Sunday, 13 December 2009

R/23703 L/Cpl Arnold Marshall, 8th KRRC

Synopsis

Arnold Fitz George Marshall was born at Sowerby Bridge, Yorkshire, on the 16th August 1893. He was working in a cotton mill when Britain went to war in 1914 and he attested under the Derby Scheme on 11th December 1915. Four months later he was called up, and four months after that, he was in France.

I interviewed Arnold Marshall at his home in Chelmsford, Essex on 14th April 1984 and he died in Chelmsford in October 1991 at the grand old age of 98.

Interview

AM:
Yes well, I joined up because I was bound to do , in the spring of 1916 and I joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. We were trained at Blyth in Northumberland. The training only lasted three months and then I was out in France in August the same year. They were sending them out pretty fast then. They must have been getting short of soldiers.

We went across to Le Havre and from there we were trained and went to the front. September 15th was my first engagement, 1916. That was when the tanks were used for the first time. I shall never forget that as long as I live. There we were in the slit trenches at the back of the tanks all that night previous, waiting to advance behind the tanks the morning after, at dawn. I remember these things, there was one directly in front of me and well, the signal was given, I forget how. But we went over anyway at dawn behind the tanks. It was a shambles, a horrible shambles. That was the first time I saw a dead man, oh I saw scores of them.

Me, I had a friend and he lived in Elland not far from me and we’d become a bit pally. We both joined up, we went over together and as I say, we advanced, oh a thousand yards, no more and then of course we had to dig ourselves in at the finish. We saw a lot of the tanks knocked out. They were going to end the war with those tanks, so they told us but it didn’t of course. They were easily knocked out.

PN:
What part of the front were you on there, do you know?

AM:
It were the Somme part. It was the second battle of the Somme. The first was in July of that year – the first battle of the Somme - and I was in the second on September 15th.

PN:
Can you remember what your objective was?

AM:
It was the Somme front. I can’t remember any of the French [village] names now. I never got out of the Somme front, I were always in. We were pushing ahead all the time. I was in the Battle of Arras in 1917, the following Easter. Easter Monday was the Battle of Arras and I was in that. That was pushing a bit further still and that was the first time they had the Lancers, the horse cavalry. They were all wiped out practically, it was a shambles was that. We saw them pass us, we were in trenches waiting. I was in reserve just then, I wasn’t actually in the front line, not for the Battle of Arras. We were moved up afterwards, after a few days. And as I say, the Easter Monday the cavalry went over and they looked fine with their pennants and horses but I remember them coming back and what a shambles, very few came back that day. It was snowing by the way. It was white with snow that Easter Monday 1917.

We stayed there six days digging ourselves in after we’d gone through – Thiepval that was one place – all in front of Arras. We were brought away and I saw poor old chaplain killed. He was moving amongst the troops you know, helping us to dig in but he got hit. I saw that and it upset me a bit.

Eventually of course we kept going in and out of the line, six days or seven days at a time from the front line, then we’d come back in to reserve and occasionally [have leave]. I only ever came on leave once in 1917. I became engaged then to my wife. That was in the autumn of 1917 and I went back again and then it was on to Passchendaele Ridge where we eventually got, and a foot of mud about. Terrible. And that’s where I got it.

I was going up in the line, carrying a bag of bombs one night to serve the front line – these Mills bombs – and I felt a sharp pain and I ruptured myself because I slipped. Well when we got out they sent me down the line and the doctors fitted me up with a truss and a shocking thing it was: metal truss. I couldn’t walk with it, I couldn’t dig so I threw it into no-man’s land one night. I thought, here’s a present for you old Jerry. Fortunately or unfortunately, that Christmas day I was wounded, on Christmas night of 1917 on Passchendaele Ridge.

There was no trenches. One platoon would be in a big shell hole and to get to the next in another shell hole you’d to go over the top. There were no communication trenches. Each platoon were in its own big shell hole and this Christmas Eve I was detailed along with some more to go down to where they were going to be brought out of the line on Boxing Day and we had to practice going down the line which was about five miles of duckboards [or] what were left of them.

Well we did it alright on the Christmas Eve because it rained, rained and rained and there was a blackout. There was a sniper and he’d killed our captain. However, when we came back I was wet through and we got through Christmas Day. It snowed all day Christmas Day, everything was white and I had to go down the line again for another practice to bring the new lot up for the next night after.

As I say, I set out at ten o’clock at night to go over the top and I got a packet. I were hit three times by this sniper. The first time I just passed out with concussion. It hit me on me tin hat; a little hole there where it went in and a great big one where it came out – I could put my fist in where it came out. I tried to bring that back home but somebody pinched it from me when I was in hospital.

As I say, I was knocked out and I must have been out about an hour (I was told after). I came too again and I crawled on my tummy the way we’d been taught. I could see a great big shell hole and I got down and I got partially over into it when he fired again and hit me in the hip here.

Of course, I went down into the shell hole and they could see all this from where I’d come from being such a bright starry night with just occasional showers of snow. And they sent a couple of stretcher bearers down to fetch me out. They could see I was knocked out. They got down to me and [asked] “Can you walk?” So I said, “I’ll try and walk” and then we set off, the three of us down to company headquarters where we were supposed to be going. It was under a snow shower that and then suddenly the moon came out and all was bright again and the sniper hit all three of us.

I was hit again through the left hand there. I can’t bend that. I was shot straight through there, that’s the third time. One of the other stretcher bearers was shot in the calf and the other in the hip and he died. Well we lay there all night then right ‘til six o’clock the morning after. A sergeant from company headquarters saw us – we’d got nearly there seemingly – and he saw us and he brought us in to company headquarters, the three of us.

The doctor was there at company headquarters and he bandaged me up and the other one was a stretcher case. King had got it in the hip [but] the other one who got it in the calf, he could manage to walk a little bit. So we set out morning after, it was Boxing morning that, and the enemy were watching us and they had a truce for us to get out. There were three of us and some more who had been wounded during the night. I was in front holding me white flag on with me rifle.

We marched down, right down ‘til we got down to the ambulances. They came up as far as ever they could but there was still a couple of miles [we had] to go [because] they daren’t come any further. We got down there and that’s where I got out to England. I got to Glasgow, Bellahouston Hospital in Glasgow and just got [there] in time for their celebrations at New Year. I was there eight months in hospital and then I got my discharge. I had to come right down here. I’d never been to the south of England before in my life, except when I was in the army like, and I got to Queensbury and got my discharge from there. That was in August 1918 and I went working on munitions then at Lincolnshire until November the 11th, Armistice Day and of course everybody packed up and I went home and never went back again. That was my army service.

PN:
Can you explain to me again why you didn’t join up earlier; why you weren’t allowed to join earlier than you did?

AM:
Yes, because the work that I was doing was work for the army. We were making canvas. You know what bell tents were? Well it was the cotton for those. And it was very coarse cotton and they wouldn’t let me go.

It was what they called the Lord Derby Scheme that they had in those days. You could wear an armband showing that you were exempt you see. That’s the reason I didn’t go until I was required. I was called up [and] we had to go then. That was in the spring of 1916, about April it was, just about Easter.

PN:
And did you join up with a lot of friends?

AM:
No. I joined up by myself. There was an army barracks at Higher Road [unclear] as they called it, near Halifax. I had to go there to join up and as I say, I met this boy from Elland and we palled up together, we were together and he was killed by the way. That man was killed the morning after I left that dug-out. He was the company runner. He had to run messages you see. I later shook hands with him when I was in that dug-out at company headquarters and he was killed the day after. He was killed during the relief. It was my job you see, to fetch them in but I never did it because I was wounded. He must have taken over from me and he was killed on that morning, Boxing morning.

PN:
Can you tell me what it’s like going over the top?

AM:
Horrible. Mixed feelings. You’re sort of frightened but there you are, you’ve just got to go. Sometimes the lieutenants or the captain would be in front and sometimes they’d be behind. It was not always the same. We had an objective to go to, supposed to be, always. You’d got to go so far and on one occasion, that was in May 1917, we went over and we went too far. We were in a trough. The others at either side of us – it was a long defensive of miles – and our lot, the 8th Battalion, went too far and the result was we got enfilade fire, fire from both sides and we had to come back, retreat ‘til we got level again. I remember as well as anything, three of us in a bunch and the chap on either side of us got shot down and I managed to make it down to the trench where we’d come from. That was a rotten experience was that, that I had. Going over the top you don’t feel a right lot until you start seeing them falling around you.

PN:
Can you hear the shells and the bullets?

AM:
Oh yes. You can’t see them but you can hear them. We were supposed to go under cover of fire. Our artillery were supposed to keep the shells just in front of us in a creeping barrage and keep the enemy down. Well of course they did a good job but sometimes they didn’t lift the barrage soon enough and fired into us. That happened a few times. It wasn’t often that happened but it has happened.

PN:
Where do you think conditions were worse?

AM:
Passchendaele definitely, Passchendaele Ridge. That was the finish for me. I don’t know how far… because Christmas Day were ten months off the end of the war and I don’t know how far they got. I was in hospital [and] I didn’t know anything about what happened after then.

In hospital I joined a concert party. I was a pianist you see and I was in a concert party in France by the way, for a little while. We had a piano, we humped it around with us, and we had a bit of a concert party but that soon fizzled out. But in hospital we formed one there in Glasgow. We went touring all round Glasgow giving concerts. We made about £500 for the hospital. It wasn’t a military hospital it was a VAD, one of those kind built for the war. I had a good time there once my wounds were healing up and that. I had three operations and of course the knuckle has gone there, I’ve no knuckle at all.

PN:
Do you suffer with that now with arthritis?

AM:
Just a little, yes now that’s a funny thing. This winter it’s started aching. Arthritis I suppose it is.
PN:
Can you also tell me what it’s like to be in the trenches? What they look like, what the food’s like.
AM:
Well it depends. We were on a quiet front where it was all chalk and we were absolutely white. We always went in for about six days and it was a boring business, a case of Stand To at dawn and Stand To again at dusk for an hour in case there was an attack you see. I think that was Thiepval where it was all chalky, terribly chalky. But mostly it was mud: mud, mud depending on the weather and the time of the year. You just yawned your heads off most of the time. You had to Stand To on these kind of shelves that they made and look over the top and you were damned lucky if you didn’t get a sniper. That’s what they had the snipers for you know, catch anybody. You used to put a tin hat on the end of a rifle and put it up and get shot at.

