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Fig.1. North of Poelcappelle approaching Houthulst Forest, 22nd October 1917.
(This action takes places around the pill boxes of Egypt House, a three compartment German concrete block house and Courage Post. It was becoming chilly – 13 C, and was overcast with a little rain).
When I arrived at the pill box (Courage Post) there were four of them.
‘Gartenfeld’s head was split right down the middle as if he’d been hit with an axe’.
They’d dragged him out round the side.
(Henry Godliph Gartenfeld died on Monday the 22nd October 1917)
Dick Piper was in the pill box.
‘Dick must have been standing with his head ducked down just outside the pill box’.
A piece of shrapnel had dented his helmet, scraped his face and gone into his guts.
Blair had dragged him into one corner of this pill box and put him on his trench coat. When I found him he had a sandbag tucked up under his legs so that his knees were up over his elbow.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked and took a look.
His guts were hanging out all over the place.
“How are things?” I asked Dick.
“Pull my legs up, Jack.” He said, “Pull my legs up.”
So I packed another sandbag under his legs to stop his guts falling out.
You had a bandage and a tube of iodine fixed into the tunic. Never much use.
He died some time in the afternoon.
I left him a bit ‘til he stiffened up; that’s what you did. They were easier to move like that. I got his pay book and credentials, dragged him out of the pill box and covered him up with some bits of rubble – whatever I could find. That’s all you could do. Imagine – having to bury your friends like that.
Dick Piper was 45 years old. He shouldn’t have been there.
He was from the Lancashire Fusiliers. Another one who died on the 22nd October 1917. His body was never found. I knew the spot though. It broke my heart to stand there 90 years on, dwelling on the lives they had missed, their families and how they had died like that all those years ago.
Such a waste.
Fig.2. August 1992. Mr John A Wilson MM ‘Jack’ – recalling events north of Ypres on the Passchendaele Salient. He marked the spot where Henry Gartenfeld and Dick Piper died. He was a corporal in charge of two guns, one in a pill box constructed against Egypt Farm, known as Egypt House, the second called ‘Courage Post’.
Further north there were the remnants of the Belgium army … there had been this attack to try and get this forest. It was doomed to failure from the start.
Two weeks before there’d been a lad stuck in one of these shell-holes; they couldn’t get to him. It was too exposed.
He must have drowned or died of his wounds.
A horrible way to go that. Not being able to help yourself and slipping into the mud. I wanted a clean end to it – a bullet through the head.
Your rations were mainly corned beef and a few dog biscuits.
When I say dog biscuits they were dog biscuits, they were like bricks. No bread. Your tea and sugar was tied into a corner of a sandbag. No milk. There might be two or three tins of beans and some jam. And you took your water in a two gallon petrol can.
Two days was the limit in there; I was in for a week.
You only went in with two day’s rations. It was so bad, the conditions, they couldn’t get anyone out … the shelling, the conditions …
We finished up there filtering shell-hole water through handkerchief.
They couldn’t send anyone in to relieve us.
On the way in I came across these guardsmen, eight or nine, lying in a shell-hole as though they were asleep.
(They were Gough’s XIV Corps. Guards. From the 38 Division commanded by General Lord of Cavan. They’d been held up on the west bank of the Steenbeck. Gas had been used by Jerry on as attacks had been made on Houthulst Forrest)
Get a dose of that and your lungs were ruined.
They were not like an ordinary shell.
Gas came over like a dud.
You could see down this path from Courage Post right into the forest. It was facing the wood where Jerry was. There was no barbed wire, just all shell-holes and mud.
It had been raining heavily since the beginning of October.
The ground was like porridge. Parts of the front and turned into a lake. Simply getting to a front position was exhausting as you had to wade through this ooze and negotiate the rims of shell-holes.
(The rainfall in August 1917 over Northern France and Belgium was twice the August average. In fact, there were only three days that entire month when there was no rain).
