Arthur Williams was born in Swinton, Lancashire (now Greater Manchester) in October, 1898. In 1917, aged 18, he joined the Manchester Regiment. After training, he was sent to The Western Front, where he saw action before being taken prisoner in the Spring Offensive of 1918. He spent the remainder of the War in captivity and was repatriated in January, 1919.

This is the story of his experiences, as told in 1981. Sadly, the tape-recording has been lost, but I remember very clearly much of what Great-uncle Arthur told me. Where there were gaps or where confirmation was needed, I have been able to fill in those parts of the story with the help of The Museum of the Manchesters, Michael Stedman’s book The Manchester Pals, the reminiscences of Private 9210 Thomas Brough, who served with A Company of 17th Manchesters, and the records held of Arthur’s movements while a PoW by the International Red Cross in Geneva.

Background

Arthur was no more than 5’7", and slightly built. He had a sturdy neck and always stood bolt upright. His nose was generous, tending towards the bulbous. Above all, he had a kindly face.

As was common in those days, Arthur’s education was part-time; school in the morning and working in a mill in the afternoon and evening. On Friday nights he had an extra job in a barber’s, lathering the faces of men who came in for their weekly shave. He said that on busy nights his hands bled from the stubble on the men’s chins.

Arthur found a job with Salford City Tramways as a trolley-boy. His job was to climb on top of the tram and replace the trolley on the cables if it came adrift or when turning round or changing track. The Number 35 Tram took him from Salford to Bury, past Heaton Park, where the Manchesters’ training camp had been set up. [1]

Call-up and with the BEF in France

In 1917 he received his call-up papers and reported to Pendleton Town Hall in Salford, where he was given the service number 61168. Swinton, Eccles, and Patricroft had been a recruiting area for the Salford City Battalions of the Lancashire Fusiliers, but these units had suffered enormous losses at Thiepval in 1916 and were no longer effective. Further recruitment was therefore into the Manchester Regiment. [2]

I cannot now recall the date of his posting to the front, but the timing suggests that it would have been too late for the offensive at Arras, in which the 17th took part. I do not remember him mentioning Ypres, where the Battalion was in action in late 1917, but it is possible that he was there because he described being in battle, and the Battalion had a relatively quiet time between being posted to the Chemin des Dames in early 1918 and the German offensive in March. It is possible that Arthur’s first action was actually with 19 Bn., since Pte. Thomas Brough records that on February 6th the 17th were reinforced by 15 officers and 281 other ranks from the now dissolved 19th Bn. [3]

Wherever this action took place, Arthur recalled that one day he and another man, who had been a schoolmate in Salford, were sent for a box of grenades, and some shelling started while they were on the way back carrying the box between them. All he could remember was running for his life, holding the rope handle. When he reached cover his pal had gone from the other end of the box. He never saw him again or learned what had happened to him.

During this quiet period he made a little extra money for himself by becoming the Company barber, although what training he had is not clear. He also said that there were times when British and German troops queued and chatted together at the water-pump in a French village.

In March 1918 the 17th were stationed near Vaux, west of St. Quentin, holding the Savy dugout. It was widely rumoured that a German offensive was imminent. Arthur’s Battalion was in the redoubt and forward trenches, but was replaced by the 16th on March 18th and moved to Roupy trench. [4]

Into captivity

Arthur’s capture most probably took place late in the afternoon of March 22nd. On the previous day the Germans had taken Manchester Hill from the 16th Bn, and the 17th had mounted a number of counter-attacks. Although the 17th lost some prisoners that day, Arthur’s account tallies with descriptions of actions on the 22nd.

He said that, on a day that had been intermittently foggy, they saw what appeared to be a grey mist coming towards them; it, of course, turned out to be German infantry. He said that he kept firing his rifle until all the ammunition was gone, and supposed he must have killed several men.

Arthur recalled one incident in particular. The Company Sergeant-Major was standing in the trench, directing the defence. Arthur saw him struck by an object that carried away the man’s steel helmet. He then saw that the helmet had taken with it the top part of the Sergeant-Major’s head. He claimed that the man remained standing for a couple of seconds before falling down. [5]

When the first German units reached the parapet they jumped right over the trenches and left the reserve units to round up the Manchesters, who were now without ammunition and were surrendering. Later, when things had quietened down, they were made to bury all the dead, British and German, putting the British bodies on a handcart, some of his schoolmates amongst them, and placing them in communal graves. The Germans had to be buried in individual graves, but all clothing and equipment had to be removed first – presumably because of German supply shortages. The naked German corpses were each covered with a sheet of white paper.

Later still the prisoners were marched to a camp not far behind the German lines, where life was austere but not unbearable. Then one day they were asked for volunteers to unload a train, and, thinking there might be food they could pilfer, several stepped forward. When they got there, it was an ammunition train. As they were cursing their luck, the camp was bombed, by what Arthur deduced to be Allied aircraft, either French or American, that may have mistaken it for an ammunition dump or troop concentration. They watched the bombardment going on in the distance. On their return they found that many of the POWs had been blown to pieces and bits of them were hanging on the wire. The Germans made them gather up the body parts and put them in sacks.

