Lance Corporal, 1600, 8th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment
Died of Wounds, 16 July 1917, in a military hospital at Étaples,
Pas de Calais, France, aged 30
Buried in Étaples Military Cemetery
Grave U 202, now Plot 25, Row K, Grave IIa

Étaples Military Cemetery
(Source: Creative Commons)
(Click to enlarge)

Until he went to war, William Henry Bannister had probably spent all his life in Forest Row. Indeed, while the 1901 and 1911 censuses give Forest Row as his birthplace, the illegible entry in 1891 could possibly be read as Highgate. Either way, both he and his parents were locally born. Station Road and Hartfield Road are the addresses given in the two later censuses.

William Henry's birth was recorded in the East Grinstead Registration District and he was baptised at Forest Row on 13 May 1888; both events give his surname as Wickenden, and his parents, Edward Bannister and Martha Rosa Wickenden didn't marry until 25 December that year. A sister named Mercy Annie Maria Jane was baptised in 1893, and appears on the census more simply as Annie, while a late child, Edith Gladys, was born in 1903. Edward was a labourer, variously carter and cowman, and William also appears on the 1911 census as a labourer, so presumably was expecting to follow his father into agriculture.

Bannister enlisted as part of the British Expeditionary Force at Chichester, date unknown, but, even if it was at the outbreak of war, he would already have been 26 years old, probably more mature than some of his compatriots, which may partly explain why he was given the rank of Lance Corporal.

In the last quarter of 1914, William married Helen Emily Maria Westgate at East Grinstead. She was born at Rollesby in Norfolk, but in 1911 was in service at Lancing College. The Commonwealth War Graves site places her at Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne, in its records, but the burial of Helen Emily Maria Bannister, widow, is recorded at Great Yarmouth in 1953, so presumably at some point she returned to her roots.

The information in the Forest Row Memorial Book was given by William's sister, Annie Bannister, then living at 1 Rose & Crown Cottages, West Croydon. Their father Edward had died in 1915, and mother Martha died in 1929.

The Étaples Military Hospitals

Map showing the Étaples military hospitals in 1917
(Source: Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps)
(Click to enlarge)

Étaples is in the Pas de Calais on the English Channel coast, just across the river Canche from Le Touquet, and was an important centre for the British as it was relatively safe from attack. At its peak, 100,000 troops were housed there, and there was a complex of hospitals. It has been suggested that the 1918-1919 flu pandemic probably started in the crowded conditions there. Over 11,500 identified casualties are interred in the military cemetery which was designed mainly by Edwin Lutyens and unveiled by George V and General Haig in 1922.

The Forces War Records website has two listings for William Henry Bannister — both in 1914, first as a Private, and second as a Lance Corporal, but there is no evidence of promotion documentation. There are details of the engagements he was probably involved in between May and July 1917 but it is impossible to work out when and where he was wounded.

Pam Griffiths