Tuesday, 15 September 2009

A/Capt John Potterton Tucker, 2nd Devonshire Regiment


Synopsis

John Potterton Tucker was another of the men I met whilst I was studying at Loughborough University in the 1980s. He was born in Torquay on 30th November 1894 and was an apprentice engineer when war broke out. He enlisted on 9th September 1914 with the 1st Life Guards (army number 3118) and was later commissioned in the Devonshire Regiment.

I interviewed John Tucker on 5th July 1984 and he died in Leicester in October 1993 at the ripe old age of 98.

Interview

PN:
Why did you join up in 1914?

JT:
Well the war broke out on 4th August 1914 and for some time everybody was saying the war would be over in five minutes so quite a lot of us thought it wasn’t much point in joining up. But then there was a few of these white feathers started flying about for people who hadn’t joined up so I thought to myself, before I get one of those I’ll join up. So I joined up on the 9th September 1914. I went to the recruiting office which was in the old town hall of Torquay and the sergeant, when he measured me – I was over six foot – said, “I’d like you to go to The Life Guards.” So we were sent up to Exeter and then we signed all the papers necessary, took the King’s Shilling and went on to Knightsbridge barracks.

PN:
Did you join up with friends?

JT:
No I just went on my own. I was the only chap from Torquay in that batch that went to The Lifeguards. We did our usual training, learning how to ride, sword rill and what not. There was still guards going on in Whitehall and I was appointed as a batman to the corporal-major in charge of the guard that went to Whitehall guard on guardroom duty. But I didn’t actually go on mounted guard, I was just a batman to the corporal-major in charge. Our training depended on being able to ride well and after we’d passed in the riding school we used to go out on Rotten Row and ride up and down, doing charges and things like that. Then when we were able to tackle that alright without falling off we went to St James’ Park and used to do charging and general manoeuvres. All our training was done in London but we went down to Rainham for our rifle training and I got a marksman’s badge for that.

In June 1915 we were drafted to France [medal index card indicates he arrived in France on 18th June] and directly we got to France there was news that the Canadians had suffered a very major loss due to the Germans mounting their first gas attack in the Ypres salient. We were sent up right up to relieve them. We had makeshift gas masks, we had pads which we used to tie over our mouth and when they got dry you piddled on them and that was that. Then of course they gradually developed the gas mask and they had those hoods they used to pull over your head with a little perspex panel in them. Gradually they got it down to the cylinder type gas masks. Well anyhow, during that first do all we had was this little bit of a pad which we tied over our nose and our mouth.

Then of course we came out. We were a mounted regiment and were not really trained for infantry work but it was an emergency so we went traight up. Then of course we did working parties going up at night putting up barbed wire in the Ypres salient and we used to kip out at night in the Ypres ramparts.

Haig was a cavalryman but it wasn’t really a cavalryman’s war. You see you’d got these trenches and you were entrenched. The Ypres salient was more or less a salient for I don’t know how many years.

When we came out for a rest we used to go down to a little village called Poperinghe and at Poperinghe, Talbot House had been set up. Bishop Talbot had set up a little place where fellas could go and pray and that sort of thing and it was named after him. They called it Toc H because the T for Talbot was Toc in the signaller’s language. Tubby Clayton was the minister in charge there and over the door, as you went in, it said “Abandon rank all ye who enter here.” You could go in there and you could kneel and you’d probably be kneeling beside a General. As far as you were concerned it didn’t matter if you were the lowliest of privates or the top notch of the General Staff, you were all one while you were in there.

We were out on exercise once, quite back out of the line, I can’t remember the name of the village, and one of the officers said he’d like to promote me and give me a rank in The Guards. He said, “We want you to take a commission” but he said you couldn’t get a commission in The Life Guards because they were all posh: lords and ladies; lord this and sir that. The officers in The Life Guards were nearly all millionaires I think so they arranged for me to be transferred to The East Surreys and that was at the time just before the Somme operation.

I was transferred to The East Surreys and the first thing I did was to go into the Somme operation.[1] They laid down this barrage and that was the first time the tanks were used as far as I know. They got these tanks in a row and a whole heap of them got stuck. I thought they were very ineffective.

