On the morning of Sunday 1 July 1923, eminent Yorkshire solicitor and Conservative MP, Arthur Willey, was getting ready to attend church near his home in Roundhay, Leeds. He and his wife were marking a sombre anniversary which was also to be commemorated in a notice which Arthur had arranged to appear in the following day’s Times:
WILLEY – In proud and loving memory of SEC. LIEUT. TOM WILLEY, Leeds Pals Division, killed in the Somme attack on 1 July 1916.
At the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, Arthur had been a prominent member of the founding committee of the Leeds Pals which sought young men from the same workplaces, clubs and communities to enlist and fight together. His son, Tom, was just seventeen years old and an articled clerk in Arthur’s legal practice (which is now subsumed within the firm in which I work) when he signed up with the Leeds Pals in September 1914. He accepted a commission three months later.
At 7.15am on 1 July 1916, Second Lieutenant Thomas Willey led his platoon into no-man’s land at the start of the Somme Offensive. They took cover and awaited the start of the attack. At 7.30, Tom gave the order to attack with a cry of “Come on, 13. Give them hell!“. Moments later, a German shell ripped Tom’s legs from his body, killing him instantly. He was amongst the first of one million casualties in what would turn out to be the bloodiest slaughter in history. His remains were never found.
One of the men in Tom’s platoon, Private Arthur Hollings, paid a moving tribute to him in a letter home which was published in the Leeds Mercury on 15 July 1916:
Seven years later, as Arthur got ready for church, he was struck by a terrible seizure and collapsed. He never regained consciousness and died the following day (the same day on which his tribute to his son appeared in the Times). Such was Arthur’s reputation and popularity that thousands turned out in the streets of Leeds to mourn on the day of his funeral.
Arthur was just 55 years old when he died, his life possibly cut short by the terrible burden of grief for his son who fought and died for the very division which Arthur had helped to form.
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