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14 November 2016 Diary of the First World War

butte-de-warlencourt

British local advance east of Butte de Warlencourt – 100 years ago today.

It is my indulgence and joy to be working up ‘Diary of the War’ and adding to The Times Diary of the War excerpts from the Somme Day by Day and Les 300 Jours de Verdun : neither produce a satisfying read, not a story on the day, but rather fragments scattered across Europe (east, west and south) and the oceans.

What it needs, as I recall York Museum doing, is having a variety of ‘timelines’ geared in turn to a younger or older male and female, or perhaps the reference to a survivor, so that we see the war through their eyes.

Hurriedly an event is created for a talk Tom or by Sir Richard Evens on the ‘Pursuit of Power’ – too late for it to reap its rewards but I downloaded his book and am about to read.

Having walked Evie around Stanley Turner, picked up a repeat prescription and bought some food to feed me and an ill TBT who is at home rather than college, I had planned to spend some time in The Keep only to find I have lost my reader’s ticket and on getting there I find it is closed on Mondays.

Giving the need to feed TBT up I made a casserole with lamb.

Meanwhile, I grab at every book I might read, suggested by contacts and colleagues.

Meanwhile, in the back of my mind I want to be in France, potentially back in Bourg St Maurice.

Swimming: assessments.

Grade 4s followed by Grade 5s. So I impressed with their progress I push both groups to be assessed at the higher grade. The sessions are based on an IM, with dives and drills, picking out collective faults to fix. Though doing this for 14 years I come to appreciate now how vital it is to ensure that every swimmers knows and understands exactly what it is they are expected to do. With one drill, ‘backstroke hesitation’ I will now lie on the poolside to show how the arm should be pointing straight up to the ceiling; fir breaststroke arms I get them out and lean over a railing to show how they need to keep the pull in front of the shoulders and get the arms out smartish.

Home to the lamb stew, a Black Mirror short and Robert Twigger’s book ‘White Mountain’.

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The myth of the machine gun in the First World War and how it came about.

In the final chapter of ‘Machine Gun and the Great War’ Paul Cornish consider those who, in the 75 years after the First World War, ‘seized upon the machine gun as a symbol of both the carnage and the ‘stalemate’ of the Western Front.’ Paul Cornish (2009 : 141)

Debunking myths is my favourite game wherever my command of a subject is such that I feel I can do so with some credibility. I’ve been hooked on the First World War since childhood thanks to a grandfather who served and survived and lived well into his 90s. I’ve also been a sucker for the mythology of the war and too many warped and inventive interpretations of what actually took place. It has taken some serious, postgraduate study of the events of 1914-1918 to find I will chirp along with contemporary historians who are gradually turning the tide: generals were professional and did their utmost in the circumstances with the technology and tactics of the time; they were in more of a ‘learning race’ than on a learning curve constantly assessing ways to end the war. It rained, and inevitably with the volume of shells used the ground was churned into a pulp. But the quagmire was isolated geographically, and seasonally, and the experience of those ‘in the line’ for short spells, rather than the lot of everyone, many of whom would be out on reserve. Cavalry was used, but usually held back. The few times they were used, and often successfully, far from man and horse being thrown at a barrage of machine gun and shell fire, they were sent in where a gap, very occasionally appeared, dismounted, and dug in. Commanding Officers and junior officers were killed in disproportionately high numbers: they led their troops. Staff Officers, rightly held back went to great lengths to plan ahead in a conflict so massive that it became known as an ‘industrial’ war and ‘Total War.’

Winston Churchill (1927) got it wrong in his histories, such as ‘The World Crisis’ writing, ‘fighting machine-gun bullets with the breasts of gallant  men … ‘ in which eloquence replaces hard fact. Cornish (2009 : 142)

Basil Liddell Hart, got it wrong … energetic and self-promoting, he held an idiosyncratic view of the First World War too often espousing radical tactical theories that ‘drove him to take issue with most aspects of British First World War strategy and tactics.’ Cornish (2009 : 142) While through his web of contacts Liddell Hart influenced, cajoled or simply fed the biased views formed by others, not least, the self-agrandising, blame-shifting Lloyd George …Cornish (2009 : 143).

