Sunday 1 November 2009

820437 Gunner Alfred Willis, Royal Field Artillery


I met Alfred Willis at his home in Station Street when I was studying at Loughborough in the early nineteen eighties. He was a fascinating man to talk to and he'd also made a model of Loughborough's Carillon which is pictured above.

Alfred, a boot and shoe operator in civilian life, originally joined the 4th Leicestershire Regiment (Territorials) in 1913 but transferred to a Territorial Force artillery unit in 1914. His original number was 385 and when the TF was re-numbered in 1917 he was given the number 820437. This latter number belongs to the series used by the 46th (North Midland) and 59th (2nd North Midland) Divisional Artillery Columns.

Alfred died in 1993 aged 97.


Well when I first joined up was June the 20th 1913 and well the next month, August, we went to the annual camp which was at Aberystwyth. Well that camp was over and the next year the war broke out and I happened to be at the second camp then and we was at Bridlington.

I went with the advance party which was about a week before to get all the camp ready for them for the battalions coming in. Well they were supposed to have come in on the Saturday and they brought the news out to us they wasn’t coming because the war had broke out. That was in August.

Well then they didn’t come up so we had to come home. They sent us all home, left the camp there or them being called up and they took us back and put us in some chapel in Leicester. Well we’d got all three lots of uniform and eventually when they started sorting out they took all ‘us khaki off of us, just left us with this best uniform. Well then they started sorting all this and that out and then we got moved to a place called Braintree, Essex; quite close to the film studios. And from there they were asking for volunteers for the motor transport. Well I had always been for motors so I put in for it.

Well that was it, we heard nothing for months after till eventually on the notice board we see all these names, we knew who they was, and they moved us – the volunteers – from Braintree to Luton (where they made the hats), put us in private billets. And from there we had the orders we’d got to go down to the station, as we thought was the motors. But it wasn’t motors [laughs] it was horses: horses that they’d all commandeered from farmers and all that, never knew what riding on the back was. They sorted them all out into different teams and all that; well when we’d had a bit of training with the horses, riding and that, they sent us home on 14 days embarkation leave.

What year would this be, roughly?

That would be latter end of ’14 that would be.

How was your training in England?

Well you see we were all on the move all the while you see, being altered and fitted up for abroad and all that. We had the training with the horses and the guns.

Well then eventually when we had this embarkation leave, when we got back you see, we was all equipped with the stuff as we’d got to take. We’d got all the wagons and that, all packed up and then we went abroad, France. I think it was Rouen or Le Havre as we landed at. [Arrived in France on 1st March 1915]

Well we go all the horses and that out of the boats and so they fitted us all up in different convoys and we done about thirty mile a day travelling ‘cause we were a long way from the firing line then.

Were you still in the Leicesters at this stage?

No, in the artillery then. Because when I was Braintree that’s where they changed us into the artillery.

Why did they do that?

Well ‘cause we volunteered for it you see, because we didn’t want the infantry.

And so when we got to France we travelled and put up anywhere, side of the roads, until we got up to the place – and the place was, we found out, was the Somme. You know, what the Somme battle was.

We’d got no place to put the horses or ‘us tackle or anything, all the wagons and guns were put on the roadside, the wheels used to sink in the sludge, and they couldn’t get a field to put ‘us horses in and we had to muck in the Royal Engineers [who] had big, heavy draft horses. They were in this field and they were having such a rough time they was, up towards Ypres and that and they said we’d got to go up to such and such a gun, [giving] all the numbers and positions. Well we didn’t know the road, we had to have a guide to show us the way because it was all shell holes full of water, all stained with red blood where chaps had lost their lives.

We made towards Ypres which I could tell you to the inch now, the cloth hall and that and Hellfire Corner. That, I’ve helped to bury teams of horses there. This main road, what there was left of it, you could se into Ypres. Now all up there, the top of the road was all open and you could see the German balloons up. And we knew, while they was up there we should be alright. But if you ever seen them balloons go down and you didn’t get out the road, you’d had it. They used to shell that Hellfire Corner – that’s what they used to call it – and kill no ends. Well we didn’t mind when we got in, what was left of the town.

Well we got into Ypres pretty well under cover – all night moves it is – so when we’d supplied that and got all the stuff up for the guns, all the shells and that, we made ‘us way back with this guide [and] we had the biggest shock of ‘us lives when we got back. We’d gone so many weeks and months without any sleep you used to fall fast asleep on the horse’s back and the only times it could wake you up [was] if you’d got a slow team of horses. You see, to catch up they used to jog and it used to wake you.

Well when we got back to the lines there were a lot of people going off, we didn’t know what was up. And when we got into the field, this field where all these Engineers’ horses were, there were about twelve or more – eight – dead, killed. While we was away going up to Ypres they’d been over and dropped a bloomin’ bomb right in the centre of the line and killed ‘em.

The French – we used to call them Froggies then – there was three I think, civilians which had got private zoos and they’d got permission, and they was taking the harness off and cutting all the carcasses up.

