Monday, 22 June 2009

9814 Pte Harry Toplis Bardsley, 18th Manchester Regiment


Harry Bardsley - synopsis

9814 Private Harry Toplis Bardsley served with the 18th (3rd City) Battalion, The Manchester Regiment. He was born on 16th December 1893 and was working as a salesman for William Briggs and Co in Manchester when was was declared. He attested on 4th September 1914 and served virtually throughout the First World War until a bullet in his thigh finished his service in October 1918. By then he'd transferred to the 21st Manchesters and must have been one of only a few original Manchester Pals still in khaki. The photo of him (above), was taken shortly after he joined up in 1914.

Harry was one of the first Great War veterans that I interviewed. I met him in September 1981 and visited him regularly until his death in November 1982. The transcript below is taken from the recording I made in 1981.

1914-1915
I went to The White City; a pleasure ground which they called The White City. It were all in white and they’d got a boating lake and a ballroom and all these kind of things and we were stationed there. The ballroom was partitioned into sections of sixteen, that was a platoon. In this ballroom there was a company there and the sergeant-major, he had his place in the centre by our lights, you see lights was off at half past ten. The sergeant-major used to walk round shouting out to be quiet because some used to snore very loud.

For supper we got meat pies. Well, a lot of us didn’t eat them and over the sergeant-major’s sleeping quarters there was a rack where we used to throw these meat pies. He put wire netting over but that didn’t keep them out so he had to have it boarded up.

So we were there and it was quite good training. Of course, we were all raw. The regimental sergeant-major and all the sergeants and sergeant-jajors were Boer War veterans and had been in the army because it wasn’t that long after the Boer War really. You’d be drilling, the sixteen of you, and he’d come round and he had a terrific voice. If he shouted, you could hear him a couple of hundred yards away. He’d come out behind some trees and scare the life out of us. Anyway, it knocked us into shape.

There was a kind of winter gardens which was used as a lecture hall; it was a huge place. Well at night, chaps would be sitting there with girls in this place in darkness and one night the colonel and regimental sergeant-major came in and switched all the lights on. Of course, there was a bit of trouble about that.

Anyway, we moved from there to Grantham, to Belton Park which was the home of Lord Brownlow. It was a huge park. Well, there were four thousand of us there in huts. [1] It was a huge place and it was quite pleasant there. I got in trouble there with the sergeant-major. He said something and I made a rude noise and he had me up in the Company Office. Well the captain asked the sergeant what the charge was. He replied that I’d made a rude noise. He said, well what was the noise? Well he couldn’t do it, he kept trying but he couldn’t. Anyway they didn’t proceed and I got let off but the sergeant-major had it in for me after that.

Well then they asked if there was anyone that could ride as they were forming a transport section. Well I could ride; I used to go to a farm so I put in for this transport. So we had to go to Grantham station to collect these mules which were coming direct from the Argentine; they were wild. We were supposed to get two alike to form a pair and bring them back. Well, you couldn’t get these things. They were running wild round Belton Park. So for a fortnight we had rodeos, going round after these things, rounding them up. Well I got two and you had to get one that would ride., you had to train it. None of them would ride. If you got close to they’d kick. Anyway, after about ten days I could sit on it and shortly after that, after we got these things, we went on a journey of about seven miles, not with a saddle but a saddle blanket. Well imagine. Fourteen miles! When I got back I couldn’t walk, I was so sore. Well I managed to get down to Grantham and I went to a chemist’s shop and bought a tin of Vaseline and borrasic powder. Eventually you hardened up. For years and years you were riding about four to six hours a day so you got very hard and you could sit on a razor and not feel it.

And then from there we did a lot of training there. We went round about meeting other battalions and brigades and then we went to Salisbury Plain. I was stationed near Stonehenge; I could see Stonehenge from my hut.

We went out one night [and] you had to follow your way by stars. You were taken so far away and I’d got a half a limber, two mules (riding one) and a brakesman and you had to follow these stars to get back to where you’d started from you see. Well, I took the wrong turn and when it came dawn I was miles away. Anyway, I managed to get back. We also had mock battles there. You took your mules out of the limber and you gave one to your brakesman to lead; they were carrying ammunition. I gave him the one that could have a pack saddle and the one I took which was the one that was carrying the empty cartridge cases, started bucking and took off. I had it on a rein you know. I wasn’t riding, it took off. I went right through the front line to the enemy and still holding on. Anyway, I got in a bit of bother about that. I should have let it go. Anyway, we trained quite well there and eventually we went to France in November 1915.

