Posted 01 November 2005 - 11:57 AM
Lest we forget
Of the millions who fought in the first world war, only a handful are still alive today - and all are now well over 100 years old. With the horror of the trenches about to slip from living memory, Max Arthur has tracked down and interviewed these last survivors of what Wilfred Owen called a 'carnage incomparable'. Here, to mark next week's Remembrance Day, we publish a selection of their stories.
Tuesday November 1, 2005
107 (born June 17 1898)
Private, Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry
On my 19th birthday in 1917, we were in the trenches at Passchendaele. We didn't go into action, but I saw it all happen. Haig put a three-day barrage on the Germans, and thought, "Well, there can't be much left of them." I think it was the Yorkshires and Lancashires that went over. I watched them as they came out of their dugouts and the German machine guns just mowed them down. I doubt whether any of them reached the front line.
A couple of weeks after that, we moved to Pilckem Ridge. I can still see the bewilderment and fear on the men's faces as we went over the top. We crawled, because if you stood up you'd be killed.
All over the battlefield the wounded were lying there, English and German, all crying for help. But we weren't like the Good Samaritan in the Bible, we were the robbers who passed by and left them. You couldn't stop to help them. I came across a Cornishman who was ripped from shoulder to waist with shrapnel, his stomach on the ground beside him. A bullet wound is clean - shrapnel tears you all to pieces. As I got to him he said, "Shoot me." Before I could draw my revolver, he died. I was with him for the last 60 seconds of his life. He gasped one word - "Mother". That one word has run through my brain for 88 years. I will never forget it. I think it is the most sacred word in the English language. It wasn't a cry of distress or pain - it was one of surprise and joy. I learned later that his mother was already dead, so he felt he was going to join her.
We got as far as their second line and four Germans stood up. They didn't get up to run away, they got up to fight. One of them came running towards me. He couldn't have had any ammunition or he would have shot me, but he came towards me with his bayonet pointing at my chest. I fired and hit him in the shoulder. He dropped his rifle, but still came stumbling on. I can only suppose that he wanted to kick our Lewis gun into the mud, which would have made it useless. I had three live rounds left in my revolver and could have killed him with the first. What should I do? I had seconds to make my mind up. I gave him his life. I didn't kill him. I shot him above the ankle and above the knee and brought him down. I knew he would be picked up, passed back to a PoW camp, and at the end of the war he would rejoin his family.
Six weeks later, a countryman of his killed my three mates. If that had happened before I met that German, I would have damn well killed him. But we never fired to kill. My Number One, Bob, used to keep the gun low and wound them in the legs - bring them down. Never fired to kill them. As far as I know he never killed a German. I never did either. Always kept it low.
We were there to do our job. We were Lewis gunners. I was Number Two. Our Number One, Bob, who fired the gun, was looking for a Number Two. His Number Two had gone home on compassionate leave, and the sergeant in charge of us said, "Here's somebody has some training on the Lewis gun. Here's a Number Two for you."
I was to be in charge of the ammunition and the working parts of the gun. Bob told me, "You've got to do the job thoroughly and correctly. Our lives depend on it." We'd do alternate turns of four nights and three days in the trenches, then four days behind the lines to rest and recuperate.
On September 21, the night I was wounded, the battalion had been relieved at 10 o'clock and we were going back over open ground to the support line. The shell that got us was what we called a whizz-bang, which burst amongst us. The force of it threw me to the floor, but I didn't realise I'd been hit for a few minutes. The burning hot metal knocks the pain out of you at first but I soon saw blood, so I put a field dressing on it. Then the pain started.
I didn't know what had happened to the others at first, but I was told later that I had lost three of my mates. That shell killed Numbers Three, Four and Five. We were a little team together, and those men who were carrying the ammunition were blown to pieces. I reacted very badly. It was like losing a part of my life. It upset me more than anything. We had only been together four months, but with hell going on around us, it seemed like a lifetime.
I'd got this piece of shrapnel right in the groin. It was about two inches long, half an inch thick, with a jagged edge. I was taken to a dressing station and I lay there all that night and the next day, until the evening. The wound had been cleaned and they had smeared it with something to keep the lice away. When the doctor came to see me, he could actually see the shrapnel.
"Would you like me to take that out of your leg?" he asked, but added quickly, "Before you answer 'Yes', there's no anaesthetic in the camp. None whatever. It's been used on people more badly wounded than you are. Yours is only a scratch." So I thought for a minute or two, and said, "How long will you be?" He said, "A couple of minutes." So I said, "Carry on." Four fellows grabbed me - one on each arm and one on each leg - and I can feel that bloody knife even now, cutting out that shrapnel. When he pulled it out, the doctor asked me if I wanted to keep the shrapnel as a souvenir. Officer or not, I swore at him, "I've had the bloody thing too long already. Throw it away!"