Well after that we had to move out of it then, after a little while. And they moved us to a different place – Arras way this was where there was a lot of coal mines. Well that was where the trenches was. Well we went into the trenches, well then you couldn’t get no clothes, no boots or anything, you just had to wear ‘em ‘til they dropped off your feet and when we was going down this here trench, perhaps up to that in water and sludge, and on the trench side which were about six foot deep I see a pesky pair of soldier’s new boots. I thought, well the devil I’m going to have them ‘cause I hadn’t got a pair. And I pulled one on and a poor soldier’s bloomin’ foot was in it. He’d been killed and buried.

So he was actually part of the trench wall?

Yes, just his feet… You see he’d been killed and they couldn’t get him in and that was at Arras.

Well we wasn’t there too long and they was going to move us into a tunnel. A tunnel? I said what does the war want a tunnel for? Well we soon found out when we got there. We moved up, all the guns had gone and they had temporarily put me in with called what we Toc Emmas, that’s the trench mortars. The big boys was 104 pound and we used to call them the flying pigs. You could see them go through the air.

Well then they got us into this tunnel – all the movements had to be done at night time – and this tunnel was thirty foot underneath the ground. They run a light railway [which] the Australian tunnellers built and it went right up to the German lines and with their instruments you could hear the Germans talking.

Now our gun positioning was there. We was in the tunnel and all the ground had been dug like a funnel and our trench mortars were down there. Well they was alright, they used to do terrific damage. Well then, they used to have a sixty pounder and we used to nickname ‘em toffee apples ‘cause they was like a football with a steel tail. They was all packed away separate and in the nose was your fuse and all that.

Well they’d done away with them because it took such a lot [of] preparing to fire them; just like the trigger mechanism of a rifle with a big long lanyard. Well they brought a new gun out, a sixty pounder, but it was like an aerial bomb it was, and all it was, was just a bed with a barrel on it. There was no firing.

Now the different numbers on the jobs used to prepare all them: set all the fuses. Well number three - I shall always remember it - was the man detailed for dropping it in. He used to put it in the barrel, let go and as soon as you’d let go you used to have a parapet to get round for safety. And as soon as it struck the bottom, on which there was a spike, set the detonator off and out it come.

Well the orders was if there was any faulty fuse or anything like that… well we had limited times to keep away which was five minutes. So this chap, the number three, he’d only just come home from his first leave and he’d got married. He’d come back and he was with our team and he put it in it. So when the five minutes come, we had the order to go and investigate. Well what we had to do was to take the barrel off and slide it out. Well just as they were taking these barrel stays off, the damn thing exploded. He were blown to smithereens. Well I had part of the job to go and fetch the remains out.

And you see, as soon as anything like that happens it’s reported to whoever’s in charge of like the battalion and you see they’re supposed to take it back and let the next of kin know. Well the sergeant that was in charge of our teams, he gave the news to what they called the orderly officer then, that was come up from the back billets. It was his fault and he should have passed it on but he never did. All these parcels kept coming for him from his wife, mostly food and stuff, and we couldn’t make it out, and this were months after he’d been killed.

So we enquired, mentioned it to the sergeant and he said, well I reported it to so and so. And when it come to it, he hadn’t passed it on. His wife didn’t know that he’d been killed or anything. So we got the sergeant to get in touch with his wife to explain what had happened and all that and he asked what was to be done with all the parcels that’s been sent. So she said, well I should like all the stuff that could go perishable such as cakes and sweets to be shared out amongst some of his pals, but other stuffs such as shaving soap and such she would like it back. So we did, and that was the last of that, but as I say, it put the wind up me.

This Hulluch Tunnel where we had ‘us guns, every night there used to be a team of the infantry – same division – and [they] used to make a raid over the top, through the end of the tunnel. And we used to wait for them coming back to see what prisoners they’d got. And we had a little Irish chap, Pat Wills, I shall always remember him. He were only young but he were a jovial sort and one raid they’d made over, they brought three Germans back and they’d got something with ‘em which this little Irish chap, Pat Wills, wanted. He said [this] to the Germans, which they didn’t understand, so he does no more but collars his bloomin’ rifle. And this ‘ere German, in there language, was playing on with him…

Eventually, from Arras we moved a bit further on the La Bassee canal area and the Canadians had had front but they’d had such a smashing up there were hardly any on them left. So what there was left, they fetched ‘em out. Well we had to move up to a place called Bethune and civilians had been there only a few hours before and ‘course, all the fowls were running about and in the old houses part of the meals were on the table where they’d been eating.

There was a square at Bethune jus like the one in front of the town hall at Leicester and in there, all trees and that, they’d got an anti-aircraft battery. Very well camouflaged it was ‘til one night the Jerries come over. They put the searchlights on [and] spotted the area and started firing. That was alright, [but] I don’t know whether anything was brought down. But these Germans, they’d seen all the flashes from the gun. They turned round and done no more. They bombarded the whole square, smashed the old town hall up to smithereens.

