CAPTAIN JAMES WILLARD - A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY
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by Dr Steven Henshaw
CAPTAIN JAMES WILLARD – A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY
James Henry Willard was born on the 21st of March 1880 in the City of Worcester. He was the only son of Elizabeth and Henry Morton Willard.
Mr and Mrs Willard
As a child he immersed himself in the poetry of Keats and Shelley, and he was a keen artist, although none of his artwork survives. James Willard enjoyed strolls with his parents across the Malvern Hills, and he would fly his kite atop of them on windy days. He was a quiet, thoughtful child, but friendly and kind, and liked by all who knew him.
At the age of fifteen his father died from a short illness, this had a profound effect on the young boy, and he grew in strength and character and obtained work at a public house in the City, and there are rumours that he sang in a barbershop quartet.
In 1900 he joined the armed forces, and both the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Worcestershire Regiment were involved in conflicts in Africa during 1900 and 1902.
“He was a quiet lad, but always willing to get stuck in when it was needed” Sergeant Edward Lee
On January 24th 1900 James Willard was amongst thirty thousand British Infantrymen twenty miles west of Ladysmith in the Natal. As a raw recruit it would be hard to imagine his feelings at being involved in the battle of Spion Kop. Commander Sir Charles Warren took his large force across the Tugler river, but then hesitated and waited for two days, unaware that the Boers were amassing a five thousand strong defense of the area. Warren decided to advance to the commanding heights of Spion Kop, he sent two thousand men, including the young and inexperienced Willard on a mission to scale the hill. It was a tragic miscalculation, the soldiers could not dig in, and had no sandbags, and they were soon to discover that they were overlooked by Boer artillery. The British force came under heavy fire, and had little means of defense, and without communication from their Commanding Officer, they stood and fought back defiantly as they were butchered in their thousands. Reinforcements kept the hill under British control, but by 4.30 the two opposing sides withdrew as both believed they were losing ground. The Boers rallied and retook the hill with ease as it was now thick with the corpses of British soldiers.
An artist's impression of Kopje and Tugler river
“It was the lad’s first real action, but he stood shoulder to shoulder with our boys and didn’t falter, even when the boar artillery tore into us” Sergeant Edward Lee
Spion Kop cost the lives of two thousand British soldiers and two hundred Boers and it was a disastrous day for the British Military.
During the last hours of darkness of February 12th 1900 James Willard’s 2nd Battalion were involved in a brutal attack by the Boers at Kopje Camp in Slingerfrontein, the British fought off the Boers as they moved up a hill, later named Worcester Hill. The British Battalion contained at least four hundred and fifty marksmen, but they were greatly outnumbered as the Boers proceeded through the early morning mist, firing their rifles and shouting fiercely, they were picked off with great accuracy by the British snipers. James Willard distinguished himself by claiming the lives of many Boers, although he was wounded in the thigh by a bullet. The defense was successful and the Boers retreated with the loss of over two hundred men killed or wounded. During a brief hand to hand struggle with the attacking Boers, the British lost twenty eight men and nearly a hundred were wounded.
Boers at Spion Kopje
“I watched Private Willard, he was in the thick of it. The blood was up, and the bullets were flying! He caught one in the leg, but didn’t falter, he kept his nerve under fire”. Private Herbert Short
James Willard’s injury was not severe and he soon returned to combat.
Sargeant James Willard
James Willard returned home in 1902, but remained in the army. In 1910 he married Catherine Bowers.
She was born in Ledbury on September 18th 1888 and was employed as a seamstress at the Worcester Glove Factory. They met when they were both on holiday in Brighton. He approached Catherine through the rain and seeing that she looked cold, he handed her his coat to wear, and romance quickly bloomed between the two.
They were married on the 17th of August of the following year, and in 1914 when Catherine was twenty six they had a baby, who they called Emma.
On the 28th of June 1914 the Great War began. James Willard now a Captain was posted to France and Flanders.
Captain James Willard
He was amidst the one hundred and twenty five thousand soldiers at the battle of the First Marne on September 6th 1914.
On the eve of the battle, the French General Joseph Joffe stated.
“A soldier who can no longer advance must guard the territory already held, no matter what cost. He must be killed where he stands rather than draw back”.
The battle was brutal and lasted for four days at the cost of up to one hundred thousand men killed in action.
The objective at Artois Loos was to attack the German defenses on the Northern side of Vimy, led by the British Commander Sir John French who advanced his army somewhat reluctantly behind a cloud of chlorine gas, unfortunately the gas drifted back to the British lines, and inflicted many unnecessary casualties, as men were blinded or died from poisoning.
Sir John French
“Captain Willard always led from the front. He was willing to take a bullet for his men. I was a boy, new to the Front, and he cared for me like a kid brother”. Private John Chapman
However the first stage of the advance at Artois Loos was successful, unfortunately, reinforcements were not sent up quick enough, and as a result Captain Willard’s men were mown down in their thousands, as they marched headlong into German machine gun fire. Due to the heavy losses, and General John French’s failure to provide back up support for the advance he was swiftly replaced by Sir Douglas Haig.
Sir Douglas Haig
Captain James Willard was also distressed by the failure of leadership, and felt bitterly for the loss of so many lives. It was at this point that he started to talk to himself, although this never interfered with his leadership skills. His men did find his behaviour a little odd, but most believed it was a means of coping with the dreadful experiences of war.
“Captain Willard seemed to be surrounded by angels. He’d have long chats with them. Some of the soldiers thought he was crazy, me? Well I thought he was crazy too”. Private Jim Baker
However by late 1916 Captain Willard’s mind began to fracture and he was diagnosed with shellshock and sent to Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh Scotland, where he was put into the care of Dr W H R Rivers a well respected psychiatrist. After a few months treatment he was considered cured and sent back to the war.
Dr W H R Rivers
On the 31st of July 1917 he was involved in the Third Battle of Ypres, infamously known as Passchendaele. He had transferred to the British Fifth Army due to heavy losses. General Haig ordered the shelling of German lines, and four million shells were dropped during fifteen days of heavy bombardment. This was not enough to break the German spirit, and the Allied forces found themselves bogged down in low lying terrain. General Herbert Plumer in command of the British achieved some success against the Germans, with “Bite and hold” tactics and once more Captain Willard was in the thick of the action as he advanced his men forward with artillery support and by October 4th 1917 they had taken Polygon Wood and Broodseide. Instead of declaring victory, General Haig insisted the Allies push on and mount an offensive at Passchendaele Ridge. He told his officer.
“The enemy is faltering… A good decisive blow might lead to decisive results”.
In the final stages of the battle, the weather worsened, the rains came and the ground became a quagmire, where men and horses drowned in water filled shell holes. The situation worsened with fresh reserves of mustard gas pouring over the British, Anzac, and Canadian lines.
German Gunners Passchaendale
“Captain Willard's Spirit never changed and you could see the strain in his eyes. He seemed distant sometimes, deep in thought. He always cared for the welfare of his men. Captain Willard was a decent fella”. Private Thomas Cream
It was during this time that Captain James Henry Willard wrote his epic war poem Passchendaele - The Final Call.
He placed the poem inside his Bible alongside a letter he had written to his wife.
Reproduced from the original letter
The Canadians finally captured the remains of Passchendaele Village on the 6th of November 1917. The cost of this battle was an estimated loss of two hundred and fifty thousand Allies, and seventy thousand Germans.
In early October 1918, a month before the war ended, Captain James Willard went missing on a reconnaissance mission into no-mans-land. His body was never recovered.
“When I heard that Captain Willard had gone missing in action, I cried”. Private Jim Baker
Tragically the letter he had written to his wife was never delivered because Catherine and her baby died early the following year during the influenza epidemic.
Captain James Henry Willard’s life was brief but as he stated in his final letter written before his death.
“Always remember that my spirit remains strong and that I died with love in my heart”.
The Great War ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh month of the eleventh day 1914 with the loss of ten million lives.....
The Cenotaph 1920
Lest We Forget
© Dr Steven Henshaw 2011