The myth grew through the Second World War and due to the fifty year rule then in place authors had to rely on second hand sources, many of which prolonged this false view. A new wave of Great War histories, from In Flanders Fields by Leon Wolff and Lions Led by Donkeys by Alan Clark, the former a protégé of Liddell Hart, followed. Eloquent, commanding, controversial and if read again fifty years after their publication sounding less like history and more like satire and harsh, relentless one-sided opinion. Historians such as A J P Taylor were also tainted by the Liddell Hart school of thinking making quite false claims for the impact of the machine gun compounded by the popular press and stories of ‘daring do’ as our brave Tommies took on machine guns nests. Cornish points also to a massively reproduced section of film from the Battle of the Somme film, seen by over 20 million at the time, an including a shot that is supposedly of ‘Tommy going over the top.’ This sequence was shot behind the lines in a training area. It shows a number of men stumble on the lip of the trench. Close scrutiny, now possibly in the HD DVD release, shows one men fall, then roll onto his back, lift his head as if putting it on a pillow, turn to camera and cross his legs! Cornish rightly points out, as filmmakers have found right up to this century, that is is easy to have an extra ‘fall’ as if shot, than have them eviscerated, limbs and other body parts splattered into the air and earth – the reality of the real killer: artillery.

Cornish goes on to make a compelling argument of why, how and when the machine gun has been used in modern culture, from Westerns for gangster films, as a symbol for the ‘machine’ weapon taking over. He is critical of the poet David Jones, who reworked second hand views of the First World War harking back to ancient battles and the curtain drawn by the machine gun and the First World War. ‘ The repetition of such an easily grasped theme eventually established a new orthodoxy.’ Cornish (2009 : 144)

The view only started to turn back with writers such as the historian Dan Todman in the Daily Telegraph 1986 who recognised how popular perceptions of the First World War had come about and had been reduced to images of ‘ranks of brave men ordered forward through barbed wire and quagmire to throw themselves fruitlessly at fortified machine-gun positions.’ (19)

Cornish would suggest that this false impression of the First World War was reaching its apotheosis by the mid-1980s: ‘the elements of the modern popular conception of the First World War – mud, incompetent (usually British) generals, wire, mud, as the dynamic element – machine guns.’ Cornish (2009 : 144) Only since the 1990s did historians in any number start to return with force, armed with facts from original sources, to question the myths and reestablish the facts; it may take ’til the end of these the ‘centennial years’ 2014-2018 to adjust popular misconceptions: though ill-informed directors risk continuing to get it wrong, feeding the public with invention and myth, rather than the reality: war is no less horrific today, as it was 100 years ago. People die ghastly deaths.

Cornish doesn’t mention either the popular TV series from Catherine Cookson ‘The Cinder Path’ or ‘the final series of Blackadder, ‘Blackadder goes Forth’ yet both of these reinforced the ideas of the idiot officer sending his men to certain death against a barrage of machine gun bullets. Curiously, these programmes are united: they used the same pieces of studio-shot trench reconstruction for their climatic scenes.

Cornish concludes by making us question the work of another First World War favourite, Lyn Macdonald, who eloquently tries paints a picture and sums up the words of the many veterans with whom she spoke and so often quotes naming the machine gun ‘The Queen of the Battlefield’ and the ‘Grim Reaper’ without acknowledging that veterans themselves have had their own perceptions and stories subtly altered by many decades of popularism. Cornish (2009 : 144)

“When I was fighting fit, mind.”

This is a line my late grandfather used all his life. He had many sayings – all from the First World War. Another one was “your teeth are your pearls” and “you can shove it where the monkey puts its nuts.” He was active into his mid-90s, attending the 75th anniversary commemoration of Third Ypres, the Battle of Passchendaele in July 1992; he was 96. He only stopped driving when he was told his poor eyesight had gone beyond correction age 93. And until late 1992 he walked a couple of miles back and forth to his daughter’s house to mow the lawn, clear the leaves from the drive and gutters … or change the oil in her car.

A passing curiosity about how they got the men fit during the First World War and blow me I find a book came out on it last year … and there’s even a museum all about it. The ‘Royal Army Physical Training Museum’ in Aldershot, England.

I suppose the next step would be to give some of the training ago in my local gym: boxercise might be the closest it gets. I can’t see there being bayonet training allowed. What did soldier’s say about training at the time? Some hated it? Some loved it? My grandfather likened his Sergeant Major to Oliver Hardy of ‘Laurel and Hardy’ – said he was a jovial character who used to bring some of his children down to the parade ground and the soldiers would give them rides on their shoulders! That’s not the image of physical training in the army you usually get on films about soldiering.

