William Arnett was born in 1890 at Nidd, near Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, the son of Charles William Arnett, a railway signalman with N.E.R., and his wife Pleasance Arnett. The family must have moved to Ripon by 1899, as William was a chorister in the cathedral choir there from the age of nine: a fellow chorister would later write a moving account of his death. He attended Bede College 1907-1909, qualified as a school teacher, and when the war broke out was teaching at Dean Road Council School in Ferryhill, Co. Durham. He joined the 8th Battalion D.L.I. at Durham, serving as Private 2776, and with the battalion left for Belgium in April 1915. During the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915 he was badly wounded and captured as a prisoner of war. The battalion suffered heavy casualties on Gravelstafel Ridge, as is attested by the number of Bede men remembered above who were killed in these few days in April. By a curious coincidence Arnett’s capture was reported in the same June issue of The Bede magazine that reported his delivery of a popular music hall monologue entitled “Devil May Care” as the second item of the “B” Company Concert at Ravensworth Park Camp in October 1914 – for the opening item the whole company had sung the Marseillaise. While a P.O.W. Arnett had one of his legs amputated, and as his wounds were so severe he was repatriated in August to be treated at Wandsworth Hospital in London. He died there as a result of his wounds on 23 September 1915, surrounded by his family, and was buried the cemetery at Ripon, to where his family had moved before 1901.
A more harrowing account of his ordeal as a prisoner of war and subsequent treatment appeared in the same issue with the publication of an extract from a letter sent to the Principal:
He was wounded on the 25th of April, and lay from about 3 p.m. till early the following morning, when he was picked up by the Germans and taken to a barn near by. This period was evidently the cause of much of his after suffering for he had lain all night with his head and shoulders in a pool of water, 'with his chest bare' – a letter to Durham says that he was picked up with nothing but a singlet and overcoat in his possession.
At the Barn, his wound was roughly dressed by a German Red Cross man. On two occasions he was greeted with 'English Swine' and much by-play with the bayonet. He thought he saved himself the second time by indicating a cross on his arm, thereby notifying his need. He was eventually placed on a stretcher, and imagine his thoughts, when he saw two men with spades preceding him. 'Buried alive' he confessed, were the words continually in his mind. A more humane work was theirs, however, for they filled in shell holes that would have made rough passage.
On the way to the Base he received a great surprise, for coming alongside another bearer party, he recognised Harry Bayles, his great chum, who was wounded three times in the abdomen. [Bayles died of wounds 27 April 1915: see above.]
Arrived at the Base, his troubles were far from being set at rest, for to begin with, Pneumonia set in, and he was in such a sad condition, that he was placed in the "Pegging-out House," as he called it, to die. He must have made some recovery, for he was taken into the hospital and had his leg amputated. His wound had evidently caused surprise for special photographs were taken, (I give you his thought) to show the effect of certain bullets used.
The outside of the leg showed an ordinary bullet wound, while the inside wound could not be covered with the outstretched hand. Whilst in the operating theatre he saw poor Bayles operated upon.
His worst fight was yet to come, for lockjaw set in, and held him for the best part of a month. At this time, he remarked, he owed his life to a fellow prisoner – Bradwell (?) – who attended to him night and morning, feeding him by means of a tube.
That acts of cruelly-unkindness were present, he would not deny, but on the whole he was treated kindly, a German Adjutant who took a fancy to him, possibly being responsible for this.
One incident he described as giving him some fears. He had a habit of whistling under his breath – his music would find expression somehow - and whilst indulging, a Doctor came into the room, and hearing him, took two or three angry strides and with a towel, wiped his "ration slate" clean. As he said, he did not worry over it, for they lived, on one another, and his comrades saw to it, that he was not without food that day.
He remarked, of this period in hospital, that he had been treated to an anaesthetic more times than he could count.
The arrangements for leaving the hospital, were evidently not particularly of the best, for those to be exchanged were taken to the station, and no train being available, were laid on the open platform for some hours in a pouring rain, eventually being placed in fourth class compartments in which they travelled for some three hundred miles.
At Aix la Chappelle they received a good meal, and it was evident that the nearer they approached a neutral country, the better treatment they received. The journey across Holland was all that could be desired, and the passage across the water was 'like travelling on a millpond.'
On approaching Tilbury Docks, every siren on that part of the river was blown, and everyone went wild. The 25th of August saw him admitted into Wandsworth Hospital. He was in a very filthy condition and had a beard three inches long.
