RE­MEM­BRANCE DAY:

Pri­vate Sa­muel Williams was so sure he was go­ing to die he wrote a let­ter home to say good­bye to his par­ents. RICHARD AULT re­ports on the North Staffordshire sol­dier’s fi­nal days...

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EIGHT-PAGE ARMISTICE SUPPLEMENT: TIMELINE OF A TRAGEDY; PHO­TO­GRAPHS FROM THE TRENCHES; TOMMY STATUES; BEACH VIGILS A LET­TER FROM THE FRONT: STAFFORDSHIRE SOL­DIER’S FI­NAL WORDS,

‘MY DEAR fa­ther and mother, just a quick line be­fore my death which ap­pears be­fore me,” wrote Sa­muel Williams.

At the time he penned this let­ter, Sam had been in France and Flan­ders for less than two weeks – but he had al­ready seen enough to con­vince him that he would not sur­vive the ex­pe­ri­ence.

So on March 15, 1915 – a week be­fore the start of the Sec­ond Bat­tle of Ypres which would be his first (and only) ex­pe­ri­ence of a ma­jor bat­tle – Sam sat down and wrote these words: “I am very sorry to cause you pain, but keep your hearts up ‘till we meet in that land of peace and hap­pi­ness, where our Fa­ther will make us... happy and safe for­ever, but I am sorry to lose you in this prime of life, but I have sac­ri­ficed my­self to save all that de­pends on me.

“So good­bye, ‘till we meet above, your du­ti­ful son, Sam.’”

Sam didn’t post his let­ter im­me­di­ately, he kept it in his tu­nic. Or, when he did go into bat­tle, he may have left it with a pal, or pos­si­bly with an of­fi­cial be­hind the lines, ready to be for­warded to his par­ents’ ad­dress, 190 An­chor Road, Long­ton, in the event of his death.

That let­ter would soon be sent on its way across the English Chan­nel, where it would reach Sam’s dev­as­tated par­ents, Wil­liam and An­nie Williams, at the fam­ily home in Long­ton. Prob­a­bly they would have first re­ceived a dreaded tele­gram from the War Of­fice, telling them their son had been killed in ac­tion.

Let­ters took just two days to reach the front-line when they were sent from home, but a lit­tle longer trav­el­ling in the op­po­site di­rec­tion due to checks made by Army cen­sors to en­sure no sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion was given out.

So it was likely that within a few days of that tele­gram, Wil­liam and An­nie re­ceived Sam’s let­ter from be­yond the grave. Per­haps it gave them some com­fort that Sam had know­ingly sac­ri­ficed him­self and that he had taken care to say good­bye. It could also be that the let­ter was among Sam’s per­sonal ef­fects which were re­turned to his par­ents that year, on Oc­to­ber 4.

Sam had been born in Mersey­side, at Sut­ton, near St He­lens, in 1892. He was Wil­liam and An­nie’s el­dest child. In 1901, Sam was nine years old and liv­ing at 178 An­chor Road, in Long­ton, with his par­ents, his younger sis­ter Mar­garet, aged seven, and his broth­ers Wil­liam, aged three, and one-year-old John.

It seems John did not sur­vive child­hood as he is not listed among Sam’s sib­lings in his mil­i­tary records. He did, how­ever, have an­other sis­ter, Ellen, who was born in 1904.

By 1914 the fam­ily had moved just a few doors along An­chor Road, to number 190. In fact the fam­ily were still at An­chor Road when they re­ceived Sam’s ‘death penny,’ and his 1914-15 Star, in 1920.

Sam’s fa­ther, Wil­liam, worked as a fish mer­chant, but when he was old enough to go to work, he had gone down the pit.

Life car­ried on, typ­i­cal of many fam­i­lies in the Pot­ter­ies – un­til the sum­mer of 1914, when the world was changed for ever by war. On Au­gust 4 of that year, Bri­tain de­clared war on Ger­many. A month later, on Septem­ber 3, Sam trav­elled to St He­lens, near the town of his birth, to en­list in the 4th Bat­tal­ion of the King’s (Liver­pool) Reg­i­ment.

Ac­cord­ing to his mil­i­tary ser­vice records Sam was 5ft 3½ins tall, and weighed 127lbs. He listed his oc­cu­pa­tion as ‘miner’ and his re­li­gion as ‘Church of Eng­land.’ Sam was not al­ways a model sol­dier, in fact dur­ing a ‘fa­tigue party’ – likely to be some form of man­ual labour – on De­cem­ber 17, 1914, when Sam was in train­ing with his bat­tal­ion at Seaforth, Liver­pool, he had, ‘ab­sented him­self with­out leave,’ and been sub­jected to three days’ con­fine­ment to bar­racks.

But that was the only blem­ish on his mil­i­tary ca­reer, and when the 4th King’s Reg­i­ment landed at Le Havre, to come un­der the or­ders of the Sirhind Bri­gade, La­hore Di­vi­sion of In­dian Corps, Pri­vate Sa­muel Williams was among their ranks.

