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We had another casualty, a Birmingham lad who was in charge of that gun.
The engineers would rig up a bit of a dug out on a dry spot and make a bit of shelter with corrugated sheeting.
They’d been trench mortared.
This Birmingham lad had been hit in the shoulder with a trench mortar fragment. They brought him to my gun as the duckboard led back from it. Other than that you were walking through the mud.
There were meant to be four in a team, but it never got up to scratch, it was more like two. We were organised in four sections: A,B,C,D. The joke was they had us training in teams of Five at Grantham; that was never going to happen, not the need and not the man power.
I said to this Birmingham lad, “You’ve got a Blighty.”
I kept him there ‘til late. Blair had him taken away.
I saw Blair a few days later. He told me this lad had died.
Blair was the Section Officer; Williams was the C.O.
(The edge of Houthulst Forest was reached by XIV Corps and the French in an attack on the 9th October 1917.
On the 12th October the XIV Corps entered the forest. Haig wanted to force the enemy to evacuate the Forest; an objective he continued to push for throughout October 1917).
As machine-gunners we were sent in to hold the position.
This is what I learnt after the war, the whys and wherefores; what I was doing in that stink.
I was in the spot at least four times.
Fig. 1 Egypt House to Houthulst Forest, Poelcapelle, North East of Ypres
Fig. 2 A plane shot down on the edge of Houthulst Forest.
(This action takes place north of Poelcappelle as the British approach Houthulst Forest. The attack began at 5.35am. It is Monday 22nd October. The Essex took Nobles Farm. The Broembeck was flooded and something of a barrier. After various advances were made there was a strong counter-attack that forced a retirement to east of Egypt House). (McCarthy, 1995:120)
There was this RE 8 Artillery Observation Plane hit with incendiary bullets. The wing caught fire.
The pilot tried to slew the plane over to keep the flames away from the fuselage.
He crashed in front of Egypt House, half a mile from Poelcapelle.
We buried the pilot just outside this dugout in an isolated grave in No Man’s Land and a cross put up.
We then crawled back into No Man’s Land to take the magneto out of the engine.
You’d give this 6mm magneto a spin and it made sparks.
If you held the wires it gave you an electric shock – we had some fun with that one.
There was another time an attack had been made and something went wrong.
They lost a gun team. As a rule Jerry would follow up the attack. They had put up a fight and taken a prisoner – this Sergeant Bates. The entire team was missing. Years after, when I was with Duker’s, 1933 or 34 … I was at the bottom of Westgate Road, Newcastle. This was when the trams were running. This tram inspector was Sergeant Bates. So I asked him what had happened. He’d been told to go forward and was badly hurt. Jerry took him prisoner. A bit later he was repatriated by the Red Cross, as he was so badly hurt. He ended up in Newcastle. He said he had to sign a declaration that he’d take no further part in the war. He married one of his nurses who lived in Walker.
There was another one, I came across after the war.
Sergeant Bushmell from Birmingham. It was on St Andrews Street. He worked for Fife Bananas. He survived and had been demobbed. He’d tried to find me. Apparently I’d been very popular with the company. It was the top of Northumberland Street, Ridley Place, outside a Jewish tailors. I got a tap on the back.
“Hello Jack. I’ve tried my damndest to find you …” He said. ” I’ve asked managers in Green Market, Whitley Bay, Leadgate … I’d said I was looking for Jack Wilson.”
Fig. 2 Poelcapelle to Houthulst Forest, 22nd October 1917 p122 Passchendaele: the day by day account. Chris McCarthy
Jack Wilson refers to Egypt House and Colombo House in this memoir.
McCarthy, C (1995) The Third Ypres. Passchendaele. The day-by-day account.
Did Jack go in to relieve the position on Tuesday and find the gun team dead or dying? As a machine gunner did he serve more than one division?
- Some job – manning a machine gun (machineguncorps.com)
- Hell on Earth: The never before seen colour photographs of the bloody battle of Passchendaele (warhistoryonline.com)
- World War One centenary: Welsh towns to remember Victoria Cross winners (walesonline.co.uk)
Fig.1. International Corner, North of Poperinghe on the N321. The resting spot for the 104 MCG. By Paul Reed.
