BARNES William Ernest 1898-1953

William Ernest BARNES 1898 – 1953

Family Details

William Ernest Barnes was born 18 April 1898,[1] the son of Mark and Elizabeth Jane Barnes.  There were at least 3 children, all born at Evenwood: [2]

  • William Ernest born 1898
  • Fred bc.1900
  • Denis bc.1910

In 1901, Mark and Elizabeth lived at Quarry Tops, Evenwood with 3 years old Willie, 5 months old Fred, Mark’s widowed mother-in-law, Elizabeth Milburn and his sister-in-law, Nellie Milburn.  Mark worked at a colliery [the trade is undecipherable]. Mark Barnes was born at Bowes, North Yorkshire.[3]  In 1911, Mark worked as a “colliery fireman” and his address is recorded simply as Evenwood.[4] 

Elizabeth’s family, the Milburn’s, were a well-established Evenwood family having lived and worked in the area for many years.[5]  In 1916, Elizabeth Barnes’ brother, John Thomas Milburn died in hospital in France whilst on active service.  Serving as 102256 Sapper John T. Milburn, 177th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers, he died 31 March 1916 and is buried at Etaples Military Cemetery, France. [6] He was 44 years old, married with 5 children [7] and is commemorated on the Shildon War Memorial.

Military Details

William E. Barnes enlisted into the Royal Engineers as a sapper being given service number 121118.[8]  His service record has not been researched.[9]  The following account is derived from a number of sources and, in the absence of hard facts, can only provide a general overview of wartime experiences in East Africa where it is understood, he served.

There are 4 references to William Barnes in the Evenwood Parish Magazine which provide details that he served in South Africa and whilst there, he suffered from an unspecified very serious illness, from which it was doubted he would recover.  However, by July 1918, he’d made a full recovery and by 1919, Sapper W.E. Barnes had been demobilised and was back home in Evenwood.

In November 1917, Reverend G.J. Collis, the vicar of St. Paul’s Church, Evenwood wrote in the Parish Magazine and confirmed that Sapper W.E. Barnes was serving in South Africa: [10]

“W. Barnes was ordered to S. Africa where he has now arrived safely and well I am told.”

In March 1918, Rev. G.J. Collis wrote about William’s illness:[11]

“And I am also grieved to say that news has arrived that Pte Wm. Barnes is lying very ill in Durban in South Africa and that there is but a slender hope of his recovery.  The suspense and anxiety which this distressing knowledge is undoubtedly causing his parents must be very hard to bear, especially as their dear boy is so far away and reliable news so difficult to obtain from so great a distance.  I know that I for one, feel very deeply for them in their heavy trial and so will many another.”

Then in July 1918, better news was reported: [12]

“And I am happy to say that Pte. William Barnes of whose health I had to give such a bad account a short time ago, from news received from S. Africa has now recovered from his serious illness.”

It is understood that he suffered with malaria whilst being posted to South Africa.[13]  Finally, in June 1919, William Barnes was named in a list of 5 servicemen, as back home following demobilisation: [14]

“We extend a hearty welcome home on demobilisation to …Privates W. Barnes”

Family memorabilia, a postcard, indicates that William was in Cape Town, South Africa 24 November 1917.  The postcard pictures the New Zealand Hospital Ship “Maheno”.[15]  The “Maheno” was commissioned for a return trip from Auckland, New Zealand to Avonmouth, UK, as follows: [16]

  • 13 – 20 October Port Chambers, Auckland, New Zealand
  • 29 October: Albany, Western Australia
  • 11 November: Durban, South Africa
  • 16 – 18 November: Cape Town, South Africa
  • 2 – 30 November: Freetown, Sierra Leone
  • 9 – 24 December: Avonmouth, UK

Sapper W. Barnes’ sea voyage from the UK probably terminated at Cape Town, South Africa and the postcard is evidence of him visiting the city.  It is likely that he served in German East Africa.  This was the location of the British forces in late 1917 and early 1918.  It is possible that he travelled by sea from Cape Town to Dar-es-Salaam, the major town in GEA.  There is also a series of 8 photographs which are believed to be East African scenes showing river traffic, fishermen, villages, local folk and children.      

