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WW1: Burslem’s ‘Dan Leno’ led a charmed life on the Western Front

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PRIVATE William Davies fingered the bullet hole in his army issue peaked cap as he celebrated his 25th birthday on a battlefield the enemy just yards away. The rip in his cap was testament to how close he had come to death in the 12-months he had spent on the Western Front at that point. During that time Billy, as he was known, had faced death many times with the 1st/5th North Staffordshire Regiment, the ‘Fighting Fifth’.

By September, 1915, Billy had faced snipers at Wulverghem, the hated ‘whizz bang’ trench mortars which were routinely dropped on the North Staffords, and the terrifying German ‘liquid fire’ attack at Hooge.

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But as Billy and the rest of the battalion sat in trenches 37 to 40, in the shadow of Hill 60, close to Ypres he did not know that worst was still to come. The Battle of Loos was about to start. The battle which would lead up to the order for the Fighting Fifth to attack the Hohenzollern Redoubt on October 13, 1915, when 500 men would be gunned down in the space of a few minutes. But on September 11, as he wrote to his parents, George and Catherine Davies, at their home at 74 Furlong Lane, Burslem; Billy had no regrets.

He wrote: “Well, my birthday has passed now, the strangest birthday I have ever spent. I little thought that I should ever spend a birthday on a battlefield, with a terrible foe a few yards away!

“Oh well, life is full of surprises, and when I look back on my 12 months of soldiering, I must say I do not regret enlisting.

“I am bound to admit that if the young men of England had not answered the call at the commencement of the war, England by now may have been in the terrible state that Belgium is in.

“I wish you could see the ruins everywhere. Just imagine what it would be like if Burslem was shelled day and night with enormous shells.

“If the Queen’s Hall and the town hall were in ruins, all the town blown out, streets wiped out. Ruins, ruins, everywhere, and no civilians living in the place.

“It is really terrible, the sad story of Belgium’s tragedy. Thank goodness England does not know what the realities of war are.”

The realities of the Great War were about to come crashing down on the Fighting Fifth. A month after he wrote his letter, Billy Davies would find himself in the line, about to charge into the German machine guns defending the Hohenzollern Redoubt. But Billy had already come within an inch of death when he sat down to write to his parents. The hole in his army issue cap was the proof. Army censors prevented Billy from telling his parents when and where the charge took place, but he is probably referring to the surprise attack at Hooge.

Germans had attacked the 5th North Staffords with liquid fire in July, using their terrifying new weapon, the flame thrower. The British took revenge on August 9. Billy wrote: “Do you remember the recent charges by the British at (deleted), when they took some trenches from the Germans?

“Our battalion was on the right of that position, close to, and I can tell you, our artillery, which played on the German trenches before our chaps charged, was simply fine. Our artillery knocked their trenches about like skittles, and so made things much easier for our infantry, who made the charge at daybreak.

“It was a magnificent sight in the grey light of the morning to see our big shells dropping, and to see the flashes of the guns as they fired.

“I had some rather exciting times in the trenches. I was posted on a listening post. I was acting as a bomb thrower my duties being, of course, to throw bombs at the Germans who ventured too near our quarters.

“As soon as it was fairly dark the Germans commenced letting us have it hot. After a time we decided to let them have it. We simply rained bombs on their trenches and it cooled them down a bit.

“As daylight was appearing, I poked my head cautiously over the trench to seen how things were. I could see some of the movements of the Germans and was busily engaged in watching them when they must have spotted me, for I heard the crack of a rifle. My hat dropped and I dropped into the trench to find that the bullet had passed through my hat.”

He added: “The trenches we have just come out of are about the hottest in the line. I should think there is not much rifle fire, it’s all shells shells of all descriptions, and hand bombs.

“One of the worst shells they used on us was called the ‘Whizz Bang’. It’s a terrible kind of shell. You really haven’t a chance against it. It’s no sooner fired than it strikes your trench. You can hear a short whizz and then a very loud report and you begin to feel if you are all there.”

In the 1st/5th North Staffords’ war diary, the attack on August 8 is referenced in a few simple lines, typed out behind the lines in blue ink by the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Hall Knight. Lt-Col Knight wrote: “British bombardment at Hooge, 2.45-3.45am, followed by attack. Attack supported by artillery fire on our front. Enemy replied, but caused no casualties.”

The next day, the battalion were relieved by the 1st/6th Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment. Rumours were already circulated around the trenches of a ‘Big Push’. That attack was launched at Loos on September 25, acting on a plan devised by the French general, Marshall Joseph Joffre, Commander-in-Chief of the Allies.

Over those first two weeks of battle, Sir John French, then commander of the British forces on the Western Front, sent battalion after battalion into battle as the casualty rate rose but virtually every inch of ground captured, was then retaken by the Germans. At the start of October the 46th (Midland) Division was ordered forward and the Fighting Fifth were put on a path which would lead to that fateful charge at the Hohenzollern Redoubt.