On the 8th November 1915 we went to Boulogne and were there a day or two and then went up the line the following day to Pont Remy. We got up there and we were in tents when they started shelling and we took refuge in the tents! [Laughs]. You know, we were rookies.

And then we spent the 11th December up until the 22nd in the line and the mud it came up to your knees. To mount, to get on the mule you had to walk along the pole between the mules, the pole attached to the limber. Otherwise you couldn’t mount, your feet sank down. The mud was terrible, gluey mud. ‘Course, they’d had a lot of rain and it was a very very wet winter.

At Christmas time we were at a place called Canaples. We went there on 22nd December and were there till the 2nd of January. Well, I managed to get an out-building to put the mules in. It had a roof but the walls were wattle, wattle and straw. Well, I put them in, it was dark when we got there and I went in the morning to see them - feed them - and when I got up they’d eaten a big hole in the wall. Of course, they’d eat anything you see. I had to pay for that. I had it docked out of my pay which wasn’t so damned much.

We moved on the 2nd of January and the trouble was our Christmas parcels hadn’t arrived. They arrived the day we were moving. Well I was alright, I’d had a lot of parcels for the chaps in the infantry. I’d carried a lot for them but it was terrible mis-management. Anyway, we moved from there up the line to the Somme on the 4th of January. The Somme was wide but a lot of swamps and the natives there could work their way across these swamps to get to the other side where the Germans were. We were there from the 4th until March 1916 and then we came down the line and were back there by May.

We were at a place called Bray and to pull the cookers they had big draught shire horses. Well one of the drivers got killed by a shell and this pair of horses hadn’t been out for about a fortnight. Well they needed a lot of work so I said I’d go up the line when it was dark. There were seven bodies put in sacks who’d been killed by mortar fire so I went up with half a limber weighing a few hundred weight with these two big horses which weighed about a ton each. Well, it was only about four miles. I went up and got these [bodies] and coming back it was downhill. Well a shell dropped and they set off. I couldn’t stop them, a couple of tons and I was bringing these bodies back. Anyway, I managed to get them under control. Well they got another chap to drive this cooker with these horses but it was a shame having beautiful shire horses out there.

Another time we were up there we fixed up a water pump to have a shower. Anyway, we’d just started when the Germans spotted us and started up a machine-gun on us. We left all our clothes there and started running. It was just a sideline; you didn’t think much about it at the time.

The Battle of the Somme – July 1916
After a month there we came out to practice for the Battle of the Somme. We had rehearsals for and we linked up with the French. We were on the right hand side of the British Army. Our objective was about a thousand yards, that was all. Well they knew we were coming and our guns were wheel to wheel, you never heard such a bombardment. The small eighteen-pounders and then back to the big ones and they were wheel to wheel. And the French didn’t go the same time we did. Our chaps went over and of course they lost hundreds in the first hour. It was no gain really, a thousand yards was nothing at all. [2]

I didn’t go over the top on 1st July because I was with the transport, taking bombs and ammunition up. What we used to do with the transport was you had a brakesman because you daren’t get off your mules because if you did, with the gun-fire they’d have turned back. So you sat on and you were right up there with everyone taking cover.

In August we came down the line to get a full complement again and to train and then we went up in the line again to a place called La Bassee where the famous canal is. We were up in there for a month and then we came out for a rest and we went up the line again to Fricourt and Albert. This was the 15th of October, another battle.

Now when I first went out, this is going back, for the first few months there was one tin hat between ten men. And the guns, they were in fours, the sixty-pounders, they used to fire one shell each in the morning at dawn and one each at dusk. That was 1915. Then of course it was Lloyd George who saw about sorting that out. They got it all ready for the battle of the Somme. We were well equipped, well trained men and intelligent men. They were all volunteers, there were no conscripts in 1916. They were well trained young chaps and they just slaughtered them, hundreds and hundreds of thousands for nothing at all. They’d got machine-guns, all the emplacements, and they just mowed them down.

They had a raw deal. It used to break your heart to see those young schoolboys. They were so eager and then they put them in the trenches. My brother was out a fortnight. He was seventeen and a half, he had a month’s training and in a month he was killed. Just imagine sending them out like that.”[3]

In my lot there were two young chaps, one was 19 and the other was 20. They were both well educated and came from good homes. After the Battle of the Somme where we lost eight out of ten chaps, they came back shell-shocked behind the lines and were charged with desertion. Our Regimental Sergeant Major tried to get them off but it were no good. He was a hardened veteran from the Boer War but he broke down and cried when they were shot… I was a fatalist, you knew it would be your turn soon. I lost all my friends, I didn’t have one, which was the same with most people.

