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6926 (13113) Corporal
Royal Engineers

Lieutenant Colonel Edward De Santis
Ó 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Unless otherwise noted, the details supplied in this narrative were extracted from the soldier’s service papers (WO97/6236) obtained from the Public Record Office at Kew, Richmond, Surrey [19]. It is believed that Harry John Wiffen was in some way related to 20941 Company Sergeant Major Robert Sydney Wiffen, R.E. and hence to CSM Wiffen’s son 1862329 Warrant Officer Class II Robert George Edward Wiffen, R.E., whose medals are in the author’s collection.


Harry John Wiffen was born in the Parish of Northfleet, near the town of Gravesend in the County of Kent in March of 1877. Harry had a sister named Edith Minnie Wiffen who was born in 1875. In the 1881 British Census, Harry John Wiffen is shown as a 4-year old child residing at the Waggon & Horses Pub in Hadleigh, Essex [2].

Harry John Wiffen’s service papers indicate that his mother was Edith Ellison of Hadleigh, Essex and that he had two half-brothers, Jack Ellison (born in 1891) and Frank Ellison (born in 1894). It appears that after the birth of Edith Minnie and Harry John, their natural father died and their mother Edith remarried to a man named Ellison [3]. The Wiffens and the Ellisons were members of the Church of England.

The evidence connecting H.J. Wiffen, R. S. Wiffen and R.E.G. Wiffen is circumstantial. Harry John Wiffen had a sister named Edith Minnie and R.E.G. Wiffen had an aunt named Minnie. Both women were born in Romford, Essex. In fact, Wiffen was a very common name in the County of Essex in the late 19th century and there may be many family relationships that the author has not been able to uncover during this research.

Young Harry lived with his parents and became a carpenter prior to his enlistment in the Army in 1900. His address at the time of his enlistment is not known.


The following is a description of Harry John Wiffen at the time he enlisted in the Army in 1900 [4]:


23 years and 8 months.


5 feet 8½ inches.


157 pounds.

Chest Measurement (Normal):

35½ inches.

Chest Measurement (Expanded):

37¼ inches.







Distinctive Marks:

Small mole two and a half inches above the right nipple. Scar on the knuckle of the third finder of the right hand.

The following is a description of Harry John Wiffen at the time of his second enlistment in the Army in 1903:


26 years and 9 months.


5 feet 8 inches.


151 Pounds.

Chest Measurement (Normal):

35 inches.

Chest Measurement (Expanded):

38 inches.






Light brown

Distinctive Marks:

Small mole two and a half inches above the right nipple. Scar on the knuckle of the third finder of the right hand.

The following is a description of Harry John Wiffen in May of 1904 after six month’s active service and the gymnastics course following his second enlistment:


5 feet 8 inches.


155 pounds.

Chest Measurement (Normal):

36 inches.

Chest Measurement (Expanded):

39½ inches.






Light brown

Distinctive Marks:

Small mole two and a half inches above the right nipple. Scar on the knuckle of the third finder of the right hand.


Harry John Wiffen enlisted in the Army the first time on the 2nd of November 1900 at Shoeburyness, Kent where he swore the Oath of Attestation. At the time of his enlistment he indicated that he had never been an apprentice and that he was not married. He also stated that he had never been imprisoned by civil power, that he had no prior naval or military service and that he had never been rejected for service.

Wiffen’s enlistment was for 7 years with the Colours and 5 years in the Reserve [5]. At the time of his enlistment he was given a medical examination at Shoeburyness by Captain R.C. Lewis of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Captain Lewis declared him fit for service in the Army. On the day of his attestation Wiffen’s Certificate of Primary Military Examination was signed by the Adjutant of the School of Gunnery, Royal Artillery. He was declared fit for service in the Royal Engineers. The officer who administered the Oath of Attestation to Wiffen was the Officer Commanding the Royal Garrison Artillery at Shoeburyness.

On the 3rd of November 1900 Wiffen’s attestation was given final approval at Chatham, Kent by the Assistant Commandant of the School of Military Engineering. He was assigned Regimental Number 6929 and the rank of Sapper and began his training as an engineer recruit [6].


