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“When I was fighting fit, mind.”

This is a line my late grandfather used all his life. He had many sayings – all from the First World War. Another one was “your teeth are your pearls” and “you can shove it where the monkey puts its nuts.” He was active into his mid-90s, attending the 75th anniversary commemoration of Third Ypres, the Battle of Passchendaele in July 1992; he was 96. He only stopped driving when he was told his poor eyesight had gone beyond correction age 93. And until late 1992 he walked a couple of miles back and forth to his daughter’s house to mow the lawn, clear the leaves from the drive and gutters … or change the oil in her car.

A passing curiosity about how they got the men fit during the First World War and blow me I find a book came out on it last year … and there’s even a museum all about it. The ‘Royal Army Physical Training Museum’ in Aldershot, England.

I suppose the next step would be to give some of the training ago in my local gym: boxercise might be the closest it gets. I can’t see there being bayonet training allowed. What did soldier’s say about training at the time? Some hated it? Some loved it? My grandfather likened his Sergeant Major to Oliver Hardy of ‘Laurel and Hardy’ – said he was a jovial character who used to bring some of his children down to the parade ground and the soldiers would give them rides on their shoulders! That’s not the image of physical training in the army you usually get on films about soldiering.

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First World War related links

The British Library First World War Resource

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

John Arthur ‘Jack’ Wilson MM (1896 – 1992)

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John Arthur ‘Jack’ Wilson MM 

Born 20th August 1896, at his grandmother’s home, Dalston, Cumberland.
Died 3rd December 1992, at home, Gosforth, Newcastle on Tyne.

Christened Dalston, Cumbria
Raised and schooled at Benfieldside, County Durham, England.

Age 14 he left school and joined the Northeastern Brewery (September 1910) as the Office Boy at the company’s head office in the Royal Hotel.

Joined the Durham Light Infantry as one of Kitchener’s volunteers in late 1915 or early 1916
Transferred to the Machine Gun Corps, training on the Vicker’s Machine Gun at Harrowby Camp, Grantham from February to March 1916

13203 104 MGC 35th Division

Served in France at Neuve Chappel, Arras

Based on the Somme in 1916 from June to November.

Moved to the Ypres Salient in 1917 serving next to the French, billeted near Popringe and fighting the over the Ypres Canal towards Langemark, Poelcapelle, Houthulst Forest and then Passchendaele.
Made a Corporal.
Awarded the Military Medal ‘in the field’ by Brigadier Sandilands for keeping the gun in action for a week without relief. This occurred in the pillbox called Colombo House on the edge of Houthulst Forest at the end of October 1917 (20/10/17)

Transferred to the Royal Flying Corps at the end of December 1917. There are photographs of his RAF experiences.
Interview and medical at the Hotel Cecil, Hampstead then training in Hastings, Bristol, Uxbridge and Crail.
Jack flew Avro Trainers and Bristol Fighters.
He saw no action though he qualified before the Armistice, flying over the German fleet when it came north to Scapa Flow.
He stayed on at RAF Crail to help with demobbing.

Jack returned to his job at the Northeastern Brewery in 1919 and bought himself a BSA motorbike with the collection that had been made for him.
He stayed with the Northeastern Brewery until 1931.
Redundancy when Vaux took over the Northeadtern Brewery saw him move to the Scottish & Newcastle where he remained until retirement in the early 1960s

In 1992 Jack Wilson visited the Imperial War Museum and attended Machine Gun Corps and RFC/RAF commemoration events.
He took part in the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Passchendale attending at the Menin Gate and being introduced to the King of Belgium.
He also did a moving battlefield tour guided by the author Lyn Macdonald. He was able to mark the spot were he buried two of his mates from his machine gun company. There are photographs of this.

Three hours of audio interviews conducted when Jack was 96 are available as MP3 files.

———

It started for me, Jack’s grandson, with my sitting on his knee after Sunday lunch at my parent’s home in Gosforth, Newcastle-on-Tyne in the mid 1960s.

