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Stafford soldier's grim memories of First World War ordeal

By Staffordshire Newsletter  |  Posted: August 01, 2014

Grim memories of First World War ordeal

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OLD soldier Billy Wiltsher could look back on his war experiences and conclude that he had a luckier time than most of his comrades, many of whom were left dead and dying in various theatres of war.

Yet for Billy, such experiences were gleaned when he was a mere teenager - 17 when the Great War broke out - and within months he was standing with other men crouched in a flooded, filthy trench at the battle-scarred Vimy Ridge.

He was cold, wet - and frightened - as he awaited orders to go over the top in a daring night raid to capture a single German prisoner.

The young men put on a brave face knowing that as soon as their heads showed above the trench line there was a likelihood of them being shot, blasted with rifle grenades or even fogged by mustard gas.

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More than 60 years afterwards, Billy sat in his bungalow at Stafford and recalled the horrors of the biggest bloodbath in history in which the death toll reached millions and affected almost every family in Britain.

Billy Wiltsher served as a private in the 20th London Regiment and got his first taste of warfare in the trenches of northern France - a place which he described as desolate. "There's not a living thing in sight; just heaps of rubble."

He went on to describe how incessant rain flooded the trenches and dugouts, an uncomfortable situation made even more awful by artillery bombardment.

When almost 60 years later, Billy went back to his old battlefield, he expressed amazement at how close his comrades were the Germans. "I remember hearing the Germans talking and singing and I heard one playing the mouth organ. I didn't realise we were that close."

Of course, soldiers would never venture out of the trenches during daylight or on moonlit nights, but he went over the top on night raids. "The feeling was terrible just as we went over."

When Billy was transferred to Salonika , the scenario was the same but hotter. Food was rationed due to the submarine-infested Mediterranean.

Billy then transferred to Egypt and went on to Palestine where temperatures soared during the day and plummeted at night. It was here that he saw some of the worst fighting and the fall of Jerusalem.

While in Jordan, he saw Lawrence of Arabia, T E Lawrence - a dashing figure in Arabian costume.

Even after victory in the Middle East, there was no rest for Billy when he was transferred to the same French village he had visited two years earlier. Thankfully, war was coming to a close - he was still on the front line when the Armistice was declared.

Thousands of Belgians and French turned out to greet the victorious armies, but they received a different reception in Germany with British soldiers ordered not to fraternise with the locals.

Bill's war wounds amounted to a toenail lost when tripping over a duckboard in the trenches. At Salonika, he had 16 boils on his neck - a minor discomfort compared with a sergeant major who took off his jacket and found a bullet had gone through his tunic, cutting his braces. "His trousers fell down!" smiled Billy.

During the Second World War, Billy was living with his wife Muriel in Gainsborough, later moving to Stafford in 1967 when she was appointed headmistress at the Riverway Girls' School. She died in 1976.

Billy had medals for his war service including a General Service Medal, Defence Medal and Victory Medal but was indifferent to any kind of sabre rattling.

He told the Newsletter: "The only reward I can see was the comradeship because we are all in it together. It was a waste, the youth of five nations just thrown away."

Billy Wiltsher died in 1982 - a year after the Newsletter interviewed him.

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