William Charles Vanstone was born in the summer of 1879, the eldest child of John Vanstone, a blacksmith in Broadwoodkelly, who married Elizabeth Harris. Their second son was Samuel, born in 1881, followed by Amy in 1883, John in 1885 and Mary Ann in 1889. Long before she was widowed Elizabeth became the first postmistress at Monkokehampton. The post office there was started about the turn of the century, when the local squire, Smythe Osbourne, wanted to send telegrams. Unlike his brothers who trained to be smiths with their father, William became an assistant postman in the village. The family were linked to the post-office: in 1911 William’s mother, Elizabeth now aged 56, was living at the Post office in Monkokehampton. Her daughter Amy, then aged 27, was the Post office assistant while her son John aged 25 was the blacksmith in Monkokehampton. Interestingly, John did not have an apprentice, but he employed a servant/blacksmith, Robert Scott Gregory Price aged 17 who had been born at Mandalay in Burma, India.
In May 1881 the Childers Reforms, undertaken by Secretary of State for War Hugh Childers, had restructured the infantry regiments of the British army. A continuation of the earlier Cardwell reforms, Childers created a network of multi-battalion regiments. In England, Wales and Scotland, each regiment was to have two regular or “line” battalions and two or three militia battalions, numbered the 3rd, 4th and 5th Battalions. This was done by renaming the numbered regiments of foot and county militia regiments. In addition the various corps of county rifle volunteers were to be designated as volunteer battalions. Each of these regiments was linked by headquarters location and territorial name to its local “Regimental District”. At the age of 20 in October 1899, Assistant Postman William joined the Devon Militia, enlisting in the 4th (Volunteer) Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. There was a huge surge of enthusiasm among young men to enlist as a part-time volunteer soldier in that year, as a response to the outbreak of the South African War, a war that was indeed the catylist that eventually led to the creation of the Territorial Army. War broke out between Britain and the two Boer Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State in October 1899, but there was little expectation that the reserves of the Militia, Yeomanry and Volunteers would ever be called on to fight in a war which, as Britain saw it, was to bring to order a mob of unruly farmers. However ‘Black Week’ of December 1899 witnessed three major defeats, Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso, and by the end of the war in May 1902 no less than 448,000 men had been deployed, among them 45,000 militiamen, mainly Yeomanry. The Devon militia were not called on to go to South Africa. The huge effort it required to win the war caused consternation in the country, and many new organisations came into being as a result, among them the Boy Scouts and the National Service League, advocating conscription
William served in the Devon Militia for just over eight years, leaving in 1908. The terms of his enlistment was for a definite term of four years, terminable on three month’s notice (or penalty of a fine) with the possibility of re-engaging for a further four years. In the summer of 1907 he had married Mary Ann Bright, and it was this and the end of his enlistment contract together with his move to Dolton as Postman that brought about the change. Mary Ann Bright was born in Roborough, the fourth child of Samuel Bright, a shepherd and agricultural labourer, and his wife Ellen Dillin, both born in Dolton. Two children were born to William and Mary Ann: Samuel John in 1909 and Wilfred Charles in 1910, both born also in Dolton. Later in 1910 William and the family moved again, this time to live in Park Place, Winkleigh, and it was here that William re-enlisted, this time into the 6th Battalion (Territorials) of the Devons, for a period of four years. The Territorial Army was created as a result of the Haldane reforms in 1906, which envisaged a force of 300,000 men in fourteen large infantry divisions, including field artillery and ancillary services, a battalion of cyclists per division, and with the Yeomanry Regiments providing a matching 14 cavalry brigades. The Territorials were designed to be the main force in home defence - to repel enemy coastal raids and deter the threat of a possible invasion if war broke out. Service overseas was intended to be strictly on a voluntary basis. The Territorial Force had come into existence on 1st April 1908, and was initially very successful in attracting recruits, responding both to the national mood regarding German expansion of their fleet following the launching of British super-battleships, the ‘Dreadnought’s and the fact that the annual camp provided young men with between 8 and 15 days paid holiday which their employers were constrained to permit, though there were many complaints about this in many areas of employment. The invasion scare of 1909 and the popularity of Guy du Maurier's play ‘An Englishman’s Home’ which opened in London in January 1909, both boosted the idea of the necessity of a well-equipped Home Defence Force. 30,000 recruits alone were recruited in the foyer of the theatre before the scare subsided. The publication of Erskine Childres’ novel ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ in 1903 also had an enormous effect on public opinion. It was an early ‘invasion’ novel, predicting war with Germany, and called for Britain to prepare. As a result new Naval bases were established at Scarpa Flow, Invergordon and Rosyth. Childers also wrote a factual book in 1903 pointing out the outdated tactics and equipment of the British army, elaborated again in 1911 in further publications. Childers served during the war in the original British Intelligence Service, ‘Room 40’, sorting intelligence and de-coding for the Admiralty.
By 1911, however, recruiting had declined. This was partly the result of poor or obsolete equipment and resources, leading to a poor standard of training and an unwillingness by regular army officers to serve as adjutant to a Territorial unit. Many men failed to reingage after their first four years so that by 1913 80% of the force had less than four years service experience, and some 20% were under the age of 19, the minimum age for overseas service. Up to the outbreak of war only 7% of the territorials had taken the Imperial Service Obligation, and the whole force was 63,000 men short of establishment. The picture of course changed immediately on the outbreak of hostilities when thousands immediately enlisted or re-enlisted in the Territorials, in preference to Kitchener’s New Army. By the time voluntary enlistment in the Territorial Force ended in December 1915, some 725,842 men had enlisted since August 1914, approximately half the numbers who had enlisted in the New Army during the same period.