Having regard to the above, it is speculated that William Barnes enlisted about April 1917, aged 19, some 6 months prior to being posted to South Africa where he arrived about October 1917.  It is confirmed that he was at Cape Town in November 1917.  Sapper W. Barnes was seriously ill between February and June 1918 and was probably treated at a hospital in Durban, South Africa.  He caught malaria and this disease was prevalent in East Africa where many Europeans suffered and died from it.  The most likely place for him to catch this would be GEA.  British troop were being evacuated from GEA from January 1918.  Perhaps Sapper W. Barnes, after recovering from illness served a short while in GEA or South Africa before returning to the UK.  He was demobilized about May 1919.[17]

The War in German East Africa

This account will only briefly “touch” the subject of war in Africa and will concentrate on events which may have had an effect the experiences of Sapper William Barnes.  The introduction, which follows, sets the scene:[18]

“Fighting in Africa was nothing like life in the trenches.  And yet few would say it was easier.  It was a different kind of hell… War is always hell.  Only the setting is different.  The men who went to East Africa instead of France were not being given choice of assignments by any means.  The sentiments are best expressed in a common soldier’s lyric:

Ah, I wish I was in France

There one lives like a gentleman and dies like a man

Here one lives like a pig and dies like a dog.”


France, Britain, Belgium, Portugal and Germany all possessed colonies in Africa.  With the outbreak of war, Britain feared that the ports in German colonies could be used to supply ships of the German navy and thereby threaten merchant vessels on the high seas and disrupt trade to Britain and her Allies.  Another potential threat was that wireless stations in these areas could intercept British naval signals.  It followed that the German colonies needed to be subjected to British influence whether by agreement or conflict.  On the African continent, there were 4 major theatres of operations: [19]

1] Togoland:[20] The Germans surrendered 26 August 1914.

2] German South West Africa:[21]  By 30 January 1915, the internal rebellion of the German supporting Boers in the Union of South Africa was quashed by General Smuts [22] and his troops then concentrated on attacking German South West Africa.  Windhoek, the capital surrendered by 17 May 1915 and the Germans finally surrendered 9 July 1915.    

3] Cameroon:[23] Allied forces from the British colony of Nigeria, Belgian Congo and French Equatorial Africa occupied the territory with German troops escaping to neutral Spanish Muni in December 1915.  A settlement in the north of Cameroon, Mora held out until 18 February 1916.

4] German East Africa [GEA]:[24] This was the main theatre.  Fighting took place in areas which ranged from modern Kenya and Uganda in the north through Tanzania to Mozambique in the south, leaving hunger and devastation in its trail.  Despite lasting for over 4 years and impacting the lives of millions of people, it remains one of the least known theatres of war.  The British brought in troops from the UK, India, South Africa, Nigeria, the Gold Coast, the Gambia, the West Indies, Nyasaland, North and South Rhodesia and they fought alongside troops from the Belgian Congo and Portuguese Mozambique.[25]  General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was the famed German commander who used ingenuity, endurance and ruthless exploitation of his colonial subjects to survive the field until the Armistice, November 1918. [26] 

The Germans enforced their rule on East Africa by creating a local army of African soldiers called “The Askari”.  The name is Swahili for soldier and initially they were recruited from Sudan and then later from the tribes who had fought most determinedly against them – the Wahehe, Wanyamwezi and Angoni.  In effect, they were a mercenary army, relatively well paid and undoubtedly among the best trained soldiers in Africa.  Originally, the Askari had been formed to crush local rebellions and not to fight Europeans.  They were led by officers and men from the Schutztruppe, white colonial regulars of the German Army.  White settler-farmers formed reservists to augment the force.  By 1914, the Schutztruppe numbered 218 German officers and men and  2,542 Askari; the white reservists numbered 1,670 and there was a semi military police force of 55 Europeans and 2,160 Africans.[27]

General von Lettow-Vorbeck realised that German East Africa would only be a sideshow so his policy was to avoid confrontation and tie down as many Allied troops as he could, keeping them away from the Western Front. He succeeded brilliantly. For four years, with a force that never exceeded 14,000 (3,000 Germans and 11,000 Africans) all well trained and well disciplined, he held in check much larger forces totalling 300,000. [28]

The guerrilla tactics of General von Lettow-Vorbeck led the Allies a “merry dance” but far more dangerous to all combatants was the physical environment of Africa, totally alien to Europeans.  The following extract is taken from the History of the Corps of Engineers and sums up the situation: [29]

“Imagine a country three times the size of Germany, mostly covered by dense bush, with no roads and only two railways, and either sweltering under a tropical sun or swept by torrential rain which makes the friable soil impassable to wheeled traffic, a country with occasional wide and swampy areas interspersed with arid areas where water is often more precious than gold, in which man rots with malaria and suffers torments from insect pests, in which animals die wholesale from the ravages of the tsetse fly, where crocodiles and lions seize unwary porters, giraffes destroy telegraph lines, elephants damage tracks, hippopotami attack boats, rhinoceroses charge troops on the march, and bees put whole battalions to flight. Such was German East Africa.”

