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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.

Poelcapelle – the smell from the bodies was dreadful

There was this pill box in Poelcapelle village itself that got a direct hit. It was completely broken. 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 and we got some ropes and pulled the bodies out through this great hole and threw them in a shell hole … there were three of them, German officers. We bunged up the doorway with sandbags and used the other side to go in and out.

 

Souvenirs

I remember being in the brick factory on the Somme at Trones Wood. There was this huge crater, this was in 1916.  I was trying to boil some water. I’d set up a bit of a fire with a couple of bricks and a canteen. The smell was dreadful. So I pushed my bayonet in and there’s a dead body.

When they started the war Jerry had those helmets with a brass peak. One day I saw this spike sticking out of the side of this communications trench and I thought it would make a nice souvenir and I got my bayonet out and dug the earth away to get hold of it. My fingers came away with skin and hair and all the rest of it. It was a dead German.

I got one in the end.

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).

 

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.

20120612-012646.jpg

Shot for Cowardice – August 1916

Jerry was marvellous with these dug-outs.

He used to make them with railway sleepers. As soon as the artillery lifted its barrage, up came Jerry from these heavily constructed dug outs. They’d never been touched. He’d be out with his machine guns and mow our lads down as they advanced. We lost 30,000 men in the first day of the Somme. We were warned about that at International Corner up in the Poelcapelle area.

With these trenches and dug-outs the war was static; there were sentries here and there.

There was this occasion when Jerry had come over in the dark, 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. Jerry got into these trenches and grabbed all these lads who were in the dugout quite unprepared. This young officer Lieutenant Munday and Sergeant Stones were doing the rounds touring the sentry posts on the forward line when they came along this trench and were suddenly confronted with Jerries. Before the Munday could do anything he was downed and the Sergeant ran away. That Sergeant was accused of desertion.

What would you have done?

I would have done the same. ‘He that runs away lives to fight another day.’

Jerry must have come over with pick-axe handles.

At his trial this Sergeant said he could do nothing about it. Munday was walking in front. He just ran back, along the trench, said he was looking for the company cook. It was plane common sense. Get out of there, there was nothing you could do but get a bayonet through the gut. We had a team in a SAP at that point. Our boys were questioned. Hadn’t they an inkling what was going on? I had been relieved from duty that night due to sickness and that Lance Sergeant Stones had volunteered to go forward in my place

The report in the Daily Mail was that the Scots had gone over and more or less repaid the debt.

It said 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 were there. It was bunk to keep the moral of the troops up elsewhere on the line or to keep everyone happy at home.

That Sergeant was shot for ‘shamelessly casting away arms.’

(Lance Corporal Peter Goggins and Lance Corporal John McDonald, both of the 19th D.L.I. Bathams were also shot on the 18th January as they failed to follow up the raid when required to do so. Stones was a 5ft 2inch, 23 year old miner from West Hartlepool who’d enlisted on 10 March 1915).

The officer in charge had to go up and make sure, to see you are dead and put a bullet through you.

That officer lived in Stockton. He was one of the Brothertons who were builders merchants – Foster-Brothertons in Thornaby.

The incident was brought up in Parliament years later by the Labour Government.

All this came out.

He should never have been shot.

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