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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.

The Wilson Boys – Jack’s Brothers

The Five Wilson Boys

1896

I had five brothers.

Percy, who was born in 1893. He was born over in Dalston, and christened over there. His name was Twentyman, but we called him Percy; he died of TB in his twenties. Then me, I was born in 1896.

Billy was born in 1899

His full name was William Nichol Wilson. His birthday was 23rd August. He died in June 1919 when his plane, a De Havilland Bomber (DH9), crashed over Belgium. He was delivering mail to Cologne. He was a Flight Lieutenant in the RAF. He’s buried in the a civilian Cemetery, Belgium. Flight Lieutenant William Nichol Wilson. RAF 103 Squadron. Died 8th June 1919. Age 19. I went out to visit the grave the next year.

By then the family were living out at Castleside, at 25 Consett Road

Like everyone the Murray’s had to cut back with the War and they had to let go of most of the staff, my father included.

“Why don’t we have a sister?” We kept saying to father.

I think he tried his hand but it didn’t come off.

Spencer was born in 1909. Then Stuart in 1911.

Percy went into a nursery as a gardener

He was a real gardener, not a half inch one. He trained with people called Kidd. The place was established by Walter Kidd of Ashfield, Shotley Bridge, to sell produce into Newcastle. Things were booming then around Consett & Shotley Bridge.

Billy worked at the solicitors J Ainsley & Sons on Tailor Street, Consett.

Like me he left school at 14 and joined them as an office boy. He had lovely writing so they made he a clerk. He did the copywriting. Everything was written out by hand in those days; there weren’t even typewriters, let alone computers to take your words down. You used a piece of copying paper that you dampened and laid across the paper to make a copy.

After the War I was shown some graffiti on a wall at J Ainsley & Sons. Billy had written his name there behind a picture that had been up on the wall. Beautiful handwriting. J Ainsley & Sons were owned by the Murrays. Your Great Auntie Pegg, she’s an Ainsley girl and your mother was at school with one of them.

Spencer was more or less an unqualified architect working for Murrays, Hoyles and Aynsley’.

They were all intermarried the Hoyles and Anandales, Murrays and Ainsleys. Spencer become a draughtsman in Billingham, then a manager to a concreting firm in Birmingham. He was like an architect, but an unqualified one.

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