There were two villages and one of them was called Morval but I can’t remember the other one.[2] Anyhow, in that advance we lost a tremendous number of men and I got wounded there. I got shrapnel in the leg and I was sent down to a hospital at Le Treport.[3] It was a hotel converted to a hospital in the seaside town of Le Treport. Then I went back and re-joined The East Surreys and I got wounded again by a rifle grenade when we were in a sap-head at Hulloch. We were in this sap-head and the rifle grenade came through the corrugated iron over the sap-head and I got wounded. I was smothered with bits all over my body, tiny bits.

PN:
Did you stay in France?

JT:
I didn’t come home for either. I stayed in France. The first time I was wounded I got inoculated, I came out in blisters all over the place and they sent me down to a hospital in Etaples which was for ordinary sickness. They said I’d got scabies. Well I hadn’t got scabies it was the result of this anti tetnus. When they gave me the next lot after this rifle grenade wound I came out again like it and I said, “look, don’t you tell me I’ve got scabies this time, it’s something to do with this anti tetnus you’re giving me. I think I’m allergic to it.” They agreed that it did affect some people and so they agreed it did catch some people like that and they didn’t send me down but kept me until I was well.

PN:
Had you become an officer at this stage?

JT:
I was then a corporal and then I was sent on to England and I joined the number 13 Officer Cadet Battalion at Newmarket[4] and I passed out of my training there and then I was commissioned to the 2nd Devons.

PN:
What battalion of The East Surreys were you?

JT:
I can’t remember which of The East Surreys it was.

We then went out again and were in action in several places including Armentieres. The last major action I was in was Passchendaele. I was appointed there as an acting captain because the captain was ill. I was in charge of a company in Passchendaele and there I captured the first German soldier since I’d been out there. We were taking the rum ration round and were going round the shell holes [because] there were no connected trenches. It was very difficult to tell where you were because there were half a dozen of you in one shell hole and two or three in another and so on. Your company was spread out in these blooming shell holes and they were half full of water. I’d got this rum ration in a sandbag over my shoulder and I was going round with the company sergeant-major. We were dishing out the rum and finding people in these shell holes and giving them a couple of tablespoons each and we saw this blooming German soldier and he’d got a rifle. I’d got a revolver but course, it was on my left side and I’d got this rum jar over my right shoulder so all I did was I slung this ruddy rum jar at him. It knocked him over and of course I took his rifle and took him prisoner. That was the only prisoner I ever took right through the war.

After Passchendaele I’d been in France then for about three years and they were having an exchange of officers and I came on the list because I’d had this three years service and they were sending some officers out who’d been spending most of their time in England. So I came home and they attached me to the Norfolk Yeomanry. When I was in the Norfolk Yeomanry the commanding officer, the colonel, sent for me and he said, “I understand you’re a bombing expert.” I said, “I’ve thrown plenty and I’ve chucked a few about in my time in France.” He said he wanted a bombing instructor but I hadn’t passed out as an instructor and I didn’t think I could take classes. So he rang p brigade headquarters and they said they had a fella in the Suffolk Yeomanry who was an expert so I swapped with him. So I was then sent to the Suffolk Yeomanry. The commanding officer there was a different type altogether. He said, “Look we’re playing at soldiers. I’ll attach you to Captain Kirby and his company and if we want you we’ll send for you.” This was at Woodbridge in Suffolk.

Then we were drafted to Ireland because the Sinn Fein business was on and we were all mounted on bicycles. We went to Ireland on the bicycles and carried out a few manoeuvres and while we were there we got a manoeuvre call and the captain was told that the Germans had landed on the east coast of Galloway and that we must go and repel them and capture them if we could. Well he got this call about six in the morning and he said, “We can’t go off without any breakfast.” I said, “Damn it, you don’t have to wait for breakfast you ought to be getting off right away.” However, he insisted and I thought, well on your own head be it. We stayed for breakfast and when we got to the east coast of Galloway a fella walked into our barracks who was pretending to be one of these Germans. He’d taken over our barracks and we were in Galloway looking for these Germans. It was only a practice do but course, when it was all over the brigadier-general had a conference and really tore a strip off this captain who’s kept us back for breakfast.

Anyhow, then I was sent back again. I’d had my little bit of a spree and my little bit of rest and I was sent back to France in September 1918 having had three months in England and Ireland. We were just on the advance and we finished up the Armistice in France but I can’t remember the name of the village we finished up in. It was a three lettered word.

When the Armistice was over we settled down and started having fun. The local ladies started organizing dances and we were going dancing and having a real good time. I was in this regular regiment again, the 2nd Devons, and immediately the Armistice was signed it was decided that this regular regiment should go back to England to be re-formed to go out to India for posting.

