The torment suffered by British soldiers who advanced towards the Germans on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 100 years ago, has been well documented. But in his new book on the battle Hugh Sebag-Montefiore has cited letters written by William Gomersall from Hellifield, near Skipton, which show that even before the Big Push started, death and devastation were never far away

WHEN William Gomersall, a 20-year-old lieutenant in the British Expeditionary Force, first arrived in France towards the end of 1915, he talked about the trenches in France as if they were part of a game played during a kind of action holiday.

In one letter which he sent his much younger brother and sisters in December 1915, he thanked them for their welcome birthday gift: chocolate, adding: ‘I only wish I could send you something from here. Next time I go up into the trenches, I shall have to try and remember to send a birthday present from each of you through a rifle to those beastly old Germans, and say that one from Mabel, that one from Enid and that from Eddie. What do you say?

'I am getting just like I was when I was your age. I am mudlarking for all I’m worth. I am up to my eyes in it in the trenches. The majority of us couldn’t be seen, except for our faces and shoulders, for cakes of mud. I splash and mess about in the mud, and am getting to enjoy it as much as you. I feel just like a bunny rabbit when I burrow into my dugout to go to sleep, or run away from the Germans when they start to be nasty and throw things at us. They are not sportsmen are they?’

In another letter which William sent to Eddie, his 8-year-old brother, on Christmas Day 1915, he wrote:

‘No Eddie old man, I am not killed. You needn’t worry. I’m having a fine time out here, almost as comfortable as being in England. I will write you many more letters yet, if you only write to me, and then when I come home we shall have a right jolly fine time. What do you say?

‘I saw Santa Claus a few days ago, and told him to call, and leave something for all of you. As he is out here, he may be a little late in coming, but tell me if he did come in your next letter will you old sport.

‘I hope you are having a real good time. I am. I have bought a turkey, and will have a fine feed tonight. I’ve got dates, muscatels (raisins), chocolates, butterscotch and cakes, and then from May (soon to be his fiancée) in London, I’ve got a Christmas pudding, more chocolate, dates and cigars. So as you can see, I have got more than my share, and I wish you were all here to share them with me.’

But just over three months later, the news William was sending from the front took a darker turn. On April 6, 1916, the German artillery targeted the British front line opposite Mametz, the Somme village on the other side of No Man’s Land from where William and his pals in the 22nd Manchester regiment were located. William’s next letter to his parents described what happened next:

'Towards the end of the strafe, I had been talking to the three NCOs, cracking jokes, and generally making light of the whole thing in front of the men. During the few moments I was away, one ripping fellow, a lance corporal, passed me and went towards them. Picking up a chunk of a shell which was quite hot which had just dropped beside him, he said: ‘Nearly got a Blighty that time Sergeant!’, and then burst into laughter at his escape.

'At the same moment, my other sergeant, a public school boy, joined the three, accompanied by a private. Then a high explosive shell burst right bang among them. I returned a few minutes later, to find my platoon sergeant, Sergeant Gresty, killed outright, two corporals also killed, Corporal Gandy and the private wounded, and my other sergeant, an absolute nervous wreck, his condition brought on by the terrific shock. They were soon removed, but I shall never forget the sight of them as long as I live.’

Given the frankness of his disclosures, it is not surprising to hear that William’s parents, 59-year-old Hubert and 46-year-old Jane, who had been lulled into complacency by his previous light-hearted correspondence, were horrified to hear what he was being subjected to. William later apologised for upsetting them. 'I am sorry to hear my Thursday letter filled you with sadness,' he wrote. 'I hate to feel I have made you think of such things. Perhaps I ought not to have mentioned it. Please try and forget all about it.

'Such things happen daily here. That happened to be right in my own platoon. But when all is said and done, we are really very fortunate. I should think that scarcely one per cent of enemy shells ever do any damage.'

Two days before the Big Push on July 1 1916, William assured his parents and his fiancée, May, the daughter of his uncle, that he would be ‘alright’. And he might have been if only the attack plan hatched by Britain’s commander-in-chief had not been so badly thought out.

It failed to neutralize the German machine gunners, and it was in trying to make a ‘do or die’ attempt to overcome a couple of machine guns which were raking his front that William was shot and killed, making him one of his battalion’s 470 casualties.

It was a tragedy the effects of which are remembered by John Platt, one of William’s sisters’ surviving children, even today. For at every anniversary of Armistice day until the day she died in the mid-1950s, John’s grandmother was inconsolable as she remembered how her clever, handsome, courageous son William was stolen away from her.

William Gomersall’s sacrifice is commemorated in a book entitled 'Craven’s Part In The Great War' which is displayed in the church at Kirkby Malham. Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Somme: Into The Breach is published by Viking Penguin price £25.