homage made at Arras Memorial, 9 April 2006
|Name:||FRITH, WILLIS HIRWIN|
|Regiment||Machine Gun Corps (Infantry)|
|Unit text:||207th Coy|
|Date of death:||08/06/1917|
Son of James Fletcher Frith and Mary Jane Frith,
of 17, Nottingham Rd., East Kirkby, Nottingham
|Casualty Type:||Commonwealth War Dead|
|From the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website|
On our various visits to the battlefields we have paid tribute to Henry’s cousin Charlie and his friends; to composers, poets, winners of the Victoria Cross, and air aces. Private Frith was none of these: he was a mule driver, in Henry Williamson’s transport section. We visited the Arras Memorial at my request, for his is a name that has long been with me, since first reading about his death, and the appalling manner of it, in Henry’s essay ‘Reality in War Literature’. He is mentioned there only briefly, and as far as I can see appears nowhere else in Henry’s writing. Private Frith does not seem to have an alter ego in A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight.
In the first part of ‘Reality in War Literature’, written in 1928 and included in The Linhay on the Downs & Other Stories (Cape, 1934), Henry describes an episode that occurred when he was Transport Officer of the 208th Machine Gun Company. The essay begins with an everyday sound which pitches Henry back into the grim past:
A motor car suddenly slowing down in the lane outside my window made a downward droning sound, and in an instant the sunlight was put out, and I was in deep sucking mud, helplessly and hopelessly pulling the reins of a mule, laden with machine guns, lying on its side on a slough of shell-holes. The vast negation of darkness, in hopeless travail with the dead weight of human and animal misery, was scored by white streaks arising in a semi-circle before us; burdened men, charred tree stumps, overturned limbers, sunken tanks, were wavery with shadows homeless in the diffused pallor of everlasting flares. To avoid the timber track, broken and congested with a battalion transport which had just received several direct hits, I had led the file of pack-mules across the morass, and one had fallen into a shell-hole; the foundering beast snorted and groaned, while the mud glimmered silver behind its ears. High explosive shells burst in salvoes around us, with ruddy glares and rending metallic crashes; bullets, arising in ricochet from the outpost-line nearer the flares, moaned and piped away overhead. I stood, hot and sweating, clogged with half a hundredweight of mud. Somewhere near the voice of a young colonel was cursing in high overwrought screams, for one of the mules had been hurled by a shell-blast among his men. They were coming out of the line after relief. Cries of horses mingled with the cries of men. Suddenly yellow-forked narrow flames rose to a great height in front, as though one of the poplars once lining the road were recreated in fire. One of the tanks going up to their jumping-off points for the morrow's battle had been hit. Within a minute the enemy harassing fire was concentrated on the road, and the flaming poplars rose, one beyond the other, into the rainy night. Then a soft downward slurring sound, followed by a dull thud; another, and another, and another. Gas shells! My box-respirator, at the alert position across the chest, was treble-weighted with mud. I could hardly discover my face, so heavy and monstrous were my arms. While I was struggling to fit the mask the brutal whine of five-nines began again along the track, and a salvo dropped in our midst.
A driver named Frith started screaming for his mother, and the light of my ordnance torch, through the misty panes of the gas-mask, projected a weak shine upon arms and legs tangled and twisted with shreds of a waterproof cape in a heap of dark red slime. A leather-covered trace heaved under the mass, and tautened; a stricken mule reared up gaping, and sagged, and under it Driver Frith sank into the slough.
Ten hours later our remaining mules, with their ears drooping, were standing, mud to fetlocks, along the picket line with its gnawn wooden posts. As for our night's work, nothing at all, as life went; an ordinary incident in the night job of any front-line transport.*
For many years that was all I knew about Driver Frith – just a name – but I found that description of how he died so powerful, so vivid, so haunting, that I have never forgotten it. And then, in Anne Williamson’s biography A Patriot’s Progress: Henry Williamson and the First World War (1998), she included as an illustration a page from one of Henry’s Army notebooks covering the period when he was with 208 Machine Gun Company. On it he has listed his mule drivers, and there among them, down as the cold shoer for the company’s mules, is Driver Frith. (A ‘cold shoer’s’ task was to replace shoes on horses, mules and donkeys without the necessity of a blacksmith’s bulky and heavy equipment of a forge and anvil, which was clearly impractical in the front line area. A cold shoer would use the nearest suitable size from a batch of shoes already made.)
|Page from HW's 1917 Field Notebook|
A little further information about Driver Frith has come from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, with its comprehensive database of the 1.7 million men and women killed in the two world wars and from the Roll of Honour page of Nottinghamshire County Council's website.
