Wednesday 24 December 2014

Stan Brown's Christmas Truce

I've featured Stan Brown before and you can read some about Stan's Great War and Chelmsford's Old Contemptibles by following the links. Now, The Daily Express and the Mail Online have both included snippets from the interview I conducted with Stan back in 1981 and the Express has also included some audio.

Stan was the second man I interviewed (the first was Harry Bardsley) and I used to pop in and visit him fairly frequently. The photo above was published by the Chelmsford and Essex Chronicle in 1987 shortly after Stan died at the age of 90; the last of Chelmsford's Old Contemptibles.

I'm very pleased that two national newspapers have run Stan Brown's vivid memories of the Christmas Truce and because of this, I can even forgive the Daily Express - just - for it's opening line that Stan Brown, "was one of the soldiers who swapped bullets for balls and met the enemy in no man's land for a festive game of football." He didn't, and that story is balls. The Express also appears to have contrived to use an extract from the interview that doesn't mention the truce at all. Never mind, it's good that Stan has now received national recognition - and as an added bonus, you also get to hear the eighteen-year-old interviewer chipping in.

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Wednesday 17 December 2014

Veterans re-live life in the trenches

I thought it might be an idea to start integrating surviving video and audio of Great War Veterans and so here's the first such link courtesy of YouTube.

This link will take you to a 49 minute clip of veterans re-living their time during the First World War. Featured veterans in this programme are:

Norman Collins 1897-1998 (pictured above)
Jack Rogers 1894-2000
Dick Barron 1895-1999
Albert "Smiler" Marshall 1897-2005
George Louth 1895-2000
Robert Burns 1897-2000
George Littlefair 1896-1998
Arthur Wagstaff 1897-2000
Fred Francis 1894-1999
Tommy Gay 1898-1999

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Sunday 14 December 2014

Lieutenant Arthur Edward Slater, Machine Gun Corps

I met Arthur Slater on 5th October 1981 after he responded to an appeal for First World War veterans to come forward and tell their stories to a somewhat naïve nineteen-year-old.
Arthur was born in Beckenham, Kent on the 27th November 1895 and was studying at King's College, London when duty called and he enlisted in the army. On the 1911 census for England and Wales he appears as a fifteen-year old living at 201 Mackenzie Road, Beckenham with his parents and 20-year-old sister, Mary Elizabeth Slater, an elementary school teacher for Beckenham County Council.  I believe that Arthur was already a member of the Officer Training Corps at King's College and he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Devonshire Regiment, arriving in France in July 1916 where he joined the 7th Battalion.
"On 20th September 1916 we boarded one of the London buses which had been brought into war service and travelled up to Mametz which was the British front line. Our objective was to march into the fortified village of Ginchy, and the Staff thought it would be a walk-over. They said the wire would all be cut by the artillery fire but as it turned out, the wire was still uncut and there were machine guns firing down on us from Delville Wood as we were advancing.
"We'd assembled at Mouquet Farm just as it was getting dusk, and spread out in a long thin line ready for the attack. We didn't have time for rum so we passed it from hand to hand over the battleground. The ground wasn't too uneven and the advance would have been relatively easy had it not been for the machine guns. I got a bullet in my left leg straight away and fell down into a shell-hole. I'd got what they called, "a Blighty" and I was sent home."
While he was recuperating, impressed by the machine guns he had seen in France, Arthur applied for a transfer to the Machine Gun Corps and this was duly sanctioned. He now found himself serving with the 9th Division and left Folkestone for France on the 28th May 1917. It was at Passchendaele though, later that year, that his war ended.
"We were waiting for relief somewhere between St Julien and Zonnebeke and came under artillery fire. I was sheltering with about a dozen other people in a part of a German trench when a shell landed about twenty yards away. A piece of shell case came flying in and smashed me in the left knee-cap. I was the only one injured. 
"They put me on a stretcher but I couldn't be taken down that night because the shelling was too bad. Instead, I spent the night in a pill-box which didn't do me much good. The next morning they tidied me up a bit at the Casualty Clearing Station near Ypres and removed the piece of shell case. They gave it to me later and I kept it in a bag for several years.
"I was put on a hospital train for Rouen and was unconscious for two days due to loss of blood and the morphine I'd been given. In fact after I'd recovered I had to undergo a course of treatment to cure me of my addiction to morphine.
"The terrible thing was that I had gangrene in my leg and because the arteries were absolutely rotted with it, it had to come off. A nurse had to press down hard on the pressure point in my groin to stop me from bleeding to death. In fact, matron thought I was going to die. They sealed up the arteries but didn't make a very good job of the stump which is why I've got a very uneven stump and practically no leg at all.
"By February 1918 I was recovered, but I didn't get my discharge until 1919 when I was given a job in the Civil Service as an air commissioner."
Arthur Slater died in 1982.

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Sunday 30 November 2014

29241 Pte Leonard Watts, Suffolk Regiment

I met and interviewed Leonard Watts on the 19th October 1981. He was born in Little Waltham, Essex on the 17th May 1897 and was working as a gardener before he joined the army.  He mentioned to me that he had joined the army in May 1916 and his regimental number confirms this. He would have been nineteen years old and whilst it is possible that he was conscripted, he may well have volunteered the previous year under the Derby Scheme; a lot of Suffolk Regiment men with numbers in this range were Derby Scheme volunteers.

Having trained for almost a year, Leonard found himself taking part in the Battle of Arras, going over the top on the 9th April 1917.

"When it came to the Push we had to go over whether we were trained or not. I got blown over once or twice while going forward and there were more bloody machine guns firing at us than there were rifles. You had to keep down, and you got along more by crawling and rolling than you did by standing upright."

He came through that attack unscathed but was wounded a couple of days later.