It was mostly night duty. You had an hour on and stood on these shelves looking over the top; and then two off. Mostly we were hitting rats from the top you know, part of ‘us equipment was a shovel.

PN:
Did you ever go on any patrols or raiding parties into no-man’s land?

AM:
Yes, yes. I was only ever involved in one and nothing happened. We had to stand still if a verey light went up – which they did often of course. The sent these verey lights up you know and it showed all light. But as long as you stood still you weren’t spotted. I went cutting enemy wires on that patrol but we got back safely. That was the only one I was on, was that.

I wasn’t in the line a right long time: from September to Christmas. [I was] fifteen months on active service. After that Christmas night do, that finished me as regards active service.

PN:
What happened at Passchendaele? Did everybody go over the top and then dig in?

AM:
Yes, but we could never get far. It was a ridge and we were on the lower part of the ridge, we were going uphill and they were looking down onto us. That’s why it was such hard going, terrible. The time I was there it was Autumn and there’d been a lot of rain and it were as muddy as... Terrible, I shall never forget that as long as I live. I were real glad to be wounded in a way, to get out of it. We were all fed up. This patriotic business of joining up, it [was] soon knocked off you with the drills and the sergeants putting you through it. You soon get fed up with that and the conditions were pretty bad. You never got real comfortable billets unless you were taken out for a rest which you were occasionally.

Our lot were absolutely decimated. There would be a thousand in a battalion and we’d come out with a couple of hundred and we had to go back down the line to get fitted out with new recruits from England, and you had to wait while they were trained.

PN:
Did you have any brothers in the services?

AM:
My younger brother was at York mostly. I had only one brother and he was younger than I and he joined up later. He was in the Yorkshire Regiment and I went to see him at York when I came on leave from France. I don’t think he ever went out to France.

Mrs AM:
No he didn’t.

AM:
Well if he did, it were after the war.

Mrs AM:
It was the pioneers wasn’t it?

AM:
Yes I believe it was, in the Pioneer Corps. I were more interested in myself getting fit again.

PN:
How did you view the officers? Were they popular with the men?

AM:
It depends who they were. They were just human beings like everyone else, there were good ones and bad ones. They had to be strict. As I said, this patriotism was soon jolly well knocked out of you. You just had to do as you were told. It was drill, drill and being shouted out. That was part of the doings you know, being cursed and shouted out and made to do these things. You’d have been glad to be back home in a couple of months’ time if you could have done.

PN:
Did you opt to go into the King’s Royal Rifles?

AM:
Yes. As I said, they were making a farmer’s battalion. They were mostly from north Yorkshire – the farmers. They’d all been exempt you see because of growing the crops I suppose. Anyway, they made this farmer’s battalion and I joined it.

Mrs AM:
Well the women went into the Land Army didn’t they? They helped out. My second daughter went into the Land Army.

AM:
You’re talking about another war altogether. That was the Second War.

Yes I remember as part of us training at Blythe – that’s near Newcastle you know – we used to man the trenches there. There were trenches all down the coast and we used to spend nights there. That was part of our training.

PN:
Was it realistic training?

AM:
Well it was mostly marching. We used to go twenty mile a day all around Blythe, Ashington and the villages there. But we used to have these full nights down the trenches guarding the coastline. That was just part of the job. Then of course everybody had guard duty in the camps when you did two hours on and four hours off. Every soldier had that to do, what they called battalion camp duties. And then there was the usual potato peeling and all that. Jankers if you got into trouble at all. I never got into that. I was a lance-corporal.

I got my promotion I think because I had a good voice; I had a strong voice. I have yet. I was good at shouting at ‘em. I picked up the jargon and from the drill book and they put me as
A temporary lance-corporal and I used to drill them and march them around, you know, form fours, left turn right turn, that simple business more or less and eventually I got my stripe.

PN:
And that’s more pay as well isn’t it?

AM:
Just a little, nothing much. I forget how much, a shilling a day. Pay wasn’t much in those days.

Mrs AM:
Well a shilling was a shilling in those days.

AM:
Aye.

PN:
You must have been one of the few members of the battalion to have gone through the latter half of the Somme campaign and into Passchendaele. There can’t have been many people in your battalion who went through the Somme unscathed.

AM:
Well Passchendaele was just going forward through the Somme, it was a part of the Somme. It was going further through into Germany. The Somme had been left behind at Passchendaele. I was in the second battle of the Somme September 15th 1916.

PN:
What was it like at Arras?

AM:
We only went to Arras on a kind of rest. There were a lot of tunnels at Arras, underground passages. We were there the night before we were to go into the battle of Arras itself we were in these [and they were] giving us bars of chocolates and cigarettes ready for the jump off and that was when the lancers went over, the day after. Easter Monday that was.

I don’t remember much about Arras. We went forward.

PN:
You went over the top at Arras as well though?

AM:
Yes, I was in reserve really. They went over the top then we took over them with their first line casualties. They withdrew and we took over after them. Going forward a little bit it was only slow movement. You’d only go a hundred yards or so at a time and we had a terrible lot of casualties at each battle.

Passchendaele Ridge was terrible. I used to wake up at night shivering and living it all over again. It was no picnic. None of it was a picnic of course.

Them days is a long time ago. I was only twenty our when I was discharged.

PN:
Were they mainly youngsters in your battalion?

AM:
We’d got the eighteen year olders, yes, those that had been pulled in at eighteen years old. [They were] given three months training then out. One of them nearly shot me. I remember going over the top and he was beside of me and a bullet from him whizzed straight past my ear. He was only a young lad and he didn’t last so long. I remember him being killed, same lad.

Yes there were quite a lot of eighteen year olds. The officer in charge was only an eighteen year old. He was a brave lad was that second lieutenant. That do that I told you about when we had to come back, he was in front and he wouldn’t leave. We left him there. He must have got killed. He wouldn’t withdraw.

PN:
Were they all Londoners?

AM:
Yes, I was amongst the cockneys all the time. Not much Yorkshire twang about any of them. It was the 8th Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifles that I went over with and they were all cockneys. We were kind of merged into them. We did our training at Blythe then drafted into France and we joined the 8th there. What we were called at Blythe I forget, whether it was the 7th it was the King’s Royal Rifles just the same but what number I’ve no idea. But we went into France with the 8th and I was with the 8th all the time.

PN:
Do you know what division you were part of?

AM:
14th Light Division. We were quick marching; I think we did about 65 steps a minute on the march and on parade. They short stepped. We used to take 30 inches of a stride, no more, and you used to do 65 of them in a minute. That’s pretty quick going is that. That’s why they call them light infantry [because] they could get from one place to another quick. There was no lorries to take us in those days like they had in the Second World War. It was none of that, it was all march, march on your own feet in the First World War. We used to think nothing of doing twenty miles from one part to a different part of the line, taking over.

PN:
I suppose there was quite a lot of boredom in the trenches.

AM:
Oh aye, yes it is boredom if it’s quiet. Of course you can be just the opposite. It depends if they’d got the wind up. They used to send a lot of these whizzbangs over and then we’d be in a trench and they’d send a plane up and they’d spot us and signal their own whizzbangs. I’ve seen them wipe a whole trench out, you know, forty or fifty yards long. Start at one end with the whizzbangs and make us all run to the other end.

PN:
Weren’t there explosives called Jack Johnsons and coalboxes as well?

AM:
Yes coalboxes, whizzbangs they were called. They weren’t big shells, the five inch heavy artillery on those. They had them in their trenches, we had similar things in our trenches. We fired short eighteen pounder shells and these whizzbangs were the same. They got so as they could pretty near hit the trench [so] it were pretty lively. There were no boredom with those.

But many a time it was very, very quiet; nothing doing. Stand To at dawn and Stand To at dusk and the rest of the time you did what you liked.

PN:
De-lousing.

AM:
Oh yes, you’re telling me. Yes, we used to keep that until we came out of the line in the billets and then we’d have a candle lit and shirts off and then de-lousing, burn them out you know. Oh aye. Yes you were filthy when you come out of the line.

Ends

Sunday, 22 November 2009

2630111 Pte Harold Shephard, 5th Leicestershire Regiment.


Synposis

I met Harold Shephard whilst I was a student in Loughborough, and interviewed him on 19th June 1984 when he was 88 years old. Harold was born at Hathern, Leicestershire on the 18th December 1895 and told me that he had joined B Company of the 5th Leicesters (Territorials) in 1911. It was around this time that he had the Leicestershire Regiment badge, clearly visible in the photo above, tattooed on his left forearm. Harold was working for the Falcon Works (later, Brush) as a wood-cutting machinist when war was declared. He died in January 1988 aged 92.

Interview

PN:
So you joined up in 1911 with the Territorials?

HS:
Yes, and our first camp was Aberystwyth, in August [1912] for a fortnight. After we come back from that, disbanded, once every Wednesday I think it was, we used to go up to the Drill Hall and drill etc. Then the next camp was Denton, Denton Park in Grantham.

PN:
That’s the following year?

HS:
Yes, that’s the following year. After that we come back and went to work and the next camp was Bridlington [1914]. We went to camp at Bridlington on the Saturday, broke camp on the Saturday night and come back on the Sunday morning to the Midland station at Loughborough. And we come in and all the regiment, all the 5th, was disbanded to different [locations]: Rendle Street school and different schools, and us headquarters was in Granby Street at the drill hall.

After that we was mobilised and we got up and we went to Buxton - not Buxton but near enough – to get mobilised. And then out on the parade asking if you’d volunteer to go to France. Them as didn’t volunteer, such as married men with children and one thing or another, they stopped behind. Well then they got [the rest of us] up; disbanded that lot, kept them at home to look after people at home [and] we went from there to Derby. We stopped in Derby about two days, made a bit of a camp, and went from Derby to Ware [Herts]. From Ware we went to Sawbridgeworth [and] from there we was mobilised down to Southampton, ready for going abroad and we got on… I can’t tell you the name of the boat. I forget, but anyway we went straight across the Channel to Le Havre. From Le Havre we went up to Armentieres.

PN:
What time of year was this?

HS:
This was 1915, January 1915. We got rigged out with sheepskins and one thing or another, all ready for it, and then we started on the war. We went up to Armentieres and the first man to get killed in the 5th Leicesters was a chap named Bob Bacchus. He was holding the colonel’s horse and a shell come over and cleaned the horse up and him and all. After that I think we went to Douai.