Well I went up one night with a load of bombs and had to wait in a big field until morning. Well, what happened was they started shelling and I got underneath my bombs and they killed both the mules. They didn’t damage the Mills bombs but anyway I was there until they came for me next morning. In the meantime of course, our chaps had come back about five hundred yards. You never saw any Generals. They were well back in palatial headquarters like St Omer and places like that where they had dinner and all the rest of it.

I saw this chap one day; he wasn’t in our lot but I’d met him and we said we’d go for a drink. I said I’d meet him and he was about as far from me as those houses [about fifty to one hundred yards] when a shell came down where he. There was nothing left of him. These kind of things made you a fatalist; you know, you thought if I’d been there.

On our second Christmas out there the forty eight of us in the transport had got our parcels and we said we’d have a party. We’d got a barn with a tiled roof and Christmas Eve we’d got drinks in and we were just sitting down when a very heavy shelling took place so we had to get all the animals out up on the hills. Well the Royal Scots were in the same village, they’d just come back from India[4], and they were a real wild lot, regular soldiers. Well we got there and thought well someone better go back ‘ cause this thing will be raided with the Scots there. So some of us went back and our roof was gone but we were all right and we got no more shelling. So we had our Christmas dinner with the parcels; we all mucked in you see. We put them on the table and everybody shared them and we’d got wine which was only the equivalent of ten pence a bottle.; ten pence a bottle in those days. So we had quite a nice dinner but Christmas Day we were on duty just the same.

1917

I went on a course for skinning horses and mules as we were getting short of leather. Well there were hundreds and hundreds, well thousands of animals with shrapnel and so on and we used to skin them and get the hides if they weren’t too badly [damaged/mutilated] but it was a terrible job. Some of these had perhaps been dead for a week. So I was on that course for six weeks.

Another course I went on was a veterinary course. That was quite interesting, just for about six weeks.

Another thing we used to indulge in was wrestling on horseback. We went in for a competition and we did all right the first time but in the second round we got pitted against the Military police. I weighed just over nine stone but my opponent weighed fourteen stone. As soon as any portion of you touched the ground you were out. Well he got hold of me and I was out in no time. But it was a bit of fun, it all added to the spice you know. ‘Course, it was a miserable existence with the conditions. Food was very scarce and I never slept in a bed except when I came home on leave. Most times you were out in the open and you’d put up a bit of what they called a bivvie sheet and you’d have a groundsheet in the mud and you’d lie in there. Oh the conditions were terrible.

The German dug-outs were very good. They were well constructed and well drained. Well ours had got duckboards but very often the duckboards were afloat. Sometimes you’d go up the line with rations or bombs and such like and you’d bring wounded back. You’d get perhaps eight chaps who couldn’t walk and bring them back out of the line. But it was pitiful to see these young chaps you know. Slaughtered, absolutely slaughtered. ‘Course, we’d no proper Generals, it was just man-power. Not like Montgomery. He went into battle and he saved his men didn’t he, but these chaps, it was just slaughter.

In 1917 we had the Battle of Arras, that was in March. The Germans let us go because the place was a morass. It was very cold and there was a lot of snow and rain that winter and in March. They let us advance about twenty miles through all this mud and our generals fell for it. We were there from the 22nd March till the 23rd April. We were there a month. Then we came back again for a bit of a rest and to be made up again before moving up to Poperinghe, Dickebusche and Ypres on the 4th June.

We were training for the Third Battle of Ypres and the town itself was an absolute shambles, it was just rubble. We were there from 26th July until the 8th August. It was a terrible place there. The ground must have been eight or ten feet deep in mud and the transport used to go up on corduroy roads made from sleepers. We used to go to a place called Hellfire Corner and they’d got it all lined out to an inch for shelling. We used to stop about two hundred yards away ready for a dash and very often you used to get in between the mules on the pole and go up that way, riding at full gallop. If you got off this track there was no hope; wagons and horses just sank. It had been churned up for months and months by shell-fire and the heavy rain and the place was already very low-lying. I used to go up every other night and take it in turns with my pal. I’d go up and I’d leave him my pay book and all my things in case I didn’t come back and he’d do the same and get it all back in the morning. Anyway, we both came through it but it was a hell of a time up there up at Ypres. We kept coming out for rest and then went up there again from September until January and all that time under constant shell-fire.

I saw the first tanks come out in 1917 but they all got bogged down. This was somewhere on the Somme, in the Autumn of 1917. The ground was feet in mud. They couldn’t manage, it were no use at all. To give you an example of how deep the mud was, we were getting some bombs and ammunition because they were short and it took three pairs of mules to pull half a limber weighing eight hundred weight. Normally a man could have done it but it was sunk down so much and it took us a long time to get through. But fancy, six mules to pull a little box like that. That gives you an idea of the mud. They issued gum boots, thigh-length gum boots. Well, if you wanted to mount you left one stuck in the mud; it was very gluey mud.

