Sunday, 20 June 2010
John Brett was born in Southminster, Essex on the 22nd March 1891. I met him at an old people's home in Chelmsford in 1982 and conducted a brief interview with him. I later returned with the then curator of the Chelmsford and Essex Museum - David Jones - who conducted a fuller interview. The transcript below is my edited version of the one that is held by the Essex Regiment Museum in Chelmsford.
At no time during either interview, did John Brett reveal his army number and in all likelihood he had forgotten it. A search through birth and death registers confirms that he had no middle name, and this in turn narrows down the possibilities when it comes to looking at medal index cards. There are two John Bretts with Essex Regiment connections: one of these men also served with the Royal Engineers whilst the second man also served with the Labour Corps. There are two J Bretts but both of these men can be ruled out as their numbers do not fall in the range of numbers issued to Essex Regiment recruits in 1915.
My hunch is that John Brett was 33033 Sergeant John Brett, later 615465 Labour Corps. He says in the interview that he spent three Christmases at home. We know he was at home in 1918 and that he joined up in 1915. I think he attested under the Derby Scheme in November or December 1915 and received his notice to join the Essex Regiment in late 1916. His number, 33033, dates to around November that year. And so he spent Christmas 1915, 1916 and 1918 in England, and Christmas 1917 in France.
I took the photo above of John Brett when I first met him in 1982 and he died in Chelmsford in 1988 aged 97.
Could you tell me where and when you were born Mr Brett?
And what did your father do?
He worked with his father on a small farm; sort of labouring or doing anything – thatching or any kind of work with his father.
You presumably went to the village school, did you?
What was that like?
Alright yes, but I’m afraid I didn’t get on too well with the headmaster. He’d got his favourites. There was a family called Hoad. Their father used to train dogs for Sir Daniel Gooch who lived
In the Highlands and they were favourites of Mr Jonser my schoolmaster. I don’t know why he disliked me because I tried. He’d got his favourites and the Hoad family, there were three boys, they were his favourites.
When did you leave school, how old were you, do you remember?
Fourteen, fourteen years.
And did you go to work with your father then or did you go into another trade?
No, unfortunately my father died when I was only eight – so I don’t know. I forget really what I was doing ‘til the war came.
You would have been what, just over twenty, twenty three when war started?
That’s right, yes.
What was – how did you feel about the war? – You’d obviously seen in the papers about the war – what were your feelings about it? – Did you think it was a right war?
I’m against war myself. I don’t believe in wars. Why should we kill each other. If I were to shoot you Mr Jones, or your comrade, I’d be sent to prison – but when the war comes, they give you a rifle – you can shoot anybody, shoot you enemy. But why? Why can’t we all live happy together?
When did you join up and where did you join up?
1915 at Warley – I went to Warley Barracks – there for a day or two. Then I went to Etaples, in France and done my training there.
I see. When you joined up were you on your own or did you go with some friends?
If I remember, I had notice one morning by letter to attend Warley Barracks. I went by myself.
When you got to Warley do you remember, what was it like, what was your impression of the place? Do you remember anything of the uniform you were given or whatever? Did you have a uniform straight away?
Yes, we were given all our kit at Warley before we went overseas.
What Battalion were you in then?
I wasn’t posted at Warley what Battalion I was going to join – but when I was at Etaples. [It would appear that John Brett when to France as a draft for the Essex Regt, was posted to one of the Infantry Base Depots at Etaples, and then subsequently posted as part of a draft to the 1st Essex Regiment.]
Oh, I see. Were most of the men that joined with you at Warley, were they mostly from Essex?
Oh yes. One fellow from Bradwell–on- Sea, name of Copeland . I remember his name; and a lot of Southminster boys; local lads that I knew, got killed in the war. And you think about them now; all those years have passed, but you still think about them.
Do you remember any of their names?
Yes. Jimmy, Jim Thorogood , Harold Bishop, Mr Coote, seven or eight I remember their names, used to be pally with them before they joined up.
What were the conditions like at Warley? Was it a bit rough and ready?
Well it was new wasn’t it you see. If you hadn’t been a soldier it was all fresh, fresh surroundings. Get up early in the morning and you drill and break for dinner and break for tea, you didn’t get much spare time; not to call your own.You were generally on the go.
Was it generally drilling that you did at Warley?
No, as I said to you just now, I did most of my, of my drilling at Etaples, in France.
How did you get from Warley to Etaples?
By boat from Folkestone.
How did you get to Folkestone though? Did you go by train or did you march it?
We went by train.
Ah yes, and when you got to the other side, to France, what – how did you get to Etaples?
Went with hundreds more, by train. Out there the trains, you could get out of the train and run and catch it up before it got very far. Trains were very slow in France – very slow.
What was the morale of the men like? Were they all, you know, sort of ready to fight do you think?