PN:
What were the trenches like at Armentieres?

HS:
We never got in trenches. We were mobilised there to back [up]. I forget what regiment we backed up but on the backing up side.

I think we went to Douai from there and after that we was going nightly, day or two here and a day or two there, and eventually we got up to Ypres when the Second Battle of Ypres was on. The day before we got up, Jerry fired what we called a big John Bull and hit Ypres Cathedral and set it on fire. And it were the loveliest sight I ever seen in my life and it was on fire for three days. We were stationed at a place called Ouderdom [and] from there we went up to the firing line. We dropped back to Zillebeke Lake and all the regiment went down with dysentery. I don’t know what gave us it but we was in Ypres cathedral and big places like that – because they’d made hospitals – and the wounded and that were got down from there.

PN:
What was the town of Ypres like at this time, had it really been shelled to pieces?

HS:
Knocked about, properly knocked about.

PN:
It was a nice old town as well, wasn’t it?

HS:
Yes, it were very good, mind you we hadn’t got time to walk around and see. The last reunion I went to at Leicester – it was about six years ago – we got up to the colonel and we asked him if we could have a trip over there to see the old trenches. “Well,” he says, “look here my lad. When that war finished there were perhaps near four hundred of you. Now, you can count them on one hand.” He says, “now what’s the use of me putting a show on for eight or nine men, or let’s say twenty men at the outside? It’s too expensive, can’t do it.”

Well I got wounded at Ypres and I lay in Zillebeke Wood for two nights and two days.

PN:
Can you tell me how you were wounded.

HS:
Yes, in the buttock; shrapnel.

PN:
Were the Leicesters advancing then?

HS:
No, we’d stopped for the night and they opened fire on us and of course we were anywhere as you might say. That’s where the first man from Shepshed, a chap named Miller [was killed]. The first zeppelin to come over there, I think it was the R2 some’t… well this Miller was a bugler in our lot and he went out with us. And we said, what the devil is that in the sky? And it were like a big cigar and to be excited, he was on a machine gun. He stepped on the fire step and put his glasses up to see it and [a bullet] hit him straight here [in the middle of the forehead]. One of the Millers, from Shepshed. There’s some relations in Loughborough now.

PN:
What were the conditions like in Zillebeke?

HS:
We was back at the lake at Zillebeke. The lake was there and on the bank underneath we were stationed under it.

PN:
Was the weather wet or dry at the time?

HS:
Well it were anyhow as you might say.

PN:
Was this still 1915?

HS:
Yes, this was in 1915. Then I come home, I was wounded. We got to what we called Whizzbang Corner and we’d got to stop there in the ambulance, the Red Cross and that, and we had to stop there for about three or four hours because they were firing. It was four crossed roads you see, they’d got the guns trained on them.

PN:
Was that near Hellfire Corner?

HS:
Hellfire Corner, that’s the one. And I went down to Etaples Hospital to the 1st Canadian General Hospital and all the nurses and that had got the soldiers’ buttons down their uniforms.

I come away from there to England and I went to Sheffield, Wharncliffe War Hospital . I had an operation and everything there and then I come home to Loughborough, to my father’s. We went to a camp at Grantham, stopped there about a month and we were in hospital blues there. In fact I picked the missus up there to tell you the truth. She was a cook at Belvoir Castle, her parents lived in Grantham.

We went from there one Sunday night and went straight down to Southampton and across the water to Rouen.

PN:
When is this now?

HS:
1916.

PN:
Any idea which month? Was it before the Somme offensive?

HS:
Oh yes, it were a long while before the Somme offensive. Nobody knowed where the 5th was but they knowed where the Leicesters was supposed to be. We catched them up and went down to Marseilles to go to Egypt. And on the night before we went and loaded the QUIN-CA-QUI, the biggest French liner there was. And put all the guns and everything on top and [then] come back in the camp.

The next morning we were woke up about gunfire time, five o’clock in the morning, to march down to the ship to go to Alexandria. That’s where one of our sergeant instructors says to us, “now then, anybody wants to desert?” So we started laughing at him. So he says, “if you want to desert my lad, dive straight over the front of the ship and keep swimming, you’ll come to England.” We were three thousand mile away from it then.

We came back from Marseilles and went straight on the Somme. Well I got gassed on the Somme, I got clipped on the Somme, here it is from there through here, bit of a mark here [indicates entry scar on arm from shrapnel].

PN:
Whereabouts on the Somme, can you remember?

HS:
Oh Christ [laughs] it were like being on a desert. There were no villages about, all it was [was] chalk.

PN:
What was the actual fighting aspect like?

HS:
Well this is the time when Jerry was forcing us back. You see Jerry were on top of us as you would say; he were driving us back until we had to stop. And our general, General Stuart-Wortley , stopped us and he says, “We must fight back.” And he altered the artillery and everything and the guns, and stopped them.

PN:
Was this 1918 then?

HS:
No, 1917. Then I got clipped on there and I got gassed the same time and I went from there down to Etaples and from Etaples down to Rouen again to form the regiment up. We rejoined the regiment just as the war was finishing. We was on the attack at the time and we stopped at a place called Bouzieres. We was in a big chateau, was that. The Germans had been there [and] we had orders. We’d seen the white flags coming through on the roads because the Armistice was signed, but nobody knowed about it for another… it had been over for a day ‘afore we knowed about it. All we’d seen was the armoured cars and that going with the white flags up.

We started fetching the German army in and do you know what? There were some children in there, thirteen, fourteen and fifteen and that was the German Army.

After that, being time expired, we got called – I think there were about half a dozen of us that had been in it since the start of the war: “Parade at the M.O.’s office tomorrow, you’re going to England.”

We went in the M.O.’s office and he gave us a bit of a [once-over], no stethoscope or owt like that, just said,
“Are you alright?”
“Yes.”
“Have you been wounded?”
“Yes.”
“Where?”
I said, “at Ypres in 1915.”
So he says, “and where else?”
I says, “on the Somme and I was gassed on the Somme.”
He says, “Are you claiming a pension?”
So I says, “I don’t know.”
He says - this is the captain – he says, “I want to know. On this paper it asks are you claiming a pension or are you not, because if you’re claiming a pension you’re going to Germany for another six months while the regular army comes out and takes over.”
I says, “You can cross that bugger out. I’m going to England.”

I wasn’t the only one. There were thousands done it and if you get the real old hand that was time expired at that time, if you can get him on tape you’ll hear the same thing.

Same as I was saying. Now I was in good health right up ‘til the missus died and she died just over six year ago. Then it hit me as you will say and I’ve been nothing but in and out of hospital almost ever since. This last three or four years I’m about done.

I’ve told the doctors the same as I’ve told our doctor, I says now doctor what do you think it is? We don’t know, we’re treating you for this, that and the other – they don’t say what they’re treating you for. So I says, well doctor, should I tell you what it is? I told them at General Hospital and at Royal at Leicester, I told them the same thing. I says, I was gassed on the Somme and I think this is the results of it. And he says, my lad you want to forget that, that’s sixty or seventy year ago. So I says, that’s alright doctor but I’ve got it and you’ve not.

PN:
Can you tell me what it would be like in the trenches when you’re not actually in an offensive?

HS:
Well I mean, when you’ve done your stint of, we’ll say a fortnight in the trenches, you come out for a rest. You’re perhaps out for a week or a fortnight, then you go back. You perhaps relieve another regiment or some’at. Well when you get in, I mean we was up to the knees in sludge etc and as you were going up, I mean, you went up on what we called duckboards. You see and they’d been down that long: “hole in the duckboard”, you know, and pass it right down. And when it got to about the twentieth man it were a different tale altogether. You try sending a message along a line with about twenty or thirty men.

It were the same at all different trenches, mind you on the Somme it was all chalk: white, lime, like a lime. That’s about all there is.

PN:
What about rations. Were you fed alright?

HS:
[Laughs]. Sometimes six and seven and eight in a loaf. You get your stuff come up in a sandbag. Meat, perhaps boiled or some’at, in a sandbag and you get a tin of possie – what we called possie: jam; or a Maconochie; bit of cheese, bit of jam etc. The sergeant dished it out and if you got a loaf: “four in a loaf today.” Six in a loaf tomorrow, perhaps eight in a loaf and you perhaps went two days without anything at all.

PN:
Then it changed to biscuits later on didn’t it? Loaves in the early stages and then biscuits.

HS:
Aye, well we used to make a pudding with them.

PN:
Did you? With the jam as well? It was Tom Tickler’s jam wasn’t it?

HS:
Yes. We used to get them on a stone floor – this was when we was out, you never got them in the trenches, the biscuits never come to you in the trenches – and you’d get your rifle and smash one or two biscuits up, put them in your billie tin all night in water, and they made like a dough. And then mix a bit of jam with it and stick it in there and boil it; make a rolly polly duff.

PN:
Did it taste alright?

HS:
Yes, you’d got to do it. Sometimes we’d have a tin of custard, perhaps between three or four of you, make a bit of custard. Oh yes, you’d got to live on what you could scrounge, as you would say. Mind you, when we went out at times we used to go down the estaminets. Deux oeuffs – that’s two eggs – and pommes de terre: eggs and chips; perhaps cost us two francs or three. You only got paid five francs or perhaps ten francs when you come out, you know. You could get a bottle of vin blanc or vin rouge then for about a franc.

PN:
You were saying earlier that you were made a corporal for about three days wasn’t it?

HS:
We went out and I’d seen Dennis, the lieutenant.

PN:
And you were on first name terms with him were you?

HS:
Yes. And I says, have you got any money on you? So he says, aye how much do you want? I said, I want something to take the lads out. He said have you got your AB64? (That’s your pay book). So I says, aye I’ve got it with me. Come here then, he says, and he gave us seventy five francs in hand.

We went down the village and knocked two or three bottles of vin blanc and we’d got to go through a bit of a spinney at night to come back into the billet where we were; well we were in a field in a bivouac. And do you know, we couldn’t get out of that bit of a wood. We stopped in there all night and they sent a patrol out for us. When we got back the next morning, down to the quartermaster sergeants, take them stripes off.

PN:
Weren’t you telling me the other day that you ran a crown and anchor board as well?

HS:
Well we had one between us selves.

PN:
Can you tell me how Crown and Anchor worked?

