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Wilfred Higley – a soldier’s life and death

This story tells something of the life and death of one particular soldier from Shropshire, through letters and photographs kept by his family for 100 years. His name was Wilfred John Higley, aged 26 when he joined up in August 1914.

The photograph above shows men at the Barracks, Shrewsbury August 1914. Shropshire Archives ref. 05310/C/25. They were amongst the first men to sign up and became part of the local Pals Batttalion. The picture was in the collection of documents from the Higley family, so maybe Wilfred’s face is here amongst the many who joined up in the first week of the war.

Research a soldier

You might want to research the life of a soldier from the community you live in. You can see census records online– they are free to use in libraries and Shropshire Archives. You could research a member of your family or choose a name from your local war memorial and see what you can find about them and their family.

Wilfred Higley

The 1891 census shows Wilfred aged just 2 – his father was an estate bailiff. His parents and siblings were nearly all born in different places, so the family must have moved around. George was also a soldier and His sister Alice was probably known as Cissi who wrote letters to Wilfred.– (their mother was also Alice)

Wilfred J Higley 1901 census

Wilfred J Higley 1901 census

By 1901 more younger brothers and sisters had been born including Albert who was also mentioned in letters. Wilfred’s mum has died as his dad is now shown as widowed

In 1911, Wilfred was living with a Jones family, in South Shropshire – working as a blacksmith. One of the family was called Cyril, who is mentioned in Wilfred’s letters

When Wilfred Higley joined up as one of the Pals, he became part of First New Army.  At some stage, Wilfred moved to the Royal Army Service Corps, keeping the British Army supplied with all its provisions and Wilfred was in the petrol Company. We don’t know exactly where Wilfred was when he was injured – his job would have meant moving around in order to take supplies to the front line. He died of his wounds after being taken to the hospital at Zuydcoote, near Dunkirk on the coast in the north east of France.

This photograph of Wilfred is from the Shrewsbury Chronicle special publication showing photographs of heroes who had enlisted to fight. It is now with family papers in Shropshire Archives.

Copies of the Shrewsbury Chronicle can be viewed on microfilm at Shropshire Archives and copies of the Wellington Journal have been digitised are available on the public PCs at the archives.

You can find details of all soldiers who died in WWI on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

Family letters

Wilfred’s father wrote to him very frequently. The last few letters he received were returned to the family after his death. Letter ref. 5310-C-12-1&2 is very moving, his father is desperate to have Wilfred home, and also cross about the government and food restrictions at home.  The letters also give some idea of family life for ordinary people at home – food in the markets, eating rabbit and new airfields being built.

Shropshire Archives ref. 5310/C/12/1

 So glad to see your letter to Beatrice – and to know you are all right. You must have been through a lot lately as I see there is – and has been – a lot of fighting your way. Do try and be very careful as I want to see you safe back. …You will see by the papers of an accident on the road, …drivers do get so careless now and exceed their speed limit… I told you that I had been over at Shawbury. We have a lot of flying over here every day.

In the following section of the letter, Wilfred’s dad is angry about many things happening in the country because of the war. Why do you think things like this make him so angry?

Shropshire Archives ref. 5310/C/12/1

You will have seen there are more air raids, I don’t know when our people will be able to stop them. They are always bothering their foolish heads about some foolery – what is going to happen after the war – instead of finishing the war first. This old food control is the biggest foolery in the world – They don’t stop this roguery of profiteering and waste but keep on robbing working people. It would be a good job if a few bombs were dropped on Parliament while they are sitting just to stir them up a little!

Lest we Forget – Two items of remembrance from the collection of the family of Wilfred Higley