I am often struck when reading newspaper reports or personal accounts from the war at just how frank they can be, in a way that you just would not see in newspapers these days. These accounts often include the ‘gory details’ of how many of the enemy were dispatched, and how – in many cases accompanied by a fairly graphic illustration (think propaganda publications such as The War Illustrated or Deeds that Thrill the Empire).
One such account appeared in The Fifeshire Advertiser on 1 January 1916, under the headline ‘Dysart Hero’s Gallant Exploit. Kills Seven Germans, Then Falls’:
Details of a gallant exploit, in which Private William Riley, Durham Light Infantry, killed a German officer, six men, and captured a German machine gun, have been received by his mother, Mrs Riley, 16 Dovecot Crescent, Dysart, in a letter from another member of the regiment. Private Riley was, unfortunately, killed a few hours later.
His comrade states that he was one of the few left who came out originally with the regiment. He was within a hundred yards of Pte. Riley when the latter fell, and he was respectfully buried by the Queen’s Westminster Rifles.
The writer continues – “His gallant action will remain with the regiment for many years, especially in the minds of those who saw him. I don’t know if he was recommended for any reward, as all his officers were killed, which makes all the difference in the world. I will tell you of his action, according to some of the chaps who were with him at the time. After a very stubborn resistance by the Germans, our regiment took the first line. Young Willie jumped into the trench and as he did so, a big German officer got hold of his throat and tried to strangle him. But Willie blew this officer’s head nearly off. After this he walked into the next traverse, killed six Germans, and captured a machine gun. After doing this his company officer sent him to report something to regimental headquarters, and while on his way back he was killed. No doubt you will be greatly upset over this sad affair, but you have the satisfaction of knowing your son died a hero’s death. He died for a great cause, and a gallant hero, too. If he had survived I daresay you no doubt would have been the mother of a V.C. hero. It was something like the feat of Michael O’Leary when he won the V.C. If young Willie had only done what the commanding officer told him to do he might have been spared. In delivering his message to the C.O. he was told to have a bit rest to get his wind back, but instead of this he rushed straight back to the trenches, and it was on his way back that he met his fate. No one was more touched than I was when the signaller at the Durhams’ headquarters signalled it through to me.”
William Riley had been overseas with the 2nd Battalion Durham Light Infantry since 8 September 1914. The action referred to in the article took place on 9 August 1915, when the battalion attacked from Sanctuary Wood toward Hooge, suffering 48 killed, 268 wounded, and 100 missing. Riley’s grave was subsequently lost and he is commemorated on the Menin Gate. On the same day as the newspaper article, his name was listed in the London Gazette as ‘mentioned in despatches’, presumably for his actions on the day he was killed. He is also commemorated on Dysart war memorial.
The action of Michael O’Leary referred to in the letter took place near Cuinchy on 1 February 1915. O’Leary, serving in the Irish Guards, stormed a machine gun nest, killing eight Germans and taking another two prisoner. There are several illustrations depicting this event; two are shown below.