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The First World War Story of Jack Wilson

Fig. 1. John Arthur ‘Jack’ Wilson MM (c 1926)

My grandfather served in the First World War as a machine-gunner and in 1918 trained as a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force. This is his story. I have made it available to Life Stories, part of the First World War centenary commemorations.

John Arthur Wilson (20Th August 1896 to 16th December 1992)

Based on interviews recorded with John Arthur ‘Jack’ Wilson by his grandson Jonathan Vernon in Gosforth, Newcastle on Tyne, England  on 3rd July, 1989 and in February 1991. Jack added his own notes to the transcript  in 1992 and Jonathan has added footnotes since.

THE WILSONS, WIGTON, CUMBRIA

My father’s people were blacksmiths and wheelwrights in Cumberland. The old man (John Wilson b1827) was the local vet in Wigton; he wasn’t qualified but he did the job all the same. He had all these beautiful instruments.My mother’s side, the Nixons, were farmers at Bell Gate House Farm, Dalston, Cumberland. She was the eldest of six sisters. She went home to her mother’s to have me. I was born on the farm on 20th August 1896 and christened in Dalston Church. The farm was a real mixture. It had an orchard, pigs etc: It was rented from the estate. There was a market garden in Carlisle. Granny Nixon (Elizabeth) used to take a pony and tub trap into town once a week to sell eggs and butter at a stall.

BENFIELDSIDE, Co. DURHAM

We were living at Benfieldside, Shotley Bridge, Co. Durham. It was on the road which ran up to Blackhill on the way to Consett. It was eventually sold to the Consett Iron Company for £6,000 and became a students’ residence.

My father, Twentyman Wilson (b1865), was general factotum to the Murrays, who owned the North Eastern Breweries. He did everything. Before the motorcars he looked after the horses – they had two landaus. Everyone got around in carriages and pairs. They got a second groom when the cars came.

He was well in with them. He was part and parcel of the outfit. He used to look after the hunters and would go with J.G.and the Braes of Derwent Hounds. He called ‘J.G.’ the ‘Governor.’

My father was living in the lodge. The Murrays had a large house, Benfieldside House. As a boy, I used to come up the yard to fiddle on with the engines. There were great crates of dinner sets to unpack for the cook. There were two gamekeepers: Jack Bell, who lived at Elm Park and Frank Carruthers at Allensford, Blanchland. Jack Bell came into the office on a Saturday morning for the wages. There were single entry estate books for these two shops in Consett. A gardener, called Booth. A butler, called Fry. A housekeeper, called Mrs Kirkpatrick. A cook, called Mrs Woodburn. A housemaid. A laundry maid. And a governess for Miss Effne.

I had five brothers. Percy was born in 1893. Then me. (1896) Billy was born in 1899. Sydney was born in 1902, but died when he was four years old.  “Why don’t we have a sister?” We kept saying to father. I think he tried his hand but it didn’t come off. After Billy there was a thirteen-year gap. Spencer was born in 1909. Then Stuart in 1911. Percy went into a nursery as a gardener. He was a real gardener, not a half inch one. He trained with people called Kidd. He burst a blood vessel and died a few weeks later, that was 1920. Billy worked at the solicitors J Aynsley & Sons on Tailor Street, Consett as a clerk. He did copywriting. Billy joined the Royal Flying Corps. He was killed delivering mail over Belgium in June 1919. Spencer was more or less an unqualified architect working for Murrays, Hoyles and Aynsley’s before becoming a draughtsman in Billingham, then a manager to a concreting firm in Birmingham.

When Richard Murray died he left £60,000 to build the hospital behind the house. He’s buried in Black Hill Cemetery.My father told me he gave each of his sons £30,000. ‘J.G’ (John George) Murray left his legal practice at 42 Westgate Road to take over the business.

The first person to have a car in the area was Dr Ralph Renton. It was a chain- driven 8 HP Single Cylinder Rover. Everyone knew when he was coming because you could hear the engine. ‘Chug, chug chug, chug …. ” The solicitors to C.T. Mailings of Ford Potteries, Greenwood, Shotley Bridge were the next people to buy a motor car. It was a Lanchester, which had tiller steering, and bicycle pedals, I remember helping to unpack these great crates of dinner sets for the cook, which came from Ford Potteries.

The Murrays bought a 10 HP Coventry Humberfrom a firm in Middlesborough. The mechanic, a man called Geldart, came up from Middlesborough to teach my father how to drive it. As a boy my father used to take me up to the yard to fiddle on with the engines. They also bought a 30/40 Beston Humber. When old Dick Murray built Benfieldside House he had two massive stone pillars put up at the bottom of the drive. There was a little wicker gate into the lodge where we lived. J G. used to have a go with the Beston Humber. One day he missed the gate and ran into the pillar, which twisted round its base. How he didn’t knock it into our cottage I don’t know.

A second groom was taken on to help look after the horses and my father took on the new role of chauffeur. He used to drive J.G. all around the branches of the North Eastern Breweries, to the Moor Street Brewery in Sunderland, the Tower Brewery in Spennymore, the Weir Brewery in Stockton and the bottling plant at Blackhill.

There was a harness room, all in glass cases, saddles etc: Miss Effne (b1894) had a little Shetland pony with a cream tub trap.

There were so many lawns. If the weather was good on a Monday, Bell, the gamekeeper who lived on the other side of the railway came over to help cut the lawns. Bell pulled on a bit of cord and Booth pushed; it didn’t have an engine.

There were no swimming pools. We went down to the Paper Mill dam and used to swim under the sluice. The other place for swimming was Tiger’s below the Papermill. The Paper Mill was owned by Annandale’s who lived up at Snow’s Green.

I remember taking Billy up to the infants and him crying. That was at Benfieldside School at Highgateon the road to Blackhill and Consett. I left him and went back for him. It was a mile walk. There was no gas or electricity, just paraffin lamps.

The headmaster was Frank Allan and there was a teacher called Lubbock who was a bit of an amateur photographer. He took a photograph of Billy and me in 1903 or thereabouts. We wore these wide brimmed straw hats against the sun and I was carrying a cane and jam jar. We were off to fish for tiddlers in the Derwent by the Papermill.

Talk about winters. It went on for weeks, nothing like now.

The Spa was down by the river. It was noted for its waters, which came out of the rocks, by the swings; it was icy cold.

Every year there was a fair. There was a Toll Gate. You paid once and there were swings attached to these huge trees with heavy steel bars and hooks and roundabouts and a Flower Show. Carriages carrying twenty people would come in from Newcastle. I won First Prize for a handwriting competition and for my drawings. I remember going down to see the fire they lit to celebrate the Relief of Mafeking. The Spa was stopped eventually by a Quaker family who owned the land.

(August 1911, the Spa Fair still running, a Char-a-banc coming down from Blackhill to Shotley Bridge Spa grounds crashed. Date 26th August 1911. Those killed who belonged to the Consett Co-Operative Choir included John Joseph Person and Henrietta (Ettie) Stokoe age 31, the fiancée of John Joseph.)

There was Tatty Walton’s the Grocer’s and Addison’s the Newsagents. The pubs were the ‘Kings Head’ and ‘The Commercial’.

Canon Ross Lewin looked after the Church.

I noticed in the Homemaker section of the Journal a house for sale by the riverside for £330,000 with 12 stables and lodges and fishing rights. That was Louis Priestman’s House. There were three brothers, one of them lived up at Snow’s Green. There was a horse-trough where horses water on the way up from Newcastle.

In 1912, Uncle Billy Steel from Penrith took me to see Gustav Hemel doing a flying exhibition at Carlisle Racecourse. He paid half a crown. I remember him arriving in a chain-driven red two-seater Mercedes sports car. He put his flying gear on then did one circle and down. He flew the Channel – miraculous. The changes that have taken place.They thought he was a spy for the Germans. He was eventually lost over the North Sea.

WORKING FOR THE NORTH EASTERN BREWERY

One day my father comes up to me and says. “Mr Murray wants to see you up at the house at Six O’clock. There’s a vacancy in the office.” This was in May 1910. I was not 14 so I couldn’t leave school. I went up to the house. J.G. had me writing and one thing and another. He asked what class I was in.

“Standard Seven” I say, which was about as far as you could get.

“You’ll learn a lot more in the office.” He says.

I started work at the North Eastern Breweries in August 1910. I was fourteen years of age.  I was on Five Shillings per week and got an annual increment of Half a Crown. I was advised to take lessons in shorthand at Johnnie Nixon’s. He was a councillor at Shotley Bridge who taught Pitman’s. It cost a shilling a lesson. I only used the shorthand once or twice. I remember when I was down at Stockton George Lindsay was away on holiday and this urgent letter arrived for J.G. Some matter about a farmer’s land J.G. says, Take this down.” So I reeled it off, typed it up and he signed it.

We walked two miles to work, there were no buses. Bill Baron, who was the cashier lived down in Shotley Bridge, which was further away still. We lived up on the top, Bill used to go up to Shotley Bridge for his lunch.

It was a huge stone built hotel with five massive windows. The Royal Hotel’s still there. It was built for business; it’s all finished now. There was a station near by and next door the mart for all the Black Hill farmers round about Lanchester. There was a huge yard. The station took all the deliveries for the Paper Mill and Flour Mill in Shotley Bridge.

There were six in the office above the bar and taproom. J. G. had a private office across the passageway. I was the office boy. Joe Trones was on the sales ledger; Bill Barron was the principal ledger clerk (tenants, free trade). Tommy Morland was the cashier (bank cash book) and Ernie Caldwell, the estate agent and local brewery area manager. Mr Gardiner was the General Manager of the branch and stores.

Bill and I used to sneak next door to play bollards on the quite at lunchtime: we’d sneak the side door. We were doing ‘doing the columns’. We got to know Tom Brown who lived behind the Royal Hotel.

Ernie Caldwell used to count all the coins, it was all gold then. He had this desk next to a massive iron safe. When the figures didn’t add up he’d put it down to petty cash. When they came to move the safe they found all these coins stuck down the back.

Ernie Caldwell came to me one day. “John, I’ll show you how to work a pub stock out.” And he put this pub stock sheet in front of me.

One of my jobs was to take all the coins down to the bank. With it being the brewing trade a lot of them got sticky. I remember once the bank manger got fed up with getting sticky fingers and handed me the bag and told me to go and wash them. So from then on before I went to the bank I’d take the coins into the lavatory and wash them in the sink.

