I met Donald Banks in Great Dunmow, Essex in 1986. Of all the men I met, Mr Banks gave me the most information. The interviews I conducted with him ran to around ten hours - ten hours of his lovely, deep, lilting Lincolnshire accent - and in addition he loaned me a lot of his First World War material: photographs, ephemera and his diary for 1915, the first portion of which I am publishing below.
The photograph above was taken in 1915 when Donald was 16 years old. When I was sixteen, I was writing in my diary that I'd seen such and such on television, or had stayed the night at a friend's house. When Donald Banks was sixteen, he was writing how many inners he'd notched up on a firing range.
On Remembrance Sunday 1986, paying my respects at the war memorial in Great Dunmow, Essex, I noticed that one of the veterans present was wearing the medals of the First World War. A couple of days later, the local newspaper published the photograph below.
I can't remember now how I got in touch with Mr Banks, but I did so and, like all the Great War veterans I interviewed in the eighties, he was courteous, helpful and engaging. He was also extremely lucid. He was born in Wragby, Lincolnshire on 9th January 1899. Tall for his age, he joined the 2/4th Lincolnshire Regiment on 28th January 1915 and was given the army number 3546.
Pictured above, number 16 Platoon, D Company, 2/4th Lincolns after a route march near Luton in early 1915. Donald is the bare-chested lad fifth from left on the middle row.
Another shot of the 2/4th Lincolns at Luton in 1915. Click on this and all of the other photos here to see enlarged versions. Donald Banks stands extreme right.
Donald sailed for France on 29th June 1915, arriving at Le Havre the following day. A train jorney to the Bull Ring at Etaples followed and it was while Donald was at Etaples that he met Indian troops. The photograph above was published in a Lincolnshire newspaper in 1915 and this is what Donald told me about the encounter:
"We were housed in tents and right next to us were the Gurkhas with whom I soon made friends. I’ve got a picture here of myself with one of them which somebody took and which was sent to England and put in the paper. I proceeded to learn some of their language and they taught me very well, but what did strike me was when the Ghurka sergeants came in they’d sit and be attended to by the privates. The privates had to undo their boots and take them off. I couldn’t see our sergeants doing that. But they were fine little fellows: quick, agile, friendly, I liked them immensely."
On 2nd September 1915, the 4th Lincolns were close to Hill 60 near Lake Zillebeke and it was whilst they were there that Donald Banks was wounded. This in his own words:
"The roof of the dug-out, which was in the embankment of the railway, consisted of an iron gate covered with earthen sods, and we thought that looked pretty safe. Opposite to us, about thirty yards, was a rather large pond and there was a sort of hedge and ditch to the east of it which we used as latrines, and we were sitting awaiting orders and it was just getting dusk. About a hundred yards away was the Ypres-Menin Road and we were in the angle.
"Now the railway beyond us ran into a cutting as it approached the road and there the Staffordshire regiment were billeted in their dug-outs. We were in our own in an exposed position on this ridge on which the railway ran, lake Zillebeke behind us, and a shell landed on the road. The next one landed on the edge of the pond, then one over our heads. Looking back now, he was obviously ranging because always when they fired they fired a shell beyond and one short and then get the distance between for the target. Well sure enough, the next shell landed right on the trenches to our left and up went the call for stretcher bearers. I remember them carrying by the casualties and one man in particular who’d just his arm dangling by a thread covered with blood. They were taking them to the first aid post which was up beyond the Staffordshires, and our fellows from that end began running along towards the Staffs. Now there was a ridge and in the corner of this ridge with the railway embankment was our headquarters.
"The colonel came out and he said, “Get in with these others, stop running about, there’s an observation balloon up there” which we’d not noticed. This observation balloon had seen our activities when they were looking for the French pom-poms evidently. So two fellows crowded in in front of us and then two more, Sergeant Preston was one and the other, a fellow named West. And then the next moment there was a most terrific thump and crash, I can’t describe. All I knew was that my head was buzzing and singing and I was half buried. There was a groaning beside me and I was completely buried.
"From what I can make out, I’m the only one left. They told me later the top of Pygott’s head was taken off. My head was bent down and the fellow in front of me must have taken the full blast, blown to pieces. Well, I started to run towards this ridge and then my sight went and I called out and one of the Staffordshire fellas came up and said, “alright chum, come on.” He led me to a dressing station. There they bandaged me and treated other casualties. After a while the shelling stopped and it had started to rain. They carried some on stretchers but they couldn’t get the ambulance up to this post because of the shell holes and we had to walk some hundreds of yards to where the ambulance was. By holding on behind one of the stretcher bearers - slipping and staggering along - we eventually reached the ambulance. There I was put on a stretcher and we were taken to the rest camp. We were left there all night.
"Next morning the medical officer came round. He was a major, a specialist of some kind, and he looked at me and said, “what’s the trouble?” I said, “My eyes, I can’t see sir, they’re sore.” So he pried into my eyes. I tried to open them but the pain was too intense. He said to the orderly, “Wash his eyes out carefully, they should never have bandaged him like that he might have gone completely blind.” Later on he came to me again and I was beginning to glimmer a little bit of light. This persisted two or three days. I just lay on the stretcher and they brought food to me: soup, stew or something or other; I had to be fed by hand. And then the officer suddenly said to me, “How old are you son?” I hesitated for a moment and he said, “Now, tell me the truth.” I said, “sixteen sir.” “Yes,” he said, “I guessed it.” And then he turned to the orderly and said, “You see you can tell by the formation of the bones that he’s not nineteen. I bet you gave your age as nineteen.” I said, “Yes sir.” “Alright son,” he said, “we’ll see to you.”
