Wednesday 24 June 2009

36061 Bombardier Leonard Sadler Gifford, Royal Horse Artillery

Leonard Sadler Gifford - synopsis

When I interviewed him in October 1981, Len Gifford was a lively 93 year old, living quietly in Essex with his wife. Born in Chelmsford, Essex on 27th April 1888, Len had joined the Royal Horse Artilley on 14th February 1905 and was serving overseas when Britain went to war in 1914.

He was a founder member of the RHA Association in the 1920s and at the time I met him, was its oldest member. He died on 30th July 1986 at the age of 98.

The interview

At the outbreak of the First World War, I was serving in the Royal Horse Artillery in Aby…[unclear], Cairo and of course, naturally enough, we was all bursting to go to the war, but we had to wait to be relieved by the Territorials and we was not got to France until the first week of December 1914.

So we missed the first three months but we carried on and our first attack was at Neuve Chapelle on March the 10th 1915 when we was told that [it] would soon be over. We kept on from there, to Aubers Ridge, two battles at Festubert 1915, then we went to Loos which was a disaster. We was galloped into action – the only battery that was galloped into action in the 1914 war. We had rather a lot of casualties. My friend alongside me got knocked out, my horse was wounded but carried us into action. But that turned out a disaster, Loos did. It was just like the footballers coming out… down Hulloch Road was like coming out of White Hart Lane and they had a machine gun on Tower Bridge; a machine gun as we was coming down. That was Loos.

Well from there we went out to rest for the Christmas and then we went up on the Somme in March and we stuck there practising firing, firing everywhere. And that was going to be the end of the war we was led to [believe]. But that turned out not very successful.

And then we kept on. We lost ever so many casualties. I can’t tell you how many because they was soon news. We went out of action and went again in action. When the tanks first went over they were alongside of our guns to go further over. That was in September 1916.

Well then the South African Division came up. I never see a more smart lot of men in all my life: a whole division; all new clothes [and] had never been in action before. And they was practically wiped out at Devil Wood because we went up in Devil Wood, in front of Devil Wood. And the rain come on, and that did rain and no wheeled traffic could get up. They used to bring our rations up on pack horses. It was absolutely awful. It took six men to carry [a wounded man] a couple of miles through Devil Wood to the dressing station. That’s the truth, that was very bad.

Well we come out, had rest and we went back to action again, two days before Christmas. And we stuck it and we made a big attack in 1917. They took Beaumont Hamel.

Well we kept on from there. 1917 we went on Hill 60. They blew that up and we fired more rounds there than ever we did anywhere. Our guns were so hot you couldn’t open the breech. You couldn’t hold them. You used to pour water down the muzzle. And our drivers, we had a lot of them killed. They was bringing up ammunition because we kept firing every night, using hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and they had to be replaced and they come up in the dark. Well Jerry used to shell all these roads and there was a lot killed. We use to go out in the morning and see horses laying there… lovely day in June, beautiful weather. And the day that was blowed up [before] the attack, you thought the world had come to an end, when they blew up Hill 60.

Then we went to Arras. Arras before that, yes. Hill 60, then Arras with the Easter, that’s right. Arras was on the Easter 1917. They brought the cavalry up, then the rain come on, the snow come on.

Well then after that we went up to Pilkelm Ridge in Belgium, Passchendaele. That was a worse disaster still. They was up knee deep in water to make that attack at Passchendaele and he knocked out every battery we could see. He knocked ours out. And when he started shelling, our major says, “Go either the front or the back and let him shell the battery” which he did do. He put in two or three hundred rounds and then leave off. Well night time we took them out, took them down to the ordnance workshop and they was all repaired. Come back, stuck it there for some time, terrible weather, had an order to move. We went to Italy. We had Christmas in Italy up on the Piave.

Well it was practically finished, there was no fighting there. They got to come over the Piave or we got to go over the Piave. Well we stuck it there until the Germans broke through in March 1918. Course we heard all about that and then, “Come on, we all got to go back to France again.”

And see what we’d lost. You know, what we’d fought hard for was got easy. Of course then we got lectures again, we’re going to make a final attack. Blokes said the same old story I expect. Well that was the last and we kept on and we never stopped. We kept going up, right up into Mons, everywhere. They sent for me one day, one morning. “Gifford, I want you to go down to the Third Army School of Artillery. You’ve got to be there and learn what we’re going to do in the spring. If you don’t want to go, say so.” Well I said, I could with a rest and the bloke said well if you leave the battery the war will end and it did in a fortnight’s time. They was going to give me a commission but I didn’t want it.

