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The pill-boxes had names

(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).

 

A Pilot shot down in No Man’s Land – November 1917

Fig. 1 Egypt House to Houthulst Forest, Poelcapelle, North East of Ypres

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Fig. 2 A plane shot down on the edge of Houthulst Forest.

(This action takes place north of Poelcappelle as the British approach Houthulst Forest. The attack began at 5.35am. It is Monday 22nd October. The Essex took Nobles Farm. The Broembeck was flooded and something of a barrier. After various advances were made there was a strong counter-attack that forced a retirement to east of Egypt House). (McCarthy, 1995:120)

There was this RE 8 Artillery Observation Plane hit with incendiary bullets. The wing caught fire.

The pilot tried to slew the plane over to keep the flames away from the fuselage.

He crashed in front of Egypt House, half a mile from Poelcapelle.

We buried the pilot just outside this dugout in an isolated grave in No Man’s Land and a cross put up.

We then crawled back into No Man’s Land to take the magneto out of the engine.

You’d give this 6mm magneto a spin and it made sparks.

If you held the wires it gave you an electric shock – we had some fun with that one.

There was another time an attack had been made and something went wrong.

They lost a gun team. As a rule Jerry would follow up the attack. They had put up a fight and taken a prisoner – this Sergeant Bates. The entire team was missing. Years after, when I was with Duker’s, 1933 or 34 … I was at the bottom of Westgate Road, Newcastle. This was when the trams were running. This tram inspector was Sergeant Bates. So I asked him what had happened. He’d been told to go forward and was badly hurt. Jerry took him prisoner. A bit later he was repatriated by the Red Cross, as he was so badly hurt. He ended up in Newcastle. He said he had to sign a declaration that he’d take no further part in the war. He married one of his nurses who lived in Walker.

There was another one, I came across after the war.

Sergeant Bushmell from Birmingham. It was on St Andrews Street. He worked for Fife Bananas. He survived and had been demobbed. He’d tried to find me. Apparently I’d been very popular with the company. It was the top of Northumberland Street, Ridley Place, outside a Jewish tailors. I got a tap on the back.

“Hello Jack. I’ve tried my damndest to find you …” He said. ” I’ve asked managers in Green Market, Whitley Bay, Leadgate … I’d said I was looking for Jack Wilson.”

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Fig. 2 Poelcapelle to Houthulst Forest, 22nd October 1917 p122 Passchendaele: the day by day account. Chris McCarthy

Jack Wilson refers to Egypt House and Colombo House in this memoir.

REFERENCE

McCarthy, C (1995) The Third Ypres. Passchendaele. The day-by-day account.

Did Jack go in to relieve the position on Tuesday and find the gun team dead or dying? As a machine gunner did he serve more than one division?

Suicide Squad – The Machine Gun Corps – 1916

Fig.1. Jack Wilson’s identity tag. He had it made while training in Grantham.

“We were put on parade one Saturday morning in early 1916, which was unusual”.

The next thing I know the Sergeant’s running up and down the line with the Red Cap picking out people’s names. He was a bit of a raw Geordie lad.

Afterwards I asked Quartermaster Sergeant Barwick what it was all about.

“What’s this?” 
I ask.

“You’re going to the suicide squad on Monday.” He replies.

Then he added.

“You’re off to Grantham.”

“What’s that?” I ask.

“On Monday, you’re off to Grantham. You’ve got to go”.

I had no choice in the matter.

And that’s how I was transferred to the Machine Gun Corps, 35th Division, 104th Brigade Machine Gun Company (formed 27th April 1916).

I got a few days leave from Grantham before and then I didn’t get any leave whatsoever while I was out there through the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Passchendaele – about two and a half years. It was only when I came back to join the RFC that I got a week’s leave. Then I went back to Grantham. And of course I finished up on the RFC aerodrome at Crail, Scotland.

Fig.2. Machine Gun Training. I believe these are Canadians. Or could they be American?

“They were picking suitable looking fellows. They were copying the Germans”.

They went around all the infantry companies looking for suitable men. It was a heavy gun. The Vickers weighed over 28 pounds; the tripod 20 pounds and the water to cool the gun another 10 pounds.

They took about twenty from the Durham Light Infantry. The 7th Division was a Geordie regiment.

Billy Wrangham, who was 24, from Urpeth, Anfield Plane. His father was a Colliery Winding Engineerman – he was gassed. It could catch you on the hop. Billy had this gun and they had their masks on all day. He took his off in the afternoon being the corporal.

And Bowsbie.

George Toward lived behind the Royal Hotel; he was a regular billiard player. He was a year younger then me, only got in by a squeak. He was eighteen. He lied about his age. George lived at 19 Consett Rd, Castleside just along the road from us. His father was gas producer at the steelworks. He was the youngest of four. I remember his sisters Elizabeth and Jennie and his big brother Robert a married man of 28.

Sergeant-Major Barwick; he was a funny one.

If he felt happy he’d get up and have a little jig and a sing song. He was from Teams, Gateshead. They had four lovely kiddies. He’d bring them down to watch us parade and we’d carry them on our shoulders. We’d give them pennies and sweats. He was killed on the 6th October 1918 age 28. Son of Joseph and Maria Barwick from Teams, Gateshead. His wife went by the name of Theresa.

Tommy Collinson, was another one.

Tommy was a big strapping lad. He had a brother who was shot in the knee before the war; it got gangrene and was lost. Tommy was killed on the 5th November 1917 at Passchendaele – he was only 18.

And Billy Soulsby all from Askew Road, Gateshead.

He was a storekeeper by trade so they made him the quartermaster.

Those are some of the names I remember.

The rest of the company was made up from North Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumberland, Birmingham and Northumberland.

Grantham was a camp for transport and machine gunners.

“Even to get into your hut you were up to your knees in mud”.

Dreadful Porridge.

REFERENCE

Interviews conducted by his grandson Jonathan F Vernon from 1989-1992. Recorded on digital audio tape and transcribed. Jack then reviewed a manuscript of large font printouts and added further notes, some in his own hand, some added by his grandson.

FOOTNOTES

The 103rd Brigade was formed on 27th April 1916 and joined the 34th Division.

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