When Territorial Divisions left for France in 1915, steps were immediately taken to create replacements divisions. The 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division was one such unit, being the second line of the initial West Riding Division, the 49th. The 62nd Division was kept back for coastal defence duties until the end of 1916, when orders were received to proceed overseas, which it did in January 1917. In early February, the division was told to make itself ready for taking over trenches in the Beaumont-Hamel area of the Somme. The History of the 62nd (West Riding) Division describes the conditions:
"Trenches as such did not exist, for they had been obliterated by the concentrated fire of the guns......The front line was held by a series of posts which resembled islands in a sea of mud. Shell holes pock-marked the ground, often overlapping one another and where pathways existed between them they were but a few inches wide. The holes were full of water and more than one man lost his life through slipping off the pathway into the slimy mass which engulfed him."
In order to save men and materials, the German High Command decided a new trench system would be required and in September 1916 a site for this was selected about 25 miles behind their front line. This new line, known to the British as the Hindenburg Line, saved the Germans about 25 miles of front line, which would not therefore have to be manned. On 4th February 1917 the order was given by the German High Command to prepare for the withdrawal.
The Allies were surprised by the withdrawal and gave orders for the Germans to be harried during their retirement. The Germans were determined to give up the ground at their own pace and left behind stubborn rearguards who caused casualties to the following troops, amongst whom happened to be men from the 62nd Division. It was at this time that Fred Watson earned the first of his gallantry medals.
Frederick Watson was born in Leeds on 8th November 1878 to David and Jinnie. He enlisted in the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry on 27th February 1897, aged 18, giving his trade as 'mechanic'. There is some doubt as to his real name, as the documents from his enlistment indicate that he gave his name as Frederick Wilson, the Wilson later being changed to Watson. Fred was 5' 3½" tall with a chest expansion of 33½" and weighed 8½ stones. Besides a circular scar on his left buttock, he had the letters 'FW' tattooed on his right fore-arm. Fred signed on for seven years 'with the colours', with a further five years to be served as a reservist.
He was awarded a Good Conduct Badge on 27th February 1899 (the second anniversary of his enlistment), and little more than two months later, on 6th May, he was promoted to lance corporal. On the fourth anniversary of his enlistment, in 1901, he was awarded a second Good Conduct Badge and was promoted to corporal on 4th April of that year. In December 1901 he was posted from the 1st to the 2nd Battalion of the K.O.Y.L.I. and sent to South Africa where the British were fighting the Boer farmers.
It was in South Africa that he first got himself into trouble when, on 4th May 1902, he was given a severe reprimand for "Neglect of Duty whilst in charge of a Block House". Despite this, three months later, on 14th August, he was promoted to sergeant. He continued to serve in South Africa for a further four months until October 1902 when he was posted, with the rest of the battalion to Malta. Whilst in Malta his terms of service were amended so that he was to serve the full twelve years 'with the colours'. In March 1904 the battalion was transferred to Crete, where it stayed a further year until coming back home in March 1905. On 21st July 1906 Fred found himself in trouble again, being given a further severe reprimand when caught "Gambling in camp [at Bisley] about 9.45pm."
Despite these misdemeanours, on 18th January 1908, a month short of the eleventh anniversary of his enlistment, and with still over a year of his engagement to run, he signed on to serve a total of twenty one years. There is no doubt that his volunteering for this extended service was connected with his being medically examined a month earlier, when he was found fit for service in West Africa. Fred was seconded to the Northern Nigeria Regiment, leaving this country on 15th February 1908.
He served in west Africa for a year, returning home in April 1909; later that year, on 9th June, he married Ada Ellen Taylor in Ravensthorpe Parish Church.
Returning to the 2nd Battalion, he served part of the next period of his service in Ireland. It was whilst in Cork, he was to receive a "Reprimand [for] neglect of duty when in charge of a fatigue party (allowing men to fall out)." It seems that rather than keeping the men working, he allowed them to rest, but was found out by his sergeant-major.
