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Poignant letters from a German family to the mother of Quinton lad killed in action in First World War

By dan shaw  |  Posted: November 15, 2013

Robert Willetts in uniform. He was killed in action on March 21, 1918, aged 21.

Robert Willetts in uniform. He was killed in action on March 21, 1918, aged 21.

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THE Armistice commemorations always revive memories of those that lost their lives in the World Wars and we thank Vivien Lawton of Bridgnorth for sharing with us the poignant story of her uncle, Bob Willetts, who was killed in the First World War.

Robert Edward Willetts was the son of Albert and Lizzie Willetts of Ridgacre Lane, Quinton. He served with the 8th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment and he was killed in action on 21st March, 1918, aged 21.

The follow extract from the official war diaries of the Royal Berkshires describes the action in which Bob Willetts was killed.

"March 21, 1918. Our reports show that in the 4th week of March, 1918, the 8 R. Berks were on the St Quentin front and took part in the general retirement caused by the great German offensive which began on March 21. It seems that on that day the enemy first put up a heavy bombardment and then advanced, driving our men back rapidly. The following accounts are from men who were present:

"'On March 21 the Germans attacked the British front on the St Quentin road near Magpie Wood. The 8 R. Berks were holding the front line, and their support lines were just in front of some chalk pits. They had to retire and suffered severely in so doing. The ground was lost.'

"'On March 21 our position was Caffone Farm about a kilometer to the right of St Quentin near a quarry. The German line was along a ridge and ran through Ganchy or some other village near it. There was a valley between their line and ours. My Platoon officer got killed by shell early in the day. The Germans attacked about midday and practically surrounded the 3 front sections of our platoon.'

"'On March 21 we were in a trench at a strong point in front of Ly Fontaine S. of St Quentin near Hoy. We were compelled to retire, leaving the wounded behind. There was no time to be lost in effecting our retreat.'

"On man thus describes his own experiences:

"'On March 21 just at daybreak on the St Quentin front about 2 dozen of us were in a dug-out. The Germans were shelling heavily at the time, and we were evacuating. They surrounded the place where we were and I made a rush and got through. The others remained in the dug-out, because the shelling was so heavy. The Germans took the ground.'

"It would seem that the casualties of the Batt occurred principally on March 21 but were not counted up for 2 or 3 days, owing to the enforced retirement."

We don't know when Bob's parents were informed of his death but as the war ended they would have been in deep mourning, knowing that their son had no grave.

Then, out of the blue, Bob's mother received a letter from the wife of a German soldier in Bavaria. We have reprinted it as written:

"Helmbrechts, 27/9/19. Dear missis, my husband, he has been last year (last spring) by the offensive southerly St Quentin.

"At the 23 of March he found there an envelop with your adresse by the dead body from a young english soldier. My husband he has taken this envelop with him to a remembrance.

"If thise young man is your son, how I think, I will bee ready with pleasure to send you thise envelop for a last remembrance at your son. Also I will write you some more from the place where your son has found his grave.

"With the best regards, your, Sofie Zinper."

What emotions must this letter have stirred in the heart of Lizzie Willetts? She wrote back to Frau Zinper and received the following reply with further details:

"Helmbrechts, 15/10/19. Dear Madam, I have received your letter of Oct 1st last. I thank you for the answer but you must excuse my bad english. I learnded in the high school and later I have been in America with my brother, for about 22 months.

"Concerning your son: my husband told me the following. On March the 23rd, 18, in the morning my husband marched with his men from May near Oise canal in a eastern direction and they came to the second english position near Ly Fontaine.

"There were lying in the left side of the road dead german infantrymen, on the right side english infantrymen, most from a Essex Regiment and in a battery position many dead Artillerymen.

"A very young beautiful Englishman strak my husband. He was lying dead on his back on the edge of a trench. Both the arms extended. The rifle was fallen from his right hand. He had a shot right through the head on the temple and death must have followed instantly.

"He had been a beautiful, young man, with fair curled hair. By the dead body my husband found some newspapers and a envelope bearing your address. He was about to write to you. My husband took the envelope as a remembrance and told me to write to the above address as soon as the war is finished. The picture of the dead body is still quite vivid before my husband.

"Ly Fonatine is a perfect demolished village. The whole country is destroyed with all its house and trees.

On the 25th he came again to Ly Fontaine and he found all the dead bodies buried.

"I hope to hear from you again and remain, respectfully yours, Sofie Zinper.

"Our son is also dead, 1915, near Cavency. He has been old 19 years. We don't know his grave. I am the 2nd mother."

It can be hoped that Bob's parents received some comfort from this news about their son's death.

The letters highlight the mass grieving that engulfed Europe at the end of the war. Bloodshed on such a scale had never been experienced before, leaving many families devastated and many struggled to come to terms with it. Within just 10 months of the war ending these two mourning mothers from opposite sides of the conflict reached out to comfort each other.

Such were the rapid advances and reverses in 1918 that the graves of Bob Willetts and his comrades were lost. However, his name is recorded on the Pozieres Memorial, along with over 14,000 UK and South African soldiers who were killed between March and August 1918 and have no known graves. A few years back, Vivien became the first member of her family to visit the memorial and she left poppies at the site of the battlefield where her uncle was killed.

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