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  • Claire Jordan

Always In Our Thoughts

This brave lovely man is William Yarlett, son of a Wiltshire woodsman, elder brother to Edit and Walter, who grew up in the little village of Newton Toney, just outside Salisbury.

When he left school, William became a shepherd and married his girl Daisy right before he set off for War as a Sapper with the Royal Engineers in 1917.

At some point transferred to the Lancashire Fusiliers to make good heavy losses, his 18th Battalion made it to October 1918 and knew the end was surely in sight. Everywhere the enemy was in retreat, but they were certainly not falling back voluntarily.

After two days’ rest on 16th and 17th October, they were ordered to assist the 106th Infantry Brigade crossing the River Lys. William’s time with the RE must have come in useful as whole Battalions managed to cross the rushing water, in places using just a single-plank footbridge.

But that was the easy bit.

From then on, the fighting was continuous. The Germans were falling back as their war machine crumbled behind them, but still they fought for every blasted blade of grass.

In the final week of the month, the French were having difficulty with their advance so it was decided that William’s Brigade should push along the River Scheldt in order to threaten the enemy’s communication lines and take some of the pressure off our ally.

All of this led up to the last day of the month, 31st October 1918, hardly two weeks before the Armistice would be signed.

That morning, the 17th and William’s 18th Battalions were ordered to attack, the 17th climbing up over the parapets at 5.25am. The 18th started out ten minutes later, as their war diary calmly notes: “for the eighth time since 28th September.”

The fighting was as brutal as anything that had gone before in four long years of War.

Everyone was exhausted; everyone just wanted to live long enough to see the thing through to the bitter end; everyone was desperate in a hundred different ways.

Several hostile machine gun positions were rushed by individual Tommies, using the bayonet to stop the massacre of their friends.

At one point, William’s 18th Battalion were being fired on at point blank range by a German battery of guns. Our lads rushed the position, tearing into the jaws of death, and kept on coming til the guns were silenced.

By 11am, the Battalion had reached all of its objectives, some 2½ miles from the starting line, a phenomenal achievement, but its losses had been the heaviest in the entire Brigade.

The thousand men who had hopped the bags when the whistles blew yet again that morning had between them captured 125 prisoners, 3 field guns, 3 anti-tank rifles, 18 machine guns, 4 trench mortars and three messenger dogs.

The 18th Lancashire Fusiliers at what would become known as the Battle of Courtrai showed the sort of courage and stoicism for which there are no words. They had been in the fight for so long and had seen so many disasters, so much loss; they could have been under no illusions about what would meet them when Zero Hour came that day, so close to the end.

For their part in the Battle, some individual acts of heroism would be recognised with a bar to the Distinguished Service Order, three Military Crosses, two Distinguished Conduct Medals, three bars to the Military Medal and a total of nineteen Military Medals.

None of which can have been much comfort to William’s parents back home in Newton Toney, or to his new wife Daisy in their new home at Warren Cottage in the village, when the news came that William had been killed in action that day, aged 24.

“Always in Our Thoughts” is the epitaph they chose for him in Harlebeke New British Cemetery, about 25 miles east of Ypres, in a corner of a foreign field that is forever England.

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