This is the story of the discovery of a "bullet-scarred Bible" in a chest of drawers in Cradley Heath in 1971, which led to Sergeant Alfred Willetts of the 4th Battalion of the Royal Worcester Regiment
On 12th February 2004 The Black Country Bugle newspaper published a letter from David Williams, a reader living in Cornwall who, back in 1971, had bought a chest of drawers from a second hand shop in Cradley Heath High Street. In the bottom drawer of the chest he had found the Bible of Sergeant Alfred Willetts of the 4th Battalion of the Royal Worcester Regiment.
David began his researches into Sergeant Willetts in 1971. He found that Alfred Willetts was the son of James and Eliza Willetts and lived at 151 Beecher Street, Cradley (David Williams actually says Beecher Street, Cradley Heath.)
Alfred was born in 1887 or 1888, and in the 1901 census his occupation was given as ironmoulder's apprentice. He had three brothers - James, Harry and Joseph, and two sisters, Mary and Sarah. Alfred was the youngest. He attended Cradley Church of England School, and his name is recorded on the Roll of Honour. He was also associated with Two Gates Ragged School.
Having found these personal details, and some of his army record, David Williams was now looking for descendants or family members of Alfred to whom he could pass the Bible.
Three weeks later Graham Hodgson responded in the Bugle with an extensively researched picture of Alfred Willetts, and of the World War I action in which he lost his life.
Cradley Links is very pleased to say that Graham Hodgson has generously given us permission to reproduce his article in full, as a further tribute to Cradley's Sergeant Alfred Willetts. Graham's article ended with a paragraph of questions about Alfred, but before it was published he unearthed a report in the County Express of June 2nd 1917 that answered the queries and added more detail. On this page we reproduce both his essay and the extract from the County Express which was also included in The Black Country Bugle.
The County Express, June 2nd 1917
News has just reached Mrs. James Willetts, Colley Gate, Cradley, that her son, Sergt. Alfred Willetts, Worcesters, has fallen in action. Sergt. Willetts, who was a single man, had completed about eight years service, and was recalled from India in February 1915. He was able to reach home in time to attend his father's funeral and then proceeded to the Dardenelles, where he was wounded whilst bringing in a wounded comrade, a dum dum bullet hitting him in the lower part of the back. In the special order from General Headquarters May 12th 1915, Sergt. (then Private) Willetts was mentioned by Lieut.-Col. Cayley, commanding the battalion. It is a sad feature that Sergt. Willetts had been recommended for a commission, which he would have received the week following his death, which took place about May 13th.
He was a member at Colley Gate United Methodist Chapel and of Two Gates Men's Own. The news of Sergt. Willetts' death was conveyed to his brother at Holy Cross, Clent, by Corpl. Cooper, of the same company who says:- "He got hit by some pieces of shell about three yards from me. I bandaged him up and got him carried into a trench, but he died peacefully afterwards. It is a great shock to me as he was a great chum of mine, and was in the same company with me in Burmah and elsewhere. He was one of the bravest men I have ever known, and was liked and respected by every man in the regiment." Sergt. W. J. Smith also wrote in a similar strain.
On February 12th 2004 The Black Country Bugle printed a fascinating article concerning the war service of Sergeant Alfred Willetts during the Great War, prompted by the finding by Mr. David Williams of a bullet-scarred Bible that had belonged to Sergeant Willetts. I hope the following article may add a little more detail to the events surrounding the death of another soldier from the Black Country in that terrible war, and also supply information on other local men who were casualties at the same time.
By the winter of 1916 the Battle of the Somme had run its course. Both the German and British troops settled into a cold and miserable time in the trenches, and endeavoured to recover from the enormous losses that both had suffered during the Somme battles.
This was the third winter of the war. For the British soldiers there was only the prospect of more attacks against a resolute enemy who only yielded ground when it was physically impossible to retain it, and then only after a series of furious counter attacks that made any British advance a very costly affair indeed. However, there was still a mood of optimism and a sense that, although the casualties in 1916 had been horrific, there had also been considerable gains. It seemed that just a little more effort would break the Germans once and for all.
