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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.
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.
- The men from Lewes who died in the First World War (machineguncorps.com)
- Third Ypres and the Battle for Poelcapelle October 1917: A Machine Gunner’s Story (machineguncorps.com)
- Cycling in The Ypres Salient: Tyne Cot Cemetery (socyberty.com)
- Lest We Forget … Remembrance Sunday, November 11th (theepochtimes.com)
- Weekly Photo Challenge: Geometry (photographworks.wordpress.com)
Fig. 1. John Arthur ‘Jack’ Wilson MM (c 1926)
My grandfather served in the First World War as a machine-gunner and in 1918 trained as a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force. This is his story. I have made it available to Life Stories, part of the First World War centenary commemorations.
John Arthur Wilson (20Th August 1896 to 16th December 1992)
Based on interviews recorded with John Arthur ‘Jack’ Wilson by his grandson Jonathan Vernon in Gosforth, Newcastle on Tyne, England on 3rd July, 1989 and in February 1991. Jack added his own notes to the transcript in 1992 and Jonathan has added footnotes since.
THE WILSONS, WIGTON, CUMBRIA
My father’s people were blacksmiths and wheelwrights in Cumberland. The old man (John Wilson b1827) was the local vet in Wigton; he wasn’t qualified but he did the job all the same. He had all these beautiful instruments.My mother’s side, the Nixons, were farmers at Bell Gate House Farm, Dalston, Cumberland. She was the eldest of six sisters. She went home to her mother’s to have me. I was born on the farm on 20th August 1896 and christened in Dalston Church. The farm was a real mixture. It had an orchard, pigs etc: It was rented from the estate. There was a market garden in Carlisle. Granny Nixon (Elizabeth) used to take a pony and tub trap into town once a week to sell eggs and butter at a stall.
BENFIELDSIDE, Co. DURHAM
We were living at Benfieldside, Shotley Bridge, Co. Durham. It was on the road which ran up to Blackhill on the way to Consett. It was eventually sold to the Consett Iron Company for £6,000 and became a students’ residence.
My father, Twentyman Wilson (b1865), was general factotum to the Murrays, who owned the North Eastern Breweries. He did everything. Before the motorcars he looked after the horses – they had two landaus. Everyone got around in carriages and pairs. They got a second groom when the cars came.
He was well in with them. He was part and parcel of the outfit. He used to look after the hunters and would go with J.G.and the Braes of Derwent Hounds. He called ‘J.G.’ the ‘Governor.’
My father was living in the lodge. The Murrays had a large house, Benfieldside House. As a boy, I used to come up the yard to fiddle on with the engines. There were great crates of dinner sets to unpack for the cook. There were two gamekeepers: Jack Bell, who lived at Elm Park and Frank Carruthers at Allensford, Blanchland. Jack Bell came into the office on a Saturday morning for the wages. There were single entry estate books for these two shops in Consett. A gardener, called Booth. A butler, called Fry. A housekeeper, called Mrs Kirkpatrick. A cook, called Mrs Woodburn. A housemaid. A laundry maid. And a governess for Miss Effne.
I had five brothers. Percy was born in 1893. Then me. (1896) Billy was born in 1899. Sydney was born in 1902, but died when he was four years old. “Why don’t we have a sister?” We kept saying to father. I think he tried his hand but it didn’t come off. After Billy there was a thirteen-year gap. 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. He burst a blood vessel and died a few weeks later, that was 1920. Billy worked at the solicitors J Aynsley & Sons on Tailor Street, Consett as a clerk. He did copywriting. Billy joined the Royal Flying Corps. He was killed delivering mail over Belgium in June 1919. Spencer was more or less an unqualified architect working for Murrays, Hoyles and Aynsley’s before becoming a draughtsman in Billingham, then a manager to a concreting firm in Birmingham.
When Richard Murray died he left £60,000 to build the hospital behind the house. He’s buried in Black Hill Cemetery.My father told me he gave each of his sons £30,000. ‘J.G’ (John George) Murray left his legal practice at 42 Westgate Road to take over the business.
The first person to have a car in the area was Dr Ralph Renton. It was a chain- driven 8 HP Single Cylinder Rover. Everyone knew when he was coming because you could hear the engine. ‘Chug, chug chug, chug …. ” The solicitors to C.T. Mailings of Ford Potteries, Greenwood, Shotley Bridge were the next people to buy a motor car. It was a Lanchester, which had tiller steering, and bicycle pedals, I remember helping to unpack these great crates of dinner sets for the cook, which came from Ford Potteries.
The Murrays bought a 10 HP Coventry Humberfrom a firm in Middlesborough. The mechanic, a man called Geldart, came up from Middlesborough to teach my father how to drive it. As a boy my father used to take me up to the yard to fiddle on with the engines. They also bought a 30/40 Beston Humber. When old Dick Murray built Benfieldside House he had two massive stone pillars put up at the bottom of the drive. There was a little wicker gate into the lodge where we lived. J G. used to have a go with the Beston Humber. One day he missed the gate and ran into the pillar, which twisted round its base. How he didn’t knock it into our cottage I don’t know.
A second groom was taken on to help look after the horses and my father took on the new role of chauffeur. He used to drive J.G. all around the branches of the North Eastern Breweries, to the Moor Street Brewery in Sunderland, the Tower Brewery in Spennymore, the Weir Brewery in Stockton and the bottling plant at Blackhill.
There was a harness room, all in glass cases, saddles etc: Miss Effne (b1894) had a little Shetland pony with a cream tub trap.
There were so many lawns. If the weather was good on a Monday, Bell, the gamekeeper who lived on the other side of the railway came over to help cut the lawns. Bell pulled on a bit of cord and Booth pushed; it didn’t have an engine.
There were no swimming pools. We went down to the Paper Mill dam and used to swim under the sluice. The other place for swimming was Tiger’s below the Papermill. The Paper Mill was owned by Annandale’s who lived up at Snow’s Green.
I remember taking Billy up to the infants and him crying. That was at Benfieldside School at Highgateon the road to Blackhill and Consett. I left him and went back for him. It was a mile walk. There was no gas or electricity, just paraffin lamps.
The headmaster was Frank Allan and there was a teacher called Lubbock who was a bit of an amateur photographer. He took a photograph of Billy and me in 1903 or thereabouts. We wore these wide brimmed straw hats against the sun and I was carrying a cane and jam jar. We were off to fish for tiddlers in the Derwent by the Papermill.
Talk about winters. It went on for weeks, nothing like now.
The Spa was down by the river. It was noted for its waters, which came out of the rocks, by the swings; it was icy cold.
Every year there was a fair. There was a Toll Gate. You paid once and there were swings attached to these huge trees with heavy steel bars and hooks and roundabouts and a Flower Show. Carriages carrying twenty people would come in from Newcastle. I won First Prize for a handwriting competition and for my drawings. I remember going down to see the fire they lit to celebrate the Relief of Mafeking. The Spa was stopped eventually by a Quaker family who owned the land.
(August 1911, the Spa Fair still running, a Char-a-banc coming down from Blackhill to Shotley Bridge Spa grounds crashed. Date 26th August 1911. Those killed who belonged to the Consett Co-Operative Choir included John Joseph Person and Henrietta (Ettie) Stokoe age 31, the fiancée of John Joseph.)
There was Tatty Walton’s the Grocer’s and Addison’s the Newsagents. The pubs were the ‘Kings Head’ and ‘The Commercial’.
Canon Ross Lewin looked after the Church.