Well they moved us up. Cause there was all pubs there you know, full of beer and that…

What year was this?

Oh, latter end that would be. About ’17 time. So we had the night. We’d got to go the next morning to relieve these Canadians. Well we all stopped in some big building’s cellar. We didn’t take much notice with all these bangs and that because we’d heard so much of it but we knew they’d been over. But, they’d been over, done a lot of damage, and it wasn’t found out until the next day [that] they’d dropped some gas bombs – mustard gas.

So the next morning, they detailed all of us who’d got to go up to such and such guns to relieve these Canadians and we got on the banks of the La Bassee canal and we had to trace that right up ‘til we got to the guns. When we were walking at the side of this canal I said to the sergeant who was in charge of the guns, “I don’t know sergeant, I feel about done. I don’t know what’s amiss with me, I can hardly walk.” So he says, well try and manage until we get up there and then you’ll have to report sick. I had the biggest job to get up there [because] the latter mile or two were dark for moving about.

The next morning I were about done. There were no such thing as sleep so I told the sergeant. Well they somehow got in touch with the advanced Field Ambulance doings and they sent some stretcher men for me and they got me down there, I shall always remember it. They just looked at me and tested so and so. “I don’t know,” I says, “my arms is like red hot fire just burning away.” They said, “aye, just keep quiet” and tied like a luggage label [on me and] off we went, shoved me in an ambulance.

I shall always remember it, they were all lady ambulance drivers with the old long skirts to the floor and every few miles they used to stop: “Are you alright, are we going too fast?” We didn’t know where we was, it seemed as if we were travelling for weeks and weeks until we got to one dressing place out of the zone and I said to this ambulance man – there were mostly big marquees there – I said to him, “I don’t know what’s the matter with my arm, it’s burning away.”

Well they took all my clothes off they did and I just looked down and I just happened to see, just about the size of a dried pea, two of them together, a bright yellow. And every day that was growing and growing and growing to about the size of an orange. And that was the mustard gas. I was burnt with it and it was eating and eating all my flesh away.

This mustard gas it was designed to so it goes to the lowest point and being in the cellar… they told me what it was and they dressed it at about every time.

Was it affecting your breathing at all, were you coughing away?

Oh aye, you’re in proper poor state when you’ve got it in your system. The burning takes place anywhere where you sweat. If you don’t sweat you don’t get it, and that had got us in the night. So they took us away and I said to one of the medical men, “Where are we?”
“Well,” he says, “I don’t really know but I know where you’re going. You’re going to Blighty.”

We kept travelling and travelling and I heard a ship’s hooter… and when we were on our boat which was all painted white we see rows and rows of soldiers through the porthole. I said, “look out of the porthole, it looks as though we’re in damned Germany.” And they were all German prisoners of war and they’d got them at the docks to unload all the ambulance doings. And in the docks there, they’d got all the ambulance trains and everything.

Well they loaded us on there and we travelled and travelled and eventually we got to London. I think it was the King Edward’s Hospital in London and from there they got me about right and I shall always remember it. There were about thirty of us and this little Irish chap who’d lost both his legs, and in this hospital ward they were trying to learn him how to walk with two artificial legs. I thought to myself, poor devil. He went a few yards – they was at the side of him – and down he’d go till eventually they did get him walking while I was there.

When they got me about right they said to me, “you’re doing very nice now Mr Willis, would you like to go home?” I said, “what do you think?”

How long were you in the hospital for?

Might have been a month or six weeks, I can’t just quite remember.

What was it like there, did they treat you well?

Oh yes, used to get no ends of people from outside to come and look after you and bring you different stuff. Oh aye, the public [were very good]. I got in a hospital at Devonport and you’ve heard of Edith Weston’s Homes well she were alive then [and] she come and visited me she did.

I think it was fourteen days’ sick leave they gave me so I though to myself they might discharge me but anyhow I wasn’t bad enough to be discharged. From London I went to High Wycombe and Ripon and from there you’d got a chance. I thought to myself, well it’s a devil if I’ve got to go back to France again with all this water, up to your knees in sludge, no clean shirts… it were over six months before you could ever get your uniform off. And shirts, you never had no clean ‘un. You used to be alive with vermin, couldn’t be avoided.

And when used to get ‘em they used to take us, now and then, in a big lorry – it belonged to the observation balloon section – down to a back billet where there were one of these great big fumigating machines, and the shirts and things used to come out there – not new ones, what had been took in. And you’d say, aye here’s one for you, leave all your old ‘uns. You used to be nearly walking away with vermin, couldn’t be avoided.

And to get a shave, when I were in that tunnel, all your drinking water and that for making a drop of tea used to come up in the old two gallon petrol cans you know. And so you’d got no water for that. So I thought, I don’t know, I want a shave as bad as this week’s growth and I didn’t know what to do [because] they wouldn’t let you have the water. So what I did, I got a candle from the back billets and I used to cut it in about three different sizes and you used to get three longish nails and knock them in a board and they used to give you your cigarette issue in a 50 cigarette tin. You used to put a drop of tea in there and light these candles to try to get something to try to have a shave and that. Then, you know, you had the old cut-throats that were like carving knives [laughs].

