Private James Onion – Remembrance

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War Graves at Etaples, via Find A Grave

ONION, Pte. J., 18020. 7th Bn. S. Staffordshire Regt., attd. 33rd Bn. Machine Gun Corps. 14th Oct., 1916. Age 26. Son of James and Annie Onion, of Bishop’s Wood, Brewood, Stafford. VII. F. 3. (From 1914-1918, War Dead of the Commonwealth, Military Cemetery Etaples, France, Part 5.

Like many of those young men who perished in France and Flanders in World War I James Onion had little time or opportunity to make his mark. All that remains are a few sheets of paper and a lump of white stone near Etaples-sur-Mer, on the north coast of France. And maybe three medals and their bright ribbons.

James was born in 1891 at White Pump Farm, on Watling Street, a short distance from Bishops Wood, Staffordshire. His father, also James, was an agricultural labourer, but by 1901 had become a roadman, working for the County Council, filling potholes and resurfacing local roads. At that time they lived close to the Royal Oak pub, which is now in the centre of the village. Back then there were few houses.

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Bishop’s Wood.  Ordnance Survey 1900 Revision.  Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

The 1911 census records James at the Star & Garter Hotel, Victoria Street, Wolverhampton, employed as a billiard marker. Apparently, the hotel was quite luxurious and I imagine James in some splendid, crisp livery, shiny shoes and white gloves attending to his duties in the billiard room. Still, it probably seemed like a dead-end job and when the call came for young men like him to join the army that is what he did. Whether through some sense of duty or the promise of adventure or just swept up by the propaganda and misguided excitement that brought wave after wave of raw recruits he was never to tell.

James joined the local South Staffordshire Regiment and its 7th Service Battalion. Earlier, I blogged about Private Joseph Adams, who is commemorated on the Ogley Hay Cenotaph and who served in the same battalion! They may have served together, but James was attached to 33rd Battalion Machine Gun Corps and I have not been able to trace his whereabouts or how he came to be fatally wounded.

The wounded James would first have been treated at a casualty clearing station before being moved along the evacuation chain to the General (Base) Hospital at Etaples. These hospitals, hurriedly constructed of wooden huts and tents, were staffed by the Royal Army Medical Corps, nurses from the Queen Alexander’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and the Territorial Force Nursing Service. Auxiliary support was from the Voluntary Aid Detachments of the British Red Cross Society and Saint John Ambulance Brigade. In addition to providing unskilled nursing support, the VADs also provided domestic staff, chefs, administrative and quartermaster’s personnel. VAD and a few First Aid Nursing Yeomanry ambulance drivers also played an important role in the evacuation of soldiers to and from the hospital. The intention was that wounded men would be transferred to the United Kingdom for longer term treatment. Sadly, James didn’t make it and died of his wounds on 14 Oct 1916.

This next picture I find quite moving. True, it is a set piece occasion with everyone in clean, smart uniforms. There must be thousands of people, but they are a tiny fraction of those engaged through four years of destruction. And the living are greatly outnumbered by the “crosses row on row”. I wonder if one of these marks the last resting place of Private James Onion.

etaples-memorial-service-1918
Scene of the great memorial service held in a British military cemetery in Etaples, France commemorating the fourth anniversary of World War I. Many of those attending line the war graves there. A contingent of nurses is visible. Civilians are also present. Photograph taken 4 August 1918 by Henry Armytage Sanders. Credit: Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Effects £9 14s. 2d. War gratuity to father Jas. £7.

Awarded BW & V and 1915 Star.

As I wrote: all that remains are a few sheets of paper and a lump of white stone and maybe three medals and their bright ribbons, but add to that our undying will to remember Private Onion and millions like him.

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In Flanders’ fields the poppies grow …
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