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Columbo House, Houthulst Forest
At the end of October 1917, 96 years ago to the day, my grandfather, then 21, and Jack Walsh the ‘carrier’ on a Vicker’s Machine Gun were sent in to relieve two fellow company machine gunners: Dick Piper and Henry Gartenfeld. This was ‘Third Ypres’, ‘The Battle of Passchendaele’.
I recorded the story in 1992. Parts of this extensive interview is going online here.
Later I produced a transcript that my grandfather corrected and then, as you can see above, we had a go at drawing a local map of the spot between Egypt House and Columbus House. This is immediately to the south west of Houthulst Forest near. His eyes were too poor to write the text, but he did the sketch of the pillbox, wall and posts, the duckboard and forest, and the dead or dying Grenadier Guards.
A tough spot to reach with a duck board track that petered out.
On arrival they found Henry Gartenfeld dead and Dick Piper in a bad way. Jack buried Gartenfeld as best he could, and after he had died and, in his words, the body had stiffened up, he buried Dick too.
There was no relief for seven days.
On getting back Jack found that he had been reported ‘missing’ and a letter sent home to his mother. He was far from dead, going on to join the Royal Flying Corps and living to return to this exact spot during the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele.
Guards Division approached Poelcappelle and took Egypt Farm (Egypt House pillbox) on 9th October 1917. They then began the approach north north west to Colombo House and Houthulst Forest.
The 3rd Guards Brigade attacked towards the edge of Houthulst Forest during the night of 11th/12th October and came under a heavy barrage of gas shells. The blockhouses at Angle Point and Aden House in the remains of Poelcapelle were taken.
In an attack of 22nd October, 16th Cheshires were held up by a pill box in Houthulst Forrest, between Panama House and Colombo House when the Germans counter-attacked.
A Blighty One
(The action described here took place in later October 1917, possibly around 26th. Egypt House, Nobles Farm and Colombo House are the pill boxes Jack was in. The ‘beck’ is most likely the Broembeck. These are narrow, but deeply set in the ground – possibly 12ft or more from the roadside to the water in peace time).
“We had another casualty, a Birmingham lad who was in charge of that gun … the engineers would rig up a bit of a dug out on a dry spot with corrugated sheeting. They’d been trench mortared and he was hit in the shoulder with a fragment. They brought him to my gun because it had the duckboard track leading from it, other than that you were walking through the mud. I kept him there until late. Blair got him away … but it was fatal. He died. “Thought he’d got a blighty’.”
Blair sent me to take over this gun, we were in another pill box higher up. That was when I heard this kid in this shell hole by the stream shouting for his mother.
I was running along the duckboards when I heard this voice. There was this beck which ran along one side, full of frogs … if it rained the thing turned into a torrent. I just stopped. I don’t know if he’d been hit or he’d just fallen in. All I could see was his head and shoulders sticking up above the mud. So I lean down, mind you with all the mud I might have slipt in with him. So I grab his shoulder belt and told him to help himself and he kicks about and I get him up onto the duckboards.
“I can’t wait”, I tell him.
You couldn’t stand around out there, and off I went.
This was % O’Clock in the morning. There’d been an attack and it failed. He was yelling for his mother. I saw him struggling in the mud and filth.
The pill-boxes had names
(The text below is a verbatim transcript from an interview conducted with John A Wilson MM in his 96th year in 1992. He was a machine gunner in 104th Brigade serving on the Somme and at Passchendaele. Here he mentions pill boxes, or block houses, German concrete bunkers that edged the Ypres Salient. These were taken, with great cost, between August and November 1917. Jack was sent in, undermanned, usually two men rather than five, to keep a Vicker’s Machine Gun in action for two days. One one occasion he was out for a week. He could not be reached. I believe he was either in Egypt House, or, once cleared of dead Germans, in Nobles Farm – both approaching Houthulst Forest north of Poelcappelle in mid to late October 1917. In every case the names of those he mentions, as well as places, have been verified through Trench maps and from Commonwealth War Graves data for those killed. In 1992 Jack attended the 75th Anniversary of Passchendaele – or Third Ypres, and marked spots where he buried his colleagues).
The original interviews were recorded on Sony digital tape. They were digitized in 2013 and will be available as a podcast.
Fig.1. The attack on Houthulst Forest, 22nd October 1917, North of Ypres .From the History of the 35th Division in the Great War. L-C H M Davson
“The Pig and Whistle, Columbia House, Courage Post … They were oblong, about 10ft long, with a bit of a table, two beds made with wire netting, with a bit of a dip and a step down to get in. I was in Courage Post. We had it all sandbagged up. The gun was on its SOS feet. It was partly snowing at the time and the door was covered with an oil sheet in case of gas. And here’s muggins with a couple of bricks and a billy can cutting some shavings to make a bit of heat when this Jerry sticks his head under the oil sheet. Nolan was having forty winks. He started talking away in Jerry”.
Without hesitation I jumped on him and got him down. Poor little devil.
“Get up man. See if there’s any more, see if we’re surrounded’.