Here to his great joy, he was able to receive his first communion since leaving England, being wheeled into the Chapel in a bath-chair, by his fellow patients.
It was found necessary for him to undergo another operation, sufficient bone not having been taken away in the first one. Septic poisoning now took hold, and they began successfully to counteract it. Too late they found out that an artery had burst, and it was this that took away his chances of life.
He did not wish to undergo another operation, for he said that he had suffered more pain in this short time than ever he had done in Germany. Yet he placed himself entirely in the hands of the Doctors and Nurses. Every possible kindness was shown him and though the Hospital contained some eleven hundred Patients; four or five Doctors could find time to visit him each evening.
His parents were sent for and their presence greatly consoled him, the Hospital Authorities insisting that they should stay on the premises. His mother, sister and fiancée were with him for over a week. Unconscious for some time towards the end, he passed away, on the 23rd of September.
Extract from a letter, (unattributed), sent to the Principal of Bede College, and published in The Bede magazine, v.12 no.1, December 1915 (p.3-4).
This letter is followed with remarks by W[illiam] B[ulmer], a former fellow Bede man (1910-1912) and an older Ripon friend of Arnett:
I have omitted no detail that I know of, and in this I hope I have not done wrong. If it appears a mere heartless account of his troubles during the last few months, you must not misjudge me, for you knew him, and you will understand me when I say he was the only brother I ever had.
As boys of nine we met and became choristers together at the Cathedral, leaving within a month of each other. Leaving is not a happy choice of word, for the 'Minster' became part and parcel of our lives. It is the Rock on which is built a friendship that I am convinced not even Death itself has severed. "We walked in the House of God as Friends." Sir, I have never fully realised the meaning of that sentence till lately, for it was there, where we had spent our boyhood's days, by – I was going to say the merest possible coincidence, but that cannot be true, - by the Unseen Guidance, that we met, and said our last 'Goodbye' when each was thinking that a hundred miles lay between us.
Forgive me, Sir, if I have already said too much, but I must say more.
We talked a lot of Bede Spirit in past days, and we still talk of it. It never was an imaginary thing, for it shows itself in the small things as in the great things of life. I am coming back to Arnett, Sir. He was never was a fighter in the ordinary sense of the word. I have never known him lift his hand to another, even in schoolboy days. Yet to his father, who, on the eve of his departure, remarked that somehow he had altered, he said, "Yes father, but you cannot see any fear in my eyes". A fellow patient in Wandsworth, who had been with him through all, said of him. "It is impossible to imagine even, what that lad has been through, yet not a soul has ever heard a murmur from him." To his sister, the day before he died, a patient remarked. "Don't worry over Billy, he'll never die, for he has got the heart of a lion." That is 'showing spirit' indeed, Sir, but even then it would fall short of 'Bede Spirit' did it not include some consideration of others. The loss of his limb troubled him greatly, not on his own account, he never worried over that, but because of his fiancée. He was to have been married on his return. His first letter after the operation, was to release the young lady from any promise.
His letters home were bright and cheery, not a word of the horrors he had gone through. At home they knew nothing of pneumonia, and lockjaw, till he arrived in England, and even then he kept back anything that would distress them.
Practically his last words were to his fiancée, who had been sitting with him. 'You look tired go and get something.' This when he was almost past talking.
'Bede Spirit' – and this is one case among the hundreds that have gone from 'Bede.'
He was interred at Ripon Cemetery with full Military Honours – gun carriage, escort, band, and firing party, after a Choral Service at the Cathedral.
Unfortunately, the Durhams had left Ripon for Salisbury on the Wednesday previous. Had they known in time, they would have made the journey from Salisbury to supply the escort (some thirty Bede men are with that Battalion). As it was they held a ceremony in camp at the time appointed for the funeral ceremony at Ripon, and Played the Funeral March, sounded the 'Last Post' and fired the final Volley.
And now no more, for I may have said too much.
W[illiam] B[ulmer], Bede College 1910-1912
The Bede magazine, v.12 no.1, December 1915 (p.4)
William Arnett is commemorated on Bede College 1914-1918 cross, plaque, and Roll of Honour. His sacrifice is also remembered on war memorials at Ferryhill and at Ripon Spa Gardens and Cathedral, and his name was published in National Union of Teachers War Record 1914-1919 (1920) and in a Souvenir Programme welcoming home teachers from the Spennymoor and District Teachers’ Association at Spennymoor Town Hall on 8 May 1919.