Well as I was a temporary officer I was not in that lot and I was sent to what was known as a composite regiment. It was made up of all these officers who were in the various regiments and we were there in this composite regiment waiting to be either de-mobilized or despatched somewhere else and I was one of the unfortunate ones who got despatched to Egypt. So when I got to Egypt I was still in the 2nd Devons but the regiment – after it was all sorted out, the composite regiment – was known as the 2nd London Regiment. I was given the job of camp adjutant at Sidi Bish outside Alexandria. Sidi Bish was a camp but it was no longer a camp. All that was there was the camp adjutant’s house and attached to it was three Egyptian civilian servants. One was to do the cooking, one had to do the housework and one had to look after the camp adjutant’s horses; there were two of them. Three servants and two horses and all I had to do was ride around with these blooming horses, exercising [them] and in the evening I used to go down to Alexandria and report to the camp commandant who was Colonel Coates of Coates the cotton people of Paisley. He was living it up there, I think he was a millionaire the way he was living it up. Well I got stuck there until April 1920 when I was sent home and de-mobilized. I got home to Liverpool and I was de-mobilized on the 4th of the 4th 1920. I was in the army from September ’14 to April ’20.

PN:
What was you life like as a private soldier?

JT:
Well you just mucked in anyhow. You slept rough, you ate rough but we were all pals, we all made the best of it you know. We had our fun and our gamesand we had some bad times. We had some rum meals at times – hard biscuits and bully beef and nothing else, and some of the trenches were terrible. The conditions at Armentieres were awful. You had these big thigh boots but you were waist high in water. You had these big thigh boots but they were leaking already and directly you put them on and got in the trench they were full of water. They used to send you up a pair of clean socks every day but you’d got an awful job to get these boots off and get your clean socks on, and directly you got them on they were wet through right away.

PN:
Did you ever suffer from Trench Foot?

JT:
No, I was very fortunate. I had a little whiff of gas once. I was in a dug-out and one of these gas shells went over. We’d got these curtains across the entrance of the dug-out to keep the gas out and a chap looked out to see what it was and he got a real lung full of it. He fell back inside the dug-out and some of the gas came in with him so that we got just a whiff of it but nothing serious. We didn’t have to go down for it.

When I was with the Lifeguards the horses were right back in the lines. We had to go up each day in working parties and look after them. When we first went into trenches though, we hadn’t been issued with any horses. Then we came straight out to Le Havre, went up the River Seine to Rouen and we’d no sooner got to Rouen, we hadn’t been sent any horses, when we were sent right up to Ypres to relieve the Canadians.

PN:
There were lots of colonial troops as well weren’t there?

JT:
Yes, there were some Chinese too, Labour Corps chaps. In fact my sister married a fellow who was in charge of the Chinese Labour Camp. He was the son of a missionary, born in China, and when they knew he could speak Chinese, instead of drafting him into one of the fighting regiments they drafted him into being in charge of this Chinese Labour Camp.

PN:
You were in action on the Somme and at Passchendaele. Which was the worst for you?

JT:
I think that Passchendaele was worse than the Somme. We lost more men in the action on the Somme but the conditions were drier and not so bad. But at Passchendaele it was absolute slosh and mud. Terrible. I can’t remember the geography of the place very well but as far as I was concerned I was scared stiff each time and all I was thinking about at Passchendaele was trying to look after my men and keep them in some kind of formation and encourage them. But it’s hopeless on these things. You’ve got to give instructions, you’ve got to be careful that you tell them why you’re doing it and where you’re going and what you’re hoping to do. And then it’s pandemonium and you just have to hope you can get where you can. And the same on the Somme.

I was in the East Surreys on the Somme but it was the same. The officers were trying to keep together but then they suddenly fell out. They were lost or wounded or killed or something. Then you’d have to look for your sergeant to see what you could do and he was probably knocked out and in the end you had to say, hell, and use your own initiative. We lost many men there.

PN:
Did you go over the top then?

JT:
Oh yes, over the top as it was. But after going over the top you were out in no-man’s land for a bit and then you were going over the German trenches. You didn’t know what sort of terrain you were on in the end and of course, you had to keep struggling through barbed wire and Janet wire and all those sort of things. It’s really pandemonium. I don’t think people can adequately explain these things and describe them.