Streams pushed their way through the crumbling banks of the craters and linked into impassable lakes of liquid mud. On the surface of the water there’d be an iridescent smear of oil. or it was green from gas on a puddle.
If you saw a film of red streaking the surface it didn’t take much imagination to guess what else was down there.
And the smell. It made you wretch.
There was no getting used to the stink from all the mess, body parts, rotting away … a lads inside, heads, limbs, hands … you can’t imagine the horror of it.
Even if you buried them it didn’t take much to blow them out of the ground.
Jerries, Tommies, mules and horses. The only thing that lived out there were rats and they had a feast of it.
This was when I heard this kid in this dung heap by the stream shouting for his mother.
I don’t know if he’d been hit or fallen in but it stopped me in my tracks.
There was a bit of an embankment down to the stream. When it rained it was like a river, full of frogs and all this filth. On the other side there was this shell hole. All I could see was his head and shoulders sticking up above the mud.
Shell holes could be 30-50ft deep.
They quickly filled with water which formed a muddy sludge of body bits, broken equipment and what not. This was behind the pill-box they named Egypt House 200-300 yards short of Houthulst Forest.
I leant down to get this lad, mind you with all that mud I might have slipped in myself. The remnants of the Belgian army were nearby.
The line faced the Ypres Canal with Houthulst Forest on the other side
There’d been this attack to try to get around Houthulst forest which the French had taken on the 9th October. Doomed to failure from the start. That July the French had held a short piece of the line between Boesinghe and the Yser after which the remnants of the Belgians took over.
“Mother, mother.” He was saying.
So I grabbed this lad’s shoulder-belt and told him to help himself.
“Kick man, kick. You’ll have to get yourself out of this one.” I said.
He kicks about and I get him onto the duckboards.
“I can’t wait.” I tell him.
You couldn’t stand around out there with all the shooting going on.
And off I went.
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 and make a bit of shelter with corrugated sheeting.
They’d been trench mortared.
This Birmingham lad had been hit in the shoulder with a trench mortar fragment. They brought him to my gun as the duckboard led back from it. Other than that you were walking through the mud.
There were meant to be four in a team, but it never got up to scratch, it was more like two. We were organised in four sections: A,B,C,D. The joke was they had us training in teams of Five at Grantham; that was never going to happen, not the need and not the man power.
I said to this Birmingham lad, “You’ve got a Blighty.”
I kept him there ‘til late. Blair had him taken away.
I saw Blair a few days later. He told me this lad had died.
Blair was the Section Officer; Williams was the C.O.
(The edge of Houthulst Forest was reached by XIV Corps and the French in an attack on the 9th October 1917.
On the 12th October the XIV Corps entered the forest. Haig wanted to force the enemy to evacuate the Forest; an objective he continued to push for throughout October 1917).
As machine-gunners we were sent in to hold the position.
This is what I learnt after the war, the whys and wherefores; what I was doing in that stink.
I was in the spot at least four times.
Second Battle of Passchendale 26th October – 10th October 1917
Before the big push around Houthulst Forest during the Ypres Offensive, the Brigadier gave us a lecture. He told us that one machine gun could hold up an entire brigade.
One night we came out on a compass bearing, otherwise you could walk into Jerry’s line.
Various items weren’t standard issue. I got myself a compass because I didn’t fancy wondering into the Jerry Lines. I had a Liquid Luminous Compass that cost £2 19s 6d. It came from F Davidson, Great Portland Street. I couldn’t help me dodge a bullet, but at least it told me where I was.
We were out into the mud and Jack Walsh was carrying the gun and a leather case with the spare.
We’re hurrying along and Jack shouts.
“I’ve lost the case with the spares in the mud.”
I went back and here he is probing in the mud for the leather case.
“Come on, leave the darn thing.” I said.
Walsh was killed on the 16th November 1917. He was 22.
Fig. 1 Egypt House to Houthulst Forest, Poelcapelle, North East of Ypres
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.”
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.
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?
