Published: 07 October 2005
Bill Fisk, my father, must have been the second lieutenant tasked to write up the battalion war diary each night. Sometimes the entries were only a few words in length, a remark about the "inclement weather", but there were other, longer reports in the dry military language that Bill would have been taught to use.
"Strong fighting patrols out by day and night," Bill was reporting in early October. "Patrols active and touch constantly maintained with the enemy. During the morning of the 5th contact patrols moved N and S from newly gained positions...Hostile opposition entirely in the form of MG [machine gun] Fire; machine guns appeared to be very numerous." In the diaries, Bill always referred to the Germans as "the enemy". All his life, he called them "the Bosche".
He had been billeted in Douai with the King's Liverpool Regiment. I knew that. Everywhere Bill was stationed, he bought postcards. Some showed the devastation caused by German shells. Most had been printed before the war - of medieval towns with spires and cobbled streets and Flemish façades, of delicate tramcars rattling past buildings with wooden verandas - and were even then, as Bill collected them, souvenirs of a France that no longer existed.
A quarter of a century ago, I travelled with a young Irishwoman to the Belgian city of Ypres, where in stone upon the Menin Gate are inscribed the names of those 54,896 men who fought in the same British Army uniform as my father - but whose bodies were never found. They were fighting, they believed, for little Belgium - little Catholic Belgium - which had been invaded by the German armies in 1914. Looking at all those names on the Gate, the young woman was moved by how many of them were Irish.
"How in God's name," she asked, "was a boy from Tralee dying here in the mud of Flanders?'
After a few minutes, an elderly man approached, holding a visitor's book. He asked if she would like to sign it. My friend looked at the British Army's insignia on the memorial book with considerable distaste.In the end, she wrote in the book, in Irish, do thiortha beaga - "for little countries".
How carefully she eased the Irish soldier's desire to help Little Belgium - one of my father's reasons for going to war - into the memory of a tragedy of another little country, how she was able to conflate Ireland into Flanders without losing the integrity of her own feelings.
For many Britons, the Great War is an addiction, a moment to reflect upon the passing of generations, of pointless sacrifice, the collapse of empire, the war our fathers - or our grandfathers - fought. How much further could I go in my search for Bill's life amid those gas attacks and shelling and raids mentioned in the war diaries - across the very same no man's land that was portrayed so vividly in the tiny snapshot I had received from my father?
In his battalion war diaries, under the date 10-11 November 1918, my father had written the following: "At 07.30 11th instant message from XVII Corps received via Bde [Brigade] that Hostilities will cease at 11.00 today - line reached at that hour by Advanced troops to remain stationary." Then, later: "Billets in Louvencourt reached at 18.00 hours."
My father had arrived at the barn-like cabin that was to be his home until the end of the following January. I turned to the notes my mother, Peggy, had taken from him before he died. "Most of the officers were billeted in the chateau because the occupants had gone and the junior officers were put in these scruffy little farmhouses. I found myself in a derelict cottage and to get into my room I had to go through a room where an 'old biddy' was in bed. Every morning I had to go through her room... she was always in bed smoking a pipe."
One freezing winter's day, I travelled the little road back to Louvencourt on the Somme. I had my mother's snapshot with me, which showed the house where Bill was billeted. I'm not sure what I expected to find there. Someone who remembered him? Unlikely. He had left Louvencourt 60 years earlier. Some clue as to how the young, free-spirited man in the 1918 photograph could have turned into the man I remember in old age, threatening to strike even Peggy when she began to suffer the first effects of Parkinson's disease, who had grieved her so much that she contentedly watched him go into a nursing home, never visited him there and refused to attend his funeral?
I found the house, the roof still bent but the wall prettified with new windows and shutters. Unlike Bill in 1956, I knocked on the door. An old French lady answered. She was born in 1920 - the same year as Peggy - and could not have known Bill. But she could just remember her very elderly grandmother - the "old biddy".