There were three joiners and two horse keepers for the twelve Cleveland Dray Horses. The pop factory was run by Tommy Blackburn.  There were six bottling girls and a bottler we called The Dummy.’ They bottled Bass, Guinness, Wheatley Hops and our own beers. Crossley Gas Engines ran the machines – there was no electricity. That factory was sold to the Venture Bus Company, now the Northern.

All the letters were hand written with copying ink. You put an oil sheet in; you damped the blotting paper, put your letter in and squeezed it to make a copy – that was before the typewriter. The cellars held two gallon jars of gin and Irish etc.: The cellarman had an office which had a speaking tube running up to the first floor; you had to whistle down it to get your attention. Wagons would come^983-age 66 in by these big double doors round the side. There were steps down in the cellars There was also a theatre. In those days there was nothing else, no cinema, just these theatres. I remember Gracie Fields was pelted with tomatoes at Stanley with the miners. The cinemas helped to black the music hall artists out.

J.G. used to build a theatre and a pub together. He had the Three Masons Arms’ and the ‘Globe’. The manager of the Globe would ring his beer order down and I’d run down to the phone in the corridor to take it down. I was just a boy and the man, a Cockney, asks for ‘‘Three barrels of oil.” I went back to the office and place the order and they all laughed. “Ale” they said, ‘‘He wants three barrels of ale.’

One day J.G. had my father carry this ‘Blick’ up from the car; it was a German typewriter. J.G. showed me how to use it. Then I did all the typing. We started doing the letters with carbon copies.

Bob Ritchie was the manager of the pub downstairs. It would be packed on Mondays, but the hotel itself was never busy. I had Bob Ritchie and his wife convinced the place was haunted. There was this telephone in a box, a bit like a phone box, down the passageway from the office. You could just get in and close the door and there was a bit of a ledge to write on. Originally it was probably put in to service all these bell-pull strings coming from the various rooms, but it seems everyone had forgotten about that. There was this piece of canvas with all these strings coming from all the rooms. I’d be in there waiting around for a phone call for someone to put their order in and I’d fiddle on with these strings. Bob Ritchie’s wife was so terrified by all these bells going off for some time and I never let on. I wasn’t aware I was doing anything. It would die down then muggins would be in the box waiting for someone to make a call and it would start up again.

Pubs in those days were open from 6 ’til 11 at night until the Gretna Crash in which the driver was found to have been drunk.

Down the lane there were the stables and the joinery. They had slats of mahogany used for wood storage. They made their own furniture.

I remember the Foreman Joiner, Jack Walton, getting his arm torn off in a crusher.He was a Cockney man, he always had to be right. This corn crusher had a steel roll and you put the corn in at the top and caught it out the bottom. It was driven by a belt from the pop factory, it got choked and Paddy Rafferty went to fetch Walton. He got on an empty crate, props it up to stand on so he can take a look to see what’s blocking the crusher and the crate collapses. His arm went straight through. He was left hanging there by his arm. They had to dismantle the crusher to get him out, the muscles were all tom. They took him down to the infirmary where they amputated the arm.

Bill Baron and I used to sneak next door to the Hotel to play billiards on the quiet from the branch office. There were two tables. We’d slide in and keep the door from the office locked. We’d sneak back as if we’d come back from the telephone. We got to know Tom Brown who worked for the Consett Iron Works. He used to play billiards when it was open.

There was also a spirit store and bottling factory.

Bill had a brother who was a good footballer. A couple of years older than Bill. Just before the War he got a message to say his brother had been killed in a fall of stone in the mine at Busty Pit, Medomsley. He was broken hearted. In those days all the mines were going: Hunter, Busty and Derwent interlinked with their own railway with iron ore from Spain.

Tom Young was in my class; he went into the steel works as a clerk, the Consett Iron Company. And a girl, and one called Ripley, who made a fortune, he was a foreman at the works.

JOINING UP KITCHENER’S ARMY 1915

There were no wireless or crystal sets, you just read what was in the paper. It only cost a penny. A crystal set had a bit of shiny coal with a coil and earphones. There was a cat’s whisker in a holder with a variometer.

We learnt about the ‘Fourteen Eighteen’ War through one of these huge posters which were put up all over the place in the summer of 1915 with Kitchener pointing his finger and saying. “Your Country Needs You.”

Ernie Caldwell and Tom Brown joined early on. They were in the Royal Garrison Artillery. Tom’s brother got his leg shot in Amsterdam early on. I bumped into Tom Brown in Passchendaele two years on.

One lunchtime Bill Baron and I went down to the medical recruiting centre. Bill and I took it all in a jovial way. “Fancy going up to the recruiting office in Consett one lunch time?” I was 19 then.

Consett was the recruiting office for the area. It wasn’t far from the office, only about a quarter mile. Up Blackhill by the bank. Bill failed the medical on account of a groin rupture. I passed and within a few weeks was called up. I got a letter at home to say report to a certain place so I had time to say cheerio. We were all issued with free tickets and took the train down to Gateshead.

They brought two girls in at the office. Ernie Caldwell, the area manager brought a girl in called Lily Amiss to assist. When I left for the army Bill Baron brought his brother’s daughter in as an office girl, Ella. There were more changes after that.

They put five bob in the kitty for me. When I got back I got about £80 bonus. I had to work for six months before collecting it. I spent it on a motorbike. It was a 41/4 B.S.A. Cost me £105. Percy, my elder brother, was a bit lame, so they wouldn’t take him. He had a crippled knee. They made him work on forestry work during the war. He was foreman of a group called Bowes-Whitfield in the forests during the war. Billy volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps. He became a bomber pilot. There were twenty odd from Consett. We had had free tickets down to Gateshead.

MEDICAL

The medical was a disgrace – the way it was arranged in these schools. There were no cubicles or anything. You just took your clothes off and threw them on the floor and went to a doctor in the nude. People could look in the window and see you, they were wide open, there were no curtains – it was absolutely crude.

From there we put on our clothes and marched from Gateshead across the Tyne Bridge up to Fenham Barracks where 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 great heavy raw leather. It was thick with no flexibility in them at all. The Sergeant said I’d get them changed at Shields. They gave me a pair of second hand boots and I changed the tunic. 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. We slept in one of the main halls on palliases with a single blanket. 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.

We used to train in the schoolyard. They had some trenches dug in a park somewhere. They used to take us up to these trenches for a bit of mimic warfare. It was absolutely ridiculous. It didn’t apply to the real thing at all. It was absolutely stupid. They’d take us up at night passing messages up from the back in a whisper, as if you were going to do that in the middle of a battle! Stupid.

SIGNED UP FOR THE SUICIDE SQUAD

We were put on parade one Saturday morning in early 1916, which was unusual and the next thing I know the officer’s running up and down the line with the Red Cap picking out people’s names.

Afterwards I asked the Sergeant what it was all about.

“What’s this?” I ask.

“You’re going to the suicide squad,” he replies. “You’re off to Grantham on Monday.”

That’s how I was transferred to the Machine Gun Corps. I had no choice in the matter. They were picking suitable looking fellows. They were copying the Germans and went around all the infantry companies looking for suitable men. It was a heavy gun.

They took about twenty from the Durham Light Infantry. 7th Division. A Geordie regiment. Billy Wrangham, George Toward, the Sergeant-Major Barwick, Tommy Collinson from Askew Road and Billy Soulsby are some of the names I remember. The rest of the company was made up from North Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumberland, Birmingham and Northumberland. Sergeant Barwick was a funny one. If he felt happy he’d would get up and have a little jig and sing song.

GRANTHAM

Grantham was a goods yard . There were no paths so you were always stepping into the mud just to reach your hut. This was the end of January or early February 1916.

It was a camp for transport and Machine Gun Companies of which there were twelve. There were mules and officers’ horses and the limbers and all the rest of the transport.

The food was ‘B.A.’

The porridge was dreadful. You’d leave it and you got the same stuff back the next morning.

Everyone was issued with these red plastic identity discs with your name and number on them. I went and found a Jeweller’s and had one made up in silver to hand around my wrist.

It read:

‘J A Wilson 13203 C of E

104 M.G.C.’

THE VICKER’S MACHINE GUN

The Vicker’s Gun was marvellous if you were mechanically minded.

There were generally four stoppages: a bullish cartridge, a broken firing pin, a faulty cartridge or a damp belt. You could tell from the position of the crankshaft what was wrong. A good gunner could correct it more or less straight away. The belt jammed if it got wet. It came out of this bean hopper with the ammo. With a faulty cartridge you could adjust the spring two or three notches.

I got a few day’s leave from Granthambefore we left for France and then I didn’t get any leave whatsoever while I was out there through the Somme and Passchendaele – about two and a half years of it. It was only when I came back to join the R.F.C. that I got any leave.

LEAVE FOR FRANCE

We set off at midnight in March or early April 1916. There were twelve machine gun companies. There were mules and officer’s horses and the limbers and all the rest of it to transport. It took two trainloads.

We travelled down to Southampton arriving at about 4 or 5 p.m.

Then onto a troop ship, or something to take us over to Le Havre. Spent all night on the ship. They were watching out for submarines. I had a walk about on the deck. We had to wait around all day on account of enemy submarines in the Channel. I managed. We got a cup of tea and a bun. It was packed. The following afternoon we landed at Le Havreaccompanied by a destroyer. It was a beautiful hot sunny day. I remember the cobblestones. We just got out and fell asleep; we were dead-beat.

Eventually we were loaded into cattle trucks, not carriages. We crawled up to the railhead at Bethune. We passed a farm, an orchard, the thing was travelling so slow the lads would jump off and pinch apples then get back on the train.

I was in four places:

Ville Chapelle, Arras, The Somme (Caix and Peronne, then Albert, Bapaume and Combles, Peronne followed by Cambrai). We moved about there. We were gradually taking parts of the line over from the French in the south. The last bit was half a mile to Caix. These companies took a lot of moving … no railway … it all depended on how you got knocked about. It all depended you might take a week out.

And Passchendaele.

APRIL 1916 NEUVE CHAPELLE

When we got to the railhead we were as near as possible to the front line at Neuve Chapelle.

When we first landed at Neuve-Chapelle, when we going into the fine there’s a bloke fastened to a cartwheel – legs and arms out in the sun. It was a punishment for something – 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.

There were notices up about these fellows who were executed for desertion.

