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(The text below is a verbatim transcript from an interview conducted with John A Wilson MM in his 96th year in 1992. He was a machine gunner in 104th Brigade serving on the Somme and at Passchendaele. Here he mentions pill boxes, or block houses, German concrete bunkers that edged the Ypres Salient. These were taken, with great cost, between August and November 1917. Jack was sent in, undermanned, usually two men rather than five, to keep a Vicker’s Machine Gun in action for two days. One one occasion he was out for a week. He could not be reached. I believe he was either in Egypt House, or, once cleared of dead Germans, in Nobles Farm – both approaching Houthulst Forest north of Poelcappelle in mid to late October 1917. In every case the names of those he mentions, as well as places, have been verified through Trench maps and from Commonwealth War Graves data for those killed. In 1992 Jack attended the 75th Anniversary of Passchendaele – or Third Ypres, and marked spots where he buried his colleagues).
The original interviews were recorded on Sony digital tape. They were digitized in 2013 and will be available as a podcast.
Fig.1. The attack on Houthulst Forest, 22nd October 1917, North of Ypres .From the History of the 35th Division in the Great War. L-C H M Davson
“The Pig and Whistle, Columbia House, Courage Post … They were oblong, about 10ft long, with a bit of a table, two beds made with wire netting, with a bit of a dip and a step down to get in. I was in Courage Post. We had it all sandbagged up. The gun was on its SOS feet. It was partly snowing at the time and the door was covered with an oil sheet in case of gas. And here’s muggins with a couple of bricks and a billy can cutting some shavings to make a bit of heat when this Jerry sticks his head under the oil sheet. Nolan was having forty winks. He started talking away in Jerry”.
Without hesitation I jumped on him and got him down. Poor little devil.
“Get up man. See if there’s any more, see if we’re surrounded’.
We had him with us all day and had some tea. I patted him on the back. I said ‘La Guerre Fini’. I can still see him and he’s only a little chap as well. They used to have those long coats with pockets. He had one in here with a picture in it of his wife and kiddies. He showed me and cried. He was just human like anyone else, forced to do something he didn’t want to do.
He had a brand new Mausser in a back pocket; he could have just pulled it out. It was fully loaded.
He pointed and said, ‘Mitrieusse. Angel. Mitrieusse’.
Blair was a Scot from Glasgow … he happened to come around.
“Where the hell did you get him from?”
He went away with the Mausser.
“I’ll send someone up from Brigade HQ.’
And he sent this Sergeant and Corporal up.
I can see him now being marched down the duck board to Brigade Headquarters.
The next day all hell let loose on this ruddy farm in front where they reckoned there was a machine gun. No more Nobles Farm after a few minutes.
Egypt House was a tremendous pillbox despite all the bombardment and in front of it it this huge forest – just tree stumps mind. It had three compartments.
We were occupying this top compartment, some infantry men were in this one, our section officer was in that one. There was a passageway here. It was facing the wood where Jerry was. No barbed wire. All shell-holes and mud. Behind us was what was left of an old country lane which ran up to the forest.
We had a gun on the corner. I went along 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 snipers. I’d seen Blair, taking the usual care, got to the first doorway, stood a second … bullets rattling the doorway from the wood. Jerry was chancing his arm. I stood there and he hit the doorway with one of these whiz-bangs while I was standing in the middle ready to go. I was almost blinded by bits of flying concrete. I waited until the smoke had cleared. I ran across and in … one of the lads says ‘are you alright, Jack?’
‘Yes’ I says, but was bleeding from scratches on my face. They were superficial. This was a bit stuck in a button.
(The first frosts were in early December, followed by clearer weather and fog).
- Hell on Earth: The never before seen colour photographs of the bloody battle of Passchendaele (warhistoryonline.com)
- Ypres and the battlefields of the Salient (greatescapesblog.co.uk)
The obsessive in me required that I filled the OU gap (I recently completed an MA in Open and Distance Education) so I have been walking in and out of Ypres looking for spots where my grandfather ‘worked’ in 1917.
I use the term ‘work’ as he considered it a job.
Some job sitting behind a Vicker’s Machine Gun. It killed most of them.
Fig.1. View from the belfry, Ypres Cloth Hall. Looking North East towards the Menin Gate and Passchendaele beyond.
96 years after he was here and 21 since he died I finally walked the routes and adjusted once again the images I had in my head of the Ypres Salient. And then I found Egypt House up by Houthulst Forrest where he took some shrapnel fragments and he buried two mates.
Fig. 2. Mr J A Wilson MM remembering a fallen friend at the Tynecot Memorial, 75th Anniversary of the Third Ypres or ‘Passchendaele’, August 1992.
When he was over for the 75th anniversary of the Third Battle of Ypres (known as Passchendale) he marked the spot with a wreath and broke down in tears.
