William Edward Finch was one of the Worcesters’ many Brummies, a fact that might seem curious when you consider the modern map of the region, but one that’s not unusual when you remember that the Worcestershire county boundary reached up to Edgbaston and well into the Black Country in the early years of the 1900s.
He was a corporation tram driver when he was called up as a reservist on August 5, 1914, meaning he wasn’t a stranger to the Worcestershire Regiment or its history.
His Regimental record says his “apparent age” was 18 years and four months when he originally enlisted on the June 22, 1904, and was posted to the 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment on the July 9, 1904.
But the General Register Office’s England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes puts his birth date as September 17, 1888, which would have seen him just a few weeks short of his 16th birthday when he joined up, leaving younger brothers Frederick and Wilfred at home.
He recalled in his 1984 Imperial War Museum interview with Peter Hart that he was persuaded to step in to the recruiting office with two pals. At that time, work and money would have been hard to come by in early post-Victorian Birmingham.
The other two weren’t signed up, leaving him to return home to Browning Street, Ladywood, to break the news to his parents.
At the time, he was described as standing at 5ft 4ins and weighing 111lbs – 7st 13lbs in old money – with a chest girth (“when fully expanded”) of 34 inches, a fresh complexion, grey eyes, brown hair and a distinguishing coal mark on the bridge of his nose.
By the time he was posted to the 4th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment on the November 22, 1905, after six months service and a gymnastic course, he was two inches taller, weighed 9st 3lbs and boasted a fully expanded chest of 37 inches.
He served with the 4th Battalion in Malta and was appointed Lance Corporal (unpaid) on May 24, 1906, and paid Lance Corporal on the July 3, 1906.
He returned from Malta 2nd April 1907. He was posted to the 3rd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment on the April 3, 1907, and transferred to the Army Reserve on June 21, 1907.
He worked in Brum’s metal industry and married Lilian Florence May Cooke in Kings Norton on December 28, 1908. His first daughter, Doris Irene, was born on April 13, 1909, followed by Stanley on November 1, 1912, and twins Oliver Violet and Hazel Lilian on April 14, 1914.
Just four months later, on August 5, he was mobilised and, the following day, he left their home in Blythe Street, Ladywood, and was posted to the 2nd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment at Aldershot.
He landed with the 2nd Battalion in France on August 12, 1914.
Regimental records describe him as being wounded in action on the October 24, 1914, suffering gun shot wounds to his left leg during the charge through Polygon Wood – though, in the interview with Peter Hart, which is held by the Imperial War Museum, he speaks about the counter-attack on Gheluvelt Chateau.
As the former is the only fact that comes from an official record, the Gheluvelt audio documentary leaves those claims where they are.
After treatment, he was eventually returned back to the UK on the December 8, 1914. He was finally discharged due to his wounds on the May 31, 1915.
William Finch’s war
The following is a brief selection of memories taken from William Finch’s remarkable Imperial War Museum interview with Peter Hart.
The Retreat from Mons
We had to go as quick as we could to stop the Germans from coming over.
Then, before we reached where I was, anyway, the gasworks where we was making for, the Germans was peppering us like Billy-oh. With coal-boxes and everything. What we called coal-boxes. Their heavy guns.
Of course, we only had what we called pop-guns behind us. That's the 42nd Field Battery. That was behind where I stood and lay, by the gasworks where I did lie on a big crucifix.
I lay on this crucifix with the others. Then, all of a sudden, what I thought was a bunch of sheep coming towards me was Gerrys. A different colour to their uniform.
Then, all of a sudden, we had news to get out as quick as we could. We couldn't fire until we had orders from our officers, because we only had 25 rounds of ammunition to use. They hadn't got the stock.
We was fighting this rearguard action. We took up a position across fields, the length of our company, and as the Germans kept coming towards you, of course, if they got close enough then we would belt off at them then.
Then that gave the remainder of the company.... it gave them chance to get on.
The hardest part of the retirement was when we was finding listening posts at night. We had got to send so many out in front to listen to Gerry. Were they coming closer to us at night.
Of course, we had a bully-beef can and a little stone hung up, and if he touches it, it rattles. Of course, we knew where he was then.
The next morning, when the mist is on the ground – you know how it is sometimes at morning – if you're laying down and you're in that mist you've got to get out of it.
Coming out of it, Gerry was perhaps like I was this side above it. Gerry could see and I could see. Gerry opens fire and catches us.
We lost more men like that coming back to us than ever we did going in.
I used to dread the idea of running away. I used to like to go forward, ‘cos I could see where I was going. When you're retiring, you can't.
On the retirement was as good as a forced march all the way, ‘cos we was getting out of action. Mostly night-time we was moving, ‘cos of Gerry going through the place.
Tired? Oh good God! Drop down in the road. There was many times in the five minutes or the three minutes, whatever it seemed they gave us, I must've gone to sleep each time with the others. We was all woke up shouting at one another like that.
Oh, no. No. I mean, I didn't feel ashamed, but the thing is, meself, I thought 'well, I hope we don't get cut off altogether... the war finished as we came out to finish ourselves'. That's all you think.
I didn't think meself that the retirement was worrying us that much, other than getting beaten, and the English... what they would think about us in England.
Polygon Wood counter-attack (Saturday, October 24, 1914)
When the bugle went... the charge. We was shouting, of course. That's the cry. Make as much noise as you can. Charge the Germans, of course….
As the charge sounded, to be truthful, you know how any crowd would be at the football match when they score a goal, how it goes, a tremendous uproar, well that's how the charge started.
And during the charge until I got knocked down I couldn't tell you whatever happened other than I went for the object like the others. But I know for a fact that what did happen, my men was less. Because I couldn't see anybody.
I had control of meself all the way. I had control of meself this far that I knew I was going. I was going like if you would go mad at anything, but what happened I could never say.
One particular part of the charge, I remember stopping my men and going for a fella what I see lying. His inside all open, and I said 'Don't touch him'. I wouldn't allow them to touch him.
- This testimony was given in his interview with Peter Hart as a description of the charge at Gheluvelt. However, William Finch's Army record states that he was wounded in the Polygon Wood charge, so it's a possibility that his words relate to that event
Rehabilitation in Birmingham
I didn’t want to go back. It’s like the Bishop of Birmingham Bishop Wakefield, when he spoke to me in the hospital, he said ‘I suppose they’re getting you ready to go back’.
I turned round and told him I hoped I would never go back again. I had had enough. I had. As much as I wanted.
I couldn’t see anything clever in getting ready for that anyway.
- According to the General Register Office, William Edward Finch died in May, 1987. He was 98