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AS COMRADES were cut down either side of him Billy Davies seemed to lead a charmed life.

The bullet hole in his cap was a souvenir of the luck which had seen him survive numerous engagements with the enemy including the charge at Hohenzollern on October 13, 1915. An amateur comedian before the war, Billy Davies could always be relied upon for a joke or a cheery word behind the lines.

Billy had been promoted to Company Sergeant Major before his luck finally ran out near Lens, on July 1, 1917. The battalion attacked ‘Aconite’ trench at 2.47am, under cover of a creeping barrage. It seems Billy was one of the senior NCOs leading the ‘moppers up’, a company of men charged with clearing any surviving enemy after the first wave of attacks had pushed through the German positions.

This company was held up by Germans defending the shattered ruins of houses positioned between the 1st/5th North Staffords and their final objective. Although the battalion’s war diary does not mention Billy by name, it is likely he was killed during this fierce, house-to-house fighting. With Billy, and the officer in command of the ‘moppers up’ also killed, the company suffered from a lack of leadership. The survivors were supposed to clear the remaining houses of enemy, however, instead they charged forward with the rest of the battalion.

The 5th North Staffords’ war diary records: “The leading waves of the two right companies (with their moppers up), succeeded in reaching their objective.

“Some parties of their second wave were held up in severe house to house fighting and men did not reach Aconite trench. This was due to the moppers up losing their officer and senior NCOs (Non-Commisioned Officers) and the men, instead of clearing the houses, had evidently gone forward with the attacking wave.”

Billy was born in Tunstall, in 1891, but grew up in Burslem. When the 1911 census was taken, he was aged 20 and living with his parents, George and Catherine Davies, and his younger brothers and sisters, Rose, aged 18, George, aged 16, Joseph, aged eight, and six-year-old Gemima. As a young boy, he was well known around Burslem as a comic, and was even described as, ‘Burslem’s own Dan Leno’, comparing him with the great Victorian music hall comedian. By 1911, he had served his apprenticeship with the Wedgwood Printing Works, in Burslem, and was working as a letter press printer.

He had joined the Territorial Army in 1910, but just before the outbreak of war, Billy, a lay preacher, had planned to enter a Divinity training college, envisioning a future as a man of the cloth. He was a serving soldier when he married, probably in 1915 to Annie Birks; although there is also a William Davies of Burslem who married Bertha Douglas, in 1917, listed in marriage records. The war not only ended his plans of further education and joining the clergy, but also his hopes of bringing up a family with his new bride.

After his death, his photograph was displayed in trade paper, the Typographical Circular, together with a short article about Sergeant Major WM. Davies, of Burslem. It said: “He had seen a lot of action with the ‘Fighting Fifth’ and seems to have borne a charmed life; he had been in many a tight corner, but ‘midst all the trials and hardships he was always merry and bright and the life and soul of any company he happened to be in, and was known just as ‘Billy’.

“His cheery optimism was greatly admired and he was a great favourite with all ranks during his Armyrats © military career, as he was in private life.

“He was 27 years of age and leaves a young wife to mourn her loss.”

His body was not recovered from the battlefield. His name is instead remembered on the Arras Memorial.

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IN A PREVIOUS letter, Billy Davies spoke about the battalion’s first experiences of life in the trenches, at Wulverghem.

His letter was one of many found in old copies of the Sentinel by researchers Ken Ray, aged 74, of Roe Lane, Newcastle, and Ken Baddeley, aged 67, of Trent Vale. In a letter published in The Sentinel on April 17, 1915, Billy said: “Many thanks for the Sentinel, which I received just as we were going into the trenches. We have just returned from them after being in three days and three nights.

“It’s about the most serious bit of the war that we have seen yet. The Germans were about 150 yards away and were first class shots. Their snipers were very active, and also uncomfortably accurate. One of our chaps was observing with a periscope. He only put about two inches of it over the parapet, and they put a bullet right through it, (that was Sergeant C F Rose, a soldier from Stone, whose eyes and face were cut with small shards of glass from the shattered periscope).

“The most trying time was Easter Sunday afternoon when they commenced to shell our trenches. It makes one feel a bit uncomfortable when the shelling begins. However, here we are again, safe and sound and I have just removed five days dirt from my face.

“I am resting a bit now, as when you are in the trenches you get no rest, and my resting place is a barn, around which the Germans are dropping shells. Cheerful, eh!”

DID YOU KNOW: British troops wore peaked caps until 1916, when they were replaced by the Brodie Helmet.

41 How many soldiers serving with the 1st/5th Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment who died in the attack on July 1, 1917, including Sergeant Major William Davies.

13 How many German prisoners were taken by the ‘Fighting Fifth’ on July 1, 1917, along with three enemy machine guns.

562 How many men serving with the 1st/5th Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment were killed during the Great War.

References

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