Local historian remembers Aldwincle relative who died in First World War 100 years ago today

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Former Harborough Mail editor John Dilley has been researching the First World War.

Today he writes about a very personal story.

“March 27 1918 – in loving memory of my great-uncle Private William Henry Bland, who became yet another victim of the Great War one hundred years ago today.

Willie Bland was my great-uncle. He was ‘charming and cheerful and everybody was fond of him’. He’s the kind of man you would like to know. I never did though because great-uncle Willie died a hundred years ago today, on March 27, 1918. He was just 19.

In the few short months after joining the East Kent Regiment he was plucked from the tiny village of Aldwincle in Northamptonshire where he had been born and bred and thrown into the maelstrom of the Great War. He went to fight for King and country like millions of other men but in fact he never got to fire a shot in anger.

His fate was to be stationed in the Middle Eastern theatre of war so he was put on a troop ship that sailed from the south coast of England, round the Bay of Biscay and the Iberian Peninsula and into the Mediterranean Sea.

Today we think of holidays by the Med – Spain, Greece, Italy and Cyprus – where we can lay on sun-kissed beaches drinking cold beers.

However, one hundred years ago the Mediterranean was a very dangerous place. It was swarming with German submarines and their torpedoes, one of the many remarkable technological advances of a war that created ever more efficient and devastating ways to destroy human flesh on an industrial scale.

Great-uncle Willie’s troop ship was just one more victim of this modern weaponry. He was thrown into the water when the ship was crippled and he nearly drowned but he was pulled from the sea with a shattered leg and taken to a hospital in Jerusalem, at the time part of what was called Palestine and mainly under British control.

Sadly like so many of his comrades at this time in history, his body became infected and his left leg had to be amputated.

How he must have felt – so far from home and family, in a totally alien environment, sick and doomed to a life of disability. But his torture must have worsened because 18 days after that torpedo blew a hole in the side of his ship he had died.

Willie had been born in the summer of 1898 to my great-grandparents Joseph and Sarah Bland. There had been other brothers and sisters who never made it out of childhood but he did have one big sister, Annie, who was to become my grandmother.

By the time Willie went off to war his father Joseph had been dead for seven years. During his teenage years he would have felt like he was the man of the house, ‘anxious to help everybody he could’.

His mum Sarah, we can imagine, must have been worried sick to know her only son was going off into mortal danger and her worst fears were realised when she received a letter from the hospital where Willie was being treated.

The letter is reproduced in the parish magazine and, as it says, brings ‘a ray of hope’ despite its awful content. It reads: “Dear Mrs Bland. Your son Will has asked me to write to you and tell you he was wounded on Saturday last (March 9). His leg was very badly shattered and has had to be amputated below the knee. He had his operation today and is doing splendidly.

“He has asked me to tell you not to worry, as he will be quite all right and sure of getting home to England later on. We will do all we possibly can for him and the Matron will write from time to time and let you know how he is getting on.

“He sends you all his love and does hope you will not worry about him too much.”

Again, I can only imagine how often my great grandmother read and re-read that letter, feeling sick with worry in one moment and clinging to hope for the future in another.

It appears the letter was followed by a deathly silence, no news – good or bad – was being issued from the Army and Sarah must have contacted the Ladies Association of the East Kent Regiment for help in finding out what had happened to Willie.

On April 17 Sarah received a letter that confirmed her worst fears. Willie had died.

The letter is from the Army and appears to be a little ‘routine’ because it is addressed to ‘Dear Sir’.

The letter continues: “We were asked a little time ago by the Secretary of the Ladies Association of the East Kent Regiment to make enquiries in Egypt about Private Bland, and it is with deep regret a telegram has just reached us from our office in Alexandria informing us that your son died at No 43 Stationary Hospital, El Arish, on March 27.

“We are also told that as a result of his wound it was found necessary to amputate his left leg, but evidently in spite of this, it was impossible to save his life.”

Nearly a million men from the British Isles died during this dreadful war and so this scenario was played out many, many times. But it does not make the pain any easier for Sarah and her one remaining child Annie.

The parish magazine does a wonderful job describing Willie. “Willie Bland was a charming young man, always cheerful and anxious to help everyone he could; everybody was fond of him; he was a universal favourite.

“We might have hoped that as he was nearly drowned at sea when his troop ship was torpedoed he might have been permitted to go through the war without further mishap; but it was not to be, and he has died a noble death in fighting for his King and country in the righteous cause of freedom and liberty.”

Sarah would go on to live for another 20 years, latterly with her daughter Annie, who was by then married to Billy Rowlatt, and their children Jean and Kathleen, my mum and auntie. Sarah died in February 1939, just months before the second great war of the 20th century.

So did Private William Bland, G/24058 of The Buffs (East Kent Regiment) die in vain? I guess it depends on your politics and your world view. Whatever the answer the descendants of Willie’s sister Annie will remember his story and one day visit his grave at Kantara War Memorial Cemetery in Egypt (plot 248).

This column is published every Monday by John Dilley on the Newspapers and the Great War website and will continue until the 100th anniversary of the final armistice in November 2018.