Then when I got back to High Wycombe and Ripon after the hospital treatment, that were when I began to think, well it’s a devil if I’ve got to go back to France again. So we had a choice. They was getting a draft up for India or France. So I thought to myself, well, I don’t want France again and India can’t be as bad as France – there’s no war in India – so I’d got a brother out there, well he’d died and he’s buried there. So I thought to myself, well I’m going to have a packet of India ‘cause I knew there was no war there. So when it come it come to going here they fitted us all out with the tropical stuff, you know the topis and the drill, and we set off. There was two liners. One was the MALWA[1] and one was the KAISAR I HIND, well I was on the KAISAR I HIND[2]. The MALWA was the other, both belonged to the P&O.

Then, when you’re on the water you never keep together you know, and we had seven Japanese destroyers as escort, all round, not close to you but you could always see them. And we got half way across in the water [and] it seemed very nice and peaceful - and we used to sleep in hammocks then you know. Well during one night we heard a “Boom!” We didn’t take much notice, we thought it was the engines down below because it was all steam then you know. So we got up the next morning, do what we had to do, clean all the decks and that and one of the crew belonging to the liner said, “Are you alright?”
I said, “What do you mean, are we alright?”
“Well didn’t you hear the bump in the night?”
“I heard a bump.” I says, “Well why, what’s the bump?”
The damn Jerries were after us. They’d hit the other liner – the MALWA – with a submarine.
I said, “it’s out there ain’t it?”
He says, “You look, you’ll find it’s not there.”
Well we looked, couldn’t see it and we noticed half the destroyers had gone. I thought to myself, well it’s a devil. You get out here and they won’t let you be.

So we carried on with us’selves – the other destroyers came back to us - they sunk it eventually they did[3] – and we carried on and we got there, we landed at Bombay. We went from one place to another up to Central Provinces, Jubbalpore it was.

When I got there, to see the soldiers that had been there all during the war, they thought all of these boat loads… they thought they were all recruits, never seen nothing. And all these Doolalli boats they were all soldiers that had been knocked about in France. There were no recruits. And they thought, these here that had been there all the while enjoying themselves, when there were a bit of trouble up in the Punjab they wanted to shoo themselves up there… it was then that the found out who we was and where we’d come from[4].

I thought to myself, well I wonder if I shall ever see my brother. When I’d been there a bit, well it were a proper toff’s life. The chaps that had been there had got all the best uniform, all these hard hats with red and navy blue, the best life that anybody could ever have. I thought to myself, well it’s the devil. They’ve had that life and we’ve had to rough it the other side.

I’d got my brother’s address so I wrote this letter and I had a reply and I had a month’s leave with him. I were the only one of the whole family that had ever seen him since he left home. He first joined up as the old Volunteers at Leicester and then he took on as regular and they sent him out there to Poona and Calcutta. He married out there and when he’d done his army time they asked him if he’d like to stop in the country to train some of their people, the natives, as the civilian police. Well he did, so he were under the Indian Government then till when he’d done that he took managers of big boot and shoe factories that was English-owned out there. And I had a month’s leave with him.

From that, when the war was finished, they used to send you home according to when you ‘listed up. Well I was one of the earliest like, should have been one of the first lot but I wasn’t. It took them from the beginning of 2nd January ‘til I got home and that’s when I was discharged: 2nd January 1920.

Didn’t you tell me the other day that you were wounded in France as well?

Not wounded, no; just gas and burning. That’s what fetched me. I didn’t think I should get home but I did do.

When they got me home, the boat, the liner that brought us back, that PRINCE HUBERTUS, it come in at Devonport or one of them. We said, “Where are we now? We’re not in London.”
“Oh, you’re going to hospital now.”
Well I was a bit on the groggy side and the reason why they put me in hospital then was they said I’d got slight touches of malaria and it was there that I come in contact with this Edith Weston and she was good. She come to me she did and she says, ”now do you think you’d be alright to do a little bit of needlework?”
So I says – in my kitbag which was put away and stored – “I’ve got a kitbag full of needlework” and I told her what I’d done. ‘Cause when I were out in India I’d such a good life there that I got onto the Garrison Military Police and we had such a lot of spare time during the day, we didn’t know what to do. Well we used to do that to cure the time away: used to make all the bedspreads out of old army socks and cardigans, pull them to bits you know. When I told this Edith Weston she said, you want something a little bit better than that and she brought me a pillowcase cover and all flower designs. I paid for it to be backed and everything but it never did get backed. I don’t know what happened to it eventually.

Another thing I didn’t like, while I were there there were a biggish ward [with] all kinds of cases and there was a chap who’d only been brought in two days before I went there and he were in a poor state. I think it was a tropical disease; I don’t know if it were malaria or what, but anyhow I could see some of the nurses standing there with a cylinder and a rubber tube and a funnel. I thought to myself, poor devil, he’s not here for long. He lay like that for two or three days and one of the nurses come to me and said, “Mr Willis would you like a little job?”