The mosquito and the tsetse-fly killed far more men and animals than the bullet or bayonet: [30]

“Whole units were decimated by malaria and, to a lesser extent, yellow fever and sleeping sickness.  Others fell victim to black water fever, a deadly complication of malaria, or were infected with Guinea worms, whose ravenous larvae gather, agonizingly, in the lungs, eyes, joints or genitals, leaving men permanently crippled.”

The figures speak for themselves: [31]

  • Dysentery killed 40% of those infected
  • In July 1916, for every 1 combat casualty, 31 men were put out of action by sickness, disease, exhaustion or other non-combat related factors.
  • In February 1916, the 9th South African Infantry could field 1,135 men, by October only 116 men were fit for service
  • The 2nd Rhodesians recorded 10,626 cases of sickness, 3,127 malaria related, they lost a mere 36 men killed in combat yet by the end of 1916, only 30 of their number were designated fit for active service. 

Alongside the misery of the men, was the misery of the horses and mules.  The machine gun and artillery had brought to an end the age of the cavalry.  In East Africa, it was the tsetse-fly.  The swarms infected horses with nagana fever.  In 1916, the monthly loss of horses was total, 100%.  Knowing of his enemy’s reliance on horses and mules, General von Lettow-Vorbeck led them into areas where the tsetse-fly was prevalent.  Seasonal rains compounded problems. [32]  As the campaign dragged on, lines of communication were stretched into the interior.  There was little scope for mechanical traction, horses and mules suffered and so, human labour was employed.  The largest army in GEA was not those of the opposing sides, not the Askari nor the King’s African Rifles but the enormous forces of carriers and porters, officially known to the British as the Carrier Corps.  Thousands, hundreds of thousands of black African men were engaged in this tortuous work.  Eventually over a million men worked on the British supply lines.[33]    Sickness, disease and death was rife: [34]

“One post war German estimate put the number of porters who had died servicing the Germans at between 100,000 and 120,000.  The same source believed 250,000 had perished supplying the British imperial forces.”

In September 1916, Colonel R. Meinertzhagen, who served as chief of British military intelligence in East Africa  between January 1915 and August 1916,[35] summed up the situation, as follows: [36]

“Our battlefield casualties have been negligible.  What Smuts saves on the battlefield he loses in hospitals, for it is Africa and its climate we are really fighting not the Germans.”

In November 1917, 19 years old Sapper William Barnes RE was thrown into this environment, a far cry from the pit village in south west Durham to which he was accustomed.

The Work of the Royal Engineers in East Africa

The History of the Corps of Royal Engineers provides the following account: [37]

“The work was done mainly by Indian sapper and pioneer units, East and South African engineer units, road construction companies and road corps, but was supervised by the Chief Engineer and his A.Ds.W. Between 1914 and 1918, these formations and African labour gangs built or repaired 3,421 miles of road, 52 miles of tramway, 11 flying bridges over large rivers, and g marine piers at the ports. They erected buildings covering an area of I million square feet, including hospital accommodation for 3,570 beds and subsidiary buildings to hold 24,000 beds; also, high-level water tankage to a total capacity of 53,000 gallons and low-level tankage of 275,000 gallons, in addition to 2,388 feet of water-troughing.  They laid 60 miles of piping, erected 133 power-driven and 153 hand-operated pumps, ran 31 power-pumping stations, deepened 118 wells, and sank 37 bore-holes from 80 to 320 feet deep. The list is impressive, for it omits the work done by the Railway Battalion in the course of field operations.”