Our rest spot was International Corner, some seven or eight miles back from Passchendeale.
Fig.2. ‘International Corner’ is on the N321 east of the Abbey of St. Sixtus which is marked here. This is where J A Wilson MM of the Machine Gun Corps rested when out of the line during the Third Battle of Ypres, 1917
(This action takes between International Corner, the communications trenches across the Yser Carnal torwards Pilkem, Langermarke, Poelcappelle and Houthulst Forest)
“We used to get a daily paper. It was in the Daily Mail that an attack by the enemy had been frustrated, or words to that effect … ‘Enemy driven back with heavy casualties’. It was all lies. We knew because we just happened to know what had happened’.
I played football once at right-back against the trench mortar battery. It was during the winter and the ground was all icy. I went down on one knee and gashed it badly on a lump of ice.
‘We were called in from rest at one time to give support to the Canadians who were attacking Pilkem Ridge’. (Clearly the MCG were a peripatetic group who would be called in as and where required. This may have been around the 26th October as the 3rd Canadian Division moved toward Passchendaele. The Battle of Pilckem Ridge was earlier, 31st July to 2nd August).
We carried in ammunition, there were 250 rounds in a tin box.
When you were out of the line for a bit rest you could always bet your boots on a good Salvation Army tent.
They give you writing paper and all the rest of it. You couldn’t write letters without them being checked. I don’t know what we would have done without them, they were excellent. I always give them something when they come to the door.
There were rats on the Yser-Ypres canal bank at Boesinghe, that was real fun.
This was around November. There were all these holes; we’d bung them up with sods of earth and stick some cordite in the last one, slam some more turfs over it and wait for them to go off. You’d think the whole bank-side was ablaze and the rats. We’d try and hit them with bayonets and spades. They’d be down into the water and this little terrier which belonged to the cook would go in after them.
We tried to shoot fish with a gun.
We never got them. Someone would throw in a Mills Bomb, what we called a pineapple or just a ‘bomb.’ They’re called hand-grenades now.
Lice were a menace.
Get too close to the brazier in your dug out and you’d start itching. We used to do all sorts to try and get rid of them. If you took a candle and ran it along the seams you could burn them out. I remember once, it was in the middle of winter, I had a chance to give my shirt a clean – you only had the one. I hung it outside on a bit of line over night.
The next morning, you bugs, despite the frost the lice were still alive.
The officers were tripe, hopeless. Absolutely hopeless.
I had no faith in them whatsoever. Absolutely hopeless. I’ve learnt about Haig, that he got himself into Oxford University by the back door, went to Brasenose College where no entrance exam was required. And then, he was excused the entrance exam into Sandhurst because he went to Oxford!
I could have done that!
He then managed to dodge again to join the Hussars on his ability as a Polo player. No wonder he wanted the war to be won by the cavalry. His only skill was personal advancement.
His proximity to the Royal family had a lot to do with where he got.
How we won that war I don’t know.
I can tell you now, look you, the times that I’ve gone into that line with a gun and never got an instruction. You’d have thought you’d have been bunged in there and told what to do and what to watch …. no.
It was up to yourself, either point blank or you’ve had it.
It’s up to yourself, other than a set point with a gun where it’s static and the gun was just set on a line.
Haig has blood on his hands.
Anybody could see that a breakthrough wasn’t going to happen. It was a war of attrition, a modern war where the cavalry no longer played a part. You try telling that to Haig though.
We didn’t win the war, the Germans lost it.
And what did he get for his pains?
Millions in today’s terms.
And the lads?
Not a jot.
They didn’t even have jobs to go back to.
Fig. 1. Passchendale was a quagmire
Not like trenches. There was no communication. And you could only walk about in the dark.
(Ypres is at sea level. As the landscape is flat farming is only possible with extensive drainage. The Belgians let it flood when the Germans invaded, then with all the shelling, the place was just a morass of mud. The surrounding ridges are nearly all under 50ft high – but it was dry and gave a view of the area. That was what all the fighting was about).