I noticed in the Homemaker section of the Journal a house for sale by the riverside for £330,000 with 12 stables and lodges and fishing rights. That was Louis Priestman’s House. There were three brothers, one of them lived up at Snow’s Green. There was a horse-trough where horses water on the way up from Newcastle.
In 1912, Uncle Billy Steel from Penrith took me to see Gustav Hemel doing a flying exhibition at Carlisle Racecourse. He paid half a crown. I remember him arriving in a chain-driven red two-seater Mercedes sports car. He put his flying gear on then did one circle and down. He flew the Channel – miraculous. The changes that have taken place.They thought he was a spy for the Germans. He was eventually lost over the North Sea.
WORKING FOR THE NORTH EASTERN BREWERY
One day my father comes up to me and says. “Mr Murray wants to see you up at the house at Six O’clock. There’s a vacancy in the office.” This was in May 1910. I was not 14 so I couldn’t leave school. I went up to the house. J.G. had me writing and one thing and another. He asked what class I was in.
“Standard Seven” I say, which was about as far as you could get.
“You’ll learn a lot more in the office.” He says.
I started work at the North Eastern Breweries in August 1910. I was fourteen years of age. I was on Five Shillings per week and got an annual increment of Half a Crown. I was advised to take lessons in shorthand at Johnnie Nixon’s. He was a councillor at Shotley Bridge who taught Pitman’s. It cost a shilling a lesson. I only used the shorthand once or twice. I remember when I was down at Stockton George Lindsay was away on holiday and this urgent letter arrived for J.G. Some matter about a farmer’s land J.G. says, Take this down.” So I reeled it off, typed it up and he signed it.
We walked two miles to work, there were no buses. Bill Baron, who was the cashier lived down in Shotley Bridge, which was further away still. We lived up on the top, Bill used to go up to Shotley Bridge for his lunch.
It was a huge stone built hotel with five massive windows. The Royal Hotel’s still there. It was built for business; it’s all finished now. There was a station near by and next door the mart for all the Black Hill farmers round about Lanchester. There was a huge yard. The station took all the deliveries for the Paper Mill and Flour Mill in Shotley Bridge.
There were six in the office above the bar and taproom. J. G. had a private office across the passageway. I was the office boy. Joe Trones was on the sales ledger; Bill Barron was the principal ledger clerk (tenants, free trade). Tommy Morland was the cashier (bank cash book) and Ernie Caldwell, the estate agent and local brewery area manager. Mr Gardiner was the General Manager of the branch and stores.
Bill and I used to sneak next door to play bollards on the quite at lunchtime: we’d sneak the side door. We were doing ‘doing the columns’. We got to know Tom Brown who lived behind the Royal Hotel.
Ernie Caldwell used to count all the coins, it was all gold then. He had this desk next to a massive iron safe. When the figures didn’t add up he’d put it down to petty cash. When they came to move the safe they found all these coins stuck down the back.
Ernie Caldwell came to me one day. “John, I’ll show you how to work a pub stock out.” And he put this pub stock sheet in front of me.
One of my jobs was to take all the coins down to the bank. With it being the brewing trade a lot of them got sticky. I remember once the bank manger got fed up with getting sticky fingers and handed me the bag and told me to go and wash them. So from then on before I went to the bank I’d take the coins into the lavatory and wash them in the sink.
There were three joiners and two horse keepers for the twelve Cleveland Dray Horses. The pop factory was run by Tommy Blackburn. There were six bottling girls and a bottler we called The Dummy.’ They bottled Bass, Guinness, Wheatley Hops and our own beers. Crossley Gas Engines ran the machines – there was no electricity. That factory was sold to the Venture Bus Company, now the Northern.
All the letters were hand written with copying ink. You put an oil sheet in; you damped the blotting paper, put your letter in and squeezed it to make a copy – that was before the typewriter. The cellars held two gallon jars of gin and Irish etc.: The cellarman had an office which had a speaking tube running up to the first floor; you had to whistle down it to get your attention. Wagons would come^983-age 66 in by these big double doors round the side. There were steps down in the cellars There was also a theatre. In those days there was nothing else, no cinema, just these theatres. I remember Gracie Fields was pelted with tomatoes at Stanley with the miners. The cinemas helped to black the music hall artists out.
J.G. used to build a theatre and a pub together. He had the Three Masons Arms’ and the ‘Globe’. The manager of the Globe would ring his beer order down and I’d run down to the phone in the corridor to take it down. I was just a boy and the man, a Cockney, asks for ‘‘Three barrels of oil.” I went back to the office and place the order and they all laughed. “Ale” they said, ‘‘He wants three barrels of ale.’
One day J.G. had my father carry this ‘Blick’ up from the car; it was a German typewriter. J.G. showed me how to use it. Then I did all the typing. We started doing the letters with carbon copies.
Bob Ritchie was the manager of the pub downstairs. It would be packed on Mondays, but the hotel itself was never busy. I had Bob Ritchie and his wife convinced the place was haunted. There was this telephone in a box, a bit like a phone box, down the passageway from the office. You could just get in and close the door and there was a bit of a ledge to write on. Originally it was probably put in to service all these bell-pull strings coming from the various rooms, but it seems everyone had forgotten about that. There was this piece of canvas with all these strings coming from all the rooms. I’d be in there waiting around for a phone call for someone to put their order in and I’d fiddle on with these strings. Bob Ritchie’s wife was so terrified by all these bells going off for some time and I never let on. I wasn’t aware I was doing anything. It would die down then muggins would be in the box waiting for someone to make a call and it would start up again.
Pubs in those days were open from 6 ’til 11 at night until the Gretna Crash in which the driver was found to have been drunk.
Down the lane there were the stables and the joinery. They had slats of mahogany used for wood storage. They made their own furniture.
I remember the Foreman Joiner, Jack Walton, getting his arm torn off in a crusher.He was a Cockney man, he always had to be right. This corn crusher had a steel roll and you put the corn in at the top and caught it out the bottom. It was driven by a belt from the pop factory, it got choked and Paddy Rafferty went to fetch Walton. He got on an empty crate, props it up to stand on so he can take a look to see what’s blocking the crusher and the crate collapses. His arm went straight through. He was left hanging there by his arm. They had to dismantle the crusher to get him out, the muscles were all tom. They took him down to the infirmary where they amputated the arm.
Bill Baron and I used to sneak next door to the Hotel to play billiards on the quiet from the branch office. There were two tables. We’d slide in and keep the door from the office locked. We’d sneak back as if we’d come back from the telephone. We got to know Tom Brown who worked for the Consett Iron Works. He used to play billiards when it was open.
There was also a spirit store and bottling factory.
Bill had a brother who was a good footballer. A couple of years older than Bill. Just before the War he got a message to say his brother had been killed in a fall of stone in the mine at Busty Pit, Medomsley. He was broken hearted. In those days all the mines were going: Hunter, Busty and Derwent interlinked with their own railway with iron ore from Spain.
Tom Young was in my class; he went into the steel works as a clerk, the Consett Iron Company. And a girl, and one called Ripley, who made a fortune, he was a foreman at the works.
JOINING UP KITCHENER’S ARMY 1915
There were no wireless or crystal sets, you just read what was in the paper. It only cost a penny. A crystal set had a bit of shiny coal with a coil and earphones. There was a cat’s whisker in a holder with a variometer.
We learnt about the ‘Fourteen Eighteen’ War through one of these huge posters which were put up all over the place in the summer of 1915 with Kitchener pointing his finger and saying. “Your Country Needs You.”
Ernie Caldwell and Tom Brown joined early on. They were in the Royal Garrison Artillery. Tom’s brother got his leg shot in Amsterdam early on. I bumped into Tom Brown in Passchendaele two years on.