Why I found the “1914: When the World Changed Forever” at York Castle Museum such a worthwhile visit

If I have time on my hands in a town I’ve not visited for a while I might wander by the war memorial. During these centenary years of 1914-18 you might even find a museum: a local exhibition on a regional division or local battalion, or a National Trust property that was used as a hospital. Until 2019 York Castle Museum has the WW1 exhibition:

1914: When the World Changed Forever

York Castle Museum has ample space to spread its narrative. It offers visitors five carefully chosen narratives to follow; we might think of them as ‘personas.’ I wonder if from the start we could be invited to think specifically about a great grandparent or great uncle who may have served in the war. We are invited to think in turn about Alice, Thomas, John, Albert and John; the bookkeeper, the mechanic, woodman, shop assistant and a doctor. I wonder also about a child’s war, or others on the home front.

Who will you follow?

Fig. 1 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

My grandfather, Jack Wilson, was two weeks short of his 18th birthday when war was declared in August 1914. He’d already been working for four years as office boy then brewer’s clerk for the North Eastern Brewery, Consett, Co. Durham.

Fig.2. Studio Portrait of Private John Arthur Wilson, DLI (before transfer to the Machine Gun Corps) This picture was used by the Consett Gazette in 1917 when Corporal Wilson of the MCG was awarded the Military Medal. 

My grandfather joined up a few months after his 19th birthday; a few of them from the office went along from the office.  Jack’s kid brother Billy joined the RFC shortly after, lying about his age as he wasn’t even 17. He was a pilot within six months.

Can you think of someone from your family, or from your family history who joined up? Or who would have had a story such of those above? Do you know if someone from your street joined up? A typical street during the Great War would have seen most men, some far younger, some far older joining up and lying about their age. It can be a shock to discover just how many from your local school lost their lives.

The York Castle exhibition uses objects that would have been familiar to the typical recruit. For example, an eye-test as part of the medical.

Fig. 3 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

My grandfather Jack, age 19 did this at Mortimer Road School, South Sheilds, in November 1915. He repeated it at the Hotel Cecil at the beginning of 1918 as part of his transfer to the Royal Flying Corps over three years later. I took him for an eye test in 1989 when sadly he couldn’t even see the first letter and age 93 it was suggested that he didn’t drive any more. Whilst you could lie about your age, many 15 year olds got through, you couldn’t lie about your height. In 1914 you had to be 5ft 6in, though this soon dropped to 5ft 3in. To join the Guards you had to be 6ft … unless you were the Prince of Wales. Edward was 5ft 6in … he looks diminutive and childlike next to far taller, and fall older men. He had an interesting war which I am researching to cover his travels and travailles day by day.

Fig. 4 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

On 22nd October 1917 my grandfather buried the 42 year old Henry Gartenfeld. ‘He shouldn’t have been there. A married man with three kiddies.’ That’s how he talked about it. ‘It didn’t matter about me, not being a married man.’  The reality is that older men not only joined for patriotic reasons: they joined because they thought it a better alternative, than say working in the cotton mills or down a mine. 

Fig. 5 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

Here the exhibit in the York Castle Museum talks about the bible. Jack Wilson, who was transferred from the DLI to the ‘Suicide Squad’ the just forming Machine Gun Corps, prized matches about everything else. He swapped his cigarettes for matches whenever he could. He never smoked. One reason he lived to be 96 then. He didn’t drink much either, though worked in the brewery business for the better part of fifty years. He wasn’t a Quaker, but many were.

Fig. 6 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

I recognised this clasp knife because my grandfather had his and still used it 75 years after it was issued. I have it somewhere. A little oil and it is what I take sailing with me. As well as photos, a watch, a paybook, his Vicker’s Machine Gun manual, and his RAF Log Book and medals he had a couple of harmonicas from the war.

Fig. 7 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

My grandfather would play a few tunes when we were little; he was quite good. He could also do tricks with coins. These, and many other minor skills, such as repairing watches, he picked him in the trenches or out on reserve where for the bulk of the time you were looking for something to relieve the boredom. He often spoke of finding smashed up cars they would fix, or taking bits on one occasion from a plane that had come down near to their pill-box.

Fig. 8 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

Were these the standard issue? Great for a swap according to my late grandfather John Arthur Wilson MM. We’re asked to consider where each of our feature characters have got to by the end of 1914. A map of Western Europe pinpoints them. 

Fig. 9 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

If you haven’t caught any of the episodes yet it is worth listening to BBC Radio 4’s drama serial ‘Homefront.’ It’s back from the 25th May.

