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As the grandson of a veteran of the First World War I took my grandfather’s stories to be accurate to the letter – though how I visualised his antics as I grew up bore very little to the reality, but rather a boy’s perceptions from his surroundings, TV and books in the 1960s and 1970s.
As I study for an MA in British First World War studies the chance exists not only to entrench my research into his journey through the Machine Gun Corps and the fledgling RAF but to consider the accuracy of any veterran’s account – as the years pass their stories can be coloured by what they read and hear so that they may say what people expect to hear.
The opportunity may also exist to do some original research, even to be in touch with the relatives of those featured in his story.
Is it possible, for example, to put names to the faces in a set of photographs of the RAF cadets who were barracked at the Queen’s Hotel, Hastings in May and June 1918?
And where he marked the spot where he buried his mates Dick Piper and Harry Gartenfeld is it feasible to look for them or leave a permanent stone?
Fig.1. The dead and unidentifiable of Passchendaele, 1917
Reflecting on his training and service in the Machine Gun Corps during the First World War, veteran Jack Wilson MM commented on the regional news piece on TV which showed a soldier of the Durham Light Infantry in the Gulf before the first Iraq War to free Kuwait.
“You see these lovely rations they’re getting”, he said, adding, “and I look back at the stuff our lot were getting – it was terrible.”
He summed it up with in a sentence: ‘That’s nothing compared to Passchendaele”.
He described the food at the training camp in Grantham as “B.A.’ for “Bloody Awful”.
- Slipping over the edge … (machineguncorps.com)
- First world war soldiers’ undelivered letters home come to light at last (theguardian.com)
This is the must read at the top of any list of TEN.
See the film produced in 1930 too.
Can anything beat it? Let’s see how Daniel Radcliffe performs in this role when the latest remake comes up for release in 2014 and some of the myths of the First World War are given another boast.
Junior Officer’s who did their best and their utmost
Generals who could have done no differently and did look for different ways to end the war (innovations, new fronts)
Before you get swamped by the new titles that will inevitably feature over the next couple of years, what would you considered to be the must reads?
I’ve just started ‘Tommy’ by the late Richard Holmes and recently completed the diary of the lady nurse, Lady Dorothy (Doddles) Denbigh which, despite the proximity to death, was somewhat alleviated by frequent rides, and fine dining with royalty and generals.
Please offer your suggestions for additional links
What is Europe? Free learning from The OU
Fig.1 Brigadier-General J W Sandilands From The History of the 35th Division in the Great War. L-C H.M. Davson
Brigadier-Gneral Sandilands decorated Jack Wilson with the Military Medal – ‘in the field’ along with three others. He received the Military Medal. Jack described the scene as ‘a square’ with a table in the middle.
There are a couple of likely times for the week long stop in a pill-box without relief – around 11th October when the Steenbeck flooded, after the initial attack on Houthulst Forest when the heaven’s opened, or in November when once again the Broembeck was flooded. He describes the Steenbeck as a ‘lake of mud’ and to reach Egypt House at one time as requiring you to wade through ‘the puddle’.
Fig. 2. A studio photo taken soon after joining the Durham Light Infantry, March 1915 at Billy Wilson’s Photography Studio, Consett before transfer to the Machine Gun Corps or ‘Suicide Squad’
This picture used in the Consett local paper when Jack Wilson was awarded the Military Medal
Fig. 3. Clip from the Consett Gazette in late 1917
(This photograph from a faded original cutting from the paper originally kept by Jack’s mother Sarah Wilson nee Nixon)
Fig.1. Jack Wilson’s identity tag. He had it made while training in Grantham.
“We were put on parade one Saturday morning in early 1916, which was unusual”.
The next thing I know the Sergeant’s running up and down the line with the Red Cap picking out people’s names. He was a bit of a raw Geordie lad.
Afterwards I asked Quartermaster Sergeant Barwick what it was all about.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“You’re going to the suicide squad on Monday.” He replies.
Then he added.
“You’re off to Grantham.”
“What’s that?” I ask.
“On Monday, you’re off to Grantham. You’ve got to go”.