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. They wanted to soften us up a bit.

Our first casualty was one someone got kicked in the jaw by a milking cow – it was making such a noise and this lad went over.

FIRST CASUALTY

Our first fatality was a young officer called Spanky. He was shot through the head. In spite of all the warnings he stuck his head up and got a bullet through it.

There’s a muzzle cup on the end of the Vicker’s gun. Spanky was fiddling on with the muzzle cup in this Sap. Instead of pulling the gun down to it he got up to it – crack he got a bullet through the head.

ARRAS

JUNE 1916

After Neuve Chapelle we went down to Arras.

You were able to buy white wine at an estimanet . We had these billets. We got messing on with this

old car and had it running. I was billeted with the C.O. – Parker.

I was asked if I wanted to transfer to the tanks. I said no.

They were cruel you know.

There were notices up about these fellows who were executed for desertion.

They ran away, poor devils, we had one on one of our guns but luckily our C.O. didn’t report it. He would have been shot. He was an old sweat. I can see the bloke – Peake. It was gas shells or something. He got terrified and ran away during a bombardment. He was found miles behind the lines with the transport. He should have been shot. If anyone else had done that. But never mind. That was the punishment for desertion. Somebody was shot.

THE SOMME

JULY 1916

You couldn’t move for the wounded on the Somme.

OCTOBER 1917

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 were warned about that at International Corner. JULY 1916

I was in this Brick Factory on the Somme at Trones Wood There was this huge crater. This is 1916. I was trying to boil some water. I was boiling it on a dead body. The smell was dreadful. A had a couple of bricks on the mud and had some wood shavings going to heat the canteen. There was a body burning! The smell… I pushed a bayonet into it …14S

JULY/AUGUST 1916

There were these Communication Trenches (Somme). I want one of those German helmets, a Pickelhaube. They had them when they started the war, with a brass peak, with some leather. We collected souvenirs. I saw the spike sticking out of the side of this communications trench. I got my bayonet out and dug the earth away to get a hold of it. My fingers came away with skin and hair and all the rest of it… it was a dead German.

OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 1917

There was a spot called International Corner, that was up in the Poelcapelle area.

We were out on reserve at the time. We used to get a daily paper. It was in the Daily Mail that an attack by the enemy on our trenches at this spot 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.

17th NOVEMBER 1916 SHOT FOR COWARDICE

With these trenches and dugouts the war was static; there were sentries here and there. Jerry had come over in the dark. He’d cut the barbed wire, crawled in and killed the sentry at one spot. It was fatal to have trenches running straight along, so they were zigzagged. So, Jerry got into these trenches and grabbed all these lads who were in the dugout quite unprepared. This young officer and a Sergeant were doing a bit of a round. They came along this trench and were suddenly confronted with Jerries. Before the officer could do anything he was downed and the Sergeant ran away. What would you have done? That Sergeant was shot.

I would have done the same. [He that runs away lives to fight another day.’

At his trial this Sergeant said he could do nothing about it. The officer was walking in front. He just ran back, along the trench.

I think it was a Lancashire regiment that was in there.

The report in the Daily Mail was that the Scots had gone over and more or less repaid the debt and gone over and knocked hell out of Jerry, but as far as I could gather it was just bunk to keep the moral of the troops up.

18m JANUARY 1917

That Sergeant was shot for cowardice.

The officer in charge must go up and make sure, to see you are dead and put a bullet through you. That officer lived in Stockton and worked for a firm of Foster-Brothertons at Thornaby. The incident was brought up in Parliament years later. All this came out. He should never have been shot. It was a disgrace to the British Army; he just had to do his job. 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 Connolly. He shot himself in the foot handling a German rifle. I last heard of him on the Somme.

EARLY OCTOBER 1917

MONTGOMERY

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 Montgomery, a skinny little fellow. He was a Major with other officers in Arras. We were in Arras for a few weeks. I’m sure he was our brigade machine gun officer or director of guns, from seeing that picture at Arras in early 1916, before we moved onto the Somme – 104 Brigade, 35th Division. He got two of us reprimanded for a broken lock, damaged lock or something in the gun. The conditions were absolutely serious, almost unbearable, and still there was a lance corporal in charge of a gun he was reprimanded for a dirty lock. It was an early winter morning. You had to watch the gun that it didn’t freeze. Every so often you give it a burst. It was water cooled and covered with sandbags and one thing and another. Covering it as you did the gun would get dirt on it… he didn’t seem to allow for that this brigade machine gun officer, who I take was Montgomery. And they never came round to look at your guns or anything unless it was damned quiet or thick fog! They took good care that they weren’t seen parading around your guns. This Lance Corporal, Wannop. He was a farmer’s son from a Cumbrian regiment. He was in charge of the gun.

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. He couldn’t get it going. So in the dark he changed the lock. Now you have a spare lock in the case. It’s a square and a striking pin in it and its worked by a crank inside.162 You lift the cover on the gun, ease it back, pull the crankshaft back, the leaver is here. You ease the gun out and lift the lockout. So he did that, all in the dark, and transferred a new lock, tried the gun. OK. Covered it up. When it’s breaking daylight the bald lad, I’m sure it’s him, and one or two more prowling round. They came to the gun and had a chat with the corporal.

“Let me have a look at your spares.” He says.

He had a case, with spares, locks, tools … and lo and behold there’s mud and dirt, which they’d been fiddling on with in the dark. He was reprimanded for a dirty lock. Not only was he reprimanded, but so was I because I was responsible for the two guns. Captain Williams was damn well annoyed about it.

We didn’t lose any pay or anything … this Lance Corporal says.

 

“Jack, they can keep the stocking leg and put it where the monkey puts his nuts.”

 

I told him, this officer, that when it broke daylight we were going to examine it and see what the fault was and clean it. Another “B,” that wouldn’t listen … and it was him alright. He was just a weed of a man … skinny legs there, but no doubt it he was clever with the Eighth Army. It was a quagmire. Not like trenches. No communication. And you could only walk about in the dark.

JULY 1916

There was another occasion on the Somme in 1916 I went behind a hedge to run-off, make water. An officer came up to me and reprimanded me.

“There’s a latrine up the road” he says. “I’ve got a good mind to report you.”

I didn’t know there was a latrine up the road half a mile. There was a ruddy war raging there. I was behind what was left of a hedgerow. The officers were tripe, hopeless. Absolutely hopeless. No faith in them whatsoever. Absolutely hopeless. 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.

Bates … entire team missing. Years after at Dukers. Bottom of Westgate Road. This was when the trams were running. This tram inspector – it was Sergeant Bates. He had been told to go forward. He was badly hurt. Repatriated by the Red Cross, as so badly hurt and ended up in Newcastle. He had to sign a declaration that he’d take no further part in the war. He’d married one of the nurses who lived in Walker. There was another one, Sergeant Bushmeil 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… I’ve asked managers in Green Market, Whitley Bay, Leadgate …I’d said I was looking for Jack Wilson.”

LATE OCTOBER/EARLY NOVEMBER 1917

THE KITCHEN COOK

I’ll tell you a story about the cook, he was a rough and ready one you know, the cook… they must have given us some terrible stuff, they wouldn’t care … pork and beans gooor… Have you ever tasted horsemeat? You know its alright you could get it in the cafe in Belgium with chips. Inclined to be sweet.

This was in the Passchendaele area … they used mules to carry shells into these 18 pounders. They were a shell, you know, with the charge and shell all in one … they used to carry about ten on each side. And of course they used the mules for the limbers. Kitchen cook, pinch from anywhere … fish, couldn’t catch them, couldn’t hit them with a revolver… we tried to shoot them with a gun. Never got any. Some would throw in a Mills Bomb – a pineapple. When it started you would not have thought a worm could live. There was this part where Jerry had it well taped, in Passchendaele. It was hell of a spot trying to get past it… and the repaired it, put sleepers and all sorts down it and next thing you’d know he’d blown it to bits, but it was essential. It was part of this country lane into the line and frequently these mules were being killed with shellfire.

Our cook, he went and made the lads a good meal with luscious rump steak from these mules. We all had rump steaks one day. And then the kitchen cook … they were thieves as well, they used to steal anything for the lads, they were funny these cooks…

This was over the canal bank at Ypres.

I think the bridge and that had all been wrecked. This was an improvised bridge. They were using it to bring ammunition up in the dark. There was the bridge and we were billeted in the bank side. This train was coming up with a truckload of shells.

Our C.O. Williams, he was billeted in the bankside as well, near the bridge. Williamscame out with a torch as there’s some trouble with the engine on the bridge … so we went with him. It was partly on the bridge. There was like a barrier to prevent you falling in, it was a long drop into the canal. You had to be darned careful because it was only improvised.

Williams got his torch out and here’s this fellow jammed between the wheel of the engine and the frame. He was wedged underneath. The cook’s pal was standing on the side. He’d given the alarm shouting his head off. They were drunk. They’d this rum from some store and had been drinking. They had been walking along the railway, drunk, when this engine came along. Somehow this crank had got a hold of his clothes and dragged him up underneath.

The driver said, “Just leave it to me.”

All those trucks loaded with shells as well… he pushed that thing back, just a gentle as could be. Clever… and the cook’s body dropped out. He was still alive, but his legs were broken. And that’s the last I heard of the company cook.180

 

There was a jar of rum they’d pinched there, you know. His pal would probably get into trouble over it… he had shouted and raised the alarm.

 

ON AND OFF THE LINE

Three or four days then straight in again, covered a mile … until the whole caboodle was moved. Only once on the Somme do I ever remember having a bit leave and I think it was for a day or something and it was to Amiens.181 We were on the Somme, well back … we got a good hiding. I think everyone was pretty well exhausted.

That’s the only time I ever had any leave in France, at all. When you were out of the line for a bit rest you could always bet your boots on a good Salvation Army tent, writing paper and all the rest of it. You couldn’t write letters without them being checked…. don’t know what we would have done without them.  Excellent

INTERNATIONAL CORNER, PASSCHENDAELE AUTUMN 1917

I remember once up at International Corner, wintry weather…. offices gave us a treat. They’d bought some frozen rabbits from Australia for a Christmas lunch. They were cooked in the open in a tin shack with a couple of iron bars and Dixie’s … just corned beef and stew and pork and beans. Beans – raw with a nasty chunk of fat in it. Warm the cans on a fire. One night we came out on a compass bearing, otherwise you could walk into Jerry’s line. Into the mud, carrying a tripod. Jack Walsh carrying the gun and a leather case with the spare … hurrying along and Jack shouts.

