Willey, George William

Private, George William WILLEY, 11th EYR, of 2 Bilsby Terrace, Durham Street, Hull. Killed at Oppy Wood, 03/05/1917, aged 23.

Hull Pals Memorial Post. PRIVATE GEORGE WILLIAM WILLEY 11/1222. Born in September 1893, George was the only child of William Richard Willey and Sarah Willey. His father died when George was just a toddler so George and Sarah lived with his Grandad at 2 Bilsby Terrace, Durham Street, Hull. A Clerk before the war, George enlisted on 12th December 1914 at City Hall joining the 11th Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment, ‘The Tradesmen’, 2nd Hull Pals. Already a veteran of Egypt and the Somme by then, and a hardened soldier who’d seen many of his friends die in the mud, George was charged with failing to comply with an order on 26th March 1917 for the crime of “not taking a cigarette out of his mouth when ordered to.” This immediately paints a picture of James Dean in khaki, tired of petty orders from fools and rebelling in whatever way he can. It was his last stand. Six weeks later he was dead; killed in action on 3rd May as the Pals attacked Oppy Wood. At least he wasn’t denied the simple dignity of a burial like so many of his comrades, George was buried in Orchard Dump Cemetery; he was 23 years old. Sarah Willey was now completely alone.

The attack on Oppy Wood, part of the Battle of Arras, was a significant battle for the East Yorkshire Regiment and particularly for the city of Hull.  All four Hull Pals battalions were involved on 3 May and all suffered heavy casualties, with 40% of those present killed or injured. 2nd Lieutenant Jack Harrison, a local teacher and rugby player with Hull FC, won a posthumous Victoria Cross for his bravery in rushing a machine gun position to protect his platoon. His body was never found.
The village of Oppy in France had been in German hands since October 1914 and was part of a formidable defensive system including trenches, dug-outs and thick barbed wire defences. During the Battle of Arras, which began in April 1917, the British tried to take Oppy. The first attack was a failure. A second attack was partially successful. The third attack on 3 May, known officially as the Third Battle of the Scarpe, was again unsuccessful with significant loss of life. The troops were ordered to attack at 3.45am, rather than at dawn, and the defending Germans could easily see the line of British soldiers clearly lit by the full moon. The British continued to attack Oppy and were finally successful the following year. The City of Hull Memorial at Oppy was unveiled in 1927 and commemorates the men of the Hull Pals who were killed on 3 and 4 May 1917.

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