I said, “Don’t put me to work yet.” And it was to hold this cylinder, just to keep him alive until his next of kin come. [His wife came] and he didn’t last many minutes after that and that was that.

And then there was another chap in the same ward. He were there when I went there [and] I don’t know what was the matter; I couldn’t make out. Every morning as he woke up he used to stand up in his bed [and shout] “I’m still here, I’m still alive, I’ve not gone yet.” He seemed to be perfect and I began to think this bloke’s a bit wrong in the head. I never did find out till there was one morning eventually when we’ve seen the screens round and the poor devil he’d just gone he had.

So when I got in touch with the wife – I lived at Countesthorpe then, the other side of Leicester – the authorities let her know I was coming home and that and we lived in a little cottage. It was only temporary because we’d only just got married. One and ninepence a week it was, two up and two down. From there I couldn’t get a job because there were no reserving jobs and so I rode on my bike hundreds and hundreds of miles to get a job but I couldn’t get one. Every time I see the Mercury I used to write and there was one at Nanpantan and I had a reply from it. [A good deal of interview about job searching omitted here]

I got the job to live-in at Mother Farm, Nanpantan and I were there twenty one years and I’ve been this side ever since.

Going back to when you were in France in the war. Where were the conditions worse do you think?

Well the worst was Arras and going up to the Some with these bomb holes full of water. We had to have a guide to take us all in and out, otherwise we should be down there.

You were taking the horses and guns up with you this time?

Yes, yes. Well the guns had gone in advance. We was taking loads of shells up. You see they’d only just, a couple of days before, gone and settled in. They’d sighted it in the centre of Ypres in an old building. That was one of the worst places for mess; or sludge and all that. Well then the other worse part was that Arras area – all water and sludge. There was trench boards there but there was nowhere for the water to get away and it was just the worse time of the year when it was.

Was that springtime or winter?

Getting on for wintertime that was.

So it was all very wet anyway.

Oh aye, yes. All like clay sludge it was. We had strict orders not to go wandering about because there were so many openings down into the pits. And that was the same area we come across an old station. We was on the move and we went by this station and there were three locomotives right in this station, been battered and bombed they was, smashed up just like a riddle. All the boilers full of holes and everything. I thought to myself, if that’s France I don’t want to see it again and that’s what made me put my name down for this India.

Were you at Arras when our troops went forward, when they were attacking?

We were pretty well on the move then ‘cause for some time you know, that’s when everybody was having such a bad time there. You’d perhaps pull in one place one day and if there was any advancing or retreating you were on the move again. You never knew really where you was.

Did you ever go in any of the German trenches?

No. Well I’d been in trenches where they’d been, where we’d shoved them back. This Hulluch Tunnel, they’d been in there part of it but they wasn’t there long ‘cause these Australian tunnellers they was down in this tunnel at the time ‘cause they used to have a light railway there. And these Australians that built ‘em, they used to have what they called the listening posts and they took us down into this place but before we went in they said to us, “keep quiet, don’t get talking, nothing whatever.” And then he says, “I’ll let you hear the Germans talking.” Cause you see they were on the same stunt as what we was; they’d got all the listening posts you see, and we put these things on and we could hear them jabbering and jabbering away. So that’s why they told us, don’t talk ‘cause if you talk they’ll pick it up the same as them.

It was in like a dug-out but it was separate where the ordinary people couldn’t go and all their movements had to be kept as quiet as anything. Well it wasn’t many yards away ‘cause them raiding parties used to go over every night and bring some of the Jerries back.

But the worst time as I ever witnessed – and I said never again – was that one as I was telling you when the chap come home and got married and then he got blowed to bits with that bomb exploding while he was there. That were my worst and that’s what turned me. At one time it didn’t matter what I’d seen, I’d help anybody. But after that I thought to myself, blood never again. Anything like that I could never tackle, not after that, ‘cause you see it was in such a mess. And then to make it worse they never even let his wife know.

And he’d only just been married as well?

He had yes. I got married, I did, on my first leave home.

When was your first leave?

My first leave was in 1916. This is my second wife this is. My first wife… 1916. Two years I had to wait to get my first leave and we decided we’d get married. We were married at St Barnabas Church, Leicester.

Were you pleased to come back on leave?

Well it was nice to get out the line.

What did you think of people’s attitude to the war here in England? Was it what the soldiers had expected?

You see the main trouble in this country were the rationing. I’ll give you one instance and it was when I come home on my first leave. I lived six mile the other side of Leicester at Countesthorpe. Well you see all the soldiers was rationed and all when they come home on leave. You used to have a ration card; only so many ounces of this and that. And they’d registered me – and that shop’s still there today it is, but I expect it’s the children that run it – I shall always remember it, the name was Shaw and it was in Charles Street and the shop’s still there now. They’d registered me for my bit of meat – six ounces of meat it was – to this place. So then it meant I’d come on with the rail, come down to Leicester and go down there for six ounces of meat. Well when I got there, there was miles of queues all queuing up for the bit of meat. I come down at nine o’clock in the morning with about the first train after breakfast and got into the queue. Do you know what time I got home? Half past six at night with six ounces of meat. I says to the wife, that’s done it Ede, I’m not going to bother about any other meat; they can do what they like with my coupon. So I never bothered to fetch any more meat, I didn’t, and the sweet coupons as they used to give you, I let the wife have that.