We had him with us all day and had some tea. I patted him on the back. I said ‘La Guerre Fini’. I can still see him and he’s only a little chap as well. They used to have those long coats with pockets. He had one in here with a picture in it of his wife and kiddies. He showed me and cried. He was just human like anyone else, forced to do something he didn’t want to do.
He had a brand new Mausser in a back pocket; he could have just pulled it out. It was fully loaded.
He pointed and said, ‘Mitrieusse. Angel. Mitrieusse’.
Blair was a Scot from Glasgow … he happened to come around.
“Where the hell did you get him from?”
He went away with the Mausser.
“I’ll send someone up from Brigade HQ.’
And he sent this Sergeant and Corporal up.
I can see him now being marched down the duck board to Brigade Headquarters.
The next day all hell let loose on this ruddy farm in front where they reckoned there was a machine gun. No more Nobles Farm after a few minutes.
Egypt House was a tremendous pillbox despite all the bombardment and in front of it it this huge forest – just tree stumps mind. It had three compartments.
We were occupying this top compartment, some infantry men were in this one, our section officer was in that one. There was a passageway here. It was facing the wood where Jerry was. No barbed wire. All shell-holes and mud. Behind us was what was left of an old country lane which ran up to the forest.
We had a gun on the corner. I went along to see Blair (C.O.). Came out, into the passageway, got to the archway out, then you more or less had to keep down to watch out for snipers. I’d seen Blair, taking the usual care, got to the first doorway, stood a second … bullets rattling the doorway from the wood. Jerry was chancing his arm. I stood there and he hit the doorway with one of these whiz-bangs while I was standing in the middle ready to go. I was almost blinded by bits of flying concrete. I waited until the smoke had cleared. I ran across and in … one of the lads says ‘are you alright, Jack?’
‘Yes’ I says, but was bleeding from scratches on my face. They were superficial. This was a bit stuck in a button.
(The first frosts were in early December, followed by clearer weather and fog).
- Hell on Earth: The never before seen colour photographs of the bloody battle of Passchendaele (warhistoryonline.com)
- Ypres and the battlefields of the Salient (greatescapesblog.co.uk)
Henry Gartendfeld & Dick Piper R.I.P OCT 1917
Fig.1. North of Poelcappelle approaching Houthulst Forest, 22nd October 1917.
(This action takes places around the pill boxes of Egypt House, a three compartment German concrete block house and Courage Post. It was becoming chilly – 13 C, and was overcast with a little rain).
When I arrived at the pill box (Courage Post) there were four of them.
‘Gartenfeld’s head was split right down the middle as if he’d been hit with an axe’.
They’d dragged him out round the side.
(Henry Godliph Gartenfeld died on Monday the 22nd October 1917)
Dick Piper was in the pill box.
‘Dick must have been standing with his head ducked down just outside the pill box’.
A piece of shrapnel had dented his helmet, scraped his face and gone into his guts.
Blair had dragged him into one corner of this pill box and put him on his trench coat. When I found him he had a sandbag tucked up under his legs so that his knees were up over his elbow.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked and took a look.
His guts were hanging out all over the place.
“How are things?” I asked Dick.
“Pull my legs up, Jack.” He said, “Pull my legs up.”
So I packed another sandbag under his legs to stop his guts falling out.
You had a bandage and a tube of iodine fixed into the tunic. Never much use.
He died some time in the afternoon.
I left him a bit ‘til he stiffened up; that’s what you did. They were easier to move like that. I got his pay book and credentials, dragged him out of the pill box and covered him up with some bits of rubble – whatever I could find. That’s all you could do. Imagine – having to bury your friends like that.
Dick Piper was 45 years old. He shouldn’t have been there.
He was from the Lancashire Fusiliers. Another one who died on the 22nd October 1917. His body was never found. I knew the spot though. It broke my heart to stand there 90 years on, dwelling on the lives they had missed, their families and how they had died like that all those years ago.
Such a waste.
Fig.2. August 1992. Mr John A Wilson MM ‘Jack’ – recalling events north of Ypres on the Passchendaele Salient. He marked the spot where Henry Gartenfeld and Dick Piper died. He was a corporal in charge of two guns, one in a pill box constructed against Egypt Farm, known as Egypt House, the second called ‘Courage Post’.
Further north there were the remnants of the Belgium army … there had been this attack to try and get this forest. It was doomed to failure from the start.
The only thing that lived out there were rats and they had a feast of it – October 1917
On the way in I came across these guardsmen, eight or nine, lying in a shell-hole as though they were asleep.
(They were Gough’s XIV Corps. Guards. From the 38 Division commanded by General Lord of Cavan. They’d been held up on the west bank of the Steenbeck. Gas had been used by Jerry on as attacks had been made on Houthulst Forrest)
Get a dose of that and your lungs were ruined.
They were not like an ordinary shell.
Gas came over like a dud.
You could see down this path from Courage Post right into the forest. It was facing the wood where Jerry was. There was no barbed wire, just all shell-holes and mud.
It had been raining heavily since the beginning of October.