"The bullet went into the top of my shoulder and came out over the plate. A mate stopped to dress my shoulder on the battlefield and then I walked up the trench towards the CCS, up to my waist in slimy mud, treading on tins and old bits of rubbish at the bottom. I was then passed on to another station for the walking wounded before being moved to a hospital near Rouen. I had a little operation on my 20th birthday."

Leonard's medal index card notes a second regimental number - 70167 - and his entry on the British War and Victory Medal roll notes three battalions of the Suffolk Regiment: the 2nd Battalion, 9th Battalion and 11th Battalion.

Leonard Watts died in January 1995, a couple of months short of his 98th birthday.

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Wednesday 12 November 2014

98530 Pte Ernest Needham, 7th Sherwood Foresters

I interviewed Ernest Needham in Loughborough in 1984; a period of fond memories for me where days were spent fine-tuning my darts and snooker skills, and occasionally attending the odd English literature lecture at the university. I forget now how I made contact with Mr Needham; almost certainly through word of mouth, and I interviewed him at his home at William Street on the 20th June 1984. What follows are extracts from that meeting.

"My name is Ernest Needham and I was born on the 27th August 1899 in Shepshed, Leicestershire. I enlisted with the 7th Sherwood Foresters in September 1917 and later on I was transferred to the Guards at Pirbright in Surrey.

"We had about eight weeks training on the machine guns and then… I was a volunteer.  I volunteered. My mates were all going and somehow I were getting a bit left behind and I wanted to go with them and I went up to the commanding officer… I had to be took up to him and I volunteered for France and he says, “the next draft as goes… now” he says, “you want to go don’t you?” (because I was only eighteen), I said, “yes, I’ve made my mind up ‘cause me mates is all going” and I says “I want to go and I’m a volunteer.” So he says, “right you’ll be on the next draft.” And I went from Pirbright." [This was June 1918 according to surviving papers]

On going over the top:

"You didn’t have time to have no feelings. It were hell. I could see bullets striking under my foot from these machine guns as we were running along somewhere [on] open ground.  I could see the bullets; the dirt flying up… I felt a brush on my jerkin from a bullet and of course it ripped my jerkin and all. That were when the weather was starting to get a bit cold because we had jerkins on and that.

"We were in action and we’d come up, up to them and they said there were a man wounded out there and I could hear him shouting.  And I says to the sergeant, I says I’m going to fetch him in. He were sort of wounded and he couldn’t speak very well and he says, shall you?  I says, yes.  And I went and he were a big chap, a guardsman.  I got my hands… and I had to drag him and he kept swearing and playing up, you know, with the pain, but I could see the bullets striking under my feet and I got him in.

"This were at daytime in broad daylight. Well we had an officer who were very strict, very disciplined. And we come out the line and I fell asleep – I were young – fell asleep in an old trench, and they said the officer wanted me. He’d heard about me fetching this… and he wanted to know something. I told him and when I was leaving him instead of me saluting him I didn’t salute him… I always reckon it were through not saluting… he were very strict and disciplined – he took my name like…

"Aye, I should have had a medal for it, no doubt about that… [I brought him in] all that swearing, well he were in such pain… you don’t know what you’re saying at the time [unclear] you could see the dirt rising as the bullets were striking the ground. I said, don’t worry, you want me to get you in, do as I say. And of course, as soon as I got in towards the lines, the other chaps took him off and he was soon whipped on a stretcher and away. And this officer come to see me about it and I always think it were through not saluting him…

"I had two brothers killed in France, and another badly wounded. There were four of us. My oldest brother were a professional footballer [with Nottingham Forest] but as luck had it, when he were a little lad he hurt this arm and he always carried it so and that were the reason he didn’t go. One day when he went for his medical, who should be on the Board of doctors that day but the Notts Forest football club doctor. So when he saw George he says, what are you doing here George? Well he said, same as the others. Well he says, I don’t think you’ll pass… He says, you’ve been before for medical ain’t you.? So he says, is there anything as you can do? Well he says, you’ll have to go through with your medical but when you’ve had it, come and see me and I’ll see… Well when George went to him he said, you’d like to go George? You’d have been gone before now but [I’ll make this medical the final] and you won’t have to bother again."

32825 Pte Owen Needham of the 6th Leicestershire Regiment died of wounds on the 29th April 1917 aged 19. His brother, 155761 Pte Frank Needham of the MGC died of wounds on the 5th October 1918, aged 23. Both brothers are commemorated on the Shepshed war memorial.

Ernest Needham died in July 1992 at the age of 92.

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Sunday 2 November 2014

22859 Sapper William George Pink, 26th Field Coy, Royal Engineers

I met William Pink on 1st October 1981. At the time, he was one of a dwindling band of Chelmsford Old Contemptibles although he was originally from Hampshire and had been born in Southampton on the 10th December 1895. Prior to enlisting on 10th May 1912, he had worked as a groom. This is what he told me.

"When war was declared we were immediately shipped over to Boulogne and went straight to Mons from there. There was a lot of troop movement all sorting themselves out because the Germans were heading straight for the Belgian Front. I fought at First Ypres and then la Bassee and there was no sign of an armistice although everyone expected the war to be over within a few weeks.

"The conditions were awful of course and the trenches full of water. In some of them we didn't know whether we were going to be drowned or whether we'd get out. We were filthy. The lice were embedded under your armpits and around your crotch.

"All of a sudden we were retreating and the might of the German Army was just behind us. We were impeded by the Belgian refugees fleeing in front of us; families and children all mixed up with the troops. Such was their hurry that meals were left in the oven still cooking, or on the tables. We released all the animals to try and get them away before we were overrun by the Germans.

"We were retreating through La Bassee and a shell exploded above us showering us with shrapnel. A piece the size of a walnut hit me at the base of my spine and laid me out. I lay where I fell until the stretcher bearers picked me up and took me to a casualty clearing station. From there I was transferred to the General Hospital and then shipped back to a VAD hospital at Oxford. My injury meant that I couldn't walk until 1917 and even after then I still had to use a stick. For me, the war was over."

