William Commons – A Biography

William Commons – A Biography

The case notes of some of the patients who were at Moss Side during WW1 have survived. One of these men, William Commons, was an orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corp and as such, would have surely seen men who were maimed, injured and dying in the years that he served in the War. It seems these sights affected him deeply, causing a breakdown in January 1915.

William Commons was born in Coalville, Leicestershire on 13th July 1885. William’s father, Patrick was a coal miner, originally from Roscommon, Ireland, while his mother, Mary was from Galway. He was one of 13 children. Sadly, according to the 1911 census, by that time 5 had died. Attestation records show that from 1903 to 1906 William was in the Leicestershire Regiment. He transferred to the reserve in 1909 and the 1911 census shows his occupation as a miner and the head of the family, with just his elderly father and mother and a younger brother living at home at 7 Club Row, Hermitage Road, Coalville.

His Army Medical History records his physical development as good and his description on enlistment was:

Height   –                              5′ 8 ½”

Weight  –                              132lbs

Complexion                        Fresh

Eyes                                       Blue

Hair                                        Dark Brown

Distinguishing marks       Scar under left eye

?Sound Decayed Deficient?

Religion                                                Roman Catholic


On the outbreak of war he was mobilised and joined the 5th Cavalry Field Ambulance and headed for France on 16th August 1914. After only a few weeks in France, William received a commendation by his General Officer (Commanding). The Citation on his records reads:

“Commended for cool and courageous behaviour under heavy shell fire”

By order of the GOC Ist Cavalry Division: 25/9/14

Other comments in his service records underline how, as well as courageous under fire, he was:

“A very well conducted and reliable orderly. Sober, steady and trustworthy. Trained in First Aid and Ambulance duties. Character very good”

We cannot know what horrors and traumas he faced, but this previously reliable and courageous man went absent without leave (AWOL) from A Echelon No 4 Cavalry Field Ambulance at Chateau de Lapree, France, from the 22nd -29th January 1915.

According to the records from his time at Moss Side, the death of his father (who died in Leicester in January 1915) probably finally caused him to suffer some sort of mental breakdown:

“Statement by Major Hammerton:

Private Commons absented himself on the evening of Jan 21st. Amongst his kit was found a note with the following words – “When you find my body I may be in the river. I cannot bear it any longer. I have made my will”.  Patient gave himself up to the military police [  ]. He stated that he had been wandering the streets and sleeping in fields. He was profoundly melancholic, silent and morose and when questioned answered reluctantly. ……………Patient states he had been moving about continually with the cavalry to which he was attached. Was quite well until he heard of his father’s death some weeks ago. This worried him considerably and he became depressed….denies all knowledge of his attack…..”

Most unusually, William Commons is mentioned by name in the War Diary of the regiment he served. It states he was sent to St Omer after being detained following his absence without leave. He was admitted to Moss Side on the 15th February 1915 and stayed until 31st March 1915.

Following his period at Moss Side, William returned to the War; on the 12th July 1915 he embarked on a campaign in the Mediterranean. He returned to England on 16th November 1916, suffering from influenza. During his time abroad he had suffered from diarrhoea constantly and it was suspected that he had contracted dysentery. However, there is no more mention of attacks of neurasthenia after his discharge from Moss Side in 1915.

Military History Sheet  for Pte William Commons

COUNTRY From To Years Days
Home 03/12/03 15/08/14 10 256
Expeditionary Forces 16/08/14 01/02/15 170
Home 02/02/15 11/07/15 160
M.E.F. 12/07/15 16/11/16 1 128
Home 17/11/16 21/09/17 309


After serving his country for nearly 2 ½ years, William was finally classed as medically unfit to serve in the army (P Class Army Reserve) and awarded an invalidity disability pension on 6th March 1917.  He was added to the Silver Badge Roll which meant he was entitled to wear the silver badge. This was worn by men who appeared to be at an age when they would be expected to be serving in the army – it proved that they were not “shirkers” but had been injured serving their country. He was discharged from the Reserve on 10th May 1921.

William never married and according to the 1939 Register he was living with his sister,  Elizabeth and brother-in-law, Thomas Walker and family at 35 Cambridge Street, Shepshed, Leicestershire and working as a brickyard kiln repairer. He died in Leicestershire in 1971 aged 86.

We will never know what treatment William received at Moss Side but the committee books of the time show that the hospital took a great interest in not only treating their patients, but helping them to be as comfortable as possible, with healthy diets, exercise and leisure pursuits.

“A piano has been purchased for £16-10-0 from Messrs Smith & Sons. Owing to the great Scarcity of second-hand instruments on the market, it was not possible to obtain quotations, and the cheapest one of any use was procured.”

“Dr. Rotherham has authorised that sausages, two per person once weekly, be allowed for breakfast in lieu of bacon.”

Patients were also allowed visitors and trips out. Perhaps time away in this environment helped prepare him for this return to the army – for return he did to serve another two years. Or perhaps he did what the vast majority of soldiers and women in service did – carried on doing his duty while bearing his pain and despair quietly and with dignity.

Written by Debbie Cameron and Pat Stanistreet

Edited by Amy Walling, Manchester Metropolitan University

Posted on 21 September 2018 under Moss Side Military Hospital

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