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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

George Wannop was killed the next time he went in

Ypres Sept 1917 Plank Track

Fig. 1. Passchendale was a quagmire

Not like trenches. There was no communication. And you could only walk about in the dark.

(Ypres is at sea level. As the landscape is flat farming is only possible with extensive drainage. The Belgians let it flood when the Germans invaded, then with all the shelling, the place was just a morass of mud. The surrounding ridges are nearly all under 50ft high – but it was dry and gave a view of the area. That was what all the fighting was about).

“You had to watch the gun that it didn’t freeze; it was water cooled”.

We’d cover the barrel with bits of sandbag and an oil sheet – anything you could find.

You couldn’t help but get a bit of dirt on it. The conditions were absolutely serious, almost unbearable. We used to wrap out legs with sandbags right up to the knees. There were no rubber boots or anything then; it was boots and puttees.

This Lance-Corporal George Wannop was in charge of the gun.

He was only 19, another one who’d joined up under age.

It would appear that during the night when they’d given the gun a try, given it a few bursts to see that it wasn’t frozen; it jammed.

You had to do that intermittently, just to give it a burst to reassure yourself that it would work.

Wannop couldn’t get it going; it wasn’t frozen.

So in the dark he changed the lock.

You wouldn’t dare show the slightest light.

We’d been trained to change parts wearing a blindfold in Grantham.

There’s a spare lock in the case. It’s a square piece of metal with a striking pin in it and its worked by a crank inside. You lift the cover on the gun, ease it back, pull the crankshaft back, the leaver is here, ease the gun out and lift the lock out.

(75 years on Jack goes through the precise actions with his hands. His thumbs are like spoon, pressed flat from being pressed against the dual firing buttons of a Vickers Machine-gun)

Wannop did that, all in the dark, and put in a new lock. He tried the gun.

“DakDakDakDak DakDakDakDakDakDak DakDakDakDakDakDak DakDak”

OK and covered it up.

There’s a heavy fog the next morning when it starts to break daylight.

This officer, he could have only weighed nine stone and one or two officers came prowling around. He was a little worm of a man, not more than nine stone, with a great heavy coat on. You’d never get officers coming round on a clear day; this one was a complete stranger to us. They had a chat with the corporal.

“Let me have a look at your spares,” asked the skinny one.

Wannop got the case out which held the spares and low and behold there’s mud and dirt on the lock they’d been fiddling on with in the middle of the night.

He was reprimanded for a dirty lock.

Not only was he reprimanded, but so was I because I was responsible for the two guns. I had my papers going through for transfer so the last thing I wanted was this kind of bother.

“When it broke daylight we were going to examine the gun,” I said to the man. “To see what the fault was, fix it and clean it.”

He’d hear nothing of it. Another “B” that wouldn’t listen … and it was him alright, Montgomery.

He was just a weed of a man … skinny legs there, but no doubt it he was clever with the Eighth Army.

Captain Williams was damn well annoyed about it.

We all resented these men coming to the Front Line. They hadn’t the first idea what it was like. They’d be seven or eight miles back billeted in some French châteaux while our lads were being knocked to pieces. We didn’t lose any pay. Williams reassured me that my papers would still go through.

This Lance Corporal says.

“Jack, they can keep the dog’s leg and put it where the monkey puts its nuts!”

Wannop was a great tall lanky lad. He was disgusted. And I had my papers going through. I was worried it would be on my record and effect my application. Wannop was a quarter mile away from me.

George Wannop was killed the next time he went in. He was killed on the 29th of October.

It was a spot in Houthulst Forest.

He said to me he was a farmer’s son, actually his father was a dock labourer from Silloth, Cumbria – but never mind that. You didn’t get many saying their father or mother were in domestic service either.

(George had six brothers and sisters: Isabelle, Thomas, twins Margaret & Joseph, Dinah J who was my age and a younger sister Sarah).

Years after the Second World War, Norman Taylor, my brother-in-law, who lived at Ryton, bought an autobiography of Montgomery

There was a picture of this skinny little fellow.

Fig. 2 Montgomery on the right here.

Montgomery was in Ypres at the same time as me. He was a serving staff officer in the 2nd Army under Sir Herbert Plumer. (47th (2nd London Division)  Montgomery had been moved from Boesinghe on the 7th June after the mines blew under Messines Ridge. He then went on towards Pilckem Ridge, Langemark, Poelcapelle and Houthulst Forrest in October 1917.

I’m sure Montgomery was our brigade machine gun officer or director of guns.

GSO2 in Plumer’s IX Corps from June 1917 onwards. (Powell, 1990)

Fig.3. Lieutenant-Major Montgomery – Front Row. Sitting. Five from the left.

 

RIP Lance Corporal George Wannop.

Service No. 13210, 104 Company.

Died 29th October 1917. Born 1897.

From Bletterlees, Cumberland

Parents: Robert and Dinah Wannop, of Clement House, Blitterlees, Silloth, Cumberland.

 

Burial:
Poelcapelle British Cemetery
Langemark-Poelkapelle
West Flanders (West-Vlaanderen), Belgium
Plot: VIII. D. 6.

 

 

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