William Pink has a surviving service record in WO 364 and this tells a somewhat different story. He enlisted in May 1912 at Chatham and was wounded on the 24th January 1915. He was taken to No 3 Field Ambulance the following day and admitted to the Duchess of Westminster's Hospital on the 26th January. On the 6th February he was transferred to England where he was admitted to a London hospital the same day. He subsequently spent time at a hospital in Oxford and then VAD hospitals first in Slough and finally in Wantage. He remained in England until 1916 but was well enough to resume service with the Colours and sailed for Basra in June 1916 and served in Mesopotamia and India until April 1919.

William Pink died in 1982.

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Saturday 25 October 2014

27443 Pte Henry George Boldero, 1st Wiltshire Regiment

It was September 1981 and there was a knock at the door. My dad answered it and in stepped Henry Boldero. He'd seen an article in a local newspaper about my quest to interview First World War veterans and as he only lived around the corner he thought he'd pop round. The photo above was taken that same day, Mr Boldero sitting quite comfortably in my parents' arm chair.
He was born on the 24th February 1899 in Castleacre, Norfolk and was conscripted exactly eighteen years later on the 24th February 1917. He told me that he'd originally joined the Rifle Brigade but by the time he went to France in March 1918 he was serving with the Wiltshire Regiment. No service record survives for Henry Boldero, however his entry in the British War and Victory medal roll confirms that he served with the 1st Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment.
Mr Boldero was captured during a sudden advance by the Germans in April 1918, narrowly avoiding being bayonetted. He remembered the event as having taken place on the night of the 8/9th April but in fact, thanks to a surviving document held by the International Red Cross (below) we can see that he was actually captured at Messines on the 10th April.
He spent three days at Messines, unloading German equipment from barges and was then taken to Dulmen prison camp near Dortmund where he was put to work in the coal pits. At first, the food was poor, "dead horses with potatoes and barley. You couldn't eat the meat, it was like rubber" but after about six weeks, Red Cross food parcels began to arrive from Switzerland. He remained at Dulmen for the remainder of the war but was repatriated soon after the Armistice and was back in England in time for Christmas.
Henry Boldero died in 1996 at the age of 97.

Sunday 12 October 2014

370395 A/Sgt Francis G Seddon, 8th London Regt

When I interviewed Frank Seddon it was 1986 and he was aged 89 and living on his own in Portslade, Sussex. No service record survives for him but I did record his experiences on my tape recorder.
I'm Francis George Seddon, but they always know me as Frank. I was born in June 1897 in Bethnal Green, East London. It's all knocked down now. Before the war I was a telegraph messenger delivering telegrams. I started at the age of fourteen, but of course that's not allowed now.
I joined the Territorials on 4th June 1914, seven days before my birthday, and when I finished the war I was a sergeant-instructor when I was an instructor to young soldiers aged eighteen. The reason for that was that over the years the casualties was terrific and we had no fit and able-bodied men to send to France any more and so they had to rely on eighteen year-olds. They were being called up when they were eighteen and there were special battalions throughout the country for them only. Of course, I was only twenty-one myself at the time.
I joined the Territorials in the first place because there was one ot two doing it who had that sort of encouragement and some of our inspectors belonged to the Territorials as well. I was young and active then and full of adventure and I fancied the Territorials to go camping you know; there was no signs of war.
When war did break out we were going to camp, Eastbourne I think it was. The train got as far as Three Bridges and stopped. Then the rumours started going around and the train went back, shot uis back to London Bridge. We detrained there and marched to our barracks in Bunhill Row with a band playing. When we got there we were paraded and lined up and Colonel Labouchere addressed us. His words were, "The ultimatum to Germany expired at midnight. The Post Office Rifles will be mobilised" and a big cheer went up, I remember that.
I was with several friends: William Harfleet, Johnny Harris, Greig Haynes; I can't remember them all now. We was all about the same age and came from the same office as you might say, West Central London.
I think I was in number three company and we were a happy crowd, all part-time soldiers who'd joined for a holiday really. We had a big shock when we got to France although the shock don't come till you get to the trenches. Till then, you're singing and marching and full of life."
Frank volunteered for service overseas but was held back because he was too young:
Like a few others I went to Cuckfield which is near Haywards Heath in Sussex.I was there four or five months and a nice billet it was. I spent Christmas there and blow me, my mother and sister came down to see me, all that way. They was more worried than what I was. We eventually went to France in 1916, about May I think it was.
Frank's entry on the British War and Victory medal roll notes that he was overseas between the 27th May 1916 and the 13th October 1916. He remembers that he was wounded on the 7th October and that it was nearly twelve months before he recovered from his wound:
I had electric treatment and exercise, all kinds of things. Of course, the nerves were severed in my leg which never really got well. I went back to my battalion and they reckoned I was fit to go out to France again. I didn't go back though because a notice appeared saying they wanted men who would like to go in for drill instructors.
Frank never went back to the trenches. He received the British War and Victory Medals and the Territorial Force War Medal. He died in November 1990 at the age of 93.

Monday 22 September 2014

101204 Dvr Daniel O'Sullivan, RFA

Daniel O'Sullivan was one of the first Great War veterans that I interviewed and I see from my notes that I met him, at his home in Rectory Lane, Chelmsford, on 16th September 1981. My notes state:

"Daniel O'Sullivan had five brothers and three of them died as a result of the First World War. Dennis O'Sullivan died after the war from double pneumonia contracted in Tripoli, Africa. Michael O'Sullivan was shot in the abdomen while in France and "died in a straight-jacket, a madman, shortly after the war." Jimmy O'Sullivan served from the outbreak of war until the armistice in 1918 but was tragically killed when a troop train travelling between Cambrai and Boulogne came off the rails. He is buried somewhere in France although the exact location is unknown. A fourth brother, Davey (or Davy) O'Sullivan, who survived the war was killed by the IRA in 1922 during the Irish Civil War. He was the second southern Irish soldier to be killed by the IRA and was accorded full military honours."