It’s hard to say, hard to say. Individuals, you don’t know what an individual thinks, do you? I don’t know what you think about now.
So when you got to Etaples then, what happened then? What was the training like?
Oh, that was just hell, the training was terrible. ‘Come here! Come here! Go there! Fall in this lot! Fall in that lot! The sergeants and the instructors were very, very thorough, you know. What was their remark? ‘You won’t be able to play with your Grandmother, you’re here to soldier. Come on here! A lot of red tape. Then we, in the training, we used to, we had this rifle and we had a row of bags stuffed with straw, they represented a German. It was about so far, it was off and the sergeant said ‘Now charge’!. So you stick the bayonet into the bag of straw, pushing it in and out, and off you go again as if to say, ‘Well he’s dead.
So you learnt, did you learn, you learnt obviously, to shoot the rifle? You had practice in that too?
Oh yes, I was a very good marksman with a rifle. Sergeant said ‘You’re good, you’re good’. I used to get a bullseye.
Did you get a marksman’s badge in the end?
I don’t think so.
How long were you at Etaples?
It would take me ‘til tomorrow morning, this time, to tell you all my life of France, out in France.
You would really like to know what? Where I went or……
Well yes. Where did you go when you finished training? What happened then?
I was sent with the draft. I was made a Corporal and I went with seventeen other men and myself made eighteen. We were picked to join 1st Battalion, the Essex Regiment. Well we marched one night, it was dark, like a firework display from the enemy, were shelling and bombing. So we got to this, where the Essex were, they were up in the front line at that time. So we went to that place, had some food and went to bed. We hadn’t been to bed about ten minutes before the Sergeant Major said ‘Where’s that draft that just come in’? Fall in! Fall in! And we had to fall in . Our job was to take petrol, petrol cans full of water, up the line to the Essex Regiment. That night, a lot of firing going on.
What time of year would that have been? Was it summer or winter or what?
That would be about mid summer.
And what happened after that? You got into the line then, obviously?
Yes, we took that water up, the Sergeant major said ‘You don’t know the way Corporal?’ and I said ‘No, we’ve only just arrived’. So he says that another Corporal had just come from the front line and he’ll have to go back again and take you. So he took me and the seventeen men with the cans of water up to the front line where the Essex Battalion was – and they’d suffered a lot of losses the day before.
Do you remember where that was?
Somewhere on the Somme. We went passed Amiens and Abbeville. Went through those villages up to the line, the front line.
And when you got into the line what was the fighting like? What, trenches presumably?
After we took the water we come back and were there at the base several days and then we were ordered up to the front line again and we were going to relieve the Inniskillens and they’d suffered heavy loss. We relieved them and it was a case of getting in a shell hole or anywhere to get a bit of cover. You see – were shelling that particular spot. Well, were there about a week then we were relieved, relieved and the whole of the Essex Battalion came back to -–I can’t remember where it was – and the morning we were relieved we were going to Freshard [?] At a certain place, he had a machine gun on a corner and he knew we’d be returning that way and the order came along ‘Every man for himself’. ‘Down you go’. Went flat down on the ground because he was firing at that particular place and we lost a lot of men through that particular place. So same as you had to turn Corporation Road and turn into Broomfield Road on that corner, well he had the machine gun laid on that corner and you got to pass. You had to go on your hands and knees. Get past it somehow.
Conditions obviously were very bad then. What was the supply situation like? Did you get enough food and so on – water?
It reminded me the other day. We had lovely corned beef here, and chips and peas. Corned beef – I’d never seen so much corned beef wasted. It was piled up, boxes and boxes and boxes, lovely corned beef. That was a sort of home made trench to protect you from the bullets, these lovely, lovely tins of bully beef. They’d cost no end of money now to buy. But we was always glad to get a small loaf. That was perhaps about six men for a small loaf. So you got a little piece of bread, you didn’t get much. Then we always had the hard biscuits. Something like sort of dog biscuits. Hard, hard. But you used to be glad of anything if you were hungry.
Was the food supply better behind the line, when you were relieved? Was that reasonably good?
Oh yes, that was better then.
What, did they have canteens or mobile canteens or something?
Shall I join in? While I was up there I got a septic foot. So the doctor says ‘How long has it been like that?’ I said about six weeks. He says’ Alright’ he says, ‘Get out of it’. So he marked me further down the line, down to base. So there was a lot went down. Some were on stretchers, others were hobbling on one leg, and we went down and we stayed on a camp and during the night I heard a train – engine on a train. Choo-choo-choo-choo. I wished it had of stopped for us. That stopped and somebody shouted ‘Those that can get on the train, go across and get on. ‘Cos there were stretcher cases – they couldn’t go. They had to be took on the stretcher but I – sorry – I’d got the one bad foot but I hobbled on one leg and got on the train. When we all got on I said to the sister, only female we’ve seen for weeks and weeks. I said ‘Where we going?’ She sais ‘You’re going to Le Havre’. So we went to Le Havre, to the Le Havre hospital. I was there three weeks and got this leg, got it healed up. Hot formentations and it got better. After a time I was sent back to Etaples, where I had come from.
