In a letter to his sister Agnes in May 1917, Private William Arthur Donald Kirk of the Royal Fusiliers wrote:
“I am optimistic enough to believe I shall see [home] again. So I will say ‘au revoir’. My toast – ‘To the day of peace’.”
But William was one of thousands of men from Britain who would not live to see the Armistice. In this guest blog post, Rob Kirk (Editor of Lochnagar Crater Today) tells us about his pilgrimage to remember William 100 years later.
- An unknown First World War connection
In almost every respect, it was an ordinary country walk on a beautiful autumnal day, along field paths still damp from heavy overnight rain, through dreamy mixed woodland and by pastures grazed by docile cattle and sheep. This countryside, just south of the Menin Road on the eastern side of Ypres in Belgium, is gentle and undulating, unlike much of the intensively farmed flatlands of western Flanders. We nodded ‘hellos’ to other booted walkers on Sunday morning rambles, but for us, this was a walk with a purpose. We were treading the path, as closely as we could, of a relative who died little more than a century ago, on the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres, known later as the Battle of Passchendaele.
Two months before, we had never heard of William Arthur Donald Kirk. But on 30 July 2017, as we watched the extraordinary live broadcast on TV from outside the Cloth Hall in Ypres marking the centenary of the battle, I had a message from a distant relative in Lowestoft, Steven Kirk, asking if I knew we shared a relative who died there. I didn’t.
Steven and I share a great great grandfather, William James Kirk, who fought in the Crimea War and became a Sergeant in the Norwich City police force. My great grandfather, Robert Arthur, and Steven’s great grandfather, William James, were among his sons; Robert Arthur’s son, Percy (my grandfather), had Steven’s grandfather Harry and William Arthur Donald among his cousins.
Inexplicably, I knew nothing of William Arthur Donald Kirk, even though – as I learned from Steven – his parents lived at 42, Waterloo Road in Norwich, very close to where I lived as a child. His name is on a memorial plaque in Christ Church, New Catton, where my sister Juliette and I sang in the choir, but neither of us knew its significance. It was, without doubt, time to catch up with Private William Arthur Donald Kirk.
- Tracing family history
We knew from the 1901 census that the 14-year-old William lived in Long Row, Norwich, with his parents William and Harriet, sisters Ethel, Agnes and Alice, and brothers Sidney, Walter and Harry. With help from a geneaologist friend, Alan Hawkins, we traced him to Witney in Oxfordshire ten years later, where he lived with a family called Timms, and worked as an ‘elementary school teacher’ for the county council. In this, he followed his sister Agnes, who was two years older, and trained as a teacher in Norwich.
He enlisted about seventeen months after the outbreak of the First World War, in January 1916, becoming Private William Kirk, 55040, Royal Fusiliers. He was to see action in France and Belgium. At some stage, he was injured. We don’t know where or when, but in a letter to his sister Agnes, sent during a brief period of leave in Norwich, he said
I can’t say I’m delighted at the idea of a second visit to France as it spells possible danger.
“I may be in France any day after getting back to my depot, but as I am not yet properly fit, I have to finish my training and hardening out at the base. It may be some time yet before I see the front line again”.
He also said:
“I can’t say I’m delighted at the idea of a second visit to France as it spells possible danger”.
The letter was written on 31 May 1917 – exactly two months before he died. The fact that it was carefully preserved suggests his sister thought it was particularly precious – perhaps the last she received.
Poignantly, Agnes wasn’t at home during his short leave; she was away at the seaside in Gorleston, visiting relatives. He reassured her:
“You need not censure yourself because you did not rush over here to see me, as personally I think it was not worth the money and the splitting-up of your holiday”.
- Third Battle of Ypres
War diaries held at the National Archives tell us that by late July 1917 the unit to which William was attached (12 Battalion, Royal Fusiliers) marched into Belgium in preparation for the massive offensive designed to take the Passchendaele Ridge overlooking Ypres.
Early in the morning of 31 July, the Battalion edged through a trench called Jeffrey Avenue, just to east of Sanctuary Wood, now one of the most-visited sites in the Ypres Salient, and just south of the infamous Menin Road. They were held up by what the War Diary called ‘strong points’. They took heavy casualties – the Battalion lost 52 killed, 169 wounded and 60 missing. Private William Arthur Donald Kirk was among the missing, and was assumed killed in action. He was 31.
- Remembering William
William’s name now features amongst the 54,600 etched on the Menin Gate in Ypres, a memorial for the missing of the Ypres Salient. Hundreds of people gather beneath it each night at 8pm for the Last Post ceremony.
William’s sister Agnes visited Ypres in Belgium in August, 1937, twenty years after her brother died. Almost certainly, she would have attended the Last Post ceremony and seen his name on the Menin Gate memorial, which was completed a decade earlier. She might even have walked the fields where he went missing. She died in 1980.
Discover more stories like William’s, on Lives of the First World War