- Some job – manning a machine gun (machineguncorps.com)
- Hell on Earth: The never before seen colour photographs of the bloody battle of Passchendaele (warhistoryonline.com)
- World War One centenary: Welsh towns to remember Victoria Cross winners (walesonline.co.uk)
Fig.1. International Corner, North of Poperinghe on the N321. The resting spot for the 104 MCG. By Paul Reed.
Our rest spot was International Corner, some seven or eight miles back from Passchendeale.
Fig.2. ‘International Corner’ is on the N321 east of the Abbey of St. Sixtus which is marked here. This is where J A Wilson MM of the Machine Gun Corps rested when out of the line during the Third Battle of Ypres, 1917
(This action takes between International Corner, the communications trenches across the Yser Carnal torwards Pilkem, Langermarke, Poelcappelle and Houthulst Forest)
“We used to get a daily paper. It was in the Daily Mail that an attack by the enemy had been frustrated, or words to that effect … ‘Enemy driven back with heavy casualties’. It was all lies. We knew because we just happened to know what had happened’.
I played football once at right-back against the trench mortar battery. It was during the winter and the ground was all icy. I went down on one knee and gashed it badly on a lump of ice.
‘We were called in from rest at one time to give support to the Canadians who were attacking Pilkem Ridge’. (Clearly the MCG were a peripatetic group who would be called in as and where required. This may have been around the 26th October as the 3rd Canadian Division moved toward Passchendaele. The Battle of Pilckem Ridge was earlier, 31st July to 2nd August).
We carried in ammunition, there were 250 rounds in a tin box.
When you were out of the line for a bit rest you could always bet your boots on a good Salvation Army tent.
They give you writing paper and all the rest of it. You couldn’t write letters without them being checked. I don’t know what we would have done without them, they were excellent. I always give them something when they come to the door.
There were rats on the Yser-Ypres canal bank at Boesinghe, that was real fun.
This was around November. There were all these holes; we’d bung them up with sods of earth and stick some cordite in the last one, slam some more turfs over it and wait for them to go off. You’d think the whole bank-side was ablaze and the rats. We’d try and hit them with bayonets and spades. They’d be down into the water and this little terrier which belonged to the cook would go in after them.
We tried to shoot fish with a gun.
We never got them. Someone would throw in a Mills Bomb, what we called a pineapple or just a ‘bomb.’ They’re called hand-grenades now.
Lice were a menace.
Get too close to the brazier in your dug out and you’d start itching. We used to do all sorts to try and get rid of them. If you took a candle and ran it along the seams you could burn them out. I remember once, it was in the middle of winter, I had a chance to give my shirt a clean – you only had the one. I hung it outside on a bit of line over night.
The next morning, you bugs, despite the frost the lice were still alive.
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.
As machine-gunners our job was to hold the position.
It was pot luck if you were in the font line or on relief when there was an attack. We were used as a defensive weapon; we’d let off a few rounds on a regular basis to make sure Jerry got the idea and kept his head down. If there was an attack you fired point blank – as many rounds as you could get off with out overheating the barrel.
Gun teams were supposed to be made up of five.
There was meant to be a gunner, that was me, someone to feed the belt, one on supplies; another on spares and a fifth as an ammunition carrier. Two was more common. The canvas belts we had held 250 rounds that gave a burst of 30 seconds releasing 500 shots per minute. The machine gun was used like a piece of artillery. Often all we did was lay down a barrage of bullets 1000 yards away, so you wouldn’t see the poor blighters who were getting it in the head.
I could show you a map in the training book set out for machine gun fire.
It’s marvellous how all the Front’s covered. In an attack with a heavy Vicker’s Gun anybody trying to get through was bound to be hit in the crossfire. As a machine gunner you went in to hold a position once they had secured it. There’s a post up and that’s your firing line, otherwise you guessed the range. You’re blasting away, not continuous, just give it a burst.
The alternative was if you saw Jerry coming at you then it was up to you to do your best.