The choices have been carefully made for this exhibition. It is intimate. My ticket gives me entry for a full 12 months. Unfortunately I live 261 miles away at the other end of England. All the more reason to make these notes and to have all these pictures to remind me what I saw.

Fig. 10 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

Some of the most harrowing stories I heard from my grandfather were of the soldiers who took a long time to die. Dick Piper, a machine gunner like my grandfather, took a piece of shrapnel in the belly on the 21st October and died the following day. There was nothing to do for him other than put on dressings and make him comfortable by wedging bricks against his feet so that he could keep his legs pressed into his stomach. My grandfather described it as very matter of fact to wait until the body stiffened up before dragging it out and ‘burying’ it under rumble. 75 years later he marked the spot with a Commemoration Poppy. Imagine that. Returning to the very spot, where, on that occasion, two of his mates had died.

Fig. 11 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

On the edge of Houthulst Forest in late 1917 – he returned to pillboxes north of Poelcapelle repeatedly in October, November and December, my grandfather took a prisoner – this German soldier got lost in the early morning fog and simply wandered into the pillbox they’d taken from the Germans a few weeks earlier. He was with the MGC crew for the entire day showing off photograph, a Mausser Pistol that was taken off him and looking at the odd looking currency.

What have you discovered? 

Fig. 12 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum 

Every story you hear of the First World War fascinates. Everyone who took part, whether the volunteered or were conscripted, is a story where someone who last all that was familiar and near to them behind. 1/7th were killed.

Fig. 13 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum 

At the very end of 1917, have survived all of Third Ypres, my grandfather’s papers came through to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. It was 27th December. The officers wished him well, and gave him pictures of themselves. The company Sergeant gave him a Webley Revolver, just like this one. Saying he’ed have to buy one otherwise once he joined the RFC. He had this gun until there was a weapon’s amnesty in Britain and being a law-abiding man he handed it in.

Fig. 14 Kodak Box Brownie 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum 

As a flight cadet my grandfather had several months of training to get through. He started with military training at RAF Hastings, then to Bristol to learn aeronautics billeted in Haig’s alma mater, Clifton College. on to Uxbridge for bomb training and finally up to Scotland for flight training He bought a Kodak camera though and made a visual record of his RAF training between June 1918 and November 1918.

Fig. 15. Flight Cadet John Arthur Wilson MM. RAF Crail, September 1919, age 23. 

He stayed on with the RAF until February 1919 to help demob. Very sadly, in June 1919, his kid brother, who at 19 was a Flight Sergeant piloting bombers crashed over Belgium delivering mail.

We come to the end of the exhibition and are asked to think about our featured characters and what happened after the war.

 Fig. 16 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

My grandfather was lucky. He had survived unwounded. He returned to the job he had started as a boy of 14. He’d been away for over 3 1/2 years. Money put aside to him by work colleagues bought him a motorbike. Things weren’t to run smoothly though, recently married and with a one year old he was made redundant in 1932 when the North Eastern Brewery was sold to Vaux. He had 22 years service if you include the war years. He joined Scottish & Newcastle Brewery the following year and put in nearly 30 years with them. His war never ended. Growing up I was the grandchild who listened to his stories. How I envisaged these stories changed as my knowledge of the war grew. Out of the blue he’d say things like, “have I told you about the time … ?”

Fig. 17 John Arthur Wilson MM meeting Belgian dignitaries with his daughter, during the 75th anniversary commemoration of Third Ypres, the Battle of Passchendaele in July 1992 at the Menin Gate.

Jack attended the 75th anniversary of Third Ypres, Passchendaele in 1992 – one of five veterans that year. He also attended events marking the formation of the Machine Gun Corps and the formation of the RAF.

Fig.18 Memorial to the fallen of the York Law Society

At the end of the York Castle exhibition on the First World War visitors are invited chalk up a thought or memory on a series of large black boards. And finally we pass through an ante-room which features a couple of memorials to the fallen. These are made all the more heartbreaking when you think they could be your brother, son or father, where this 100 years ago. I find such memorials in schools harrowing. These days online you can find where everyone lived: it is a shock to learn that a father and so may have served and died who once lived in your house.

1914 When the world changed forever. What’s your story?

If I have time on my hands in a town I’ve not visited for a while I might wander by the war memorial. During these centenary years you might even find a museum: a local exhibition on a regional division or local battalion, or a house that was used as a hospital. Until 2019 York Castle Museum have the exhibtion:

1914: When the World Changed Forever

York Castle Museum has ample space to spread its narrative. It offers visitors carefully chosen narratives that a visitor might follow. I wonder if from the start they could be invited to think about a great grandparent or great uncle who may have served in the war. We are invited to think in turn about Alice, Thomas, John, Albert and John; the bookkeeper, the mechanic, woodman, shop assistant and a doctor.