I walked back up the road. Opposite the house I found another very small British war cemetery. And two of the graves in it were those of men who were shot at dawn by firing squad.
Private Harry MacDonald of the 12th West Yorks - the father of three children - was executed here for desertion on 4 November 1916. Rifleman FM Barratt of the 7th King's Royal Rifle Corps was shot for desertion on 10 July 1917. Their graves are 20 metres from the window of the room in which 2nd Lieutenant Bill Fisk lived.
After I first wrote about my father's billets in Louvencourt in The Independent, I received a letter from a reader who said she now owned the chateau. She was British and told me that many of the officers had carved their names on the table and walls in the basement. Bill's name, of course, was not among them.
Had their graves, so near to him, spoken to his conscience when he was asked to command a firing party and kill an Australian soldier? From Paris, I called up the Australian archivist in charge of war records in Canberra. No soldiers from Australian regiments were executed in the First World War, he said. But when the war ended, two Australians were under sentence of death, one for apparently killing a French civilian. The archivist doubted if this was the man Bill spoke of, but was not sure. And - it would have pleased my father, I thought - the condemned man was spared. Alas, the truth was more cruel.
Another Independent reader wrote to me, referring to the case of an Australian soldier, an artilleryman serving in the British Army, who had indeed been sentenced to death for killing a British military policeman in Paris. His name was Frank Wills and his file was now open at the National Archives in London. When I read that file number WO71/682 was waiting for me, I knew that these papers would contain a part of Bill's life. If he did not read them, he must have been familiar with their contents. He must have known the story of Gunner Wills.
The story was simple enough, and the trial of No. 253617 Gunner Frank Wills of "X" Trench Mortar Battalion of 50 Division, Royal Field Artillery, was summed up in two typed pages. He had deserted from the British Army on 28 November 1918 - more than two weeks after the Armistice - and was captured in Paris on 12 March 1919. He and a colleague had been stopped in the rue Faubourg du Temple in the 11th arrondissement by two British military policemen, Lance Corporals Webster and Coxon. It was the old familiar tale of every deserter. Papers, please. Wills told the military policemen that his papers were at his hotel at 66 rue de Malte. All four went to the Hôtel de la Poste so that Wills could retrieve his documents.
According to the prosecution: "The accused and L/Cpl Webster went upstairs. Shortly afterwards two shots were fired upstairs...the accused came down and ran out with a revolver in his hand, he was followed by L/Cpl Coxon and fired three shots at him. One of the shots wounded L/Cpl Coxon in the arm slightly. The accused made off...but was chased by gendarmes and civilians and arrested. The revolver was taken from him and found to contain five expended cartridges. L/Cpl Webster was found at the top of the stairs, wounded in the chest, abdomen and finger...He died three days later..."
The Australian soldier, the dead policeman, the involvement of French gendarmes, Paris. This must have been the same man whom Bill was ordered to execute. Gunner Wills had joined the Australian army in 1915 at the age of 16 - he was Bill's age - and was sent to Egypt, to the Sinai desert and to the Dardanelles. Gunner Wills took part in Churchill's doomed expedition to Gallipoli and fought the Ottoman Turks. But in 1916 he had been sent to hospital suffering from "Egyptian fever" - which left him with mental problems and lapses of memory. The prosecution at his court martial did not dispute this. Frank Wills was discharged from the Australian army in 1917, then travelled to England and - a grim reflection, this, on the desperation of the British Army at this stage of the war - was allowed to enlist in the Royal Artillery in April 1918. He arrived in France before Bill Fisk. Unlike Bill, however, 19-year-old Frank Wills was already a veteran.
Wills, according to his own defence, had been drinking. "He came to Paris for a spree...Had no breakfast on 12th March, 1919...He was not drunk, but getting on that way. Does not remember whether he fired at L/Cpl Coxon or not. He knew the revolver was loaded, and had been loaded since November 1918."
