This is a sad story about a young Blantyre boy who lost his mother and father before the age of 10, then went on to live a very short life. Researched in some detail by Schalene Dagutis, I have permission to share this story here.
“William Lively was the fourth child and youngest living son of James and Elizabeth Muir (Brodie) Lively. He was born on 24 March 1899 at 30 Park Street, Blantyre. When the 1901 census was enumerated, he and his brother, James, were living with their parents at 16 Park Street. After his father was killed in 1906, he, his mother, and brother lived with William’s aunt, Martha (Brodie) Moore. After his mother died in 1910, he and his brother went to live with his maternal grandfather and step-grandmother, William and Mary (Campbell) Brodie.
By 1916 he was living in Darwen, Lancashire, England, and had been conscripted into the British Army as a private in the East Yorkshire Regiment. He was assigned to the 1/4 Battalion. The battalion was a unit within the York and Durham Brigade, Northumbrian Division. On 17 April 1915 the battalion landed at Boulogne, France. A month later the British Army numbered their military units and the York and Durham Brigade became the 150th Brigade, 50th Division.
The division fought in some of deadliest battles on the Western Front, including the Second Battle of Ypres, Battle of the Somme, Battle of Arras, and the Third Battle of Ypres. In March 1918 German General Erich Ludendorff ordered his troops to begin the infamous spring offensive, also known as Kaiserschlacht. He realized the Germans needed to win the war before the men and materiel from the United States could be effectively deployed against his country. During the offensive Germany made the deepest penetration into Belgium and France since 1914.
The Third Battle Aisne began with a German attack on Allied positions at Chemin des Dames ridge. It was a surprise attack that started with an artillery bombardment, which inflicted heavy losses. The Germans followed with a poison gas drop. Caught completely off-guard and with their lines spread thin, the British did not stop the advance until the Germans had reached the Aisne river six hours later. They had smashed through eight Allied divisions and captured 50,000 soldiers.
William Lively’s regiment had been moved into the battle line during the night of 26 May from reserve area at Beaurieux. They faced the German Seventh Army just north of Craonne. British officers protested this move, but were assured by the French, it was a quiet area.
From a report by the British Commander, Sir Douglas Haig:
“These divisions had been heavily engaged during the past month, three having been twice and one three times withdrawn from the battle line and again engaged after being reformed. They, therefore, had few experienced officers and men when they arrived in Champagne, and were again filled up by immature and half-trained lads fresh from home whose training had to be completed. In these circumstances the division could not be considered fit for heavy fighting for some time to come. Notwithstanding this they were ordered into the front line almost at once by the French Commander, who countered British objections by declaring that as the front was a quiet one, and as no attack was to be expected, it would be possible to continue the training of the troops, while in the line and that the French Divisions, urgently required elsewhere could thus be relieved.”
Beginning at 1:00 a.m. the next morning, the regiment was heavily shelled and outflanked on both sides and by the end of the day’s fighting had been decimated. William Lively was one of many soldiers killed in action that day. His body was never recovered but his name is inscribed on the War Memorial at Soissons in the Picard region of France. Posthumously, William was awarded the British War and Victory medals.
Unfortunately, most of William Lively’s war records were lost in September 1940 when a German Luftwaffe bombing raid struck the War Office Repository in London. However, unit war diaries still exist. The 50th Division’s war diary, which described the fighting the day William died is poignant:
“No less than 227 officers and 4,879 other ranks were killed, wounded or captured during the battle. Practically all those casualties occurring on the 27th, for after that date, the 50th Division became intermingled with other divisions, which were in a like condition; only a mere handful of the infantry remained.”
*NOTE: The 150th Brigade of the 50th Division was comprised of three battalions: 1/4 Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment, 1/4 Battalion of Yorkshire Regiment, and the 1/5 Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment. All of the battalions were positioned near Craonne above the Aisne river on 27 May 1918 and suffered the same fate. So the battle photo of Craonne after the fighting is relevant to this post even though William Lively did not serve in that battalion.
On Social media, Kathie Bezer after reading this story added, “This is a sad story, but it was interesting to read. My great grand uncle William Nelson, was born Australia in 1892 (his grandparents were married Blantyre and his parents came from the Lanarkshire area). He would fight from 1915 to 1918 for the Australian Imperial Forces – 1st Battalion and saw very similar action – Gallipoli, Somme, Marseilles. We are very fortunate that our government compiled all our soldiers, especially the Diggers (WWI) files together in a virtual online memorial and we have most of William’s records including active service, we can literally following him around the war.
The Nelson family worked as miners in the Blantyre and greater Lanarkshire area, they would move to Australia and two of William’s uncle’s and a cousin would perish in the greatest Australian mining disaster in history. So it was good to see William John made it home safe from the war, where unfortunately William Lively and many, many others didn’t, and from being on several fronts where the fighting was the worst to become a husband and father and live to an old age. Thanks for sharing, it could have only been absolutely horrendous for the boys at the front and your story gave more depth and detail to what they would have suffered.“
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Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.
Your article is very well done, a good read.