“I’ve lost the case with the spares in the mud”

I went back and here he is probing in the mud for the leather case.

“Come on, leave the darn thing.” I says.

We had another casualty, a Birmingham lad 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. My gun had a duckboard track leading from it, other than that you were walking through the mud. I kept him there until late. Blair got him taken away. These ambulance men put him on the back.

“You’ll be going back to Blighty.” I says.

It was a fatal wound. He died.

 

OCTOBER 1917 HOUTHULST FOREST

 

Incidentally, at Houthulst Forest, Dick Piper and Corporal Gartenfeld(the gunner) and Jack Walsh, Lancashire Fusilier, were killed. There’d been this attack. I got there at 5 or 6 in the morning to relieve them.

“How are things?” I asked Dick.

“Pull my legs up, Jack.” He said, “Pull my legs up.”

So I put a sandbag under his legs to stop his guts spilling out. You had a bandage and a tube of iodine fixed into the tunic. Never much use. We were in and out all day.

This time I got the Military Medal. Blair, the section officer, had made a request for us to take over from Gartenfeld and Piper.  I was in at about 4.00 a.m. It was along this country lane towards Houthulst Forest, then a mile on duck tracks. The pillbox, Egypt House, was just by the Steinbeck at the end of the duckboards. This pillbox we took over was another 200-300 yards down the lane on a dogleg in the track. You could see down this path right into the forest.

We were trying to push through to Langemark Village.

We called the pillbox Columbia House. Dick Piper was dead. I left him a bit ‘til he stiffened up. I got his pay book and credentials, then I dragged him out. I covered him up with whatever I could find. Dick Piper – 45 years old. He shouldn’t have been there. He was from the Lancashire Fusiliers. Two days was the limit in there; I was in for a week.198 You only went in with two day’s rations. It was so bad, the conditions, they couldn’t get anyone out… the shelling, the conditions …199. Your rations were mainly corned beef and a few dog biscuits, and when I say dog biscuits they were dog biscuits, they were like bricks. No bread.  Your tea and sugar was tied into a corner of a sandbag, no milk. There might be two or three tins of beans and some jam. And you took your water in a two-gallon petrol can. We finished up there filtering shell hole water through handkerchief. We were in seven days’ Me and one man were sent in, not a real gunner, a man from Lancashire Fusiliers, a man called Walsh. He was an ammunition carrier.

There was a concrete floor. No beds – we just lay on the floor.

We cleared it up a bit. Pulled out the broken timber and tried to get rid of some of the water. Day one. A quiet start, then it erupted with an attack made on the forest. Day two. The attack kept going for a week. The barrel casing split so I filled it with clay. There were these twenty or so guard behind this wall by the pillbox. I had to pull the bodies away at the request of the others. We ended up filtering water through hankies for drinking. Day seven. It was pouring with rain.

I was relieved by a young section officer and two crew. It was pitch dark. This battery was on a dry spot on the right, four guns, great long barrels, beautiful. It was swampy ground; we were on these duckboards. There was an ammunition dump on the other side. We were going into the line, in the dark, single file … rifle, sandbag, can of water. You were safer in the line than being near these batteries; they didn’t half send some things over. It was changeover at dusk. There was this great big fellow. Bumped into me and dropped his ration in the mud. He cursed. Only to recognise Tom Brown. I couldn’t stop. You had to keep on the move. You couldn’t waste time going in.

“I’ll see you when you get out ” He said.

When I came out the whole battery had been blown to bits. You’ve never seen so much carnage. Jerry had got the range. That was 1917. I didn’t know what had happened.

I met Tom Brown on the corner of Wyngrove Avenue. He was a policeman. That was before the Second World War. I was with Duker’s.

“What happened to you?” I said.

They’d lost forty odd men, but he escaped.

Blair sent me to take over this gun. That was when I heard this kid in the dung heap by the stream shouting for his mother. He’d been hit or fallen in. There was a bit of an embankment When it rained it was like a river. The remnants of the Belgian army were nearby. There had been this attack to try to get this forest,. Doomed to failure from the start. Near this pillbox, after that attack … twenty or thirty wounded behind this wall. They were there all the time I was there – seven days. I couldn’t do anything for them. They were just round the corner – dying. This corporal stops me. The duckboards were blown up. He asks, “Where’s Teddy?” He had a chest like a watering can – it was frothing. He died. Within ten minutes I dug a hole and buried him. We lost the spares on the way back; that was during shelling. We followed the limbers to these round Nissen huts that had a stove. We had a meal and a clean up. We got a couple of blankets, but no mattress. Stew to eat. A few weeks later I was presented the Military Medal by Brigadier Sandilands. I’d been in the Somme the summer of 1916, the following year they started this offensive at Passchendaele hoping to get to the coast. An utter failure. Guns sticking out of the mud, shell-holes full of dead men. Another gruesome one. There were these guardsmen, eight or nine, lying in the shell-hole as though they were asleep … gas. Get a dose of that and your lungs were ruined, when the wind was in his favour … not like an ordinary shell. All you heard as a ‘blup’ and as it was heavier than air it just settled …. just take it off! There was this shell-hole, made by a Jack Johnson. You could put a house in it. A clod could kill you.

OCTOBER 1917 PRISONER

When you went in you had no paraffin or anything you had a billy can … how did you heat the water? You couldn’t make a fire. When this Jerry stuck his head in the dug-out I just pulled the gun to one side. Dolan was having forty winks. You did two hours on, two hours off. This man lifted the oil sheet and started talking away in Jerry. Dolanhad just come off duty and here’s muggins with a couple of bricks and a billy can cutting some shavings so that there was no smoke. Without hesitation I just jumped on him. I was fighting fit then mind. I got him down. Poor little devil. I gave Dolan a kick.

“Get up man?” I says.

“What’s the matter?”

“Get outside and see if there’s any more. See if we’re surrounded! I says.

That was near Noble’s Farm, not far from Poelcapelle Village. There were four pillboxes in that area. I was in an out of them all.

PILL BOXES

 

EARLY NOVEMBER 1917

 

These pillboxes were different sizes, with nicknames. There was one down the road called the ‘Pig and Whistle’; another called ‘Columbia House’ and ‘Courage Post.’ They were oblong, about 10ft long, with a bit of a table. There were two beds made with wire netting, a bit of a dip and a step down to it. I had it all sandbagged up. The gun was here on its SOS feet. It was partly snowing at the time.

The door was covered with an oil sheet against gas. I dragged it around the pillbox ready for point blank then I went back inside. I was standing at the table when suddenly ‘Manoose’ put his head around the door and I grabbed him. We had him with us ail day. He had some tea. I patted him on the back.

I said, “La Guerra Fini.”

I can still see him and he’s only a little chap as well. They used to have those long coats on with pockets. He had a picture in here – his wife and kiddies. He showed me it and cried. Just human like anyone else. Forced to do something he didn’t want to do. He had this Mausser. He could have just pulled it out. It was fully loaded. I can see him now being marched down the duck boards to Brigade Headquarters and the next day all hell let loose. They didn’t half blast the ruddy farm in front, there was a machine gunner there, which he said there was. He said, “Mitrieuse” and pointed. “Angle “he was saying, “Blessie, Berist”221

He’d walked the wrong way in the dark. We knocked hell out of this farm. Egypt House was a tremendous pillbox despite all the bombardment. In front of it was this huge forest. Just what was left, just tree stumps. It had three compartments. We were occupying this top compartment, some infantrymen were in this one, our section officer was in that one. There was a passageway along here. So that you couldn’t shoot into those compartments. It had two doorways, one there and one there. It was facing the wood where Jerry was. There was no barbed wire. It was all shell holes and mud. Behind us was what left of an old country lane. This is the lane, which ran up to the forest where these two lads were killed and the ditch was that side of it. The lad was shouting for his mother… the lane must have ran way over to Poelcapelle village, which was half a mile away. The duckboard track ran up … it finished about quarter of a mile away … so swampy, you stepped off it… just posts. We had a run on the corner, I went to see Blair (C.O), came out, into the passageway, got to the archway out, then you more or less had to keep down to watch out for the snipers. I’d seen Blair. I was taking the usual care. I got to the first doorway from the wood. He was chancing his arm. I stood there and he hit the doorway with one of these whizz-bangs while I was standing in the middle ready to go. It almost blinded me with the bits of concrete. I waited until the smoke had cleared, then ran across and in.

One of the lads says, “Are you alright Jack?”

“Yes.” I says … but I was bleeding. It was superficial. Just scratches. I had a piece of concrete the size of a pea stuck in one of my brass buttons.

EARLY OCTOBER 1917

Poelcappelle, Passchendaele … this pillbox. It had a direct hit. It was completely broken, but there was another small one in front of the side facing us with a hole. It must have been an officer’s Morse-code place. Not occupied. No one wanted to be bothered with it. Concrete. Bodies. Montgomery must have given instructions to have it cleared after a visit for a gun. We had to clear it out, get the concrete and all the bits lying inside out. The smell from the bodies was dreadful; you had to put your gas mask on. We got some ropes and pulled the bodies out through this great big hole and threw them into a shell hole. There were three of them, German officers. We bunged the doorway up with sandbags and used the other side to go in and out.

I was decorated, the Military Medal. I kept the gun in action, other than the barrel casing being damaged which I plugged with some clay. It was pelting down, terrible. Off the duckboard, tracks with posts, once a rope, that got pulled down. 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. We got to this country lane with these limbers. This Corporal of the transports came and hugged me. A small company like that you all knew each other.

“Thought you were a goner.” He said. A lad from Castleside wrote a letter home to my mother. He told her that I’d been lost. We’d been put down as missing. Mother showed me the letter when I got home. I got this letter from Billy to ask why I didn’t join the RFC. I saw the C.O., Captain Williams.

“Why didn’t you join the RFC from the start?” He said.

He read Billy’s letter. Apparently before an application as a fighter pilot you must have been made a corporal. Williams immediately made me a Corporal and sent the form in. I was interviewed by the Company Sergeant Major and Brigadier Sandilands. I was sent to Cassel for an eye test. He was an American. I was taken by Company car. I was taken again to another lot of specialists before I was allowed to transfer. A couple of weeks later I was in this dugout on a railway embankment.

One night another Corporal came up.