One lunchtime Bill Baron and I went down to the medical recruiting centre. Bill and I took it all in a jovial way. “Fancy going up to the recruiting office in Consett one lunch time?” I was 19 then.
Consett was the recruiting office for the area. It wasn’t far from the office, only about a quarter mile. Up Blackhill by the bank. Bill failed the medical on account of a groin rupture. I passed and within a few weeks was called up. I got a letter at home to say report to a certain place so I had time to say cheerio. We were all issued with free tickets and took the train down to Gateshead.
They brought two girls in at the office. Ernie Caldwell, the area manager brought a girl in called Lily Amiss to assist. When I left for the army Bill Baron brought his brother’s daughter in as an office girl, Ella. There were more changes after that.
They put five bob in the kitty for me. When I got back I got about £80 bonus. I had to work for six months before collecting it. I spent it on a motorbike. It was a 41/4 B.S.A. Cost me £105. Percy, my elder brother, was a bit lame, so they wouldn’t take him. He had a crippled knee. They made him work on forestry work during the war. He was foreman of a group called Bowes-Whitfield in the forests during the war. Billy volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps. He became a bomber pilot. There were twenty odd from Consett. We had had free tickets down to Gateshead.
The medical was a disgrace – the way it was arranged in these schools. There were no cubicles or anything. You just took your clothes off and threw them on the floor and went to a doctor in the nude. People could look in the window and see you, they were wide open, there were no curtains – it was absolutely crude.
From there we put on our clothes and marched from Gateshead across the Tyne Bridge up to Fenham Barracks where we were issued with the kit. It was absolutely terrible, neither touched, nor fitted. Things hardly fit, tunics were thrown at you, you weren’t even shown how to put a puttee on. The Corporal tried to show us. It was touch and go. What a right lot we were. The boots had me crippled. They were made from great heavy raw leather. It was thick with no flexibility in them at all. The Sergeant said I’d get them changed at Shields. They gave me a pair of second hand boots and I changed the tunic. They didn’t even give you paper or string to wrap your suit up to send it home. You had to go to the canteen and buy a sheet of brown paper and some string to wrap your goods up in for 4d and send them home. You got a label to fill in and they delivered your bundle to your home for free.
We then walked from Fenham down to the Central Station. From the station we took the train down to South Shields to Mortimer Road Schools which were commandeered. We slept in one of the main halls on palliases with a single blanket. The first thing we were taught was how to put puttees on. I was given a pair of second hand boots and changed my tunic, which was too big. We slept in one of the main halls on palliases with a couple of blankets.
We used to train in the schoolyard. They had some trenches dug in a park somewhere. They used to take us up to these trenches for a bit of mimic warfare. It was absolutely ridiculous. It didn’t apply to the real thing at all. It was absolutely stupid. They’d take us up at night passing messages up from the back in a whisper, as if you were going to do that in the middle of a battle! Stupid.
SIGNED UP FOR THE SUICIDE SQUAD
We were put on parade one Saturday morning in early 1916, which was unusual and the next thing I know the officer’s running up and down the line with the Red Cap picking out people’s names.
Afterwards I asked the Sergeant what it was all about.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“You’re going to the suicide squad,” he replies. “You’re off to Grantham on Monday.”
That’s how I was transferred to the Machine Gun Corps. I had no choice in the matter. They were picking suitable looking fellows. They were copying the Germans and went around all the infantry companies looking for suitable men. It was a heavy gun.
They took about twenty from the Durham Light Infantry. 7th Division. A Geordie regiment. Billy Wrangham, George Toward, the Sergeant-Major Barwick, Tommy Collinson from Askew Road and Billy Soulsby are some of the names I remember. The rest of the company was made up from North Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumberland, Birmingham and Northumberland. Sergeant Barwick was a funny one. If he felt happy he’d would get up and have a little jig and sing song.
Grantham was a goods yard . There were no paths so you were always stepping into the mud just to reach your hut. This was the end of January or early February 1916.
It was a camp for transport and Machine Gun Companies of which there were twelve. There were mules and officers’ horses and the limbers and all the rest of the transport.
The food was ‘B.A.’
The porridge was dreadful. You’d leave it and you got the same stuff back the next morning.
Everyone was issued with these red plastic identity discs with your name and number on them. I went and found a Jeweller’s and had one made up in silver to hand around my wrist.
‘J A Wilson 13203 C of E
THE VICKER’S MACHINE GUN
The Vicker’s Gun was marvellous if you were mechanically minded.
There were generally four stoppages: a bullish cartridge, a broken firing pin, a faulty cartridge or a damp belt. You could tell from the position of the crankshaft what was wrong. A good gunner could correct it more or less straight away. The belt jammed if it got wet. It came out of this bean hopper with the ammo. With a faulty cartridge you could adjust the spring two or three notches.
I got a few day’s leave from Granthambefore we left for France and then I didn’t get any leave whatsoever while I was out there through the Somme and Passchendaele – about two and a half years of it. It was only when I came back to join the R.F.C. that I got any leave.
LEAVE FOR FRANCE
We set off at midnight in March or early April 1916. There were twelve machine gun companies. There were mules and officer’s horses and the limbers and all the rest of it to transport. It took two trainloads.
We travelled down to Southampton arriving at about 4 or 5 p.m.
Then onto a troop ship, or something to take us over to Le Havre. Spent all night on the ship. They were watching out for submarines. I had a walk about on the deck. We had to wait around all day on account of enemy submarines in the Channel. I managed. We got a cup of tea and a bun. It was packed. The following afternoon we landed at Le Havreaccompanied by a destroyer. It was a beautiful hot sunny day. I remember the cobblestones. We just got out and fell asleep; we were dead-beat.
Eventually we were loaded into cattle trucks, not carriages. We crawled up to the railhead at Bethune. We passed a farm, an orchard, the thing was travelling so slow the lads would jump off and pinch apples then get back on the train.
I was in four places:
Ville Chapelle, Arras, The Somme (Caix and Peronne, then Albert, Bapaume and Combles, Peronne followed by Cambrai). We moved about there. We were gradually taking parts of the line over from the French in the south. The last bit was half a mile to Caix. These companies took a lot of moving … no railway … it all depended on how you got knocked about. It all depended you might take a week out.
APRIL 1916 NEUVE CHAPELLE
When we got to the railhead we were as near as possible to the front line at Neuve Chapelle.
When we first landed at Neuve-Chapelle, when we going into the fine there’s a bloke fastened to a cartwheel – legs and arms out in the sun. It was a punishment for something – insubordination to an officer. They were just making a mug of the lad. Showing you that you were not to be a naughty boy. He was fastened to a limber wheel.
There were notices up about these fellows who were executed for desertion.
There was no real action when I was there; no one went over. There was sporadic shelling, otherwise it was quiet. They were getting ready for the Somme do, which started on the first of July. All the guns and everything were being massed down there.
We were rookies.
The staff aren’t going to put untried soldiers into a spot that’s on fire. There was a Sap and sandbags and a machine gun and you sat and watched them. Perhaps a few shells came over – a few trench mortars, that sort of thing. They wanted to soften us up a bit.
Our first casualty was one someone got kicked in the jaw by a milking cow – it was making such a noise and this lad went over.
Our first fatality was a young officer called Spanky. He was shot through the head. In spite of all the warnings he stuck his head up and got a bullet through it.
There’s a muzzle cup on the end of the Vicker’s gun. Spanky was fiddling on with the muzzle cup in this Sap. Instead of pulling the gun down to it he got up to it – crack he got a bullet through the head.
