David Walliams’ great grandfather – the full military story

David Walliams. My thanks to TheGenealogist for the use of their image.

Many visitors to this site will have seen the episode of the “Who do you think you are?”series featuring David Walliams. Produced by Wall to Wall, it was first broadcast by BBC on 19 October 2020. Born David Edward Williams, he is an actor, comedian, talent-show judge and now best-selling children’s author and OBE.

I was pleased to be invited to carry out some of the early research on David’s great grandfather John George Boorman. My work was carried out in late 2019. As the final version of the episode did not cover all of the detail of John’s story (inevitably, given the time constraints), readers may be interested to understand the tale.

Sources consulted

Wall to Wall had already obtained and sent to me a copy of the following:

  • Pages from John’s army service record;
  • A medical case sheet, stamped at Milbank and Napsbury hospitals, that I believe came from
    National Archives collection MH106.

I expanded the story by consulting the following:

  • Campaign medal rolls from National Archives collections WO329 and WO372;
  • Silver War Badge roll from National Archives WO329;
  • War Office casualty list (via TheGenealogist);
  • Hospital admissions registers (three) from National Archives MH106;
  • Dependants’ pension record index card from Western Front Association collection;
  • War diaries  in National Archives WO95/415 (34 Casualty Clearing Station),
    WO95/1223 (1st Grenadier Guards) and WO95/4136 (19 Ambulance Train).

John’s military story

30 September 1914
Enlisted into Grenadier Guards in Camberwell. The date confirms that this was a voluntary enlistment. John agreed to the standard term of “short service”, which required him to serve for three years or the duration of the war, whichever proved the longer but with assurances that he would be discharged as soon as possible.

Details noted at his attestation: he was aged 32 years and 174 days; married; had the occupation of labourer and had no previous military experience. (The census of 2 April 1911 shows him to have
been a window cleaner at that time). He gave his wife Harriet, at 44 Azenby Road, Peckham SE, as his next of kin.

Details noted at his medical examination: 5 feet 9 inches in height (about 4 inches above national average and quite probably a factor that led to him going to the Guards: taller men tended to be
guided in that direction by the recruiters); weighed 140 pounds; had an expanded chest of 36 inches (both slightly above average).

Harriet would have become eligible for payment of a weekly separation allowance when John completed enlistment.

1 October 1914
Arrived at the Guards Depot at Caterham in Surrey. Numbered as 19599. His rank was Private (the alternative “style” Guardsman did not come into use until 1920).

Posted to the newly raised 4th (Reserve) Battalion, based at Chelsea Barracks, to begin training.

16 March 1915
Arrived in the theatre of war in France and Flanders. None of the documentation definitely confirms the battalion to which he had been posted (the 1st and 2nd both being in this theatre at the time) but the evidence strongly suggests he went to the 1st Battalion.

  • The battalion had been in France since early October 1914 and was under command of the 20th Infantry Brigade, 7th Division. The battalion’s war diary notes on 20 March 1915 the arrival of a draft of six officers and 350 men. They were to take the place of the 16 officers and 332 men who had been killed, wounded or were missing during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, 10-13 March.

11 April 1915
John’s son John James William was born.

8 June 1915
John arrived back in Great Britain.

  • There is no documented evidence that definitely explains why this was the case. In particular, John does not appear to have been named in a casualty list of this period, which suggests
    that his return was due to an illness or injury rather than a wound. The later record from Millbank and Napsbury hospitals suggests that John had been affected by shell shock. This is credible. The effects of shell shock were as yet not well understood and were likely to have been considered as an illness from an administrative viewpoint. At later dates, shell shocked men were classified as such and had a separate section in the casualty lists.
  • During the period from 20 March 1915, the battalion had experienced a number of fairly typical and largely unremarkable short periods in holding front line trenches, but had then been engaged in the Battle of Festubert from 16 May, in which it had sustained the loss of four officers and 127 men killed, wounded or missing within three days. During its period in action the battalion came under shell fire and was engaged in close in fighting in the trench system.

On re-crossing the English Channel John would have been struck off the strength of his battalion and placed onto the books of the regimental depot while he physically went to hospital.

