Letter delivered by the enemy

Photograph taken on the same occasion as the one returned by the German soldier. (Back row, left to right) unknown, Percy Buck, brother Ted Buck (front row) Bertha with son Cyril and Bertha's mother Mrs Stevens.

Photograph taken on the same occasion as the one returned by the German soldier. (Back row, left to right) unknown, Percy Buck, brother Ted Buck (front row) Bertha with son Cyril and Bertha’s mother Mrs Stevens.

With the Battle of Passchendaele raging around him, Sergeant Percy Buck – dying from a fatal wound – clutched a picture of his family.

On the back, he had written his dying wish, that someone would return it to his wife.

He would have hoped one of his comrades would fulfill the request, it can’t have crossed his mind that it would be honoured by an enemy – let alone the one who had killed him. However, this is the incredible story that has come to light now the soldier’s granddaughter has unearthed the photograph among her father’s belongings.

Christina Reynolds, 58, has uncovered the black and white photo almost 100 years after it was taken. It pictures the soldier with his wife, Bertha, and son – Mrs Reynolds’s father – Cyril.

Along with the photograph, Mrs Reynolds found the devastating telegram that informed her grandmother of her husband’s death and a letter from the German soldier, explaining the picture’s incredible journey from the Western Front back to Mrs Reynolds in Hitchin, Herts.

A translation of the letter sent by Gefreieter Josef Wilczek to the Red Cross.

A translation of the letter sent by Gefreieter Josef Wilczek to the Red Cross.

Mrs Reynolds, whose late father was only three when his Sgt Buck died, said: ‘My father barely knew his father but he had these items in a box.

‘The box has been passed down to me and in it were these letters by the German soldier and the Red Cross explaining the return of the photo to my grandmother in 1917.  ‘It was this German soldier who probably killed my grandfather in an act of war.

‘He didn’t have to take the time out and maybe risk punishment to fulfill my grandfather’s wishes. He could have left it there.

‘The two men didn’t know each other but it was very kind of him to do what he did for a fellow soldier.’

The German who recovered the poignant image from Sgt Buck’s body was Gefreiter Josef Wilczek – Gefreiter is an army rank for enlisted soldiers equivalent to a private.

In a remarkable act of humanity, Gefreiter Wilczek sent the photo to the Red Cross in Geneva along with a forwarding note. He wrote: ‘He was holding the card in his hand and the finder was asked to forward it to his wife. I, wishing to fulfil the last will of the dead comrade, send it to you.

‘May he rest in peace.’

However, in a sad twist, by carrying out the stranger’s final wish, Gefreiter Wilczek may have deprived Sgt Buck of a war grave for his family to visit.

The photo would have been a key item that would have helped identify his body. It is thought Sgt Buck was instead buried in an unmarked grave in Flanders.

Sgt Buck served in the Hertfordshire Regiment and trained troops in rifle practice before being sent to the Western Front in December 1916.

In July 1917, the men took part in a major dawn offensive in the Third Battle of Ypres, known as Passchendaele.

The night before the men went over the top, Sgt Buck wrote the request on the back of the photo and showed it to a colleague.

The next morning his battalion were at St Julien at Flanders and came under heavy machine gun fire which caused them to conduct a fighting withdrawal. Sgt Buck was shot in the side and fell into the shell hole.

Until now, Sgt Buck’s family have not known the details of his death but, with the help of the Herts At War project, set up to mark the centenary of the First World War, Mrs Reynolds has been able to fill in the blanks.

As a result of her coming forward with the documents, researchers for the Herts At War team have uncovered an eye-witness account of Sgt Buck’s death.

In 1918, a Private Ramsell told the Enquiry Department for Wounded and Missing: ‘We went over the top together at St Julien front.

‘I did not see him (Percy) hit but several other fellows did. He was hit in the side and fell into a shell hole. He was too severely wounded to move.

‘He showed me a photo of his wife and child the night before. On the back of it he had written his wife’s address and the words ‘whoever finds this please forward’, or words like that. ‘We never saw him again and his body was never found.’

Mrs Reynolds said: ‘All the family knew was that my grandfather was missing in action and then confirmed as killed in action.

‘His body has never been found and we have never really known what happened to him until now.

‘We still don’t know where he is, only that he is buried out there somewhere.

‘I just wish my father was still alive today because he would have wanted to know.’

Dan Hill, of the Herts at War project, said: “We are covering 20,000 different stories and this one stood out because it was an incredible moment of humanity in the carnage of war.

“It was right in the thick of the action and this one German soldier took it upon himself to do a dying comrade this remarkable favour.”

Sgt Buck was aged 26 when he was killed. His widow Bertha, who he married in 1912, died in 1962.

Gefreiter Wilczek did not survive the First World War either, he was killed on October 31, 1918, just two weeks before the Armistice.


Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2580150/Photo-clutched-WWI-British-soldier-died-Western-Front-returned-family-German-killed-him.html



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