Chatham (1900-1902)

Following his recruit training, Sapper Wiffen remained at Chatham where he was assigned to "G" Company of the Depot Battalion Royal Engineers. After serving just under two years of his enlistment, Wiffen requested discharge by purchase in order to return home and help with is father’s business [7]. It is most likely that his father gave him the £18.00 necessary to purchase his discharge. His first stint in the Army ended on the 18th of September 1902. Although the war in against the Boers in South Africa was underway while Wiffen was in the Army, he did not see any active service. It is interesting to note that he was still able to purchase his discharge even during a period when much of the Army was on active service in South Africa.

Harry John Wiffen reenlisted in the Royal Engineers at Chatham on the 12th of November 1903 for a period of 3 years with the Colours and 9 years in the Reserve. He had been out of the Army for less than two months when he decided to return. It may be that he saw more opportunities in the Army, or perhaps he had a falling out with his father after returning home. At any rate, it appears he decided that he preferred being a Sapper in the Royal Engineers to working at a pub in Essex.

Despite the fact that he had only been out for two months, Wiffen had to repeat the enlistment procedures that he went through in November of 1900. After being found medically fit to serve he was then issued a Certificate of Primary Military Examination at Chatham, which again found him fit for service in the Royal Engineers. His attestation was certified by the approving authority at Chatham and he was again given the rank of Sapper, only this time his Regimental Number was 13113. Since he reenlisted such a short time after his discharge, on the 2nd of December 1903 Wiffen was refunded two-thirds (£12.00) of the purchase money used to buy him out of his first enlistment. One wonders if he kept this money or whether it had to be returned to his father or to whomever he may have borrowed it from.

Chatham (1903-1909)

Sapper Wiffen appears to have served at Chatham for some time after his second enlistment, perhaps at the School of Military Engineering or perhaps in the Depot Battalion Royal Engineers. On the 13th of August 1906 he extended to complete 7 years of service with the Colours while at Chatham [8]. On the 10th of September 1909 he embarked for service in Egypt where he was posted to the 2nd Fortress Company, Royal Engineers.

Egypt (1909-1911)

Wiffen reported to the 2nd Fortress Company in Cairo on his arrival in Egypt. At that time the company was commanded by Major C.S. Wilson. Other officers in the company included Captain C.E.G. Vesey, Lieutenant T. Wright, and Lieutenant J.K. Dawson-Scott, R.E. Company headquarters was located in Cairo with section stationed at Abbassiyeh and the Citadel. While in Egypt Wiffen, then a 2nd Corporal, extended to complete 12 years of service with the Colours [9]. As this was his second extension, it appears that he was coming to like military service and that he had found a home in the Army.

Bulford (1911-1914)

2nd Corporal Wiffen received orders on the 26th of September 1911 to return home from Egypt and join the 56th Field Company, R.E. at Bulford Camp in the Southern Command, Salisbury District. He arrived home on the 10th of October 1911 and reported for duty with his new company. He was promoted Corporal almost immediately upon his return to England.

The 56th Field Company formed part of the 3rd Division Royal Engineers along with the 57th Field Company and the 3rd Division Telegraph Company, R.E. These units all came under Lieutenant Colonel H.B.H. Wright, Commander Royal Engineers (CRE), 3rd Division.

The company was commanded by Major N.J. Hopkins, R.E. [10] at the time that Corporal Wiffen reported for duty. Wiffen was assigned to the section commanded by Lieutenant R.P. Packenham-Walsh. Other officers in the company at the time included Captain C.N. North (Acting Adjutant to the CRE), Captain F.F.H. Nation, Captain T.N. Dunman and Lieutenant Philip Neame, R.E. [11].

Shortly after his arrival at Bulford, Corporal Wiffen got the first stain his otherwise unblemished military record. He was reported absent without leave from tattoo on the 10th of December 1911 until 8:30 p.m. on the 15th of December 1911, an absence of 4 days and 22½ hours. He was held in arrest on the 16th and 17th of December and was tried by Regimental Court Martial on the 18th of December 1911. He was subsequently found guilty of being absent without leave and was sentenced to be reduced to the rank of 2nd Corporal effective the 18th of December. The Commander Royal Engineers at Bulford confirmed his punishment that same day. It would take Wiffen two and a half years to win back the second stripe.

