Little is known of William Herbert’s childhood. He matriculated at Durham University in Michaelmas term 1911, entering St Chad’s Hall as an Arts student and winning a Theology scholarship. In 1912, he passed his first year Arts examination, and graduated in 1914 with a B.A. (2nd Class Theology Hons).
St Chad’s Hall was a relatively small community and welcomed enthusiastic students prepared to fully participate in active college life. Inter-collegiate sporting rivalry was as intense as today. In 1912 William Herbert was secretary of the Common Room. He was a keen cricketer and an even keener member of the Debating Society. In his final year at St Chad’s Hall he was elected President of this Society, having earlier taken part in numerous debates, particularly those concerned with suffrage and the underdogs of society. A lance corporal in the Officers’ Training Corps, he gained a certificate of competence in musketry at this time.
Having achieved his B.A., Herbert was ordained a deacon in Bristol Cathedral in September 1914 and was then appointed curate-in-charge of St Michael and All Angels’ church in Windmill Hill, Bedminster. Although the local population had grown to an extent that a second church in the parish was mooted as early as the 1880s this daughter church of St John’s in Bedminster was not finally completed until 1910.
Early in 1916 William Herbert married Iris Elsa Rogers at Christchurch, Dorset. Their married life was destined to be short as he seems to have joined the military around the same time.
Herbert is listed as a second lieutenant with the 9th Battalion Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, prior to being transferred to the 8th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. His medal index card states a date of 11 July 1916 for his disembarkation in France and this is the first firm date that can be attached to his service. During these early weeks of the Somme campaign initial training would probably have been as quick as practicable, so it’s possible his actual attestation was during the early summer of 1916, although this has not been yet been established.
During September and October 1916 the 14th Division was in action around Arras. The division was made up of a number of Light Infantry Battalions including the Duke of Cornwall’s L.I., the King’s Own Yorkshire L.I., and the Durham L.I., amongst others. The various battalions circulated between front line trench action and short periods in billets behind the lines for rest and recuperation. Heavy artillery was deployed on occasion as well as Lewis and Stokes machine guns in the trenches. Regimental diaries of the time indicate that a high tempo of action continued unabated for some weeks.
Second Lieutenant Herbert’s life was lost in early October. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission estimates that he died on 1 October 1916 or sometime shortly after that date. His body never having been identified his sacrifice is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial.
His wife and family had lost a loved one, and his parish of St Michael and All Angels also paid a high price, over both World Wars. The First World War saw 132 parishioners give their lives. Their Curate-in-Charge was remembered at the Vestry Meeting of the mother church, St John’s in Bedminster, in April 1917, and he was commemorated on a tablet and a memorial window which were unveiled in 1921. William Alfred Herbert is also remembered on the roll of honour at Windmill Hill, Bedminster, and also that of Durham University.