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What kind of conversations would we have were my grandfather, a veteran of the First World War, still alive?
Fig.1. Lyn Macdonald, author of ‘They called it Passchendaele’ at the Tynecot Memorial with veteran Jack Wilson MM June 1992
Had he been alive my grandfather, John Arthur Wilson MM, corporal in the Machine Gun Corps, then Flight Cadet and pilot in the RAF, would be 117 years old. He is with me. Cremated in December 1992 his ashes moved with my mother from the North East to Lincolnshire when she remarried. Thought lost, or scattered in error, the urn containing his ashes appeared less than a month ago.
I keep meaning to sit down with him and run through some of the insights I am picking up as I bash through as Masters degree in the First World War. He’s in the shed. He;d like that. He was a shed and garage man. Always up a ladder clearing leaves from a gutter or under a car fixing the exhaust.
I recorded a series of conversations with him in 1989 and then again in 1991 after I’d transcribed the earlier interviews. In due course all 3 1/2 hours of those interviews will be available online. I’ll make this and his photographs available to the Imperial War Museum initiative.
So what would I say?
That Haig knew what he was doing and by all accounts took his lead from Kitchener?
That however awful the first days of the Somme were, the conflict over several months served its purpose of keeping the German army tied to the Western Front while wearing them down.
I’d go through the transcript and ask him to embellish.
I’d certainly ask him to provide the names of as many people as possible who feature in his photographs.
‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ was his favourite movie. I’m sure he’d have sat through ‘The Great War’ when it was broadcast by the BBC in 1964. Could I wish him better eyesight and watch these?
He left school at 14 and beyond looking at the Journal every week he wasn’t a great reader – he picked his way through manuals and being ‘mechanically minded’ loved a specialist book I found him on the engines featured in the planes he trained on and flew. He would have liked a Vicker’s Machine gun! He’d have advised on reconstructing trenches or pillboxes. He’d have gone up in an Avro Trainer or Bristol fighter. He’d have loved Google Maps and published trench maps that he could follow.
On reflection, if I selected for him some of the books I am reading, I could record audio versions which he could listen to through an iPod as he got on with his many daily chores.
Would he stomach my being critical of Churchill?
Fig. 2. World War – a part work my grandfather would have loved, though would never have spent his money on
Of all the publications in my growing collection he’d probably find the complete series of magazines published in 1932/33 that I have most fitting – plenty of pictures and description of the events rather than opinion.
Lyn Macdonald took him to the 75th Anniversary of the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele – I wonder what they said to each other?
And what questions would he have for me?
Fig.1. ‘Poster’ constructed using a combination of ‘Brushes’ (to layer several photos in one) and ‘Studio’ a simple graphics app that provided the overlays and text. Images and screen-grabs cropped and saved into Picasa Web Albums.
Created for H818: The Networked Practitioner – towards a poster to illustrate a conference demonstration of an interactive mobile learning platform aimed at sourcing the involvement of many collaborators to enrich our understanding of this period in history.
The QR code should work, the YouTube video does not – it’s a screen-grab. The video clip, under 2 minutes, is there.
This is Jack Wilson’s WW1 Story (blog) and here is the brief interview clip. In fairness I edited around 8 minutes down to 2 minutes, keeping one story about a young woman who came down from London to meet up and otherwise to compress the kind of circuitous conversation you can have with someone in their nineties.
Fig. 2. Jack Wilson (1896-1992) talks briefly about his few weeks military training at RAF Hastings in May/June 1918. Features several of his photographs from these weeks that he sent home to his mother in Consett, County Durham. (As YouTube doesn’t embed on OU platform, link to YouTube)
Fig.3. The simplest of SimpleMind mind maps to remind me what the poster still requires and is certainly missing.
And as a reminder to me there is 2500 words to write too.