France and Flanders (1914)

Wiffen continued to serve with the 56th Field Company during the years leading up to the Great War of 1914-1918. He was promoted to the rank of Corporal on the very day that war broke out, 4 August 1914. This may have been coincidental or it may have been a promotion of necessity made to fill the junior non-commissioned officer ranks of the company in preparation for going to war. Thus it was that with two stripes on his arm, Harry John Wiffen embarked for France with his company on the 18th of August 1914 – one of the original British Expeditionary Force – one of the "Old Contemptibles."

The British 3rd Division (Lieutenant Colonel C.S. Wilson, Commander Royal Engineers) [12] formed part of the II Corps along with the 5th Division. On the night of the 22nd/23rd of August 1914 the 3rd Division held a position extending from Spiennes (inclusive), passing to the north of Mons, and along the Condé Canal to Mariette (inclusive). Two field companies were assigned to the 3rd Division – Wiffen’s 56th Field Company and the 57th Field Company. No sooner had the division’s units reached their defensive positions on the Mons canal in support of the French, when oncoming German columns and the reports of the withdrawal of the French Fifth Army made it clear to the British commanders that an immediate retreat was imperative. This decision to retreat was made on the 23rd of August. The principal work of the Royal Engineers in these defensive operations was the preparation of bridges for demolition.

The brunt of the fighting on this first day fell on the II Corps. The men of the 56th Field Company were scattered on various works and many bridges on the divisional front were rushed by the Germans before the preparations for demolition were completed. The 56th Company under Major Hopkins had reconnoitered their bridges on the evening of the 22nd of August and had asked permission to prepare them at once. They were told to do nothing that night. In fact, the engineers were prohibited from destroying the bridges without direct orders from division headquarters. This command decision on the part of the division commander was to cost the Sappers dearly.

When three sections of the 56th Field Company reached the Mons canal the next morning the enemy was already sniping at the bridges. The right section was rushed while fixing its charges and Lieutenant H.W. Holt, R.E. (S.R.) [13] was killed. Sergeant Miles, the section sergeant, and the rest of the section were captured [14]. What happened to the other two sections is not recorded in the unit war diary [15]. Such was the confusion in the British 3rd Division sector on the 23rd of August 1914, that not all the men of the Royal Engineers field companies could be accounted for by the end of the day. Corporal Wiffen was unofficially reported killed in action on this day. He may have been with the two sections unaccounted for by the unit’s war diary or he may have been with Lieutenant Holt’s section. In any case it appears that someone reported seeing him killed, although this was not officially confirmed. He was subsequently dropped from the company’s roll as killed in action. His total service at the time of his death was reckoned at 13 years and 236 days.


a. Promotions: Harry John Wiffen received the following promotions during his time in service:

Date of Promotion or Appointment

Rank or Position

3 November 1900

Sapper (upon enlistment)

12 November 1903

Sapper (upon reenlistment)

16 December 1904

Appointed Unpaid Lance Corporal

15 May 1905

Appointed Paid Lance Corporal

10 January 1909

Promoted 2nd Corporal

10 October 1911

Promoted Corporal

18 December 1911

Reduced to 2nd Corporal

b. Conduct: At the time of his discharge from the Army after his first enlistment, Harry John Wiffen’s conduct was rated as "Very Good." Corporal Wiffen was authorized Good Conduct Pay at the rate of 1.d per day on the 12th of November 1905, during his second enlistment [16]. Also during his second enlistment, Corporal Wiffen was reduced in rank to 2nd Corporal on the 18th of December 1911 for being absent without leave for almost 5 days.


a. Education: Harry John Wiffen earned the following Certificates of Education during his time in service [17]:


Certificate of Education

13 December 1900

Earned a 3rd Class Certificate of Education

27 January 1905

Earned a 2nd Class Certificate of Education

12 February 1912

Earned a 1st Class Certificate of Education

b. Qualifications: Corporal Wiffen earned the following qualifications during his time in service.




Passed Class of Instruction in Swimming (60 yards)

15 May 1905

Granted Service Pay Class I

12 May 1911

Qualified as a "Very Superior" Carpenter


The following medical information was taken from Harry John Wiffen’s service records during his time in the Army:


Date of


Period of Hospitalization
or Treatment

Shoeburyness, Kent

2 Nov 1900

Medical examination

Found fit for service in the Army upon enlistment.