After Neuve Chapelle we went down to Arras.
You were able to buy white wine at an estimanet . We had these billets. We got messing on with this
old car and had it running. I was billeted with the C.O. – Parker.
I was asked if I wanted to transfer to the tanks. I said no.
They were cruel you know.
There were notices up about these fellows who were executed for desertion.
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 – Peake. 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. That was the punishment for desertion. Somebody was shot.
You couldn’t move for the wounded on the Somme.
As a machine gunner you went in to hold a position once they had secured it. There’s a post up and that’s your firing line, otherwise you guessed the range. You’re blasting away, not continuous, just give it a burst. The alternative was if you saw Jerry coming at you then it was up to you to do your best.
We were warned about that at International Corner. JULY 1916
I was in this Brick Factory on the Somme at Trones Wood There was this huge crater. This is 1916. I was trying to boil some water. I was boiling it on a dead body. The smell was dreadful. A had a couple of bricks on the mud and had some wood shavings going to heat the canteen. There was a body burning! The smell… I pushed a bayonet into it …14S
There were these Communication Trenches (Somme). I want one of those German helmets, a Pickelhaube. They had them when they started the war, with a brass peak, with some leather. We collected souvenirs. I saw the spike sticking out of the side of this communications trench. I got my bayonet out and dug the earth away to get a hold of it. My fingers came away with skin and hair and all the rest of it… it was a dead German.
There was a spot called International Corner, that was up in the Poelcapelle area.
We were out on reserve at the time. We used to get a daily paper. It was in the Daily Mail that an attack by the enemy on our trenches at this spot 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.
17th NOVEMBER 1916 SHOT FOR COWARDICE
With these trenches and dugouts the war was static; there were sentries here and there. Jerry had come over in the dark. He’d cut the barbed wire, crawled in and killed the sentry at one spot. It was fatal to have trenches running straight along, so they were zigzagged. So, Jerry got into these trenches and grabbed all these lads who were in the dugout quite unprepared. This young officer and a Sergeant were doing a bit of a round. They came along this trench and were suddenly confronted with Jerries. Before the officer could do anything he was downed and the Sergeant ran away. What would you have done? That Sergeant was shot.
I would have done the same. [He that runs away lives to fight another day.’
At his trial this Sergeant said he could do nothing about it. The officer was walking in front. He just ran back, along the trench.
I think it was a Lancashire regiment that was in there.
The report in the Daily Mail was that the Scots had gone over and more or less repaid the debt and gone over and knocked hell out of Jerry, but as far as I could gather it was just bunk to keep the moral of the troops up.
18m JANUARY 1917
That Sergeant was shot for cowardice.
The officer in charge must go up and make sure, to see you are dead and put a bullet through you. That officer lived in Stockton and worked for a firm of Foster-Brothertons at Thornaby. The incident was brought up in Parliament years later. All this came out. He should never have been shot. It was a disgrace to the British Army; he just had to do his job. Shooting people, that’s brutal. You could understand lads, I had them – they were terrified, damn you. I’m sitting here. God believe me I said my prayers many times when we were being shelled and I think he heard me.
There was a boy, 15 years old, called Connolly. He shot himself in the foot handling a German rifle. I last heard of him on the Somme.
EARLY OCTOBER 1917
Years after the Second World War, Norman Taylor, my brother-in-law, who lived at Ryton, bought an autobiography of Montgomery … there was a picture of Montgomery, a skinny little fellow. He was a Major with other officers in Arras. We were in Arras for a few weeks. I’m sure he was our brigade machine gun officer or director of guns, from seeing that picture at Arras in early 1916, before we moved onto the Somme – 104 Brigade, 35th Division. He got two of us reprimanded for a broken lock, damaged lock or something in the gun. The conditions were absolutely serious, almost unbearable, and still there was a lance corporal in charge of a gun he was reprimanded for a dirty lock. It was an early winter morning. You had to watch the gun that it didn’t freeze. Every so often you give it a burst. It was water cooled and covered with sandbags and one thing and another. Covering it as you did the gun would get dirt on it… he didn’t seem to allow for that this brigade machine gun officer, who I take was Montgomery. And they never came round to look at your guns or anything unless it was damned quiet or thick fog! They took good care that they weren’t seen parading around your guns. This Lance Corporal, Wannop. He was a farmer’s son from a Cumbrian regiment. He was in charge of the gun.
It would appear that during the night when they’d given the gun a try, given it a few bursts to see that it wasn’t frozen, it jammed. He couldn’t get it going. So in the dark he changed the lock. Now you have a spare lock in the case. It’s a square and a striking pin in it and its worked by a crank inside.162 You lift the cover on the gun, ease it back, pull the crankshaft back, the leaver is here. You ease the gun out and lift the lockout. So he did that, all in the dark, and transferred a new lock, tried the gun. OK. Covered it up. When it’s breaking daylight the bald lad, I’m sure it’s him, and one or two more prowling round. They came to the gun and had a chat with the corporal.
“Let me have a look at your spares.” He says.
He had a case, with spares, locks, tools … and lo and behold there’s mud and dirt, which they’d been fiddling on with in the dark. He was reprimanded for a dirty lock. Not only was he reprimanded, but so was I because I was responsible for the two guns. Captain Williams was damn well annoyed about it.
We didn’t lose any pay or anything … this Lance Corporal says.
“Jack, they can keep the stocking leg and put it where the monkey puts his nuts.”
I told him, this officer, that when it broke daylight we were going to examine it and see what the fault was and clean it. Another “B,” that wouldn’t listen … and it was him alright. He was just a weed of a man … skinny legs there, but no doubt it he was clever with the Eighth Army. It was a quagmire. Not like trenches. No communication. And you could only walk about in the dark.
There was another occasion on the Somme in 1916 I went behind a hedge to run-off, make water. An officer came up to me and reprimanded me.
“There’s a latrine up the road” he says. “I’ve got a good mind to report you.”
I didn’t know there was a latrine up the road half a mile. There was a ruddy war raging there. I was behind what was left of a hedgerow. The officers were tripe, hopeless. Absolutely hopeless. No faith in them whatsoever. Absolutely hopeless. How we won that war I don’t know.I can tell you now, look you, the times that I’ve gone into that line with a gun and never got an instruction. You’d have thought you’d have been bunged in there and told what to do and what to watch …. no. It was up to yourself, either point blank or you’ve had it. It’s up to yourself, other than a set point with a gun where it’s static and the gun was just set on a line.
Bates … entire team missing. Years after at Dukers. Bottom of Westgate Road. This was when the trams were running. This tram inspector – it was Sergeant Bates. He had been told to go forward. He was badly hurt. Repatriated by the Red Cross, as so badly hurt and ended up in Newcastle. He had to sign a declaration that he’d take no further part in the war. He’d married one of the nurses who lived in Walker. There was another one, Sergeant Bushmeil 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… I’ve asked managers in Green Market, Whitley Bay, Leadgate …I’d said I was looking for Jack Wilson.”
LATE OCTOBER/EARLY NOVEMBER 1917
THE KITCHEN COOK
I’ll tell you a story about the cook, he was a rough and ready one you know, the cook… they must have given us some terrible stuff, they wouldn’t care … pork and beans gooor… Have you ever tasted horsemeat? You know its alright you could get it in the cafe in Belgium with chips. Inclined to be sweet.
