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That’s Nothing Compared to Passchendaele

 Fig.1. British Soldiers struggling in the mud – The First Gulf War (early 1991)

1) The cool, calm and quiet of the early morning – my work space.

2) The dog rolling over on her bed and wagging her tail for a bit of TLC

3) A pot of coffee

Set to go. iPad open on a Kindle eBook on the First Gulf War; Mac Mini in Google Docs. Working on something my grandfather said in 1991 when watching a documentary on a DLI private in Saudi Arabia waiting to enter Kuwait during the First Gulf War : ‘That’s Nothing Compared to Passchendaele’, he said regarding the regional news programme from BBC’s Looks North. Was it nothing like the Battle of Passchendaele (Third Battle of Ypres July – November 1917) or more similar than different? Scale and technology were different, operation and tactics different due to the technology and lessons of previous conflicts, mud for sand … but a soldier when hit by shrapnel or loses a mate feels the same pain. And there was mud too (see above). There mistakes and the wrong kit.

The remark was pointed at the individual soldier’s lot. BBC Look North were doing a profile of a ‘day in the life of a private soldier of the Durham Light Infantry’. It was when looking at the man’s rations and gear that my grandfather, by then in his 94th year, said this. It’s had me thinking ever since, not least since the plethora of ‘soldiering’ we are getting and will get during the Centenary Commemorations of the First World War.

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).

 

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

A Pilot shot down in No Man’s Land – November 1917

Fig. 1 Egypt House to Houthulst Forest, Poelcapelle, North East of Ypres

20130804-174840.jpg

Fig. 2 A plane shot down on the edge of Houthulst Forest.

(This action takes place north of Poelcappelle as the British approach Houthulst Forest. The attack began at 5.35am. It is Monday 22nd October. The Essex took Nobles Farm. The Broembeck was flooded and something of a barrier. After various advances were made there was a strong counter-attack that forced a retirement to east of Egypt House). (McCarthy, 1995:120)

There was this RE 8 Artillery Observation Plane hit with incendiary bullets. The wing caught fire.

The pilot tried to slew the plane over to keep the flames away from the fuselage.

He crashed in front of Egypt House, half a mile from Poelcapelle.

We buried the pilot just outside this dugout in an isolated grave in No Man’s Land and a cross put up.

We then crawled back into No Man’s Land to take the magneto out of the engine.

You’d give this 6mm magneto a spin and it made sparks.

If you held the wires it gave you an electric shock – we had some fun with that one.

There was another time an attack had been made and something went wrong.

They lost a gun team. As a rule Jerry would follow up the attack. They had put up a fight and taken a prisoner – this Sergeant Bates. The entire team was missing. Years after, when I was with Duker’s, 1933 or 34 … I was at the bottom of Westgate Road, Newcastle. This was when the trams were running. This tram inspector was Sergeant Bates. So I asked him what had happened. He’d been told to go forward and was badly hurt. Jerry took him prisoner. A bit later he was repatriated by the Red Cross, as he was so badly hurt. He ended up in Newcastle. He said he had to sign a declaration that he’d take no further part in the war. He married one of his nurses who lived in Walker.

There was another one, I came across after the war.

Sergeant Bushmell 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 …” He said. ” I’ve asked managers in Green Market, Whitley Bay, Leadgate … I’d said I was looking for Jack Wilson.”

20130802-180945.jpg

Fig. 2 Poelcapelle to Houthulst Forest, 22nd October 1917 p122 Passchendaele: the day by day account. Chris McCarthy

Jack Wilson refers to Egypt House and Colombo House in this memoir.

REFERENCE

McCarthy, C (1995) The Third Ypres. Passchendaele. The day-by-day account.

Did Jack go in to relieve the position on Tuesday and find the gun team dead or dying? As a machine gunner did he serve more than one division?

International Corner – Lice & Rats – November 1917

Fig.1. International Corner, North of Poperinghe on the N321. The resting spot for the 104 MCG. By Paul Reed.

Our rest spot was International Corner, some seven or eight miles back from Passchendeale.

Fig.2. ‘International Corner’ is on the N321 east of the Abbey of St. Sixtus which is marked here. This is where J A Wilson MM of the Machine Gun Corps rested when out of the line during the Third Battle of Ypres, 1917

(This action takes between International Corner, the communications trenches across the Yser Carnal torwards Pilkem, Langermarke, Poelcappelle and Houthulst Forest)

“We used to get a daily paper. It was in the Daily Mail that an attack by the enemy 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’.

I played football once at right-back against the trench mortar battery. It was during the winter and the ground was all icy. I went down on one knee and gashed it badly on a lump of ice.

‘We were called in from rest at one time to give support to the Canadians who were attacking Pilkem Ridge’. (Clearly the MCG were a peripatetic group who would be called in as and where required. This may have been around the 26th October as the 3rd Canadian Division moved toward Passchendaele.  The Battle of Pilckem Ridge was earlier, 31st July to 2nd August). 

