William Frank Collyer
By Jenny Mosedale, from Meon Matters 2011
My grandfather from East Meon was a Member of the British Empire and a holder of the Military Medal. The family referred to him as Frank. What an inspiration he was to my father and it is easy to understand why he also chose the Army for a career.
The Military Medal (MM) established in 1916 was (until 1993) a military decoration awarded to personnel of the British Army and other services below commissioned rank, for bravery in battle on land. Frank won his for his gallant conduct in the Battle of the Somme and the Third Battle of Ypres in World War 1, whilst serving in the Rifle Brigade. He fought at Delville Wood , one of the early engagements in the Battle of the Somme at the age of 19.
The Rifle Brigade had been formed in 1800 as an infantry regiment of sharpshooters, scouts and skirmishers. They were armed with a Baker rifle which whilst it took a long time to load could be effective up to a range of 300 yards. Riflemen were trained to think for themselves and operated in pairs ahead of the main infantry.
Frank was Rifleman No 6326, having enrolled at the age of 18 on 23rd October 1915. He left behind his agricultural labouring in East Meon to train as part of the First Battalion.
2 years later he was part of the 24th Division of the British Army. This was a new Army division comprising 4 brigades, (the 17th,71st 72nd and 73rd) and 20 battalions that were sent to France between August and September 1915 to serve on the Western front throughout the World War. Frank was part of the 17th Brigade.
Whilst Frank was in France in 1917 his mother Esther was taken ill and he was not allowed to come home for her funeral.
As well as the Somme Frank had fought at Ypres Cambrai and Passchendaele. The Battle of Passchendaele was one of the major battles in Flanders in 1917 and one that Hitler himself fought in. He was a member of the Bavarian 6th Services division and was injured as part of a British gas attack.
Frank found it difficult to talk about his experiences as a fighting soldier. Having survived the Somme, a battle in which Britain has never lost more casualties and having been close to death many times he must have really have understood the old adage of “taking each day as it comes”. The muddy trenches, walking over dead colleagues, the blood, the noise – he was a very brave man. He did talk to me once about the first time he ever saw the tanks, it “scared him to death”.
In 1919 Frank came home and stripes were offered to him but no pay. He refused and transferred back to the 1st Battalion of the Rifle Brigade. As a Sergeant in the 1st Battalion, Frank was posted to Mesopotamia which comprises modern day Iraq, N.E. Syria, S.Eastern Turkey and S.Western Iran. He finished his foreign postings in India.
He was awarded the Indian General Service Medal and the Iraq and N.W. Persia Clasp.
We have some memorabilia showing how he learned to drive and maintain a Lancia lorry in 1923 in India. As Sgt. Collyer No. 6906201 he also attended Army school there and attained a second class certificate of education. This was nothing like today’s G.C.S.E.’s but it covered the basics of arithmetic writing and composition.
He returned to the U.K. from India to East Meon and married Rosina Alice Parfoot in the Spring of 1924 at All Saints Church.
Upon the declaration of War, most men who joined the regular British army signed up for 12 years made up of full time service with the Colours of generally 7 years and then 5 on reserve. Frank served 8 years and 3 months on Colours and 7 years 9 months on reserve. After 16 years of service to his country he was discharged in Winchester on 23rd October 1931.
After WW1 ended Frank worked as a lorry driver for a local firm and for some time was the village postman. He was also a parish councillor. At the outbreak of WW2 he tried to enlist again but was told he was too old – by 6 months! He became an air raid warden before joining and commanding the East Meon platoon of the Home Guard. The antics of Captain Mainwaring on Dad’s Army always brought a wry smile to Frank’s face.
When interviewed by the local paper he said “I prided myself on my strict discipline. I would be barking and shouting at them all the time. If they had been anything like that lot on television I would have gone up the wall”.
He reflected on a key difference between the Home Guard and the Rifle Brigade. In the former he could go and have a pint with them. In the latter no soldier was allowed to talk to any soldier below their own rank.
The East Meon platoon had 60 volunteers before membership became compulsory. At one time it rose to 102 men. One evening Frank recalls he had to take on 15 new recruits. Rosina helped him a lot with all the administration but when Frank was made a CSM he was able to employ a clerk.
The busiest night was when 27 bombs were dropped in and around the village. Surprisingly they did little damage and the only buildings in the village that were badly damaged were a few pig pens in a field.
On Tuesday 12th December 1944 the following words can be found in the fourth supplement of the London Gazette:-
“The King has been most graciously pleased to give orders for the following promotions in, and appointments to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, in recognition of Meritorious service in the Home guard:-
To be additional members of the Military Division of the Said Most Excellent Order:-
Captain William Frank Collyer, MM, 15th Bn Hamps H.G.
Even better was to follow, a few weeks later as part of the 1944 New year Honours, an M.B.E. was bestowed by King George VI on Frank for his many years of public service
My husband Colin and I attended Frank and Rosina’s golden wedding anniversary in 1974. The Local paper recorded their special day with a headline “Couple with a host of golden memories”.
Frank was sexton at All Saints Church for 30 years and I can remember going with him to stoke the fires for the heating and making sure the clock was on time. He was also the local grave digger and I went with him on many occasions.
One of Hampshire’s most photographed scenes – the springtime daffodils in the grounds of East Meon church – owes its very existence to Major Frank, who planted them with a friend in 1935. The village in my opinion is the most beautiful I have seen in England and I can fully understand why Rosina and Frank never left it.