He survived the First World War and entertained the troops as part of a concert party, but just two years after the end of hostilities, South Shields man Lieutenant William Spalding Watts was killed – believed to be the victim of an IRA death squad.
The extraordinary tale comes from Lieutenant Watts’ nephew, Arthur J Watts.
Arthur says in 1917, Sapper Watts, as he was then, was part of The Sparks concert party, who gave a concert to troops in France.
The following year,” reveals Arthur, “William was promoted to 2/lieutenant, and bought his uniform from Warrens & Co: Tailors-Costumiers, of 45 King Street, South Shields, paying a grand total of £43-11s-8p.
“He went on to survive the war and was posted to Ireland, where on November 15, 1920, he was on a train at Waterfall, County Cork, when members of the IRA boarded and took him and two captains off the train.”
An army inquiry into the incident, based upon the evidence of a fourth officer (Lieutenant RR Goode), reported that on the day of the abduction, Lieut Watts was in a first class carriage by himself, while the other two officers (Captain NHW Green and Captain S Chambers) were travelling third class.
The report stated that when the train stopped at Waterfall, three armed plain-clothed men pushed their way through the crowded carriageway, and gave the order “hands up”.
“One of the intruders indicated Capt Green and Capt Chambers, and these were ordered to leave the carriage, which they did, and were taken away.
Lieut Goode, looking out of the window, saw them being taken over a bridge. On the bridge he saw a number of civilians and one man, apparently holding his hands up. This must have been Lieut Watts, as he was not to be found in his carriage at the next stop.”
The soldiers were not seen alive again.
However, as Arthur goes on to reveal, a body, believed to be that of his uncle, was found 42 years later.
“In 1962 a body was found, mummified in a bog, in Ireland, which my father’s sister Ethel claimed was William because he had fair hair, and dressed in Khaki shirt and pants” says Arthur.
“I have my doubts about this because the men when taken were in Mufti (plain clothes), but of course he may have had the army shirt and pants on under a coat.”
The grisly find was reported at the time in the Shields Gazette.
But what could have led to the abduction and subsequent deaths of the British soldiers?
The army report goes on to say: “It is known that Capt Chambers and Capt Green had while travelling by rail a week earlier, witnessed the murder of two constables of the RIC at Ballybrack Railway Station.
“Further Capt Chambers had, more than a year previously, been the cause of the arrest of Father O’Donnell, a chaplain of the Australian Expeditionary Force, for using seditious language.
“There is nothing to show any motive for the kidnapping of Lieut Watts, whose duties were confined to electric lighting.”
So it may be, that Lieut Watts was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The army report concluded at the time that: “Seeing that these officers were kidnapped by rebels and that they have not been heard of since, and taking into consideration the known methods of the rebels, the court finds that the three officers were murdered by rebels between the dates of November 15 and 26,1920.”
It is a tragic story of a local man who, in his life, not only fought for his king and country, but also helped cheer up his fellow soldiers in the dark days of war through his singing (as a solo artist and as part of a trio) and his performing (playing the part of an office boy in a play).