Many Leeds citizens fought valiantly in the First World War, but few could tell a tale as fascinating as William (sometimes ‘Willie’) Lonsdale. This week, the Secret Library brings you an abridged version of his story, researched and written by one of our team of volunteers, using the resources available in our Local and Family History department. If you’re interested in volunteering for one of our upcoming heritage-themed projects at Leeds Central Library, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Willie Lonsdale’s time in the armed forces began when he enlisted in the Territorial Force during 1903 and was posted to the 2nd Battalion of the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment. Unfortunately, Willie’s military record is part of the “Burnt Collection” at the National Archives and what remains is difficult to read and piece together. However, as he is shown living and working in Leeds on the 1911 census we can be sure that he had left the Territorials by then. Willie’s total service in the Territorials is shown as 1 year and 194 days.
Between 1914 and 1918, however, Willie’s name appears in the Absent Voters List, which shows that he was now a Private, no. 7471 in his old regiment, the Second West Riding’s, and was posted to France – where he was taken prisoner on 24th August 1914 and sent to Doeberitz prison camp.
On 9th November 1914 Willie was involved in an incident which led to him being sentenced to death. According to newspaper reports, Willie and 250 fellow captives failed to assemble quickly enough for the German guards and a general fracas erupted between the British prisoners and the guards. Willie received a blow from the butt of a rifle, retaliated by punching a guard and was subsequently put on trial. Willie had two trials; the first was on the 1st December 1914 at a military court in Berlin, when he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. The second trial occurred on 29th December 1914, after which Willie received the death sentence.
On 4th January 1915 the Yorkshire Evening Post published an article detailing an appeal by the Lord Mayor of Leeds asking the American authorities to save the life of Private Lonsdale. That article can be seen below:
Willie’s plight aroused interest in America and his appeal was successful: on the 21st June 1915 his sentence was commuted to 15 years imprisonment and he was held in solitary confinement at Spandau until 2nd August 1917.
Willie – now known as Bill – was moved between various prison camps spending time at Doebritz, Dyrotz, Sinkenkrug and Botzow. Bill was put to work unloading refuse collected from the streets of Berlin, the smell was terrible and after a month he refused to do the work. Shortly after this, Lonsdale and several others broke out of Botzow and marched back to Dyrotz, using a compass to guide them, where they expected to be punished. On arriving at Dyrotz, however, instead of being taken to the cells, the group was taken to the barrack room. Shortly after, following more appeals, Bill was reprieved by order of the Kaiser.
Bill arrived at Leith on a captured German liner on 2nd January 1919 and was taken to Ripon Dispersal Camp where he spent the night before travelling back to Leeds by train on 4th January 1919. Mrs Lonsdale and the children were waiting for Bill at the station where they had a happy reunion before making their way home to Fraser Road, where a hero’s welcome awaited him.