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Step by step prompts to contribute detail to a First World War Memoir

The desire is to encourage the sharing of multiple journeys taken by recruits from home to recruiting office, to training and entrainment, then their stops and movements across the fronts where they served. The desire is to start to see the scale of movement of people and of course reflect on how in ended for nearly 3/4 of a million leaving a chunk out of the male population that took the best part of a century to disappear. This is a time when despite the trains a considerable amount of movement was on foot. Going into the line as shown here a soldier may carry his kit and provisions for four or five miles, the best part of it through communications trenches, along duckboards and following tapes around shellholes to captured pillboxes. Here a detail is missing from a story – who is this officer who gave his photograph to a corporal who was heading home to Blighty to train as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. Is this the way to capture the interest of people – the narrative, a puzzle to solve, empathy or surprise at the conditions and the endurance of the men. One question that coninually vexes me – should I aim this squarely at Secondary School history students (GCSE and A’Level), or propose something that might appeal to ‘the general public’ – wherein lies the problem – the vagueness of the audience.

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Columbo House, Houthulst Forest

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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.

THE HISTORY

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).

 

In my grandfather’s footsteps

 

Egypt House (Far Right) was a three compartment German Pill Box. In late December 1917 my grandfather was a machine gunner here and on the edge of Houthulst Forest.

I walked between Poperinge and Ypres then out towards Langemark and Passchendaele. I have as my companion the spoken words of my late grandfather, John A Wilson MM who served here in 1917 as a Machine Gun Corporal, securing the line one push after another through the autumn of 1917 until on the 29th December his papers came through to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps.

I have charged around the Western Front in a hire car decades ago, this was very different. On foot I got some sense of the lay of the land and the distances involved from the canal banks of the Ypres where I know my grandfather recovered when out of the line – I guess somewhere near Essex Farm. Then I find, on a map, a couple of places that were etched into his being – Egypt House and Noble’s Farm. This is where several of his friends met horrible deaths and he too got peppered by shrapnel fragments. Otherwise he was that flukey bugger who survived uninjured.

He spoke about it at length to those who would listen. Over many years I took notes, then recorded these interviews, then went back to get more detail – anything to place people.

From the ‘In Flanders Fields’ exhibition in the Old Cloth Hall, Ypres. Here an aerial reconnaissance photograph from 1917 is superimposed over the same area of land in 2012

On this trip I followed his steps – near as dam, in the warmth of early summer. 96 years ago the summer was equally promising until the heaven’s opened as we know they can. Walking the rippled landscape, passing over deep brooks it was easy to understand how the place was turned into a quagmire. Of course I also knew this was a salient and that the escarpment or hills were inconsequential to the eye. On foot these distant hills never look significant or imposing – the best impression is to look at them from a train, then somehow they begin to look like a barrier. Why hundreds of thousands of young men and a few woman too had to die here is staggering – that a mindset, society and technology allowed it, indeed saw this as the solution to the problem, rather than the problem itself.

One of the many simple and effective displays in the Ypres Cloth Hall.

I hope all work on the centenary events to mark the 1914-18 War get it right – the event in the Old Cloth Hall, Ypres, ‘In Flanders Fields’ is a wonderful 21st centenary exploration of the war at this end of the Western Front.

Meanwhile, I have my late grandfather’s interviews to upload – all now digitized and ready to put online. I spoke to him at length between 1989 and 1992. I recorded the interview on broadcast quality tape. I have often wondered about the value of video – but the ancient man talking is not the 20 something of his war years. We forget this every time an old person is interviewed – they are talking about events that took place when they were young.

Third Ypres and the Battle for Poelcapelle October 1917: A Machine Gunner’s Story

Fig 1 Sketch from Jack’s Description of the movements of Corporal John Arthur Wilson,  MCG, October 1917. (Excuse the note related to a fictional story called ‘The Time Telescope’ (TT) which I imagined in an adventure story to be an item that saved Jack’s skin).

My grandfather drew a version of this in biro when in his 97th year; his eye-sight was very poor. I redrew it as you see, with him adding comment and annotations. Houthoulst Forrest is a bit out, there is a rail track and I haven’t drawn it strictly North-South.

