William George Bissett was born in Winkleigh about 1896, the first child of William Bissett from Dolton who had married Laura Allen around 1895. According to the 1901 census William George’s father was a groom and gardener, but by 1911 he was just a domestic gardener, most probably as the introduction of motor vehicles was reducing the number of horses in the parish. Young William, now aged 15, was also working as a domestic gardener and had a younger brother, Charlie, aged 4.
Unfortunately, William’s military documents have not survived the London blitz which destroyed some 60% or more of the soldiers’ records, but we do have his medal card which gives us some information of his military service. William must have volunteered to join the Royal Engineers very soon after war broke out, because he was sent to France on 24th August 1915 as a driver. His medal card records his rank as Driver, which indicates that he would have most probably been working with horse drawn carts; like his father he would have been familiar with handling horses. As a volunteer William could choose the branch of the army in which he wished to serve, and it seems it was a good choice. Sadly, we have no records to show where he was in France, what happened to him or why he was ultimately transferred to the Army Service Corps.
The war was to bring huge changes to The Royal Engineers. In August 1914 the regiment was still relatively small, consisting of 1056 officers and 10394 men of the regular army and Special Reserve, plus another 513 and 13127 respectively serving with the RE of the Territorial Force. By the same date in 1917, it had grown to a total manpower of 295668, twelve times bigger than the peacetime establishment. The war of 1914-1918 was dependent on this expansion. The system of railways, roads, bridges and canals enabled the armies to be supplied and reinforced, the sick and wounded to be evacuated. Vitally important too were the communications systems of telephones and the use of wireless Morse code messaging, later to become the responsibility of the Royal Corps of Signals. The Royal Engineers were responsible for building trench systems, gun-positions and fortifications of all kinds, as well as the vast systems of mining operations on the Western front. From 1915 onwards it was the Royal Engineers that developed the resources of chemical warfare and the increasing sophistication of gas masks and other protective equipment. From the very beginning of the war the Royal Engineers were also responsible for maintaining all the weapons of war, from the humble rifle to the largest howitzers.
William’s medal card records a transfer to the Royal Army Service Corps with the new army number ES/50719, but does not indicate when the posting took place. The Corps only received its Royal Prefix in late 1918, but this does not give us a clue as to when William was transferred, since by the time the medal record was made the Corps had already been renamed. The only evidence we have is that William’s medals - Victory, British and 1915 Star - were sent to him at ‘F’ Supply Company R.A.S.C., Woolwich, where he was serving before his demobilisation. There was indeed an A.S.C. No.2 Company at Woolwich when war began, but the Corps expanded greatly and the Woolwich Company might well have increased in numbers. In many ways the ASC were the unsung heroes of the British army, supplying the vast numbers with food for men and horses, ammunition and equipment of all kinds, maintaining the Lines of Communication on the many fronts, using both lorries and horse-drawn transport as well as ships, railways and waterways. The army’s logistics system ran the supply lines from the base depots in England to the ports, camps, stores, workshops and dumps of the rear areas right up to the front lines. At peak, the ASC numbered an incredible 10,547 officers and 315,334 men. In addition were tens of thousands of Indian, Egyptian, Chinese and other native labourers, carriers and stores-men, under orders of the ASC. The original A.S.C. was organised into Companies, each fulfilling a specific role. Some were under orders of or attached to the Divisions of the army; the rest were under direct orders of the higher formations of Corps, Army or the GHQ of the army in each theatre of war. Besides the Base Depots at home, the overseas Companies were either Horse Transport or Mechanical Transport Companies, plus the Army Remounts Service providing trained horses coming from home, South America or Ireland, and finally there were the A.S.C. Labour Companies who carried out much of the loading and unloading duties.
William Bissett returned home to Winkleigh and shortly after his return he is recorded as having contributed 2/6d to the bells fund of the Winkleigh church. Later, in 1929 he married Kathleen Mary Hoskin who was born in Newton Abbott about 1908. They had a son, but William and his wife died fairly eary in 1946 and 1945 repectively. We greatly hope that in time his descendent might contact the creators of this web site with further information that would help everyone appreciate the part William played in the war and his subsequent life.
17 November 2012