I have been unable to positively identify any of the brothers.

Daniel was born in Cork on 2nd September 1898 and enlisted at Cork on the 16th October 1915 aged 17. He remembered his regimental number and told me he served with the 54th Battery in the 10th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery. This is certainly incorrect as the 10th Brigade comprised 76, 81 and 82 Batteries. Furthermore, the sole surviving document from his service papers notes that he served with 378 Battery in the 169th Brigade.

As a driver, he was one of a three man team helping to pull the eighteen-pounder guns:

"The drivers' day began at 6.30 in the morning when we got up and exercised the horses for about half an hour before bringing them back and grooming them. Breakfast was at 7.30 and at 8 o'clock there were fatigues: cleaning out the stables and polishing the harnesses and so on. There were irregular three-hour inspections which took place at 11 o'clock, and in the afternoon the teams had to stand by and be ready to serve their guns, although we sometimes aided in the transportation of equipment for the infantry. At 5pm the horses were watered and fed before being bedded down for the night, although often we were called out."

Daniel's papers show that he served for a total of three years and 100 days. During that time, he told me, he only had one leave of seven days which he spent at St Omer.

Daniel O'Sullivan later went on to fight in the Irish Civil War, The Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. He died in 1987.

Sunday 7 September 2014

1615 Pte Horace Ham, 16th (Public Schools') Battalion, Middlesex Regiment

My notes tell me that I interviewed Horace Ham at the Royal Star & Garter Home in Richmond on 5th November 1988 when Horace was aged 93.

Horace Ham was born on the 20th July 1895 and was working as a footman for William Lehman Ashmead Bartlett Burdett-Coutts when war was declared. He takes up the story:

"I volunteered. They came around with a paper while we were working. Would we join? If so, sign the paper. We signed it and they called me up in January 1915 I think. That's when I joined the army. We had to report to Scotland Yard in Whitehall and when we got there there was a queue of people going in there, volunteering. You had to swear [an oath of allegiance] and they gave us the King's Shilling and they said, "Well look, there's three of four regiments: The Essex, The Guards, The West Kents or the 16th Middlesex Public Schools.

"I went to the 16th Middlesex because I went to a public school in Bournemouth. My parents had a small hotel in Bournemouth and I never wanted all my life; I always had a good home. I was a choirboy for seven years in my local church and my father was a church man who used to sing in the church choir and was secretary of the Westbourne Conservative Club.

"We were one of the lucky battalions. We used to go on route marches and come across batalions marching in their ordinary clothes with broomsticks. The idea of our battalion was that being public schoolboys and well educated men, they wanted our chaps  to go in for commissions. We were formed up and we were lucky. We had all our uniform and we had rifles too. We had the old fashioned long Lee Enfields which is a damn good rifle and very heavy. Of course, before we went to France they were all changed and we had the up-to-date modern short Lee Enfield Mark 3."

As his medal index card notes, Horace arrived in France in November 1915 and on 1st July 1916 he was opposite Hawthorn Ridge (picture above) as the British Army detonated 40,000 pounds of explosive underneath the German lines.

"We saw it go up at 7.20am and we were supposed to go over at 7.30. Of course, it was a big mistake. We should have gone over just after the mine went up. They lost a lot of men and there was a hell of a ,lot blown up but you see, it was a proper mess-up. We were told that all the barbed wire would be cut and all the Germans would be dead, all that sort of thing. Instead of that the Germans were very clever. They'd built marvellous dug-outs; I've been in them, I know what they're like. They made them properly, they were like houses underground; beds and everything in there. The Germans said they were going to stay and they built these wonderful dug-outs. When our people started shelling all the troops went down into their dug-outs. As soon as we stopped shelling and started to advance, they came up, put their machine guns up and mowed our fellas down like ninepins. I was lucky. I saw Hawthorn Ridge go up and while we were in the trenches I got hit in the hip with a bit of shrapnel just as we started. I didn't actually get over the trench. I was lucky, just kept my fingers crossed. All my pals got killed or wounded though; gone.

There was five of us sort of all joined up together. There was myself, a fella named Walker, a fella named Richardson and two brothers names Mellish who came from Wembley. We sort of palled up and all went around together in the army. Well on the 1st July I got wounded, Richardson got wounded, young Mellish got through it and Jerry Walker and the eldest Mellish we never heard of, they got killed. [The two men referred to are PS/1491 Alfred George Mellish and PS/1609 Alfred Walker. Alfred Mellish is buried in Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery No 1 at Auchonvillers whilst Alfred Walker has no known grave and is commemorated by name on the Thiepval Memorial].

Horace recalled a couple of incidents shortly after he arrived in France.

"We were up the line and I had to go the latrine. In the trenches your latrine was built off a communication trench and if you wanted to go and relieve yourself you had to go down there. It was a beautiful sunny morning, there was nothing going on, no shelling or nothing and I took my tin hat off and walked down there. When I was coming back a sniper just missed the top of my nut. You can always tell when it's a near one because you can hear the bang.

"On another occasion we were holding the line when the colonel came round to make an inspection. He came round with the adjutant, our company commander and the Regimental Sergeant Major. He got to our section and there was a corporal in charge, an older man than me. I was only a youngster then. He was only a little fella and the colonel came up and he's talking to us and he said to the corporal, "this trench isn't deep enough. I want it a bit deeper." He took three steps away from him, the corporal took his place and he got shot right through the head; took the top of his head clean off. Now what I can never understand is I was six inches taller than him and yet the shot hit the corporal. It went right through his time hat: went in the back and came out the front. You've never seen such a mess."