To this end the Allied generals planned their next major attack for April 1917. This was to be an attack near the town of Arras and along the Vimy Ridge and would involve several of the British Divisions which contained men from the Black Country.
The 4th Worcestershire Regiment, including Sergeant Willetts, marched towards Arras on April 1st and prepared for the attack that was scheduled for Monday April 9th.
Initially the Battalion was in reserve, and waited in driving sleet for the order to move forward. This did not come until the morning of April 12th when the Battalion marched into the town of Arras itself. A photograph exists showing the men eating a meal surrounded by the ruins of that town. It was not until 2 a.m. on the 13th April that the Worcestershire men reached the actual front line, which was just south of the village of Monchy-le-Preux.
An attack was ordered for later in the day, but was cancelled and then re-issued for dawn on the next day. It is hard to imagine what all this uncertainty did for the nerves of Sergeant Willetts and his colleagues and the fact that there was a steady stream of casualties from enemy artillery fire would not have helped.
Seven men were wounded on April 13th alone. The 4th Worcestershire were again in reserve and would not make the initial attack, but were to follow through to attack secondary objectives.
Dawn on the 14th April arrived, and the British bombardment of the German trenches intensified. The attacking battalions went 'over the top' but were met by a massive German counter attack which all but destroyed the men from Essex and Newfoundland. The Worcestershire men fired rifles and machine guns frantically at the advancing Germans and managed to stop the attack about one hundred yards from the British reserve trenches. Other German attacks were made throughout the day but each met the same fate.
As the day progressed, Worcestershire casualties steadily mounted; the survivors became exceedingly tired, to the point where they could hardly lift their rifles to the parapet. Late in the evening the shattered battalions were finally withdrawn and replaced by fresh British troops. Compared with the other battalions in the Brigade the 4th Worcestershire casualties were relatively light.
The next four days were spent recuperating in cellars in Arras until the night of April 19th, when again the journey to the front line was undertaken under heavy shell fire. One officer was killed, and four others, as well as 20 other ranks, were wounded during this time. More casualties occurred the next day (April 21st) including 2/Lt. Edward Round from Dudley who was killed whilst the Battalion waited for the order to attack.
The order finally came for April 23rd and was to be carried out in two phases. Phase One was to be the capture of a hill known as 'Infantry Hill' and this fell to the 4th Worcestershire. Following the successful completion of this objective, the 2nd Hampshire were to pass through the Worcestershire position and capture two woods further on.
Just after first light on April 23rd the Worcestershire attack went forward through a storm of shells. The German first line was reached and easily captured, and the attackers moved on up the hill with casualties mounting. Within half an hour the objective was reached and captured.
The survivors began to dig in and wait for the counter attacks that they knew would soon be hurled at the depleted British companies. Reinforcements were also expected from the Hampshire battalion, who were to pass through the 4th Worcestershire and to continue the attack towards the secondary objectives.
The first of many furious German attacks came at around 10 a.m. and was resisted stubbornly. However, the expected relief failed to materialise, and the Worcestershires were on their own. Although the Worcestershire attack had succeeded, the attack by a neighbouring Division had failed, and the Worcestershire found themselves in a dangerous and isolated position. This was made worse by the casualties to the Hampshire battalion which suffered so badly that it was unable to provide any real assistance to the 4th Worcestershire.
As Mr. Williams has detailed, almost all the Worcestershire officers were casualties, and the battalion suffered severe losses during the initial attack and throughout the long day of shelling and German counter attack. Eventually relief did arrive, but it was long after midnight before the Battalion was able to extricate itself and march back to Arras.
Losses had indeed been heavy, but the 4th Worcestershire were accustomed to heavy losses, as readers who recall my article concerning the 4th Worcestershire attack on Krithia Vineyard during the Gallipoli campaign may well recall.
My research suggests that this was the highest losses of any British battalion on one day throughout the Great War, and it says something of the spirit of the Regiment that it could re-establish a battalion after enormous losses, and that the same battalion could suffer in the same way eighteen months later.
