Memories from The Somme
Months after her husband Captain (subsequently Major) Dick Woolley was reported missing during one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, Lucy Woolley received a telegram from Germany. It read simply: “Cheers, Best Love. Woolley.” The wire was the confirmation she had been hoping for that, contrary to some reports, her husband had, against all the odds, survived the Battle of the Somme and was being held captive in Germany.
Sign up for our email newsletter to get our latest news in your inbox
A century on, Major Woolley’s grandson Meyrick Aylward, Divisional Secretary of SSAFA’s East Hampshire Division, has brought together a collection of documents that tell his grandfather’s remarkable story.
Major Woolley was a surveyor and auctioneer by profession and had joined the family firm Woolley & Wallis in 1905. When war broke out in 1914 he joined the Huntingdonshire Cycle Battalion but, shortly after his marriage, in 1915 he transferred to 13th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment, a Pals Battalion known as the Hull T’Others, while Lucy worked as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in Wiltshire.
The Battalion initially deployed to Egypt to help defend the Suez Canal. They arrived on the Western Front in March 1916 where they were sent to hold the line at Serre on the Somme. The War Diary of Major Woolley’s Commanding Officer Lt Col KW Savory reports that on July 1, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, they were driven back as they attempted to attack the German lines at Serre. Some 19,240 British soldiers were lost on that first day alone. The remains of the 13th Battalion, including Major Woolley, were still there months later when the last Battle of the Somme, known as the Battle of Ancre, began on November 13.
On November 16, Lt Col Savory, wrote to Lucy Woolley from the front line to inform her that her husband was missing.
“I am most awfully sorry about it as I valued him both as an excellent officer and as a friend…..I am nearly heartbroken over it all as I went into action with as fine a Battn as there was in France and I came out with myself & two other officers unwounded and about 130 men, so far we have only got in 5 wounded officers and about 90 men.”
Shortly afterwards she also received an official telegram from the War Office along with a second letter from Major Woolley’s friend Lt Raymond Hocking, who wrote:
“He asked me to write and tell you if anything happened to him and I really must say Mrs Woolley that I have not had the courage to do it. He was such a charming man, admired and respected by all he knew and literally worshipped by his men.”
While both expressed the hope that Major Woolley had been taken prisoner, a separate report made by a Private Myers while he was being treated at Liverpool Royal Infirmary was less optimistic.
“I saw Captain Woolley of D Coy lying evidently dead….when I got into our trench I told the stretcher bearers and they said they had looked at him and found he was dead…..Our men got as far as the third German line but had to retire at the end of the day as no supports could come up so that Capt Woolley was left in no man’s land.”
On November 27, Major Woolley’s brother Stanley, who was also in the battle, wrote to their parents: “I cannot speak yet of Dick in the past tense as there is a hope that he is a prisoner of war…..he was a brother to love deeply and respect with a great admiration for his sterling qualities – he was the truest man I ever knew.”
The family feared the worst for several months until in March the following year, Lucy Woolley received the short telegram from her husband in Germany. . It read simply: “Cheers, Best Love. Woolley.” The wire was the confirmation she had been hoping for that, contrary to reports, her husband had, against all the odds, survived the Battle of the Somme and was being held captive in Germany.
It was followed by occasional letters from fellow officers who had been imprisoned with him at Clausthal, Germany, and then been interned in neutral countries such as Switzerland and the Netherlands. On February 8, 1918, J. Bell wrote:
“I have just got through from Clausthal, to be interned here much to my joy, and am writing to give you the latest news of your husband. He is absolutely fit, plays a good deal of squash raquets and very kindly gave some of us a course of lectures on poultry farming a short time ago. Life in Clausthal is not very exciting, the Germans do all they can to make us miserable and we absolutely refuse to be miserable…..I hope to meet you some day, only wish I could go another step and get home now but am afraid that is not allowed.”
Dick Woolley finally made it home to his family in late 1919. His official account of what happened on November 13, 1916, is now in the regimental museum but his grandson has a handwritten copy of the report he penned on Red Cross note paper which reveals what happened to him that day. Major Woolley was commanding “D” Coy whose objective was the German 3rd line but he describes how thick fog and mud hindered progress.
“Zero hours, owing to thick fog, was dark instead of dawn as it should have been….. no single spot of ground seemed free of shell holes and churned mud and water……
“Progress over ground was now made impossible by German machine gun fire at close quarters. One could see a little now and we had to fight where we stood.”
Despite the obstacles D Coy finally made it to their objective. “We lit flares as ordered but no aeroplanes were up owing to fog. I had all 12 ranks in German 3rd line which was empty when I arrived, I found no one within 150 yds of me right or left.”
When no reinforcements arrived “D” Coy found themselves isolated in the German lines.
“We got heavily shelled by our own guns during the morning but we failed to be reinforced, so after a long fight decided to hold on the night & then retire by bombing through 1st and 2nd lines if necessary.”
In the event, the arrival of more Germans herding British prisoners in front of them made retreat impossible. Major Woolley reports: “Our own captured men prevented my being able to fight without killing them. I was wounded in the thigh. 8 all ranks & self were captured about 3 to 3.30pm.”
On his return Dick Woolley rejoined the family business and went on to command the Nadder Valley Home Guard in World War Two. He was also chairman of the Livestock Auctioneers Defence Committee for England and Wales which was responsible for the distribution of food for defence needs during WW2.
Meyrick Aylward remembers his grandfather as a quiet man. He said: “He was just a lovely man. I was the eldest grandson and he was always very kind to me. My grandmother kept all the documents relating to the First World War and though he never actually talked about the war, he remained ‘Major’ Woolley through the rest of his life.”