HS:
Well it’s only a sheet, such as that [indicates a newspaper]. You’ve a crown and an anchor, ace of spades, ace of diamonds, ace of hearts and ace of clubs and you’d got three dice. And you used to get them in a cup and shake them and turn them up. And we used to put on the board, the first three up – if there were three aces or three crowns of anything you’d pick the helmet up. But instead of taking the helmet we’d give them five francs, leave it. Here’s five francs, leave it. You see, to get it for the next day.

PN:
The chap I saw this morning said that everybody in the battalion used to look out for the crown and anchor man because if he was shot he’d have all the money on him and they’d go and take the money off him.

HS:
That’s quite right. The Canadians come out to us in 1917 and we was coming out the trenches as they was going in and they shouts, “where’s that bit of a bloody field where there’s a bit of fighting?” I says you’ll find it when you go up there. And by the next morning there were a few of them dead.

Well we were stationed at some field, I don’t know just exactly where. I mean, you’re taking me a long way back. But we were in one field and the Canadians was perhaps two hundred yards away from us and they got to know as we was running a crown and anchor board and they’d got rolls of money they had. So they says, can we come over. And we made a bit of a canteen on a table, you know, working the crown and anchor board, cause some of them in 11th Company could own two of the guys, you know, and fiddle the one. We were up to all them tricks.

And they come over one night. “Can we have a game of crown and anchor?” Aye, come on. We thought we was going to get some money out of them. Well we won, I should think, two or three hundred francs and then they started with all this lot, you know, handful of notes: “how much is there there?” I don’t know ‘til we count it. And they skinned us out one night. We went round the lads and collected I think about twenty francs or something like that. And the next day they come over again and we done them for about our or five hundred francs.

PN:
Well it’s a way to pas the time I suppose. I shouldn’t think there was much else to do.

HS:
Well I mean, they talk about this bingo now: lotto. We’d go nothing else to do; either that or play cards.

PN:
Or write letters home.

HS:
Well, you had the field post card then and it were al typed out: I am well / unwell. But we use to have a code with that cause I wrote home and told them. If I was in Arras I’d sign my name A Shephard, R Shephard E Shephard, S Shephard and when my dad got them he’d put them all together and say, he’s in Arras. We know where he is. One of them is from Arras [indicates a shell case in his house].

We transferred – George Taylor did the same thing – when we was out on a month’s rest or some’at at some village. They said step out all them as is tradesmen; you know, got us all in a square. And we stepped out and went down to a place called Audriques to pass a test. And the same test was done a thousand times. There was a door on there and the mortice and tenon was AA, BB, CC – you know, put the door together and then as soon as you’d done, oh you’ve passed alright. Well we transferred to the engineers to build a railway from Arras up to the front line to bring the wounded down.

[tape recorder turned off]

Well we was out one day, more souvenir hunting than anything at Arras, and in the middle of the field was a latrine – you know, a post and canvas round – there was, I think, three of us walking about, you know. There were a lot of dead soldiers and that and we were seeing if we could pick anything up. And I says to one or two of the lads, let’s go in here and see what’s in here. There were nobody about. When we went in we seen a post and a chair. So we went round and I picked a button up and I says to the lads, I wonder what the hell this place were. All at once the sergeant comes in and he says, what’s your lot doing in here? So I says, I don’t know, just walking about seeing if we can pick owt up. He says I’m going to tell you something. He says, you’re the only man as has been in here as will walk out. So I said, what do you mean? This is where we shoot the spies. And after that we never went there no more. But they shifted that and they shot them under Arras cathedral cellar, that’s where they shot the spies there.

Now before we went to Egypt we had reinforcements come up to us at Marseilles. Now we’d been using the Mills bomb for twelve months near enough in the trenches. All the instructions we’d got [were] pull the pin out, count three and throw it.

Now in the reinforcements that come out we’d got an instructor as had been instructing on this bomb in England and had never thrown one, not the live thing, he’d thrown the dummy. And he come out to us in Marseilles and we got in a bit of a ring such as A Company or B Company or C Company, whatever it were.

PN:
What company were you in?

HS:
I went out in H Company – Headquarters Company – and I finished up in B Company, the Melton Mowbray Company. But he got us in a bit of a ring. Now, he says, I’ve come out from England to give you instructions on this bomb. So we all said, well what instructions are there? So he said, I’m coming to that in a minute, let me describe what I’ve come out here for, I’m stationed with the regiment now. So he says, this is a Number 5 Mills’ Bomb – I think it were number 5. He says, you unscrew the bottom like this and take it off and at the top of that there’s a little detonator and it’s only like a bit of electric wire and it’s about an inch long like that and curled up and then goes into the bomb. Now he took it out – we didn’t know nowt about this – he took it out and he says, now look, I’m going to tell you what not to do. So I says, pulling us bloody leg, you know and all this that and the other. He gets this detonator out - and it weren’t only about that high - and he gets a little pocket knife and he says, now this is what I don’t want you soldiers to do. And he just touched the top of it and off went three fingers. It busted his hand. So I says, you’re a nice bloody man to come out here and instruct us on these. I said we’ve been using these for twelve months. All the instructions we’d got: pull the pin out, count three and throw it.

PN:
Why was he telling you not to do that then? Because surely if he knew what not to do he shouldn’t have done it and he wouldn’t have lost his fingers.

HS:
He’d come out as an instructor to us. He’d been instructing people in England and he’d come out and told us what not to do, not what to do.

PN:
He was forgetting it was a live one.

HS:
Aye, he’d been using the dummies here. Soon as he got out here he was playing with the live stuff. We all said, fancy a bloody man coming out like that and telling us this when we’d been using them for twelve months.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Z/1658 OS Alan McCartney Castle, Hawke Bn, RND


Synopsis

I was introduced to Alan Castle in Chelmsford on 16th September 1981. I see by the date that I had just turned 19 and Alan Castle was 89. He lived in a bungalow in a quiet road close to the town centre. Just behind his home, in a sheltered housing complex, lived four other Great War veterans who I would also meet and interview: Harry Leeks (Essex Regt), Reginald Crane and Bill Minchin (4th Royal Berks) and Clifford Rust (Royal Engineers).

I only ever addressed the men as Mr Castle, Mr Crane etc, and it feels a little odd now, using their first names. I didn't have my tape recorder with me when I met Alan Castle and so our meeting is recorded in notes that I took at the time. I have augmented these with details from his service record which survives at the National Archives.We got as far as Gallipoli before Mrs Castle felt that her husband had done enough talking, and I took my leave with a promise to return and hear the rest of his story. That second meeting though, never happened. On a subsequent visit a few days later, Mrs Castle explained that her husband had felt distressed recalling the events of 1914-1918 and that he would prefer not to continue with his reminiscences. I never met him again, although I was pleased to see, several years later, that he had celebrated his 100th birthday at home. He died in June 1994 aged 102.

Interview

Alan McCartney Castle was born in Leyton, east London on 18th March 1892 and when Britain went to war with Germany he was working as a tailor for the Paris branch of Thomas and Sons. He decided to join the British Volunteer Corps (at least, that's what I have written down), but as the situation worsened, he returned to England. That was in September 1914 and he resumed employment at Thomas and Sons' Brook Street branch in London. He joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on 3rd May 1915.

Alan Castle told me that it was the sinking of the Lusitania that prompted him to join up, but in fact the Lusitania was sunk four days after he enlisted. His service record notes that at the time of his enlistment he was living at 47 Effingham Road in Lee, south London. He was five feet five inches tall, had a fresh complexion, black hair and hazel eyes. Two scars were noted: one on his right elbow and one on his right ankle.

Alan Castle was posted to Hawke Battalion on 8th September 1915 and soon qualified as a trained bomb-thrower. He sailed for Gallipoli shortly afterwards aboard the Royal George, a converted Canadian Pacific liner. He would remain there until January 1916.

Of his time on Gallipoli, Alan Castle recalled:

"The trenches were not very deep and went down about five or six feet until they reached the sandstone. We were under fire the whole time and were as lousy as cuckoos. One day however, we were very much relieved to find that they came round with gas crystals from the South Metropolitan Gas Company to rub in our clothes and get rid of the lice. They didn't half burn and they didn't kill the lice either. Gradually we discarded our helmets and wore cap comforters instead. By the time we left Gallipoli we were in rags.

"During our time there we were relieved by another of our battalions and went out of the line for about ten days. We took the opportunity to go down to W Beach for a spot of bathing and took our clothes off with the idea that we'd wash them at the same time. We went out for a swim in what had been the landing area and no sooner were we out there than the Turkish guns opened fire on us. Well it was the quickest swim I ever made - and the last one. Fortunately there were no casualties.

"We were told in late December 1915 that we were going to be relieved. I remember having dates and a little piece of Queen Mary's Christmas pudding. I went down the line with the others and was told to pack up. Two or three days before we were actually evacuated though, a shell fell in the next traverse and killed the fellows there. The blast affected my hearing and one of may mates took me on his back down to the casualty clearing station."

History books tell us that Hawke Battalion was evacuated from Gallipoli on or around 8th January 1916. From there, the men were sent to Lemnos where they remained for three weeks before being sent to the island of Imbros on 26th January for garrison duty. Here they remained until May when, with Anson Battalion, they sailed for Marseilles and then headed north.

On 7th November 1916, Hawke Battalion took over trenches near Mesnil. Joseph Murray, who also served with the Royal Naval Division and later wrote about his experiences in A Call to Arms, describes the conditions:

"In several places there was no sign of a trench, only shell-holes filled with mud and slime which caused us to scramble about in the open... it was no easy matter getting out of the quagmire only to slide into an adjacent morass."

At 5.45am on Monday 13th November 1916, the Royal Naval Division, supported by a creeping barrage, advanced towards the German lines. Alan Murray again:

"Unfortunately the Hawke Battalion on our left had been held up by the devastating machine-gun fire from a redoubt which seemed to have been completely missed by our barrage and in turn, their supporting battalion Nelson went blindly on to the same fate. Both battalions suffered exceptionally heavy fates."

Alan Castle had told me that he was wounded at Beaumont Hamel and had then lain in no-man's land for two days before being rescued. His service record confirms this:

13.11.16 Wounded.
15.11.16 To 9th Casualty Clearing Station, France
16.11.16 Admitted to 5th General Hosp Rouen. "W" Frac. Knee. R.
21.11.16 Dangerously ill. GW Knee and Hand. NOK informed.

