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Do you recognise from old family photographs anyone featured in film footage or other archive from the First World War?

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I’m looking at ways to engage the public in the wonders of the First World War of a hundred years ago. It strikes me that some of the great grandchildren of the 20 million who saw the film ‘The Battle of the Somme’ in 1916 could be galvanised into helping put names to those featured in these films – who survived, who died – and what was their life story? Short or long?

Souvenirs

I remember being in the brick factory on the Somme at Trones Wood. There was this huge crater, this was in 1916.  I was trying to boil some water. I’d set up a bit of a fire with a couple of bricks and a canteen. The smell was dreadful. So I pushed my bayonet in and there’s a dead body.

When they started the war Jerry had those helmets with a brass peak. One day I saw this spike sticking out of the side of this communications trench and I thought it would make a nice souvenir and I got my bayonet out and dug the earth away to get hold of it. My fingers came away with skin and hair and all the rest of it. It was a dead German.

I got one in the end.

Shot for cowardice – May 1916

There were notices up about these fellows who were executed for desertion.

They were cruel you know

They ran away, poor devils. We had one on one of our guns but luckily our C.O. didn’t report it. He would have been shot. He was an old sweat. I can see the bloke, Harry Peake.

Anyone could see he wasn’t fit to fight.

It was gas shells or something. He got terrified and ran away during a bombardment. He was found miles behind the lines with the transport. He should have been shot. If anyone else had done that. But never mind.

Gerald Woods told me about that.

That was the punishment for desertion. Somebody was shot.

A couple of years later he was found behind the lines again; he’d survived two more years of it. This time he was shot for cowardice on 29th April 1918. They said he was a persistent waster and an example had to be made.

The Germans were massing for a big push, so they didn’t want anyone leaving the line.

 

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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