Who will you follow?

Fig. 1 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

My grandfather, Jack Wilson, was two weeks short of his 18th birthday when war was declared in August 1914. He’d already been working for four years as office boy then brewer’s clerk for the North Eastern Brewery, Consett, Co. Durham.

Fig.2. Studio Portrait of Private John Arthur Wilson, DLI (before transfer to the Machine Gun Corps) This picture was used by the Consette Gazette in 1917 when Corporal Wilson of the MCG was awarded the Military Medal. 

My grandfather joined up a few months after his 19th birthday; a few of them from the office went along from the office.  Jack’s kid brother joined the RFC shortly after, lying about his age as he wasn’t even 17.

Can you think of someone from your family, or from your family history who joined up? Or who would have had a story such of those above? Do you know if someone from your street joined up? A typical street during the Great War would have seen most men, some far younger, some far older joining up and lying about their age. It can be a shock to discover just how many from the local school lost their lives.

The York Castle exhibition uses objects that would have been familiar to the typical recruit. For example, an eye-test as part of the medical.

Fig. 3 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

My grandfather Jack, age 18 did this test in the recruiting office, Consett in November 1915. He repeated it at the Hotel Cecil at the beginning of 1918 as part of his transfer to the Royal Flying Corps over three years later. I took him for an eye test in 1989 when sadly he could even see the first letter and age 93 it was suggested that he didn’t drive any more. Whilst you could lie about your age, many 15 year olds got it, you couldn’t fake your height. In 1914 you had to be 5ft 6in, though this soon dropped to 5ft 1in. To join the Guards you had to be 6ft … unless you were the Prince of Wales. Edward was 5ft 6in … he looks diminutive and childlike by far taller, and fall older looking men.

Fig. 4 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

On 22nd October 1917 my grandfather buried the 42 year old Henry Gartenfeld. ‘He shouldn’t have been there. A married man with three kiddies.’ That’s how my grandfather talked about it. ‘It didn’t matter about me, not being a married man.’  The reality is that older men not only joined for patriotic reasons: they joined because they thought it a better alternative, than say working in the cotton mills or down a mine. 

Fig. 5 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

Here the exhibit in the York Castle Museum talks about the bible. Jack Wilson, who was transferred from the DLI to the ‘Suicide Squad’ the just forming Machine Gun Corps, prized matches about everything else. He swapped his cigarettes for matches whenever he could. He never smoked. One reason he lived to be 96 then. He didn’t drink much either, though worked in the brewery business for the better part of fifty years. He wasn’t a Quaker, but many were.

Fig. 6 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

I recognised this clasp knife because my grandfather had his and still used it 75 years after it was issued. I have it somewhere. A little oil and it is what I take sailing with me. As well as photos, a watch, a paybook, his Vicker’s Machine Gun manual, and his RAF Log Book and medals he had a couple of harmonicas from the war.

Fig. 7 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

My grandfather would play a few tunes when we were little; he was quite good. He could also do tricks with coins. These, and many other minor skills, such as repairing watches, he picked him in the trenches or out on reserve where for the bulk of the time you were looking for something to relieve the boredom. He often spoke of finding smashed up cars they would fix, or taking bits on one occasion from a plane that had come down near to their pill-box.

Fig. 8 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

Were these the standard issue? Great for a swap according to my late grandfather John Arthur Wilson MM. We’re asked to consider where each of our feature characters have got to by the end of 1914. A map of Western Europe pinpoints them. 

Fig. 9 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

If you haven’t caught any of the episodes yet it is worth listening to BBC Radio 4’s drama serial ‘Homefront.’ It’s back from the 25th May.

The choices have been carefully made for this exhibition. It is intimate. My ticket gives me entry for a full 12 months. Unfortunately I live 261 miles away at the other end of England. All the more reason to make these notes and to have all these pictures to remind me what I saw.

Fig. 10 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

Some of the most harrowing stories I heard from my grandfather were of the soldiers who took a long time to die. Dick Piper, a machine gunner like my grandfather, took a piece of shrapnel in the belly on the 21st October and died the following day. There was nothing to do for him other than put on dressings and make him comfortable by wedging bricks against his feet so that he could keep his legs pressed into his stomach. My grandfather described it as very matter of fact to wait until the body stiffened up before dragging it out and ‘burying’ it under rumble. 75 years later he marked the spot with a Commemoration Poppy. Imagine that. Returning to the very spot, where, on that occasion, two of his mates had died.