Chatham, Kent

10 Nov 1903

Medical examination

Found fit for service in the Army upon reenlistment.


There is no record of the date of his marriage shown in Wiffen’s service papers. The papers do indicate, however, that he had a wife named Caroline during his second enlistment in the Army. Mrs. Wiffen may have been living near Bulford Camp prior to the outbreak of the Great War. Her address in 1919 is shown as 50 Rosaville Road, Filmer Road, Fulham, London, S.W.6. In 1921 she was living at Spring Cottages, Lander Road, Shepherds Bush, London. The Wiffens do not appear to have had any children.

Corporal Wiffen’s service papers also show that his sister Edith Minnie had married a man named Calvert and that she was residing in Essex in 1919.


Harry John Wiffen was discharged from the Army at Chatham, Kent on the 4th of September 1902 at his own request on payment of £18.00. He requested discharge in order to return home to help his father with his business. His total service during his first enlistment was for 1 year and 321 days. His service during his second enlistment amounted to 11 years and 280 days. His total service during both enlistments is shown in the tables below.


Period of Service


2 November 1900 to 18 September 1902


12 November 1902 to 9 September 1909


10 September 1909 to 10 October 1911


11 October 1911 to 17 August 1914

France and Flanders

18 – 23 August 1914


Period of Service

Home Service

11 years and 200 days

Service Abroad

2 years and 36 days

Total Service

13 years and 236 days


For his service in the Great War of 1914-1918, Corporal Harry John Wiffen was posthumously awarded the 1914 Star and bar, British War Medal and Victory Medal [18]. As he has no known grave, his death is commemorated on the La Ferte-Sous-Jouarre Memorial at Seine-et-Marne, France [19].

Corporal Wiffen was not entitled to the
Mentioned in Despatches Oak Leaf

Wiffen’s service papers show that on the 28th of September 1915 his wife wrote a letter to the Royal Engineers Record Office at Chatham requesting the return of her husband’s personal effects that she understood had been left at Bulford Camp prior to the 56th Field Company’s embarkation for France. On the 1st of October 1915 she received a response from the R.E. Records Office indicating that a search for Corporal Wiffen’s effects was being made by the Officer in Charge of Royal Engineer Details at Bulford Camp. During that same month two bags belonging to Corporal Wiffen subsequently were found at Bulford Camp and shipped to Mrs. Wiffen.

Wiffen’s files indicate that his Memorial Plaque and Commemorative scroll were not issued to his next of kin until the 15th of October 1919. On the 12th of November 1919 a memorandum was sent to the Officer in Charge of R.E. Records from the War Office, Imperial Institute, in South Kensington, London, directing that Wiffen’s personal property, including his medals, be shipped to Mrs. Caroline Wiffen at her Fulham address. Mrs. Wiffen did not receive the clasp for her husband’s 1914 Star until the 16th of April 1921. At that time she was living at Shepherds Bush, London.

ADDENDUM NO. 1. Genealogical Data Regarding the Wiffen and Ellison Families.

The information below was provided by Claire Clark of Wellington, New Zealand via the Internet. The information was located on the St. Catherine's index of births, deaths and marriages located at www.freebmd.org.uk/

Surname First Name (s) District Volume Page

Marriages: September 1874

Upson Edith Jane Billericay, Essex 4a 257
Wiffen Robert Billericay, Essex 4a 257

Births: June 1875

Wiffen Edith Minnie Chelmsford, Essex 4a 244

Births: March 1877

Wiffen Harry John North Aylesford, Essex 2a 484

Marriages: December 1890

Ellison Charles Rochford, Essex 4a 697
Wiffen Edith Jane Rochford, Essex 4a 697

The information presented above with regard to Harry John Wiffen's birthplace differs from the information provided by him in his enlistment papers. When he joined the Army, Harry indicated that his birthplace was the Parish of Northfleet, near the town of Gravesend in the County of Kent. The information above indicates that he was born in Essex. The St. Catherine's index does verify that he had a sister named Edith Minnie who was born in 1875. It also shows that his natural father was Robert Wiffen of Billericay, Essex who married his mother in 1874. Edith Jane Wiffen then married Charles Ellison in 1890; however, the index does not provide information regarding the status of Robert Wiffen. Presumably he died and the widow Wiffen then married again.

