A REMARKABLE letter written in 1917 has provided a first hand account of a soldier “going over the top” in the First World War.
Dated May 9, 1917, the densely-typed two sides of foolscap was written in Ward 9B of the 4th Northern General Hospital in Lincoln.
It gives the account of 20-year-old Private William Ashworth – known as Billie – who fought and was injured along with his older brother Private Fred Ashworth.
William Ashworth’s son Fred, 79, from Connah’s Quay, shared his father’s papers with his family.
But it was only during the recent First World War centenary commemorations that his cousin Sue Jones, 71, read the letter.
She was so impressed, she brought it along to the Leader.
William’s letter, written to his brother after being injured in France during an Easter Monday push on the Hindenberg Line, gives a vivid but deceptively light-hearted account of the horrors of battle from the point of view of a 20-year-old young man.
It starts with a description of the calm before the battle.
“Our mob was to the fore so Easter Sunday afternoon (glorious day) found us resting in a natural valley a few miles from the Bosche,” he wrote. “A more peaceful scene you couldn’t wish to see (out there); the lads all lying about on the slopes and a brass band playing selections.
“We were all as gay [happy] as schoolboys. For more than half of them it was the first time over.”
The operation was “finely organised”, according to Pte Ashworth and he describes how after dusk the men moved off under shell fire before finally halting to “dig in”.
They finished at 4am and “sat in the trench, put our oil sheets over us and went to sleep”.
Just six hours later, the countdown began preparing the men to go over.
Pte Ashworth recalls the officers’ words.
“Half an hour to go, then quarter, 10 minutes, five, four, three, two, one – 30 secs, ‘Now, boys, over you go and the best of luck’ and over we went, rifle slung, fags lit, everyone laughing and making jokes, walking slowly in extended order just as if on parade.”
Shortly after “the boys started falling”, the letter said.
Then came the order to advance.
“Lord, if the men fell before they did so 10 times quicker now, in fact, they were simply mown down,” he added. “We started jumping from shell-hole to shell-hole until we got to about 150 yards from him [the German frontline].”
Just as the men were ordered to “dig in”, Pte Ashworth was shot. It is likely the wound ended up saving his life.
He wrote: “Naturally, I fell and shouted to my section-commander that I was hit, so then I crawled into the nearest shell-hole and in a couple of minutes had my field dressing on, equipment off, and a fag lit.”
He continues: “While it is scarcely enjoyable lying in a shell-hole with shells shaking the ground and throwing dirt all over you and bullets making a most disconcerting noise whistling just over your tin hat, it is absolutely safer than crawling about.
“There’s no doubt about it, Fred, an infantryman has a bad time over there, whether in an attack or in ordinary trench warfare.
“He has a much worse time than any other department of the army and he is paid the least.”
“I was in an attack on the Somme last year,” he adds. “But I won’t describe that.”
Having “just about exceeded the limit as regards the length of letter”, ‘Billie’ signs off, describing his breakfast in the hospital as “better than bully and biscuits” and asking to be remembered to family and friends and with a request that his brother come “as soon as poss”.
Niece Sue Jones said reading the letter for the first time had been an emotional experience.
“I only wish I had read them when I was given them,” she said.
William Ashworth, who had four children, died in New Ferry, Wirral, in 1970, aged 73.
See full story in the Leader