A Fractious Soldier by Ellen Maki, Ph.D.

South Lancashire Regiment with borderWhen Britain entered World War I in August 1914, William Henton was a young man of 23, newly married and with an infant son, living in St. Helens, Lancashire, England. With newspapers publishing appeals to join the armed services, hundreds of thousands of men joined within just a few months, and William was one of them. On 4 September 1914, William joined the ranks of the South Lancashire Regiment, 7th Battalion.

As I read through William’s service record, I was surprised to read that within 5 months of his attestation, having never left the country, he was discharged as medically unfit. On 8 February 1915, after precisely 158 days of service, William was found to have defective vision. His record notes that at the time of his attestation he had perfect vision: 6/6 in both eyes. Oddly enough, a visual acuity test performed on the date of his discharge found his vision to be 6/60 in both eyes. In other words, what he could see at 6 metres was what someone with perfect vision could see at 60 metres. There is nothing in his record to explain this sudden change in William’s vision. Had he perhaps memorised the eye test chart prior to joining the army in order to hide his defective vision? Had he sustained an injury or acquired an illness that resulted in this rapid deterioration in his vision?

Henton William

Aside from the repeat eye examination, there is no mention of  any medical examination or treatment, either for visual complaints or any other condition, contained within his service record.

What I discovered, though, was a series of three conduct sheets comprising a list of incidents involving disobedience and insubordination, beginning shortly after William’s attestation. He was absent from parade, insolent and disrespectful with officers, inattentive in the ranks,  reported sick without cause, attempted to leave without a pass, used obscene and threatening language, refused to obey orders, and fell out without permission.

Each of these infractions was accompanied by some form of punishment. During the month of October 1914, William spent a total of 19 days confined to barracks. Punishment was apparently ineffective, as William’s fractious behaviour escalated. In the month of November, William spent a total of 14 days in field imprisonment, and was deprived of 7 days’ pay. In December, William was again confined to barracks, this time for 3 days.

Henton William List of Offences with caption

There are no entries in William’s record for January 1915. The final entry in his file is a request dated 29 January 1915, asking that the soldier be discharged as “not likely to become an efficient soldier”. His vision was cited, first as 6/36, but this was scratched out and replaced with 6/60. The last remark in William Henton’s file is a comment from a superior officer:

unlikely to become an efficient soldier even if medically fit.

For many men, enlisting in the army was an act of patriotism — they got on with the job of fighting the enemy as best they could. Some even found their niche in the military; they stayed on, possibly rising through the ranks. Other men, such as William Henton, were poorly suited to their new role in the army and were unable to fit in. I wonder whether William’s defective eyesight was a fiction conveniently fabricated to help the army get on with its business of fighting the war, while allowing William to save face and return to civilian life.

Brief Bio:

William Henton was born in Yorkshire, England in 1891, to collier William Henton and his wife Clara Lees. He married Mary Ann Sullivan, daughter of Patrick Surdival (a.k.a. Sullivan) and Mary Moran, on 24 May 1913 at Holy Cross RC Church in St. Helens, Lancashire.

Sources:

  1. War Office (Great Britain). Army Service Records. 1914-1915. William Henton. South Lancashire Regiment. No. 12614. Collection: British Army Service Records 1914-1920http://www.findmypast.com/ : accessed 13 May 2016.
  2. General Register Office of England and Wales. Index of Births. Barnsley R.D., Yorkshire. 3rd quarter, 1891. Henton, William. Vol. 9c. p. 238. Collection: England & Wales births 1837-2006. http://www.findmypast.com/ : accessed 13 May 2016.
  3. The National Archives. London, England. 1901 Census of England and Wales. St. Helens, Lancashire. RG 13 / 3524 / 93. Page 4. ED 33. SN 26.  http://home.ancestry.ca/ : accessed 13 May 2016.
  4. Lancashire Online Parish Clerks. Marriage. St. Peter Church, Parr, Lancashire. 23 December 1888. Henton, William and Lees, Clara. http://www.lan-opc.org.uk/ : accessed 13 May 2016.
  5. St. Helens Townships Family History Society. Marriage Index: St. Helens Area from 1538-1940. Holy Cross RC Church, St. Helens. 24 May 1913. Henton, William and Sullivan, Mary Ann.

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