And then:

4.12.16 Dangerously ill.
9.12.16 Dangerously ill. Not doing well. NOK informed.
Week ending 10.12.16. Dangerously wounded in 5th Gen Hosp Rouen
Week ending 17.12.16. Dang ill. Not doing well. 5th GH Rouen.
Week ending 24.12.16. Dang ill. Not doing well. 5th GH Rouen.
Week ending 31.12.16. Dang ill. Not doing well. 5th GH Rouen.
7.01.1917. Dangerously ill in 5 GH Rouen

Then some hope:

11.1.17. Off dangerous list. NOK informed.

It is not explicitly stated in his service record, but it looks as though Alan Castle's right leg was amputated at the thigh whilst he was in the 5th General Hospital at Rouen. He returned to England aboard the Hospital Ship St Andrew and was admitted to the Lord Derby War Hospital in Warrington on the 13th January. He was granted furlough in July 1917 pending admission to Roehampton which finally took place in November 1917. His service record reads:

"Shrapnel wound right thigh and knee. Amputation of thigh in upper third. Wound of palm of left hand."

He was discharged from the army on 7th December 1917 and went back to his old employers, Thomas and Son, in Brook Street. It was to be a short-lived return. As Mr Castle told me, still getting used to his artificial leg, he had difficulty escorting customers to the door as quickly as he used to and this was not the kind of service that Thomas and Sons deemed to be acceptable. He was dismissed from their service. It sounds incredible now, but that was what he told me and I have no reason to doubt him.

Acknowledgements:

Newspaper clipping courtesy of The Chelmsford & Essex Chronicle.
A Call to Arms by Joseph Murray published 1980, William Kimber.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

820437 Gunner Alfred Willis, Royal Field Artillery


Synopsis

I met Alfred Willis at his home in Station Street when I was studying at Loughborough in the early nineteen eighties. He was a fascinating man to talk to and he'd also made a model of Loughborough's Carillon which is pictured above.

Alfred, a boot and shoe operator in civilian life, originally joined the 4th Leicestershire Regiment (Territorials) in 1913 but transferred to a Territorial Force artillery unit in 1914. His original number was 385 and when the TF was re-numbered in 1917 he was given the number 820437. This latter number belongs to the series used by the 46th (North Midland) and 59th (2nd North Midland) Divisional Artillery Columns.

Alfred died in 1993 aged 97.

Interview

AW:
Well when I first joined up was June the 20th 1913 and well the next month, August, we went to the annual camp which was at Aberystwyth. Well that camp was over and the next year the war broke out and I happened to be at the second camp then and we was at Bridlington.

I went with the advance party which was about a week before to get all the camp ready for them for the battalions coming in. Well they were supposed to have come in on the Saturday and they brought the news out to us they wasn’t coming because the war had broke out. That was in August.

Well then they didn’t come up so we had to come home. They sent us all home, left the camp there or them being called up and they took us back and put us in some chapel in Leicester. Well we’d got all three lots of uniform and eventually when they started sorting out they took all ‘us khaki off of us, just left us with this best uniform. Well then they started sorting all this and that out and then we got moved to a place called Braintree, Essex; quite close to the film studios. And from there they were asking for volunteers for the motor transport. Well I had always been for motors so I put in for it.

Well that was it, we heard nothing for months after till eventually on the notice board we see all these names, we knew who they was, and they moved us – the volunteers – from Braintree to Luton (where they made the hats), put us in private billets. And from there we had the orders we’d got to go down to the station, as we thought was the motors. But it wasn’t motors [laughs] it was horses: horses that they’d all commandeered from farmers and all that, never knew what riding on the back was. They sorted them all out into different teams and all that; well when we’d had a bit of training with the horses, riding and that, they sent us home on 14 days embarkation leave.

PN:
What year would this be, roughly?

AW:
That would be latter end of ’14 that would be.

PN:
How was your training in England?

AW:
Well you see we were all on the move all the while you see, being altered and fitted up for abroad and all that. We had the training with the horses and the guns.

Well then eventually when we had this embarkation leave, when we got back you see, we was all equipped with the stuff as we’d got to take. We’d got all the wagons and that, all packed up and then we went abroad, France. I think it was Rouen or Le Havre as we landed at. [Arrived in France on 1st March 1915]

Well we go all the horses and that out of the boats and so they fitted us all up in different convoys and we done about thirty mile a day travelling ‘cause we were a long way from the firing line then.

PN:
Were you still in the Leicesters at this stage?

AW:
No, in the artillery then. Because when I was Braintree that’s where they changed us into the artillery.

PN:
Why did they do that?

AW:
Well ‘cause we volunteered for it you see, because we didn’t want the infantry.

And so when we got to France we travelled and put up anywhere, side of the roads, until we got up to the place – and the place was, we found out, was the Somme. You know, what the Somme battle was.

We’d got no place to put the horses or ‘us tackle or anything, all the wagons and guns were put on the roadside, the wheels used to sink in the sludge, and they couldn’t get a field to put ‘us horses in and we had to muck in the Royal Engineers [who] had big, heavy draft horses. They were in this field and they were having such a rough time they was, up towards Ypres and that and they said we’d got to go up to such and such a gun, [giving] all the numbers and positions. Well we didn’t know the road, we had to have a guide to show us the way because it was all shell holes full of water, all stained with red blood where chaps had lost their lives.

We made towards Ypres which I could tell you to the inch now, the cloth hall and that and Hellfire Corner. That, I’ve helped to bury teams of horses there. This main road, what there was left of it, you could se into Ypres. Now all up there, the top of the road was all open and you could see the German balloons up. And we knew, while they was up there we should be alright. But if you ever seen them balloons go down and you didn’t get out the road, you’d had it. They used to shell that Hellfire Corner – that’s what they used to call it – and kill no ends. Well we didn’t mind when we got in, what was left of the town.

Well we got into Ypres pretty well under cover – all night moves it is – so when we’d supplied that and got all the stuff up for the guns, all the shells and that, we made ‘us way back with this guide [and] we had the biggest shock of ‘us lives when we got back. We’d gone so many weeks and months without any sleep you used to fall fast asleep on the horse’s back and the only times it could wake you up [was] if you’d got a slow team of horses. You see, to catch up they used to jog and it used to wake you.

Well when we got back to the lines there were a lot of people going off, we didn’t know what was up. And when we got into the field, this field where all these Engineers’ horses were, there were about twelve or more – eight – dead, killed. While we was away going up to Ypres they’d been over and dropped a bloomin’ bomb right in the centre of the line and killed ‘em.

The French – we used to call them Froggies then – there was three I think, civilians which had got private zoos and they’d got permission, and they was taking the harness off and cutting all the carcasses up.

Well after that we had to move out of it then, after a little while. And they moved us to a different place – Arras way this was where there was a lot of coal mines. Well that was where the trenches was. Well we went into the trenches, well then you couldn’t get no clothes, no boots or anything, you just had to wear ‘em ‘til they dropped off your feet and when we was going down this here trench, perhaps up to that in water and sludge, and on the trench side which were about six foot deep I see a pesky pair of soldier’s new boots. I thought, well the devil I’m going to have them ‘cause I hadn’t got a pair. And I pulled one on and a poor soldier’s bloomin’ foot was in it. He’d been killed and buried.

PN:
So he was actually part of the trench wall?

AW:
Yes, just his feet… You see he’d been killed and they couldn’t get him in and that was at Arras.

Well we wasn’t there too long and they was going to move us into a tunnel. A tunnel? I said what does the war want a tunnel for? Well we soon found out when we got there. We moved up, all the guns had gone and they had temporarily put me in with called what we Toc Emmas, that’s the trench mortars. The big boys was 104 pound and we used to call them the flying pigs. You could see them go through the air.

Well then they got us into this tunnel – all the movements had to be done at night time – and this tunnel was thirty foot underneath the ground. They run a light railway [which] the Australian tunnellers built and it went right up to the German lines and with their instruments you could hear the Germans talking.

Now our gun positioning was there. We was in the tunnel and all the ground had been dug like a funnel and our trench mortars were down there. Well they was alright, they used to do terrific damage. Well then, they used to have a sixty pounder and we used to nickname ‘em toffee apples ‘cause they was like a football with a steel tail. They was all packed away separate and in the nose was your fuse and all that.

Well they’d done away with them because it took such a lot [of] preparing to fire them; just like the trigger mechanism of a rifle with a big long lanyard. Well they brought a new gun out, a sixty pounder, but it was like an aerial bomb it was, and all it was, was just a bed with a barrel on it. There was no firing.

Now the different numbers on the jobs used to prepare all them: set all the fuses. Well number three - I shall always remember it - was the man detailed for dropping it in. He used to put it in the barrel, let go and as soon as you’d let go you used to have a parapet to get round for safety. And as soon as it struck the bottom, on which there was a spike, set the detonator off and out it come.

Well the orders was if there was any faulty fuse or anything like that… well we had limited times to keep away which was five minutes. So this chap, the number three, he’d only just come home from his first leave and he’d got married. He’d come back and he was with our team and he put it in it. So when the five minutes come, we had the order to go and investigate. Well what we had to do was to take the barrel off and slide it out. Well just as they were taking these barrel stays off, the damn thing exploded. He were blown to smithereens. Well I had part of the job to go and fetch the remains out.

And you see, as soon as anything like that happens it’s reported to whoever’s in charge of like the battalion and you see they’re supposed to take it back and let the next of kin know. Well the sergeant that was in charge of our teams, he gave the news to what they called the orderly officer then, that was come up from the back billets. It was his fault and he should have passed it on but he never did. All these parcels kept coming for him from his wife, mostly food and stuff, and we couldn’t make it out, and this were months after he’d been killed.

So we enquired, mentioned it to the sergeant and he said, well I reported it to so and so. And when it come to it, he hadn’t passed it on. His wife didn’t know that he’d been killed or anything. So we got the sergeant to get in touch with his wife to explain what had happened and all that and he asked what was to be done with all the parcels that’s been sent. So she said, well I should like all the stuff that could go perishable such as cakes and sweets to be shared out amongst some of his pals, but other stuffs such as shaving soap and such she would like it back. So we did, and that was the last of that, but as I say, it put the wind up me.

