German foe fulfilled dying wish of dead British soldier killed in Passchendaele

File:Battle of Menin Road - wounded at side of the road.jpg
Wounded soldiers at the side of the road during the Battle of Passchendaele in a photograph dated 1917. Photo Source: State Library of NSW

The Battle of Passchendaele was one of the most brutal encounters of the First World War when British forces and their Allies clashed with the German forces. Sergeant Percy Buck was among the casualties having succumbed to a fatal wound. 

He died with the picture of his family in his embrace although he was fighting miles from home. At the back of the photograph is a written wish of the dying man that the picture finds its way back to his wife. Unexpectedly, the German soldier who in the act of war killed Sgt. Buck was the same person who honored his wish.

The First World War centenary is drawing near. Almost a hundred years after, the same photograph that was found clutched by Sgt. Buck was discovered by the his grand daughter.

Christina Reynolds, 58, found the hundred year old photograph among his father’s belongings. It shows Sgt. Buck, his wife Bertha and son Cyril who is Mrs. Reynolds’s father. She also found a telegram which informed Bertha of the death of her husband and surprisingly a letter from a German soldier. The letter told the story of the picture from the Western Front to the home of Mrs. Reynolds in Hitchin, Herts.

The father of Mrs. Reynolds, Cyril, was then only three years old when Sgt. Buck was killed in action. The box that contained Sgt. Buck’s effects were handed down to Mrs. Reynolds. The box also contained a letter from the Red Cross which explained the return of the picture to Bertha in 1917.

The German soldier who returned the picture recovered from Sgt. Buck is also a private. He was Gefreiter Josef Wilczek. He sent the photograph to the Red Cross in Geneva with a note seeking the return of the picture to the rightful owner.

It was a humanitarian act. But, the good act may have had its unintentional drawback. While fulfilling the dying wish of one soldier, Wilczek also removed the one item that would have helped identify the body of Sgt. Buck. It was believed that the body of Sgt. Buck was mistakenly buried among the unidentified soldiers in Flanders.

Sgt. Buck was with the Hertfordshire Regiment. As an official with a high ranked, he was tasked in the training of troops in rifle practice. He was then deployed to the Western Front in December of 1916. In July 1917, Sgt. Buck joined the men who were to conduct an offensive in the Third Battle of Ypres or Passchendaele. The decisive battle was a battle to control the ridges that run along the south and east of the Belgian city.

On the eve of the dawn offensive, Sgt. Buck wrote a note at the back of the picture that contained his last wishes. He showed it to another soldier hoping that his comrade would be the one to fulfill his prayers. The next day, the battalion where Sgt. Buck was assigned came across the German defenses of heavy machine gun fire at St. Julien at Flanders. The raining bullets forced his men to withdraw. During the retreat, Sgt. buck received a fatal shot to his side. He fell dying into a shell hole.

Sgt. Buck’s family never knew of the consequences surrounding his death. But with the discovery of the documents and Mrs. Reynolds’s coming forward, the details of his death has finally been revealed. The documents were forwarded to the Herts At War Project which was tasked to help organize the centenary of the First World War. The accounts from an eye-witness was also discovered which told in detail the death of Sgt. Buck. The testimony of Private Ramsell was found in the Enquiry Department for Wounded and Missing dated 1918.

He related that they were together at the St. Julien front where Sgt. Buck got shot and fell into a shell hole. He also said that the officer suffered a fatal wound rendering him unable to move. He also said that the officer showed him the picture and the note at the back that asked the finder to forward the photo to his wife. After that, he claimed that he did not see Sgt. Buck again or his dead body.

Mrs. Reynolds also said that for years, the family believed that their grandfather was killed in action and then buried somewhere in an unmarked grave. She said that it was only now that they discovered in full details the death of Sgt. Buck. She also wished that her father lived to know the account.

Dan Hill of the Herts at War Project said that they are looking into stories that touch humanity in the midst of the atrocities during the war. There were 20,000 different stories but the story of Sgt. Buck and the German soldier was truly unique and remarkable.

He said that despite the war that raged around him and the fear of punishment, the German soldier did the right thing of fulfilling the dying wish of Sgt. Buck.

The Daily Mail reports that Sgt. Buck only 26 when he was killed in combat. He married Bertha in 1912. His wife died in 1962. The German soldier, Gefreiter Wilczek, also died during the First World War. He was killed in combat on October 31, 1918. Two weeks after his death was the Armistice.