And so he told and retold stories of his going along to the recruiting office in Consett, the medical and kit, basic training with the Durham Light Infantry, and transfer to the Machine Gun Corps followed by MCG training on a Vicker’s Machine Gun. He knew what the five main stoppages were. He then did two and a half years on the Western Front surviving Arras, the Somme and the worst of them all – Third Ypres and the mud of Passchendeale. At the very end of 1917 he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and during 1918 he undertook training with the soon to be renamed Royal Air Force: military training in Hastings, navigation in Bristol, bombing at Uxbridge then flying at RAF Crail in Scotland.

Unprompted his desire to talk always begin with, ‘Have I told you about the time that … ‘

My understanding of his experience will be enhanced as I take a Masters in First World War studies with the University of Birmingham. I can imagine being at his side as I share insights he’d have found fascinating. There are still, in the world, a few people who may remember the conflict. We live still with its consequences.

Can we do justice to the memory of that generation – those who served as well as those who lost their lives. Can an unbiased debate over the causes and outcomes invigorate European and World Institutions to find ways to resolve more conflicts without the deaths and injury of combatants and civilians?

In the meantime I have three hours of interviews I conducted with my grandfather John Arthur Wilson MM between 1989 and 1992 to edit, refresh and put online. These MP3 files will be available in due course both as podcasts and as videos. As well as a verbatim transcript the approach will be to break it into 30 or more themed anecdotes – in chronological order. These will feature his photographs too, though these are essentially of his RAF training only. At this stage the highest resolution images will be put online. In due course these will be put under a computer controlled rostrum camera. By way of illustration I will seek out appropriate maps, archive photographs and appropriate additional contemporary video or stills. I have at some stage visited all the locations of this story, from Crail to Caix, from Fenham Barracks to Poelcapelle, from Hastings to Grantham. Where I can establish the copyright position I will include, reference and link to images and film from national archives. Newspapers from this era often contain many photographs.

I am a filmmaker with a broadcast credit as a director, writer and producer for a short film I made. Where and when I can I hope to recreate moments from his story on the tightest of budgets using actors, shooting in a studio or at night to envisage the claustrophobic horror of a pillbox under fire on the frontline during ‘Third Ypres’ or ‘Passchendaele’.

As my academic credentials kick in I will not only be better able to correctly reference and qualify this story, but I would hope to add further detail and illustration.

This is a labour of love – my memory of my grandfather is kept alive in this way. Where I can contribute to a regional or national story I am happy to do so providing access both to the interviews and photographs. I also welcome enquiries from schools or others, grandchildren or great grandchildren who are interested in tracing and telling a relative’s story.

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As a boy

As a boy, after sunday lunch, I recall sitting on my grandfather’s knee and he would start off with the line ‘have I told you about the time …’ and he’d then add, ‘we were gassed, or we took a German prisoner, or I was transferred to the Royal Flying Corps‘.

Perhaps this started my interest in history.

In his 96th year he returned  to Passchandaele with Lynn Macdonald and I recorded some three hours of interviews, all transcribed here.  We even visited the armoury at the Imperial War Museum where he immediately squatted down behind a Vicker’s Machine Gun and started to set through a routine of checks.

Watching the First Iraq War on TV,  as a contemporary member of the Durham Light Infantry was interviewed he said, ‘That’s nothing compared to Passchendaele‘ which I turned into a TV script of the same name.

Since then I’ve used this memoir and library of references to write ‘Get Jack Back’ relating to the week in late November 1917 when he was stuck in Houlthoust Forrest and ‘Angel of the North‘ about his imagined younger sister who gets herself onto the Western Front. With the centenary nearly upon us now is the time to remember. Jack died in his 97th year. Through various quirks I found myself the guardian of his ashes in 2014. When I research and write about the First World War today, I often think what the man in the urn in the garden shed would say.

