John William DANIELS was born in Loughton Essex in 1885, the son of landscape gardener Edwin Daniels from Ruabon, north Wales and Lydia from Shropshire. The family moved to Eastbourne and John was educated at Holy Trinity School. The 1911 Census shows that John with living with his parents and younger sister Annie at 2, The Avenue, Eastbourne. John’s occupation is shown as a ‘joiner’. He worked for Peerless Dennis who were a company of ‘builders, art decorators and sanitary engineers’ based at 4, Langney Road with show-rooms in Grove Road. He was known as ’Billie’
Billie was a keen athlete and played football for Eastbourne F.C. He was a volunteer in the Royal Engineers and it is not surprising that on 9th September 1914, just a few days after War was declared, he attended the Southdown Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment at the Recruiting Depot in Seaside, Eastbourne to join up. At the time of his enrolment 29-year-old Billie gave his next of kin as his father, who was then living at 3, West Terrace, Eastbourne and his sister who was then living at 105, Green Street. His papers show that he was 5’4” tall with brown eyes, dark complexion and black hair. His religion is shown as Presbyterian.
Billie was appointed Private SD 169. He was clearly a sound and talented soldier and his previous service as a volunteer meant that he was promoted to Sergeant of ‘B’ Company just 10 days after his recruitment. He was promoted to Company Sergeant in June 1915 and whilst on leave a few days later (on 24th July 1915 ) he married Ada CODD in St Marylebone Church in London. In September 1915 he was promoted to Company Sergeant Major.
On 4th March 1916 Billie was posted to France. Within a few weeks he was offered a Commission to be a senior officer but he declined it saying that he could do better work at the front as a Regimental Sergeant Major and he was promoted to this rank in September. A ‘batman’ (servant) was allocated to the new RSM Daniels and this was Private William Avard. Avard was also from Eastbourne. He lived at 10, Hydney Street, off Seaside and prior to the war was a gardener working for Mrs Davies-Gilbert. Within just a few days the men were in action near Theipval in northern France. Billie’s Battalion was needed to draw the fire of German machine-guns during a raid near Auchonvillers. About 4pm the previous day, Billie was ordered to provide hundreds of ‘straw men’ to be raised above the parapet amidst the heavy smoke during the raid. There was no straw but, using sandbags and grass and with the aid of the regimental police he managed to make 190 dummies before midnight. The ruse worked and after the raid the next morning not a single dummy was left unscathed.
On 28th February 1917 Avard was standing just a few feet from RSM Daniels when he saw him being hit in the head with a piece of shrapnel. Billie was carried to a Casualty Clearing Station situated at Vlamertinghe windmill but he did not regain consciousness and died of his wounds on 2nd March 1917. He was buried at Vlamertinghe Military Cemetery near Ypres, Belgium (Although the Eastbourne press described it as ‘A little cemetery in France’).
Billie’s Commanding Officer, Major Millward wrote to Mrs Daniels saying “He was a good soldier and always a gentleman. His loss is a great blow to the battalion and I can testify that he has never failed me. He was much loved and respected by all. He was loved by the men who knew him as a friend and many a new-comer to the battalion has much to thank him for. Personally I have lost much. He was in every way reliable and his place will be hard to fill.”
The sudden and tragic vacancy was filled by another Eastbourne man, Sergeant Major Herbert John Ball of 184, Whitley Road. (A former night-porter at the Queens Hotel.) He had also known Billie as a friend and wrote to Billie’s parents in Eastbourne saying “As soon as the news reached us it cast a gloom over the whole battalion. We were great friends and I have lost a friend that I can never replace. We buried Billie yesterday morning (6th March) with the greatest respect and twelve of his best friends witnessed the burial. The Chaplain read the service which was very impressive. Tomorrow we are going to visit the grave and place on it a wreath which his sergeants have procured. It is a lovely artificial wreath with coloured beads representing a passion-flower and we will erect a cross made by the battalion. All the time we are in this district we will look after the grave – good old Avard will see to that.”
The distraught batman, William Avard transferred from the Royal Sussex Regiment to the Lincolnshire Regiment. He was later killed in action and is buried at Wytschaete Military Cemetery just south of Ypres in Belgium. His name is recorded on the St Andrew’s (Norway) Church in Seaside.
Both William Avard and Billie Daniels names are recorded on the Eastbourne War Memorial at Eastbourne Town Hall.
War-Poet Edmund Blundon was Billie’s Captain and mentioned him on several occasions in his raw, gritty 1928 book UNDERTONES OF WAR. Edmund Blunden (1896-1974) (who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature on six occasions) was recently remembered at the Royal Sussex Regimental Garden at Herstmonceux Castle where a small plaque was added to his memory
Today, over a 100 years later it is difficult to comprehend the horrors that ordinary men from Eastbourne witnessed but it is important that we still remember the sacrifices they made.
David Lester (Royal Sussex Regiment Historian)
Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden (1928)
National Newspaper Archives.