She were doing a man’s job all during the war. She were driving at Leicester, an old baker’s four wheel bread van.

When you went out to France you were in the horse artillery weren’t you?

Yes, when I went out.

And then you transferred to Field? When and why did you transfer to the Field Artillery?

Why did I? Well, because it was supposed to have been motor transport and I’ve always, all my life, been a motorist. So I put in for it but when it come to fitting them out with, as we thought these motors, they were horses. It were the artillery.

But you were already in the Horse Artillery in Braintree weren’t you?

Braintree, that’s where they transferred us. Before that I were in the 1/4th Leicesters; infantry.

That’s right. And then you were transferred into the Field Artillery in France?

No, transferred to that just as we left Braintree. Then we went to Luton and that’s where they fitted us out.

So by the time you went to France you’d been in three regiments: the Leicesters, the horse and then the field artillery?

Yes, well the horse and the field it’s all classed as one. It tells you on the whatsit.
The horse artillery used to be similar to a lancers or a yeomanry; nearly all horse unit. Then later on they transferred the horse into what they called the heavy guns, the howitzers, the big guns: steam tractors and all of that.

What was your average daily routine on a quiet day with the artillery? Can you talk me through a normal day?

Well when you are in what they called the back billets, that was your easy time out of action. We used to live and sleep in these big, round, steel Nissan huts. And you used to have to do daily parades, sick parades, and look after your harness, your guns, your horses and all stuff like that. It was supposed to be a rest from the line so they didn’t give you too much – mostly guards. Cause everything as you’d got all had to be guarded – the horses and guns and wagons and all the lot because there always used to be these French hooligans, as you might say.

When we was moved – mostly at the beginning – they used to put you in farmyards, these barn places, when we was living on what they called the iron rations: bully beef or perhaps a big dog biscuit you know, and all such things as that. Well you’d be lucky if you got an old biscuit and a dessert spoonful of jam.

Tom Ticklers jam.

Oh aye, used to be Tickler’s. And if you ever got one of Chivers’s you were highly honoured.

There was once – French people were in this farm and all that, we used to be billeted in these barns where there were all straw –their fowls used to be wandering about, you know, laid the eggs anywhere. Lots of times we found eggs in the barn and that when we couldn’t get nothing to eat. So one night we went into a field where they used to keep all the mangle clamps and all that. Well we knew they’d got some swedes so we used to go and raid this camp where the Swedes was, cut ‘em up and that. Then at night – all planned affair it was – we used to nobble a fowl over and we used to get an old oil drum that had been cleaned out, and cook it and have a damn good set-to. They missed ‘em, the farmers did but there was nothing as they could do about it. They used to complain to the colonel and that – perhaps his billet was in the farm, in the house – and he says, what can I do? They want something to eat and all that.

I think they probably turned a blind eye to it.

Well they had to because you see where they did benefit, they could claim onto the army and they used to get things like that made right and that.

There was a chap – in that same farm it was – and the authorities had had their eyes on him for a little while. There were a chap going about in English officer’s uniform. So we used to say, “look at that damned officer there, isn’t he a scruffy devil for an officer.” And it appears, but it were a week or two after - he were still knocking about - he wasn’t an Englishman at all, he were a damned German! Doing the work of a spy I expect. He’d got hold of this British officer’s uniform but they spotted him and collared him, court martialled him and that and about a week after, shot him.

‘Cause at the beginning of the war they was shooting even ‘us own chaps for deserting you know. ‘Cause they got out there and didn’t like what they seen and all that, so they absconded. They used to shoot them til’ there was so many desertin’ [that] they couldn’t shoot them all because they couldn’t get the men.

Were you actually working, firing on the guns or were you more the transport?

On the guns. On the guns. That was my rank – Gunner.

So when you were firing in a major offensive, what was it like then? What was your routine like then, just non-stop firing?

Oh aye. You’d perhaps had the order. You didn’t keep on continually, continually firing. You’d perhaps get the orders through the authorities [for] so many rounds and so many degrees. You’d set all your sights and then when all you sights was there there was a certain number that used to bring the shells up, you used to take ‘em of him, shove ‘em in, shove in the breech, pull the lanyard at the side up til’ that number had done.

You see the reason why they used to do that ‘cause if they kept on firing and firing, half of them were practically being fired in blank air. So when our observers in the balloons spotted so and so, perhaps a convoy or part of the Germans, they had instruments to get all the degrees and that’s passed on to the guns – so many rounds, so and so. Well then, if they got smashed up, your shells wasn’t going to waste as you might say. ‘Cause they must have cost some money, them shells because the cases were all solid brass you know.

