Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Bertie Cripps - Green Howards & DLI


Bertie Cripps was another of the First World War men that I met whilst I was playing snooker and darts for three years at Loughborough University, and somehow fitting in an English Literature degree at the same time.

To be honest, Bertie is a bit of an enigma. There are no service records or any military documentation that I can find for him and this may have to do with the story that follows. I have no reason to doubt what he told me but it is frustrating that no corroborating documentation appears to survive.

These though, are the facts. Bertie was born in Loughborough on 4th June 1898. I interviewed him at Leopold Street, Loughborough on 1st May 1984 and he died in February 1986.


It was the same scramble as everywhere. Every fit chap wanted to get in the army. Well I had had a little bit of trouble with [unclear] and I ran into a mate of mine, a friend of mine, the baker’s son in the town, [and he said], “come on, we’ll join the army” and we went.

We went and we frantically tried to join the South Notts Hussars. Well everything were in trouble in Nottingham and before we’d been there twenty four hours – we hadn’t signed on or anything – we were grabbed, the two of us, and sent down to Faversham in Kent.

We were there a good week, but you’ve got to realise that in them days every recruiting place, every headquarters of every regiment in the British Isles was that busy, they’d no time for nothing. All the reservists were being called in and to put it in a nutshell, every bayonet were being ground. And all the likely people, if they were two or three short, they collared two other chaps they wanted and shoved them in there in that regiment.

Well at any rate, my pal went to the Coldstream Guards and I were there and a young officer came up to me and said, “”Have you had any dealings with horses? Where do you come from?”
I said, “Oh, Leicestershire.”
“Oh,” he said, “you know all about them then.”

He took me and I found myself stood in the transport section of the Green Howards. Well I don’t know owt about the Green Howards in fact I didn’t know what they was. I were fixed up with a GS Wagon – which is General Service one – with a centre pole straight down and a horse each side.

Well we couldn’t get in to Calais. [Probably Le Havre, rather than Calais - PN] We set sail from this place and couldn’t get into Calais because the docks were jammed up with everybody. Regiments were trying to get in, refugees were trying to get out and artillery and everything had got to go that road because they couldn’t land them anywhere else. We got shoved right down towards the Dutch coast at a place called Wimereux and we had to jump the horses out and jump out ourselves.

What time of year was this?

It would be August 1914, early August. There were sixteen to eighteen of us with horses and that and we were loaded up with stuff and we were told to go so and so down this road as far as you can get. An RTO officer or man were there to tell us where we’d got to go. The young officer in charge had a list of everything but when it come to it, half the stuff we’d got it weren’t on his list and all that sort of business. But at any rate we got going and we went, I don’t know where we went to tell you the truth, through this village, past this town, but we went to the relief of a Belgian fort with the name of Namur. At any rate, when we was half way on the road, we met the Belgians coming back and that was when there was a skirmish at Valenciennes I think it was, the day after the Battle of Mons started. We didn’t know anything at all about it. All we’d got were loads of stuff and a wagon and somebody to tell us where to dump it and get on back. And if there were anybody badly wounded or owt like that you used to shove them in the wagon and take them back where you could, or to the nearest casualty department.

Well at any rate that went on until after the Battle of Mons were fought.

What were you carrying on the transport?

Anything, anything. What you’d got to look after were the French and the Belgians. We had a squadron called Blue Cross – and I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of that have you? What the Red Cross was to us, they was for the horses – ‘course it was all horses in them days, there were no motor cars. Blue Cross looked after the horses and if one got very badly injured they used to shoot it.

To send a long story short, we were running stuff and then after the battle of the Marne, I think, the first battle of the Marne, I were going up with blankets and groundsheets and bread and ammunition, and a big shell dropped – in front of me, side of me I don’t know what it was. It blew me off the front of the wagon. I was driving and you always had an attendant with you you know, somebody to help, and it killed him and it killed both horses and after that I can’t remember a thing.

The next thing I knew I woke up in Belfringe Hospital in Kent. I said, “how long have I been in here?” They wouldn’t tell me at the start but they did tell me eventually and it had been three weeks since I got blowed up. And they told me then that the two horses had fell on me and I got buried alive under the horse meat. They fell on me and smashed me all up and I was all bandaged up tight and everything.

[Belfringe is my phoenetic spelling and is certainly incorrect. I would welcome suggestions on what the correct name is - PN]

At any rate I lay there and about three weeks after a chap come in on a stretcher and they put him on the side and he says to me, “When did you get hit?”
“I don’t know,” I says, “I got blowed up.”
“Oh God,” he says, “I thought I knew you.”
I says, “Well I don’t know you from Adam.”
So he says, “I was the Blue Cross man as fetched you from under the horses.” He says, “If we hadn’t gone there to look at these horses you’d have been laying there still.”

After about half an hour when I got my breath back I said thanks very much. “Oh no, don’t worry about that, me old duck,” he says, “one of your chaps fetched me out.” At any rate, that’s how I got to know that I had been buried as you might say. He told me all about it, how they went in to see if any horses were hit, and to get the harness and all, because the harness were a valuable thing.

How long were you in hospital for?

I went in tail end of February and I come out July, 8th of July. Then I had to go to Canterbury and it appears that my father had got to know how badly wounded I was because I expect somebody had notified him, and he come down and stormed… I didn’t know anything about it. But when I went up, of course I weren’t fit, my head weren’t fit. When I went to Canterbury there was an old chap there who’d been made a colonel and he was a second lieutenant in some regiment in the Boer War and of course in that service he was doing clerical work. Anyway he was in charge of this Board and he rolled in to me and I thought what on earth was the matter.