1918

In 1918 the Germans attacked on the 21st March. It was a very misty morning and they came through. They came between our horse lines and our headquarters. They captured a lot of prisoners and must have come about fifteen miles I suppose. They broke right through and our only thought was about getting the last boat to England. There were a lot of stragglers and people throwing their rifles away but a few miles back there were Staff Officers and MPs with revolvers making everybody go back and line up again. They’d got fields where these chaps were trying to get some semblance of order.

After the retreat I got in a signals school with the 30th Division and I was acting Quartermaster. It was a few miles behind the line and I went there straight away, I didn’t think they’d get that far. There were about ninety men there and I went off to get the rations. On the way back we get to some bushes and the Machine Gun Corps were there. They said, where are you going and I explained and they said, the Germans are there; you could see them. So I’d got this load of rations with me for four days for ninety men and I’d got the bacon with me and we turned round and didn’t know where the hell to go. So we went on a bit and I said, we’ll have some food now. So we sat down at the roadside where it was quiet and had bacon and fried onions. We had all this grub and didn’t know what the devil to do with it, nobody wanted us.

So I wandered about there until the 2nd April when I was transferred to the Americans to help with the fitting up of the transport. They didn’t know anything about the transport and we used to go to Rouen and pick up the animals and the wagons before returning to the line. Then we’d go up the line with the Americans and they’d be there in a very quiet sector for a couple of days and come back covered in mud. They never thought about washing themselves. They’d sit about in this mud and filth for days just to show they’d been up the line.

Another course I went on was for chaps who’d done a bit of service and who the CO thought deserved a bit of a break. I got down to Etaples and there was a Major there from the Dragoon Guards in charge. He had thirty men there and as you got down, the first thing he said was, ‘take your clothes off I’m going to burn them.’ And you got new underclothing because you were lousy you see. And you had a great big feed and then you started riding then over jumps. You could take three horses over jumps and I was there a month, it was like a holiday. He was a wonderful chap this major.

Then I had a month on a shoeing course which was hard work, and then Sunday afternoons behind the lines we’d have a bit of a rodeo. We’d all got mules, one that wouldn’t ride and we used to have a kitty. There was a chap with a stop-watch and the one who stayed on longest, well he’d scooped the prize. There’d be twenty of you and you’d all chip in with two or three francs. Some of these you’d be off before you got on.

I was with the Americans from 8th May until the end of September and in the meantime I’d put in for my commission. I’d been home on leave and got one or two people – a major and a colonel who’d been invalided out – to get my references. Well then I came back and you had to join a battalion for a month. I wasn’t attached to a battalion so I said I’d join the 21st Manchesters; they were in Italy. I thought I’d have a quiet month but I got to Marseilles when they said they were coming back to France. I joined them on the 29th September and got wounded in the October. Another fortnight I’d have been home for the Inns of Court.

I was wounded in the thigh at a place called Beaurevoir and was taken then to Peronne, Rouen, Havre and then home to England.

After the Armistice had been signed I went to the regimental doctor for an examination. When I went into the army I had been 9 stone 4 pounds. By 1918 I was 7 stone. The army doctor said I was fitter than I’d ever been and I told him he was talking out of his hat. I lost my army pension because of it.

[1] “…there were four thousand of us…” There were roughly 1000 men to a Battalion. By the time the 18th Manchesters (The 3rd City Battalion; colloquially known as The 3rd Manchester Pals) had arrived at Belton Park, it was part of the 90th Brigade, 30th Division; along with the 16th, 17th and 19th Manchesters (1st, 2nd and 4th City respectively). The combined battalions totalled approximately 4,000 men. The Division itself was the first of the Pals Divisions. Seven battalions were comprised of men from Manchester, four from Liverpool (89th Brigade)and one from Oldham.

[2] On 1st July 1916, the 30th Division was holding the line just north of Maricourt and took all of its objectives, including the village of Montauban which was the first village to be captured in the battle.

[3] Colin Bardsley is buried in Doullens Communal Cemetery, extension number 2; plot 11, row 15, grave number 21. Mr Bardsley paid many visits to this site and to the old battlefields during his lifetime. I also visited the cemetery in the 1990s and laid a cross on his grave.

[4] 2nd Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers was a Regular Army battalion which joined the 90th Brigade from the 21st Brigade (7th Division) in exchange for the 19th Manchesters in December 1915. Battalion moved to the 9th (Scottish) Division in April 1918.


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1 comment:

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