The 1901 Census database provides the following information regarding the Ellison family:

Name and Age

Where Born

Administrative County



Charles Ellison, 51 Bowers Gifford, Essex



Edith Ellison, 46 North Benfleet, Essex



Frank Ellison, 6 Hadleigh, Essex



Jack Ellison, 9 Thundersley, Essex



Mrs. Ellison, 80 Darcy, Suffolk



Living on own means

It should be noted that the Registration District of Billericay was created on 1 July 1837 and contained the following sub-districts: Brentwood, Great Burstead and Wickford. Records of these districts can be found in the General Record Office volumes XII (1837-1851); 4a (1852-1930), comprised of the following parishes:

Basildon, Bowers Gifford, Brentwood, Childerditch, Downham, Dunton, East Horndon, Great Burstead, Great Warley, Hutton, Ingrave, Laindon, Lee Chapel, Little Burstead, Little Warley, Mountnessing, Nevendon, North Benfleet, Pitsea, Ramsden Bellhouse, Ramsden Crays, Shenfield, South Benfleet (1837-1847), South Weald, Thundersley (1837-1847), Vange, West Horndon and Wickford.

The parish names in bold type are those associated with the Ellison family in 1901.



1. GRIERSON, J.M. Scarlet Into Khaki: The British Army on the Eve of the Boer War. Greenhill Books, London, 1988.

2. INSTITUTION OF ROYAL ENGINEERS. The History of the Corps of Royal Engineers. Volume V. The Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, Kent, 1952.

3. SKELLEY, A.R. The Victorian Army at Home: The Recruitment and Terms and Conditions of the British Regular, 1859-1899. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 1977.


Soldiers Service Papers Including the Following Documents:

1. First Enlistment

a. Short Service Attestation (Army Form B. 265.)
b. Description on Enlistment.
c. Certificate of Medical Examination.
d. Certificate of Primary Military Examination.
e. Certificate of Approving Officer.
f. Statement of Services.
g. Military History Sheet.
h. Application for Discharge.

2. Second Enlistment

a. Statement of Services.
b. Military History Sheet.
c. Medal Index Card.

3. Correspondence

a. Letter #1, R.E. Records Office to Mrs. C. Wiffen, October 1915.
b. Letter #2, R.E. Records Office to Mrs. C. Wiffen, October 1915.
c. Letter, R.E. Records Office to Mrs. C. Wiffen, September 1919.
d. Letter, R.E. Records Office to Mrs. C. Wiffen, October 1919.
e. Statement of Names and Addresses of Relatives (Army Form W. 5080).
f. Memorandum, War Office to R.E. Records Office, 12 November 1919.
g. Issue Slip for Bar to 1914 Star (Army Form B. 5112), 1921.

Internet Sites

Commonwealth War Graves Commission.


1. The Royal Engineers Journal, March 1926.

2. The Royal Engineers Monthly List, January 1908.

3. The Royal Engineers Monthly List, January 1912.


[1]. The papers were kindly obtained for the author by Mr. Stuart Gase of West Drayton, Middlesex, himself an ex-Sapper.

[2]. See the narrative on the life of 1862329 Warrant Officer Class II R.G.E. Wiffen, R.E. for details regarding other residence at the Waggon & Horses in 1881.

[3]. This is an assumption on the author’s part. Mr. Wiffen may in fact not have died but simply left the family.

[4]. See Age and Physical Requirements for Soldiers in the British Army and The Corps of Royal Engineers (Victorian Period).

[5]. See Periods of Enlistment for the Corps of Royal Engineers.

[6]. See Engineer Recruit Training

[7]. See Discharges from the Army by Purchase.

[8]. See Extensions of Service of the Regular Army.

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. Major Hopkins medals are in the author’s collection.

[11]. Neame was subsequently to win the Victoria Cross during the Great War.

[12]. Wiffen had served under Wilson once before, when Wilson was the Officer Commanding the 2nd Fortress Company in Egypt.

[13]. S.R. – Special Reserve.

[14]. R.E. Corps History, Volume V, pp. 177-178.

[15]. The Royal Engineers Journal, March 1932, p. 26.

[16]. See Good Conduct Pay.

[17]. See Certificates of Education.

[18]. The whereabouts of these medals is unknown.

[19]. Commonwealth War Graves Commission Registry.