Only up because it it has sounded all night as if the roof was about to come off … then load car with teenagers, dog and clutter to meet up with my wife and my in laws. Then 800 miles through France. I’ll be back at my desk on the 6th Jan. But who needs a desk these days? I can get online from the passenger seat of the car – this summer it blew my mind to be online in a plane. It’ll be considerably less pleasing to find smartphones are used as eagerly and noisily 3000m up a glacier as they are in a shopping mall. Our connectedness and desire to be so has to be the technical and social phenomenon that defines the era we are living through – I would prefer to have a chip embedded in my skin so that I wouldn’t have to care about keeping the XXXXXX phone charged, on a loud enough ring so that I respond, and on my person wherever and whenever I am from something like 6.00am through to the early hours of the morning.
I’m drifting into reflection mode but at one end I am getting final calls, emails and texts from my wife (an ‘owl’) at 1.00am (I’ve been asleep for a good 2 hours) then fed up with the noise of the wind I check the BBC weather at something like 5.30 am and trigger something in Facebook that informs others that I am online and I get a message from a fellow ‘lark’. Come to think about it I had might as well have been online for the hours I slept given the concoctions of my dreamworld.
- Pack car.
- Wake teenagers.
- Walk dog.
- Run through assorted check lists.
- Check weather.
- Wake teenagers.
- Go back to bed and set off later as it clears?
- Woken by phone at 11.30. Where are we???
- Wake teenagers.
- Set off.
- Arrive five hours late.
- Realise I have forgotten the dog …
- Look forward to a power cut so that everyone’s gadget dies so we can look forward to a traditional Christmas of charades, deluxe Monopoly and Twister.
CALL TO ACTION
If you or your relatives have old photos from the First World War how about sharing them and let’s see of collectively we can bring these characters back to life by researching then telling them story. I’m always very interested to hear from people with a similar interest in the ‘Great War’ especially when it comes to the Machine Gun Corps and the Royal Flying Corps where my grandfather and great uncle served.
My WW1 blog might be the place for this.
Tens of thousands of young recruits died in training, this was particularly the case of Flight Cadets learning to flying the flimsy and unreliable aeroplanes of the 1914-18. Here a photographs shows a crumple Avro Trainer that killed the cadet and trainer. They are buried in Crail Church. Jack Wilson, whose memoir I am exploiting to create content took the picture. He was about to go solo for the first time and had a crash himself. Some cadets were so terrified they hid – they were found jobs on the airfield. Who are they? Who was Jack Wilson’s observer? Who is the person who shared his room? Had they gone through the same training as a cohort over the past six months starting at Hastings, then moving to Bristol, followed by Uxbridge and then to an airfield. By putting names to faces we can start to tell their stories: where did they come from, where had they been at school, what did they do in the war? As we approach the 100th anniversary of the First World War new ways need to be found to bring names on memorials to life, to remember the horrific sacrifice and reflect on how it came about.
Tens of thousands of photographs from the First World War feature people who have no name. Who are they? Where did they come from? What was there story? Did they fight and die or fight and survive? Help identify these people and tell their story and in many cases remember a person as more than just a name on a memorial – they had parents and siblings, they went to the local school and played cricket for the local club … bring them to life in the 100th anniversary years of the Great War, that war that H G Wells said ‘would end all war’.