What were the hospitals like?
Ah, lovely. They got to heal well, then I was stopped for another week and help with the floors . We used to polish the floors. The hospital’s a lovely place there . Then after three weeks I was sent to a convalescent camp at Le Havre. That was another nice place . Where fellas got fit again after flu and gunshot wounds.
There was presumably no gas at that time ?
No gas, no. Really and truly I could go on telling you but it wouldn’t be interesting. I went back to Etaples so…so when we got back the Sergeant Major says ‘If you’ve got anything to report, report when you see the Medical Officer in the morning. So there was a lot of us – 20 or 30 -went in front of the doctor. He passed some and some he wouldn’t pass. He said ‘ You feeling all right?’ I said ‘Not too good’. The old ticker was not too good. He says ‘Alright you can stop here at Etaples for another week until you get better.
What happened to you after you, you were better again? What happened then?
I went to this convalescent camp and while I was there the Sergeant Major came along and said ‘Brett’ he says ‘I’ve got a job for you’. I said ‘Yes Sir?’ So he says ‘There’s about two or three thousand people want to get across to Blighty, to England – but it was so rough, the weather was so rough. And he said to me he said ‘I want you to go over to that marquee, pick what men you want and make up the bunks and get tea ready for them. But stop here the night’. Because it was so rough for them to come across the water to England. That’s where they were bound for. So prevention was better than cure. So they were there three or four days alright. So I went back again. I was still at Etaples. Sergeant Major said ‘Ah, Brett, I’ve been looking for you.’ He says, ‘Where you been to?’ Well I said ‘ I been here’. So he says ‘I’ve got another job for you’. So I says ‘Right Sir’. So he said ‘Corporal, somebody has done his time in the service’. He was an old soldier and after he’d done his time he would enlist again for the present war’. So he was due to go back to England and he was in charge of one of the dining huts, D Company. There was A,B,C and D – 4 dining huts. So he says ‘I want you to take charge of D Company dining hall. ‘Cos the other Corporal was going home I took his place.
What did that mean for you? What did you have to do?
Order the food or…… Sunday I take two men and go to the cook houses, draw our breakfast, perhaps rashers of bacon, and we used to cut the bread. Get the breakfast all ready, same like dinner, same like tea. I was there six months. I was fortunate.
So that would take you into 1916, wouldn’t it?
Oh yes, well beyond that.
What happened to you after you, after the dining …..?
While I was there I got to know the officer and the colonel.
Who were they? Do you remember?
I don’t know their names now. One was a Scots doctor and the Colonel, I don’t know what he was. They used to come round every Saturday morning inspection. Every man had to be on parade , or he used to come round and inspect the dining hall see if they were all right. The tables had to be scrubbed, soap and water, made look nice, place kept nice. He used to come round. I’ll blow my own trumpet, he said its very clean and neat. So while I was there I got pally with the young lad who worked in the Officers’ quarters, he used to do the Colonel’s cooking. He used to have flowers on the table so when I went they were nearly dead he used to throw away, he used to give them to me . So I used to have flowers ….. on the table. He used to come round and said ‘Very, very nice’
And, to cut a long story short one fella, I’m sorry to say , he got put in the glass house. I felt sorry for him but it was his own fault. See there was six men sit down to a table – 3 each side – had to be. There were six pieces of bread. Well you know what men are, they went for the biggest, biggest piece and there was one small piece left. One fella said ‘I ain’t gonna sit there’ he said ‘and have that lousy bit of bread’. I said ‘You’ll sit there. I tell you to sit there’. ‘I’m not going to sit there’. ‘Alright, I’ll get you another piece of bread’. He sit on another table. So when the officer come round – ‘Orderly Officer, any complaints’? So this fella got up and said ‘Yes Sir’, he said ‘I only had a small piece of bread’. So I explained to the Sergeant Major who was with the officer, I said ‘He refused to obey my instruction.’ I said ‘If he‘d stopped there I’d got another piece of bread’. I said ‘He wouldn’t stop, he sat on the next table what he shouldn’t have done and he got cross’. So the Sergeant Major said ‘Alright’ he said, ‘Fall in two men’. And they took him off and he got three months in the glass house. A silly thing to do , he could have took my advice and sit down at that table. See and he got rude to the Sergeant major, see and the Sergeant Major said ‘Alright, fall in two men’ and marched him off to the guardroom and the last I heard of him he had three months in the glass house. So I felt sorry but there you are. I’m afraid I’m not much help, am I?