While this was going on, the aircraft returned and began a second bombardment. Arthur and his mates took cover, but the Germans ran off. Arthur recalled seeing a brick wall rippling like a banner under the force of the explosions.

After the raid had finished, there were no Germans to be seen, so the men formed a column and set off westwards, hoping to find their way (somehow) back to their own side. After marching from mid-day until early evening, they were spotted by a troop of Uhlans, who, having nothing better to do, rounded them up and made them run, at the end of a lance, all the way back to the ruins of the camp, where their captors were waiting. [6]

They were then moved to another camp, where they were put to work in a field bakery. All went well until the huts were searched, and the Germans found plenty of black bread hidden on the premises. This went down very badly, so they were off again, this time to Westphalia, where Arthur was among those sent to work down an iron-ore mine.

Several weeks passed fairly uneventfully until one day the men came up to the surface after a shift and the Germans were packing up. The War was over. The guards just marched off and left the POWs to it. When they asked the guards what they should do, they replied that they were going home and the prisoners would have to make their own arrangements. Arthur said the camp was on a hillside, with a road in the valley below and one along the crest of the hills. For two days they watched the Germans making their way eastwards along the roads, going home, a solid line of men, animals, and vehicles.

When the columns had passed the PoWs decided to set off westwards. At some point they came to a fork in the road and decided to split up, and Arthur’s group marched until they encountered some American troops. After six months in captivity, many of the PoWs were wearing a motley assortment of clothing, in Arthur’s case a worn-out German tunic, a Feldmütze, and a pair of sailor's trousers. The Americans didn't know what to do. They were very suspicious of these strangely clad men and had obviously never heard of Salford, so they put them in a large hut that, according to Arthur, was full of Russians. [7]

There were no sanitary arrangements in the hut, and the floor was slippery with human waste. After 24 hours the British prisoners entered into negotiations with an American sentry, convinced him of their bona fides, and secured their release. A further march reunited them with the other body and contact was finally made with British troops who afforded them a rather warmer welcome.

Repatriation

Arthur was repatriated in January 1919, as recorded by the Red Cross. His service appears to be described in a short paragraph in a book recording the contributions of men from the area, in which it was necessary to pay for an entry. He is listed as Lance-Corporal; I do not remember his mentioning any promotion, but the details of his PoW locations tally.

Footnotes

[1] The camp in Heaton Park is described and pictured in M. Stedman’s Manchester Pals, pp 26-50.

[2] Details of the brief existence of the Salford Pals’ Battalions can be found in Stedman’s The Somme 1916 & Other Experiences of the Salford Pals.

[3] Thomas Brough, Private 9210, as recorded by John Hartley.

[4] Manchester Pals, pp 214-221.

[5] I was under the impression that Arthur gave this CSM’s name as Roseberry, but Thomas Brough includes CSM Rhodes amongst those killed in March, 1918.

[6] Arthur used the term Uhlans, which might or might not be correct. By this stage of the War, all German cavalry would have been in virtually identical dress, and Uhlan was a generic term amongst British troops.

[7] I was sceptical of this claim at the time, not knowing that Russians had served on the Western Front and somewhat conceitedly assuming that Arthur’s limited education and experience of travel might have made it difficult for him to distinguish one foreigner from another. However, I have since been humbled by learning of the Russians’ service in France. Perhaps their presence in this place might help to trace Arthur’s path back to his own lines.

Postscript

It is entirely possible that if the 17th had not been relieved in the Front Line, or if he had not volunteered to unload the ammunition train, Arthur would not have survived the War. His sole injury was a slightly misshapen thumbnail, the result of his hand being trapped in a door during a prank raid on a rival company’s barracks.

Arthur married my grandmother’s sister, Florence Ardern. They had two children and three grandchildren. Arthur returned to Salford City Transport, where he worked until he retired as an Inspector at the age of 60. He and Flo lived in a council house all their married lives. Flo never went out to work. They never had a foreign holiday or owned a car. He stopped smoking after coming out of the army, and went for a pint at the pub on the corner once a week, on Sunday night, in sports jacket and collar and tie, with an additional application of Brylcreem.

After a few months’ retirement Arthur, still small and wiry, took another job, as a messenger/post-boy at an electrical wholesaler in Salford, and worked until he was 72.

When he recorded his experiences, he began the evening sitting smartly upright in the kitchen of his neatly-kept council house, wearing his best M&S cardigan. He embarked on the tale with enthusiasm and not a little pride. By the end, he was slumped and sad. I don’t know how long it was since he’d recounted it all. He was saddened by the thought of the young men he had probably killed. He was quietly contemptuous of those who put him through his ordeal. The choice of names was his own, but his closing words were, "The likes of Willie Whitelaw and the Kaiser – they don’t care about us."

In October 1985 he had his customary nap in his armchair after tea, and didn’t wake up. His wife, Flo, died peacefully, in her own armchair, eight weeks later.

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