On the Western Front, the 4th King’s fought side by side with Sirhind Bri­gade, which was a mix of In­dian and Bri­tish units. The more ex­pe­ri­enced bat­tal­ions within the bri­gade had ar­rived at Mar­seilles in Novem­ber, 1914 and fought through­out.

When the raw and in­ex­pe­ri­enced re­cruits from Liver­pool ar­rived on March 6, 1915, the Sirhind Bri­gade was caught up in the Bat­tle of Neuve

Chapelle. The new ar­rivals did not take part in any at­tacks dur­ing this bat­tle, but they came un­der heavy fire from Ger­man ar­tillery.

In fact, on March 15, the day Sam wrote his let­ter of good­bye, to be sent home to Long­ton in the event of his death, the bat­tal­ion were shelled through­out the day and night, and three of his pals were killed by a bomb which wounded sev­eral other men. An­other shell landed in the head­quar­ters shel­ter and the bat­tal­ion’s colonel was hit in the head and shoul­der by shrap­nel.

No won­der Sam had be­gun to con­tem­plate his own death.

But the 4th King’s had shown its met­tle un­der fire. So much so that the com­man­der of the In­dian di­vi­sion, Gen­eral Sir James Will­cocks, con­grat­u­lated the ‘steadi­ness’ of the Liver­pool troops on their first ex­pe­ri­ence of com­ing un­der fire in the trenches around Neuve Chapelle.

In April, Sam and his com­rades moved to Calonne for a pe­riod of rest and train­ing. But they knew their first taste of a ma­jor bat­tle was ap­proach­ing, as they prac­tised trench at­tacks be­hind the lines.

Over April 24 to 26, the bat­tal­ion marched across war-torn France and into Bel­gium, to Ypres. By 3am on April 27, 1915, they were in po­si­tion in the trenches in fields to the north-east of St Julien.

The vil­lage of St Julien had been cap­tured by the Ger­mans three days ear­lier, when the en­emy had at­tacked with gas for the first time. It would not be re­cap­tured un­til the Third Bat­tle of Ypres, in 1917.

The 4th King’s was or­dered to at­tack the Ger­man po­si­tions at St Julien at noon on April 27, in sup­port of the 1/4th Gurkha Ri­fles.

Per­haps Sam’s let­ter to his par­ents was in his tu­nic as he pre­pared for his first taste of all­out war­fare that morn­ing, or he may have al­ready handed it to a com­rade and se­cured a prom­ise that it would be posted home in the event of his death.

He no doubt thought of his par­ents, Wil­liam and An­nie, and his sib­lings, Mar­garet, Wil­liam and Ellen, per­haps even the brother he had lost, John, as he pre­pared him­self for what would come next.

As his of­fi­cer blew his whis­tle at noon pre­cisely, Sam climbed over the para­pet and trudged through the mud to­wards the Ger­man lines. Bul­lets whis­tled across the bat­tle­front as Sam crossed no­man’s land.

He fell that day, never to re­turn home to Long­ton. At roll call the next day, Pri­vate Sa­muel Williams was one of the 374 sol­diers who were miss­ing. The let­ter he had writ­ten a month ear­lier was put into the post, passed through the hands of a mil­i­tary cen­sor and was taken by wagon and train to Le Havre, where it was put on a ship back to Bri­tain.

It was sent to one of the sort­ing of­fices in Stoke-on-trent, put in a post­man’s bag, and then de­liv­ered through the let­ter­box of 190 An­chor Road.

Sam has no known grave. Many of the Bri­tish sol­diers killed dur­ing the bat­tle were buried at Seaforth Ceme­tery, in­clud­ing 21, ‘known unto God’ and 19 whose graves were later de­stroyed by shell­fire.

Whether Sam’s body is one of these ‘un­known sol­diers,’ or if he lies some­where on the bat­tle­field to this day, per­haps buried by shell­fire, can­not be known.

His name is com­mem­o­rated on the Menin Gate, at Ypres, where the Last Post cer­e­mony is held at 8pm ev­ery night to this day.

He was also well re­mem­bered by his fam­ily. In fact Sam’s nephew was named after him.

Danny Poole, aged 42, of Sneyd Green, said: “Sam was my grand­fa­ther’s un­cle. My grandad, Sam Williams, was named after him, he served dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

“I have been to the

Menin Gate a number of times and I’ve seen his name on the me­mo­rial. The framed let­ter with his pho­to­graph – and a photo of my grandad

– has been on my wall for a long time. It was given to me by my grand­mother.

“It does just bring a few things home.

He was just a young lad. He knew he was go­ing to die, and he did.

“I can’t imag­ine what it must have been like to know that he was go­ing to sac­ri­fice him­self.”

Chris­tine Poole, aged 70, of

Nor­ton – Danny’s mother and grand­daugh­ter of Sam’s younger brother, Wil­liam

– said: “The orig­i­nal let­ter was al­ways be­hind the pi­ano at my grand­par­ents’ house.

“I have read the let­ter many, many times and it never ceases to chill me.”

Dev­as­ta­tion: Sol­diers among the ru­ins of Ypres in 1915.

RESIGNED TOHIS FATE: Pri­vate Sa­muel Williams and, in­set, the let­ter he wrote home to his par­ents shortly be­fore his

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