 

How an image of the where and how my grandfather fought during the First World War has changed over 45 years

Fig. 1. How the six-eight year old me thought a farmhouse in the Ypres Salient looked like during the First World War in October 1917

For 45 years I have dwelt on how the images in my head associated with stories my grandfather told me about the First World War changed from those of a six year old, to an eleven year old, through my thirties and forties … my childhood conception of the imagined world depended on the little I had personally seen and experienced. When my grandfather spoke of keeping his machine gun in a pillbox pointing at a farmhouse held by ‘Jerry’ For three days I at first pictured an intact farm building, the kind I often saw in a rolling and lush Northumbrian landscape, with the heavy stone walls and full deciduous trees I knew from being driven down bouncy country lanes north east of Alnwick heading for Chathill and our fisherman’s holiday cottage in Beadnell.

The pillbox in my imagination would have had to been like those left from the Second World War on the beach that my brother and I played in – and used as a urinal.

Fig.2. The reality of life on the Front Line

Age eleven a few ghastly black and white pictures from the First World War and the title sequence from the BBC Series ‘The Great War’ coloured my imagination: it added a soundtrack, skulls and broken trees, but not the scale, nor the mud, not the rain, the cold, thirst and hunger. Although he could mimmick every shell the sound effects my grandfather made could never get close to the terrifying sound os something large and dangerous approaching and then the almighty bang that followed.

In my twenties I got to the Ypres Salient in summer: it was dry, a new autoroute split and the noise of traffic created a barrier. Several TV efforts at recreating the war failed, not least as my thoughts expended to take in the thoughts of a what it meant to be a young man in those conditions, that you were in and out for a bout of two or three days. The rest of the time if not on fatigues or carrying parties you were looking for things to do.

Fig. 3. The reality. A ‘camouflaged’ pillbox, recently taken while a couple of hundred yards beyond that low, light grey strip is a similar pillbox still in enemy hands.

‘Not a worm could live.” My grandfather would say. He lived, as did the German who in error entered my grandfather’s pillbox and got clobbered for his trouble.

Only now, thoroughly immersed in hundreds of curated photographs and having looked on destroyed, wet massively scarred landscapes from open mining, having smelt rotting flesh – not human, but a dead sheep several days gone, am I starting to develop a true image. With teenage children of my own it is too easy to imagine the horror of sending them to war. Images of what happens to a body when hit by shrapnel or bullets, or blown apart by shells are readily available.

Fig 4. As it was. The dead behind a stone wall. The very same image my grandfather had while he sat it out in the remains of a recently captured ‘Jerry’ strongpoint.

There is little left for my imagination to do, other than to see another drama reconstruction and feel that nothing has done it better than ‘All Quiet on the Western Front.’ It looks dated, somehow caught in the early 1970s when it was finally made, but ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ leaves you with the desired sense of hopelessness, horror and despair that one ought to have.

Fig.5. Returning to ‘Courage Post’ to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. Corporal John Arthur Wilson MM recalls too friends who died at his side and that he buried in the rubble never to be found. 

75 years after leaving that pillbox with two friends buried my 96 year old grandfather broke down: telling his stories as stories had been his escape from it, but back on the same soil, at the very spot with the light and low landscape just as it had been it once again had become horribly real. He withered away after that as if the reality of the war brought home to him made him whither from the inside out.

I know this part of the world well enough to walk it, step by step from the bivouacs outside Poperinghe, over the Yser Canal, through Langermarck and along the light rail track, then used to move men and matériel, now a cycle path. On towards Houthulst forest and the exact location of his machine gun company’s HQ at ‘Egypt House’ (a three roomed concrete strongpoint built into a farm building) and on another 300 yards to ‘Courage Post’ a pillbox on the edge of the road into the ‘forest’ – then ten thousand shards of broken tree trunks, now, buried in its midst, where they handled, until very recently, and destroyed old munitions from the extensive battlefield.

