Thursday


Did a hero see death in his mind’s eye?



When spring came to the battered countryside of Northern France in late April 1915 British regiments, entrenched near the village of Cambrin, found it hard to greet the season with hope. In fact seasons meant little apart from bringing more or less mud...To the men in the forefront of 'the war to end wars', life was dictated by the intensity of the German bombardment, the roar of artillery and the coloured flares which turned night into day.

On the edge of the wood near Cambrin village a platoon of the Welsh Regiment, mainly boys of under 20 and middle-aged miners from the South Wales pits, were digging trenches and stringing the area with barbed wire.

A few hundred yards to the south they could see their German counterparts doing the same.

In charge of the Welsh Regiment platoon was Lieutenant David Weatherby, a 23-year-old public schoolboy, in the army for only six months and with only a few weeks experience of leading men into battle.

Already Weatherby had the reputation of being a "wild one". In one fierce skirmish outside Bethune he had gone pistol in hand into no man's land, despite fierce German machine gun fire, to drag an injured comrade back to safety, and was expected to receive a medal for it.

Another time, in charge of a tunnelling party, he broke through the side of a German dugout by mistake and coolly shot all the astonished occupants.

By the end of April news was filtering through the trenches that "a big one" was on the way. The Germans had been bringing up field-guns from Cuinchy and there was talk of the dreaded "gas".

Among the Welsh Regiment there was a dour acceptance of anything "Fritz" could do and a determination to give better than they got. The first Battalion had been virtually annihilated two months earlier and the remnants were commanded by an officer barely out of Sandhurst. But they had the reputation for being rough and tough — and this suited Lt Weatherby very well.

Even the most disgruntled private had to admit that the lieutenant was a "game chap" and that anyone who went out on patrol with him could be guaranteed a lively time.

As May arrived and the battered apple trees in what remained of the French orchards started to flower, Lt Weatherby began to behave in an uncharacteristically subdued manner. Colleagues remembered that he would sit for long periods in the trenches apparently gazing into space. His men began to wonder if he had "trench fever" — the lethargy which overcame many soldiers after months in the dugouts amid constant death and destruction.

On the night before the planned offensive of May 2, Lt Weatherby snapped out of his lethargy and seemed his previous dynamic self. He briefed his platoon on their part in the offensive, making quite certain that every man knew what to do. Then he left the dugout and went to sit on a mound of earth overlooking the enemy positions, shielded from sniper-fire by a wall of sandbags.

After a few minutes he called his second-in-command, a Lancastrian sergeant named Arthur Smith and asked him to sit beside him. After the war Smith would remember the conversation with crystal clarity.

"Suddenly he said to me: 'By the way, sergeant, I'm going to get killed tomorrow. I know that. And I also know that you are going to be all right. I'm depending on you to get the boys back to safety. "'See what my kit goes back to my people — you'll find the address in my pocket-book. I want you to burn my diary — my mother would be horrified to read what has been going on out here...'

"I told him not to talk like that and that we all had an equal chance of living and dying but he wouldn't hear of it. Then he said: 'You'll find 500 francs in my pocket-book. Take 100 for yourself and divide the rest up among the men.' He then pointed to his forehead and said: 'I'm going to get it here.'"

He strode off among the trenches and Sergeant Smith watched him go. It seemed impossible that he could forecast his own death but strange things happened in war.

The battle began early next day and from the start went badly for the Allies. The Germans had brought up reinforcements during the night and soon the Welsh Regiment front line was full of dead and dying.

Then the Germans broke through and bombed the Allied secondary trenches and the smell of cordite and death was thick over the land. It was late in the evening when the survivors went out into no man's land to collect the dead and wounded. Sergeant Smith found Lt Weatherby's body in a shell-hole. He had forced his knuckles into his mouth to stop himself crying out and attracting any would-be rescuers to their deaths. A bullet had gone through his forehead at the precise point he had forecast. After the war Arthur Smith remembered: "I burned the diary and divided the money as he had asked. He was a brave man and I will never forget him.

"I never spent my 100 franc piece. I kept it in a box at home, a reminder that in war, life and death are not always what they seem."


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