“You had to watch the gun that it didn’t freeze; it was water cooled”.
We’d cover the barrel with bits of sandbag and an oil sheet – anything you could find.
You couldn’t help but get a bit of dirt on it. The conditions were absolutely serious, almost unbearable. We used to wrap out legs with sandbags right up to the knees. There were no rubber boots or anything then; it was boots and puttees.
This Lance-Corporal George Wannop was in charge of the gun.
He was only 19, another one who’d joined up under age.
It would appear that during the night when they’d given the gun a try, given it a few bursts to see that it wasn’t frozen; it jammed.
You had to do that intermittently, just to give it a burst to reassure yourself that it would work.
Wannop couldn’t get it going; it wasn’t frozen.
So in the dark he changed the lock.
You wouldn’t dare show the slightest light.
We’d been trained to change parts wearing a blindfold in Grantham.
There’s a spare lock in the case. It’s a square piece of metal with a striking pin in it and its worked by a crank inside. You lift the cover on the gun, ease it back, pull the crankshaft back, the leaver is here, ease the gun out and lift the lock out.
(75 years on Jack goes through the precise actions with his hands. His thumbs are like spoon, pressed flat from being pressed against the dual firing buttons of a Vickers Machine-gun)
Wannop did that, all in the dark, and put in a new lock. He tried the gun.
“DakDakDakDak DakDakDakDakDakDak DakDakDakDakDakDak DakDak”
OK and covered it up.
There’s a heavy fog the next morning when it starts to break daylight.
This officer, he could have only weighed nine stone and one or two officers came prowling around. He was a little worm of a man, not more than nine stone, with a great heavy coat on. You’d never get officers coming round on a clear day; this one was a complete stranger to us. They had a chat with the corporal.
“Let me have a look at your spares,” asked the skinny one.
Wannop got the case out which held the spares and low and behold there’s mud and dirt on the lock they’d been fiddling on with in the middle of the night.
He was reprimanded for a dirty lock.
Not only was he reprimanded, but so was I because I was responsible for the two guns. I had my papers going through for transfer so the last thing I wanted was this kind of bother.
“When it broke daylight we were going to examine the gun,” I said to the man. “To see what the fault was, fix it and clean it.”
He’d hear nothing of it. Another “B” that wouldn’t listen … and it was him alright, Montgomery.
He was just a weed of a man … skinny legs there, but no doubt it he was clever with the Eighth Army.
Captain Williams was damn well annoyed about it.
We all resented these men coming to the Front Line. They hadn’t the first idea what it was like. They’d be seven or eight miles back billeted in some French châteaux while our lads were being knocked to pieces. We didn’t lose any pay. Williams reassured me that my papers would still go through.
This Lance Corporal says.
“Jack, they can keep the dog’s leg and put it where the monkey puts its nuts!”
Wannop was a great tall lanky lad. He was disgusted. And I had my papers going through. I was worried it would be on my record and effect my application. Wannop was a quarter mile away from me.
George Wannop was killed the next time he went in. He was killed on the 29th of October.
It was a spot in Houthulst Forest.
He said to me he was a farmer’s son, actually his father was a dock labourer from Silloth, Cumbria – but never mind that. You didn’t get many saying their father or mother were in domestic service either.
(George had six brothers and sisters: Isabelle, Thomas, twins Margaret & Joseph, Dinah J who was my age and a younger sister Sarah).
Years after the Second World War, Norman Taylor, my brother-in-law, who lived at Ryton, bought an autobiography of Montgomery
There was a picture of this skinny little fellow.
Fig. 2 Montgomery on the right here.
Montgomery was in Ypres at the same time as me. He was a serving staff officer in the 2nd Army under Sir Herbert Plumer. (47th (2nd London Division) Montgomery had been moved from Boesinghe on the 7th June after the mines blew under Messines Ridge. He then went on towards Pilckem Ridge, Langemark, Poelcapelle and Houthulst Forrest in October 1917.