This Hulluch Tunnel where we had ‘us guns, every night there used to be a team of the infantry – same division – and [they] used to make a raid over the top, through the end of the tunnel. And we used to wait for them coming back to see what prisoners they’d got. And we had a little Irish chap, Pat Wills, I shall always remember him. He were only young but he were a jovial sort and one raid they’d made over, they brought three Germans back and they’d got something with ‘em which this little Irish chap, Pat Wills, wanted. He said [this] to the Germans, which they didn’t understand, so he does no more but collars his bloomin’ rifle. And this ‘ere German, in there language, was playing on with him…

Eventually, from Arras we moved a bit further on the La Bassee canal area and the Canadians had had front but they’d had such a smashing up there were hardly any on them left. So what there was left, they fetched ‘em out. Well we had to move up to a place called Bethune and civilians had been there only a few hours before and ‘course, all the fowls were running about and in the old houses part of the meals were on the table where they’d been eating.

There was a square at Bethune jus like the one in front of the town hall at Leicester and in there, all trees and that, they’d got an anti-aircraft battery. Very well camouflaged it was ‘til one night the Jerries come over. They put the searchlights on [and] spotted the area and started firing. That was alright, [but] I don’t know whether anything was brought down. But these Germans, they’d seen all the flashes from the gun. They turned round and done no more. They bombarded the whole square, smashed the old town hall up to smithereens.

Well they moved us up. Cause there was all pubs there you know, full of beer and that…

PN:
What year was this?

AW:
Oh, latter end that would be. About ’17 time. So we had the night. We’d got to go the next morning to relieve these Canadians. Well we all stopped in some big building’s cellar. We didn’t take much notice with all these bangs and that because we’d heard so much of it but we knew they’d been over. But, they’d been over, done a lot of damage, and it wasn’t found out until the next day [that] they’d dropped some gas bombs – mustard gas.

So the next morning, they detailed all of us who’d got to go up to such and such guns to relieve these Canadians and we got on the banks of the La Bassee canal and we had to trace that right up ‘til we got to the guns. When we were walking at the side of this canal I said to the sergeant who was in charge of the guns, “I don’t know sergeant, I feel about done. I don’t know what’s amiss with me, I can hardly walk.” So he says, well try and manage until we get up there and then you’ll have to report sick. I had the biggest job to get up there [because] the latter mile or two were dark for moving about.

The next morning I were about done. There were no such thing as sleep so I told the sergeant. Well they somehow got in touch with the advanced Field Ambulance doings and they sent some stretcher men for me and they got me down there, I shall always remember it. They just looked at me and tested so and so. “I don’t know,” I says, “my arms is like red hot fire just burning away.” They said, “aye, just keep quiet” and tied like a luggage label [on me and] off we went, shoved me in an ambulance.

I shall always remember it, they were all lady ambulance drivers with the old long skirts to the floor and every few miles they used to stop: “Are you alright, are we going too fast?” We didn’t know where we was, it seemed as if we were travelling for weeks and weeks until we got to one dressing place out of the zone and I said to this ambulance man – there were mostly big marquees there – I said to him, “I don’t know what’s the matter with my arm, it’s burning away.”

Well they took all my clothes off they did and I just looked down and I just happened to see, just about the size of a dried pea, two of them together, a bright yellow. And every day that was growing and growing and growing to about the size of an orange. And that was the mustard gas. I was burnt with it and it was eating and eating all my flesh away.

This mustard gas it was designed to so it goes to the lowest point and being in the cellar… they told me what it was and they dressed it at about every time.

PN:
Was it affecting your breathing at all, were you coughing away?

AW:
Oh aye, you’re in proper poor state when you’ve got it in your system. The burning takes place anywhere where you sweat. If you don’t sweat you don’t get it, and that had got us in the night. So they took us away and I said to one of the medical men, “Where are we?”
“Well,” he says, “I don’t really know but I know where you’re going. You’re going to Blighty.”

We kept travelling and travelling and I heard a ship’s hooter… and when we were on our boat which was all painted white we see rows and rows of soldiers through the porthole. I said, “look out of the porthole, it looks as though we’re in damned Germany.” And they were all German prisoners of war and they’d got them at the docks to unload all the ambulance doings. And in the docks there, they’d got all the ambulance trains and everything.

Well they loaded us on there and we travelled and travelled and eventually we got to London. I think it was the King Edward’s Hospital in London and from there they got me about right and I shall always remember it. There were about thirty of us and this little Irish chap who’d lost both his legs, and in this hospital ward they were trying to learn him how to walk with two artificial legs. I thought to myself, poor devil. He went a few yards – they was at the side of him – and down he’d go till eventually they did get him walking while I was there.

When they got me about right they said to me, “you’re doing very nice now Mr Willis, would you like to go home?” I said, “what do you think?”

PN:
How long were you in the hospital for?

AW:
Might have been a month or six weeks, I can’t just quite remember.

PN:
What was it like there, did they treat you well?

AW:
Oh yes, used to get no ends of people from outside to come and look after you and bring you different stuff. Oh aye, the public [were very good]. I got in a hospital at Devonport and you’ve heard of Edith Weston’s Homes well she were alive then [and] she come and visited me she did.

I think it was fourteen days’ sick leave they gave me so I though to myself they might discharge me but anyhow I wasn’t bad enough to be discharged. From London I went to High Wycombe and Ripon and from there you’d got a chance. I thought to myself, well it’s a devil if I’ve got to go back to France again with all this water, up to your knees in sludge, no clean shirts… it were over six months before you could ever get your uniform off. And shirts, you never had no clean ‘un. You used to be alive with vermin, couldn’t be avoided.

And when used to get ‘em they used to take us, now and then, in a big lorry – it belonged to the observation balloon section – down to a back billet where there were one of these great big fumigating machines, and the shirts and things used to come out there – not new ones, what had been took in. And you’d say, aye here’s one for you, leave all your old ‘uns. You used to be nearly walking away with vermin, couldn’t be avoided.

And to get a shave, when I were in that tunnel, all your drinking water and that for making a drop of tea used to come up in the old two gallon petrol cans you know. And so you’d got no water for that. So I thought, I don’t know, I want a shave as bad as this week’s growth and I didn’t know what to do [because] they wouldn’t let you have the water. So what I did, I got a candle from the back billets and I used to cut it in about three different sizes and you used to get three longish nails and knock them in a board and they used to give you your cigarette issue in a 50 cigarette tin. You used to put a drop of tea in there and light these candles to try to get something to try to have a shave and that. Then, you know, you had the old cut-throats that were like carving knives [laughs].

Then when I got back to High Wycombe and Ripon after the hospital treatment, that were when I began to think, well it’s a devil if I’ve got to go back to France again. So we had a choice. They was getting a draft up for India or France. So I thought to myself, well, I don’t want France again and India can’t be as bad as France – there’s no war in India – so I’d got a brother out there, well he’d died and he’s buried there. So I thought to myself, well I’m going to have a packet of India ‘cause I knew there was no war there. So when it come it come to going here they fitted us all out with the tropical stuff, you know the topis and the drill, and we set off. There was two liners. One was the MALWA[1] and one was the KAISAR I HIND, well I was on the KAISAR I HIND[2]. The MALWA was the other, both belonged to the P&O.

Then, when you’re on the water you never keep together you know, and we had seven Japanese destroyers as escort, all round, not close to you but you could always see them. And we got half way across in the water [and] it seemed very nice and peaceful - and we used to sleep in hammocks then you know. Well during one night we heard a “Boom!” We didn’t take much notice, we thought it was the engines down below because it was all steam then you know. So we got up the next morning, do what we had to do, clean all the decks and that and one of the crew belonging to the liner said, “Are you alright?”
I said, “What do you mean, are we alright?”
“Well didn’t you hear the bump in the night?”
“I heard a bump.” I says, “Well why, what’s the bump?”
The damn Jerries were after us. They’d hit the other liner – the MALWA – with a submarine.
I said, “it’s out there ain’t it?”
He says, “You look, you’ll find it’s not there.”
Well we looked, couldn’t see it and we noticed half the destroyers had gone. I thought to myself, well it’s a devil. You get out here and they won’t let you be.

So we carried on with us’selves – the other destroyers came back to us - they sunk it eventually they did[3] – and we carried on and we got there, we landed at Bombay. We went from one place to another up to Central Provinces, Jubbalpore it was.

When I got there, to see the soldiers that had been there all during the war, they thought all of these boat loads… they thought they were all recruits, never seen nothing. And all these Doolalli boats they were all soldiers that had been knocked about in France. There were no recruits. And they thought, these here that had been there all the while enjoying themselves, when there were a bit of trouble up in the Punjab they wanted to shoo themselves up there… it was then that the found out who we was and where we’d come from[4].

I thought to myself, well I wonder if I shall ever see my brother. When I’d been there a bit, well it were a proper toff’s life. The chaps that had been there had got all the best uniform, all these hard hats with red and navy blue, the best life that anybody could ever have. I thought to myself, well it’s the devil. They’ve had that life and we’ve had to rough it the other side.

I’d got my brother’s address so I wrote this letter and I had a reply and I had a month’s leave with him. I were the only one of the whole family that had ever seen him since he left home. He first joined up as the old Volunteers at Leicester and then he took on as regular and they sent him out there to Poona and Calcutta. He married out there and when he’d done his army time they asked him if he’d like to stop in the country to train some of their people, the natives, as the civilian police. Well he did, so he were under the Indian Government then till when he’d done that he took managers of big boot and shoe factories that was English-owned out there. And I had a month’s leave with him.

From that, when the war was finished, they used to send you home according to when you ‘listed up. Well I was one of the earliest like, should have been one of the first lot but I wasn’t. It took them from the beginning of 2nd January ‘til I got home and that’s when I was discharged: 2nd January 1920.

PN:
Didn’t you tell me the other day that you were wounded in France as well?

AW:
Not wounded, no; just gas and burning. That’s what fetched me. I didn’t think I should get home but I did do.

When they got me home, the boat, the liner that brought us back, that PRINCE HUBERTUS, it come in at Devonport or one of them. We said, “Where are we now? We’re not in London.”
“Oh, you’re going to hospital now.”
Well I was a bit on the groggy side and the reason why they put me in hospital then was they said I’d got slight touches of malaria and it was there that I come in contact with this Edith Weston and she was good. She come to me she did and she says, ”now do you think you’d be alright to do a little bit of needlework?”
So I says – in my kitbag which was put away and stored – “I’ve got a kitbag full of needlework” and I told her what I’d done. ‘Cause when I were out in India I’d such a good life there that I got onto the Garrison Military Police and we had such a lot of spare time during the day, we didn’t know what to do. Well we used to do that to cure the time away: used to make all the bedspreads out of old army socks and cardigans, pull them to bits you know. When I told this Edith Weston she said, you want something a little bit better than that and she brought me a pillowcase cover and all flower designs. I paid for it to be backed and everything but it never did get backed. I don’t know what happened to it eventually.

