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Like a disease my books on the First World War have more than quadrupled; you take the subject seriously (MA) and now I need six texts on everything. My current task, almost complete, is to understand what the f*ck went on during Third Ypres (Passchendaele). And now I know, largely due to this book: Passchendaele. The Untold Story (1996) Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson. When I’m told and go and explain what was going on to my grandfather, now approaching 118 and in an urn in the shed. Actually, as a machine gunner he was less likely to get killed or injured that the soldiers ‘going over the top’ – in some instances 50%, 70% even 80% of those being sent in became casualties all because … because our government i.e; Lloyd George had gone from hands on interference to letting the military get on with it, because Haig was the archetypal public school boy over promoted dim wit whose greatest skill was riding a horse and currying favour from those above and at his side. The evidence makes me angry. He could have and should have been removed, indeed, refreshing your military leaders, as France did, was probably a good idea.
A month in Passchendaele – October 1917.
I’m giving a presentation on it on June 14th. Somehow my irritation and anger needs to subside into something more objective over the next month. It is NOT revisionist to curse the British military leader who, for all the evidence, expected tens of thousands of men (not all young, my grandfather served with a bloke of 42) to fight, despite everything that he was told and knew of how futile it would be, through the quagmire of the Ypres Salient. Haig allowed value judgements and private passions to supersede common sense … and by then blunt experience and evidence of repeated failure.
A week in the Ypres Salient
My grandfather was sent in to relieve a couple of fellow machine gunners on the 19th of October 1917. Columbo House. He went in a couple of times. Also Nobles Farm. This is south of Houthulst Forest during the final efforts to take the Passchendaele ridge. Getting to this part of the line could take many hours, in the dark, at considerable risk of slipping off the duckboards into deep, unforgiving shell-holes full of mud and water, body parts, blood and chemicals from gas shells. I have the local. I haven’t quite got the dates, but he was with machine gunner Dick Piper when he died of a stomach wound and had already buried the ammunition carrier Henry Gartenfeld – a married man with two kids in his early forties by the way. My grandfather always expressed his dismay that the man had got in, that the war should have been for unmarried men with no attachments. He had none. Or he kept quiet about it.
My impressions of what he went through ‘keeping the gun in action’ for a week, without relief, for a week have changed over 46 years. What I saw in my mind’s eye when I was five or six, cannot be the same as what I perceived when I was ten, or twenty or even thirty years older. As well as his own two men, dead or dying there were, some twenty Guards lying behind a wall next to this pill-box. All dead beat, or dead, or dying. Mostly gassed he reckoned. From some push into Houthulst Forest that had gone wrong. No forest of course, just the dissemination and wreckage as if a hurricane had swept back and forth over several weeks reducing the trees to stumps and sticks. Aerial photographs show a pockmarked land with handfuls of snapped matched sticks and on the ground or in the shell holes lice-like bobbles and impressions – dead men litter the landscape like eggs from a careless spider.
This is the view that Flight Lieutenant William Wilson would have had … my grandfather’s younger brother, who at 17 had joined the RFC and in 1917 was flying De Haviland bombers’ over the German lines to try and wreck railway lines.
Haig … and Lloyd George
My first impression was bad, my second impression good, my growing view is not only on the bad, but anger that those who should have pulled Haig from the job, Lloyd George, did not do so. Though Haig and Lloyd George loathed each other they had something in common – they both carried on, in their own way, a merry little dance that was designed primarily to keep themselves in power and their reputations clean. All in power have to be accountable to others in a way that means they can be asked to account for their actions and record and where it is found to be failing they are swiftly replaced.
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.
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)
(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.
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.
(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).
- Hell on Earth: The never before seen colour photographs of the bloody battle of Passchendaele (warhistoryonline.com)
- Ypres and the battlefields of the Salient (greatescapesblog.co.uk)
The obsessive in me required that I filled the OU gap (I recently completed an MA in Open and Distance Education) so I have been walking in and out of Ypres looking for spots where my grandfather ‘worked’ in 1917.
I use the term ‘work’ as he considered it a job.
Some job sitting behind a Vicker’s Machine Gun. It killed most of them.
Fig.1. View from the belfry, Ypres Cloth Hall. Looking North East towards the Menin Gate and Passchendaele beyond.
96 years after he was here and 21 since he died I finally walked the routes and adjusted once again the images I had in my head of the Ypres Salient. And then I found Egypt House up by Houthulst Forrest where he took some shrapnel fragments and he buried two mates.
Fig. 2. Mr J A Wilson MM remembering a fallen friend at the Tynecot Memorial, 75th Anniversary of the Third Ypres or ‘Passchendaele’, August 1992.
When he was over for the 75th anniversary of the Third Battle of Ypres (known as Passchendale) he marked the spot with a wreath and broke down in tears.
I’ve felt close to the same looking at registers of names in war cemeteries – especially where I know the names from the hours I spent listening to and then recording my grandfather’s memoirs – there was ample opportunity for this as he lived into his 97th year, unlike George Wannop, Dick Piper, Harry Gartenfeld and the many, many others typically aged 19-23 who met a horrible death out here. My late grandfather spared no detail.
It is fascinating what impressions I constructed as boy and how these adjusted as I became more informed.
To my minds eye as a boy this all took place in the landscape of Northumberland somewhere north east of Alnwick with little war damage to farmhouses or pill boxes. IWM photos gave me a black and white, scared, broken and flat though claustrophobic landscape.
Being here opens it out again – the Ypres Canal is as wide as the Tyne, not some British slither and finally this ‘salient’ can be seen as a vast arena … 20km across with the escarpment a series of pimples, while on foot the flatness turns out to be crumpled, like sheets on a bed with streams which made it such a mud-bath crossing every half-mile or so.
With the 100th anniversary of 1914-18 nearly upon us the museums are getting their act together.
In due course I’ll put interviews with Corporal Jack Wilson, M.M. MGC.
- In my grandfather’s footsteps (machineguncorps.com)
- Ypres and the battlefields of the Salient (thegreatescapesblog.wordpress.com)
- Our Weekend on the Mainland (2classesand14clubsinoxford.wordpress.com)
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 5,500 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 9 years to get that many views.
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.