Fig. 11 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

On the edge of Houthulst Forest in late 1917 – he returned to pillboxes north of Poelcapelle repeatedly in October, November and December, my grandfather took a prisoner – this German soldier got lost in the early morning fog and simply wandered into the pillbox they’d taken from the Germans a few weeks earlier. He was with the MGC crew for the entire day showing off photograph, a Mausser Pistol that was taken off him and looking at the odd looking currency.

What have you discovered? 

Fig. 12 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum 

Every story you hear of the First World War fascinates. Everyone who took part, whether the volunteered or were conscripted, is a story where someone who last all that was familiar and near to them behind. 1/7th were killed.

Fig. 13 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum 

At the very end of 1917, have survived all of Third Ypres, my grandfather’s papers came through to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. It was 27th December. The officers wished him well, and gave him pictures of themselves. The company Sergeant gave him a Webley Revolver, just like this one. Saying he’ed have to buy one otherwise once he joined the RFC. He had this gun until there was a weapon’s amnesty in Britain and being a law-abiding man he handed it in.

Fig. 14 Kodak Box Brownie 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum 

As a flight cadet my grandfather had several months of training to get through. He started with military training at RAF Hastings, then to Bristol to learn aeronautics billeted in Haig’s alma mater, Clifton College. on to Uxbridge for bomb training and finally up to Scotland for flight training He bought a Kodak camera though and made a visual record of his RAF training between June 1918 and November 1918.

Fig. 15. Flight Cadet John Arthur Wilson MM. RAF Crail, September 1919, age 23. 

He stayed on with the RAF until February 1919 to help demob. Very sadly, in June 1919, his kid brother, who had joined the RFC as a 17 year old and at 19 only was a Flight Sergeant, crashed his bomber over Belgium delivering mail.

We come to the end of the exhibition and are asked to think about our featured characters and what happened after the war.

 Fig. 16 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum  

My grandfather was lucky. He had survived unwounded. He returned to the job he had started as a boy of 14. He’d been away for over 3 1/2 years. Money put aside to him by work colleagues bought him a motorbike. Things weren’t to run smoothly though, recently married and with a one year old he was made redundant in 1932 when the North Eastern Brewery was sold to Vaux. He had 22 years service if you include the war years. He joined Scottish & Newcastle Brewery the following year and put in nearly 30 years with them. His war never ended. Growing up I was the grandchild who listened to his stories. How I envisaged these stories changed as my knowledge of the war grew.

FIg. 17 John Arthur Wilson MM meeting Belgian dignitaries with his only daughter, during the 75th anniversary commemoration of Third Ypres, the Battle of Passchendaele in July 1992 at the Menin Gate.

Jack attended the 75th anniversary of Third Ypres, Passchendaele in 1992 – one of five veterans that year. He also attended events marking the formation of the Machine Gun Corps and the formation of the RAF.

Fig.18 Memorial to the fallen of the York Law Society

At the end of the York Castle exhibition on the First World War visitors are invited chalk up a thought or memory on a series of large black boards. And finally we pass through an ante-room which features a couple of memorials to the fallen. These are made all the more heartbreaking when you think they could be your brother, son or father, where this 100 years ago. I find such memorials in schools harrowing.

Fig. 19 Lewes War Memorial Pinned.

The above shows where those commemorated on the memorial lived. In some houses both a father and son were lost. In several streets every other door had a son, husband, father or brother a fatality. School parties walking passed these houses are left in tears. Imagine how many of your friends you lost.

My grandfather said of those who joined the DLI in November 1915 within him only he returned. Whilst 18 months in the Machine Gun Corps appeared ‘suicidal’ with his transfer to train with the Royal Flying Corps he was given 11 months grace and the war ended. His training had been delayed by influenza on the ground, then dreadful weather which delayed his training. My grandfather always regretted not getting back to the Western Front to ‘have a go at the Hun.’

13 albums of images and grabs relating to the First World War

‘Grabbed’ and curated for a multitude of reasons I compile these albums while researching a topic, to put family photographs in one place, to pull together a theme that interests me and often to remind me of great TV and films on the First World War. Links are easily made from these to blog posts.

WW1 – Bite and Hold

‘Bite and Hold’ pulls together charts and book covers, and images from the Third Battle of Passchendaele used to put together arguments for the actions taken by the British Army in 1917 as something less than futile.