He says “you’re getting discharged,” he says, “it’s a damned disgrace.”
I says, “what do you mean, damned disgrace?”
Of course, when he told me I were discharged I didn’t care, I could speak my mind. He says, “Well, taking the King’s Shilling and then knowing very well that you were making a mis-statement.”
I says, “Well it were the duty of every man who could handle a rifle to volunteer”
He says, “It’s the King’s Shilling I’m thinking about.”
Oh dear oh dear he were on about the King’s Shilling so I told him straight, I says the Boer War ain’t this war.

Well at any rate I left there and on me discharge, which my own father ripped up in front of him, it says dismissed on making a mis-statement on enlistment. My dad says, “well if that’s what they like” and he tore the bloody lot up.

Well he were the only one that ever criticised me as regards that, but to end a long story short, I come home and this medical board passed me out C3, that was the lowest category there was.

My legs had been smashed up. I was put on Class W Army Reserve and I come to Loughborough, me home, and I hadn’t been home not above three or four days before a policeman come knocking on the door: “Superintendent wants you in Loughborough police station”. My dad says, “What have you been doing?” I says, “nothing ma duck, no.”

I went and what was his name, Ager, he says, “here you are, notification from the War Department you’ve got to sign on as a special constable.”
“Well,” I says, “that’s a good game that is, if I’m not good enough for the army, too young.”
“Oh, age don’t matter for special constables.”

About a month later I had notification they’d started a volunteer regiment in Loughborough. I don’t know they was but they were principally young businessmen who had got off or weren’t physically fit or something and they formed this… a lawyer made this up – Mr Clifford. Would I go and see Mr Clifford. I thought it were lawyer business but I didn’t know anything about lawyers in them days, I didn’t want to know. I went to see him and he said “we’re going to get some spare American and Canadian rifles, packing them up in three in a case and filling them with grease ‘cause we wanted grease as well and we want you to go into the army, to the drill hall and get them ready.

So I took that on for about what, six or eight weeks – chap named Owen Brown, tent man – and we had a consignment going down to the Brush [Engineering Works] on the car side because they were building aeroplanes, propellers and all that. Course, that was the days in the old wooden propeller time. At any rate that went on for about another six months and then I had to report to the barracks at Glen Parva. Well I went there, before an Army Board, and Major somebody in the Army Medical Corps still marked me C3 and he said, “Who discharged you?” He says “It’s here, yes, you know your military record is all washed out.”
I says, “I’m not interested whether it is or not” and I wasn’t at that time, I was just fed up with everything concerned.

Well at any rate, I went on about another four months and I had another notice to go to Glen Parva barracks at Wigston, Leicester on another Medical Board and they’d altered the categories and the lowest then was B3. Well I’d never seen owt like it. There were chaps who could hardly walk but still they kept marking them up, marking them up. They were scraping the bottom of the barrel.

What year was this?

About 1917. At any rate, I got marked B3 and I didn’t know it was the lowest category and the Captain says, “You can’t get no lower my lad, that’s the lowest category now. I don’t know why we keep calling you up.”
I said, “Well that’s their road.”
“No,” he says, “It’s just red tape.”
Well I never heard no more for about three months and then I had another notification, please report to Wigston Barracks. I thought to myself, well this is it, this looks as though I am being called back into the forces and my God I was. Everywhere were full, jammed up. They were calling men up that had never been in the army. Oh it were wicked. There were fourteen or sixteen of us. The old quartermaster come to me. He says, “Your name Cripps?”
“That’s right”
He says, “You know where Herne Bay is?”
I says, “No, I know it’s in Kent, but where.”
He says, “Oh it’s a nice seaside resort. You’re on the list here, you’re going down there.”

I went down there and when we got there it was the 2/7th Durham Light Infantry. Well I don’t know what my medical report was but I never done a parade. I was with them for 12 months but right across my medical history in a red letter was N which you’d never seen, even the Regimental Sergeant Major…

[I'd be interested to know what Bertie Cripps is referring to here and what the letter N represents - PN].

At any rate, it come to the Armistice were signed and Sergeant Gold says to me, “You’re going for discharge. You’re going with about eight or nine more chaps to Ireland.” I thought to myself , that’s a right bloody place to go to because the rebellion was on and every mortal thing on. So we went, about a dozen of us – rejects – and I was there and it come Christmas time. All the troops serving overseas got nine days leave.

This is 1918 now, so the war’s over.

That’s right. Those that were serving in the country only got seven. I come home on leave and spent the Christmas here and I went back and when I got back, the post had come and when I opened it it were all my papers – come down to the regimental office and you will be discharged immediately. Well at any rate, it didn’t happen quite as fast as that but at any rate we got to Dublin everything was stuck up. There were troops going there, hospital ships coming in and all that and so I were there for another week.

That made it so that it were New Year’s Day and when I did get a boat it was a hospital boat. It had brought troops over from France, wounded, to England. As were going over they were ringing the New Year in and when we got to Holyhead we were told that a leave ship coming from France to Scotland had tried to get in the harbour and couldn’t manage it and there were about twenty four of them killed, drownded. The boat had sunk. It were a terrible storm that was.

We come through and I don’t know if it were Chester or Crewe but at any rate they stopped the train and the girls came round and gave us a small pork pie and a cup of thick heavy cocoa. Well we got to Grantham and had to trundle along as best as we could to Arrowby and we got there about four o’clock in the afternoon.

I was discharged on the 3rd January 1919 and I got home in Loughborough.

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