This was in the Passchendaele area … they used mules to carry shells into these 18 pounders. They were a shell, you know, with the charge and shell all in one … they used to carry about ten on each side. And of course they used the mules for the limbers. Kitchen cook, pinch from anywhere … fish, couldn’t catch them, couldn’t hit them with a revolver… we tried to shoot them with a gun. Never got any. Some would throw in a Mills Bomb – a pineapple. When it started you would not have thought a worm could live. There was this part where Jerry had it well taped, in Passchendaele. It was hell of a spot trying to get past it… and the repaired it, put sleepers and all sorts down it and next thing you’d know he’d blown it to bits, but it was essential. It was part of this country lane into the line and frequently these mules were being killed with shellfire.
Our cook, he went and made the lads a good meal with luscious rump steak from these mules. We all had rump steaks one day. And then the kitchen cook … they were thieves as well, they used to steal anything for the lads, they were funny these cooks…
This was over the canal bank at Ypres.
I think the bridge and that had all been wrecked. This was an improvised bridge. They were using it to bring ammunition up in the dark. There was the bridge and we were billeted in the bank side. This train was coming up with a truckload of shells.
Our C.O. Williams, he was billeted in the bankside as well, near the bridge. Williamscame out with a torch as there’s some trouble with the engine on the bridge … so we went with him. It was partly on the bridge. There was like a barrier to prevent you falling in, it was a long drop into the canal. You had to be darned careful because it was only improvised.
Williams got his torch out and here’s this fellow jammed between the wheel of the engine and the frame. He was wedged underneath. The cook’s pal was standing on the side. He’d given the alarm shouting his head off. They were drunk. They’d this rum from some store and had been drinking. They had been walking along the railway, drunk, when this engine came along. Somehow this crank had got a hold of his clothes and dragged him up underneath.
The driver said, “Just leave it to me.”
All those trucks loaded with shells as well… he pushed that thing back, just a gentle as could be. Clever… and the cook’s body dropped out. He was still alive, but his legs were broken. And that’s the last I heard of the company cook.180
There was a jar of rum they’d pinched there, you know. His pal would probably get into trouble over it… he had shouted and raised the alarm.
ON AND OFF THE LINE
Three or four days then straight in again, covered a mile … until the whole caboodle was moved. Only once on the Somme do I ever remember having a bit leave and I think it was for a day or something and it was to Amiens.181 We were on the Somme, well back … we got a good hiding. I think everyone was pretty well exhausted.
That’s the only time I ever had any leave in France, at all. When you were out of the line for a bit rest you could always bet your boots on a good Salvation Army tent, writing paper and all the rest of it. You couldn’t write letters without them being checked…. don’t know what we would have done without them. Excellent
INTERNATIONAL CORNER, PASSCHENDAELE AUTUMN 1917
I remember once up at International Corner, wintry weather…. offices gave us a treat. They’d bought some frozen rabbits from Australia for a Christmas lunch. They were cooked in the open in a tin shack with a couple of iron bars and Dixie’s … just corned beef and stew and pork and beans. Beans – raw with a nasty chunk of fat in it. Warm the cans on a fire. One night we came out on a compass bearing, otherwise you could walk into Jerry’s line. Into the mud, carrying a tripod. Jack Walsh carrying the gun and a leather case with the spare … hurrying along and Jack shouts.
“I’ve lost the case with the spares in the mud”
I went back and here he is probing in the mud for the leather case.
“Come on, leave the darn thing.” I says.
We had another casualty, a Birmingham lad was in charge of that gun. The engineers would rig up a bit of a dug out on a dry spot and make a bit of shelter with corrugated sheeting. They’d been trench mortared. This Birmingham lad had been hit in the shoulder with a trench mortar fragment. They brought him to my gun. My gun had a duckboard track leading from it, other than that you were walking through the mud. I kept him there until late. Blair got him taken away. These ambulance men put him on the back.
“You’ll be going back to Blighty.” I says.
It was a fatal wound. He died.
OCTOBER 1917 HOUTHULST FOREST
Incidentally, at Houthulst Forest, Dick Piper and Corporal Gartenfeld(the gunner) and Jack Walsh, Lancashire Fusilier, were killed. There’d been this attack. I got there at 5 or 6 in the morning to relieve them.
“How are things?” I asked Dick.
“Pull my legs up, Jack.” He said, “Pull my legs up.”
So I put a sandbag under his legs to stop his guts spilling out. You had a bandage and a tube of iodine fixed into the tunic. Never much use. We were in and out all day.
This time I got the Military Medal. Blair, the section officer, had made a request for us to take over from Gartenfeld and Piper. I was in at about 4.00 a.m. It was along this country lane towards Houthulst Forest, then a mile on duck tracks. The pillbox, Egypt House, was just by the Steinbeck at the end of the duckboards. This pillbox we took over was another 200-300 yards down the lane on a dogleg in the track. You could see down this path right into the forest.
We were trying to push through to Langemark Village.
We called the pillbox Columbia House. Dick Piper was dead. I left him a bit ‘til he stiffened up. I got his pay book and credentials, then I dragged him out. I covered him up with whatever I could find. Dick Piper – 45 years old. He shouldn’t have been there. He was from the Lancashire Fusiliers. Two days was the limit in there; I was in for a week.198 You only went in with two day’s rations. It was so bad, the conditions, they couldn’t get anyone out… the shelling, the conditions …199. Your rations were mainly corned beef and a few dog biscuits, and when I say dog biscuits they were dog biscuits, they were like bricks. No bread. Your tea and sugar was tied into a corner of a sandbag, no milk. There might be two or three tins of beans and some jam. And you took your water in a two-gallon petrol can. We finished up there filtering shell hole water through handkerchief. We were in seven days’ Me and one man were sent in, not a real gunner, a man from Lancashire Fusiliers, a man called Walsh. He was an ammunition carrier.
There was a concrete floor. No beds – we just lay on the floor.
We cleared it up a bit. Pulled out the broken timber and tried to get rid of some of the water. Day one. A quiet start, then it erupted with an attack made on the forest. Day two. The attack kept going for a week. The barrel casing split so I filled it with clay. There were these twenty or so guard behind this wall by the pillbox. I had to pull the bodies away at the request of the others. We ended up filtering water through hankies for drinking. Day seven. It was pouring with rain.
I was relieved by a young section officer and two crew. It was pitch dark. This battery was on a dry spot on the right, four guns, great long barrels, beautiful. It was swampy ground; we were on these duckboards. There was an ammunition dump on the other side. We were going into the line, in the dark, single file … rifle, sandbag, can of water. You were safer in the line than being near these batteries; they didn’t half send some things over. It was changeover at dusk. There was this great big fellow. Bumped into me and dropped his ration in the mud. He cursed. Only to recognise Tom Brown. I couldn’t stop. You had to keep on the move. You couldn’t waste time going in.
“I’ll see you when you get out ” He said.
When I came out the whole battery had been blown to bits. You’ve never seen so much carnage. Jerry had got the range. That was 1917. I didn’t know what had happened.
I met Tom Brown on the corner of Wyngrove Avenue. He was a policeman. That was before the Second World War. I was with Duker’s.
“What happened to you?” I said.
They’d lost forty odd men, but he escaped.