WW1 – On Film & TV

‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ was my grandfather’s favourite film of the First World War. I was able to take a portable TV and VHS cassette player to show him the film in his my 90s.

WW1 – Talbot House, Poperinge

Talbot House is remarkable spot today as it was 100 years ago. As well as the museum and gardens you can stay there a few nights too. There’s a health contemporary link to local schools and colleges with a curious studio full of artworks themed from the war.

WW1 – Why did Great Britain go to war in 1914

A question that everyone must have regarding the First World War is what caused its outbreak. The BBC TV series got close, though for academic answers publications of many original documents courtesy of the likes of Annika Mombauer make it clearer still.

WW1 FL Memorials

For decades I have stopped to read war memorials across the UK and even when working in France. I didn’t always photograph these, but those I have photographed recently I have added here. I have boxes of slides somewhere that need to be digitised. These were pulled together to share in a recent online course on FutureLearn on Trauma and Memory.

WW1 Heroism

These were pulled together to share in a recent online course on FutureLearn on Trauma and Memory.

WW1 Ypres 2013

96 years after my grandfather passed through here I spent a few days between Poperinge, Ypres and Houthulst Forest walking in the paths he took and establishes where the piillboxes where he operated a machine gun could have been.

WW1- Great War Diaries

Grabs recalling the very best series of war diaries reconstructed I have yet seen during these centenary years.

WW1-First World War

A bulk collection of everything I have on the First World War, some 800+ images from books, albums and magazines.

WW1-In Flanders Fields – Ypres 2013

The wonderful ‘In Flanders Fields’ museum in Ypres is an inspiration.

WW1-IWM BBC WW1

Thinking through ideas related to how the First World War is commemorated.

WW1-Jack Wilson MM

Everything I have from my late grandfather: his photographs, as well as photographs of his medals, logbook and other bits and pieces. Here are every map and image I’ve thus far found that could help to illustrate his story from Shotley Bridge, County Durham to northern France, the Somme, Ypres and then through training with the Royal Air Force in 1918.

WW1-Passchendale DbyD

Of all the battles this is the one where my grandfather served in key events: Langemark and Passchendaele in particular going in and out of the line on several occasions – surviving where many of his friends died and receiving the Military Medal for keeping the gun in action over a week in Courage Post on the front looking into Houthulst Forest in late October 1917.

How has our image of heroism changed over the last 100 years in the context of the 100th anniversary of the First World War?

World War 1: Changing Faces of Heroism. University of Leeds [Three Weeks] (4 hours a week) 72% completed

Another interesting take on the First World War that is able to be very broad in it its reach as participants work together to understand what heroism does and has meant. There is an interesting exercise to curate our own galleries of images and share images and information about memorials that have resonance to us.

WORLD WAR 1: A HISTORY IN 100 STORIES

WORLD WAR 1: A HISTORY IN 100 STORIES: Monash University [Six Weeks] (4 hours pw)
6% [Just started]

With its heart in Australia and the experience of ANZAC combatants and families this course has a rich variety of contributors and approaches. There are the mandatory short ‘pieces to camera’ by academics and contributors, but also short films, further reading to follow and a modest written assignment – to write an epitaph.

One’s first impression of the First World War should be the right one

Fig. 1. All Quiet on the Western Front

A student’s first impression of the First World War should be the right one.

Life was largely spent out of the trenches rather than in: on field marches, labouring, resting, training … or filling the time out of boredom. I only recently came across ‘Tartans’ – detailed charts showing week by week where a battalion were … for many it was months out of the line then a week or two in and out of the line.

Blackadder cannot and does not get close to ‘living’ in a trench: the constant threat of death, atrocious conditions, friends being injured and dying horrible deaths. Soldiers learnt and knew the sound of every kind of shell going over to fill the time. And whilst communications with High Command could not be direct there is a largely excellent rapport between infantry and officers.

Nor were the only ‘posh’ public school idiots. Many staffers applied for and get commissions in the trenches – begged for it. Yes, the five minutes of the last episode are moving, better though to show ‘For King and Country’, or ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ …. even ‘Johnny Got his Gun’ or the extraordinary Metallica video and rock song to that film. I hope ‘Testament of Youth’ does the job.

