On November 10 1917 two soldiers from Saanich British Columbia, Sgt Frank Willey M.M. and L/Cpl Frank Joseph Webb, were killed in the final assault on Passchendaele ridge. They were both members of the 7th Battalion (1st British Columbia) CEF whose objective that day was to secure Vindictive Crossroads and the high ground beyond known as Hill 52. Flanked by the 8th Battalion on their left and the 20th on their right the 7th Battalion moved forward under heavy rain shortly after 6am. Their first objective Vindictive Crossroads, was taken with little opposition but this was not the case when they reached Venison Trench and its heavily armed German pillbox. By days’ end the 7th had achieved their objectives but not before sniping, heavy shelling and machine gun fire cost them 376 casualties, among them Sgt Willey and L/Cpl Webb.
I was fortunate to pay my respects to these two men in person when I visited Passchendaele in June 2016. I did so on behalf of Saanich Remembers WWI, a project honouring the hundreds of Saanich residents who served and those who died during the First World War. Although the military service records for these two men have not yet been digitized I have pieced together what is known about their lives before and during the war.
It’s impossible to say whether the two men were friends but they almost assuredly would have known each other for many years. Both were in the 88th Regiment, Victoria Fusiliers and enlisted at Valcartier on September 23 1914. The 7th Battalion nominal roll shows that Private Frank Joseph Webb (#16830) was in Coy ‘E’ with his brother Private William Herbert Webb (#16829) while Private Frank Willey (#16948) was in Coy ‘F’. The 7th Battalion sailed from Quebec City in early October 1914 aboard the S.S. Virginian and was reorganized into four numbered Companies shortly after arriving in England. There is a chance that Webb and Willey ended up in the same Company after the reorganization but that will likely remain a mystery until the service file is digitized, and even then it may never be known.
Prior to the war both men were tradesmen, Willey a painter and Webb an upholsterer, but unfortunately very little is known of Frank Willey and his family. His attestation paper states he was born in Victoria, BC on August 18, 1889 and his Commonwealth War Graves Commission record indicates that after the war his mother, Mrs A. Willey, was living at an address in Vancouver. A Military Honours and Awards Citation dataset on Ancestry.ca records that on August 15 1917 Willey, then a Corporal, was awarded a Military Medal for his actions at Hill 70. The notice appeared in the London Gazette on November 16, six days after his death. The citation on Ancestry.ca reads as follows:
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during our attack on Aug 15th 1917. After his platoon officer and senior N.C.O.’s became casualties, he took charge and showed great courage and ability in handling the consolidation.
Sgt Frank Willey was reported Missing in Action on November 10 1917 and he was later presumed killed in action. In late November 1919 his body was exhumed from a grave just north-east of Vindictive Crossroads. He was identified by the identity disc worn around his neck and later reburied at Poelcapelle British Cemetery.
Frank Webb was born in Edmonton, Middlesex and was one of 14 children, four of whom served in the First World War. A newspaper article in the British Colonist (left) provides more information including that he was married in 1914 and that his wife was in London. His service file will shed more light on his experience in France and Flanders but I did locate a photo of L/Cpl Frank Webb on his Find A Grave webpage. and Canadian Virtual War Memorial page.
L/Cpl Frank Webb was reported Killed in Action on November 10 1917, three days after his 25th birthday. He was buried near another unidentified Canadian soldier in an unmarked grave some distance north of Vindictive Crossroads. In February 1920 his body was exhumed and identified by the identity disc he wore around his neck. L/Cpl Frank Webb was reburied at Passchendaele New British Cemetery and lies next to the unidentified Canadian soldier that is was found near in February 1920.
The map below provides some reference points and was created using the zoomable overlay maps in the excellent British First World War Trench Maps, 1915-1918 collection at the National Library of Scotland.
The gallery below includes photographs from my visit in 2016 as well as a number of documents from the 7th Battalion Unit War Diaries at Library and Archives Canada and CEF Commonwealth War Graves Register databset at Ancestry.ca. Archival documents relating to the reburial of Sgt Frank Willey and L/Cpl Frank Webb can be found at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.