Although only two officers and 64 men marched back to Arras, as Mr. Williams describes, the Battalion War Diary records that the Battalion suffered 8 officers and 34 other ranks killed, 3 officers and 325 other ranks wounded and 1 officer and 53 other ranks missing. Most if not all of the missing were later listed as presumed killed in action on this date. My research shows that 106 men were killed on that date or died of wounds later. Amazingly the Battalion was back in action within days.
A considerable number of men from the Black Country served with 4th Worcestershire throughout the War. Many failed to return home, and lay buried in foreign fields across the world. Eleven other local men fell on the same day as Sergeant Willetts. Ptes. George Bagley, Sidney Parry, Thomas Raybould, and Harry Woodhouse, as well as Sgt. Bert Tombs, were all from Cradley or Cradley Heath, whilst Pte. Bertram Eades, and L/Cpls. Joseph Howard and Arthur Saunders hailed from Halesowen. Stourbridge mourned the loss of Pte. Harry Wainwright, Dudley lost Pte. William Henry Taylor and Pte. Albert Randall from Bilston completed the sorry list.
At least a further ten local lads died with other units on this same day, many of them also in the same battle. Cpl. William Evan Edwards and Pte. John Weaver were also from the Cradley area and both died when the 8th South Staffordshire Regiment also attacked near Arras on April 23rd 1917 bringing the total for that small part of the Black Country to eight. The 8th South Staffs. lost three other Black Country men and others fell with other Worcestershire or South Staffordshire battalions on that same day.
In the next few days several other local men died of wounds received on April 23rd, including Pte. John Steadman from Dudley, who succumbed on May 4th 1917. Many of the 'walking wounded' returned to their units after a relatively short spell in hospitals in France but a few others found themselves on hospital ships heading back across the Channel towards Blighty and British hospitals.
Pte. Joseph Crampton of the 4th Worcestershire was wounded on April 23rd and died of wounds at St. Luke's Hospital, Bradford on Saturday, June 2nd 1917 and is buried in Netherend Unitarian Chapelyard. We do not know how soon after the battle he reached Bradford and can only wonder whether his family were able to visit him before he passed away.
As with most Great War battles, many of the casualties have no known grave, but are commemorated on a Memorial to the Missing. The Arras Memorial includes nearly 35,000 such names of soldiers who fell in the area around Arras during the latter part of the Great War.
According to the Worcestershire volume of Soldiers Died in the Great War Alfred Willetts gave his Place of Residence at the time of his enlistment as Clent.
We know that Alfred's parents lived at 151 Beecher Street, Cradley Heath. The mystery relative may therefore have been a spouse; if so, the married Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Willetts may have lived in Clent before his enlistment.
This is of course only speculation, but would account for Alfred giving Clent as his place of residence.
The other possibility is that there was a separate branch of the Willetts family living in Clent. The 1901 Census lists five people with the same surname, none of whom were born in Cradley. A quick search of the on-line census reveals 181 Willetts's living in Cradley in 1901 and of course any of them could have moved to Clent in the ensuing years.
Like Mr. Williams, we would be very interested in finding the answer to this part of the mystery.
We would like to add a further thought that might give Cradley Links readers something to mull over:
Alfred was the youngest of four boys born to James and Eliza Willetts. There is a Sergeant Harry Willetts listed on the Cradley Heath Roll of Honour who died of wounds, aged 29, with the 3rd Worcestershire Regiment on July 23rd 1916 and who was the son of James and Eliza Willetts of 25 King Street, Cradley Heath. Could Harry be Alfred's older brother?
© Copyright 2004 Graham Hodgson.
First published in The Black Country Bugle.
Cradley Links thanks Graham for his generous
permission to reproduce this essay.
Original Copyright © MMX Cradley Heath Film:
Except where otherwise stated all movies are licensed under:
Creative Commons – Attribution - Non Commercial - No Derivatives
4.0 International Public License.
Creative Commons and the double C in a circle are registered trademarks
of Creative Commons in the United States and other countries.
Third party marks and brands are the property of their respective holders.