Another thing I didn’t like, while I were there there were a biggish ward [with] all kinds of cases and there was a chap who’d only been brought in two days before I went there and he were in a poor state. I think it was a tropical disease; I don’t know if it were malaria or what, but anyhow I could see some of the nurses standing there with a cylinder and a rubber tube and a funnel. I thought to myself, poor devil, he’s not here for long. He lay like that for two or three days and one of the nurses come to me and said, “Mr Willis would you like a little job?”

I said, “Don’t put me to work yet.” And it was to hold this cylinder, just to keep him alive until his next of kin come. [His wife came] and he didn’t last many minutes after that and that was that.

And then there was another chap in the same ward. He were there when I went there [and] I don’t know what was the matter; I couldn’t make out. Every morning as he woke up he used to stand up in his bed [and shout] “I’m still here, I’m still alive, I’ve not gone yet.” He seemed to be perfect and I began to think this bloke’s a bit wrong in the head. I never did find out till there was one morning eventually when we’ve seen the screens round and the poor devil he’d just gone he had.

So when I got in touch with the wife – I lived at Countesthorpe then, the other side of Leicester – the authorities let her know I was coming home and that and we lived in a little cottage. It was only temporary because we’d only just got married. One and ninepence a week it was, two up and two down. From there I couldn’t get a job because there were no reserving jobs and so I rode on my bike hundreds and hundreds of miles to get a job but I couldn’t get one. Every time I see the Mercury I used to write and there was one at Nanpantan and I had a reply from it. [A good deal of interview about job searching omitted here]

I got the job to live-in at Mother Farm, Nanpantan and I were there twenty one years and I’ve been this side ever since.

PN
Going back to when you were in France in the war. Where were the conditions worse do you think?

AW:
Well the worst was Arras and going up to the Some with these bomb holes full of water. We had to have a guide to take us all in and out, otherwise we should be down there.

PN:
You were taking the horses and guns up with you this time?

AW:
Yes, yes. Well the guns had gone in advance. We was taking loads of shells up. You see they’d only just, a couple of days before, gone and settled in. They’d sighted it in the centre of Ypres in an old building. That was one of the worst places for mess; or sludge and all that. Well then the other worse part was that Arras area – all water and sludge. There was trench boards there but there was nowhere for the water to get away and it was just the worse time of the year when it was.

PN:
Was that springtime or winter?

AW:
Getting on for wintertime that was.

PN:
So it was all very wet anyway.

AW:
Oh aye, yes. All like clay sludge it was. We had strict orders not to go wandering about because there were so many openings down into the pits. And that was the same area we come across an old station. We was on the move and we went by this station and there were three locomotives right in this station, been battered and bombed they was, smashed up just like a riddle. All the boilers full of holes and everything. I thought to myself, if that’s France I don’t want to see it again and that’s what made me put my name down for this India.

PN:
Were you at Arras when our troops went forward, when they were attacking?

AW:
We were pretty well on the move then ‘cause for some time you know, that’s when everybody was having such a bad time there. You’d perhaps pull in one place one day and if there was any advancing or retreating you were on the move again. You never knew really where you was.

PN:
Did you ever go in any of the German trenches?

AW:
No. Well I’d been in trenches where they’d been, where we’d shoved them back. This Hulluch Tunnel, they’d been in there part of it but they wasn’t there long ‘cause these Australian tunnellers they was down in this tunnel at the time ‘cause they used to have a light railway there. And these Australians that built ‘em, they used to have what they called the listening posts and they took us down into this place but before we went in they said to us, “keep quiet, don’t get talking, nothing whatever.” And then he says, “I’ll let you hear the Germans talking.” Cause you see they were on the same stunt as what we was; they’d got all the listening posts you see, and we put these things on and we could hear them jabbering and jabbering away. So that’s why they told us, don’t talk ‘cause if you talk they’ll pick it up the same as them.

It was in like a dug-out but it was separate where the ordinary people couldn’t go and all their movements had to be kept as quiet as anything. Well it wasn’t many yards away ‘cause them raiding parties used to go over every night and bring some of the Jerries back.

But the worst time as I ever witnessed – and I said never again – was that one as I was telling you when the chap come home and got married and then he got blowed to bits with that bomb exploding while he was there. That were my worst and that’s what turned me. At one time it didn’t matter what I’d seen, I’d help anybody. But after that I thought to myself, blood never again. Anything like that I could never tackle, not after that, ‘cause you see it was in such a mess. And then to make it worse they never even let his wife know.

PN:
And he’d only just been married as well?

AW:
He had yes. I got married, I did, on my first leave home.

PN:
When was your first leave?

AW:
My first leave was in 1916. This is my second wife this is. My first wife… 1916. Two years I had to wait to get my first leave and we decided we’d get married. We were married at St Barnabas Church, Leicester.

PN:
Were you pleased to come back on leave?

AW:
Well it was nice to get out the line.

PN:
What did you think of people’s attitude to the war here in England? Was it what the soldiers had expected?

AW:
You see the main trouble in this country were the rationing. I’ll give you one instance and it was when I come home on my first leave. I lived six mile the other side of Leicester at Countesthorpe. Well you see all the soldiers was rationed and all when they come home on leave. You used to have a ration card; only so many ounces of this and that. And they’d registered me – and that shop’s still there today it is, but I expect it’s the children that run it – I shall always remember it, the name was Shaw and it was in Charles Street and the shop’s still there now. They’d registered me for my bit of meat – six ounces of meat it was – to this place. So then it meant I’d come on with the rail, come down to Leicester and go down there for six ounces of meat. Well when I got there, there was miles of queues all queuing up for the bit of meat. I come down at nine o’clock in the morning with about the first train after breakfast and got into the queue. Do you know what time I got home? Half past six at night with six ounces of meat. I says to the wife, that’s done it Ede, I’m not going to bother about any other meat; they can do what they like with my coupon. So I never bothered to fetch any more meat, I didn’t, and the sweet coupons as they used to give you, I let the wife have that.

She were doing a man’s job all during the war. She were driving at Leicester, an old baker’s four wheel bread van.

PN:
When you went out to France you were in the horse artillery weren’t you?

AW:
Yes, when I went out.

PN:
And then you transferred to Field? When and why did you transfer to the Field Artillery?

AW:
Why did I? Well, because it was supposed to have been motor transport and I’ve always, all my life, been a motorist. So I put in for it but when it come to fitting them out with, as we thought these motors, they were horses. It were the artillery.

PN:
But you were already in the Horse Artillery in Braintree weren’t you?

AOW:
Braintree, that’s where they transferred us. Before that I were in the 1/4th Leicesters; infantry.

PN:
That’s right. And then you were transferred into the Field Artillery in France?

AOW:
No, transferred to that just as we left Braintree. Then we went to Luton and that’s where they fitted us out.

PN:
So by the time you went to France you’d been in three regiments: the Leicesters, the horse and then the field artillery?

AOW:
Yes, well the horse and the field it’s all classed as one. It tells you on the whatsit.
The horse artillery used to be similar to a lancers or a yeomanry; nearly all horse unit. Then later on they transferred the horse into what they called the heavy guns, the howitzers, the big guns: steam tractors and all of that.

PN:
What was your average daily routine on a quiet day with the artillery? Can you talk me through a normal day?

AOW:
Well when you are in what they called the back billets, that was your easy time out of action. We used to live and sleep in these big, round, steel Nissan huts. And you used to have to do daily parades, sick parades, and look after your harness, your guns, your horses and all stuff like that. It was supposed to be a rest from the line so they didn’t give you too much – mostly guards. Cause everything as you’d got all had to be guarded – the horses and guns and wagons and all the lot because there always used to be these French hooligans, as you might say.

When we was moved – mostly at the beginning – they used to put you in farmyards, these barn places, when we was living on what they called the iron rations: bully beef or perhaps a big dog biscuit you know, and all such things as that. Well you’d be lucky if you got an old biscuit and a dessert spoonful of jam.

PN:
Tom Ticklers jam.

AW:
Oh aye, used to be Tickler’s. And if you ever got one of Chivers’s you were highly honoured.

There was once – French people were in this farm and all that, we used to be billeted in these barns where there were all straw –their fowls used to be wandering about, you know, laid the eggs anywhere. Lots of times we found eggs in the barn and that when we couldn’t get nothing to eat. So one night we went into a field where they used to keep all the mangle clamps and all that. Well we knew they’d got some swedes so we used to go and raid this camp where the Swedes was, cut ‘em up and that. Then at night – all planned affair it was – we used to nobble a fowl over and we used to get an old oil drum that had been cleaned out, and cook it and have a damn good set-to. They missed ‘em, the farmers did but there was nothing as they could do about it. They used to complain to the colonel and that – perhaps his billet was in the farm, in the house – and he says, what can I do? They want something to eat and all that.

PN:
I think they probably turned a blind eye to it.

AW:
Well they had to because you see where they did benefit, they could claim onto the army and they used to get things like that made right and that.

There was a chap – in that same farm it was – and the authorities had had their eyes on him for a little while. There were a chap going about in English officer’s uniform. So we used to say, “look at that damned officer there, isn’t he a scruffy devil for an officer.” And it appears, but it were a week or two after - he were still knocking about - he wasn’t an Englishman at all, he were a damned German! Doing the work of a spy I expect. He’d got hold of this British officer’s uniform but they spotted him and collared him, court martialled him and that and about a week after, shot him.

‘Cause at the beginning of the war they was shooting even ‘us own chaps for deserting you know. ‘Cause they got out there and didn’t like what they seen and all that, so they absconded. They used to shoot them til’ there was so many desertin’ [that] they couldn’t shoot them all because they couldn’t get the men.

PN:
Were you actually working, firing on the guns or were you more the transport?

AW:
On the guns. On the guns. That was my rank – Gunner.

PN:
So when you were firing in a major offensive, what was it like then? What was your routine like then, just non-stop firing?

AW:
Oh aye. You’d perhaps had the order. You didn’t keep on continually, continually firing. You’d perhaps get the orders through the authorities [for] so many rounds and so many degrees. You’d set all your sights and then when all you sights was there there was a certain number that used to bring the shells up, you used to take ‘em of him, shove ‘em in, shove in the breech, pull the lanyard at the side up til’ that number had done.

