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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?

The dead then are the cartridge empties of today

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.

They Called it Paschendaele


For an insight into the life, death and frontline tactics along the Western Front controlled by British and Commonwealth troops you should begin with Lyn Macdonald’s ‘They Called it Paschendaele’. First published in 1978 it draws on interviews with some 600 veterans. I return to it often to expand on the record I got directly from my late grandfather John Arthur ‘Jack’ Wilson M.M. who was a corporal in the Machine Gun Corps, serving in Neuve Chapelle, Arras, the Somme and then Ypres between April 1916 and December 1917 when he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and trained to be a fighter pilot.

In 1991 he visited the Imperial War Museum where he was able to sit behind a Vicker’s Machine Gun, then the following year he visited Ypres for the 75th Anniversary – a guest of Lyn Macdonald.

More at http://www.machineguncorps.com

How to wake the dead – pinning the past – the lost generation of World War One remembered in the Sussex market town of Lewes

Fig. 1. The War Memorial, Lewes High Street, Lewes

An extraordinary way to impress upon those living today, the terrible price and undoubted anguish and trauma caused by the death of one or more member of a family during World War One.

Steve George took the names of those featured on the Lewes War Memorial from the First World War. His research gave him an address which he pinned on a Google Map.

And where the war dead lived:

The men from Lewes who died in the First World War

Fig. 2. Where the WW1 War Dead lived in Lewes : remembered on the Town’s War Memorial.

Some grabs using Google Maps and Google World:

Fig. 3. Where the WW1 War Dead lived in Lewes : remembered on the Town’s War Memorial. (Satellite view)

  • Lots of the pins represent addresses with multiple fatalities
  • Approximately a third aren’t represented by individual pins.

Fig. 4. Where the WW1 War Dead lived in Lewes : remembered on the Town’s War Memorial.

One corner of the town. Every 3rd or 4th house marking a soldier missing or known to be dead never to return.

“The more you zoom in “, says Steve, ” the more clusters open out and the more shocking it gets”.

Fig. 5. The War Memorial, Lewes High Street, Lewes

On the War Memorial there are two, sometimes three names from the same family: brothers, husbands, fathers and sons. The loss in some families was higher still.


  • Other towns, cities, associations and corporations to do something similar.
  • Do the same in all nations that suffered losses during the War.
  • Feature photographs of those named.
  • Link their home to where they fell (or where they lie).

Fig.6 The Tynecot Cemetry near Passchendaele.

Fig 7. International Corner, Belgium. The 75th Anniversary of Passchendaele

Jack Wilson with Lyn Macdonald in 1992, marking the spot near International Corner, north west of Ypres where on 22nd October 1917 Jack burried Dick Piper and Harry Gartenfeld in shallow graves (their bodies were never recovered)

Fig. 8 John Arthur Wilson in 1916. A studio photograph taken in Consett, Co. Durham the week before he was transferred to the ‘suicide squad’ and sent for training on the Vicker’s Machine Gun in Grantham

Jack was from Benfieldside, Shotley Bridge. Those who died from his commmunity are featured in the Church. Where did the Lewes men fall? Where are else are they remembered? Do their relations or ancestors know their story? What do we tell future generations?

Fig. 9. Lyn Macdoland, author of ‘They called it Passchendaele’ at the Tynecot Memorial with veteran
Jack Wilson MM in front of the names of fallen comrades Dick Piper and Harry Gartenfeld June 1992

Fig. 10. The Ypres Salient, Passchendaele : The Western Front autumn 1917

Fig. 11. The dead around Tyne Cot as a result of the October-November push known as Third Ypres, 1917

Fig. 12. What they fought for and where many of them died. A set of concrete German pill-boxes in the mud of Passchendaele, late 1917

Fig. 13. How it ended for tens of thousands in the cratered morass of the Ypres Salient in 1917

Fig. 14. Third Ypres. August – November 1917

Fig. 15. They Called it Passchendale. Vivid narrative from Lyn Macdonald supported by the voices of many veterans in their own words.

Who are the First World War scholars worth reading?

Peter Simkins’ presentation to the Western Front Association (WFA)
on 14 April 2012 Mansfield College, Oxford read like a who’s who of the leading scholars on World War One history.

Prof Peter Simkins is the President of the WFA

He has been a professional historian for nearly 50 years (he graduated from the University of Liverpool in 1961) and as had 35 years at the Imperial War Museum.

The topic was something he looked in the 1990s: The state of scholarship in relation to WW1 from Junior Ranks and other ranks. Not memoirs, but studies.

He suggests caution over colouring how we see WW1 from war poets, to authors, to TV companies and even the well-rehearsed lines of veterans.

Over the last twenty+ years the key shifts in studying the First World War have been:

  • Opening of the public record
  • Assemblies of papers
  • Growth of the WFA

The questions he asks are:

  • What motivates a unit to perform well or fail badly in a particular action?
  • What are the effects of continuity?
  • How often were officers briefed or rehearsed?
  • Was there a social cohesion?

Tony Ashworth

Tim Cook No Place to Run: The Canadian Corps and Gas Warfare in the First World War

Dale Blair, Dinkum Diggers

Dale Blair The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel

Tim Bowman, Irish Regiments of WW1

Scott Bennett, Professor of History, Georgian Court University

Bill Gamage 
Bryn Hammond Cambria ‘Acting Head of Collections’ Imperial War Museum
Paul Kobes (Link)
Author of Cambrai 1917: The Myth of the First Great Tank Battle (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008)
Glyn Harper ‘Dark Journey’ Dark Journey: Three key NZ battles of the western front

Peter Hart “Raw courage. Doggedness.”

Richard Holmes. ‘Tommy’

Geoffrey Ratcliff Husband (2012) Joffrey’s War: A Sherwood Forester in the Great War

A corrective to Blackadder goes forth, Birdsong and Downton Abbey.
An invaluable record of ta British Soldier who did his bit, but he only went over the top twice lasting 35 minutes (Author), J. M. Bourne (Editor), Bob Bushaway (Editor)

Julian Lewis-Temple (Link)
Peter Little (Link)
Lyn Macdonald ‘They Call it Passchandaele’
Helen McCartney, Citizen Soldiers.
‘Scholarly and very readable’.
Martin Middlebrook ‘The First Day of the Somme’.
Desmond Morton  ‘When Your Number’s Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War ISBN 0-394-22388-8, (1994)
Jack Sheldon. http://www.jacksheldon.net/
• Le Cateau
• The Battle for Vimy Ridge
• The German Army at Cambrai
• The German Army at Ypres 1914 etc:
Len Smith, 5th French Division Between Mutiny and Disobedience

Soldiers developed self-determined rules of how they would or would not fight.
Peter Stanley. Men of Mont St Quentin September 1918. 9 men.

Mike Steadman. Manchester units.
Denis Winter  ‘Haig’s Command – A Reassessment (1991)

Awarded the Military Medal for keeping the Vickers Machine Gun in action for a week

The Military Medal awarded to Corporal John A Wilson ‘Jack’ in late 1917 while serving in the Machine Gun Corps during the Third Battle of Ypres. His journey through the trenches and up and down the Western Front is plotted in this blog, alongside his detailed memoir recorded when Jack (my grandfather) was in his 97th year.

Recorded on a Sony Digital recorder and will in due course be available as a podcast.

Transcript with the Imperial War Museum and author Lyn Macdonald who Jack joined at the 75th Anniversary of Passchendaele with a visit to the spots where he served and so many of his friends and colleagues died.

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