It is evident that the Royal Engineers were represented by a few officers holding staff appointments commanding engineer units, serving as commanders of divisions or in the Works Directorate or signals or survey organisations.  The only commander of a fighting force was Major General S.H. Sheppard.[38]

Sapper W. Barnes arrived in East Africa sometime before November 1917 and he was taken ill by March 1918.[39] 

From January 1918, Allied troops were being evacuated from parts of East Africa.  The campaign was to be taken up by the King’s African Rifles [40] together with Rhodesians from Nyasaland, the West Indian Regiment, the Gold Coast Regiment, plus British and South African staff, the Cape Corps, artillery batteries, a Royal Flying Corps squadron and various other services.  A large staff and depot organisation was stationed at Dar-es-Salaam,[41] the capital of GEA, which had been captured by the Allies in September 1916.  The town and port became the key logistical centre in East Africa, providing men, materials and hospitals.[42] By January 1918, General von Lettow-Vorbeck and his troops had retired from GEA and were in Portuguese territory.

It is assumed that after recovering from his illness, Sapper W. Barnes was either evacuated to the UK or was posted elsewhere in South or East Africa, possibly Dar-es-Salaam.  His small collection of photographs appears to depict rural locations and the people of East Africa. 

Nothing is known of the duties he performed.  The rank of a sapper is the RE equivalent of an infantry private, his duties would be quite menial as was the custom in the British Army at the time.  African labour was recruited for the most basic of manual and labour intensive tasks.  The British Indian Army appears to have been responsible for the major engineering tasks.  Possibly Sapper W. Barnes was posted to a Signals Unit or perhaps the line of communications, say a Railway Company.  In view of his medical history, it seems probable he was put to work in administration rather than any strenuous labour.[43]  

The End of the War in Africa

25 November 1918: General von Lettow-Vorbeck marched his remaining force, 30 German officers, 125 NCOs, 1,165 Askaris and 2,294 porters to Abercorn, Rhodesia and formally surrendered.  It is remarkable that his small force tied up at least 130,000 Allied troops. 

There were 62,220 British casualties, of these, 48,328 died from disease, particularly malaria.  By way of example:

  • The 2nd Battalion, The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment had been reduced from 900 in 1914 to 345 in 1917 and
  • The 25th Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers arrived in Africa with 1,200 men but were reduced to less than 120 within a year.[44]

These figures do not include the deaths of African porters serving with the British Carrier Corps.

The estimated cost to the British Government of the African campaign was £72M.[45]  Arguably, this money and 130,000 Allied troops would have been more effective on the Western Front.  General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck has certainly achieved his goals in keeping British and Allied troops occupied in Africa.

The names of 35 men of the Railway Corps and 159 men of the Indian Railways are inscribed on the British and Indian Memorial in Dar-es-Salaam War Cemetery, Tanzania.[46]  There are numerous servicemen serving with RE Signals Sections buried there.[47]

Sapper W. Barnes was demobilized and back home by June 1919.  He was awarded the Victory and British War medals.[48]

Post War

Under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the Belgians got control of Ruandi Urandi, the Portuguese got a small part of disputed territory and the British gained control of the remainder of GEA.  This became the independent state of Tanganyika in 1962 and in 1964 Tanganyika merged with Zanzibar to become Tanzania.[49]

1922: William Ernest Barnes married Elizabeth Hannah Wiles at Newcastle upon Tyne.[50]  In 1911, Elizabeth was 9 years old and lived at Hainingwood Terrace with her parents James and Sarah and siblings Robert aged 4 and Bella aged 2.[51]

William and Elizabeth had 5 children:[52]

  • Dorothy born 25 November 1922 [53]
  • Fred born 19 March 1927
  • Douglas Haig born 2 February 1928
  • William M. born 29 July 1932
  • Kathleen, born 1942.[54]

It is clear that by naming his son Douglas Haig, he held the Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe in high esteem.  After the war, Sir Douglas Haig devoted his much of his energies to the British Legion and the welfare of ex-servicemen which endeared him to many.  Indeed, the streets of London were thronged by ex-servicemen when his funeral took place.

1939:[55] William and Elizabeth Barnes lived at 10 Oxford Street, Bishop Auckland with their 4 children, Dorothy[56], Fred who worked as an electrical engineer, Douglas and William who were still at school.  Sarah Hanratty, a 29 years old “unpaid domestic”, lived with the family.  William Barnes worked as a railway clerk.  Alongside his name, a note in red ink records, “Air Force Reserves AG 770255 RAF Catterick.”

1953 June 17:  William E. Barnes died, aged 55.  At this time, he lived at 21 Raby Gardens, Bishop Auckland.  His “material effects” were left to Denis Barnes, farmer and Douglas Haig Barnes, butcher.[57]  William died aged 55 – relatively young, even by the standards of the day.  Perhaps the after effects of his African experience, particularly suffering from malaria was the cause of, or contributed to, his early death. 