You see the reason why they used to do that ‘cause if they kept on firing and firing, half of them were practically being fired in blank air. So when our observers in the balloons spotted so and so, perhaps a convoy or part of the Germans, they had instruments to get all the degrees and that’s passed on to the guns – so many rounds, so and so. Well then, if they got smashed up, your shells wasn’t going to waste as you might say. ‘Cause they must have cost some money, them shells because the cases were all solid brass you know.

PN:
How many men were on a gun?

AW:
Three.

PN:
They were the eighteen pounders?

AW:
The eighteen pounders, that’s what we had then, ‘til I got out onto them Toc Ms, the mortars.

PN:
And was one of the men known as a layer?

AW:
No, not a layer. The number three was the man who does the actual firing. Number two is the one that prepares the fuses, sets the fuses. You could get them to explode instantly or you could just delay them, whatever you liked, according to what it was. The number one, I just can’t remember what job he had. You see all the shells and that they’re not all kept round the guns because if you happen to get hit with a bomb drop, the whole lot’s going to go up. So there use to be special parapets where they were stored. And I’ve got an idea it was the number one’s job to bring them up to the number two to prepare the fuses.

PN:
What position were you?

AOW:
I was number two; the firer.

PN:
Do you remember seeing any other guns hit, because presumably you fired in lines did you?

AW:
Not all together, zig-zag. That’s how I was but the trench mortar, they were a different thing altogether. Flying pigs, I shall never forget them, 104 pounds they was.

Then there was another bit an’ all when we was guarding a big ammunition dump a little bit further back. Well we could always tell the German planes ‘cause they had a particular sound, a thrud. So we all just sat there, all camouflaged, thousands and thousands of shells, and we were guarding that for a certain time. We heard a Jerry gun [sic, AOW means “plane”] which we didn’t take much notice of because we’d heard such a lot. Well, a little while after we heard another one. I said, that don’t sound like a Jerry, that don’t. And it appears this first one was a German making towards England.

So this English one was a small scouting plane, only a young pilot, he were only eighteen. They must have trained him well at that age. Well he tried to chase him but he couldn’t do nothing about it because his were only a small machine and this German was a big’un. So he just carried on. But he thought, “I won’t be done, I’ll wait for him coming back.” So when he were coming back, this little scout plane of ours he got right up in the sky over the top of him and he peppered him from there, and fetched it down just in line with our dump. We went across to see what we could do and it crashed. We expected to see a ball of flame but it didn’t. It were all smashed up and we could see there were two in it: one were the pilot and I presume one were the pilot or the navigator, something like that.

The pilot were still alive but he didn’t live long. He’d been shot right through the wrist by this scout of ours so he lost control over it and crashed. But the other chap, he were dead. Must have been hit up in the air. We tried to get ‘em out – well we knew it were no good trying to get the one that was dead – we got the other one out eventually. The scout plane that was after him couldn’t come down because it was all barbed wire but about two or three fields away he come down and he come across. He says, thank God I’ve got him.

As soon as he’d come down, when there was nobody there, I thought to myself I’m going to see if I can get his camera. Well I didn’t know where they had the cameras. I couldn’t find it so I got into the remains of the cockpit and I thought, I’m going to have that clock. And I got the clock off the dashboard. They used to be in an aluminium case screwed to the dashboard. I got that off and the next day I heard rumours talking about that it was missing and nothing wasn’t to be touched. So it put the wind up me so I put it in an old tin and sealed it and buried it in the ground until things got quiet. I did get it home eventually but I can’t make out what happened to it; who had it. But it was a watch, specially made for the job.

This pilot who fetched him down, he knew where the camera was and he got it and took it away, and do you know when it was all developed there were all scenes all over London so you can see how things got about.

The ground and countryside use to be scattered with smashed planes. In the centre of Ypres, a place like that, there were two or three nearly in the one street that had been brought down by our ack-acks, our anti-aircraft guns.

I think Ypres was the worst area as I’ve ever seen during that war. There wasn’t even a wall as you could call complete. There was buildings which was a big massive place – it always reminded me of the houses of Parliament – and that main road, Hellfire Corner, it lay on the left. It used to be called the Cloth Hall and there wasn’t hardly a brick a standing. And the churches and that, it seemed as if somebody had just gone there and done what they wanted and left what they didn’t want. Churches. Perhaps just one wall left with a big crucifix there; not touched.

But that Bethune, where I got gassed, there was all the houses with parts of the food on the dining tables where they’d been eating it and just had to leave it. Dogs, cats and fowls running about, even pigs and all.

That was where the Canadians was and they moved us up to relieve them and we went up as the day I got here. There were about twelve of us got this gassing. I always say, if it’s intended you’re going to be hit, you will be hit and it don’t matter where you was ‘cause a shell… I’ve seen shell holes where you could get a complete house and drop it in and you wouldn’t see it if you stood back.

Them flying pigs, 104 pounds. You ought to see the craters they made; terrific. They were very slow, just like the aerial bombs with the fins on it and in between the centre of the fins, that’s where your flash cartridge used to go. You could watch them on a clear day, going through the air.



PN:
It was a mass of shell holes wasn’t it?

AW:
The Somme. I don’t think you could walk many yards in a straight line, that’s why we had to have guides to take us up into Ypres because everywhere was so smashed up. You couldn’t get horses because if you ever got a wagon stuck or owt like that, you’d never get ‘em out. ‘Cause there were only horses. There was some of these steam tractors that the heavies used for taking their guns. Half of the shell holes were all covered in red and you know what that was.

I tell you another thing and all. It was my first leave when I were in my Hulluch Tunnel at that time and all your rations and stuff, and bombs, used to be brought up on a light railway with mules, right up to the mouth of Bethune but only in the dead of night. Then if there were any relieving coming, they used to come up on these trucks.

They sent a chap up to relieve me because I were going on leave. I thought to myself, Thank God. So, he had to wait in the night before he could get out of this tunnel because they used to send their verey lights up and could see every mortal thing. And the other side, they used to just sweep the ground level with a machine gun.

Well this particular night they’d come to relieve me I’d got to find my own way back.. You didn’t know where you was. I got out on the top, weaving between the blooming shell holes and that and all of a sudden, all my bloomin’ length I went in one of these damn shell holes. You couldn’t see, only time you could perhaps spot any - but you didn’t want to be up above then – was when they sent their lights over. And I went down two or three damn shell holes I did. I thought to myself, I’m not going to get home, not going to get back. But eventually, I kept on going and going, I didn’t know where I was, so I come into a village where there were some Frenchmen. I thought to myself, I must be out of the danger zone. They could nearly always speak broken English and I said to them, “regiment… billeted… where?” And he told me, that road, and that’s how I found my way out. And by the time I got to what they called the back billets, oh I was in a mess.

Then they gave me the papers and all that and then they give me a new set of khaki they did because I were in such a damn mess.

That was just when we got to the Somme part was where they dropped a bomb in all that field of horses, the Royal Engineers. That’s them that lays all these communication lines and that. They had to risk their lives they did because they had to go as far as really anybody could go there, all to headquarters and everything. And if a bomb broke any of the line, they used to send the Engineers out to trace where it was and mend it.

PN:
How were you artillerymen regarded by the infantry? They thought you had a cushy life didn’t they?

AW:
The artillery was what I’d thought. You see I knew very well that if I were in the infantry – you see I knew with what my brother had told me – I were in for a rough time. So I were glad in one way that I did put in for this motor transport.

But when we got to one village when we was on the move – French village – some chap come to us. He said he’d just been to an estaminet for a drink in the next village, I forget the name of it now. He says, I’ve been down so and so and the remainders of the Leicesters have come out; that’s all ‘us old pals as we used to be with. So I says, I shall have to go and see who’s there and who ain’t. So we went and I’m not afraid to tell anybody, as old as I am, that’s the only time in my life that I’ve been what I call, proper drunk.

Well we went down and there’s so many kinds of drinks out there – vin blonks and all that – and we seen the remainder [of the Leicesters] what was left. We used to say, “Where’s so and so? Is he knocking about?” Oh no, gone. And I don’t think there were above twenty or thirty out of the whole battalion left that I used to be in. And them that were there used to say, “come on, you’ve got to have a drink Alf.” All that mixture and that. Well, we were alright while we were there and so when t come to coming home along the country lanes, I thought to myself, you devil, I’m having a job to walk.

Well I shall always remember falling into a dyke with water. My feet wouldn’t stand up. And do you know it was months and months and months before I found out how I got back to my billet. They dumped me, they did, in my billet, in the barn and all that. And I kept asking my pals how I got back and one n ‘em started laughing. It appears that two of my pals carried me shoulder high but there were only about twenty or thirty of them left out of the whole battalion.

When I were even in the artillery I were still in the same division as what I was in the Leicesters. And their flash was a triangle, dark green and a red. That was the 46th Division’s sign that they used to put on the wagons and that. And it seems funny, after all them years during this last war I used to be on the Barrow [unclear] Council with the wagons. I used to be the driver and had three men with me. We used to cover all Leicestershire pretty well and we were at Queenyborough one day and sitting there in the cabin having a bit of snack. And some little chap come [from the Midland Red bus company because it used to stop there at Queenyborough]. And I thought to myself, he’s a little ‘un for a driver. So he looked at me - I didn’t know him – and he said, is your name Willis? I looked at him and I said, aye but I don’t know you. He says, you do. So when he told me, I said oh I should think I do. His name was LILLAN. Now his brother was one that got done on the Somme. Albert his name was. Now his oldest brother was one of my oldest brothers’ – that was in India – one of his pals. And they both joined up. My brother Steve, he went to India. And that was when I was living at Leicester then, not a stone’s throw from the City General.

I could give anybody a history of the old Leicester and yet I’ve not lived there since the First War. I remember that City General being built. I were only a little kid then and they used to have steam locomotives to get the stuff up. Aye, it’s altered a lot it is.


[1] 10,986 tons. Launched 1908, Australia service. Capacity for 350 First Class and 160 Second Class passengers. Broken up in Japan in 1932.
[2] 11,430 tons. Launched 1914, India service. Capacity for 315 First Class passengers and 233 Second Class. Became troop transport in 1916, returned to passenger service 1919, scrapped at Blyth in 1938.
[3] Apparently not, see Note 4 above.
[4] I have listened to this portion of the interview many times but still can’t make much headway with it.