PN:
What sort of thoughts are going through your mind as you are going over?

JT:
All I was thinking about was, I’ve got to go ahead and I hope to God I don’t stop one, and that’s all.

PN:
Did you enter the German trenches?

JT:
Oh yes, in two places such as they were: Passchendaele of course and in the Somme.

PN:
Their trenches were very good weren’t they?

JT:
Oh yes, better than most of ours but of course you didn’t have time to stop and inspect them properly but they always struck me as being a better construction than ours. But of course we were looking at them from the other way round you see; we were looking at the things that we’d got to go over and we thought oh that’s a hell of an obstacle. But when you are in your own trenches you don’t realize it’s such of a hell of an obstacle for them coming this way. So I think that’s why we thought they were better trenches [but] I don’t now whether they were or not but they give that impression.

PN:
I think they were very deep weren’t they?

JT:
Oh they were very deep, oh yes. You had to stand up on the fire step before you could get up, but their fire step, between the fire step and the trench, was much deeper than the fire step in our trench.

We used to get rations up. I used to be in charge, as platoon commander, of the tobacco rations for the platoon and it was all free. That’s the sort of thing you didn’t get in the Second World War but in the First World War we used to get all our tobacco and cigarettes free. It was sent out by subscriptions of some sort. I used to go round and dish this out and no-one wanted tobacco, they all wanted cigarettes. So I decided I wouldn’t have any cigarettes, I’d have the tobacco and sometimes I’fd have as much as nine ounces in a week but of course I couldn’t smoke nine ounces. That was what my free ration was because nobody else wanted it. I got so that sometimes I was knocking back as much as seven ounces in a week – an ounce a day. Then of course when I was demobilized I couldn’t afford that sort of thing.

There was very little you could do to occupy yourself in the trenches and it depended on the condition of the trench. If the conditions of the trench were good and dry you could sit about and play cards. Crown and Anchor was the gambling game. It was a piece of linen with the crown, anchor and the four aces.

PN:
Did you go to the estaminets?

JT:
Oh yes of course we went out there, I’ve been tight many a time. On my twenty first birthday we came out to a Nissen hut just behind the lines and that’s the only time in my life I’ve really got drunk. I can’t remember what happened except that we started off celebrating my twenty first birthday there. All I remember is waking up still with all my kit on and my boots on.

PN:
How much was your pay?

JT:
I’ve got it here somewhere. April ’20 what was I getting then? November pay £23. Oh that’s my gratuity, £142. October pay was £24 and six shillings. July pay was £17 six shillings and six.

PN:
That’s per month is it?

JT:
Yes, per month. £16, fifteen [shillings], £17 six and sixpence, £17 sixteen and sixteen pence.

PN:
This is what the army paid you as an acting captain?

JT:
Yes, towards the end it was. I went from corporal to the OCB, the Officer Cadet Battalion, and then at the Officer Cadet Battalion I got commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant.

PN:
Why were you acting captain there? Had your captain been killed?

JT:
Well I told you, the captain was ill and couldn’t go and I was appointed acting captain because somebody had to command the company going into Passchendaele, we were just going in to Passchendaele. I think he really wasn’t ill, I think he was scared stiff and frightened and went sick. Anyhow h didn’t go into Passchendaele and I had to take the company in.

PN:
Do you remember, in the Passchendaele area, just before the offensive, the Messines mines going up?

JT:
I don’t remember seeing the mines go up but of course there was plenty of talk about it but I didn’t see it. I’ve got a note here confirming I was acting captain. [Reading from a letter] “… a smart, energetic, capable officer, he has always carried out his duties in an efficient manner both as a platoon and company commander. He has previously commanded a company in active operations at Passchendaele.” That’s signed by Lieutenant Colonel Prior, 1919.

PN:
[Reading] At Passchendaele in 1917 there were eight attacks spread over 102 days. In that time the British advanced five miles and lot 400,000 men.

JT:
Of course, those were notes I made at the time but I can’t remember details like that now.

PN:
There wasn’t a trench system as such at Passchendaele was there?

JT:
Oh no, no, it was just shell holes; nothing but shell holes.

PN:
Were you at Arras at all?