Blair sent me to take over this gun. That was when I heard this kid in the dung heap by the stream shouting for his mother. He’d been hit or fallen in. There was a bit of an embankment When it rained it was like a river. The remnants of the Belgian army were nearby. There had been this attack to try to get this forest,. Doomed to failure from the start. Near this pillbox, after that attack … twenty or thirty wounded behind this wall. They were there all the time I was there – seven days. I couldn’t do anything for them. They were just round the corner – dying. This corporal stops me. The duckboards were blown up. He asks, “Where’s Teddy?” He had a chest like a watering can – it was frothing. He died. Within ten minutes I dug a hole and buried him. We lost the spares on the way back; that was during shelling. We followed the limbers to these round Nissen huts that had a stove. We had a meal and a clean up. We got a couple of blankets, but no mattress. Stew to eat. A few weeks later I was presented the Military Medal by Brigadier Sandilands. I’d been in the Somme the summer of 1916, the following year they started this offensive at Passchendaele hoping to get to the coast. An utter failure. Guns sticking out of the mud, shell-holes full of dead men. Another gruesome one. There were these guardsmen, eight or nine, lying in the shell-hole as though they were asleep … gas. Get a dose of that and your lungs were ruined, when the wind was in his favour … not like an ordinary shell. All you heard as a ‘blup’ and as it was heavier than air it just settled …. just take it off! There was this shell-hole, made by a Jack Johnson. You could put a house in it. A clod could kill you.
OCTOBER 1917 PRISONER
When you went in you had no paraffin or anything you had a billy can … how did you heat the water? You couldn’t make a fire. When this Jerry stuck his head in the dug-out I just pulled the gun to one side. Dolan was having forty winks. You did two hours on, two hours off. This man lifted the oil sheet and started talking away in Jerry. Dolanhad just come off duty and here’s muggins with a couple of bricks and a billy can cutting some shavings so that there was no smoke. Without hesitation I just jumped on him. I was fighting fit then mind. I got him down. Poor little devil. I gave Dolan a kick.
“Get up man?” I says.
“What’s the matter?”
“Get outside and see if there’s any more. See if we’re surrounded! I says.
That was near Noble’s Farm, not far from Poelcapelle Village. There were four pillboxes in that area. I was in an out of them all.
EARLY NOVEMBER 1917
These pillboxes were different sizes, with nicknames. There was one down the road called the ‘Pig and Whistle’; another called ‘Columbia House’ and ‘Courage Post.’ They were oblong, about 10ft long, with a bit of a table. There were two beds made with wire netting, a bit of a dip and a step down to it. I had it all sandbagged up. The gun was here on its SOS feet. It was partly snowing at the time.
The door was covered with an oil sheet against gas. I dragged it around the pillbox ready for point blank then I went back inside. I was standing at the table when suddenly ‘Manoose’ put his head around the door and I grabbed him. We had him with us ail day. He had some tea. I patted him on the back.
I said, “La Guerra Fini.”
I can still see him and he’s only a little chap as well. They used to have those long coats on with pockets. He had a picture in here – his wife and kiddies. He showed me it and cried. Just human like anyone else. Forced to do something he didn’t want to do. He had this Mausser. He could have just pulled it out. It was fully loaded. I can see him now being marched down the duck boards to Brigade Headquarters and the next day all hell let loose. They didn’t half blast the ruddy farm in front, there was a machine gunner there, which he said there was. He said, “Mitrieuse” and pointed. “Angle “he was saying, “Blessie, Berist”221
He’d walked the wrong way in the dark. We knocked hell out of this farm. Egypt House was a tremendous pillbox despite all the bombardment. In front of it was this huge forest. Just what was left, just tree stumps. It had three compartments. We were occupying this top compartment, some infantrymen were in this one, our section officer was in that one. There was a passageway along here. So that you couldn’t shoot into those compartments. It had two doorways, one there and one there. It was facing the wood where Jerry was. There was no barbed wire. It was all shell holes and mud. Behind us was what left of an old country lane. This is the lane, which ran up to the forest where these two lads were killed and the ditch was that side of it. The lad was shouting for his mother… the lane must have ran way over to Poelcapelle village, which was half a mile away. The duckboard track ran up … it finished about quarter of a mile away … so swampy, you stepped off it… just posts. We had a run on the corner, I went 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 the snipers. I’d seen Blair. I was taking the usual care. I got to the first doorway from the wood. He was chancing his arm. I stood there and he hit the doorway with one of these whizz-bangs while I was standing in the middle ready to go. It almost blinded me with the bits of concrete. I waited until the smoke had cleared, then ran across and in.
One of the lads says, “Are you alright Jack?”
“Yes.” I says … but I was bleeding. It was superficial. Just scratches. I had a piece of concrete the size of a pea stuck in one of my brass buttons.
EARLY OCTOBER 1917
Poelcappelle, Passchendaele … this pillbox. It had a direct hit. It was completely broken, but there was another small one in front of the side facing us with a hole. It must have been an officer’s Morse-code place. Not occupied. No one wanted to be bothered with it. Concrete. Bodies. Montgomery must have given instructions to have it cleared after a visit for a gun. 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. We got some ropes and pulled the bodies out through this great big hole and threw them into a shell hole. There were three of them, German officers. We bunged the doorway up with sandbags and used the other side to go in and out.
I was decorated, the Military Medal. I kept the gun in action, other than the barrel casing being damaged which I plugged with some clay. It was pelting down, terrible. Off the duckboard, tracks with posts, once a rope, that got pulled down. We used to wrap out legs with sandbags right up to the knees. There were no rubber boots or anything then, it was boots and puttees. We got to this country lane with these limbers. This Corporal of the transports came and hugged me. A small company like that you all knew each other.
“Thought you were a goner.” He said. A lad from Castleside wrote a letter home to my mother. He told her that I’d been lost. We’d been put down as missing. Mother showed me the letter when I got home. I got this letter from Billy to ask why I didn’t join the RFC. I saw the C.O., Captain Williams.
“Why didn’t you join the RFC from the start?” He said.
He read Billy’s letter. Apparently before an application as a fighter pilot you must have been made a corporal. Williams immediately made me a Corporal and sent the form in. I was interviewed by the Company Sergeant Major and Brigadier Sandilands. I was sent to Cassel for an eye test. He was an American. I was taken by Company car. I was taken again to another lot of specialists before I was allowed to transfer. A couple of weeks later I was in this dugout on a railway embankment.
One night another Corporal came up.
“Jack, your papers have come through. You’re off back to England.’
I had a drink with various officers the night before I left.
That was at the end of 1917. Must have been December 16th or so. And that’s the last I saw of the line. I walked most of the way to the railhead at Bethune From there I got a troop train to Abbeville. Eventually I got back to London.
ROYAL FLYING CORPS NEW YEAR/EARLY JANUARY 1918
Hampstead Heath (the noise), walk along a line with an egg, these Naval Offices. ‘‘How many cigarettes do you smoke?” “Well smoke half, stop it!”
I started the R.F.C. in early 1918. I was demobilised in early 1919. I had stayed on to help demob. I returned to the brewery in February or March 1919. I had an interview there with the big boys at the Ministry. There was a queue outside of lads who’d come straight from school, young fellas with their parents waiting at the Hotel Cecil, which had been commandeered by the Air Ministry. There were five officers sitting behind this table. One of them says “Well done, good show! What part of the line are you from?” “Passchendaele, sir:“ I said. ‘‘Well, Corporal, your biggest problem there would be the mud ”
“You’re right Sir,” I said. ‘The mud was the biggest bogie, different entirely from the Somme.”
Then another asks, ‘Can you name the six northern counties of England?” (They were trying to catch you out.) “Yes. “I said. “Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumberland…” “Right, right, right… “
I stayed overnight in London at the YMCA.244 The R.F.C. medical was up at Hampstead in a big house there. It started on the ground floor. It was do or die this medical. It was either ‘Fit for Pilot’, or if you weren’t fit as pilot, ‘Fit as Observer,’ or ‘unfit under any capacity’ – R.T.U. – return to unit. There was this elderly man sitting in the comer by an open window.
“Go into that corner.” He says.
“Plug one ear and repeat after me. Hippopotamus… repeat after me.”