Horace was wounded again in 1917 and transferred to the Army Service Corps. He was finally discharged from the army in April 1919. He died in January 1995 at the ripe old age of 99.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

375232 Pte George A Douglas, 8th London Regiment

I never met George Armet Douglas but I did contact him in November 1986 when I was trying - fruitlessly and unsurprisingly, as it turned out - to find men who may have served with my Great Uncle John (Jack) Frederick Nixon.  This was Mr Armet's response to my letter of enquiry.

Dear Mr Nixon

Your letter about your great uncle has certainly come when our memories become numerous and very vivid. Nevertheless I am sorry that I cannot say that I made contact with him before he was unfortunately killed in action. As we were under 19 years of age we were barred from active service, but once the casualties multiplied during the March 1918 German advance and then the Allies went over the top in August 1918, the A4s or under 19s were drafted out to France.

I survived the German offensive of March 1918 and then we had a spell of trench warfare in front of Albert-sur-Somme. We went over the top on the 8th August and again on the evening of 9th August, suffering heavy casualties. That return to Round Wood to be made up to strength again would most likely be your uncle's debut.

Within the trenches we ate bread, bully-beef, pork and beans, bully stew and machonochies (a tinned stew) that was heated up on our own personal improvised stove: an oily candle rag inside a ventilated bully tin (bully meaning corned beef). But as a special treat our cooks made bully rissoles and they were kept HOT in a hay-box by the quartermaster sergeant who came up with the rations in the middle of the night.

We advanced solidly after that, obtaining food when we were lucky. There was no trench life after September and it is most likely, since we moved north after breaking the Hindenburg Line to the area of Lens and Lille, that your relative was killed during the fighting in the suburbs of Lens. His name does not appear in the roll of honour published in the Battalion's history. He was so unlucky not to survive until the 11th November.

Strange to say I came home in a hospital ship in March 1919 with the flu and after sick leave was transferred to the Rifle Brigade.

Yours sincerely, George A Douglas

Jack Nixon was attached to the Post Office Rifles from the Rifle Brigade and he was killed on 3rd October 1918. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Vis-en-Artois memorial.

George Douglas's medal index card, courtesy of Ancestry, is posted above. He also has a badly damaged service record available on both Ancestry and findmypast but easier to find on the latter. It shows that his original number with the 8th Londons was 63885 and that he attested at Edinburgh on the 10th January 1918 aged 17 years and 318 days. At the time he joined up he was working as an assistant postman and living at 55 Ashley Terrace, Edinburgh.

George's attestation was approved on the 20th March 1918 (he was now 18 years old) and he was posted to G Company of the 2/8th London Regiment and then embarked for France shortly thereafter. The date of embarkation is faded but he was certainly with B Company of the 1/8th Battalion by 7th April 1918 and thus survived the German offensive the previous month because he was too young and still in the UK.

George was admitted to a casualty clearing station with influenza in September 1918 and was still sick when the armistice was declared. Posted back to base depot on the 15th November and then back to the Post Office Rifles four days later, he served with his regiment until 13th February 1919 when he was transferred to the 2/17th London Regiment. He was admitted to hospital in Boulogne five days later with a recurrent bout of influenza (in all probability he had probably not recovered from his initial bout) and by 1st March 1919 he was on a hospital ship back to the UK. On 27th June 1919 he was transferred again, this time - as he remembers - to the 5th Rifle Brigade. He was finally discharged from the army on 22nd October 1919.

Sunday 20 April 2014

41610 Pte Thomas Lakin, Norfolk Regiment


I interviewed Thomas Lakin at his home in Loughborough in July 1984. He was born in Quorndon, Leicestershire on the 19th September 1899 and prior to being called up he was working as a weaver for M Wright & Sons in Quorn. The company, established in 1870, is still trading in Quorn under its original name today. Thomas Lakin died at Loughborough in September 1987.

Thomas Lakin's narrative

I was in the Notts & Derby Young Soldiers’ Battalion which was a battalion that had had been specially set up to train young soldiers. I was first at Rugeley [Cannock Chase] with them and then we were transferred to Doncaster from where we were marched to Welbeck Abbey. We were under canvas there for a month or two and then we went to France.
I had tried to join up three times before but each time I went to the recruiting office at Leicester my mother fetched me out. She knew I shouldn’t have gone. The first time I went, I went to join the Navy with a mate. They kept me three days and then sent me home and told me to grow up a little bit and put a bit more on my chest. So I never bothered with them again. I was fifteen and a half which was the earliest you could join the Navy at that time.

We did all our finishing training at Welbeck Abbey and then we went down by train to Dover and crossed over to Calais. We were all in one big camp like and didn’t belong to any regiment or anything. But as soon as you got there you were there to be out in any regiment that needed reinforcements, so I got in with the 1st Norfolks.

I was at the depot for about three days and was then posted to up to a little place called Merville that was somewhere in front of Armentieres. We were there two or three months and it was quite quiet. The Portuguese had been there and the Germans had pushed them back, but we went there and we pushed the Germans back. That would be early 1918 before the German advance.

When we left Merville we marched down and finished up on the Somme. There was the Cheshire regiment, The Warwickshire Regiment and the Norfolks. The Cheshire regiment went over the top first, then the Warwickshire Regiment went through them and they took over the front line. Then we went through both of them and there didn’t seem to be much doing; the Germans were falling back.

Where we went over the top we were near two little villages called Aichet-le-Grand and Aichet-le-Petit and they were practically the same. There was always a bit of dead line firing by the artillery before you went over but it wasn’t very pleasant to be under it yourself. So long as it wasn;t too heavy you didn’t bother but it if it got heavy you began to dive for cover. We had little holes at the back of the trench.

When I got wounded it was a spare shell that came over. We were on the corner of a village and you could see the German soldiers preparing to make an attack. They were putting quite a bit of shells over and I got hit by a piece about as big as my hand. It was a good job it was spent but it caught me on the shoulder and broke my shoulder and gave me severe bruising.