“Jack, your papers have come through. You’re off back to England.’

I had a drink with various officers the night before I left.

That was at the end of 1917. Must have been December 16th or so. And that’s the last I saw of the line. I walked most of the way to the railhead at Bethune From there I got a troop train to Abbeville. Eventually I got back to London.

 

ROYAL FLYING CORPS NEW YEAR/EARLY JANUARY 1918

 

Hampstead Heath (the noise), walk along a line with an egg, these Naval Offices. ‘‘How many cigarettes do you smoke?” “Well smoke half, stop it!”

I started the R.F.C. in early 1918. I was demobilised in early 1919. I had stayed on to help demob. I returned to the brewery in February or March 1919. I had an interview there with the big boys at the Ministry. There was a queue outside of lads who’d come straight from school, young fellas with their parents waiting at the Hotel Cecil, which had been commandeered by the Air Ministry. There were five officers sitting behind this table. One of them says “Well done, good show! What part of the line are you from?” “Passchendaele, sir: I said. ‘‘Well, Corporal, your biggest problem there would be the mud ”

“You’re right Sir,” I said. ‘The mud was the biggest bogie, different entirely from the Somme.”

Then another asks, ‘Can you name the six northern counties of England?” (They were trying to catch you out.) “Yes. “I said. “Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumberland…” “Right, right, right… “

I stayed overnight in London at the YMCA.244 The R.F.C. medical was up at Hampstead in a big house there. It started on the ground floor. It was do or die this medical. It was either ‘Fit for Pilot’,  or if you weren’t fit as pilot, ‘Fit as Observer,’ or ‘unfit under any capacity’ – R.T.U. – return to unit. There was this elderly man sitting in the comer by an open window.

“Go into that corner.” He says.

“Plug one ear and repeat after me. Hippopotamus… repeat after me.”

“Hippopotamus.” I said.

“Plug the other ear, ” he said.

“South Africa.” He said.

There was this sound, like a blown exhaust, it was kicking up such a racket.

“South Africa.” I said.

“Just a minute.” He said to me.

And he shouted from the window.

“Take that blood thing away. You’re interrupting me!”

He said, then he came back to me.

“Not fair on you.1′ He said, “Not fair on you.”

These three naval medical men didn’t half test you. One of them said something, I think he’d found fault but the other two disagreed. Then they tested me again and it was 2 to 1 on my ticker. What it was I didn’t know. After that it was up to the top room. There was this elderly man. He looked at the report, looked me up and down and we shook hands. He wished me all the best and I went downstairs to await the result. The officer downstairs gave me a certificate. Half of them failed, some were just forward as observers.

When I got mine I saw ‘Fit as pilot.”

And I thought, ‘Lovely!’

Just one thing, there was a red rubber stamp along the bottom ‘Requires Dental Treatment.’

I had a couple of week’s leave.

The first leave I’d had after two and a half years in France.

 

FEBRUARY 1918

 

Then I went down to Grantham. I was stopped there for a couple of weeks as there was a ‘flu epidemic in Hastings. I remember them bringing in all these rookie conscripts The Sergeant Major asked me to help out one morning when they were all being given breakfast. There must have been a hundred or so in the main marquee and twenty or more in this other tent he asked me to take responsibility for. He came in after a while.

“There’s something wrong here” he said.

I’m 20 or 30 short. Could you come through and see if there’s anyone you recognise?”

It so happened that four or five of them I found at this table had been causing trouble in my tent earlier grabbing at the food. The food was rationed out it wasn’t meant for you to grab. They were marched off to the guardhouse.248

February/March/April 1918

 

Then I went to Hastings. We were billeted in a big hote. The Queen’s on the main front opposite the swimming pool. Two girls from an accounting office from London came down looking for me. I went outside to speak without this cap on.

 

He was a right brute this C.O. He was an Army Captain. He’d lost his arm. They’d put him in charge of the hotel and I think he bore a grudge. I was marched in. He didn’t even give me a chance to open my mouth.

 

“Week’s C.B251. Out!”

When I tried to explain, you know, to say it was my sister or something such like, he says, “Look Corporal, if you’d been a rookie I could have understood it, but you should have known differentout!”

And here I was with these three medals and the service stripes.

My brother Billy got a week’s C.B. there for a dirty button. They were right buggers.Talk about strict. All my time in the army and I never came across anything like it compared to Cadet School at Hastings. The slightest thing and they would get you. You could hardly put your hand on a girl. We got general military training at Hastings. We used to go on the front and take the whole squadron drilling them. At these schools you were in charge of a squad. You marched them to various lectures in front of all the holidaymakers.

AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 1917 ?

CLIFTON COLLEGE, BRISTOL

You got topography, sort of local map reading, and Morse Code. The R.F.C. took over the entire university and Clifton College. We learnt about engines, aeroplane construction, aerial photography, cameras the lot. We used to go down onto the university rugby field and practice swinging the engine on the aeroplanes.

“Switches off… petrol on … suck in, sir!”

It was just a slide arrangement.

Contact; sir!”

You’d rev it up and warm the engine.

Everything, ok?”

Stick to the rules and no one will caught by the propeller. We practiced artillery observation at Clifton College. There was this big hall with a gallery around and the ground was set out like French towns, with haystacks, the lot. There’d be a flash from an electric bulb and you’d look at your map. You had to find the spot and flash the co-ordinates down to your artillery in Morse Code. You could send messages, but not receive them. You had an aerial, a piece of copper wire about 20 or 30 foot long which you dropped over the side of the plane with a plumb weight attached. It couldn’t be much longer than that or you could get it caught in a tree or a building.  The artillery battery had this white Venetian blind affair, like the Navy. The idea was to spot the artillery fire and send your message on the way in. You’d look down to the ground and you’d get these messages back. There were messages like ‘Got your message’ or ‘on battery’ or ‘on target.’

We were also taught how to drop bombs. They had some terrible bombs you know, filthy things they were. There were mustard gas, and the others with special markings, which we had to learn. There was one, which was a canister full of heavy steel darts to drop over advancing troops. Bombing training meant sitting as though you were in a cockpit of an aeroplane. The ground below revolved, it was about 40 foot by 30 ft. size.

You had a map; the idea was to bomb certain targets and if you hit the target the flash showed up down below. There was this bombsight. Before you left you had to set it.

In the beginning it had been simply a matter of lining up three nails knocked into the side of the fuselage, the diagonal formed the foresight and the one behind was the backsight. When you had the two in front in line with the target you dropped your bomb, which should hit the target when the tip of the nail is lined up with the back-sight below. By 1918 we had a proper bombsight. Before you left you had to have the wind direction and force and set that, the height and speed. Then, if you kept flying in a straight line when your bomb hit the target you’d be flying directly overhead.  The Lewis gun fired through the propeller; they’d found that out from the Germans. It used a piston affair, which used a paraffin and oil mixture to fire off round between the propeller blades. With photography you had to create a mosaic. My brother Billy had photographs of all these attacks he’d made on goods yards and railways in Belgium. He also had one of a German plane going down which he’d hit. The bombers had these cameras with them, the fighters didn’t.

OCTOBER/NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 1918 CRAIL, SCOTLAND

 

We had a marvellous time at Crail. You talk about a cosmopolitan crowd. They were from all walks of like: painters, journalists, lads from school, infantry and others who had been in service.

There were all these different uniforms from the Navy, the old R.F.C. matron tunics, not forgetting the M.G.C. uniforms. They were grand fellows. There must have been forty of us. Marvellous people, but I would say a bit wild. They got up to some stupid things like dancing on top of a grand piano in the officer’s mess.

They didn’t appreciate good music. There was this pianist, bit of a quiet lad, used to keep himself to himself. They picked on him. It finished up in the end that he wouldn’t play for them at all. He got permission to go into the mess with candles when everyone was shut up for the night. Occasionally we’d get permission to take a Crossley Tender. It was covered in car, which carried twelve or so. Someone could have to go and ask Tweedy the transport manager. We were all sitting at this mess table together, twelve of us, and someone would say. “Who’s going to go and ask Tweedy for a Crossley Tender?” He’d generally give us the O.K. but we had to find a driver who might refuse to take us. We used to take it up to St. Andrews. There was a restaurant there we used to go to, they knew us all. There was a Juke box, which put pennies in for a tune. This chap had a penny on a string. It made us laugh. He used to pop it in for a tune and pull it out again. He had to stop that because the owners were getting no return on it. You had this control stick between your knees in the plane, which I called a ‘joystick’ in front of the instructor. I got told off for that.

“It’s not a joystick,” he says. “It’ s a control stick.”

I did about 30 hours flying; half of it was solo. I could do quite a few tricks. I could loop the loop; roll spins and all the rest of it. I had a good instructor, Captain Dean.

These instructors were all pilots from France. They got the wind up and had been sent home. They couldn’t take any more of it. He was a real ‘B’ this Captain Dean. He used to swear and curse at you. He’d been shot down in No Man’s land and had been rescued.  The way he shouted at you on this dual control machine. If you did anything silly he’d shout.

“What the hell are you doing, you’ll kill your blood self!’ I remember one day we were on the aerodrome. There was quite a lot of action with learners until they got the idea of landing properly. There’s this learner who instead of letting the plane down to a reasonable height and gliding tried to land from a hundred feet.  “Look at the silly bugger.” The plane flattened out too soon, right in front of us. Instead of gliding in he went straight down and the plane crumpled up. If he’d been a bit higher up he’d have gone into a spin and he’d have been killed. Another morning we were sitting and having breakfast. This plane nose-dived into the ground right outside the window, it was a Bristol Fighter. The plane I was being trained to fly. There were both killed outright. A Lieutenant Munday, the instructor and a Flight Sergeant. I’ve got a picture of that. They’re both buried in Crail cemetery. There are a few of our lads there. It was unavoidable, the aeroplanes were frail. They were just wood, fabric, cellulose. We had people who’d done all the training as I had done but when it came to flying they were terrified, they’d rather go and hide than go up. I’d had fifteen hours or so going up with Captain Dean by then. This morning we’d been up and down a few times before breakfast.He climbs out of the pilot’s seat and turns to me. “You’re off on your own.” He talked to me like a father. ‘‘Twenty minutes to half an hour.’ He said. “I’ll wait for you here and then we’ll go and get some breakfast.” So I went up and flew around a bit. I had a terrible landing, bouncing up and down … in the end it was a piece of pie, easy as a wink. We did some aerial photography at Crail. I remember the first photographs I ever took of a haystack. You were supposed to imagine there was a machine gun hidden in it somewhere. I learnt how to loop the loop in Crail in 1918. You got maximum revs, full speed, nose down. When you reached maximum speed you pulled the joystick into your belly. Once you’re over the top, engine off and throttle back. You used to worry sometimes what would happen if the wings disintegrated. There was one occasion when Captain Dean had gone to Edinburgh. I went onto the aerodrome begging for a machine. I went up to this Lieutenant Stewart and said.

