Rfl. William Thomas Merritt (1895 – 1915)
William Thomas Merritt (usually known as Thomas) was the son of Henry and Mary Jane Merritt (née Burgess). He was born on 11 July 1895 in Maidstone but by 1901 the family were in Basted living in a cottage between Basted House and Basted Lodge. Thomas’s father was working in Basted Paper Mill when he and his two siblings started at Platt School, however, when he left, he followed in his elder brother Henry’s footsteps and went to work in a Maidstone quarry.
Thomas enlisted in Maidstone just before the war started and joined the 2nd/3rd Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. Following an extended period of training, he was posted to France, arriving on 14 January 1915, and probably among a draft of 90 reinforcements who were taken on strength of the 2nd Battalion, KRRC on the 26th. At the time the battalion had been holding a section of the line in the Cuinchy sector that ran from the Béthune-La Bassée road to the La Bassée Canal.
By mid-March the battalion had taken over trenches at Gorre in the Festubert Sector, and by the month’s end were based in the Rue du Bois area. Thomas’s first taste of battle occurred on 9 May when the Rifles attacked at the Battle of Aubers Ridge. The assault was not a success, and the British sustained 11,000 casualties for no material gain, with battalion loses numbering 251 men.
In September Thomas took part in the Battle of Loos and would have been engaged in heavy fighting from the outset. The battle is most remembered for the first use by the British of chlorine gas that was hoped would overwhelm the German forces. 140 tons were sent over towards German lines, however adverse winds blew some of the gas back over their own trenches causing 2,632 British casualties. Fortunately, few died in this unfortunate mishap.
Thomas was still based in the Loos sector in early October, with his unit taking over the line north of Le Rutoire during the evening of the 7th. At 11 a.m. the next day the Germans counter-attacked, and at some point in the afternoon Thomas was reputedly gassed and sent to receive treatment, however he was well enough to return to active service two weeks later.
Towards the end of November Thomas was in the trenches near Hulluch, and among a small party of men sent out after dusk into No Man’s Land to place 80 knife rests (metal or wooden frames on which barbed wire could be strung) in front of the British line. The battalion War Diary records that one man was wounded during the operation, and it seems very likely the unfortunate was Rifleman Merritt, who died three days later on 25 November at No.1 Casualty Clearing Station in Chocques.
He is buried north east of Béthune in the Chocques Military Cemetery and was awarded the 1915 Star, the British War and Victory Medals.
In an obituary published in the Kent Messenger, his parents thanked Nobby Barnes and Mr and Mrs Holland for their ‘sympathy in the sad bereavement’.