Wilfrid ‘Val’ Watts was the second, by ten years, son of Clarence and Jessie Watts. A third brother had died in infancy. Born on Valentine’s Day – 14 February 1893, hence the nickname, Val was born into a comfortable middle class Victorian household. Clarence was born in Shaftesbury and had once been an apprentice merchant seaman but had gone on to build a business as a ‘Fellmonger’ – someone who deals in hides and skins – in East Street in Blandford. This is the same street that Milton Abbas Grammar School stood in. Val would have attended the school during the time Edward Mears (1900-06) and later Arthur O’Leary (1906-11) were headmasters.
By the time of the 1911 census, Clarence and Jessie were living with Val’s older brother and his wife in Charlton Marshall, but Val now 18 was living as a boarder in Salisbury Road. Val by then was working in the family firm as a Fellmonger’s Clerk. In January 1913, aged 19 he travelled to Melbourne on the SS Otway with his occupation listed as ‘Currier’ – someone who finishes leather after it has been tanned. On the passenger list he is marked as intending to make Australia his permanent residence.
Whatever caused Val to change his mind is unknown, but by April 1913 he was back in the UK when he joined the Blandford based ‘C’ Squadron Dorset Yeomanry as a Territorial Cavalryman. Later on that summer Val passed his Royal Aero Club licence number 633 which he took at the Ewen School Hendon on the 17th September flying a Caudron Biplane.
His picture from his licence, above, shows him with a black armband. This is likely to be for mourning his mother who died in October 1912. Val was the 27th pilot to qualify at the Ewen School which had only been open a year. After qualifying as a pilot he then worked as an instructor for the American Flying School owner George Beatty at Hendon during 1914.
Val, as a member of the Dorset Yeomanry served alongside his cousins Roy and Stanley George as well as Francis Old who also all appear on the Milton Abbas Grammar School memorial. At the outbreak of war, Val alongside the rest of the Dorset Yeomanry were mobilised on the 9th August 1914. Given that he was already a qualified pilot he quickly transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), moving for a fortnight’s attachment on the 28th September which became a permanent transfer on the 15th October. On his attestation forms dated 15th October, Val’s occupation is recorded as ‘Aviator’. He was given the rank of Sergeant after a day as ‘Air Mechanic 2nd Class Watts 1831’ and began a period of training in the UK with 15 Squadron at Farnborough. Val graded as a 2nd Class Flyer on 2nd November and a 1st Class Flyer on 1st March 1915. On the 15th July Val was posted to Dover for “Further instruction in aviation”.
Posted to the Expeditionary Force on 16th August 1915, Val’s medal card shows that he arrived in France on the 17th August and joined C flight, 3 Squadron RFC on the 15th September, just prior to the Battle of Loos. At the time, 3 Sqn were at Lozinghem 8 miles west of Bethune. This was alongside James McCudden who would later become an ‘Ace’ and win the VC. Val is mentioned in McCudden’s book ‘Flying Fury’. His records show he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Bronze Palm whilst with 3 Squadron on the 25th September and commissioned in the field to become 2nd Lieutenant Watts RFC on the 13th November 1915. (At the time most commissioned pilots kept their original regimental associations and were simply only ‘attached’ to the RFC but Val commissioned from the ranks counted simply as being from the ‘General List’ and only had the RFC as his regimental association.). Currently (Feb 2021) I cannot find a citation for the medal award but only about 5% of CdG awards were made ‘avec palme’ so it has to have been something impressive. About this time Val was transferred to 1 Squadron further north at Bailleul some 11 miles south west of Ypres.
In the National Archives the records of 1 Squadron RFC list the daily activities of the squadron throughout the war. In the Record Book and Work Summary held there Val can be seen to be flying throughout December 1915 mainly on Artillery Reconnaissance and Test Flights. On the 12th of January 1916 he flew Lt Parker to St Omer, then the main RFC base in Northern France, returning alone. The next flight recorded is on the 17th January 1916 at 07:00 accompanied by Lt Howard as Observer on what is recorded as ‘Special Reconnaissance’.
Nothing was recorded in the squadron records at the time other than the two men were ‘missing’, although a later entry in the RFC Casualty Book refers to them succumbing to Anti Aircraft fire.
Died [5113 Morane] Shot down by AA nr Wytschaete on special recce. 2Lt W Watts /2Lt CO Hayward
Wytschaete (Wijtschate) is actually a considerable distance to Dadizeele (Dadizele) so this location should be treated as speculative.
The first actual confirmation of their fate came when a communication from the German side at the end of January gave details of the fate of several RFC crews:
Val and his Observer Lt Charles Hayward were buried together by the Germans at Ledegem after coming down near Dadizele some 12 miles east of Ypres. After the war their bodies were moved to Harlebeke some 12 miles further east (Nowadays the spelling of the town is Harelbeke). They were aged 23 and 21 respectively. Charles, after spending 1915 three months as a Company Commander with 7th Bn the Lincolnshire Regiment had joined the RFC 20 days earlier on the 29th December.
With a burial in Belgium, Val’s parents erected a memorial headstone in Blandford Cemetery on the plot they had purchased for their son John who had died in infancy, but had no stone erected. The memorial features Val’s Croix de Guerre and a monoplane of the time. This has been recently repaired as it had cracked and was lying flat. The inscription reads:
In loving memory of Lieut. Wilfred (Val) Watts, pilot Royal Flying Corps in his 23rd year. Second son of C. E. J. & Jessie Watts of Blandford. Killed on Jan 17th, 1916, whilst flying over the German lines at Dadizeelem and interred at Ledeghem, Belgium. Was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm at the Battle of Loos, Sept 25th, 1915. for King and Country.
Given the rapid pace of technological advance in aircraft design the war produced, even in the short time Val was a pilot he was listed as having flown the following:
Avro 504; Bleriot; Morane; Caudron Wright; Farman Box Kite; BE2c; Farman MF and HF.