered heavy casualties on the Aisne the previous month. William would have had a tough time in the 1st Battalion as they tried to hold off the German onslaught, especially at the ‘First Battle of Ypres’ when their trenches were overrun and many men were casualties. During the winter of 1914 he suffered from frostbite to his feet which led to him being returned to Britain to recover in hospital. Upon recovering from frostbite he was sent out to France again, this time joining the 2nd battalion as they had come to France from being stationed in India.

On May 7th 1915, William was with his unit at the Belgian village of Wieltje. The Germans made a probing attack on the trenches housing William’s unit but the enemy were repulsed. This was only a prelude to the main attack made on the following day, the 8th May. At 3.30am the enemy artillery began shelling the Fusiliers’ trenches and at around 7am this only got heavier with the enemy firing high-explosive and shrapnel shells throughout the day. At 3.30pm the German infantry left their trenches and began their attack on the right flank of the Fusiliers. Coincidentally this attack was upon trenches held by the 1st Battalion, Suffolk regiment and also the 2nd Battalion, Cheshire Regiment. Unfortunately the Cheshires’ resistance collapsed and the Germans broke through their line and turned behind the Suffolks and Fusiliers to surround them. The troops caught within the circling Germans tried to counter attack but this failed. William’s fate was sealed. By 4am the next day the action was over. The Northumberland Fusiliers had lost 12 men who had been killed, 126 had been wounded, but most startling was the fact that 284 men had surrendered to the Germans. William was one of those who was now a Prisoner Of War and he would spend almost three years in captivity.

By 1918 his health had deteriorated so badly whilst being a German P.O.W. camp that the Germans took pity and released him, and several other men, back into the custody of the Allies. He was returned back to Britain for his second spell in a British hospital, but this time his condition was much worse. On 4th March he died at the Camberwell Hospital following an operation.  He was 34 years old.