“Hippopotamus.” I said.
“Plug the other ear, ” he said.
“South Africa.” He said.
There was this sound, like a blown exhaust, it was kicking up such a racket.
“South Africa.” I said.
“Just a minute.” He said to me.
And he shouted from the window.
“Take that blood thing away. You’re interrupting me!”
He said, then he came back to me.
“Not fair on you.1′ He said, “Not fair on you.”
These three naval medical men didn’t half test you. One of them said something, I think he’d found fault but the other two disagreed. Then they tested me again and it was 2 to 1 on my ticker. What it was I didn’t know. After that it was up to the top room. There was this elderly man. He looked at the report, looked me up and down and we shook hands. He wished me all the best and I went downstairs to await the result. The officer downstairs gave me a certificate. Half of them failed, some were just forward as observers.
When I got mine I saw ‘Fit as pilot.”
And I thought, ‘Lovely!’
Just one thing, there was a red rubber stamp along the bottom ‘Requires Dental Treatment.’
I had a couple of week’s leave.
The first leave I’d had after two and a half years in France.
Then I went down to Grantham. I was stopped there for a couple of weeks as there was a ‘flu epidemic in Hastings. I remember them bringing in all these rookie conscripts The Sergeant Major asked me to help out one morning when they were all being given breakfast. There must have been a hundred or so in the main marquee and twenty or more in this other tent he asked me to take responsibility for. He came in after a while.
“There’s something wrong here” he said.
I’m 20 or 30 short. Could you come through and see if there’s anyone you recognise?”
It so happened that four or five of them I found at this table had been causing trouble in my tent earlier grabbing at the food. The food was rationed out it wasn’t meant for you to grab. They were marched off to the guardhouse.248
Then I went to Hastings. We were billeted in a big hote. The Queen’s on the main front opposite the swimming pool. Two girls from an accounting office from London came down looking for me. I went outside to speak without this cap on.
He was a right brute this C.O. He was an Army Captain. He’d lost his arm. They’d put him in charge of the hotel and I think he bore a grudge. I was marched in. He didn’t even give me a chance to open my mouth.
“Week’s C.B251. Out!”
When I tried to explain, you know, to say it was my sister or something such like, he says, “Look Corporal, if you’d been a rookie I could have understood it, but you should have known different… out!”
And here I was with these three medals and the service stripes.
My brother Billy got a week’s C.B. there for a dirty button. They were right buggers.Talk about strict. All my time in the army and I never came across anything like it compared to Cadet School at Hastings. The slightest thing and they would get you. You could hardly put your hand on a girl. We got general military training at Hastings. We used to go on the front and take the whole squadron drilling them. At these schools you were in charge of a squad. You marched them to various lectures in front of all the holidaymakers.
AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 1917 ?
CLIFTON COLLEGE, BRISTOL
You got topography, sort of local map reading, and Morse Code. The R.F.C. took over the entire university and Clifton College. We learnt about engines, aeroplane construction, aerial photography, cameras the lot. We used to go down onto the university rugby field and practice swinging the engine on the aeroplanes.
“Switches off… petrol on … suck in, sir!”
It was just a slide arrangement.
You’d rev it up and warm the engine.
Stick to the rules and no one will caught by the propeller. We practiced artillery observation at Clifton College. There was this big hall with a gallery around and the ground was set out like French towns, with haystacks, the lot. There’d be a flash from an electric bulb and you’d look at your map. You had to find the spot and flash the co-ordinates down to your artillery in Morse Code. You could send messages, but not receive them. You had an aerial, a piece of copper wire about 20 or 30 foot long which you dropped over the side of the plane with a plumb weight attached. It couldn’t be much longer than that or you could get it caught in a tree or a building. The artillery battery had this white Venetian blind affair, like the Navy. The idea was to spot the artillery fire and send your message on the way in. You’d look down to the ground and you’d get these messages back. There were messages like ‘Got your message’ or ‘on battery’ or ‘on target.’
We were also taught how to drop bombs. They had some terrible bombs you know, filthy things they were. There were mustard gas, and the others with special markings, which we had to learn. There was one, which was a canister full of heavy steel darts to drop over advancing troops. Bombing training meant sitting as though you were in a cockpit of an aeroplane. The ground below revolved, it was about 40 foot by 30 ft. size.
You had a map; the idea was to bomb certain targets and if you hit the target the flash showed up down below. There was this bombsight. Before you left you had to set it.
In the beginning it had been simply a matter of lining up three nails knocked into the side of the fuselage, the diagonal formed the foresight and the one behind was the backsight. When you had the two in front in line with the target you dropped your bomb, which should hit the target when the tip of the nail is lined up with the back-sight below. By 1918 we had a proper bombsight. Before you left you had to have the wind direction and force and set that, the height and speed. Then, if you kept flying in a straight line when your bomb hit the target you’d be flying directly overhead. The Lewis gun fired through the propeller; they’d found that out from the Germans. It used a piston affair, which used a paraffin and oil mixture to fire off round between the propeller blades. With photography you had to create a mosaic. My brother Billy had photographs of all these attacks he’d made on goods yards and railways in Belgium. He also had one of a German plane going down which he’d hit. The bombers had these cameras with them, the fighters didn’t.
OCTOBER/NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 1918 CRAIL, SCOTLAND
We had a marvellous time at Crail. You talk about a cosmopolitan crowd. They were from all walks of like: painters, journalists, lads from school, infantry and others who had been in service.
There were all these different uniforms from the Navy, the old R.F.C. matron tunics, not forgetting the M.G.C. uniforms. They were grand fellows. There must have been forty of us. Marvellous people, but I would say a bit wild. They got up to some stupid things like dancing on top of a grand piano in the officer’s mess.
They didn’t appreciate good music. There was this pianist, bit of a quiet lad, used to keep himself to himself. They picked on him. It finished up in the end that he wouldn’t play for them at all. He got permission to go into the mess with candles when everyone was shut up for the night. Occasionally we’d get permission to take a Crossley Tender. It was covered in car, which carried twelve or so. Someone could have to go and ask Tweedy the transport manager. We were all sitting at this mess table together, twelve of us, and someone would say. “Who’s going to go and ask Tweedy for a Crossley Tender?” He’d generally give us the O.K. but we had to find a driver who might refuse to take us. We used to take it up to St. Andrews. There was a restaurant there we used to go to, they knew us all. There was a Juke box, which put pennies in for a tune. This chap had a penny on a string. It made us laugh. He used to pop it in for a tune and pull it out again. He had to stop that because the owners were getting no return on it. You had this control stick between your knees in the plane, which I called a ‘joystick’ in front of the instructor. I got told off for that.
“It’s not a joystick,” he says. “It’ s a control stick.”
I did about 30 hours flying; half of it was solo. I could do quite a few tricks. I could loop the loop; roll spins and all the rest of it. I had a good instructor, Captain Dean.
These instructors were all pilots from France. They got the wind up and had been sent home. They couldn’t take any more of it. He was a real ‘B’ this Captain Dean. He used to swear and curse at you. He’d been shot down in No Man’s land and had been rescued. The way he shouted at you on this dual control machine. If you did anything silly he’d shout.
