First World War Poetry Digital Archive

The search for William Binnging: A School Project

I am a History teacher at Beath High School in Cowdenbeath. Since 1981 I have been taking pupils to France and Belgium to visit the Battlefields of the First World War. We have no memorial in the school from the First World War so although we had visited many graves of relatives of pupils we had no former pupils that we knew had died in the war – until a colleague had a brain wave and took down two or three names from the dux board for the relevant dates and fed them into the Commonwealth War Graves search area – and we had a match. The dux of the school in 1912 was William Barclay Binning and he died of wounds in April 1916 as a Second Lieutenant in the Machine Gun Corps. We knew where he was buried – Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension. I was preparing our next Battlefield Tour for Easter 2004 and at last we had a former pupil’s grave to visit.

However, I wondered if we could find a way of knowing something more about William than the information on his gravestone. We had no pupils in the school call Binning but I looked up the phone book and to my amazement there was an A. Binning living in the same street as the school. So I wrote to the person hoping but not believing that this person would have a connection to our former pupil. A couple of weeks went by and one morning there was a large envelope in my pigeonhole. I opened it and pulled out the contents.
Out came a picture of William in his uniform at the start of his army career, 3 photographs of his family when he was a boy, a copy of his last letter home to his parents and his will. With this came a covering letter.

The person I had written to turned out to be the second wife of William Binning’s much younger brother, John. She had past my letter to a Sydney Binning who was the elder son of John Binning by his first wife. I contacted Sydney Binning to thank him for the picture etc and he agreed to write a remembrance card from his family to take with us on our Battlefield tour. So when we did visit William’s grave we were able to place a poppy spray along with his picture and cards from his family and the pupils at his grave as a young piper played a lament. I sent Sydney an account of our visit with pictures on our return. He and his wife then invited me and another member of the History Department to visit them at their home in Kirkcaldy to thank us for our interest in William and to show us some more artefacts connected with William. We were astonished when we saw the number of artefacts they had connected with William and I immediately saw we could put on an exhibition in the school about William, his early life and his time as a soldier. Shortly after this visit another Binning – John Binning, Sydney’s younger brother – handed in to the school a Remembrance book about William. In this we found more wonderful documents. 0n November 11 2004 we opened our exhibition in the school and we had enough material to fill 4 wall display cases and 2 standing glass cases. The exhibition was a great hit with staff and pupils alike. I did guided tours around the exhibition at lunch times and classes were brought down from the History department and the English department.
The Binnings all came as a family group to see the exhibition and were doth delighted and moved by what we had put on display.

In December of 2004 our new school building was to be officially opened. The new building has two lovely garden courtyards and on my suggestion it was decided to name one of the courtyards after William. This courtyard is now the focus for our annual Remembrance on November 11. It is the place where we remember all our former pupils and staff who have been killed in war – most recently Jamie Kerr in June 2007 and Paul Lowe in November 2004. Both boys were 19 - the same age as William when he died – and were killed in Iraq. They were soldiers in the Black Watch. The Binning Courtyard was officially opened on the same day the new school was officially opened by our local MP, Gordon Brown, who met and spoke to members of the Binning family..

We continued to visit William’s grave on our Battlefield Tours – most recently during the Easter holidays this year (2008) and we continue to lay a poppy spray at his grave as a young piper plays a lament. I have also been able to find the exact spot where he was wounded thanks to a letter we found in the Remembrance Book. He was wounded by the railway station in a small village called Le Touquet which straddles the Belgian-French border north of Armentieres. Amazingly although there is no railway line or station there any more you can still see exactly where the railway and station would have been. When I found the area first it was derelict but over the last year it has been turned into a park, with seats and places to play boules. Nearby is a British Military Cemetery, Tancrez Farm, where William records in his diary that he was involved in a burial party for a soldier in his section who was shot accidentally. Exactly one week after that burial William would be fatally wounded a few hundred yards from that grave. Also nearby is a farm complex called Grande Rabeque. This was referred to frequently in William’s diary as the place they rested in when not in the front line. So the major land marks of William’s short experience of war can still be seen and visited today.

So form knowing of no former pupils killed in the war we have now a detailed, indeed intimate knowledge, of one who was.

To the Great War Archive I have submitted:

  • An account of William’s early life
  • An account of his army career
  • Pictures of all the artefacts that belonged to him, now in the possession of his nephews who have both given permission for me to send you all the materials related to Willie as they call him
  • Photocopies of all original documents with typed copies where appropriate
  • Copies of William’s Records in the National Archive
  • Other relevant photographs
  • A transcript of his 1915 and 1916 Diaries

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