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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)
Grantham was a goods yard.
Belton Park and Harrowby nearby were the camps for transport and twelve machine gunner companies.
There were mules and officers’ horses and the limbers; a limber was a four wheeled cart or wagon.
The camps held, at any one time, between 25,000 and 45,000 troops.
This was the end of January or early February 1916.
There were no paths so you were always stepping into the mud just to reach your hut.
The mud as a joke; they reported that in the Camp’s Penny Pictorial and the local paper.
The other joke which did the rounds was that once interred in Barrowby Camp the inmates never left their stay seemed so interminable.
Belton Park had been offered to the military authorities when war broke out on the 4th August 1914.
Since the 1880s local volunteers, territorial and yeomanry had used the park. At first they had bell tents but in 1915 these were replaced by rows of wooden barracks. There was a standard gauge railway line using a 0 4 0 track which ran into the camp carrying supplies. It moved extremely slowly due to the weight of the goods and the steepness of the gradient. Soldiers marched the two miles from Grantham Station.
The Machine Gun Corps were based at Harrowby, the other side of Harrowby Lane immediately south of Belton.
The food was ‘Bloody Awful.’ The porridge was dreadful. You’d leave it and you got the same stuff back the next morning.
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)