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John Arthur ‘Jack’ Wilson MM (1896 – 1992)

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John Arthur ‘Jack’ Wilson MM 

Born 20th August 1896, at his grandmother’s home, Dalston, Cumberland.
Died 3rd December 1992, at home, Gosforth, Newcastle on Tyne.

Christened Dalston, Cumbria
Raised and schooled at Benfieldside, County Durham, England.

Age 14 he left school and joined the Northeastern Brewery (September 1910) as the Office Boy at the company’s head office in the Royal Hotel.

Joined the Durham Light Infantry as one of Kitchener’s volunteers in late 1915 or early 1916
Transferred to the Machine Gun Corps, training on the Vicker’s Machine Gun at Harrowby Camp, Grantham from February to March 1916

13203 104 MGC 35th Division

Served in France at Neuve Chappel, Arras

Based on the Somme in 1916 from June to November.

Moved to the Ypres Salient in 1917 serving next to the French, billeted near Popringe and fighting the over the Ypres Canal towards Langemark, Poelcapelle, Houthulst Forest and then Passchendaele.
Made a Corporal.
Awarded the Military Medal ‘in the field’ by Brigadier Sandilands for keeping the gun in action for a week without relief. This occurred in the pillbox called Colombo House on the edge of Houthulst Forest at the end of October 1917 (20/10/17)

Transferred to the Royal Flying Corps at the end of December 1917. There are photographs of his RAF experiences.
Interview and medical at the Hotel Cecil, Hampstead then training in Hastings, Bristol, Uxbridge and Crail.
Jack flew Avro Trainers and Bristol Fighters.
He saw no action though he qualified before the Armistice, flying over the German fleet when it came north to Scapa Flow.
He stayed on at RAF Crail to help with demobbing.

Jack returned to his job at the Northeastern Brewery in 1919 and bought himself a BSA motorbike with the collection that had been made for him.
He stayed with the Northeastern Brewery until 1931.
Redundancy when Vaux took over the Northeadtern Brewery saw him move to the Scottish & Newcastle where he remained until retirement in the early 1960s

In 1992 Jack Wilson visited the Imperial War Museum and attended Machine Gun Corps and RFC/RAF commemoration events.
He took part in the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Passchendale attending at the Menin Gate and being introduced to the King of Belgium.
He also did a moving battlefield tour guided by the author Lyn Macdonald. He was able to mark the spot were he buried two of his mates from his machine gun company. There are photographs of this.

Three hours of audio interviews conducted when Jack was 96 are available as MP3 files.

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It started for me, Jack’s grandson, with my sitting on his knee after Sunday lunch at my parent’s home in Gosforth, Newcastle-on-Tyne in the mid 1960s.

And so he told and retold stories of his going along to the recruiting office in Consett, the medical and kit, basic training with the Durham Light Infantry, and transfer to the Machine Gun Corps followed by MCG training on a Vicker’s Machine Gun. He knew what the five main stoppages were. He then did two and a half years on the Western Front surviving Arras, the Somme and the worst of them all – Third Ypres and the mud of Passchendeale. At the very end of 1917 he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and during 1918 he undertook training with the soon to be renamed Royal Air Force: military training in Hastings, navigation in Bristol, bombing at Uxbridge then flying at RAF Crail in Scotland.

Unprompted his desire to talk always begin with, ‘Have I told you about the time that … ‘

My understanding of his experience will be enhanced as I take a Masters in First World War studies with the University of Birmingham. I can imagine being at his side as I share insights he’d have found fascinating. There are still, in the world, a few people who may remember the conflict. We live still with its consequences.

Can we do justice to the memory of that generation – those who served as well as those who lost their lives. Can an unbiased debate over the causes and outcomes invigorate European and World Institutions to find ways to resolve more conflicts without the deaths and injury of combatants and civilians?

In the meantime I have three hours of interviews I conducted with my grandfather John Arthur Wilson MM between 1989 and 1992 to edit, refresh and put online. These MP3 files will be available in due course both as podcasts and as videos. As well as a verbatim transcript the approach will be to break it into 30 or more themed anecdotes – in chronological order. These will feature his photographs too, though these are essentially of his RAF training only. At this stage the highest resolution images will be put online. In due course these will be put under a computer controlled rostrum camera. By way of illustration I will seek out appropriate maps, archive photographs and appropriate additional contemporary video or stills. I have at some stage visited all the locations of this story, from Crail to Caix, from Fenham Barracks to Poelcapelle, from Hastings to Grantham. Where I can establish the copyright position I will include, reference and link to images and film from national archives. Newspapers from this era often contain many photographs.

I am a filmmaker with a broadcast credit as a director, writer and producer for a short film I made. Where and when I can I hope to recreate moments from his story on the tightest of budgets using actors, shooting in a studio or at night to envisage the claustrophobic horror of a pillbox under fire on the frontline during ‘Third Ypres’ or ‘Passchendaele’.

As my academic credentials kick in I will not only be better able to correctly reference and qualify this story, but I would hope to add further detail and illustration.

This is a labour of love – my memory of my grandfather is kept alive in this way. Where I can contribute to a regional or national story I am happy to do so providing access both to the interviews and photographs. I also welcome enquiries from schools or others, grandchildren or great grandchildren who are interested in tracing and telling a relative’s story.

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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?

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.

 

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.

Decorated ‘in the field’ with the Military Medal by Brigadier Sandilands

Fig.1 Brigadier-General J W Sandilands From The History of the 35th Division  in the Great War. L-C H.M. Davson

Brigadier-Gneral Sandilands decorated Jack Wilson with the Military Medal – ‘in the field’ along with three others. He received the Military Medal. Jack described the scene as ‘a square’ with a table in the middle.

There are a couple of likely times for the week long stop in a pill-box without relief – around 11th October when the Steenbeck flooded, after the initial attack on Houthulst Forest when the heaven’s opened, or in November when once again the Broembeck was flooded. He describes the Steenbeck as a ‘lake of mud’ and to reach Egypt House at one time as requiring you to wade through ‘the puddle’.

Fig. 2. A studio photo taken soon after joining the Durham Light Infantry, March 1915 at Billy Wilson’s Photography Studio, Consett before transfer to the Machine Gun Corps or ‘Suicide Squad’

This picture used in the Consett local paper when Jack Wilson was awarded the Military Medal

Fig. 3. Clip from the Consett Gazette in late 1917

(This photograph from a faded original cutting from the paper originally kept by Jack’s mother Sarah Wilson nee Nixon)

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