‘Miracle operation’ saved soldier’s life

BATTLE HEROES: The men of 2nd Battalion Durham Light Infantry in training before being sent off to war in 1914. It is possible William is among the men. Sadly, many were never to return home.
BATTLE HEROES: The men of 2nd Battalion Durham Light Infantry in training before being sent off to war in 1914. It is possible William is among the men. Sadly, many were never to return home.

HARTLEPOOL soldier William Griffiths was shot at, shelled and captured by German attackers during World War One – but lived to tell the tale after under-going revolutionary surgery.

Indeed, the Durham Light Infantry soldier was plucked from his prison camp and transported to Switzerland for the high-tech operation – which involved fitting a steel or titanium plate in his skull.

“My grandfather’s skull had been badly damaged in fighting, and the doctors in Switzerland saved his life. He survived the war and returned home to his family in Hartlepool,” said Mary Purnell, from Hart.

William, the eldest child of ironsmith Silas Griffiths and his wife Sarah, was born in around 1885 in Barnard Castle. Over the years, however, the family moved first to South Shields and then Jarrow.

“I’m not sure why the family moved from Barnard Castle, maybe it was to find work in the shipyards? But granddad was always recalling the time he was on the Jarrow March,” said Mary.

It was while in Jarrow that William, by now a carpenter’s labourer, first joined the DLI – signing up with the Mounted Infantry in 1903 for 12 years, three in the Colours and nine with the reserves.

After serving his full-time years, William returned to “civy street” – earning extra money on top of labouring with army reserve training. He then married Mary Ann Pottas (nee Thirlaway) in 1914.

“Mary Ann was born in Wingate in 1890 and married her first husband, James Pottas, in 1910. He had moved from Whitby to Hartlepool and worked at the shipyard as a ship’s painter,” said Mary.

“In 1911 they had a daughter, Amelia, and lived at 53 Frederick Street, on the Headland. Sadly, the following year James died of peritonitis. So my grandmother was left a widow at just 21.”

Mary has “no idea” how her grandparents met, but they married on April 2, 1914, in Kelloe. Later that year, as the storm clouds of war gathered over Europe, their son, George William, was born in Hartlepool.

The outbreak of World War One, on August 5, 1914, saw William immediately recalled to the army. After being mobilised at Newcastle, he joined the 2nd Battalion of the DLI, in Cambridgeshire.

One month of training followed until, on September 8, 1914, 2/DLI were sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. After landing at St Nazaire, the men marched off to fight at Aisne.

William would have seen action within days of arriving in France and, on September 20, a German attack on the ridge of the Chemin des Dames left dozens of his closest comrades dead or wounded.

He lived, however, to fight another day – seeing action at the Battle of Armentieres. Tragically, by the time 2/DLI withdrew from the front line, more than 80 per cent of men were dead, injured or captured.

It is believed that William, obviously badly wounded, was captured at this time, although it was not until November 25, 1914, that his name appeared on the unofficial prisoner of war list.

He was officially listed as a prisoner on March 1, 1915, and, at some point after this, was transferred from a prison camp to Switzerland – where medical help was available to sick fighters of all nationalities.

Almost 68,000 wounded men from Germany, France, Belgium, Britain and Russia were treated in Switzerland during the war – with selection based on individual needs. Most made it home safely.

Official records reveal William was still interred in Switzerland on August 31, 1918, but he was back in Blighty by the end of the year – being discharged from the army as “unfit” in March 1919.

“My grandfather was certainly one of the lucky ones. Most of his battalion were killed within weeks of arriving in France but, although he was badly wounded, he survived to return home,” said Mary.

“He and Mary went on to have three children, including my mother Susan. If it hadn’t been for the help he received in Switzerland, I wouldn’t be here today. It is a fascinating story.”