A sad, eight-page handwritten testimony signed with an almost decorative "F Wills" explained how the two British military policemen asked him if he was carrying a pass to be in Paris and how, when he arrived with them at his hotel, "I rushed up the stairs to my room. I found the door of the room locked. Within a few seconds I heard someone coming upstairs. I had my great coat over my arm at the time. In a pocket of the great coat I had a revolver with six rounds. The revolver was issued to me by my unit...I took the revolver out of my pocket in order to hide it under the carpet on the landing. I did not want to be arrested with a revolver in my possession as I had a large amount of money on me and I had been playing crown and anchor. I thought a more serious charge would be brought against me in consequence. Scarcely had I taken my revolver out of my pocket when someone came up the stairs...This person rushed at me and I then saw it was Cpl Webster. No conversation passed. Cpl Webster had me by the right wrist. I was frightened and excited and in wrenching my wrist the revolver went off twice. Cpl Webster then let go my wrist and gave me a blow on the head and knocked me down the stairs. I was stunned by the blow on the head...I found the revolver lying on the stairs in front of me. I picked up the revolver. I was under the impression that Cpl Webster was following me down the stairs. I was bewildered and greatly excited.
"When I reached the street I heard one shot go off as I reached the pavement. I do not remember what happened after that until I was arrested."
Wills's testimony was that of a very young and immature man. "When I left my unit," he wrote, "I had no intention of remaining away. I met some of my friends and they persuaded me to come away for a spree. I eventually got to Paris. I intended to go back to my unit after seeing Paris: there was very little work being done at the time and things were rather slow. I got mixed up with bad company and had been gambling and drinking heavily..."
Wills was to repeat this admission of his drinking problems in his last testimony. The two shots had been fired because Corporal Webster had "wrenched" his wrist. After his arrest, he wrote, French police had driven him away in a taxi and only after one of the policemen had hit him with a bayonet had his memory returned. "I was not drunk but was getting on that way. The deficiency in memory is brought on by drink..." It was not difficult to picture the young man, drunk, desperate, slowly realising the fate that might await him.
I fly back to France yet again. The rue de Malte remains, a narrow one-way street cut in two by a boulevard, still home to a clutch of small, cheap hotels. And incredibly, No 66 is still a hotel, no longer the Hôtel de la Poste, now the Hôtel Hibiscus. What on earth can I find here? The receptionist is Algerian and I ask for a second-floor room, nearest the stairs, the room in which Wills stayed.
I tell the Algerian why I have come here and he suddenly bombards me with questions. Why did Wills come to Paris? Why did he shoot the military policeman? His name is Safian and he tells me that for his university degree in Algiers he studied the effect on children of a massacre at a village called Bentalha.
Bentalha. I know that name. I have been there. I have seen the blood of a baby splashed over a balcony in Bentalha, a baby whose throat had been slit by young men who killed hundreds of civilians in the village in 1997. The Algerian government blamed Islamists for the slaughter. But I had always suspected that the Algerian army was involved. I repeat this to Safian.
"I have heard this," he replies. "There is much to clear up about this massacre. I had a friend, he said the military were there and they advanced and they stayed just short of where the massacre was taking place. They did nothing. Why? I cannot say too much. Remember, I am an Algerian."
I remember. I remember the villagers who survived. They said the same thing to me, that the Algerian army refused to come to their rescue. The killing of a soldier here more than 80 years ago is a safer subject.
I translate Wills's testimony for Safian. He cannot understand why Wills shot Corporal Webster when he would have received a lesser charge for desertion. I climb the stairs twice. It only takes 15 seconds to reach the second floor. When I run up the staircase, I reach it in five seconds - the length of time it must have taken Corporal Webster. Wills would have had no time to conceal his gun - if he intended to. The second floor is only five metres square. Here Frank Wills struggled with Webster and left him lying in his blood on the floor. I walk into room 22, nearest the stairs, Wills's room, the last place he slept in freedom before his death. Here he kept his great coat and his service revolver.