[1] England, Select Births and Christenings 1538-1975

[2] 1901 & 1911 census

[3] 1901 census

[4] 1911 census

[5] 1881 & 1891 census

[6] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[7] Evenwood Parish Magazine July 1916

[8] Medal Roll Card Index

[9] Sapper W.E. Barnes could have been posted to the R.E. Railway Corps – 25th 26th or 27th Railway Companies but these were based in India and then posted to GEA arriving in September – November 1914 and returning March – May 1918.  See “The Indian Railway Corps, East African Expeditionary Force 1914-1919” 2015 H. Fecitt p.17.  Perhaps he served with RE Signals Section. See Commonwealth War Graves Commission Dar-es-Salaam War Cemetery.

[10] Evenwood Parish Magazine November 1917

[11] Evenwood Parish Magazine March 1918

[12] Evenwood Parish Magazine July 1918

[13] Family information email from Caroline Milne dated 26 December 2020

[14] Evenwood Parish Magazine June 1919

[15] Postcard copyright 1917                                                                                                                                                                   


[17] These dates are the month earlier than reported in the various editions of the EPM

[18] “Marching Through Hell: The British Soldier in the First World War’s East Africa Campaign” 1995 T. Harper MA Thesis University of Massachusetts, extract taken from the Preface.

[19] “A Military Atlas of the First World War” 1975 A. Banks p.216 &217

[20] Today the colony is the independent country called Togo

[21] Today Namibia

[22] The commencement of the Great War was a mere 12 years after the conclusion of the South Africa War, commonly called the Boer War. 1899-1902.  Is generally argued that Britain did not cover itself in glory in military terms or, by today’s standards, in a humanitarian capacity.  The Boers were in the main, Dutch speaking farmers together with a minority of German speaking settlers of an independent spirit.  Any resentment felt by some Boers, may well be considered by many as understandable.  

[23] Today, still called Cameroon

[24] Today, the countries of Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi located on or near the Equator.

[25] Contemporary names of countries as used in 1914.


[27] “The World’s War” 2014 D. Olusoga p.113 & 114

[28] “East African Campaign 1914-1918 Faridkot Sappers and Miners: In commemoration of all those including civilians, porters and troops involved in the East African campaign of 1914 to 1918” 2014 R. Sneyd p.12.  Other sources indicate fewer Allied combatants.

[29] “Tip and Run, the untold truth of the Great War in Africa” 2007 Col. P.E. Paice quoted from “The History of the Royal Corps Engineers” Vol. VII p.107

[30] Olusoga p.131

[31] Olusoga p.131

[32] Olusoga p.132

[33] Olusoga p.141

[34] Olusoga p.143


[36] Olusoga p.131

[37] “History of the Corps of the Royal Engineers” Vol.VI Chapter XII p.123

[38] “History of the Corps of the Royal Engineers” Vol.VI Chapter XII p.126

[39] Evenwood Parish Magazines

[40] In 1914, the KAR numbered 3.000.  By 1918, the force was 35,000 strong

[41] Sneyd p.88

[42] Olusoga p.136-138

[43] 1939 England & Wales Register record W.E. Barnes employed as a “railway clerk”.  Perhaps his wartime duties paved the way for such work.

[44] Harper p.9-10

[45] “The Campaign in German East Africa” 1965 Hamshere C.E. in History Today April 1965 p.258

[46] “The Indian Railway Corps, East African Expeditionary Force 1914-1919” 2015 H. Fecitt p.17

[47] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[48] Roll of Individuals entitled to the Victory Medal and British War Medal

[49] Sneyd p.95

[50] England & Wales Marriage Index 1916-2005 Vol.10b p.63 Newcastle upon Tyne 1922 Q2

[51] 1911 census

[52] 1939 England & Wales Register and family details

[53] England & Wales Birth Index 1916-2007 Vol.10b p.244 Newcastle-upon-Tyne 1922 Q4 and family headstone in Evenwood cemetery

[54] England & Wales Birth Index 1916-2007 Vol.10 p.313 Durham Western 1942 Q4

[55] 1939 England & Wales Register

[56] Details not available on the 1939 Register

[57] England & Wales National Probate [Index of Wills and Administrations]1858-1995 and England & Wales Death Index 1916-2007 Vol.1a p.664 Durham Western 1953 Q2