I’ve felt close to the same looking at registers of names in war cemeteries – especially where I know the names from the hours I spent listening to and then recording my grandfather’s memoirs – there was ample opportunity for this as he lived into his 97th year, unlike George Wannop, Dick Piper, Harry Gartenfeld and the many, many others typically aged 19-23 who met a horrible death out here. My late grandfather spared no detail.
It is fascinating what impressions I constructed as boy and how these adjusted as I became more informed.
To my minds eye as a boy this all took place in the landscape of Northumberland somewhere north east of Alnwick with little war damage to farmhouses or pill boxes. IWM photos gave me a black and white, scared, broken and flat though claustrophobic landscape.
Being here opens it out again – the Ypres Canal is as wide as the Tyne, not some British slither and finally this ‘salient’ can be seen as a vast arena … 20km across with the escarpment a series of pimples, while on foot the flatness turns out to be crumpled, like sheets on a bed with streams which made it such a mud-bath crossing every half-mile or so.
With the 100th anniversary of 1914-18 nearly upon us the museums are getting their act together.
In due course I’ll put interviews with Corporal Jack Wilson, M.M. MGC.
- In my grandfather’s footsteps (machineguncorps.com)
- Ypres and the battlefields of the Salient (thegreatescapesblog.wordpress.com)
- Our Weekend on the Mainland (2classesand14clubsinoxford.wordpress.com)
For an insight into the life, death and frontline tactics along the Western Front controlled by British and Commonwealth troops you should begin with Lyn Macdonald’s ‘They Called it Paschendaele’. First published in 1978 it draws on interviews with some 600 veterans. I return to it often to expand on the record I got directly from my late grandfather John Arthur ‘Jack’ Wilson M.M. who was a corporal in the Machine Gun Corps, serving in Neuve Chapelle, Arras, the Somme and then Ypres between April 1916 and December 1917 when he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and trained to be a fighter pilot.
In 1991 he visited the Imperial War Museum where he was able to sit behind a Vicker’s Machine Gun, then the following year he visited Ypres for the 75th Anniversary – a guest of Lyn Macdonald.
More at www.machineguncorps.com
The Military Medal awarded to Corporal John A Wilson ‘Jack’ in late 1917 while serving in the Machine Gun Corps during the Third Battle of Ypres. His journey through the trenches and up and down the Western Front is plotted in this blog, alongside his detailed memoir recorded when Jack (my grandfather) was in his 97th year.
Recorded on a Sony Digital recorder and will in due course be available as a podcast.
Transcript with the Imperial War Museum and author Lyn Macdonald who Jack joined at the 75th Anniversary of Passchendaele with a visit to the spots where he served and so many of his friends and colleagues died.
Please offer your suggestions for additional links
What is Europe? Free learning from The OU
In 1992 Jack Wilson MM, a former Machine Gunner, visited the Western Front for only the second time in 75 years. (In 1919 he had gone to the grave of his younger brother Flight Lieutenant William Nixon Wilson ‘Billy’ who had died a few months AFTER Armistice delivering mail across Belgium in his RAF DeHavilland Bomber. He as only 19 or 20 a the time.
Here Jack is with the author Lynn Macdonald in front of the name of Gartenfeld, a fellow machine gunner who Jack had seen die in late October 1917 out on the edge of the Passchendaele Front; later this day he finds the spot where he ‘buried’ both Gartenfeld and Dick Piper.
Henry Godilph Gartenfeld, born in Edinburgh, home Barnsley. Service No. 13144., 104 Company.
Richard Harvey Piper, . Service No. 22890, 104 Company.
Fig.1 Brigadier-General J W Sandilands From The History of the 35th Division in the Great War. L-C H.M. Davson
Brigadier-Gneral Sandilands decorated Jack Wilson with the Military Medal – ‘in the field’ along with three others. He received the Military Medal. Jack described the scene as ‘a square’ with a table in the middle.
There are a couple of likely times for the week long stop in a pill-box without relief – around 11th October when the Steenbeck flooded, after the initial attack on Houthulst Forest when the heaven’s opened, or in November when once again the Broembeck was flooded. He describes the Steenbeck as a ‘lake of mud’ and to reach Egypt House at one time as requiring you to wade through ‘the puddle’.
Fig. 2. A studio photo taken soon after joining the Durham Light Infantry, March 1915 at Billy Wilson’s Photography Studio, Consett before transfer to the Machine Gun Corps or ‘Suicide Squad’
This picture used in the Consett local paper when Jack Wilson was awarded the Military Medal
Fig. 3. Clip from the Consett Gazette in late 1917
(This photograph from a faded original cutting from the paper originally kept by Jack’s mother Sarah Wilson nee Nixon)