On 24th May 1912 he was posted to the 5th (Territorial) Battalion, which recruited one of its companies in Goole, where he would have worked as a sergeant drill instructor. It was in this town that his three sons, George, Morris and Jack were born.
When war broke out he was a likely candidate to go to France with the 2nd K.O.Y.L.I., however regular troops were desperately required to train the new recruits who were flooding into the army. As a result he was promoted to Company Sergeant Major and kept back as a drill instructor. Rather than being posted to one of the Kitchener battalions, he remained with the 5th Battalion, and could therefore have expected to be posted to France in April 1915 when the 49th (West Riding) Division (which included the 1/5th K.O.Y.L.I.) was despatched. However it was again decided that he was more useful being kept back to help train the second line battalion that was being formed. It was therefore not until January 1917 that Fred went to France as a Company Sergeant Major with the 2/5th K.O.Y.L.I., part of the 62nd Division.
On 7th April 1917, a letter was published in the local newspaper, the Dewsbury Reporter, from Fred to his wife telling her he had won the Distinguished Conduct Medal. This was the first of his gallantry medals. It seems that in early March the 2/5th K.O.Y.L.I. was in reserve at Beaumont-Hamel.
On 6th March, the battalion moved up into support at Bois d'Holland (on the eastern edge of Beaucourt) and the next day moved up to the front line, which was at that time between the villages of Miramont and Achiet-le-Petit. On the right of the battalion was the 10th Essex (part of 18th (Eastern) Division).
The War Diary of the 2/5th K.O.Y.L.I. for 8th March describes how Second Lieutenant Atkin led a daylight patrol, an action for which he earned the Military Cross. The diary goes on "CSM F.W. Watson established a post in Resurrection Trench to assist the 10th Essex to carry out a bombing attack. A previous attempt had failed. CSM Watson awarded the D.C.M."
Fred Watson's citation for the D.C.M. reads "For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He succeeded in establishing a post at a critical time under the most trying conditions. He has at all times set a splendid example of courage and determination."
Shortly after he was awarded this D.C.M. the 2/5th K.O.Y.L.I.s Regimental Sergeant Major was commissioned, and a replacement R.S.M. was therefore required. Fred was chosen and on 21st April was appointed Acting R.S.M. Within two weeks the appointment was confirmed and on 2nd May 1917 Fred was promoted to Temporary R.S.M. for the duration of the war. The promotion was made the day before the second Battle of Bullecourt, in which the battalion was engaged. Bullecourt (part of the Battle of Arras) was to be the 62nd Division's first major fight; unfortunately things went very badly, so much so that Fred's commanding officer in the 2/5th K.O.Y.L.I., Lt.-Col. W. Watson was killed, his place being taken by the second-in-command, (yet another Watson!), Major O.C. Watson.
Fred was destined not to keep his exalted rank for long. As the senior N.C.O. in the battalion, he would have wielded a massive amount of power. Perhaps he was unable to cope with the demands made upon him, or possibly he was just unlucky to be caught, but on 4th August 1917, Fred was discovered drunk whilst on duty. He was placed under arrest and tried by a Field General Court Martial a week later. Fred was found guilty and the sentence passed on him: "To be reduced to the rank of Sergeant (Recommended to mercy on grounds of long and gallant service)." The sentence was confirmed by the Brigadier-General commanding 187 Brigade.
From the end of September to the middle of November, Fred left the battalion and acted as an instructor for the division. Upon rejoining the 2/5th K.O.Y.L.I. he was once again appointed to the acting rank of Company Sergeant Major.
Fred was allowed home on leave between 22nd December 1917 and 5th January 1918. Returning to his battalion he was confirmed in his rank of Company Sergeant Major. Around this time there was a major reorganisation within the British Army, one of the results of this was that the 1/5th K.O.Y.L.I. was merged with Fred's 2/5th K.O.Y.L.I., the merged battalion (now known as the 5th K.O.Y.L.I.), remaining within the 62nd Division.
Within five months of returning to his battalion, he was again granted home leave, but this was no routine leave. As he had now served a total of twenty one years in the army, he would, under normal conditions have been discharged. (He was awarded a bounty of £25, probably due to him for having served the full 21 years). Fred was a vastly experienced N.C.O., and even had he wanted to, it is unlikely he would have been able to avoid further military service. He therefore signed on again 'for the duration of the war'. After a month's leave at home, when he saw his wife and three sons for what was to be the last time, he returned to his battalion on 11th June, and recommenced his duties as C.S.M. for 'D' Company.
In July, the 62nd Division was transferred to the south, to assist the French in beating off the massive German attacks that were being made, in a final, all out attempt to win the war. The division arrived in the sector of the River Marne on 17th July, and was soon taking part in one of the French counter attacks. It is against this background that Fred's service record gives further details of his last period with the army. On two successive days, 20th and 21st July Fred Watson was wounded. It seems that his wounds were not sufficiently serious to warrant evacuation.
The last of the German assaults were beaten back, and it was now the turn of the Allies to counter attack. This commenced on 8th August 1918, and was to be the start of the so-called 'Hundred Days' when the Allies forced the Germans all the way back to the borders of Germany itself. This series of victories, was not, however, without its price, and it was during this period that Fred Watson was to lose his life.
Orders for an attack by the 62nd Division at the village of Mory (near Achiet-le-Grand) were received during the afternoon of 25th August. This was to commence at 6am on 26th August following a barrage by British artillery.
Further orders were received on the afternoon of the 26th for a continuation of the attack the next day (Tuesday 27th August) at 7.30am. The battalion's objectives being a sunken road running north-south about ½ mile west of the village of Vraucourt; on the sunken road, at a cross roads, lay a sugar factory. Fred Watson's 'D' Company was to lead the attack, with 'B' Company in support. The assembly positions were to be on the railway east of Mory, and to avoid the British artillery barrage that was to be put down, the attacking companies were ordered to stay to the north of the sunken road leading east from Mory.
Everything was going well until the attacking troops came to the road junction north-east of the factory when they were hit by fire from German machine gunners who had managed to survive the artillery barrage. The War Diary of the 5th K.O.Y.L.I. states: "During the attack 2/Lt. Logan with his Company Sergeant Major and one runner showed great coolness in capturing seven officers and one hundred other ranks - practically the whole of Battalion HQ - in dugouts."
The War Diary continues: "On ascertaining the situation Lieut. R.A. Houghton who was in command of the support company, collecting what men he could from his own company and details of other units, took up a defensive line which he was ordered to hold at all costs. Parties of the attacking company ('D') who were absolutely cut off dribbled in during the afternoon and at night along Banks Trench and around the left flank."
Although the action in which it was earned is not recorded, it was possibly during this attack that Fred was awarded the Military Cross. This award was mainly made to officers and it is relatively rare for it to be made to Warrant Officers. The citation for the M.C. reads - "5441 CSM Frederick William Watson, D.C.M., Yorkshire Light Infantry: For conspicuous gallantry and good leadership. When the officers of two platoons became casualties he took command and led the men forward with great dash and skill. He was cut off with part of his platoon but fought his way back to his company. His courage and resolution were remarkable and his cheerfulness inspired all who were with him."
During the attack, the 5th K.O.Y.L.I. suffered 24 other ranks killed plus four officers and 114 other ranks wounded. One of the fatal casualties was Company Sergeant Major Fred Watson.
Fred's wife, Ada, received a letter at their house which told how Fred "...met his death from an enemy machine gun bullet, which hit him in the back of the neck. He died in a few minutes." Fred was aged 39 when he was killed and is buried in Gomiecourt South Cemetery.