It was later suggested that John spent six weeks in “King George Hospital”. This was presumably the hospital of that name which was established at Stamford Street, Waterloo, in May 1915 although there was one of the same name in Dublin.

No information exists giving details of the date on which John returned to training, but as it was the only training unit of the regiment now in Britain there is little doubt that he went to the 5th (Reserve) Battalion. This was the renumbered former 4th (Reserve) Battalion and was still at Chelsea Barracks.

28 August 1916
Arrived in the theatre of war in France and Flanders. Again, none of the documentation definitely confirms the battalion to which he had been posted (the 1st , 2nd, 3rd and 4th all now being in this theatre at the time) but the evidence strongly suggests he returned to the 1st Battalion. It also appears that he was allocated to its Number 2 Company.

13 March 1917
Admitted to number 34 Casualty Clearing Station for treatment of lumbago and “ICT feet” (inflammation of the connective tissue of the feet, possibly “trench foot” although other entries on
the same page actually use that term).

  • 34 CCS was located at “Grovetown”, an area of camps situated between Mametz and Bray-sur-Somme.
  • During the period of almost six months since John had returned to the battalion, it had been under orders of the 3rd Guards Brigade of the Guards Division and had been in action in two phases of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. It had endured a terrible, wet and cold winter on the Somme, in which ground conditions were appalling. All units suffered problems with men’s health, particularly of the feet and legs, during this time. John left just before the Guards Division became involved in the British pursuit of the German’s strategic eastwards withdrawal from the Somme to the Hindenburg Line.

5 April 1917
Left 34 CCS on number 19 Ambulance Train.

  • 19 Ambulance Train left Grovetown on 5 April, also loaded sick and wounded men at Heilly and Longeau, and arrived next day at Rouen. The inference is that John went to one of the hospitals there. The date on which he returned to the battalion is unknown.

31 July 1917
Although this date does not appear in John’s records, it can be shown that all of the men of the Guards who were listed, wounded, with him in the War Office list of 30 August 1917 were hit on this
date. The Napsbury record refers to him having been wounded in the left leg below the knee.

  • This was the day of the infantry attack that is officially recognised as the start of the British offensive known as the Third Battle of Ypres, and specifically of its initial phase known as the Battle of Pilkem.

11 August 1917
Arrived back in Great Britain.

  • Once again, on re-crossing the English Channel John would have been struck off the strength of his battalion and placed onto the books of the regimental depot while he physically went
    to hospital. He did not return to France.

7 April 1918
Admitted to Queen Alexandra’s Military Hospital, Millbank, London where he was assessed and found to be suffering from mental instability described as delusional insanity. According to a later
note (added at Napsbury, below), he had come to Millbank after four months at a Command Depot. This is likely to have been the Guards and London District Command Depot, a convalescent camp at Shoreham by Sea.

  • A posting to a Command Depot usually followed immediately after a man was discharged from hospital. John is referred to as being with the 5th (Reserve) Battalion but whether he had ever
    physically rejoined that unit after coming home from France is uncertain.
  • It is a matter of speculation how his mental condition was caused and developed but at his eventual discharge it was stated that it was attributable to his military service.

29 August 1918
Transferred to the County of Middlesex War Hospital, formerly the Middlesex County Asylum at Napsbury (near St Albans). The hospital’s total of 1600 beds included a specialist military mental
hospital with capacity for 250 men.

3 July 1919
Discharged from service under King’s Regulations 392xvi, a clause for those to be discharged in grounds of medical unfitness. This discharge was accompanied by an award of a disablement
pension and associated dependents’ pension, conditional upon review at later dates.

John’s service entitled him to the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and Victory Medal, and judging from the information given in the issuing rolls they were sent to him without problem. On
discharge he was also given Silver War Badge number B290338.

It is noted that in the 1939 register, John was given as a resident of the Cane Hill Hospital at Coulsdon in Surrey.

Broadcast

I understand that Paul Reed and Aurel Sercu were also involved in the research work. The military part of the story of John George Boorman was unfolded to David on screen by Jeremy Banning and Lucy Betteridge-Dyson.