I’m sure Montgomery was our brigade machine gun officer or director of guns.
GSO2 in Plumer’s IX Corps from June 1917 onwards. (Powell, 1990)
Fig.3. Lieutenant-Major Montgomery – Front Row. Sitting. Five from the left.
RIP Lance Corporal George Wannop.
Service No. 13210, 104 Company.
Died 29th October 1917. Born 1897.
From Bletterlees, Cumberland
Parents: Robert and Dinah Wannop, of Clement House, Blitterlees, Silloth, Cumberland.
Poelcapelle British Cemetery
West Flanders (West-Vlaanderen), Belgium
Plot: VIII. D. 6.
He just had to do his job.
In 1915 a question had been put to Parliament as to whether any soldiers had been executed after sentence by Court Martial. The issues were raised and debated on and off for the next 10 months until the Battle of the Somme intervened. The debate was revived after the Battle of Passchendale in 1917.
In April 1920 the official statistics were first made public, informing the public that 3,076 death sentences had been passed, resulting in 346 executions. This provoked Sylvia Pankhurst and others. The debate and changes to the law continued into the 1920s and 1930s.
Shooting people, that’s brutal.
You could understand lads, I had them – they were terrified, damn you. I’m sitting here, God believe me, I said my prayers many times when we were being shelled and I think he heard me.
There was a boy, 15 years old, called Bill Connolly.
He shot himself in the foot handling a German rifle. They thought he’d done that deliberately to get sent back to Blighty. Last I heard of him he was back on the Somme. He was reported killed in action on the 27th May 1918 – though he might have been shot for cowardice.
There was this occasion I was brewing up some tea in this dug-out.
I’d set up a bit of a fire with a couple of bricks and a canteen. You used your bayonet to scrape off a few shavings so that you didn’t make any smoke.
There was this dreadful smell
I pushed my bayonet into the soil and there’s a body. I don’t know if it was a Jerry or one of ours. I was burning a hole into their stomach
Another one, at the Briqueterie – a whizz-bang went straight through a signaller called Walters – he was a range finder. Just ripped him apart. It was a dud otherwise there’d have been nothing left of him.
I turned twenty out on the Somme in August 1916
There was no day to remember though. You never knew whether it was Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.
When they started the war, Jerry had those helmets with a brass peak.
One day I saw this spike sticking out of the side of this communications trench and I thought it would make a nice souvenir. I got my bayonet out and dug the earth away to get a hold of it. My fingers came away with the skin and hair and all the rest of it. Another time I had the helmet in my hands only to find there was a skull inside it.
We went swimming in the Somme when we were out of the line at Happy Valley.
We were taking over the line from the French bit by bit. About a mile at a time. We were at the extreme south of the line towards Caix and Peronne.
I remember these French soldiers pointing at me and having a bit of a laugh at my expense.
“Petit soldat,” they were saying. ‘Boy soldier.’
As machine-gunners our job was to hold the position.
It was pot luck if you were in the font line or on relief when there was an attack. We were used as a defensive weapon; we’d let off a few rounds on a regular basis to make sure Jerry got the idea and kept his head down. If there was an attack you fired point blank – as many rounds as you could get off with out overheating the barrel.
Gun teams were supposed to be made up of five.
There was meant to be a gunner, that was me, someone to feed the belt, one on supplies; another on spares and a fifth as an ammunition carrier. Two was more common. The canvas belts we had held 250 rounds that gave a burst of 30 seconds releasing 500 shots per minute. The machine gun was used like a piece of artillery. Often all we did was lay down a barrage of bullets 1000 yards away, so you wouldn’t see the poor blighters who were getting it in the head.
I could show you a map in the training book set out for machine gun fire.
It’s marvellous how all the Front’s covered. In an attack with a heavy Vicker’s Gun anybody trying to get through was bound to be hit in the crossfire. As a machine gunner you went in to hold a position once they had secured it. There’s a post up and that’s your firing line, otherwise you guessed the range. You’re blasting away, not continuous, just give it a burst.