“Look, Captain Dean’s away and I’m at a loose end. I’d like to get up, have you a machine I can have

“Yes Governor;” he says. “You can have this one here that’s coming in. Take it after the Flight Sergeant’s checked it over and filled her up. ”

After an aeroplane’s done so many hours flying the Flight Sergeant has a record of whether it’s running well or not. On the Avro’s there was a pressure pump for the petrol, there was no carburettor on them. They were fed oil and petrol through a hollow crankshaft. The petrol went in under force through a jet. There was a pump in the cockpit and a dial with a red mark. You had to keep the dial up to the red mark to ensure that there was enough pressure.

It appears that the machine I was about to take out had an underpowered 80 HP Monosoupape engine against the more usual higher powered 180 HP Clerget.

If this other engine didn’t need pressure why on earth did the mechanics connect it up? That’s what got me over this.

“Don’t try any antics with it,” advised the Flight Sergeant. This machine’s a bit underpowered.”

I set off nose into wind. Crail village is a mile away. The aerodrome buildings were on one side and a farmhouse with a potato field on the other. I thought I’d have a trip up to St. Andrew’s. I’d just taken off, about 500 ft. up, when I notice the dial on the pressure gauge is right down.

“Blime me!” I thought.

I started pumping like mad. Up went the dial, the engine …

“Phat! Phat! Phat!”

There was no shenanigan on with it. I couldn’t turn nose into wind, I hadn’t the height, nor would I make it over the aerodrome buildings. I’d have to make for this potato field. It meant a steep dive to keep flying speed. If I’d tried a gentle glide I’d have just flopped and finished in the sea. The further I go the faster the damned thing went what with the wind behind me and the steepness of the descent. As I got closer to this potato field this brick wall comes rushing up at me.

When anything like that happened, a plane was in difficulty, the ambulance tore after you; it was there to meet me at the brick wall.I pulled the joystick back at the last moment. The plane bounced about a bit. As it came to a halt it swung round on one wing. I got out alright. There was no damage to the plane. On the wing tip of an Avro there was a cane skid. That must have saved the wing. Petrol was squirting out of the fuel pipe I’d pumped it so much. He knew he’d made a bloomer, this Flight Sergeant. He pats me on the back and says, “Well done; you’ve done very well”

“My fault.” He says. “My faultthat plane. It didn’t need pressure.’’

“How was it your fault if the mechanic’s coupled it up?’’ I said.

With that engine gravity was sufficient for it to feed from the tank. So I didn’t get my solo flight after all. I ruddy well may have been killed. I told Dean about it when he got back from Edinburgh.

He laughed. “Experience!” he said.

I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to get on with the job. If it hadn’t been for the weather I would have been finished. I would have enjoyed a dose of France.

 

What kind of conversations would we have were my grandfather, a veteran of the First World War, still alive?

Fig.1.  Lyn Macdonald, author of ‘They called it Passchendaele’ at the Tynecot Memorial with veteran  Jack Wilson MM June 1992

Had he been alive my grandfather, John Arthur Wilson MM, corporal in the Machine Gun Corps, then Flight Cadet and pilot in the RAF, would be 117 years old. He is with me. Cremated in December 1992 his ashes moved with my mother from the North East to Lincolnshire when she remarried. Thought lost, or scattered in error, the urn containing his ashes appeared less than a month ago.

I keep meaning to sit down with him and run through some of the insights I am picking up as I bash through as Masters degree in the First World War. He’s in the shed. He;d like that. He was a shed and garage man. Always up a ladder clearing leaves from a gutter or under a car fixing the exhaust.

I recorded a series of conversations with him in 1989 and then again in 1991 after I’d transcribed the earlier interviews. In due course all 3 1/2 hours of those interviews will be available online. I’ll make this and his photographs available to the Imperial War Museum initiative.

So what would I say?

That Haig knew what he was doing and by all accounts took his lead from Kitchener?

That however awful the first days of the Somme were, the conflict over several months served its purpose of keeping the German army tied to the Western Front while wearing them down.

I’d go through the transcript and ask him to embellish.

I’d certainly ask him to provide the names of as many people as possible who feature in his photographs.

‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ was his favourite movie. I’m sure he’d have sat through ‘The Great War’ when it was broadcast by the BBC in 1964. Could I wish him better eyesight and watch these?

He left school at 14 and beyond looking at the Journal every week he wasn’t a great reader – he picked his way through manuals and being ‘mechanically minded’ loved a specialist book I found him on the engines featured in the planes he trained on and flew. He would have liked a Vicker’s Machine gun! He’d have advised on reconstructing trenches or pillboxes. He’d have gone up in an Avro Trainer or Bristol fighter. He’d have loved Google Maps and published trench maps that he could follow.

On reflection, if I selected for him some of the books I am reading, I could record audio versions which he could listen to through an iPod as he got on with his many daily chores.

Would he stomach my being critical of Churchill?

Fig. 2. World War – a part work my grandfather would have loved, though would never have spent his money on

Of all the publications in my growing collection he’d probably find the complete series of magazines published in 1932/33 that I have most fitting – plenty of pictures and description of the events rather than opinion.

Lyn Macdonald took him to the 75th Anniversary of the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele – I wonder what they said to each other?

And what questions would he have for me?

Leveraging mobile technologies and Web 2.0 tools to engage those with an interest in the centenary of the First World War in the stories of the people of the era using strategically placed Quick Response codes.

Jonathan Vernon at the Design Museum. J F Vernon (2011)

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Fig. 1. Lewes War Memorial, East Sussex, England     J F Vernon (2011)

The problem with war memorials is that those named on them risk becoming forgotten words on a list.

By using the Web we can find out who these people named on the war memorials were and where they lived; we can try to put a face to the name and a story to the name  … and then we can share what we find.

There are more than 54,000 war memorials in Great Britain, most of these put up after the First World War. There is barely a community without one. Significant interest already exists, especially as we approach the centenary of the First World War making this initiative a potentially easy one to add to what is already taking place.

Fig. 2. British Legion Poppy featuring a Quick Response Code

In his 2011 book ‘The Digital Scholar’ Martin Weller  shares the thoughts of Brian Lamb to describe those technologies that ‘lend themselves to … the networked and open approach’ as ‘fast, cheap and out of control’.

It was with this in mind, taking an interest in the centenary of the First World War and obsession with war memorials that I started to think about using Quick Response codes as a personalized entry point to the Web that anyone could generate in order to share a story about someone who served in the conflict, and to do so both online and on the street.

Quick Response codes are fast, they are free and their potential in learning has yet to be realised.

Worn in this way, featured in the center of your commemoration Poppy, you can share directly with others the person whose life you wish to remember, as well as directing people to the content online and inviting them to ‘adopt’ a name from a war memorial themselves. Though exploiting the Web, this is designed as a ‘blended’ experience that uses face-to-face, community and classroom experiences, as well as taking people outside to monuments, buildings, streets and battlefields.

                                                                                  Esponsorvik (2014 )

Fig. 3. Toyota Quick Response Code and Using a TV remote control Espensorvik. Flickr

‘QR codes’ are a product of the car manufacturing industry. Faced with increasingly complex components, Denso, a supplier to Toyota, came up with what is a 2 dimensional bar code in the 1990s (Denso, 2010). Made free of patent, and using free software anyone can now generate their own unique QR code. You can even print them out on standardised sticky label stationery.

Fig. 4. Google Search ‘Quick Response Codes Education Images’ (2014)

There are a myriad of uses for QR codes, from embedding information that is read and stored by the device to a quick link to rich content online. Barrett, 2012). The interest here is to use QR codes to link to learning resources, in mobile, or ‘m-learning’ contexts in particular and for users to both read and write such context.

I liken QR codes to using your phone as a remote control to click to a TV channel (Fig 3) . You point a smartphone, or tablet at the QR code to read it and go instantly, pretty much, to a web page.

Their use in education in the last decade has been limited. ‘Refereed (sic) papers are few’ (Gradel & Edson, 2012), but between these and other published reports, suggestions can be made regarding their strengths or weaknesses.

If QR codes are to be used successfully then champions need to be identified to take up the cause in schools, colleges and local associations. Whilst QR codes use the power of the Web to connect people to rich content, that they may create themselves, a good deal of thoughtful planning will be necessary ‘in the classroom’, not just explaining how to make use of QR codes, but also working them in, where appropriate to current learning schedules where QR codes used in this way will meet clear learning objectives. Support online could be provided in a short eLearning module.

What has been shown repeatedly, in museums and ‘out in the field’, is that simply ‘put out there’ the QR codes are ignored (Gradel & Edson, 2012). An innovation such as this requires considerable promotion and support.  This makes the idea of wearing your own QR code on a Commemoration Poppy all the more appealing, as each person becomes an ambassador on the ground, for that nugget of information, especially if they are responsible for creating and hosting that content.

The opportunity exists, therefore, mentored and guided by educators, with support online, for schools, colleges and associations to engage people in bringing the stories of those named on our war memorials alive. In this way a deeper and more meaningful connection is made with the past and our relationship to it.

Copyright © 2010, The New York Times Company. Photography by Jim Wilson

Fig. 4. Handheld curator:  IPod Touches and visitors at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (The New York Times)

According to the 2009 Horizon report (Horizon, 2009) the following would be of growing significance in teaching: mobile devices, clouding computing and the personal web. As an innovative approach, QR codes exploit all three of these developments.

Use of QR codes in learning however has had mixed results. Simply putting a QR code in front of a museum artifact, as they’ve done at the Museum of London and did at the Design Museum does not work (Vernon, 2013)  – there is plenty already, there is little to attract or promote their use, not everyone has a smartphone or tablet of course and the technology is often not robust – ‘out of use’ signs are familiar. Outdoors QR codes added to signs in the South Downs National Park, for example, barely received a view a day during a three month trial and in some instances there was no signal at all (Kerry-Bedel 2011; South Downs, 2012).