How many men were on a gun?


They were the eighteen pounders?

The eighteen pounders, that’s what we had then, ‘til I got out onto them Toc Ms, the mortars.

And was one of the men known as a layer?

No, not a layer. The number three was the man who does the actual firing. Number two is the one that prepares the fuses, sets the fuses. You could get them to explode instantly or you could just delay them, whatever you liked, according to what it was. The number one, I just can’t remember what job he had. You see all the shells and that they’re not all kept round the guns because if you happen to get hit with a bomb drop, the whole lot’s going to go up. So there use to be special parapets where they were stored. And I’ve got an idea it was the number one’s job to bring them up to the number two to prepare the fuses.

What position were you?

I was number two; the firer.

Do you remember seeing any other guns hit, because presumably you fired in lines did you?

Not all together, zig-zag. That’s how I was but the trench mortar, they were a different thing altogether. Flying pigs, I shall never forget them, 104 pounds they was.

Then there was another bit an’ all when we was guarding a big ammunition dump a little bit further back. Well we could always tell the German planes ‘cause they had a particular sound, a thrud. So we all just sat there, all camouflaged, thousands and thousands of shells, and we were guarding that for a certain time. We heard a Jerry gun [sic, AOW means “plane”] which we didn’t take much notice of because we’d heard such a lot. Well, a little while after we heard another one. I said, that don’t sound like a Jerry, that don’t. And it appears this first one was a German making towards England.

So this English one was a small scouting plane, only a young pilot, he were only eighteen. They must have trained him well at that age. Well he tried to chase him but he couldn’t do nothing about it because his were only a small machine and this German was a big’un. So he just carried on. But he thought, “I won’t be done, I’ll wait for him coming back.” So when he were coming back, this little scout plane of ours he got right up in the sky over the top of him and he peppered him from there, and fetched it down just in line with our dump. We went across to see what we could do and it crashed. We expected to see a ball of flame but it didn’t. It were all smashed up and we could see there were two in it: one were the pilot and I presume one were the pilot or the navigator, something like that.

The pilot were still alive but he didn’t live long. He’d been shot right through the wrist by this scout of ours so he lost control over it and crashed. But the other chap, he were dead. Must have been hit up in the air. We tried to get ‘em out – well we knew it were no good trying to get the one that was dead – we got the other one out eventually. The scout plane that was after him couldn’t come down because it was all barbed wire but about two or three fields away he come down and he come across. He says, thank God I’ve got him.

As soon as he’d come down, when there was nobody there, I thought to myself I’m going to see if I can get his camera. Well I didn’t know where they had the cameras. I couldn’t find it so I got into the remains of the cockpit and I thought, I’m going to have that clock. And I got the clock off the dashboard. They used to be in an aluminium case screwed to the dashboard. I got that off and the next day I heard rumours talking about that it was missing and nothing wasn’t to be touched. So it put the wind up me so I put it in an old tin and sealed it and buried it in the ground until things got quiet. I did get it home eventually but I can’t make out what happened to it; who had it. But it was a watch, specially made for the job.

This pilot who fetched him down, he knew where the camera was and he got it and took it away, and do you know when it was all developed there were all scenes all over London so you can see how things got about.

The ground and countryside use to be scattered with smashed planes. In the centre of Ypres, a place like that, there were two or three nearly in the one street that had been brought down by our ack-acks, our anti-aircraft guns.

I think Ypres was the worst area as I’ve ever seen during that war. There wasn’t even a wall as you could call complete. There was buildings which was a big massive place – it always reminded me of the houses of Parliament – and that main road, Hellfire Corner, it lay on the left. It used to be called the Cloth Hall and there wasn’t hardly a brick a standing. And the churches and that, it seemed as if somebody had just gone there and done what they wanted and left what they didn’t want. Churches. Perhaps just one wall left with a big crucifix there; not touched.

But that Bethune, where I got gassed, there was all the houses with parts of the food on the dining tables where they’d been eating it and just had to leave it. Dogs, cats and fowls running about, even pigs and all.

That was where the Canadians was and they moved us up to relieve them and we went up as the day I got here. There were about twelve of us got this gassing. I always say, if it’s intended you’re going to be hit, you will be hit and it don’t matter where you was ‘cause a shell… I’ve seen shell holes where you could get a complete house and drop it in and you wouldn’t see it if you stood back.

Them flying pigs, 104 pounds. You ought to see the craters they made; terrific. They were very slow, just like the aerial bombs with the fins on it and in between the centre of the fins, that’s where your flash cartridge used to go. You could watch them on a clear day, going through the air.

It was a mass of shell holes wasn’t it?

The Somme. I don’t think you could walk many yards in a straight line, that’s why we had to have guides to take us up into Ypres because everywhere was so smashed up. You couldn’t get horses because if you ever got a wagon stuck or owt like that, you’d never get ‘em out. ‘Cause there were only horses. There was some of these steam tractors that the heavies used for taking their guns. Half of the shell holes were all covered in red and you know what that was.