The Morass of the Battlefield - Flanders

We carried in ammunition, there were 250 rounds in a tin box.

When you were out of the line for a bit rest you could always bet your boots on a good Salvation Army tent.

They give you writing paper and all the rest of it. You couldn’t write letters without them being checked. I don’t know what we would have done without them, they were excellent. I always give them something when they come to the door.

There were rats on the Yser-Ypres canal bank at Boesinghe, that was real fun.

This was around November. There were all these holes; we’d bung them up with sods of earth and stick some cordite in the last one, slam some more turfs over it and wait for them to go off. You’d think the whole bank-side was ablaze and the rats. We’d try and hit them with bayonets and spades. They’d be down into the water and this little terrier which belonged to the cook would go in after them.

We tried to shoot fish with a gun.

We never got them. Someone would throw in a Mills Bomb, what we called a pineapple or just a ‘bomb.’ They’re called hand-grenades now.

Lice were a menace.

Get too close to the brazier in your dug out and you’d start itching. We used to do all sorts to try and get rid of them. If you took a candle and ran it along the seams you could burn them out. I remember once, it was in the middle of winter, I had a chance to give my shirt a clean – you only had the one. I hung it outside on a bit of line over night.

The next morning, you bugs, despite the frost the lice were still alive. 

 

Suicide Squad – The Machine Gun Corps – 1916

Fig.1. Jack Wilson’s identity tag. He had it made while training in Grantham.

“We were put on parade one Saturday morning in early 1916, which was unusual”.

The next thing I know the Sergeant’s running up and down the line with the Red Cap picking out people’s names. He was a bit of a raw Geordie lad.

Afterwards I asked Quartermaster Sergeant Barwick what it was all about.

“What’s this?” 
I ask.

“You’re going to the suicide squad on Monday.” He replies.

Then he added.

“You’re off to Grantham.”

“What’s that?” I ask.

“On Monday, you’re off to Grantham. You’ve got to go”.

I had no choice in the matter.

And that’s how I was transferred to the Machine Gun Corps, 35th Division, 104th Brigade Machine Gun Company (formed 27th April 1916).

I got a few days leave from Grantham before and then I didn’t get any leave whatsoever while I was out there through the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Passchendaele – about two and a half years. It was only when I came back to join the RFC that I got a week’s leave. Then I went back to Grantham. And of course I finished up on the RFC aerodrome at Crail, Scotland.

Fig.2. Machine Gun Training. I believe these are Canadians. Or could they be American?

“They were picking suitable looking fellows. They were copying the Germans”.

They went around all the infantry companies looking for suitable men. It was a heavy gun. The Vickers weighed over 28 pounds; the tripod 20 pounds and the water to cool the gun another 10 pounds.

They took about twenty from the Durham Light Infantry. The 7th Division was a Geordie regiment.

Billy Wrangham, who was 24, from Urpeth, Anfield Plane. His father was a Colliery Winding Engineerman – he was gassed. It could catch you on the hop. Billy had this gun and they had their masks on all day. He took his off in the afternoon being the corporal.

And Bowsbie.

George Toward lived behind the Royal Hotel; he was a regular billiard player. He was a year younger then me, only got in by a squeak. He was eighteen. He lied about his age. George lived at 19 Consett Rd, Castleside just along the road from us. His father was gas producer at the steelworks. He was the youngest of four. I remember his sisters Elizabeth and Jennie and his big brother Robert a married man of 28.

Sergeant-Major Barwick; he was a funny one.

If he felt happy he’d get up and have a little jig and a sing song. He was from Teams, Gateshead. They had four lovely kiddies. He’d bring them down to watch us parade and we’d carry them on our shoulders. We’d give them pennies and sweats. He was killed on the 6th October 1918 age 28. Son of Joseph and Maria Barwick from Teams, Gateshead. His wife went by the name of Theresa.

Tommy Collinson, was another one.

Tommy was a big strapping lad. He had a brother who was shot in the knee before the war; it got gangrene and was lost. Tommy was killed on the 5th November 1917 at Passchendaele – he was only 18.

And Billy Soulsby all from Askew Road, Gateshead.

He was a storekeeper by trade so they made him the quartermaster.

Those are some of the names I remember.

The rest of the company was made up from North Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumberland, Birmingham and Northumberland.

Grantham was a camp for transport and machine gunners.

“Even to get into your hut you were up to your knees in mud”.

Dreadful Porridge.

REFERENCE

Interviews conducted by his grandson Jonathan F Vernon from 1989-1992. Recorded on digital audio tape and transcribed. Jack then reviewed a manuscript of large font printouts and added further notes, some in his own hand, some added by his grandson.

FOOTNOTES

The 103rd Brigade was formed on 27th April 1916 and joined the 34th Division.

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