Sheffield family find tragic World War One letter telling widow about soldier's death

A Sheffield family discovered a heartbreaking letter from the First World War when they were clearing out their late mum’s attic.

Sunday, 11th July 2021, 1:15 pm

The letter was written by an army sergeant, describing the death in action of Sheffield soldier Private William Hurst (44967) of the 23rd Company Machine Gun Corps to his grieving widow, Ethel Clara Hurst. It revealed he was only inches from safety when he was killed by enemy fire during the Battle of the Somme.

Carolyne Shirtliff-Walker said she was amazed when she opened the envelope: “We were knocked away.”

She said her mum Joan Shirtliff, who died aged 92, only mentioned William once, saying that Auntie Ethel’s first husband was killed on the Somme. They don’t know anything about William, other than he may have been from Dungworth.

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Page one of the letter
Page one of the letter

Ethel, whose maiden name was Hague, died in the 1980s when she was in her 80s. She was originally from Rodney Farm, Loxley, which was compulsorily purchased to build Wisewood Cemetery.

The letter was written by Sgt AB Claydon on December 3, 1916. He explained it was the first of its kind he had written, calling it a “jolly rotten job”.

He told her: “Your Husband was with me on the 20th of October when we went into the trench in the Somme.

On the 29th we were ordered to take the enemy trenches at 12 noon but the time was altered till 2pm.

William's wife, Ethel Hurst (nee Hague)

Well that was the time we charged & your Husband’s duty was to get two boxes of ammunition across.

As sergeant I was the last to go & your husband went just before me in company with another man.

When I got three parts of the way across I saw both of them taking cover in a shell hole.

Page two of the letter

As I passed I shouted to them to come on.

Just as I dropped into the German trench I looked round & saw your husband just trying to get into the trench when he shouted Oh! & dropped on the parapet.

I pulled him in but he was about done as the bullet had passed through his chest & pierced the lung.

He died soon afterwards & of course we left him till night-fall where I personally buried him after taking from his pockets such things as his pay-book and papers.

Private William Hurst (or Hirst), who was killed in action in the Battle of the Somme in 1916

Where he is buried of course I am not allowed to give the exact locality but later on I may.

You have my deepest sympathy Mrs Hirst in your great sorrow but your husband died like a soldier & died doing his duty.”

The letter spells the surname as Hirst but the family think it was Hurst. William’s death is recorded on the Thiepval Memorial as Hirst.

His death was also mentioned in a cutting they found from what appears to be a wartime union or workers’ magazine, referring to William as one of two Wadsley branch members who “laid down their lives in the great cause.”

It adds that William and the other man, Sgt Pounder, were “true and loyal Unionists, greatly respected by all who knew them”.

Carolyne and her brothers Michael and John hope that someone from William’s family spots this article, so they can show them the letter and photographs.

A magazine cutting paying tribute to William Hurst