How an image of the where and how my grandfather fought during the First World War has changed over 45 years

Fig. 1. How the six-eight year old me thought a farmhouse in the Ypres Salient looked like during the First World War in October 1917

For 45 years I have dwelt on how the images in my head associated with stories my grandfather told me about the First World War changed from those of a six year old, to an eleven year old, through my thirties and forties … my childhood conception of the imagined world depended on the little I had personally seen and experienced. When my grandfather spoke of keeping his machine gun in a pillbox pointing at a farmhouse held by ‘Jerry’ For three days I at first pictured an intact farm building, the kind I often saw in a rolling and lush Northumbrian landscape, with the heavy stone walls and full deciduous trees I knew from being driven down bouncy country lanes north east of Alnwick heading for Chathill and our fisherman’s holiday cottage in Beadnell.

The pillbox in my imagination would have had to been like those left from the Second World War on the beach that my brother and I played in – and used as a urinal.

Fig.2. The reality of life on the Front Line

Age eleven a few ghastly black and white pictures from the First World War and the title sequence from the BBC Series ‘The Great War’ coloured my imagination: it added a soundtrack, skulls and broken trees, but not the scale, nor the mud, not the rain, the cold, thirst and hunger. Although he could mimmick every shell the sound effects my grandfather made could never get close to the terrifying sound os something large and dangerous approaching and then the almighty bang that followed.

In my twenties I got to the Ypres Salient in summer: it was dry, a new autoroute split and the noise of traffic created a barrier. Several TV efforts at recreating the war failed, not least as my thoughts expended to take in the thoughts of a what it meant to be a young man in those conditions, that you were in and out for a bout of two or three days. The rest of the time if not on fatigues or carrying parties you were looking for things to do.

Fig. 3. The reality. A ‘camouflaged’ pillbox, recently taken while a couple of hundred yards beyond that low, light grey strip is a similar pillbox still in enemy hands.

‘Not a worm could live.” My grandfather would say. He lived, as did the German who in error entered my grandfather’s pillbox and got clobbered for his trouble.

Only now, thoroughly immersed in hundreds of curated photographs and having looked on destroyed, wet massively scarred landscapes from open mining, having smelt rotting flesh – not human, but a dead sheep several days gone, am I starting to develop a true image. With teenage children of my own it is too easy to imagine the horror of sending them to war. Images of what happens to a body when hit by shrapnel or bullets, or blown apart by shells are readily available.

Fig 4. As it was. The dead behind a stone wall. The very same image my grandfather had while he sat it out in the remains of a recently captured ‘Jerry’ strongpoint.

There is little left for my imagination to do, other than to see another drama reconstruction and feel that nothing has done it better than ‘All Quiet on the Western Front.’ It looks dated, somehow caught in the early 1970s when it was finally made, but ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ leaves you with the desired sense of hopelessness, horror and despair that one ought to have.

Fig.5. Returning to ‘Courage Post’ to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. Corporal John Arthur Wilson MM recalls too friends who died at his side and that he buried in the rubble never to be found. 

75 years after leaving that pillbox with two friends buried my 96 year old grandfather broke down: telling his stories as stories had been his escape from it, but back on the same soil, at the very spot with the light and low landscape just as it had been it once again had become horribly real. He withered away after that as if the reality of the war brought home to him made him whither from the inside out.

I know this part of the world well enough to walk it, step by step from the bivouacs outside Poperinghe, over the Yser Canal, through Langermarck and along the light rail track, then used to move men and matériel, now a cycle path. On towards Houthulst forest and the exact location of his machine gun company’s HQ at ‘Egypt House’ (a three roomed concrete strongpoint built into a farm building) and on another 300 yards to ‘Courage Post’ a pillbox on the edge of the road into the ‘forest’ – then ten thousand shards of broken tree trunks, now, buried in its midst, where they handled, until very recently, and destroyed old munitions from the extensive battlefield.

For all this ‘Jerry’ to me is still a black cartoon cat and the ‘Hun’ something barbaric from the fall of the Romans as a drawing in a Ladybird book. We are our own film directors when it comes to reading; an author is a catalyst to our thoughts that can conjure up anything – which, in part, is the fun of it. We inhabit a world of our own in the orchestra of our minds, the author the composer, as readers we conduct, as listeners or viewers the director injects a piece of their own mind.

Parts of ‘Lord of the Rings’ is more evocative of the conflict of two massive armies than much that I have seen or read – and I have seen and read most of it, including now one divisional history after another, and long out of print obscure autobiographies. It has created an image in my head. Of a screwball world where the daily job was to plan and execute slaughter against the enemy on a massive scale – slaughter than in those days treated men like so many bullets, shells or mules to expend, the only fear being whether or not they could be replaced.

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