This piece has nothing whatsoever to do with the murder at Star Stores. It was an article I composed for Remembrance Day a few years ago based on the original letters I was fortunate enough to have been handed by Arthur’s niece. Coming across it again now I have decided to post it here. I apologise if it is not what readers of this blog were expecting, but I beg your indulgence and hope you forgive me on this one occasion.
At 5.50am on September 25, 1915, a furious bombardment – like the revving engines of one thousand motorcycles – roared across the sky above the heads of the 9th Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers towards the German lines positioned north of Loos, a small mining town in northern France.
For three whole weeks, the men of the 9 RWF had lain in wait – face down in the craters of earlier exchanges – preparing for the order that announced The Big Push – the great advance that would drive the Germans out of France and end the unendurable horrors of the Great War.
An artillery bombardment had pounded the German line for four days solid to shatter enemy morale and decimate the machine gun nests and wire defences that protected Kaiser Wilhelm’s men, but in the cold, damp morning air the shelling intensified beyond the worst imaginings of the most battle-hardened Tommy.
On that almost breathless morning as unceasing rain transformed the British positions into a quagmire, the war would surely change its course. Until that day, the Germans had outnumbered and outgunned the allied forces, but now, at last, opposing generals boasted all but equal resources in terms of men, guns, bullets and munitions.
Huddled with their brothers-in-arms in those filthy, rain-drenched fields awaiting the shrill whistle to advance were men – or rather boys – from Ammanford, Llandeilo, Cross Hands, Brynaman and every village in between.
On September 20 – the day before the bombardment had begun, Mrs Williams of 33 Heol Las, Ammanford, received a letter from her 22-year-old son, Arthur. Arthur and his comrades, in the fields and trenches north of Loos, knew the push was merely days away. His younger brother Richard was a few miles up the line. Accompanying the letter, Arthur sent a note home to his sister:
“You mustn’t worry mother about him; he will be all right, and tell mother that I am as happy as a lark, and to be proud that she has got two sons fighting for our country.”
Arthur ended: “Trusting that God will spare us to come home again after doing our duty.”
In those early hours of September 25, at Divisional Headquarters some miles rear of Arthur and his comrades, General Sir Douglas Haig watched a junior officer light a cigarette.
As the smoke drifted gently in the direction of the German lines, Haig’s mind was at last set firm.
For six long months, the Germans had unleashed a fearsome new weapon – chlorine gas. But now the allies possessed a horrific cloud of their own to asphyxiate and debilitate its victims and leave them helpless to hot metal spat from angry guns.
As the cigarette smoke danced along the morning breeze, Haig gave the fateful order to release the Allied gas.
At 6.30am the British guns fell silent and a pall of smoke and chlorine fell between opposing lines. The whistles which refused to go unanswered sang out across the dawn and Arthur, Richard, Private Stephen Prout – another Ammanford boy – and Corporal John Evans of Cross Hands, and thousands like them clambered out from the water-filled holes and trenches where they had sheltered and slept in comradely trios, each taking a turn in the middle to savour whatever warmth could be found there.
“We braced ourselves and leapt onto the open field,” said one survivor afterwards.
“Misery makes heroes of us all.”
Arthur, according to his fellows, was one of the first “over the top”.
The spreading gas forewarned the Germans of the Push, and unbeknownst to the boys of 9 RWF the unrelenting bombardment had done little to diminish the defences that awaited them.
The incessant rain of days and weeks made progress all but impossible. Their great coats were soaked in mud and blood and rain and each weighed heavy as an overflowing coal sack as the men of 9 RWF walked on through mounting piles of corpses into a hail of burning lead.
Haig’s gentle breeze began to falter. The wind turned south and pushed the noxious fumes away to leave the Kaiser’s men unmoved and offer them clear sight of Tommy’s slow charge.
Undeterred, the boys and men of 9 RWF pushed on, and undeterred the German guns rang out.
Arthur took a bullet to the stomach and fell on that blood and rain-soaked field so very far from home. Some unknown, un-named comrade ignored the fizzing, whizzing Hell about him and stopped and kneeled and freed poor Arthur from his backpack. Together they crawled, with Arthur fighting harder even than he’d fought the Hun, back from whence they’d come.
From the British line, he was carried in a makeshift ambulance 150 miles south-east to No2 Stationary Hospital at Rouen, arriving either on September 26 or 27.
On September 29, a letter was delivered in the morning mail to 33 Heol Las.
“Dear Mrs Williams,” wrote the nurse, “I am sorry to tell you that your son, Private Arthur Williams, died last night of wounds received in action.
“He was admitted at 8pm, and was unconscious, and died very peaceably at 11.
“He was suffering from abdominal wounds, and the surgeon had no hope from the first.
“I wish I had more to tell you. It is terribly hard for you to only get bare facts, but unfortunately it is all I can do.”
Stephen Prout was wounded at Loos, but survived the war, as did Richard Williams and John Evans, who despite the horrors he would live to witness, said of the September 25 advance: “It was a charge I will never forget.”
Arthur Williams was buried at Abbeville Communal War Cemetery near the Somme in France.
There is a corner of that foreign field that is forever Ammanford.