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...
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