Where QR codes have been successful is in targeted learning experiences in schools (Tucker, 2011; Gradel & Edson, 2012), where the affordances of the QR code have been exploited to form part of an engaging, constructive and collective learning experience. To be effective this initiative with war memorials requires galvanizing people to take part in a joint exercise – easier with a class in school or college, less easy with the general public unless it is through a national, regional or local community association or interest group.

Examples where QR codes work include where participants are ‘equipped’, and where they can take an active role, such as in ‘on the spot’ surveys or quizzes, where they are prompted into cooperative learning and where timely ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ are given. (Awano, 2007: Information Standards Committee 2008; So 2008; Robinson, 2010; Hicks & Sinkinson, 2011; Ryerson Library & Archives, 2012.)

K Lepi (2012)Copyright 2013 © Edudemic All rights reserved

Fig 5 . A Simple Guide to Four Complex  Learning Theories. Lepi (2012)

The theory behind the idea of using QR codes in a mobile and open way, is that in the digital age ‘connectivism’ is the ‘modus operandi’. In this diagram (Fig. 5)  from Edudemic (Edudemic 2012) traditional and digital theories are concerned. All are relevant, each has its place, with the digital environment offering new and additional approaches to learning.

Whilst traditional learning methods have their role in schools, lecture halls and with mature students too, the complete learning package requires a level and quality of interaction and connectedness that can only be achieved on the Web and be effective where the body of learners is large and their approach is open and shared so that knowledge acquisition comes through the challenges and rewards of such intercourse.

Connections won’t occur however unless they are nurtured. By way of example, wishing to support and promote the combat memoirs of my late grandfather John Arhtur Wilson MM (Vernon, 2012) a number of organizations will be approached up and down the UK in relation to his experiences in the Durham Light Infantry, Machine Gun Corps and Royal Air Force. The Web will both help identify, forge and maintain and develop first and subsequent connections in what would hopefully be, to be effective, a two way, shared, open and reciprocal relationship. The beauty of having content  already online is that others can quickly view it and images, text and sound files, even video, adjusted to suit different audiences, or uses – and used freely where appropriate copyright permissions are given.

JFVernon 2010 from statistics from Jakob Nielsen (1999)

Fig 6 . Creators, commentators and readers – how use of the Web stacks up. Vernon (2010) after Nielsen (1999)

This degree of connectedness does not come naturally. Just as there can be no expectation that people will use a QR code because it is there – they won’t. With an innovative approach such as this promotion is crucial. Significant time, thought and effort need to be put into letting people know what is taking place and supporting their participation.

Only a fraction of a population are naturally inclined to generate content.

Jakob Nielsen (1999) would suggest that as few as 1% create content (Fig. 6). If content is therefore to be created by participants then very large numbers need to be made aware of the initiative. Online, openness helps when it is massive. Participation is improved where it is supported and moderated. Creators, commentators and readers each have a role to play.

The balance needs to be found between the qualities of a tool that is fast and cheap and where out of control means that something isn’t used in a way to benefit a formal learning requirement. On the one hand those who want to generate content can be encouraged to do so, while in a formal setting the intention would that everyone generates content of some form in order to receive feedback and assessment.

Fig 7. The Newcastle War Memorial by Sir William Goscombe John RA                                              J F Vernon (2011)

The potential weakness of using QR codes are the requirement for participants to have a suitable device, say a smartphone or tablet and the possible communication fees when connecting away from a free wi-fi source – which is likely to be the case at a war memorial (Gradel & Edson, 2012).

Reading from and using a smartphone or tablet may also present accessibility issues, from the need for dexterity and reading content that isn’t offered in alternative forms, such as text sizes and background or audio alternatives.

There are many examples where local councils feel a war memorial or building is so important that they have invested in information placards on site (Fig. 7). As commemoration of those who served and died in the First World War is of local and national interest funding is potentially available to help support initiatives such as these through the Heritage Lottery Fund, while organizations such as the Western Front Association have funding for branch activities too.

If permission is required for personalization of a British Legion poppy using a QR code, then alternatives may be required, from working with other suitable groups such as the Imperial War Museum or Western Front Association to putting the QR code on a badge instead.

Where used in the field it is likely that a teacher would put out sets of QR coded markers in advance and collect them afterwards. Where a photograph in a town featuring before and after views permission may also be required if any kind of QR coded plaque or poster is to be put up. Other inventive ways to use a QR code would be to attach them to an obstacle course like trench experience where each code triggers elements of a task, sound effects or narrative in keeping with the setting.  By way of example, at the ‘In Flanders Museum’ in Ypres a number of exhibits require the visitor to duck, crawl or crane their neck before supporting audio or lighting is triggered by a Near Field code in a bracelet.

Fig. 8. The memoire of a Machine Gunner and RFC Fighter Pilot. ‘That’s Nothing Compared to Passchendeale’

  J F Vernon (1989-2014)

In his 2011 book ‘The Digital Scholar’ Martin Weller shares the ideas of Robert Capps (2009) who coined the term ‘the good enough revolution’ – in relation to creating and sharing content in an open culture. This precludes being prescriptive or from expecting perfection.

Whilst output on the First World War from the BBC, the Imperial War Museum or the Open University should understandably attain a certain professional standard, the kind of creation required of those research names on war memorials should take inspiration from that is more than just ‘good enough, from ‘pinning’ names from a war memorial to a home address, to ‘pinning’ submitted World War One photographs to Google maps over former battlefields, as well as numerous inventive YouTube videos and memoirs presented as blogs.

REFERENCE

Awano, Y (2007). Brief pictorial description of new mobile technologies used in cultural institutions in Japan. The Journal of Museum Education, 32(1), 17-25

Barrett, T (2012). 50 Interesting ways to use QR codes to support learning. (Last accessed 6th Feb 2014  https://docs.google.com/present/edit?id=0AclS3lrlFkCIZGhuMnZjdjVfNzY1aHNkdzV4Y3I&hl=en_GB&authkey=COX05IsF

Denso (2010a). QR Code Standardization. (Retrieved 6th Feb 2014, from http://www.denso-wave.com/qrcode/qrstandard-e.html )

Edudemic. Traditional Learning Theories. (Accessed 19th April 2013) http://edudemic.com/2012/12/a-simple-guide-to-4-complex-learning-theories/

Gradel, K., & Edson, A. J. (2012). Higher ed QR code resource guide.

Hicks, A., & Sinkinson, C. (2011). Situated questions and answers: Responding to library users with QR codes. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 51(1), 60–69.

Horizon Report 2009 (2009) Educause (Accessed 14th Feb 2014 http://www.educause.edu/library/resources/2009-horizon-report )

Information Standards Committee (2008) Section 3: QR code, Synthesis Journal. (From http://www.itsc.org.sg/pdf/synthesis08/Three_QR_Code.pdf )

Kerry-Bedel, A (2011) Smartphone technology – the future of heritage interpretation: Its in conservation (Accessed 14th February 2014 http://www.kbstconsulting.co.uk/QR/images/ITIC.pdf )

New York Times. The Best Tour Guide May Be in Your Purse. Article by Keith Schneider. 18 March 2010. Copyright © 2010, The New York Times Company http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/18/arts/artsspecial/18SMART.html

Nielsen, J (1999) Web Usability

Robinson, K. (2010). Mobile phones and libraries: Experimenting with the technology. ALISS Quarterly, 5(3), 21–22

Ryerson University Library & Archives (2012). QR codes. Retrieved 6th Feb 2014, from http://www.ryerson.ca/library/qr/.

So, S. (2008). A Study on the Acceptance of Mobile Phones for Teaching and Learning with a group of Pre-service teachers in Hong Kong. Journal of Educational Technology Development and Exchange, 1(1), 81-92.

South Downs (2012)  Use of QR Codes (Accessed 14 Feb 2014 http://southdownsforum.ning.com/forum/topics/signposting-and-qr-codes )

Tucker, A. (2011). What are those checkerboard things? How QR codes can enrich student projects. Tech Directions, 71(4), 14-16.

Vernon J.F. (2012) (Blog Post)  (Accessed 14th February 2014 http://machineguncorps.com/jack-wilson-mm/ )

Vernon, J.F. (2013) (Blog Post) Mobile learning at the Museum of London: QR codes and NFCs (Accessed 14th February 2014) http://mymindbursts.com/2013/11/10/molqr1/

Weller, M (2011) The Digital Scholar: How Technology is Transforming Scholarly Practice. 5% Loc 239 of 4873

NOTES AND LINKS

The teachers guide to copyright and fair use.  http://tech4classrooms.org/2013/02/16/the-teachers-guide-to-copyright-and-fair-use-edudemic/

Lepi, K (2012) A Simple Guide To 4 Complex Learning Theories. Edudemic eMagazine 24th December 2012. (Accessed 14th February 2014. http://www.edudemic.com/a-simple-guide-to-4-complex-learning-theories/ )

LINKS

The Newcastle War Memorial by Sir William Goscombe John RA

http://www.victorianweb.org/sculpture/john/31.html

Sir Douglas Haig by J P Harris (2008)

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Created in SimpleMinds. get in touch if you’d like a copy. Download the SimpleMinds App for free.

Douglas Haig and the First World War (2008) J P Harriss

Nearly 600 pages that follow a chronology that is familiar. Insights on Haig are limited – perhaps reading Haig’s diary and a biography at the same time would help. This is written by a military historian with judgement of Haig’s command key. We get little insight into the man – if there is much a a personal life to probe. His diary appears to reveal little. What does come over is how often Haig was to blame for actions that were unlikely to succeed in doing much other than expending a good deal of munitions and men – time and time again he planned an offensive that would lead to a break-through, require cavalry support and put tens of thousands of men against barbed wire, machine guns and shrapnel. His greatest skill was to climb and keep climbing the ladder of promotion and to tread carefully around events which might have led to his being passed over for promotion … or his resignation asked for, or accepted.

My first read. A second read possibly to follow unless I can be pointed to a biography.

Notes as iPhone/iPad pictures with  annotations (Studio) and a mindmap (SimpleMinds)

Britain had been preparing for war with Germany as is clear from manoeuvres, in this instance with both France and Russia, in 1912 (Harris, 2008:51). Perhaps the re-organisation of the Army to have the Expeditionary Force, however small, was part of an anxiety and vulnerability – had Britain not also contemplated conscription?