We are fortunate indeed that among the vast number of WW1 records destroyed during the Second World War blitz on London, William Vanstone’s records have survived, and are attached to this account. First, there is is Attestation Certificate, dated 26th April 1910, registered at Winkleigh where he took the oath of alligence. William, 30 years old, and the town postman, showed no signs as yet of any disability. The record of his previous service is preserved, army number 3904, service in the 4th Devons from 26.10.1899 to 30.06.1908. Accompanying his re-enlistment, we have William’s Medical Inspection Report, dated 13th July 1910. The medical examination, a requirement for re-enlistment, took place at Chulmleigh, presumably at the hospital there. The Certificate states that his physical condition is good. Next, we have the Declaration of William’s re-engagement for a second period of four years, dated 2nd April 1914. Sgt.Peters, Instructor, witnessed the signature. Sadly, Sgt.Peters, who was later commissioned into the 1st Battalion Devons and who as a 2nd./Lt. had already been awarded the M.C., was killed in action on 23rd April 1917. The 1st Devons were in action at La Culotte in support of both the Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge and Nivelle’s offensive at the Chemin de Dames. In this action the Battalion lost 6 officers killed and eight wounded, with a total of 245 casualties in all. Lt.Peters has no known grave; his name is recorded on the Arras Memorial. With William’s re-enlistment and medical report we have his Statement of Service. This shows that William attended the pre-war camps regularly: July-August 1910 on Salisbury Plain; July-August 1911 at Minehead, (most battalions were offered a most popular sea-side venue once every four years); July-August 1912 at Willsworthy and July-August 1913 at Bulford Barracks, Salisbury Plain. It is significant that he did not attend camp in 1914, that year held at Woodbury Common near Exmouth, presumably because he had already begun to feel very unwell. The Certificate also shows that on the day war broke out, April 4th 1914, the 6th Devons were mobilised - ‘embodied’ is the term used. However, on 11th August William was discharged as medically unfit, after a period of service of 4 years and 108 days in the battalion. The last document, a Military History sheet, again records his record of Home Service from 26th April 1910 to 11th August 1914. By oversight, William Vanstone’s name is mentioned in the September issue of the Chumleigh Deanery Magazine as being one of the first to serve from Winkleigh, among the 20 men already serving or enlisting immediately in the 6th Devons. So great was the rush to join this Territorial battalion that it was immediately named 1st/6th, so that a second duplicate battalion, the 2nd/6th could be raised. Although in the opening weeks of the war the Territorial Army was still considered to be a Home Defence force, many men were coming forward in the hope of going overseas.
The cause of his severe medical condition is not recorded on the documents, but it is certain from his death certificate that William was suffering an acute form of leukemia. The disease is in fact a cancer of the white cells, probably originating from a virus but with the possibility of some genetic disposition to develop the disease. The chronic type of leukemia has no early symptoms apart from feeling very tired, with night sweats and some weight loss. After a sudden onset the disease rapidly progresses to a fever, with easy bruising, extreme weakness and joint pains. There was no cure and Węlliam died at home on 21st October, a mere 10 weeks after his discharge. Dr. Clements signed the death certificate which recorded ‘lucoerithermia’ and exhaustion as the causes of death. ‘Lucoerithermia’ is not a term used today, although there is a medical term known as ‘leukopenic leukemia’.
No mention of the circumstances of William Vanstone’s death or any report of his funeral was mentioned in the Chumleigh Deanery Magazine; it would perhaps have been considered ‘unpatriotic’ to do so. On the other hand, other volunteers who died very early were indeed honoured. In March 1915, the magazine offered its condolences to the parents of Private Harry Vicary, who had, together with his brother, enlisted in the 8th Devons, a ‘new army’ battalion. Private Vicary, who came from Worlington, died of scarlet fever in the Military Isolation Hospital, Aldershot. In contrast to the death of Private Vanstone, the burial in East Worlington churchyard included the coffin covered with the Union Jack, and among the many wreaths that were laid on the grave, were one from the officers and one from the non-commissioned officers and men of ‘C’ Company of the 8th Battalion. There would no doubt have been some Battalion representation at William Vanstone’s funeral, but by the time of his death the 1st/6th were well on their way to India.
William Vanstone was buried in Winkleigh churchyard on October 24th, and indeed the Commonwealth War Graves database incorrectly records October 24th as the date of his death. He lies north-west of the church in a Commonwealth War Grave, the first serviceman from Winkleigh to die in the Great War. Indeed, the churchyard cherishes the remains of both our first and our last casualties - Private Vanstone and Private Richard Mitchell, of the Army Service Corps Remounts Depot, who died on 12th December 1919 from the Spanish ’Flu epidemic. Vanstone’s death would have passed unnoticed by the rest of the battalion, mourned only by his young wife, his children, relatives and his friends. It is good that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission granted William a war grave and that his name is recorded on the Memorial Cross. He gave his life, and in whatever circumstances he caught leukemia he had indeed served for many years before the war and was certainly serving his country again at the time of the tragedy.
13 May 2019