Thomas Reginald WILSON
Rank: 2nd Lieutenant
Unit: 5th ( formerly E) Battalion TANK CORPS
Date of Death: 20 November 1917
Age: 22
Cemetery: Ribecourt British Cemetery, Nord, France

The South Reddish War Memorial bears the name of T R Wilson serving with the Tank Corps. Although nothing has been discovered which connects Thomas Wilson with the locality, his is the only likely name that has been found in official records. It has not been possible to find his service file at the National Archives at Kew to see if that offers any corroboration. It may be that his commemoration in Reddish relates to him working in the area or, even, to a relative living locally submitting his name for inclusion.

The future soldier was born at Sutton Maddock, Shropshire where his father, also called Thomas, was a farmer. His mother, Kate, was several years younger than Thomas and the couple are known, through the 1901 Census, to have had at least five children. At the Census, the family were living at New House and would continue to do so until at least the War. The farm was very profitable and it enabled the family to enjoy all the trappings of a successful middle class lifestyle, including the employment of three live-in servants - a cook, housemaid and nurse (to look after the children).

When Thomas joined the army, as a private, he enlisted into the King's Shropshire Light Infantry and was given the service number of 13056. This is an early number, suggesting he probably joined in September 1914 and was assigned to the Regiment's 5th Battalion. After training, he went overseas on 22 May 1915. At some point, probably in mid-1916, he was selected to become an officer and will have returned to the UK for training. Thomas received his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant on 1 December 1916 and was assigned to the newly formed Tank Corps. Tanks had gone into action for the first time in history only a few weeks before and, as the War progressed, they became a much more significant weapon.

Thomas would be killed on the first day of the major British offensive that would later be officially called the Battle of Cambrai. It would be the first "all arms" offensive - with infantry, artillery, planes and tanks combining in unified action. It was the first action when tanks would play a major and significant role. The Tank Corps would deploy its entire strength - near 500 machines.

Zero hour was set for 6.20am and the tanks rolled forward on schedule, breaking down the German barbed wire, allowing the infantry to storm through. Thomas was in command of one of the wire-crushing tanks, affectionately known as "Exquisite" (all of the tanks of the former "E" Battalion had names starting with this letter).  By 7.50, the German front line had been captured and, by, 8.20, the support line.

However, the Battalion's War History, held at the National Archives, with its War Diary, records "All went exceedingly well until the tanks appeared over the crest of the hill east of Flesquieres. As they came over the ridge, however, they presented a fine target to the enemy and were knocked out one after the other by a very gallant German officer who stuck to a field gun until he was killed by advancing infantry......2nd Lieutenant T R Wilson again deserved special mention. He worked his tank forward until it was knocked out by a direct hit. The crew evacuated their useless bus and bravely rushed forward to attack a German gun. Unfortunately the officer was killed and the surviving members of the crew were captured in this thrilling and forlorn effort."

Exquisite was one of six tanks which had attacked to the east of the village. The records of the 152nd Infantry Brigade show that, as a wire-cutter, Exquisite was in front of the fighting tanks, on the right of the assault. .

Thomas' body was recovered from the battlefield and buried at Ribecourt. However, during the remaining months of the War, the Cemetery was never far from the front line. Although never an actual target for the German artillery, it received considerable shell damage and 81 graves, including Thomas', were destroyed. The men are now commemorated on special memorials within the Cemetery.

When the War Graves Commission collated its casualty information in the early 1920s, Mr & Mrs Wilson were living at The Elms, Admaston, Wellington, Shropshire. Thomas' name is also commemorated on the war memorial at Sutton Maddock and on a brass plaque in the parish church.

(My thanks to fellow members of the Great War Forum for information received which has helped to compile this brief biography. JH)

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