Donald recovered his sight but was discharged from the army on 3rd December 1915 having made a mis-statement of age. The following January however, he re-enlisted with the RAMC and served at the 4th Northern General Hospital in Lincoln before again volunteering for overseas service with his old regiment. He transferred to the 87th Training Reserve Battalion at Clipstone Camp in June 1917 and by March 1918 he had rejoined his old regiment. In May 1918 he was fighting with the 7th Battalion and was serving with them when wounded for a second time in October 1918. He was in hospital in France when the Armistice was signed.
Donald Banks was a deeply religious man and although the war never shook his faith, the death of Clarence Pygott, mentioned above, affected him deeply. This in his words again:
"I carried a bible in my pocket and there was a certain Lance-Corporal Pygott with whom I formed a friendly association and he saw me take this out and said, “let me have a look at it” and he opened it at the text of one of St Paul’s epistles, “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans VIII, 38-39."
After Pygott was killed next to him on 2nd September 1915, Donald wrote a small In Memoriam piece in his diary and, some years after I had interviewed him, I visited Pygott's grave (above) at the Railway Dugouts Burial Ground near Ypres and recited the verse from ROMANS. He lies buried next to Sergeant Preston and other Lincolnshire men killed that day.
Pygott's number - 1817 - indicates that he had joined the 4th Lincolnshire Regiment in February or March 1913. Sergeant Preston's number - 494 - dates his enlistment to either 1908 (and pre-1908 with the 1st Volunteer Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment) or early 1911.
Donald Banks died in Essex in September 1992 at the age of 93. The photograph below was taken in 1919.
The War Diary of Donald Banks 1915 - England
The diary below covers the period from the time he joined up in January 1915, until the time he sailed for France just five months later. I'll publish the rest of his diary at a later date.
Wed Jan 20th
Went to enlist at Drill Hall but was refused. [Donald was born at Wragby in Lincolnshire and the drill hall he refers to is probably the one in Lincoln.]
Mon Jan 25th
Private Hollingsworth No 3339.
Wed Jan 27th
Tried to enlist but was too late.
Thu Jan 28th
Enlisted and passed by doctor who reports I’ve a good chest.
Mon Feb 08th
Started in the 4th Battalion Territorial Lincs Regt. Special Reserve.
[Actually this would not have been the Special Reserve but rather the reserve battalion of the 4th Lincolnshire Regiment, the 2/4th Battalion. The 1/4th Battalion would arrive in France on 1st March 1915.]
Wed Feb 10th
Received uniform and kit.
Wed Mar 3rd
Started at 1pm for Chipping Ongar in Essex. Arrived at 8pm.
Thu Mar 4th
Started work in the 4th Batt Lincs Regt Scouts.
Sat Mar 6th
Got to know Miss K Mills and Miss Heagarty
Mon Mar 8th
Invited in by Miss Mills and Miss Heagarty and got home at 11.30pm.
Thu Mar 11th
Left Ongar at 3pm and reached Luton 6.15pm.
Fri Mar 12th
Served out with Japanese rifles.
Mon Mar 22nd
Shot 25 rounds with Jap rifle, scored 17 bulls, 3 inners, 2 misses.
Wed Apr 7th
Served out with full equipment.
Fri Apr 23rd
Wed Apr 28th
Passed in elementary musket tests.
Thu Apr 29th
Passed by doctor for Foreign Service.
Fri Apr 30th
Passed in firing on miniature rifle range.
Mon May 3rd
Served out with rifle slings.
Mon May 10th
Rifle Range with L.E.
100 yds 8 inch group
100 yds ditto
Tue May 11th
200 yds (d) 18 points
200 yds (r) 13 points
Wed May 12th
200 yds (d) 11 points
200 yds (r) 8 points
300 yds (d) (kneel) 11 points
Thu May 13th
No shoot, bad weather.
Fri May 14th
400 yds (d) 11 points
400 yds (r) 15 points
500 yds (d) 11 points
600 yds 4pt
Mon May 17th
5 round L.E. 100 yds 8” grouping.
Wed May 19th
18 mile march 3 hrs night trenching.
Fri May 21st
Brigade March of 18m. Picket duty 5.30-10pm. Confined to billets.
Sat May 22nd
Confined to billets.
Sun May 23rd
Confined to billets.
Mon May 24th
Whit Monday: Holiday.
Wed May 26th
Manoeuvres. Inspection Lincs and Leics. Brigade Section rushes by companies over 1800 yds.
Fri May 28th
Free week-end railway warrant. Went to Leicester.
Tue Jun 1st
L.E. shooting 100 yds 8” group
Washout 300 yds 8 pts 400 yds (d)
Wed Jun 2nd
600 yds 8 and 5 Total 87
L.E As 300 yds 5 (d) 14 pts
300 yds, 15 rapid (7 inner, 5 mags 3 out) total 34 pts
Total so far 75 pts
Thu Jun 3rd
(1st class to qualify 105)
L.E. 500 yds 5 (d) 12 pts
L.E. 500 yds 5 (r) 8 pts
1st Class Marksman total 108 pts
Fri Jun 25th
Went home on last leave.
Sun Jun 27th
Back to Luton.
Mon Jun 28th
Inspected by General. Got equipment. Went to Southampton.
Tue Jun 29th
Got rifles etc. Sailed for France 7pm.
Interview with Donald Banks - Part 1
Also see posts on my Army Service Numbers blog regarding the Lincolnshire Regiment:
The 1st & 2nd Battalions, The Lincolnshire Regiment
The 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion, The Lincolnshire Regiment
The 4th Battalion, The Lincolnshire Regiment
The 5th Battalion, The Lincolnshire Regiment
The Lincolnshire Regiment - Service Battalions
The Lincolnshire Regiment - 10th Battalion - Grimsby Chums
And also: The Lincolnshire Yeomanry