From Haig’s despatches:

 After the middle of October the weather improved, and on the 22nd October two successful operations, in which we captured over200 prisoners and gained positions of considerable local importance east of Poelcappelle and within the southern edge of Houthulst Forest, were undertaken by us, in the one case by east-county and Northumberland troops (18th and 34th Divisions), and in the other by west-county and Scots battalions (35th Division, Major- General G. Mc. Franks) in co-operation with the French.

My goal, my pleasure, reliving stories he first started telling me on his knee after Sunday Lunch age 6 or so is tp be there with him, to time travel and by following closely in his footsteps survive as he did (just).

A scratch is all he suffered during the 1 1/2 years he was out there (April 1916 to December 1917).

The silver ID bracelet Jack had made in Grantham. 13203. 104 MGC.

Courtesy of published maps and Google Earth I am gradually picking out the spots. In 1992 he attended the 75th anniversary of Passchendaele and marked the spots where he buried Dick Piper and Harry Gartenfeld. Even after those years, however ‘dull and featureless’ the landscape, and however broken it had been in his time, he was able to pick out the exact spot where these men died.

Is it feasible that the Jerry Prisoner who took can be identified? Handed over to Captain Blair in October? (Later October: 20th – 27th)

His papers came through at the end of December 1917, around the 27th I believe. A couple of officers gave him pictures of themselves, but who could this be?

A senior officer of the Machine Gun Corps who gave this picture to Corporal J A Wilson on 27th December 1917 as he headed home to train with the Royal Flying Corps.

Who is it?

Haig’s Despatches

‘After the middle of October the weather improved, and on the 22nd October two successful operations, in which we captured over 200 prisoners and gained positions of considerable local importance east of Poelcappelle and within the southern edge of Houthulst Forest, were undertaken by us, in the one case by east-county and Northumberland troops (18th and 34th Divisions), and in the other by west-county and Scots battalions (35th Division, Major- General G. Mc. Franks) in co-operation with the French’. Haig’s Despatch

NOTES

Scanning ‘The Road to Passchendaele’ John Terraine 1977 I am struck by the statement that has Haig wanting to take Passchendaele Ridge in order to have command of the open land to the east in order to use cavalry. Also Lord French’s criticism to the War Cabinet that Haig keeps making the same mistakes. From Birdwood ‘Khaki and Gown’  p 316.

British Army Maps:

Ypres before July 1917 Attacks

Ypres October 1917

Passchendaele: unseen panoramas of the Third Battle of Ypres

Jack Wilson, a Machine Gunner, served in Third Ypres going in against the French line north east of Ypres up to Houthulst Forrest. These panoramas and maps allow me, with his memoir, to track his movements. Stories he told me as a boy and visualised as a six or seven year old look very different on seeing the reality.

 

Henry Gartendfeld & Dick Piper R.I.P OCT 1917

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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.

Terrible.

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

Mother! Mother!

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.

MGC 1915

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.

The Morass of the Battlefield - Flanders

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.

You’d vomit.

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.

1914-1918 (11)

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.

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You’ve got a Blighty One – October 1917

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 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 as the duckboard led back from it. Other than that you were walking through the mud.

There were meant to be four in a team, but it never got up to scratch, it was more like two. We were organised in four sections: A,B,C,D. The joke was they had us training in teams of Five at Grantham; that was never going to happen, not the need and not the man power.

I said to this Birmingham lad, “You’ve got a Blighty.”

I kept him there ‘til late. Blair had him taken away.

I saw Blair a few days later. He told me this lad had died.

Blair was the Section Officer; Williams was the C.O.

(The edge of Houthulst Forest was reached by XIV Corps and the French in an attack on the 9th October 1917.

On the 12th October the XIV Corps entered the forest. Haig wanted to force the enemy to evacuate the Forest; an objective he continued to push for throughout October 1917).

As machine-gunners we were sent in to hold the position.

This is what I learnt after the war, the whys and wherefores; what I was doing in that stink.

I was in the spot at least four times.

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