As the nature of artillery changed – longer range, great accuracy and a diversity of shells types from high explosives to shrapnel it is staggering that proper thought wasn’t given to how destroyed the land was over which the armies would have to travel.

Typo alert! Actually there are a couple more but I so no value

 

Where tactics have failed to deliver why did Haig persist? How could more of the same possibly get better results next time? What part of his mindset made him stick to this? Does he lack imagination? He appears emotionally dry or aloof – his relationship with his wife and family hardly suggests a person with a close emotional attachment.

Haig’s greatest skill and purpose was to climb to the top of the Army ladder – what he did or could do when he rose to the top was another matter. This isn’t what makes a great leader – he is like a career civil servant. But what would a hot headed, womanizing, gambler of a man done with this power? If Haig made mistakes they need to be considered and compared with other leaders on the Western and Eastern Fronts. Had Britain a leader like Foch, Neville, Falkenhayn or Holweg … or the Russian aristocrats would we have fared better or differently? And if we’d had Robertson rather than Haig?

History written by a military historian is different to history or biography – the audience here is expected to learn and potentially apply at staff level the lessons from past battles. Haig’s diary is revealing because in this supposedly private moments he is reveals so little: statements of the weather, not what this could mean, statement of events without reflection on what he did well or badly. Self-control in both his public and private life.

To understand Haig then we need to know who the alternatives might have been and whether in reality they could or would have behaved differently: Robertson, Du Can and Rawlinson are different men.

My impression is of a deluded fantasist with no one able or willing to stand up to him … not even Lloyd George. Haig, with Royal patronage and few competing for his role, could and would do as he pleased. He resented having to play second fiddle to the French. In the early stages of the war he ignored orders or requests with potentially dire consequences yet he got away with it.

Haig’s tactics: more munitions, human dynamism and officers of the ‘thruster’ type – people who would risk all regardless. Is there anything we can learn from Haig’s achievements as a polo player from this? What does it require to win at polo?

 

 

Haig pressed on with tactics that would leave many thousands dead for little gain and he wasn’t able or willing to question what he could or should do differently.

How clear did failure have to be to get Haig to change his tactics?

Failure of this kind should surely have seen Haig replaced? To what extend did his ‘moral fibre’, his otherwise untarnished character, make it less easy to remove him?

Overexcited, overoptomistic, blind to failure, forever looking beyond the horizon, convinced cavalry had a role, yet able to try gas and tanks … anxious for his peers and superiors to shower him in praise and his subordinates to be fawning …

Self-righteous and self-assured – did his religious beliefs permit his unstinting view of the world? He had the image of someone who deserved authority and respected it. He was fit, sober and in a stable marriage. He worked hard and played the game well. Born into a different age could he have survived? He lacks the flair of Montgomery or Churchill. Described as taciturn, to what degree might or could his asthma have been a controlling influence?

He looked the part and was fastidious about his health – what else could as asthmatic do in the early 20th century? Did he know what the triggers were, or had he learnt from experience to avoid certain foods and situations – not least smoking? Was he prone to chest infections?

Whilst those around him realised all talk of a ‘break-through’ was unrealistic, this is what Haig constantly planned for and expected. Or was it simply wishful thinking?

Step by step is what occurred … as a result from efforts to breakthrough? A case of shoot for the stars and hitting the moon? That in Haig’s eyes step by step would have equated to inconsequential nibbling?

Obsessive, selective, fixated, God-guided, controlling, cavalry-orientated, driven obdurate, blind … consistent, controlled, tempered, magisterial … aloof and with tunnel-vision.

Able to comprehend, but unable to bend? Unable to think of any alternative. The world around him changed, but Haig stayed resolutely in the 19th century.

Chance the way the leaders played off against each other? Men like so many bullets or sandbags, simply a resource to count then stack in the knowledge that there would be great losses but that these could be shored up?

He didn’t like to have his feather’s ruffled. He wanted the game played in his way with him in charge.

A hypocrite who would fail to come to the aid of others … yet others to come to the aid of him. Too good or important to warrant risking his men, or putting his men under another’s control and willing only at the last minute to seek help when things looked desperate and he had no choice.

The dead then are the cartridge empties of today

Fig. 1 Death in Passchendaele exactly as my grandfather described it

Had the public seen, and seen repeatedly, what death looked like between 1914 and 1918 perhaps the public outcry would have brought it to an early end. Or not.

The dead then are the cartridge empties of today.

Beyond comprehending the opportunities of open learning and the theory behind the processes that occur we as ‘educators’ still need to deliver content, to create an event, put on a show, get attention, set the tone for a programme of work. Martin Weller thinks that being media savvy is to add some downloaded graphics or snapshots to a slide, actually, the art and skill of communication as anyone in advertising will tell you is far more able to leave an impression. Making a bar of soap interesting is a challenge, making war interesting should be easy so long as you stick to what attracts interest: fighting and death. Three decades listening to my grandfather and I can only now take on board what it must have been like to be stuck, repeatedly, in a confined space, in harms way, with a buddy or two at your side, horribly wounded and slowly dying.

Fig. 2. Marking the spot where my grandfather buried Dick Piper and Henry Gartenfeld

75 years after these events my grandfather returned to the very spot where this occurred and he broke down to think how they died, and why they died and the lives they never had but deserved, let along the wife and kids one left behind. He never recovered from that trip and died himself a few months later – it was as if death had touched him to the soul and after 97 years he could put it off no longer.

Haig was no hero

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Fig.1. In Flanders Fields

It was fashionable to demonise the British leaders of the First World War in the 1960s and it was Alan Clarke who coined the sentence, ‘Lions lead by Donkeys. The media contunies to mock them still in the 1980s with the likes of ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ then along came revisionist and social historians to say that they were a product of their time and did the best of a bad job. Ghandi came from this era – he didn’t need to send hundreds of thousands to war and likely maiming and death.

Haig wad a product of the times: unable to get in otherwise he chose Brasenose College, Oxford that didn’t require academic credentials – Haig had none. Because Haig went to Oxford he didn’t require to take any exams to get into Sandhurst. There’s a pattern forming here. And he didn’t complete all his exams at Sandhurst, but as he played polo and knew the King he got through.

Soldiers on the ground reaaly did think that their leaders were clueless idiots. I don’t need to take my grandfather’s word for it, though you can hear the genuine anger in his voice when he talks about it, not least concerning the conditions around Ypres in the second half of 1917 and the suffering of his friends, many of whom died a horrible death.

Much had changed in a hundred years – let’s hope it continues to move in a direction that respects life, inclusivity and both moral and ethical guidelines that see that people are rewarded on merit, not by birth or deviousness.

My rapidly growing reading list is largelly thanks to Niall Ferguson who in ‘The Pity of War’ who cites everybody under the sun.

The Pity of War

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The time taken to construct these digital ‘design’ doodles pays dividends as it obliges me to give far greater thought to what I say – in this case the considered construction of a one thousand word book review.

Columbo House, Houthulst Forest

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At the end of October 1917, 96 years ago to the day, my grandfather, then 21, and Jack Walsh the ‘carrier’ on a Vicker’s Machine Gun were sent in to relieve two fellow company machine gunners: Dick Piper and Henry Gartenfeld. This was ‘Third Ypres’, ‘The Battle of Passchendaele’.

I recorded the story in 1992. Parts of this extensive interview is going online here.

Later I produced a transcript that my grandfather corrected and then, as you can see above, we had a go at drawing a local map of the spot between Egypt House and Columbus House. This is immediately to the south west of Houthulst Forest near. His eyes were too poor to write the text, but he did the sketch of the pillbox, wall and posts, the duckboard and forest, and the dead or dying Grenadier Guards.

A tough spot to reach with a duck board track that petered out.

On arrival they found Henry Gartenfeld dead and Dick Piper in a bad way. Jack buried Gartenfeld as best he could, and after he had died and, in his words, the body had stiffened up, he buried Dick too.

There was no relief for seven days.

On getting back Jack found that he had been reported ‘missing’ and a letter sent home to his mother. He was far from dead, going on to join the Royal Flying Corps and living to return to this exact spot during the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele.

THE HISTORY

Guards Division approached Poelcappelle and took Egypt Farm (Egypt House pillbox) on 9th October 1917. They then began the approach north north west to Colombo House and Houthulst Forest.

The 3rd Guards Brigade attacked towards the edge of Houthulst Forest during the night of 11th/12th October and came under a heavy barrage of gas shells. The blockhouses at Angle Point and Aden House in the remains of Poelcapelle were taken.

In an attack of 22nd October, 16th Cheshires were held up by a pill box in Houthulst Forrest, between Panama House and Colombo House when the Germans counter-attacked.

 

A Blighty One

(The action described here took place in later October 1917, possibly around 26th. Egypt House, Nobles Farm and Colombo House are the pill boxes Jack was in. The ‘beck’ is most likely the Broembeck. These are narrow, but deeply set in the ground – possibly 12ft or more from the roadside to the water in peace time).

“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 with corrugated sheeting. They’d been trench mortared and he was hit in the shoulder with a fragment. They brought him to my gun because it had the duckboard track leading from it, other than that you were walking through the mud. I kept him there until late. Blair got him away … but it was fatal. He died. “Thought he’d got a blighty’.”

Blair sent me to take over this gun, we were in another pill box higher up. That was when I heard this kid in this shell hole by the stream shouting for his mother.

I was running along the duckboards when I heard this voice. There was this beck which ran along one side, full of frogs … if it rained the thing turned into a torrent. I just stopped. I don’t know if he’d been hit or he’d just fallen in. All I could see was his head and shoulders sticking up above the mud. So I lean down, mind you with all the mud I might have slipt in with him. So I grab his shoulder belt and told him to help himself and he kicks about and I get him up onto the duckboards.

“I can’t wait”, I tell him.

You couldn’t stand around out there, and off I went.

This was % O’Clock in the morning. There’d been an attack and it failed. He was yelling for his mother. I saw him struggling in the mud and filth.

Poelcapelle – the smell from the bodies was dreadful

There was this pill box in Poelcapelle village itself that got a direct hit. It was completely broken. We had to clear it out, get the concrete and all the bits lying inside out … the smell from the bodies was dreadful. You had to put your gas mask on and we got some ropes and pulled the bodies out through this great hole and threw them in a shell hole … there were three of them, German officers. We bunged up the doorway with sandbags and used the other side to go in and out.

 

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