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Understand Passchendaele to understand Britain in the First World War

Like a disease my books on the First World War have more than quadrupled; you take the subject seriously (MA) and now I need six texts on everything. My current task, almost complete, is to understand what the f*ck went on during Third Ypres (Passchendaele). And now I know, largely due to this book: Passchendaele. The Untold Story (1996) Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson. When I’m told and go and explain what was going on to my grandfather, now approaching 118 and in an urn in the shed. Actually, as a machine gunner he was less likely to get killed or injured that the soldiers ‘going over the top’ – in some instances 50%, 70% even 80% of those being sent in became casualties all because … because our government i.e; Lloyd George had gone from hands on interference to letting the military get on with it, because Haig was the archetypal public school boy over promoted dim wit whose greatest skill was riding a horse and currying favour from those above and at his side. The evidence makes me angry. He could have and should have been removed, indeed, refreshing your military leaders, as France did, was probably a good idea.

A month in Passchendaele – October 1917.

I’m giving a presentation on it on June 14th. Somehow my irritation and anger needs to subside into something more objective over the next month. It is NOT revisionist to curse the British military leader who, for all the evidence, expected tens of thousands of men (not all young, my grandfather served with a bloke of 42) to fight, despite everything that he was told and knew of how futile it would be, through the quagmire of the Ypres Salient. Haig allowed value judgements and private passions to supersede common sense … and by then blunt experience and evidence of repeated failure.

A week in the Ypres Salient

My grandfather was sent in to relieve a couple of fellow machine gunners on the 19th of October 1917. Columbo House. He went in a couple of times. Also Nobles Farm. This is south of Houthulst Forest during the final efforts to take the Passchendaele ridge. Getting to this part of the line could take many hours, in the dark, at considerable risk of slipping off the duckboards into deep, unforgiving shell-holes full of mud and water, body parts, blood and chemicals from gas shells. I have the local. I haven’t quite got the dates, but he was with machine gunner Dick Piper when he died of a stomach wound and had already buried the ammunition carrier Henry Gartenfeld – a married man with two kids in his early forties by the way. My grandfather always expressed his dismay that the man had got in, that the war should have been for unmarried men with no attachments. He had none. Or he kept quiet about it.

My impressions of what he went through ‘keeping the gun in action’ for a week, without relief, for a week have changed over 46 years. What I saw in my mind’s eye when I was five or six, cannot be the same as what I perceived when I was ten, or twenty or even thirty years older. As well as his own two men, dead or dying there were, some twenty Guards lying behind a wall next to this pill-box. All dead beat, or dead, or dying. Mostly gassed he reckoned. From some push into Houthulst Forest that had gone wrong. No forest of course, just the dissemination and wreckage as if a hurricane had swept back and forth over several weeks reducing the trees to stumps and sticks. Aerial photographs show a pockmarked land with handfuls of snapped matched sticks and on the ground or in the shell holes lice-like bobbles and impressions – dead men litter the landscape like eggs from a careless spider.

This is the view that Flight Lieutenant William Wilson would have had … my grandfather’s younger brother, who at 17 had joined the RFC and in 1917 was flying De Haviland bombers’ over the German lines to try and wreck railway lines.

Haig … and Lloyd George

My first impression was bad, my second impression good, my growing view is not only on the bad, but anger that those who should have pulled Haig from the job, Lloyd George, did not do so. Though Haig and Lloyd George loathed each other they had something in common – they both carried on, in their own way, a merry little dance that was designed primarily to keep themselves in power and their reputations clean. All in power have to be accountable to others in a way that means they can be asked to account for their actions and record and where it is found to be failing they are swiftly replaced.

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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.

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.

 

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.

 

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).

 

Passchendaele: unseen panoramas of the Third Battle of Ypres

Jack Wilson, a Machine Gunner, served in Third Ypres going in against the French line north east of Ypres up to Houthulst Forrest. These panoramas and maps allow me, with his memoir, to track his movements. Stories he told me as a boy and visualised as a six or seven year old look very different on seeing the reality.

 

Machine Gunners of the Passchandaele Salient remembered

The only thing that lived out there were rats and they had a feast of it – October 1917

Mother! Mother!

On the way in I came across these guardsmen, eight or nine, lying in a shell-hole as though they were asleep.

(They were Gough’s XIV Corps. Guards. From the 38 Division commanded by General Lord of Cavan. They’d been held up on the west bank of the Steenbeck. Gas had been used by Jerry on as attacks had been made on Houthulst Forrest)

Get a dose of that and your lungs were ruined.

They were not like an ordinary shell.

MGC 1915

Gas came over like a dud.

You could see down this path from Courage Post right into the forest. It was facing the wood where Jerry was. There was no barbed wire, just all shell-holes and mud.

It had been raining heavily since the beginning of October.

The ground was like porridge. Parts of the front and turned into a lake. Simply getting to a front position was exhausting as you had to wade through this ooze and negotiate the rims of shell-holes.

(The rainfall in August 1917 over Northern France and Belgium was twice the August average. In fact, there were only three days that entire month when there was no rain).

Streams pushed their way through the crumbling banks of the craters and linked into impassable lakes of liquid mud. On the surface of the water there’d be an iridescent smear of oil. or it was green from gas on a puddle.

The Morass of the Battlefield - Flanders

If you saw a film of red streaking the surface it didn’t take much imagination to guess what else was down there.

And the smell. It made you wretch.

You’d vomit.

There was no getting used to the stink from all the mess, body parts, rotting away … a lads inside, heads, limbs, hands … you can’t imagine the horror of it.

Even if you buried them it didn’t take much to blow them out of the ground.

Jerries, Tommies, mules and horses. The only thing that lived out there were rats and they had a feast of it.

1914-1918 (11)

This was when I heard this kid in this dung heap by the stream shouting for his mother.

I don’t know if he’d been hit or fallen in but it stopped me in my tracks.

There was a bit of an embankment down to the stream. When it rained it was like a river, full of frogs and all this filth. On the other side there was this shell hole. All I could see was his head and shoulders sticking up above the mud.

Shell holes could be 30-50ft deep.

They quickly filled with water which formed a muddy sludge of body bits, broken equipment and what not. This was behind the pill-box they named Egypt House 200-300 yards short of Houthulst Forest.

I leant down to get this lad, mind you with all that mud I might have slipped in myself. The remnants of the Belgian army were nearby.

The line faced the Ypres Canal with Houthulst Forest on the other side

There’d been this attack to try to get around Houthulst forest which the French had taken on the 9th October. Doomed to failure from the start. That July the French had held a short piece of the line between Boesinghe and the Yser after which the remnants of the Belgians took over.

“Mother, mother.” He was saying.

So I grabbed this lad’s shoulder-belt and told him to help himself.

“Kick man, kick. You’ll have to get yourself out of this one.” I said.

He kicks about and I get him onto the duckboards.

“I can’t wait.” I tell him.

You couldn’t stand around out there with all the shooting going on.

And off I went.

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