Researched and written by Anne Wright
L/Cpl A E Williams
8th Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment
Killed in action, 22.3.1918
Arthur Edwin Williams was born in Weybridge on 20 January 1884 and baptised at St James’ Church two months later on 16 March. His father, Henry, a native of Chertsey, was a coal porter who married Mary Ann Wheatley at St James’ Church on 30 July 1881. The couple went on to have eleven children, ten of whom survived: Mary Ann, Arthur, Ellen, Elizabeth, Herbert, Walter, George, Frank, Ethel and Mabel. By 1891 the family lived at 2, Florence Cottages, Albert Road in Addlestone where they still lived in 1901 when Arthur was working as a labourer in a cement yard. Ten years later they still resided in Albert Road but at number 32. Henry Williams was now a jobbing gardener and Arthur a general labourer.
He enlisted in Weybridge but when is not clear; Arthur was not awarded the 1914-15 Star which means that the earliest he could have fought the Germans was the beginning of 1916. His battalion, the 8thLeicestershires, arrived at Boulogne on 30 July 1915. By the beginning of September they were in trenches defending the village of Berles-au-Bois near Monchy-au-Bois, south of Arras. They remained in this location until March 1916. These six months were a period of hard physical work often involving clearing, draining and strengthening trenches; in December liquid mud came up to their thighs in places. Although subject to intermittent enemy shelling this was not a time when heavy casualties were sustained. This changed when they arrived at Ailly-sur-Somme on 10 July just days after the British launched the Battle of the Somme. Arthur may have been with them by this stage.
They went into the trenches near Fricourt where for three days they were subjected to constant artillery fire. On 14 July an attack was launched on Bazentin-le-Petit Wood with most of the 8th Leicestershires initially in a supporting role. ‘D’ Company suffered from hostile machine gun fire and not a single officer reached their target; the NCOs led the men forward. The other three companies followed in waves from 4.25 am onwards, they suffered heavy casualties from machine gun fire crossing 450 yards of No Man’s Land to Bazentine-le-Petit Wood. There was no respite as the enemy counter-attacked at 5 am and again at 10 am but the line held. During the afternoon the Germans bombarded the Wood with shells and rifle grenades; further casualties were sustained. Arthur’s battalion now knew what battle was like: 5 officers were killed, 12 wounded; 66 other ranks were killed, 310 wounded and 39 reported missing. They were relieved at 6 am on 15 July.
Two months later they went into action once more. On 17 September they marched to an area about half a mile east of Trones Wood, via Mametz and Montauban. At 12.30 pm on 25 September they launched an attack from a position close to Flers; their objective was to reach the German line, 1000 yards distant. This they achieved after 45 minutes and after consolidating they went on to their second objective, the village of Geudecourt. Their ranks were thinned by artillery and machine gun fire but according to their War Diary they ‘ pressed on with dauntless gallantry’ reaching the village and engaging in hand to hand fighting with the enemy which went on all night. They were relieved the following morning and the Germans were driven from Geudecourt.
Arthur probably experienced the devastation of the Third Battle of Ypres (‘Passchendaele’) with his comrades when they went into the front line near Zillebeke on 30 September 1917. They came under a very hostile artillery barrage the next day from 5.30 am onwards and at 6 am the 9th Leicestershires reported that the enemy had gained possession of their trench. This put Arthur’s battalion in a perilous position as the enemy made repeated attempts to advance against their open flank but were driven back by rifle and Lewis Gun fire. Their neighbouring battalion was reinforced and was able to hold on. The 8th Leicestershires were relieved on the morning of 3 October; 11 officers and 175 other ranks were casualties. The following day the two battalions amalgamated because of the battered state of both.
During the night of the 1/2 January 1918 Arthur and his colleagues moved into brigade support at Epehy where they were still located when the Germans launched their Spring Offensive on 21 March; the battalion was in the front line east of Epehy. The preceding days had been full of rumours of an attack fuelled by prisoners captured in raids and the inactivity of the enemy artillery. At 1 am a patrol reported that not a single German had been seen. Just over three hours later the enemy launched a heavy bombardment. Arthur was now caught up in a whirlwind of events. The initial enemy attacks from 9.50 am onwards were repulsed by heavy rifle, grenade and Lewis Gun fire but the lifting mist revealed large numbers advancing on the battalion’s right. Vigorous attacks led to incursions into the battalion’s right flank replied to with effective bombing, however during the afternoon the Germans broke through to the battalion’s right and they were forced to withdraw at 6 pm to just east of Epehy. After a quiet night the enemy started to push through Epehy at 9 am on 22 March; the battalion’s plight was now desperate as their right flank was completely in the air. At 10 am they began a very difficult withdrawal as the Germans were closing in on three sides. They retreated through Saulcourt to Aizecourt-le-Haut. At 4.30 pm the enemy took Saulcourt and continued to make rapid progress.
Arthur was one of the 28 other ranks who were killed during this maelstrom: 109 were wounded, 274 reported missing and 4 were gassed. His body was recovered by the Germans and buried in Saulcourt Churchyard Extension (C.1/2), Guyencourt, 5 kms east of the road from Peronne to Cambrai.