Private Frith is recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as having been killed on 8 June 1917, a little more than a month after his twentieth birthday – a lad just over a year younger than his officer, Lieutenant Henry Williamson – and I learned that Frith, like so many tens of thousands of others, has no known grave, and that his name is recorded on the memorial at Arras, one of 34,741 carved there.
Willis Hirwin Frith was born on 25 March 1897 in Kirkby-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, and was the son of James Fletcher Frith and his wife Mary Jane. He had two brothers: Arthur, two years older, and the much younger James, born in 1910. The family lived at 17, Nottingham Road, East Kirkby. James Fletcher Frith was a coal miner, a hewer at the coal face, while the eldest son Arthur also worked at the local colliery – there were several in the area – as an underground labourer. It is likely that his parents wanted better for Willis, as Nottinghamshire County Council records show him as being a BSc student at University College Nottingham, and a member of its Officer Training Corps. They state too that he may previously have been a teacher. Willis Frith enlisted as a private in the Nottinghamshire & Derbyshire Regiment (otherwise known as the Sherwood Foresters) in August 1916, Service Number 66531. He transferred to the Machine Gun Corps later that year as a founder member of 207 Company, which was formed on 24 October 1916, and underwent training at Belton Camp, Grantham; as did Henry, during the same period. We don't know when Frith was transferred to 208 Company, although it seems to have occurred in France; or why – perhaps it was to replace a casualty. The transfer may have been intended to be a temporary one, which might explain why the Commonwealth War Graves Commission record shows him as still being in 207 Company. Be that as it may, these few facts, and the manner of his dying, are all we know of this young soldier.
That horrific ten-hour journey on the night of 7/8 June 1917; six long miles in darkness and rain and mud up to the front line with the mules carrying replacement machine guns and ammunition; walking into a bombardment of high explosive and gas shells, and witnessing at close hand the ghastly death of Driver Frith and his mule – he can have been only a very few feet away – was to be Henry’s final, searingly traumatic memory of the Somme, and indeed of his active service on the Western Front. His short diary entry for 8 June reads:
Went sick this morning. Medicine & duty. Raining in evening [. . .]
Gassed at B[ullecourt].
And if it seems strange that the death of Private Frith is not mentioned here, it is not really so. As Henry said, it was 'an ordinary incident in the night job of any front-line transport'. Life went on. Deaths were so commonplace that they were seldom recorded in private diaries, unless it was that of a close friend. Henry was admitted to a Field Ambulance Hospital the next day, constantly vomiting from the gas he had inhaled, and was put on a milk diet. He was invalided home on 18 June after eighteen weeks’ active service in France, and thereafter for the rest of the war the medical boards would only pass him fit enough for Home Service.
My own feeling is that that night, when he came so close to death himself, was the defining moment of the war for Henry, the memory of which was almost too painful to recall. That extraordinarily vivid passage in his essay is almost as if he’s saying, ‘You want reality in war literature? This is reality.’ And having drawn back the veil of that awful memory just the once, he did not want to go there again.
at the Arras Memorial
9 April 2006
(Revised November 2015)
|Private Frith's name engraved on the Arras Memorial, Bay 10|
Arras Memorial, Bay 10
The Arras Memorial commemorates almost 35,000 servicemen from the United Kingdom,
South Africa and New Zealand who died in the Arras sector between the spring of 1916
and 7 August 1918, the eve of the Advance to Victory, and have no known grave.
* This extract conflates HW's first manuscript draft of his essay with the revised version printed in Linhay on the Downs.