Yes you are. What, do you remember what happened next? Where did you go from Etaples? What happened to you after that?
When I went to back to Etaples – before I left that camp – I saw a Scotch doctor and said ‘You ought to rest’ he said ‘You’ve been scrubbing them tables and made your heart bad’. He said ‘There’s thousands of little muscles all round there and you’ve strained them’ he said, ‘You’ve worked them too hard’. So he says ‘I’m going to put you in the rest centre for a fortnight’. So I went in a rest centre. Well the n after that I went back to Etaples. So I saw a Belgian doctor, I think he was. He said ‘ You feel alright?’ I said ‘ Excepting a pain here’. He said ‘ How much do you smoke?’ I said ‘ A packet a day’. He said ‘ You’re a bloody liar’, he says ‘ just look at you hands, you smoke more than your issue’. So to cut a long story short, I went on parade the next morning. I saw this doctor and he said ‘Come to me in a fortnight’s time. Leave off cigarettes, it’ll never get better’.
So I smoked not so much . So I went back again. He wouldn’t pass me. He put me down for the medical travelling board. That was we’ll say eight or nine would be at Chelmsford and we’d have to march say Maldon to Chelmsford for this exam. So there was one poor fella, he had to walk and had an old piece of wood for a walking stick, went in front of me, he could hardly walk. So he went in, so the doctor said ‘ What’s the matter with you? What have you got that stick for? And he kicked the stick away from him and he fell down. I don’t know what happened to him, but he was a sick man. Some used to play on it. See, the doctor didn’t know whether they were genuine cases or not. What you call ‘swinging the lead’. But to cut a long story short, the next morning we went back to the base at Etaples. So the Sergeant major, when we were on parade, so he says ‘ Corporal Brett, George Smith, Tommy brown and George – somebody else – four of us, out of about one hundred men were marked P.B. That was Permanent Base. Then I was transferred to a Prisoner of war Camp, where prisoners came in. I was sent to Abbeville. I was there about a year. I was made up a Sergeant there and the prisoners used to come, thousands used to come some days. Another day there was only a few. So you might as well say I was one of the lucky ones that didn’t see, that wasn’t in the trenches. I was fortunate in that way.
I went to ‘Abbeville’, that was the main cage for the prisoners. They were taken prisoner; the Germans were taken prisoners. We’d dealt with thousands there, and the interpreter was a German. I used to call him ‘Floose’ – Valouse, but I said ‘Floose, I want a thousand men on parade now and they have got to go to Le Havre’. So he used to parade all the men then he would be with me and we would count off a thousand. Then we used to have them at the main gate ready to march off. There was the guard, about twenty men, used to take them to the station to go by train to Le Havre. I must tell you about this ‘Floose’, he was German. ‘One night’, he said ‘ I was on reconnaissance work ‘ he said, ‘And somehow in mistake I got into one of your trenches. Yes’, he said ‘I was very nearly shot’ he says. ‘I got in – where am I? – I must be in the wrong trenches’. So he walked a little further and there was our fella on duty looking across ‘no man’s land’ so he had the presence of mind, he says ‘Wake up! Wake up! He hit him on the back. He says ‘Here comes the officer!’ and he turned round he says, and walked out the same way as I come in. That was his tale. It was true.
You said you were at the prison camp for about a year. Did that take you up to the end of the war?
When were you demobbed then?
In Southminster I was the first one to be demobbed.
Because I was home. I was lucky, I had three Christmas, Christmases at home.
Oh, you’d had leave then, you were able to get home?
Yes, yes. So I was on leave in nineteen hundred and eighteen. I was home….1918 on leave and the Armistice was signed. So the soldiers who were on leave like me, they grumbled, said why should we go back to France, then ship us back there, ship us back when we are already in England. So I used to see the paper and it came out one morning – all men that are home on leave-no need to go back to France.
So you were able to stay there, stay at home then?
At that time I knew a farmer in Kent, so I explained to him. So he said ‘I’ll give you a job’. Said ‘You don’t want to go back do you anymore’? So I said ‘No, I don’t want to go back, I’m already in England. Why go back to France then ship me back again’. See, so it came up in the daily paper, if you’d got a job to go to, report to the Crystal palace. So I borrowed a bicycle and cycled to the Crystal Palace and got me discharge.
One question you asked of me; while I was at the main cage with the prisoners of war the Americans wanted two thousand for Bordeaux. The Americans were putting up big warehouses. They’d come into the war and they wanted these big warehouses made. We’d lend them two thousand prisoners and we went up to Bordeaux. So I got up to Bordeaux and had several months up there. These prisoners, we used to post sentries all round where they were at work. The guard, the British guard, these prisoners would be putting these big warehouses up. The Americans were coming into the war.