Willis Davison was born in Gawber, (Barnsley), on the 1st January 1896, into a large family that had moved around Yorkshire a lot since his parents were married in 1883.
His father was a miner from Durham and his mother, Louisa, was from Maltby. She was to have 11 children, born in Darfield, Winterwell, Wath and Ardsley as well as Gawber, which shows how much the family moved around. This was not unusual for mining families trying to find the best opportunities and pay at different pits. Sadly by 1911 only six of the children were still living, a poignant illustration of how hard life was for working class families at that time.
Willis soon followed his father down the pit and by the age of 15 in 1911 he was already working underground as a rope boy. Coal was loaded into wagons or tubs underground and they were hauled by ropes attached to stationary engines. The rope boy had to transfer rope from one set of rails to another after a sett of tubs had finished its journey on the inclined plane.
There is a bit of mystery surrounding when Willis decided to join the army and fight in the First World War. His family have a photograph of him in uniform, with a military horse called Hampton, and they believe he served in France in 1915. However the only official record we can find shows that he enlisted on the 2nd of May 1916 as a private in the Machine Gun Corps (MGC).
Whether he had already been fighting at the front or was a newly enlisted soldier, it wasn’t long after he joined the MGC that he got married. Willis was living at 61, Doncaster Road in Denaby Main when he and his new wife Ada Gertrude were married in the nearby Parish Church on the 15th of October 1916. Ada’s father, who was also a miner, had died before he could see her married, and the witnesses to their wedding were Willis’ brother Stephen and his sister Minnie.
Soon after the honeymoon Willis must have been fighting overseas.
The MGC had only been formed in October 1915 as it became clear how pivotal a role the relatively new machine guns could play in the sort of warfare the First World War had developed into. “The Long Long Trail – The British Army in the First World War” gives this quote about the regiment:
“No military pomp attended its birth or decease. It was not a famous regiment with glamour and whatnot, but a great fighting corps, born for war only and not for parades. From the moment of its formation it was kicking. It was with much sadness that I recall its disbandment in 1922; like old soldiers it simply faded away“. So said former machine gunner George Coppard, in his epic autobiography “With a machine gun to Cambrai”.
Unsung though it may be the MBC, and Willis Davison, was in the thick of the fighting right through his time with them, notably at The Somme in 1916 and the great German attack on Arras in 1918. A total of 170,500 officers and men served in the MGC, of which 62,049 were killed, wounded or missing. Willis definitely did not escape this horror without it having a profound effect on his health. The family believe he was gassed while on active service and certainly his award of the Silver War Badge in 1919 goes some way to confirming this. The War Badge was awarded to service personnel who had been honourably discharged due to wounds or sickness from military service, and his reason for discharge in December 1918 was “no longer fit to fight”.
Despite this Willis went back to work in the mines after the war. His son Willis Junior was born in 1919. In 1939 Willis lived on Wheatley Street, Denaby Main with Ada and daughter Edna.
Willis died in 1958.