I was taken to an ambulance and it were full of wounded from our side and German lads as well. We went to Rheims and I was in hospital there for about a week before they brought us down to Le Havre. We were put on a boat and went to Southampton and I think the journey took about fourteen hours. This would be about August 1918.

When I was wounded the Germans were retreating but they stopped to pump shells into us and managed to hold us up.

I was in hospital for a week or so at Southampton and then I was sent up to a hospital in Stockport just outside Manchester. I was there for about a month and then I had a fortnight’s leave. After that I was posted to a little village in Bedfordshire called Ampthill. The Duke of Bedford had a castle there and he’d got a big park which we used to sleep in in tents. I was having electrical treatment on my shoulder until I got the use of it back. I used to go out every morning with the Duchess of Bedford who later got killed in a flying accident. I didn’t see much of the Duke but he was the fellow who introduced the grey squirrels from Mexico. Down in Bedfordshire there were thousands of them and they used to ruin the crops.

When I’d finished my convalescence I was posted from Bedford down to Dover but while I was travelling down, the Armistice was signed.

Friday 18 April 2014

370217 Cpl Jerry Hawkes, 8th London Regiment

Jerry Hawkes (seventh from left in the photo above) deserves more space than I am able to dedicate to him on this particular post. He was one of several Post Office Rifles veterans that I interviewed in the mid 1980s and he had a good recall for names - and nicknames.  This post will try and shed further light on some of the characters he mentioned in my discussion with him.

Jerry Hawkes was actually Albert William Francis Hawkes and he was born in Goswell Road in the City of London on 25th October 1896. He told me, "They know me as Jerry. I don't know where I got that name from, no idea. I became a telegraph boy when I was just a lad. I was in the Post Office orphan homes because my father died early and I was there for a long, long time." His original regimental number with the 8th (City of London) Battalion, London Regiment (Post Office Rifles) was 1585 which indicates that he joined the regiment in early 1913.

Jerry's pals and acquaintances

"My best pal of all was Ted Harsant and poor old Ted he got killed. He lived in Goswell Road near me."  This is 1920 Sergeant Frederick William Harsant who was killed in action on 21st May 1916. The Commonwealth War Graves website tells us that he was the son of William David and Emily Virtue Harsant, of 2, Pickard St., City Rd., London. Ted has no known grave and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial.

"We had an officer called Maxwell and he always used to say, I want the deepest dug-out you've got. We used to call him dug-out Maxwell. He finished up as brigadier. Brigadier! Maxwell was windy but his boy wasn't a bad bloke." This is Captain A Maxwell CMG, DSO; later Brigadier-General 174th Infantry Brigade.

"They were nearly all post office men in our mob and we had a fella, Sergeant-Major Chivers, and he always got nick-named "Chum" because every time he spoke  he used to say, "Now don't forget this, chum". Chum this and chum that and so we nicknamed him Chum Chivers." 1443 CSM Simeon George Chivers MC died of wounds on 19th September 1916 aged 42. He was the husband of Charlotte Florence Elizabeth Chivers of 34 Douglas Road, Surbiton, Surrey. He is buried in St Sever Cemetery, Rouen. As well as the Military Cross, CSM Chivers was also Mentioned in Despatches.

"I was in number 4 platoon, Captain Milne's company which was number 2, the same as Bill Howell. I remember being with him in the trenches. We always called him Sammy; I don't know why."
There is a medal index card for a Major D D Milne, 8th London Regt, later Highland Light Infantry. Bill Howell is the same 2518 Bill Howell I interviewed at around the time I met Jerry Hawkes. I have posted about him HERE

"We had two relations in our mob, Aberdeen their name was. One was a boy messenger same as me and he put his age up same as I did. Two brothers: Aberdeen and Aber; we always knew the other one as Aber." Probably 520, later 370045 Alexander A Aberdeen and 1559 Frederick Arthur Aberdeen. Frederick, the younger of the two boys, was killed in action on the 15th September 1916 and is buried at Caterpillar Valley Cemetery in Longueval. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission notes that he was the son of Mr and Mrs A W Aberdeen, of 389 Northampton Buildings, Clerkenwell, London. His elder brother joined the Post Office Rifles in 1908 and may well have seen prior service with the 24th Middlesex Rifle Volunteer Corps. Jerry remembered that "Abber finished up as a sergeant major. He was a wonderful man."

"After the war they transferred me to Stoke Newington because we lived near there and one of the blokes in the office there finished up in my platoon: Harry Diggins. He was a proper clown. He didn't care two hoots about anybody up the line. He just didn't care." This is 1806 Pte Henry Diggins, later 370316. Although his number indicates that he joined the 8th Londons in February 1914, Harry did not go overseas until after 1915. His service record survives in WO 364.

I only met Jerry Hawkes once, at his home in Iwade, Kent in 1986. He died in late 1988 or early 1989, his death registered in January of that year. The photo is taken from Charles Messenger's Terriers in the Trenches.

Thursday 13 February 2014

240801 Pte John Cameron McLellan, 6th KOSB

John Cameron McLellan was born at Dumfries on the 20th June 1899 and I interviewed him at The Royal Hospital, Chelsea in January 1982. Enlisting in the 2/5th KOSB in November 1914, it was not until 1918 that he went to France. 
"When my battalion got to its war strength, I was transferred from Dumfries where the battalion was formed, to a holding battalion in Catterick Camp, Yorkshire.  My number with the KOSB was 2538 but when I got to this holding battalion I was given the number 240801 and that was in the 12th Provisional Battalion, a training battalion.  I stayed there until March 1918 when I was old enough to go to France.

"When I got to France I was fortunate.  I was able to join the 6th Battalion of the same regiment, part of the 9th Division.  I saw action In France, mostly in the Armentieres sector but I’m going to tell you how we heard about the finish of the war. 

"We had been out on rest on the outskirts of Courtrai – big city there. And we were lying – at least I was with several others – on the top floor of an old building. All the fan lights had been painted black, the village seemed to be almost deserted, there were very few people in the village and there was no light anywhere. 

"We were getting to bed or lying down on the floor on a palliasse – a sack full of straw – somewhere between nine and ten roughly and I heard a set of pipes playing. Well at that time of night it was a most unusual occurrence so I cocked my ear and listened and picked up the regimental march of the KOSB: the blue bonnets are over the border.  This was so unusual I had to find out why so I said right, put the bloody lights out.  The lights were candles stuck in bottles here and there so they blew the lights out and I lifted one of the skylights and where before the village had been in total darkness it was now just a blaze of light.  All the windows were lit up, doors were open, the street was full of civilians and soldiers shouting and singing.  And out of the noise I picked up the words “Guerre finis” which means “war finished” in French.  And I turned to the lads and I said, “Hey, they say the bloody war’s finished.” So we quickly pulled on some trousers and we could still hear these pipes going up and down and when I got downstairs it was the pipe major of the 6th Battalion who was walking up and down and he’d only got his shirt on, his Glengarry and a pair of boots, and he was playing the regimental march. 

"Well eventually he was going down towards the end of the street and everybody sort of got behind him because at the bottom of the street was a big house, a big mansion, and that was regimental headquarters and the officers’ mess. So we got into the forecourt there, dragged him in, still playing, and eventually the commanding officer and the adjutant came out on a balcony on the first floor. He held his hands up [and] eventually he got peace and he more or less said, “Well lads, I’ve got some news for you. We have been informed that the Germans have agreed to sign an armistice at eleven o’clock tomorrow morning.  That means to say the war is finished.” 

"Well one mighty cheer went up and that was it.  I think everybody got pie-eyed.  Where the wine came from I don’t know but it seemed to appear from nowhere.  Well that was it.  The next day we should have been going up the line [but] we got the orders to stand fast and eventually we were re-kitted with new clothing, new equipment and we echeloned up with the Americans right up into Germany with the Army of Occupation.

"I stayed with the KOSB until 1919 when, because I could speak German, I was transferred to the Military Mounted Police [number P19145]  for duty on the border in collaboration with the German Mounted Police.  I was with them a year and a half and then I was transferred to the Special Investigation Branch and I became a detective for the next seven years.  I then went back to the uniformed police and I finished up in 1939 as Regimental Sergeant Major in Egypt."
John McLellan died in November 1989 aged 90.

Saturday 8 February 2014

52569 Pte George Henry Bailey- RAMC

I first met 'Bob' Bailey in September 1981 and interviewed him on the 15th of that month.  Over the next few years I saw him on and off; usually in The Ship which was his local and the place he met a couple of other Great war veterans that I befriended: Reg Crane of the 4th Royal Berkshire Regiment, and Paddy O'Sullivan of the Royal Field Artillery.  Bob lived in Coval Lane, just around the corner from another veteran, Stan Brown of the Leicestershire Regiment.  Looking back now, forty-odd years later, it seems as if there was a veritable glut of First World War veterans back then, but I remember how difficult it was, even then, to track them down and interview them.  They were all in their eighties and over, and they were all dying off fast.
I never knew Bob Bailey as George Bailey; he was always called Bob.  Yet he was born George Henry Bailey in Chlemsford on 28th December 1985 and his medal index card notes George H Bailey.  For me, 19 years old, he was always simply Mr Bailey.
Bob Bailey was an apprentice with the National Steam Car Company when he enlisted with the RAMC on 2nd February 1915.  He served overseas from June 1915, working on hospital barges and hospital trains. He preferred to recall that RAMC was an acronym for Run Away, Mother's Coming, rather than Rob All My Comrades.  What follows are notes from Bob Bailey's diary kept, against regulations, between February and November 1915. 

February 2nd: Enlisted
February 5th: Left Chelmsford for Aldershot
February 13th : Left Aldershot for Chatham

June 7th: Left Chatham for Aldershot
June 14th: Left Aldershot for Southampton.  Load 600 tons of hospital equipment on the City of Chester.  Stopped at rest camp for the main body to join us.
June 15th: Left Southampton at 5pm
June 16th: Arrived at Boulogne at 4am.  Landed 11:15am.  Stopped on boat for another night and went to the rest camp for another night
June 18th: Left Boulogne at 12 for Dammes Camiers.  Arrived 1:30pm Friday
July 6th: Started to put our first HP tent up.  The tents were used in the 1911 Delhi Durbar
July 13th: We are about two miles off the sea and we had a bathing parade
July 15th: We had 20 tents up
July 16th: Put the mattress covers on
July 17th & 18th: Garrison Guard 24 hours
July 18th: Sisters arrived
July 20th: Equipping ward ready for wounded
July 21st: Ditto.  Bathing parade
July 22nd: Ditto
July 23rd: Equipping and night guard equipment
July 24th: Equipping
July 25th: Church Parade and fatigue up to 8
July 26th: Taking tents
July 27th: Pitching tents
July 28th: Pitching tents.  Played football game v Canadians No 3 Gen. “25” won 3-2
July 29th: Equipping wards
July 30th: Equipping and detailed for Nursing Orderly of ward. 28 beds
July 31stGetting ward ready for wounded
August 1st: Church parade and getting ready for wounded
August 2nd :  Ditto
August 3rd: Preparing ward.  Sports.  Canadian got 93 pts, 20th Gen 32[1], 22 Gen 13[2], 25 Gen 8.  Concert in __________ of Hut by Princess Victoria troop
August 4th: Preparing ward on convoy duty
August 5th: Preparing ward.  Convoy arrived at 11:30.  On equipment guard
August 6th: Ward duties
August 7th: Ward duties.  2nd convoy of 70 arrived 8pm
August 8th: Ward duties
August 9th: 3rd Convoy arrived.  90 at 10:30pm
August 10th: 4h convoy of 120 arrived.  26 went to my ward (15 12) at 9am
August 11th:Ward duties
August 12th-14th : Ditto
August 15th:Ward duties and football match with ASC (Army Service Corps) 25th won 6-1
August 16th: Ward duties
August 17th: Ward duties and football match with 18th General at Etaples.  25th won 5-0.  5th convoy arrived at 10:30pm (50)
August 18th: Ward duties
August 19th:Ward duties convoy arrived 1:30am – 20 of 100
August 20th: Ward duties
August 21st: Football match return with 3rd Canadian.  25th won 5-2
August 22nd: Convoy arrived at 12. 100
August 23rd: Ward duties.  Princess Victoria concert
August 24th: Convoy a 3 in the early hours of the morning.  100
August 25th: Play 3rd Canadian at cricket.  Won by 5 wickets and 15 runs
August 27th: Convoy of 70 arrived at 4:30am
August 28th:Played 3rd Canadians and won 1-0
August 30th: Play No 7 convalescents and won 12-2

September 3rd: Convoy of 80 B
September 12th: Convoy of 83 B
September 15th: Convoy of 186 B
September 24th : Convoy of 164 B
September 26th: Convoy of 218 A
September 27th: Convoy of 181
September 28th: Convoy of 155
September 29th: Convoy of 164
September 30th: Convoy of 232

October 1st: Convoy of 175
October 3rd: Convoy of 145
October 7th: Convoy of 167
October 10th: Convoy of 140 9:30pm
October 15th: Convoy of 104
October 23rd: Convoy of 209
October 29th: Convoy of 164
October 31st : Convoy of 197

November 21st : Evacuation of hospital
November 24th: Left 25th General for No 4 Ambulance Flotilla
Bob Bailey died in August 1986 aged 90.  His home and those other side of it, were demolished shortly afterwards to make way for a new road.

[1] Located at Camiers 15th May 1915 to 14th April 1919
[2] Located at Camiers 21st June 1915 to 8th January 1919

126836 Pte Frank Hutchinson MM - MGC

I interviewed Frank Hutchinson at his home in Loughborough in 1984 whilst I was studying at the university there.  Frank was born at Loughborough on 22nd October 1898 and was a wood machinist at Moss and Sons. He joined the 5th Leicestershire Regiment as a seventeen-year-old in October 1915, subsequently transferring to the Scots Guards and latterly the Machine Gun Corps.
Here, he describes the action in September 1918 which resulted in the award of his Military Medal.
"September 2nd 1918.  He says don’t go over the trench, go along and you come out on the wide open spaces.  Then head for the dry canal.  Well we filed out and Jerry let us have every damned thing.  He knowed we were coming.  Everything he could pile at us he piled at us.  The kids were squealing and chaps were going down and it was murder.  I yelled out, “keep spread out, keep spread out.”  There was this young chap from Glasgow and he kept running to me.  How he got into the army I don’t know because his leg was straight down to the knee and then it bent out.  He’d only just come out and this was his first do and I felt sorry for him. 

"A shell burst right on us and ‘bout deafened us and the bits were flying all round.  I thought to myself, “I told Franklin I was going to get it and I’m getting it.” Anyway, I looked and it’s not a nice thing to say but I was smothered with the bits from that lad, it had blowed him to bits.

"Anyway I started to run like the lads and we headed towards one of our tanks which had been knocked out.  We kept expecting to come across the German lines but all we came to was a shallow overgrown trench which had once been Jerry’s horse lines.  There was a post where they were tied and they’d be standing about two feet below the ground level so that their legs were protected.  That’s where I headed and it were flat so we had to get to work quick with the entrenching tools so we could dig a space to open the gun out.  Well we got it up so that we were peeping over the top and bullets were flying round us.

"There was a hut over to the left and that’s where Jerry’s guns were.  We couldn’t see his trench because all the ground was the same colour.  I started firing away at this cottage but it didn’t seem to make any difference.  Then Franklin come and said he’d got a better place for us and to send the lads back.  I was the last one to go and as I jumps on the top there’s a bang.  It were a real bang and it were between my legs.  I stood there looking and then all of a sudden I felt faint and down I went.  A piece of me leg had blew out and even took me trousers with it.  One of Jerry’s dum-dum bullets had burst in me leg and blown all the insides out.

"The next thing I knew I was coming to and Franklin and Sergeant Simmonds were bandaging my leg up.  Thy put me up against this bank and they dressed it.  Anyway, they left me, and the other chap who was with me on the gun helped me into a trench.  There was only me and him left and a young kid who’d come up with us.  He was in the trench and was shaking like a leaf he was terrified.

"I set the gun up and I lay there as if I’d been hit.  Old Jerry were sending shells over and they were bursting all around us.  I looked out and I could see them coming over and I thought, “now’s the time Frankie m’lad, it’s your life against them.” I just pressed down my thumb belt and come round and thought, “all right boys, you’re taking the lot.”  I went right through them and came right back down. I wondered what the hell I was doing.  I don’t know what became of myself, I felt funny.

"Some of the lads were squealing and some were running back and I set to on them with the gun again.  I finished three parts of two hundred and forty rounds.  I finished them all among the lads.  There must have been seventy or eighty of them. I said to Donnelly, “that’s finished them.”  There was no reply and I turned him over and he was covered in blood.  A bullet had hit him in the head and killed him. 

"A Jock came round the corner and asked for some water.  He’s had the top of his right knee taken off by a bullet whereas my wound was to the left leg.  Then Major Whitehouse came round and congratulated me on what I’d done.  All he could say was, “Top Hole.”"

Frank's service record does not survive, but his entry on the Silver War Badge roll (above), confirms his date of enlistment.  Frank had told me that he'd enlisted in November 1915, so he wasn't far out.
I only met Frank Hutchinson the once but he was extremely proud of his gallantry award and was a great orator. He died in April 1987 aged 88.
The SWB image is Crown Copyright and is reproduced courtesy of The National Archives.