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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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
Poelcapelle British Cemetery
West Flanders (West-Vlaanderen), Belgium
Plot: VIII. D. 6.
We were always interested in aeroplanes and that as kids.
We used to send to Gamages for parts and make them Billy and I. When we broke a part we tried and made it up again from the old parts. We also got to making propellers out of pieces of rectangular wood.
(Jack’s kid brother, Flight Lieutenant William Nixon Wilson. A Bomber pilot at 18)
I reckoned I was an ideal person for the RFC being mechanically minded with aero engines and that a machine gunner. So I showed our C.O. Williams the letter.
“Well Wilson, why the hell didn’t you go straight into the Air Corps?”
“Well.” I told him. “I’d volunteered for Kitchener’s Army and there you are. No choice in the matter.”
I asked if he would put my papers through for a transfer.
“Certainly. We’ll put your papers through, by all means.”
I was sent for a few days later.
Apparently before an application as a fighter pilot could be accepted you had to be an officer so Williams immediately made me a Corporal and sent the form in again.
When we got up to Poelcapelle I had an interview with the Brigadier at Boesinge in a Nissan hut. There were two of us interviewed, a Sergeant Major and me.
Such a nice fellow, Brigadier Sandilands. He talked away. I told him I wanted to transfer. I remember him getting up and leaning across the table to shake hands and he wished me all the luck in the world.
I went back to the line again; It was murder there.
Obviously I was hoping my papers would come through. Eventually I had medicals, very strict.
I was sent to Cassel two miles away from the front line where they had all the big wigs, like Plumer and Haig. I was taken by Company car. I was there for an eye test. This man was an American.
I was taken again to another lot of specialists before I was allowed to transfer.
I passed all of those OK and I waited again in and out of the line. Two days in, two or three days out.