For all this ‘Jerry’ to me is still a black cartoon cat and the ‘Hun’ something barbaric from the fall of the Romans as a drawing in a Ladybird book. We are our own film directors when it comes to reading; an author is a catalyst to our thoughts that can conjure up anything – which, in part, is the fun of it. We inhabit a world of our own in the orchestra of our minds, the author the composer, as readers we conduct, as listeners or viewers the director injects a piece of their own mind.

Parts of ‘Lord of the Rings’ is more evocative of the conflict of two massive armies than much that I have seen or read – and I have seen and read most of it, including now one divisional history after another, and long out of print obscure autobiographies. It has created an image in my head. Of a screwball world where the daily job was to plan and execute slaughter against the enemy on a massive scale – slaughter than in those days treated men like so many bullets, shells or mules to expend, the only fear being whether or not they could be replaced.

WW1 Aviation Comes of Age. A MOOC about British aviation 1911-1951

World War 1: Aviation Comes of Age: University of Birmingham [Three Weeks]

Both more, and less than advertised. Far from sticking to the First World War the course flew away on a gust of enthusiasm in various directions that stretched beyond the Second World War … without really taking off.

From Jack Wilson MM

Fig.1 My late grandfather – the period I thought we’d cover was his experience of flight. 1911-1919

100% Coming out of the MA in British Military History with a Postgraduate Certificate and 60 credits after one year shows that I am still passionate about the subject of the First World War, but not how it is taught in a traditional ‘Saturday School’ format: I felt that I was back in the ‘C’ set of my lower-sixth History A’ level. The course tried hard to understand the affordances of learning online in a MOOC and will surely make many changes before it is presented again in the New Year. It rather failed to understand who its audience were: more niche, specialists and some extraordinarily well informed. The WW1 tag drifted rapidly into events between the wars, into WW2 and beyond with very little of the development of aviation offered or explored, except by us students, often in great depth. Its saving grace. It was too much an effort at shoehorning a lacklustre campus-based course of lectures, talks and books with long lists of qualifying but unreadable lists of references attached. The quizzes in particular were awful. Put in with no understand of their purpose or the considerable level expertise required to get these right.

From time to time I am faced with finding the most obscure of articles

From First World War

Fig.1 Motorbike Ambulance of the First World War

I came across something about the Ambulance Service using motorbikes during the First World War. I then saw a photograph of a motorbike with a sidecar with a set of platforms that would carry two stretchers. The arguments for the use of a motorcycle are made: lighter, quicker, tighter turning circle, use less fuel …

A article is cited. The British Medical Journal, January 1915. A few minutes later via the Open University Online Library I locate and download the article.

It is the speed at which quality research can be fulfilled that thrills me. This article is satisfying in its own right, but glancing at the dozen or more articles on medical practices and lessons from the Front Line are remarkable. We are constantly saved from the detail of that conflict, the stories and issues regurgitated and revisited as historians read what previous historians said without going back to the original source.

This is how a new generation can come up with a fresh perspective on the First World War – instead of a handful of specialist academics burrowing in the paper archives now thousands, even tens of thousands can drill right down to the most pertinent, untampered with content.

From First World War

Amazed.

The pleasures of the FutureLearn MOOC: World War 1 Trauma and Memory

Should I return, each time I’ll be happier to stand back and let others find their way. I will have read more, seen more, thought more and written more. If I can help nudge others towards finding their own ‘truth’ I will have done something useful.

Inevitably over the next five years many of us will become imbued with a unique sensibility on the subject. I think my perceptions shift on walks, or in the middle of the night.

TV is a mixed bag, and I’m reluctant to recommend much of it, however I am currently watching ad watching again the brilliantly smart, moving, visualised, engaging ‘War of Word’ Soldier Poets of the Somme which is far broader than the title may suggest – this goes well beyond the obvious to paint a vivid sense of how impressions of violent conflict alter and sicken.