“What the hell are you doing, you’ll kill your blood self!’ I remember one day we were on the aerodrome. There was quite a lot of action with learners until they got the idea of landing properly. There’s this learner who instead of letting the plane down to a reasonable height and gliding tried to land from a hundred feet. “Look at the silly bugger.” The plane flattened out too soon, right in front of us. Instead of gliding in he went straight down and the plane crumpled up. If he’d been a bit higher up he’d have gone into a spin and he’d have been killed. Another morning we were sitting and having breakfast. This plane nose-dived into the ground right outside the window, it was a Bristol Fighter. The plane I was being trained to fly. There were both killed outright. A Lieutenant Munday, the instructor and a Flight Sergeant. I’ve got a picture of that. They’re both buried in Crail cemetery. There are a few of our lads there. It was unavoidable, the aeroplanes were frail. They were just wood, fabric, cellulose. We had people who’d done all the training as I had done but when it came to flying they were terrified, they’d rather go and hide than go up. I’d had fifteen hours or so going up with Captain Dean by then. This morning we’d been up and down a few times before breakfast.He climbs out of the pilot’s seat and turns to me. “You’re off on your own.” He talked to me like a father. ‘‘Twenty minutes to half an hour.’ He said. “I’ll wait for you here and then we’ll go and get some breakfast.” So I went up and flew around a bit. I had a terrible landing, bouncing up and down … in the end it was a piece of pie, easy as a wink. We did some aerial photography at Crail. I remember the first photographs I ever took of a haystack. You were supposed to imagine there was a machine gun hidden in it somewhere. I learnt how to loop the loop in Crail in 1918. You got maximum revs, full speed, nose down. When you reached maximum speed you pulled the joystick into your belly. Once you’re over the top, engine off and throttle back. You used to worry sometimes what would happen if the wings disintegrated. There was one occasion when Captain Dean had gone to Edinburgh. I went onto the aerodrome begging for a machine. I went up to this Lieutenant Stewart and said.
“Look, Captain Dean’s away and I’m at a loose end. I’d like to get up, have you a machine I can have
“Yes Governor;” he says. “You can have this one here that’s coming in. Take it after the Flight Sergeant’s checked it over and filled her up. ”
After an aeroplane’s done so many hours flying the Flight Sergeant has a record of whether it’s running well or not. On the Avro’s there was a pressure pump for the petrol, there was no carburettor on them. They were fed oil and petrol through a hollow crankshaft. The petrol went in under force through a jet. There was a pump in the cockpit and a dial with a red mark. You had to keep the dial up to the red mark to ensure that there was enough pressure.
It appears that the machine I was about to take out had an underpowered 80 HP Monosoupape engine against the more usual higher powered 180 HP Clerget.
If this other engine didn’t need pressure why on earth did the mechanics connect it up? That’s what got me over this.
“Don’t try any antics with it,” advised the Flight Sergeant. This machine’s a bit underpowered.”
I set off nose into wind. Crail village is a mile away. The aerodrome buildings were on one side and a farmhouse with a potato field on the other. I thought I’d have a trip up to St. Andrew’s. I’d just taken off, about 500 ft. up, when I notice the dial on the pressure gauge is right down.
“Blime me!” I thought.
I started pumping like mad. Up went the dial, the engine …
“Phat! Phat! Phat!”
There was no shenanigan on with it. I couldn’t turn nose into wind, I hadn’t the height, nor would I make it over the aerodrome buildings. I’d have to make for this potato field. It meant a steep dive to keep flying speed. If I’d tried a gentle glide I’d have just flopped and finished in the sea. The further I go the faster the damned thing went what with the wind behind me and the steepness of the descent. As I got closer to this potato field this brick wall comes rushing up at me.
When anything like that happened, a plane was in difficulty, the ambulance tore after you; it was there to meet me at the brick wall.I pulled the joystick back at the last moment. The plane bounced about a bit. As it came to a halt it swung round on one wing. I got out alright. There was no damage to the plane. On the wing tip of an Avro there was a cane skid. That must have saved the wing. Petrol was squirting out of the fuel pipe I’d pumped it so much. He knew he’d made a bloomer, this Flight Sergeant. He pats me on the back and says, “Well done; you’ve done very well”
“My fault.” He says. “My fault… that plane. It didn’t need pressure.’’
“How was it your fault if the mechanic’s coupled it up?’’ I said.
With that engine gravity was sufficient for it to feed from the tank. So I didn’t get my solo flight after all. I ruddy well may have been killed. I told Dean about it when he got back from Edinburgh.
He laughed. “Experience!” he said.
I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to get on with the job. If it hadn’t been for the weather I would have been finished. I would have enjoyed a dose of France.
Fig.1. The dead and unidentifiable of Passchendaele, 1917
Reflecting on his training and service in the Machine Gun Corps during the First World War, veteran Jack Wilson MM commented on the regional news piece on TV which showed a soldier of the Durham Light Infantry in the Gulf before the first Iraq War to free Kuwait.
“You see these lovely rations they’re getting”, he said, adding, “and I look back at the stuff our lot were getting – it was terrible.”
He summed it up with in a sentence: ‘That’s nothing compared to Passchendaele”.
He described the food at the training camp in Grantham as “B.A.’ for “Bloody Awful”.
- Slipping over the edge … (machineguncorps.com)
- First world war soldiers’ undelivered letters home come to light at last (theguardian.com)
To recall the trenches of the Western Front is to by at my grandfather’s side. It started with sitting on his knee after Sunday lunch. And so I was told and retold stories of his recruitment into the Durham Light Infantry, his transfer to the Machine Gun Corps and then nearly two years somehow surviving Arras, the Somme and the worst of them all – Third Ypres and the mud of Paschendaele before he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps where he qualified as a Fighter Pilot as the War came to an end. I will never tire of stories and facts about WW1 – this is the best blog for a regular dose.
The Western Front at its peak was over 450 miles long, stretching from the Belgian coast at Nieuport to the Swiss border near the village of Pfetterhouse. The terrain along that front varied widely from the flat plains of Flanders to the rolling downland of the Somme, through forests like the Argonne and into mountains when it reached the Vosges.
On the Belgian end of the front, at Nieuport, the trench system ran right up to the beach, with that end of the Western Front literally petering out in the sand. For most of the war it was held by the Belgian Army but in 1917 British troops took over the sector in the lead-up to what was eventually an abandoned plan to make seaborne landings further up the coast. However, in July 1917 the Germans went on the offensive here and attacked the forward positions held by British…
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Fig.1 Brigadier-General J W Sandilands From The History of the 35th Division in the Great War. L-C H.M. Davson
Brigadier-Gneral Sandilands decorated Jack Wilson with the Military Medal – ‘in the field’ along with three others. He received the Military Medal. Jack described the scene as ‘a square’ with a table in the middle.
There are a couple of likely times for the week long stop in a pill-box without relief – around 11th October when the Steenbeck flooded, after the initial attack on Houthulst Forest when the heaven’s opened, or in November when once again the Broembeck was flooded. He describes the Steenbeck as a ‘lake of mud’ and to reach Egypt House at one time as requiring you to wade through ‘the puddle’.
Fig. 2. A studio photo taken soon after joining the Durham Light Infantry, March 1915 at Billy Wilson’s Photography Studio, Consett before transfer to the Machine Gun Corps or ‘Suicide Squad’
This picture used in the Consett local paper when Jack Wilson was awarded the Military Medal
Fig. 3. Clip from the Consett Gazette in late 1917
(This photograph from a faded original cutting from the paper originally kept by Jack’s mother Sarah Wilson nee Nixon)
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.
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”.
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.
The 103rd Brigade was formed on 27th April 1916 and joined the 34th Division.
- They Called it Passchendaele (machineguncorps.com)
- Irish Somme (insideview.ie)
- Anniversary 30th/31st July 1916 – III Platoon 17th Manchesters (17thmanchesters.wordpress.com)
- Online archive will reveal the poignant wills and personal letters of 230,000 WWI soldiers (dailymail.co.uk)