The war ended and I come back and marched right into Germany. Yes, that’s all I can say about the end of the war. And I stuck it ‘til 1919. We was right up the other side of Cologne, thirty two miles from Cologne, in the forest. We used to go out shooting. Our officers used to send their beaters out. [Laughs]. Yes, deer and wild pig we got up there. Course, all I was worried about, I wanted to come and get married and they said, “No, no, it ain’t your turn yet, ain’t your turn yet.” I wasn’t demobilized until 1919.

The infantry suffered more in the war than anybody. The casualties, we was informed, when they went over the top, fifty per cent was not heavy casualties. I guarantee you, I can say now, I don’t believe you can a find a man who went over the top more than three times. I don’t expect you can find one. Regiments went down… at Loos they laid on the barbed wire like washing on the line and on The Somme, just like washing on the line. At Devil Wood the South Africans laid in their thousands.

A lot of people don’t know that the South African Division was practically wiped out and they never made them up no more. But the trenches in the winter was worse. Well we know this, that the other side was just as bad as ours. Got me? Cause the first Christmas, we was there when the Germans come over the top and shook hands with us, on the Christmas 1914. On the next Christmas they said there would be no fraternizing so on Christmas morning we had to fire rounds. Yes, we was in action, we had to fire rounds.

The infantryman suffered more than anybody else in the army. That was terrible. I remember reading in the paper that one regiment - I think it was the East Yorks – that in one road, every house had lost a man. That’s the truth and I guarantee you that thousands on the Somme, the cream of England, I can tell you the cream of England was killed. They’d been trained when the war broke out, trained to do all this, never went in action before. They went straight there and regiments was wiped out completely. Take the Middlesex Regiment; I see their memorial the other day. Nine hundred and some other officers killed. You take that. Nine hundred and some officers! Nothing to do with men. People don’t realise it. I’ll say this, London in the next war suffered bad. You know, the Blitz in London. That was worse than being in the trenches.

The first Christmas dinner we had bully beef. We had a bit of pudding and that’s the cigarettes from Princess [Alexandra]. I expect you’ve seen plenty of them aint you? Well the next Christmas, 1915, we come out of action from Loos and the next one on the Somme. 1917 we was in Italy and that Christmas Day, we was in action and their aircraft raided us. They dropped bombs all round us. But otherwise we never had many casualties in Italy. We never done nothing. We had to come back to France. The Piave stopped them. They thought they was coming right through but we went out there and that held them.

1914 Christmas morning we was in action at a place called Sailly le Seine [?] and our trenches was not a mile away. Our observing party – our officers who observed the guns – told us about these Germans coming over and fraternizing and they was quite jolly, and they could speak English, a lot of these Germans. They told them that they was waiters in London, some of them. Course, they was called up on the Reserve, same as our people. But after that they allowed no more fraternizing on Christmas, they said that wasn’t fair.

Well when we marched into Germany, the first place I went into Germany after the war, the first house there was a man and his wife and four children and they had to take the carpets up. I said, roll the carpets up. We stuck there and that was on Christmas Eve 1918. Course we come out and our major said our Christmas dinner is on the way, on the rail. We stuck there for a week. What about the Christmas dinners? No, we never had one. Well they said that the train drivers went on strike. They said they enlisted during the war to fight the war and they wanted their discharge and we never got hardly any rations up there in Germany for the simple reason of getting the stuff up there. They said that they wanted their tickets, to get out of the army. Whether that was the truth or not I don’t know but that’s what we was told. That’s what our officers told us and we went short of rations and everything for a long while. We was right up in the front as far as we could get and we stuck it there. So we never did have a Christmas dinner. That’s the worse Christmas we ever had, the 1918 one. The others were pretty good. The one in 1917 we had plenty of poultry we had in Italy. Cor, thousands. We paid for them.

I turned out, we had arguments before we left, when war broke out. We’d been soldiering together for years and I said well I’m going to stop with Number 6 gun. I’d been eight years service in India and Egypt with it and I knew it. They said oh no and I said well I’m going to stick it. Other chaps left, got promotion, killed, everything. I still stuck it and I stuck it right through the war. I said I was a fatalist, I don’t know if it was right or not but there it is. Whether there’s anything in it, I’m here. The gun, a couple of times, was hit but we got away with it. The chap sitting behind me, number four, was killed behind me. A shell burst and knocked him out and killed the number one, the sergeant. Two sergeants I had killed, number ones, alongside of me, as close as this. Shell come over, hit him, he died with loss of blood. Well I was lucky. I got fed up seeing these people go and wondering when it was going to be your turn. You don’t get better.

The longer the war lasted, the worse you got with fear. So I had people saying I was brave, I don’t mind saying I was wind up; got wind up [and] every year got worse for the simple reason what you’ve seen done. That’s all it is, not bravery or anything in it.

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