Several of these poets are now forgotten, but celebrated here, as we come to understand how they transitioned from glorification and patriotism on joining up to the ghastly reality. War of Words: Soldier-Poets of the Somme must have been shown on BBC2 in the last week or so – available for a month I think. Very worth while. Expertly done. A variety of approaches. Never dull. Often surprising and some stunning sequences of animations to support readings of short extracts from the poems. And it even tells the story of British Military advances during the period running up to, through and after the Battle of the Somme.

Each November: grieving the dead and our unchanged world

From First World War

Fig.1 Grieving the dead and our unchanged world a century on – despair at the unending violence

We are still grieving, we grandchildren and great-children. The world notices this.

What is this loss that the British and Commonwealth countries of the former British Empire feel so tangibly and personally? I see a different commemoration in France. I wonder how the First World War is remembered in Serbia? And Russia? And the US?

Ours was a pyrrhic victory in 1919. And the job wasn’t finished. How else could there have been a second world war after the first?

Britain ceased to be the pre-eminent world power it had come to be and has been leaking influence in fits and starts ever since.

Cameron to Putin is not Churchill to Stalin, which is why this country needs Europe – better united than alone.

And how does this play out in grief and art then, since and now? The distribution of wealth began – a bit. Domestic service as a career or layer of society very quickly washed away – people didn’t want to do it while the landed gentry were feeling increasingly vulnerable and broke. When we grieve every November do we grieve for a golden age, as well as for those whose life chances were destroyed?

Listening to Metallica ‘One’ inspired by the anti-war movie ‘Johnny Get Your Gun’ transcends 90+ years of this sickening grief we feel concerning the First World War

War breeds hate; hate festers and breeds war.

Fig.1 At the war memorial to the Machine Gun Corps (MGC) on Hyde Park Corner, 1991. I’m with my late grandfather – dark suit and beige shoes, fourth in from the right. That’s me on the far left of the line in the glasses holding the standard. (Volunteered about five minutes previously) Marking the 75th Anniversary of the formation of the MGC in 1916.

I’ve just completed fascinating couple of weeks, often gruelling on The OU’s World War 1: Trauma and Memory on the FutureLearn MOOC platform.

My love for The OU is restored. Everyone should pick a course from FutureLearn to understand where learning is being taken. You cannot go wrong with an OU lead and designed one of these – some of the others are re-versioned books, leaflets, extra curricular workshops and lecture series, not embracing the affordances of the platform at all.

An eye opener for anyone studying learning – go over there anyone studying education.

At the end of each week, which officially run for the five working days of the week, we are invited to reflect on the lessons learnt. A very significant part of this are the ‘massive’ conversations that follow each ‘activity’.

A week of looking at and contemplating the dead from violent conflict I conclude that ‘war breeds hate; hate festers and breeds war.’ Unless the population is wiped out, or dived between the conquerors. Or unless the conquerors stay put – the Normans eventually subjugated England and Scotland and 1000 years on some of them still rule and own the land.

Responses to hatred are diametrically opposed: forgiveness and peace, blame and violent conflict. Has humankind moved on that far from the tribalism of one or two millennia ago?  If young men, the typical combat soldier truly understood what could happen to them would they still go? It applies to every kind of risk, and testosterone fuelled it is more of a male thing? This willingness to take outrageous risks believing that it ‘won’t happen to them’. And of course, commemorating ‘our glorious dead’ and ‘returning heroes’ risks celebrating war rather than being a period of reflection and commemoration. A veteran of WW1 my grandfather never used the term ‘heroic’. Do young people joining up think that if nothing else, wounded, or dead in a coffin, they will at least come back ‘a hero’ – making it OK? And yet, however frightful, violent conflict remains a way that peoples, people, cultures attempt to resolve their differences.

It’ll continue until the world’s resources and ‘life chances’ – are fairly distributed. I feel the awakening of a burgeoning political sensibility that may wobble towards republicanism and socialism.

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