William Knott Walton was the son of John Walton the schoolmaster at Langley Moor, a mining village to the west of Durham City. His mother Catherine née Knott, who had been an assistant schoolmistress, died in 1895 leaving their sons Henry aged 15, Robert 11, and William 5, while Mary was a little over a year old. In February 1896 John married Annie Helen Gowland who was 20 years his junior. After his death in 1913 she moved to Darlington with Mary.
In the 1911 census William, aged 20, is recorded at the School House in Langley Moor with his father and step-mother, and was then employed as a pattern-maker in the shipbuilding industry. However, by the Michaelmas term of 1913 he was preparing for Holy Orders and had matriculated at St Chad’s College, Hooton Pagnell, which was a preparatory theological institution for St Chad’s College Durham. In the Epiphany term of 1914 he came to St Chad’s College in Durham to read for a degree in Arts, and where he remained until 1915. During this period he became sub-editor and then editor of the college’s Stag magazine. He also served in the university’s Officers Training Corps.
On 1 January 1916 he was commissioned as Second Lieutenant with the Durham Light Infantry serving in the 20th Battalion. The battalion moved to Aldershot in January and came under orders of 123rd Brigade, 41st Division. They landed at Le Havre in France on 5 May 1916. There the battalion was involved in the Battles of Flers-Courcelette and Le Transloy during the Somme offensive in 1916.
In 1917 the battalion underwent extensive training and preparation before the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele), although there were still many casualties in the trenches during this period. After a successful advance achieved in the Battle of Messines near Wytscheate the battalion made ready for an attack on 28 July on Pilckem ridge, but which was then delayed until 31 July. During this pause the men of the battalion awaiting the assault were rotated in companies around trenches to familiarise them with the Assembly Area. Three officers, Captain Pumphrey, Second Lieutenant Shepherdson and Second Lieutenant Walton went out on the afternoon of 29 July to reconnoitre this area and which they marked with string in preparation for the tape that would be used during the attack. Orders were received that the attack would commence at 03:50 on 31 July, so the companies were moved into the Assembly Area, sustaining some casualties including some lost to gas attacks.
This attack on Pilckem Ridge marked the commencement of the hugely costly Battle of Passchendaele. The German front line here was successfully taken in the initial combined British and French attack. Three successive commanders of the battalion fell during the fighting. Captain Weighman was succeeded by Lieutenant Cox, but who was then wounded. Second Lieutenant William Knott Walton then briefly took command before he himself was killed.
Lieutenant William Walton is commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres. In Durham he is remembered on the University’s Roll of Service and on a memorial reredos in the chapel of St Chad’s College. He is named on a plaque at the Royal British Legion Club in Meadowfield, and on the chancel screen at St John’s Church there next to his childhood home. In Darlington his name is recorded on a memorial screen that was first displayed in St Hilda’s Church, and which was subsequently moved to the town’s museum, and presently is located in Darlington Library.
His service papers record in the National Archives lists him as a Lieutenant though the battalion diary always refers to him as a second lieutenant, so perhaps a promotion was only confirmed posthumously.