I had no choice in the matter.
And that’s how I was transferred to the Machine Gun Corps, 35th Division, 104th Brigade Machine Gun Company (formed 27th April 1916).
I got a few days leave from Grantham before and then I didn’t get any leave whatsoever while I was out there through the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Passchendaele – about two and a half years. It was only when I came back to join the RFC that I got a week’s leave. Then I went back to Grantham. And of course I finished up on the RFC aerodrome at Crail, Scotland.
Fig.2. Machine Gun Training. I believe these are Canadians. Or could they be American?
“They were picking suitable looking fellows. They were copying the Germans”.
They went around all the infantry companies looking for suitable men. It was a heavy gun. The Vickers weighed over 28 pounds; the tripod 20 pounds and the water to cool the gun another 10 pounds.
They took about twenty from the Durham Light Infantry. The 7th Division was a Geordie regiment.
Billy Wrangham, who was 24, from Urpeth, Anfield Plane. His father was a Colliery Winding Engineerman – he was gassed. It could catch you on the hop. Billy had this gun and they had their masks on all day. He took his off in the afternoon being the corporal.
George Toward lived behind the Royal Hotel; he was a regular billiard player. He was a year younger then me, only got in by a squeak. He was eighteen. He lied about his age. George lived at 19 Consett Rd, Castleside just along the road from us. His father was gas producer at the steelworks. He was the youngest of four. I remember his sisters Elizabeth and Jennie and his big brother Robert a married man of 28.
Sergeant-Major Barwick; he was a funny one.
If he felt happy he’d get up and have a little jig and a sing song. He was from Teams, Gateshead. They had four lovely kiddies. He’d bring them down to watch us parade and we’d carry them on our shoulders. We’d give them pennies and sweats. He was killed on the 6th October 1918 age 28. Son of Joseph and Maria Barwick from Teams, Gateshead. His wife went by the name of Theresa.
Tommy Collinson, was another one.
Tommy was a big strapping lad. He had a brother who was shot in the knee before the war; it got gangrene and was lost. Tommy was killed on the 5th November 1917 at Passchendaele – he was only 18.
And Billy Soulsby all from Askew Road, Gateshead.
He was a storekeeper by trade so they made him the quartermaster.
Those are some of the names I remember.
The rest of the company was made up from North Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumberland, Birmingham and Northumberland.
Grantham was a camp for transport and machine gunners.
“Even to get into your hut you were up to your knees in mud”.
Interviews conducted by his grandson Jonathan F Vernon from 1989-1992. Recorded on digital audio tape and transcribed. Jack then reviewed a manuscript of large font printouts and added further notes, some in his own hand, some added by his grandson.
The 103rd Brigade was formed on 27th April 1916 and joined the 34th Division.
- They Called it Passchendaele (machineguncorps.com)
- Irish Somme (insideview.ie)
- Anniversary 30th/31st July 1916 – III Platoon 17th Manchesters (17thmanchesters.wordpress.com)
- Online archive will reveal the poignant wills and personal letters of 230,000 WWI soldiers (dailymail.co.uk)
From there we put on our clothes and marched from Gateshead across the Tyne Bridge and up to Fenham Barracks.
There we were issued with the kit. It was absolutely terrible – neither touched, nor fitted. Things hardly fit, tunics were thrown at you; you weren’t even shown how to put a puttee on. The Corporal tried to show us. It was touch and go. What a right lot we were. The boots had me crippled. They were made from a heavy raw leather. It was thick with no flexibility in it at all.
”You’ll get them changed at Shields.” Said the Sergeant.
They didn’t even give you paper or string to wrap your suit up to send it home. You had to go to the canteen and buy a sheet of brown paper and some string to wrap your goods up in for 4d and send them home. You got a label to fill in and they delivered your bundle to your home for free.
We then walked from Fenham down to the Central Station.
From the station we took the train down to South Shields to Mortimer Road Schools which were commandeered.
The first thing we were taught was how to put puttees on.
I was given a pair of second hand boots and changed my tunic which was too big. We slept in one of the main halls on palliases with a couple of blankets.