The alternative was if you saw Jerry coming at you then it was up to you to do your best.
We left for the Somme in July
We were to be used in the Second Phase of the attack in mid July 1916. We knew something was up – you couldn’t move for the wounded on the Somme. As we got closer, passing through places like Albert, I remember all these country lanes packed with ambulances and the walking wounded. That told you how the battle was going.
They had just started the Somme offensive.
They had balloons up for observers, that was a bit of topography, not map work, but accuracy within a few yards.
They were well established trenches in Neuve-Chapelle and Arras. On the Somme they got smashed to pieces.
We were always on the move.
We arrived in time for the last part in the Battle of Albert which ran until the 13th July. After than we were sent into Montauban, Mametz, Fricourt, Contalmaism and La Boiselle. I never had to go over the top though, thank God. How the lads did that I don’t know. It was bad enough for us going in to hold the position afterwards.
At first they didn’t seem to know where they wanted us.
We where in and out and here and there. Eventually we ended up in Happy Valley and would go higher up the line into Trones Wood and Delville Wood.
I was in this Brick Factory at Trones Wood which was taken by the 30th Division on the first day of battle. The Briqueterie was south east of Montauban close to the French Line. It was being used to store .303 ammunition.
There was a huge crater.
That was from the First Day of the Somme Battle, when nineteen mines were exploded at twenty minutes passed seven.
A sheet of flame and a thunderous amount of debris shot 100ft high.
If you had seen the Somme you wouldn’t have believed a worm could have lived after it.
Struff. The bombardment.
Despite all this artillery bombardment the lads got caught in the barbed wire.
I found out after the War that General Congreve was commanding the 30th at the time.
We never knew what was going on; no one told us where we were off to or what we were supposed to do.
(On this occasion Congreve had requested permission to advance into Bernafay Wood on the left but this was refused by Rawlinson; even the Germans were surprised that we left the spot unoccupied. Rawlinson had little idea what was going on; he relied on pre-agreed plans and predictions. By the time orders were issued to enter Bernafay Wood the Germans had brought in machine-guns. The woods took a further two days to take with massive losses. They finally got in on the 14th July with a night attack. Trones Wood and Bernafay Wood were lost then retaken by the 35th Division on 21st August).
I remember stepping behind a hedge top run off.
I was told off by an officer.
“I’ve a good mind to reprimand you.” This officer said. “There’s a latrine up the road.”
And here we are with a battle raging.
Neuve Chapelle, France (April 1916)
When we were going into the line for the first time at Neuve Chapelle, there’s a bloke fastened to a cartwheel, his legs and arms were out in the sun. It was a punishment for something, like insubordination to an officer.
They were just making a mug of the lad; showing you that you were not to be a naughty boy. He was fastened to a limber wheel.
They called it Field Punishment No.1.
You were shackled in irons to a fixed object – a limber wheel usually served the purpose well. You were only meant to be up there for two hours at a time in 24 and not for more than three days in four and not for more than 21 days.
There were notices up about these fellows who were executed for desertion.
And that’s how went into the line; you can imagine that cheered us up no end.
There was no real action when I was there; no one went over. There was sporadic shelling, otherwise it was quiet. They were getting ready for the Somme do, which started on the first of July. All the guns and everything were being massed down there.
We were rookies.
The staff aren’t going to put untried soldiers into a spot that’s on fire. There was a Sap and sandbags and a machine gun and you sat and watched them. Perhaps a few shells came over – a few trench mortars, that sort of thing. We called them ‘Minnies’ because they were fired from a mortar gun, what the Germans called Minenwerfers or ‘mine-throwers.’ You’d have to be unlucky to be killed by one of those; it would have to land at your feet or on your head. So long as you pressed yourself into the side of the trench you’d be fine.
Artillerymen move a Minenwerfer into a firing position
They wanted to soften us up a bit.
We did things like putting a helmet over the parapet on the end of a stick to see what would happen.
We practised crossfire with the machine-guns and getting as many rounds off as possible in a minute to mimic an attack.