JT:
Yes, I was at Arras but I can’t remember details, my memory is not good. I remember seeing the entrances to the tunnels there although I never actually went inside them. You used to see the miners coming up. They fetched miners over from England just to do that. I’m not sure whether they were actually drafted in as soldiers but tey got miners from the mines to do this mining. I can’t remember if they were given uniform or not. The Germans used to do the same thing too. They used to tunnel under these things and then pack in a lot of explosive, run a fuse back or electric charge back and blow the ruddy stuff up right under the German lines. Course, the Germans did the same and blew our lines up in the same way. Vividly I can see in my mind’s eye an entrance to one of those tunnels the miners were making.

There was something phoney going on at that time and we advanced over a lot of filthy mucky stuff. All the trenches were flooded that we occupied. I don’t remember though if it was a secret retirement or whether it was just a manoeuvre because we all played tricks on one another and there were no end of these funny sniper posts stuck up all over the place: imitation trees and thing like that we used to stick up for sniping posts.

We used to spend a lot of ammunition shooting rats too. Lice were a problem as well. At nights when we came out we used to turn our shirts inside out and run the candles along the seams and we used to say we were toasting our visitors.

PN:
Did you ever go to company baths?

JT:
Oh yes, they set up baths in breweries and all sorts of places.

PN:
Were you in France when the Germans started their advance in 1918?

JT:
Well in the 1918 push I’d just got sent back as that Push was stopped and we were going ahead again.

PN:
Did you enjoy life as a captain?

JT:
Well, enjoyed it in a sense that it was nicer than being in the ranks but on the other hand I don’t think anybody could say they enjoyed life in the army in France in operations. After the armistice when they sent me to Egypt I enjoyed that alright but nobody can say they enjoy life as an officer whatever it is because the conditions were horrible when you were in action and they weren’t all that good when you came out for a rest behind the lines.

PN:
Did you ever team up with the French armies?

JT:
Only once. I was liaison office for a little while. I’d done a week’s patrol out in front of Armentieres and after we’d done this patrol I was then sent as a liaison officer with a French artillery group to tell them of the targets that we had been exploiting.

I led a raiding party on the German trenches when I was with the 2nd Devons and there was a chap called Coffee, Corporal Coffee who was in the raising party. He got badly shot up in the legs and couldn’t get back. We didn’t realize he wasn’t back with us until we took a count and when I discovered he was missing we went back to find him. We’d just got over our own trench and there he was lying there. We didn’t have any difficulty in getting him back.

Years after, I was in Torquay when a fellow fell off his bike and sent papers everywhere. I saw he’d only got one arm so I went over to help him pick up these papers and when we got up we looked each other in the face and I recognised him as Corporal Coffee. We hadn’t seen each other all that time.

I never took any additions in weaponry when I went on a raid. You’d got your rifle, you’d got your bayonet, you’d got you revolver. What the hell do you want knuckle dusters for? Some fellas had all sorts of things. Some chaps even used to take those little picks we used to have for digging out the trenches. You were trained to use your rifle and your bayonet and if you were an officer you were trained to use your revolver. It was a poor show if you couldn’t use those things and had to resort to a knuckle duster. In fact I think chaps used to drop their rifles which was the reliable tool and think they could do better with anything they picked up. I’ve seen chaps go over the top with those screw stakes that are used for barbed wire rather than a rifle.

Notes

[1] Tanks were used for the first time on September 15th at the battle of Flers –Courcelette. Six battalions of The East Surrey regiment fought in the 1916 Somme battles but only two were involved in the actions that JT describes. The 12th East Surrey (122nd Bde, 41st Division) was the only East Surrey battalion involved in the Flers attack. However, JT states that he was wounded at Morval. The battle of Morval took place between 25th and 28th September. The 1st East Surrey (95th Bde), 5th Division was the only East Surrey battalion taking part in this offensive and it suffered an estimated 203 casualties, many from German machine gun fire. Somme casualties given in the regimental history number 40 officers and 1,200 other ranks.
[2] Probably Lesboeufs which is slightly to the north of Morval.
[3] Either No 3 General or No 16 General Hospital
[4] The 12th and 13th OCBs were stationed at Newmarket. Courses lasted four months. The system for temporary commissioning from the ranks was introduced in February 1916. [Information from Stand To! Number 68, page 13]

1 comment:

Mel Gould said...

Thank you very much for this, We have the medals of John Tucker and I am writing a new 'Object Label' and Googled his name on the off chance there was some mention of him and I found all this.

We will print off the interview and catalogue it, it will be placed in our document archives for the future.

Mel Gould
Loughborough Carillon Tower & War Memorial Museum