There are six photographs in this set which show the entire ‘cadet squadron’ and their commander. These embedded them in Hastings in 1918 and could offer more clues and of course more faces to ‘play’ with. I doubt any of this group saw service as the influenza epidemic and dreadful weather made completing training by November 1919 difficult … but the Royal Flying Corps barracks here had been used for a few years and indeed the younger brother of Jack Wilson had signed up age 17 and was flying bombers over Belgium at the time of this picture. I think I need to indicate that multiple connections can be made a) geographically to the wide ranging UK locations these cadets came from and b) their links to combatants in the RAF or other services at this time including those who die c) for some, the schools they had just left – so Jack Wilson who left school at 14 and came from the Iron and Steel town of Consett finds himself in the mess-room with boys straight out of Harrow and a Cambridge undergraduate …d) those who remained in the RAF and go on to serve, potentially in a senior capacity by the time of the Second World War i.e. the picture becomes a way to explore people, places, history, society, education, class, military history e) the Charlie Chaplin films being shown … the coming of radio e) even bringing it as close as I can to the present day as Jack Wilson lived into his 97th year and went to an RFC/RAF reunion in 1992, attended the 75th commemoration of the Battle of Passchendaele and on watching the First Iraq War on TV remarked ‘That’s Nothing Compared to Passchendaele’ … and said, ‘If I was a younger man I’d like to go out and have a go’ … and warned me, his 30 year old grandson that I might get called up!! So, not realising it the multliple threads perhaps make this, and therefore any picture like it, full of possibility ESPECIALLY because of the connectedness of Web 2.0. Very many thanks. Interest in this very much helps me to stick with it and fix it rather than going off on a tangent.
I need as I go through the necessary task of simplifying and magnifying the idea that works rather than thinking that adding more or coming up with new ideas will in any way help. I’ll work on what you suggest. The picture could fill the poster … ‘BE’ the poster with rollover and drop-down on faces. This offers the greatest opportunity, not least because already, since 2005 or so, when I first put these on Flickr, there have been contributions. Not least I recall being interviewed for research into memorialising the first world war based on a search stumbling upon this picture. Something I’d forgotten – that by tagging and ‘pushing’ an image on the Web it makes it ‘vulnerable’ to being picked up through serendipity and the more interest, clicks and comments, the brighter the light shone on it by the search engines … so it becomes self-fulfilling. Would it help or hinder to target this at secondary school GCSE students? This at least gives me some parameters and learning objectives to work from.
Fig. 1 Death in Passchendaele exactly as my grandfather described it
Had the public seen, and seen repeatedly, what death looked like between 1914 and 1918 perhaps the public outcry would have brought it to an early end. Or not.
The dead then are the cartridge empties of today.
Beyond comprehending the opportunities of open learning and the theory behind the processes that occur we as ‘educators’ still need to deliver content, to create an event, put on a show, get attention, set the tone for a programme of work. Martin Weller thinks that being media savvy is to add some downloaded graphics or snapshots to a slide, actually, the art and skill of communication as anyone in advertising will tell you is far more able to leave an impression. Making a bar of soap interesting is a challenge, making war interesting should be easy so long as you stick to what attracts interest: fighting and death. Three decades listening to my grandfather and I can only now take on board what it must have been like to be stuck, repeatedly, in a confined space, in harms way, with a buddy or two at your side, horribly wounded and slowly dying.
Fig. 2. Marking the spot where my grandfather buried Dick Piper and Henry Gartenfeld
75 years after these events my grandfather returned to the very spot where this occurred and he broke down to think how they died, and why they died and the lives they never had but deserved, let along the wife and kids one left behind. He never recovered from that trip and died himself a few months later – it was as if death had touched him to the soul and after 97 years he could put it off no longer.
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.
As the grandson of a veteran of the First World War I took my grandfather’s stories to be accurate to the letter – though how I visualised his antics as I grew up bore very little to the reality, but rather a boy’s perceptions from his surroundings, TV and books in the 1960s and 1970s.
As I study for an MA in British First World War studies the chance exists not only to entrench my research into his journey through the Machine Gun Corps and the fledgling RAF but to consider the accuracy of any veterran’s account – as the years pass their stories can be coloured by what they read and hear so that they may say what people expect to hear.
The opportunity may also exist to do some original research, even to be in touch with the relatives of those featured in his story.
Is it possible, for example, to put names to the faces in a set of photographs of the RAF cadets who were barracked at the Queen’s Hotel, Hastings in May and June 1918?
And where he marked the spot where he buried his mates Dick Piper and Harry Gartenfeld is it feasible to look for them or leave a permanent stone?
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)