By Elizabeth Ann Smith

A Worcester family’s initiative to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War has unearthed a heart-breaking letter from the trenches from their young ancestor to his sister Ada.

It’s full of hope and courage with everyday banalities, like his mum’s false teeth, interspersed with understated details of brushes with death.  He’d just ‘been over the top’. Within days of sending it, 19 year-old Lance Corporal Walter Davis of the 1st Battalion Wiltshire Regiment was dead.  Armistice was to come just weeks later. 

The letter

Friday 20/9/18

Dear Ada

In answer to your letter of the 9th Sept.  I can hardly express how delighted I was to receive it also to know you and all @ home are in the best of health.

I am pleased to say I am in the pink with the exception of my feet.  I went over the top the other morning & through standing in water got a touch of trench feet it nothing serious, I am now in hospital & expect to stop here for 3 or 4 days, My Batt: don’t know where I am so if Mother should receive a notice saying I am missing tell her to take no notice of it.  I expect you have already heard about us going over the top the other morning.  I had some very narrow scrapes. I simply put my trust in God & felt him with me, my chums where hit out right & left of me every time I get into a tight corner something seems to say  (Lo I am with you always) don’t laugh @ me for writing like this but I feel I must tell you.

Dear Ada I am pleased to hear you are delighted over me going in for my com:  I have spoken to the S. M. about it & he said he would push it forward. I am getting my other stripe when I get back to my Batt: of course it may probably take a month or two before I am sent home as I have to get my papers filled in, so please don’t  say anything to anyone as I don’t want anyone to know anything about my business you know what people are.

I am pleased to hear Horace is quite well please remember me to him & how is his brother Harry.  I have never heard from him since I left home.  I have received George’s photo quite safe & waiting for one from the others.

Has Mother got her false teeth yet I hope so, I bet she don’t half look pretty & what about Auntie’s hair is that growing.

Well dear Ada I think I must now sign off please remember me to all at home also Dad and Tom when you write.

Accept my ever fondest love yourself also

I Remain your Loving Brother Wally

PS How is trade? For Harold XXXX

Good night & God Bless you all

Write to the same address as I expect I shall be back with my Batt in 3 or 4 days.

Walter was the son of Hubert and Annie Davis who ran a shop at 7 Ivy Street, Worcester. His father was a stonemason. He had six siblings: Ada, Hubert, Lily, Anne Elizabeth, Dorothy and Harold. His name is on the Worcester/Worcestershire roll of honour for army casualties in Worcester Cathedral and on the war memorial at St Stephen’s Church in Droitwich Road.

Almost a century later and Walter is not forgotten. This June his maternal great nephew, Stephen Smith, 58, originally from Worcester, and friends Jimmy Currie and David Smith from Kirkconnel in Scotland got on their bikes. Their shared passion for Harleys and three great uncles buried in French war graves between them fuelled this road trip.  It took two years to plan, covered 2000 miles, through six countries deliberately including Germany.

Initially their journey took them from Kirkconnel to the ferry in Hull, on to Zeebrugge in Belgium and then to the British Military Cemetery at Proville in France. This is the final resting place of Jimmy’s great uncle Roderick (Roddy) Campbell McKnight, a bugler. They laid the poppies at his grave. Roddy was only 20-years-old.

The trio arrived in Prospect Hill Cemetery, near Gouy in France to find Walter.

This was a much bigger cemetery - with a book for visitors to sign and another book giving each soldier’s name and plot number.  Research having been done the three men quickly found Walter, stood at his grave and paid their respects.

Stephen said: “I just lent over and patted the headstone. It was like it was part of me and part of our whole family. There was a real sense of it being right that we were there.  It was journey’s end.”

Three more poppies were laid at this grave.

Respects were also paid at the grave of 2nd Lieutenant Charles John Smith in Soissons, France. He was Stephens’s paternal great uncle and served in the Worcestershire Regiment. He’d been a foot soldier gazetted, or commissioned from the ranks, at 18.  He was killed on May 27 1918 but posted as missing in action.  His grieving parents were officially notified of his death in 1920, the German consulate having returned his dog tags. His parents also received £168 in back pay.  2nd Lieutenant Charles John Smith was just 19-years-old when he died.  

Stephen’s trip follows one taken to Ypres years ago by his mum Barbara, 83, and dad John, 85, who live in Bevere.  They visited the Menin Gate, the war memorial dedicated to the unknown British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient.

Barbara said: “I’ve always thought of Uncle Walter, he’s always been there somehow. I was really affected when I was at Ypres. Actually being there made such a great impression on me."

They also visited a church in Ypres which displays letters like Walter’s to Ada.  She and John were moved by the great number of lists of dead young men’s names and in particular by one list from RGS Worcester.

She said: “Oh my gosh that hit home. Those were the names of boys from Worcester, from the Grammar School.”

Barbara and John’s church, St Stephen’s, asked its congregation to knit 86 poppies – one for each soldier who lost his life in WWI from the Parish of Barbourne. 

It’s Walter’s parish too. So many poppies have been knitted that there is also be a weeping window.