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The pill-boxes had names

(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).

 

Some job – manning a machine gun

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 Flanders Fields‘ in the Old Cloth Hall, Ypres is the most stunning exhibition I have visited anywhere on WW1 and very much a 21st interactive and multimedia affair.

In due course I’ll put interviews with Corporal Jack Wilson, M.M. MGC.

They Called it Paschendaele

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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 http://www.machineguncorps.com

Augmented reality if memorials

I’d like to see augmented reality used to reveal a photograph of everyone named on memorials such as these – putting a face to a name, a life lost.

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Third Ypres and the Battle for Poelcapelle October 1917: A Machine Gunner’s Story

Fig 1 Sketch from Jack’s Description of the movements of Corporal John Arthur Wilson,  MCG, October 1917. (Excuse the note related to a fictional story called ‘The Time Telescope’ (TT) which I imagined in an adventure story to be an item that saved Jack’s skin).

My grandfather drew a version of this in biro when in his 97th year; his eye-sight was very poor. I redrew it as you see, with him adding comment and annotations. Houthoulst Forrest is a bit out, there is a rail track and I haven’t drawn it strictly North-South.

From Haig’s despatches:

 After the middle of October the weather improved, and on the 22nd October two successful operations, in which we captured over200 prisoners and gained positions of considerable local importance east of Poelcappelle and within the southern edge of Houthulst Forest, were undertaken by us, in the one case by east-county and Northumberland troops (18th and 34th Divisions), and in the other by west-county and Scots battalions (35th Division, Major- General G. Mc. Franks) in co-operation with the French.

My goal, my pleasure, reliving stories he first started telling me on his knee after Sunday Lunch age 6 or so is tp be there with him, to time travel and by following closely in his footsteps survive as he did (just).

A scratch is all he suffered during the 1 1/2 years he was out there (April 1916 to December 1917).

The silver ID bracelet Jack had made in Grantham. 13203. 104 MGC.

Courtesy of published maps and Google Earth I am gradually picking out the spots. In 1992 he attended the 75th anniversary of Passchendaele and marked the spots where he buried Dick Piper and Harry Gartenfeld. Even after those years, however ‘dull and featureless’ the landscape, and however broken it had been in his time, he was able to pick out the exact spot where these men died.

Is it feasible that the Jerry Prisoner who took can be identified? Handed over to Captain Blair in October? (Later October: 20th – 27th)

His papers came through at the end of December 1917, around the 27th I believe. A couple of officers gave him pictures of themselves, but who could this be?

A senior officer of the Machine Gun Corps who gave this picture to Corporal J A Wilson on 27th December 1917 as he headed home to train with the Royal Flying Corps.

Who is it?

Haig’s Despatches

‘After the middle of October the weather improved, and on the 22nd October two successful operations, in which we captured over 200 prisoners and gained positions of considerable local importance east of Poelcappelle and within the southern edge of Houthulst Forest, were undertaken by us, in the one case by east-county and Northumberland troops (18th and 34th Divisions), and in the other by west-county and Scots battalions (35th Division, Major- General G. Mc. Franks) in co-operation with the French’. Haig’s Despatch

NOTES

Scanning ‘The Road to Passchendaele’ John Terraine 1977 I am struck by the statement that has Haig wanting to take Passchendaele Ridge in order to have command of the open land to the east in order to use cavalry. Also Lord French’s criticism to the War Cabinet that Haig keeps making the same mistakes. From Birdwood ‘Khaki and Gown’  p 316.

British Army Maps:

Ypres before July 1917 Attacks

Ypres October 1917

Awarded the Military Medal for keeping the Vickers Machine Gun in action for a week

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.

The war to end all wars: the centenary of World War One (LINKS)

Please offer your suggestions for additional links

Imperial War Museum

World War One Centenary

WW1 Shellshock film

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

1914 IWM Centenary Projects

National Archive

Department of Culture, Media & Sport

University of Birmingham WW1 : Beyond Blackadder

French Embassy Announcement on investment in remembering the La Grande Guerre

Arras – Real Time Tweet

Ypres

Gas attack at Ypres

BBC World War One

The War of the World Professor Niall Ferguson

Red Cross Fickr Stream

First Hand Accounts of WW1

Learning Resources for Teachers

Europeana

Paul Read : Research, photos and battlefields

Infographics of WW1

In Act of Remembrance

Woman of WW1

Love to Learn with Pearson Education

The Open University

Open University WW1

OU History BA

OU History MA

OU History MA Part One

OU History MA Part Two

Total War and Social Change

What is Europe? Free learning from The OU

History as commemoration

Centenary Flickr Wall

In Flanders Fields Museum

In Flanders Fields Educational Activities

Machine Gunners of the Passchandaele Salient remembered

Missing in Action

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.

 

RIP

 

Henry Godilph Gartenfeld, born in Edinburgh, home Barnsley. Service No. 13144., 104 Company.

Richard Harvey Piper, . Service No. 22890, 104 Company.

Decorated ‘in the field’ with the Military Medal by Brigadier Sandilands

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)

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