There are 173 names recorded on the University of Bristol’s memorial to those who died in the First World War. Captain W. J. Mason is one of these. A Lecturer in Economics, and head of the department, William John Mason was killed 100 years ago today, at La Boisselle on the Somme. He was 27.
An LSE graduate, Will Mason was appointed to his post at Bristol in early 1914, and his role also included delivering lectures for the Workers’ Education Association at the recently-established University Settlement in Barton Hill. Mason joined the University’s Officer Training Corps at the outbreak of the war, was gazetted to the Gloucester Regiment in November 1914, arriving in France in July 1915. In January the following year he was promoted to Captain, serving with the 8th Gloucesters. Some 32 members of the university’s teaching staff were on active service by the time he was killed. An earlier report in September 1915 had outlined the University staff’s contributions to the war effort. Some 14 members of the Arts Faculty staff were listed. Amongst these, History’s Professor George Hare Leonard was spending most of his spare time engaged in YMCA work; the Lecturer in History and tutor for women students, May Staveley, a Quaker, had worked over the previous summer with the Friends Relief Commission in France; their fellow historian William Luther Cooper, who had joined the department in 1913 and would later become the University’s first salaried Librarian, was waiting to take up a commission in the Royal Field Artillery. May Staveley was also honorary secretary of the University of Bristol Women’s War Work Fund which, amongst other activities, ran the University Hostel for Belgian refugees.
Captain Mason was a ‘brilliant teacher’, reported the WEA’s regional secretary, with a ‘genial disposition’. He was one of ‘the three brilliant men of my generation’ of LSE students, recalled Baroness Mary Stocks four decades later. The University of Bristol’s Council recorded its ‘deep grief’ at the news. The 8th Gloucesters — mostly ‘untried’ men — had gone into battle at La Boiselle at 3.15 on the morning of 3 July to reinforce the attempt to take and hold the heavily fortified village. Mason was one of the six officers killed that day. The village was secured on 4 July; the battalion’s total casualties by then totalling 302 killed, wounded or missing. ‘A truly bloody scene’, recorded their commander, the village flattened as ‘if the very soul had been blasted out of the earth and turned into a void’. Into that void had gone William John Mason, and his name is recorded on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. The University’s memorial tablet was unveiled on 4 July 1924 in the Wills Memorial Building by Field Marshall Lord Methuen, who could not resist using the occasion to offer indirect but tart observations on the recently-established Labour government. After the service a trumpeter played the Last Post, the final notes echoing through the corridors of the otherwise silenced building.
Sources include Western Daily Press, 20 September 1915, p. 9; 17 July 1916, p. 4; 11 November 1916, p. 4; 5 July 1924, p. 5, National Archives, WO 95/2085/1, ‘8 Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment (1915 Jul – 1919 Mar)’; Adrian Carton de Wiart, Happy Odyssey (1950), pp. 58-59.