I tell you another thing and all. It was my first leave when I were in my Hulluch Tunnel at that time and all your rations and stuff, and bombs, used to be brought up on a light railway with mules, right up to the mouth of Bethune but only in the dead of night. Then if there were any relieving coming, they used to come up on these trucks.

They sent a chap up to relieve me because I were going on leave. I thought to myself, Thank God. So, he had to wait in the night before he could get out of this tunnel because they used to send their verey lights up and could see every mortal thing. And the other side, they used to just sweep the ground level with a machine gun.

Well this particular night they’d come to relieve me I’d got to find my own way back.. You didn’t know where you was. I got out on the top, weaving between the blooming shell holes and that and all of a sudden, all my bloomin’ length I went in one of these damn shell holes. You couldn’t see, only time you could perhaps spot any - but you didn’t want to be up above then – was when they sent their lights over. And I went down two or three damn shell holes I did. I thought to myself, I’m not going to get home, not going to get back. But eventually, I kept on going and going, I didn’t know where I was, so I come into a village where there were some Frenchmen. I thought to myself, I must be out of the danger zone. They could nearly always speak broken English and I said to them, “regiment… billeted… where?” And he told me, that road, and that’s how I found my way out. And by the time I got to what they called the back billets, oh I was in a mess.

Then they gave me the papers and all that and then they give me a new set of khaki they did because I were in such a damn mess.

That was just when we got to the Somme part was where they dropped a bomb in all that field of horses, the Royal Engineers. That’s them that lays all these communication lines and that. They had to risk their lives they did because they had to go as far as really anybody could go there, all to headquarters and everything. And if a bomb broke any of the line, they used to send the Engineers out to trace where it was and mend it.

How were you artillerymen regarded by the infantry? They thought you had a cushy life didn’t they?

The artillery was what I’d thought. You see I knew very well that if I were in the infantry – you see I knew with what my brother had told me – I were in for a rough time. So I were glad in one way that I did put in for this motor transport.

But when we got to one village when we was on the move – French village – some chap come to us. He said he’d just been to an estaminet for a drink in the next village, I forget the name of it now. He says, I’ve been down so and so and the remainders of the Leicesters have come out; that’s all ‘us old pals as we used to be with. So I says, I shall have to go and see who’s there and who ain’t. So we went and I’m not afraid to tell anybody, as old as I am, that’s the only time in my life that I’ve been what I call, proper drunk.

Well we went down and there’s so many kinds of drinks out there – vin blonks and all that – and we seen the remainder [of the Leicesters] what was left. We used to say, “Where’s so and so? Is he knocking about?” Oh no, gone. And I don’t think there were above twenty or thirty out of the whole battalion left that I used to be in. And them that were there used to say, “come on, you’ve got to have a drink Alf.” All that mixture and that. Well, we were alright while we were there and so when t come to coming home along the country lanes, I thought to myself, you devil, I’m having a job to walk.

Well I shall always remember falling into a dyke with water. My feet wouldn’t stand up. And do you know it was months and months and months before I found out how I got back to my billet. They dumped me, they did, in my billet, in the barn and all that. And I kept asking my pals how I got back and one n ‘em started laughing. It appears that two of my pals carried me shoulder high but there were only about twenty or thirty of them left out of the whole battalion.

When I were even in the artillery I were still in the same division as what I was in the Leicesters. And their flash was a triangle, dark green and a red. That was the 46th Division’s sign that they used to put on the wagons and that. And it seems funny, after all them years during this last war I used to be on the Barrow [unclear] Council with the wagons. I used to be the driver and had three men with me. We used to cover all Leicestershire pretty well and we were at Queenyborough one day and sitting there in the cabin having a bit of snack. And some little chap come [from the Midland Red bus company because it used to stop there at Queenyborough]. And I thought to myself, he’s a little ‘un for a driver. So he looked at me - I didn’t know him – and he said, is your name Willis? I looked at him and I said, aye but I don’t know you. He says, you do. So when he told me, I said oh I should think I do. His name was LILLAN. Now his brother was one that got done on the Somme. Albert his name was. Now his oldest brother was one of my oldest brothers’ – that was in India – one of his pals. And they both joined up. My brother Steve, he went to India. And that was when I was living at Leicester then, not a stone’s throw from the City General.

I could give anybody a history of the old Leicester and yet I’ve not lived there since the First War. I remember that City General being built. I were only a little kid then and they used to have steam locomotives to get the stuff up. Aye, it’s altered a lot it is.

[1] 10,986 tons. Launched 1908, Australia service. Capacity for 350 First Class and 160 Second Class passengers. Broken up in Japan in 1932.
[2] 11,430 tons. Launched 1914, India service. Capacity for 315 First Class passengers and 233 Second Class. Became troop transport in 1916, returned to passenger service 1919, scrapped at Blyth in 1938.
[3] Apparently not, see Note 4 above.
[4] I have listened to this portion of the interview many times but still can’t make much headway with it.

No comments: