Letters from the Great War: Slaughter at Mons

Bill Burgess. Bill Burgess.

Friday, May 23, 2014
8:08 AM

A letter home from wounded Ilfracombe artilleryman Will Burgess.

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The North Devon Gazette is asking readers to share family records and memories of World War One ahead of the centenary this summer.The North Devon Gazette is asking readers to share family records and memories of World War One ahead of the centenary this summer.

Ilfracombe Gazette, September 11, 2014.

Mrs E Burgess of 10 Larkstone Terrace, received the following further letter from her son, William, who was wounded in the battle of Mons:

Dear mother - Many thanks for the letter and parcel. Do not send any fruit, because they give us plenty of that. We get very good food. When I get better they are sending me to a convalescent home. They will be sure to give me a holiday before I go out again. Tell Mrs Klee not to worry about Harry, because he is not with the guns. He was looking after two spare horses up to the time I left so I do not think he can get touched.

We left our landing place for the front on the Tuesday, and got there on Saturday night. The Germans had just reached Liege then, and we got into action on the Sunday morning.

The first thing we did was to blow up a bridge to stop the Germans from crossing. Then we came into action behind a lot of houses, attached to the main street, in Belgium. We were there about 10 minutes, when the houses started to fall around us, the poor people were buried alive. I saw poor children getting knocked down by bursting shells.

The next move was to advance across, where there was a Red Cross Hospital. They dropped shells from airships and fired on it, until the place was burnt down to the ground.

Then they got a plan on to retire, and let the French get behind them. We retired eight miles, but we had to fight until we were forced to move again. We got as far as Le Cateau on Tuesday night. It was a place just like Dartmoor, all flat, so we camped there until two o’clock the next morning.

Then we all heard there was a big fight coming off, so we all got together and cleared the field for action. We had 75,000 men, whilst there was against us 200,000. We cut them down like rats. We could see them coming on us in heaps, and dropping like hail. The colonel passed along the line and said ‘stick it boys’.

I tell you, mother, it was awful to see your own comrades dropping down, some getting their heads blown off, and others their legs and arms. I was fighting with my shirt off, and a piece of shell went right through my vest at the back and never touched me. It stuck into a bag of earth which we put in between the wheels to stop bullets.

We were there all busy fighting when an airship came right over the line and dropped a bomb, which caused a terrible lot of smoke. Of course, that gave the Germans our range. Then the shells were dropping on us thick. We looked across the line and saw six German guns coming towards us. We turned our two centre guns on them, and sent them yards in the air. I reckon I saw one German go quite 20 yards in the air. Just after that a shell burst right over our gun, that one got me out of action. I had to get off the field the best way I could. The bullets were going all around me.

On the way off, they got completely around us. I went about two miles and met a Red Cross cart. I was taken to St Quentins hospital.

We were shelled out of there, about two in the morning and then were taken in a train, and taken down to a plain near Rouen.

Next morning we were put in a ship for dear old England. We got a fine send off, and a good reception at London. I think we are safe enough now, for a few weeks.

Well, mother, I think that is all now. I hear the King and Queen are coming to see us tomorrow.

From your ever loving son, Bill.

PS: Excuse writing, as the wounds affect me a lot. They have taken all the bullets out.

Will Burgess was killed in action in June 1916 aged 20. His name is on the Menin Gate memorial.

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