The ground was like porridge. Parts of the front and turned into a lake. Simply getting to a front position was exhausting as you had to wade through this ooze and negotiate the rims of shell-holes.
(The rainfall in August 1917 over Northern France and Belgium was twice the August average. In fact, there were only three days that entire month when there was no rain).
Streams pushed their way through the crumbling banks of the craters and linked into impassable lakes of liquid mud. On the surface of the water there’d be an iridescent smear of oil. or it was green from gas on a puddle.
If you saw a film of red streaking the surface it didn’t take much imagination to guess what else was down there.
And the smell. It made you wretch.
There was no getting used to the stink from all the mess, body parts, rotting away … a lads inside, heads, limbs, hands … you can’t imagine the horror of it.
Even if you buried them it didn’t take much to blow them out of the ground.
Jerries, Tommies, mules and horses. The only thing that lived out there were rats and they had a feast of it.
This was when I heard this kid in this dung heap by the stream shouting for his mother.
I don’t know if he’d been hit or fallen in but it stopped me in my tracks.
There was a bit of an embankment down to the stream. When it rained it was like a river, full of frogs and all this filth. On the other side there was this shell hole. All I could see was his head and shoulders sticking up above the mud.
Shell holes could be 30-50ft deep.
They quickly filled with water which formed a muddy sludge of body bits, broken equipment and what not. This was behind the pill-box they named Egypt House 200-300 yards short of Houthulst Forest.
I leant down to get this lad, mind you with all that mud I might have slipped in myself. The remnants of the Belgian army were nearby.
The line faced the Ypres Canal with Houthulst Forest on the other side
There’d been this attack to try to get around Houthulst forest which the French had taken on the 9th October. Doomed to failure from the start. That July the French had held a short piece of the line between Boesinghe and the Yser after which the remnants of the Belgians took over.
“Mother, mother.” He was saying.
So I grabbed this lad’s shoulder-belt and told him to help himself.
“Kick man, kick. You’ll have to get yourself out of this one.” I said.
He kicks about and I get him onto the duckboards.
“I can’t wait.” I tell him.
You couldn’t stand around out there with all the shooting going on.
And off I went.
A Pilot shot down in No Man’s Land – November 1917
Fig. 1 Egypt House to Houthulst Forest, Poelcapelle, North East of Ypres
Fig. 2 A plane shot down on the edge of Houthulst Forest.
(This action takes place north of Poelcappelle as the British approach Houthulst Forest. The attack began at 5.35am. It is Monday 22nd October. The Essex took Nobles Farm. The Broembeck was flooded and something of a barrier. After various advances were made there was a strong counter-attack that forced a retirement to east of Egypt House). (McCarthy, 1995:120)
There was this RE 8 Artillery Observation Plane hit with incendiary bullets. The wing caught fire.
The pilot tried to slew the plane over to keep the flames away from the fuselage.
He crashed in front of Egypt House, half a mile from Poelcapelle.
We buried the pilot just outside this dugout in an isolated grave in No Man’s Land and a cross put up.
We then crawled back into No Man’s Land to take the magneto out of the engine.
You’d give this 6mm magneto a spin and it made sparks.
If you held the wires it gave you an electric shock – we had some fun with that one.
There was another time an attack had been made and something went wrong.
They lost a gun team. As a rule Jerry would follow up the attack. They had put up a fight and taken a prisoner – this Sergeant Bates. The entire team was missing. Years after, when I was with Duker’s, 1933 or 34 … I was at the bottom of Westgate Road, Newcastle. This was when the trams were running. This tram inspector was Sergeant Bates. So I asked him what had happened. He’d been told to go forward and was badly hurt. Jerry took him prisoner. A bit later he was repatriated by the Red Cross, as he was so badly hurt. He ended up in Newcastle. He said he had to sign a declaration that he’d take no further part in the war. He married one of his nurses who lived in Walker.
There was another one, I came across after the war.
Sergeant Bushmell from Birmingham. It was on St Andrews Street. He worked for Fife Bananas. He survived and had been demobbed. He’d tried to find me. Apparently I’d been very popular with the company. It was the top of Northumberland Street, Ridley Place, outside a Jewish tailors. I got a tap on the back.
“Hello Jack. I’ve tried my damndest to find you …” He said. ” I’ve asked managers in Green Market, Whitley Bay, Leadgate … I’d said I was looking for Jack Wilson.”
Fig. 2 Poelcapelle to Houthulst Forest, 22nd October 1917 p122 Passchendaele: the day by day account. Chris McCarthy
Jack Wilson refers to Egypt House and Colombo House in this memoir.
McCarthy, C (1995) The Third Ypres. Passchendaele. The day-by-day account.
Did Jack go in to relieve the position on Tuesday and find the gun team dead or dying? As a machine gunner did he serve more than one division?
- Some job – manning a machine gun (machineguncorps.com)
- Hell on Earth: The never before seen colour photographs of the bloody battle of Passchendaele (warhistoryonline.com)
- World War One centenary: Welsh towns to remember Victoria Cross winners (walesonline.co.uk)