He had been drinking on the morning of 12 March 1919, probably in this room. Punch, cognac and "American grog", he told the court. I sit on my bed in Wills's room and read again through his testimony, this young man whom my father was ordered to kill, his last words written to spare his life.
"I am 20 years of age. I joined the Australian Army in 1915 when I was 16 years of age. I went to Egypt and the Dardanelles. I have been in a considerable number of engagements there, & in France. I joined the British Army in April 1918 and came to France in June 1918. I was discharged from the Australian Army on account of fever which affected my head contracted in Egypt. I was persuaded to leave my unit by my friends and got into bad company. I began to drink and gamble heavily. I had no intention whatever of committing the offences for which I am now before the Court . . . I ask the Court to take into consideration my youth and to give me a chance of leading an upright and straightforward life in the future."
I could see how this must have affected Bill Fisk. Wills was not only the same age - he had been sent to France only two months before Bill arrived on the Somme. Wills had not deserted in time of war. But he had killed a British military policeman. I remember how Bill believed in the law, justice, the courts, magistrates, the police.
The court martial summary states that Wills was "sentenced to suffer death"; he was taken to the British base at Le Havre on the French coast on 24 May. Bill was based there in May 1919 - he took two snapshots of the camp, one of them with a church-tower in the background - and was present when Wills arrived. In the British archives, I had turned to the record of his execution with something approaching fear. Bill had spoken of his refusal to command the firing party. I believed him then. But the journalist in me, the dark archivist that dwells in the soul of every investigative reporter, needed to check. I think that Bill's son needed to know that his father did not kill Frank Wills, to be sure, to be absolutely certain that this one great act was real.
And there was the single scrap of paper recording Wills's death. Shot by firing squad. "Sentence carried out 0414 hours 27th May," it read. The signature of the officer commanding was not in my father's handwriting. The initials were "CRW". A note added that, "The execution was carried out in a proper and humane manner. Death was instantaneous." Was it so? Is death really instantaneous? And what of Wills in those last minutes, in the seconds that ticked by between four o'clock and 4.14am, how did a man of only 20 feel in those last moments, in the dark in northern France, perhaps with a breeze off the sea? Did Bill hear the shots that killed him? At least his conscience was clear.
Bill Fisk was born 106 years ago but still remains an enigma for me. His medals, when I inherited them, included a Defence Medal for 1940, an MBE and an OBE for post-war National Savings work, and two medals from the Great War. On one of them are the dates 1914-1919, marking not the Armistice of November 1918, but the 1919 Versailles Treaty which formally ended the conflict and then spread its bloody effect across the Middle East. This medal bears the legend "The Great War for Civilisation".
In Peggy's last hours in 1998, one of her nurses told me that squirrels had got into her loft and destroyed some photographs. I climbed into the roof to find that, although a few old pictures were missing, the tin box containing my father's snapshots was safe. But as I turned to leave, I caught my head on a beam. Blood poured down my face and I remember thinking that it was Bill's fault. I remember cursing his name. I had scarcely cleaned the wound when, two hours later, my mother died. And in the weeks that followed, a strange thing happened; a scar and a small dent formed on my forehead - identical to a scar my father bore from a Chinese man's knife.
From the afterlife, Bill had tried to make amends. Amid the coldness I still feel towards him, I cannot bring myself to ignore the letter he left for me, to be read after his death. "My dear Fellah," he wrote: "I just want to say two things to you old boy. First - thank you for bringing such love, joy and pride to Mum and me. We are, indeed, most fortunate parents. Second - I know you will take the greatest possible care of Mum, who is the kindest and best woman in the world, as you know, and who has given me the happiest period of my life with her continuous and never failing love. With a father's affection - King Billy."
Extracted from 'The Great War for Civilisation: the Conquest of the Middle East' by Robert Fisk, published by 4th Estate, £25. To buy the book at the special price of £22.50, including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk