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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