When I first came to the home where I'm living today, the room I had was right opposite a linen cupboard, and if I was half asleep, half awake, directly they switched that light on, it flickered, and it reminded me of the flash of a bomb. I've got over it now. It just takes some time.
Last year I went back to Ypres, where I met one of the last surviving German veterans of the war, Charles Kuentz, who was 107. It was very emotional. We had both been on the same battlefield at Pilckem Ridge. For a while I hadn't wanted to meet him, but I got a letter from him in Germany and he seemed like a nice man and I decided I would meet him. He was a nice man and we talked, then we both sat in silence, staring out at the landscape. Both of us remembering the stench, the noise, the gas, the mud crusted with blood, the cries of the fallen comrades. We had both fought because we were told to. Sadly, he died a year after I met him.
Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn't speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table.
Now what is the sense in that? It's just an argument between two governments. Neither Charles nor I ever want any other young man ever to go through what we did again, but still we send our lads to war. In Iraq, our young men are being killed and told to kill.
I don't think it is possible to truly explain the bond that is forged between a soldier in the trenches and his fellow soldiers. There you all are, no matter what your life in civvy street, covered in lice, desperately hungry, eking out the small treats - the ounce of tobacco, the biscuit. You relied on him and he on you, never really thinking that it was just the same for the enemy. But it was. It was every bit as bad.
106 (born July 27 1899)
Private, Cheshire Regiment, attached to 4th East Yorkshire Regiment
When I was 18, I was called up and joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers, before transferring to the Cheshire Regiment - which was just a matter of changing the buttons. I went for training in Yarmouth. I was a good shot, for one thing.
On June 24 1916, the German navy bombarded the town. They moved past us very quickly, firing on our billets. I don't think anybody was killed. Later on, Jerry got an opportunity to send something a bit bigger over, and he did, in the shape of a Zeppelin airship, which dropped bombs on the town.
I was posted to the front in France but it was all very chaotic. Regiments were being amalgamated and you didn't really know from day to day where you belonged. In December 1917, we were attached to the 4th East Yorkshire Regiment and we went to Béthune.
The line hardly moved and all I can really remember is the noise, the cold and the fact that we were hungry and seemed to have permanently wet feet. In April of the following year, as the Germans were on the offensive near Armentières, a Portuguese battalion was overrun and I ended up with six Durham Light Infantrymen in a trench. We had to dig a temporary line with hand tools. We were completely cut off. We held on for as long as we could, but we had no supplies of ammunition or food for three days and, when the waves of Jerries came over, we had no option but to surrender. They took us prisoner and we were put in a "cage" for a few days. We were then transported to Lille, to a prison they referred to as "the Black Hole" because so many of its prisoners died of disease. The flu epidemic was rife, and killed huge numbers there.
The prison was a fort that had originally been built by the French. We were all put into one great, massive room. It was absolute hell. There were shelves on the walls and men lay on these shelves wherever they could. Some of the men had been hurt and some hadn't. I'd never known anything like it.
We weren't there for long but it seemed like a very long time indeed. They moved us by cattle trucks to Westphalia, where I was sent temporarily to a camp in Limburg, then on to Minden. Here, I was given a job peeling potatoes. The prisoners were divided into two groups - the better educated and the others. Fortunately, I was in the former group, which was given much lighter duties. The others were put to hard manual labour. After a while, I was moved off to a much bigger camp, which, I must say, was well run. I was there when the Armistice was signed. We'd been expecting it.
I arrived back in Rhyl in December 1918, only to be told that I had been demobbed too early, so I was sent back to the army, where I was given an office job filling in discharge papers!
I carried on with my French studies after the war, obtaining an MA (Honours) degree at the University of Wales at Bangor in 1921, followed by a fellowship in 1923. I then went to Paris and read for a doctorate in Latin and French Renaissance literature at the Sorbonne.
I obtained a double-first degree and stayed on at the Sorbonne as a junior lecturer for two years. Paris in the 20s was an extraordinary place and I was fortunate to have been there. I spent much time in Montmartre among the artists and in the Latin Quarter browsing through the fabulous book stalls.
In 1999 I became a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur - an honour bestowed by the French on all surviving veterans of the great war. It is a great honour and one which gives me enormous pleasure. I have always loved the French people, their language and, indeed, their cuisine!
109 (born June 6 1896)
Air mechanic, Royal Naval Air Service
I wanted to go straight into the service, but my mother was on her own and she didn't want that. So I carried on working for a while. Then, in September 1915, my mother died aged just 42. As soon as I lost her, I joined up.
I went to the RAC in Pall Mall. I had a Triumph TT motorbike at the time and they were looking for dispatch riders for the Royal Engineers. When I told them about my bike, they said they would accept it and that all I had to do was pass the medical. I went along with two others, and they put my name down. I waited. Monday came and still no call and I didn't like that. I wanted them to send for me quickly. I was impatient. Then, one day, I went out for a ride on my pushbike, and I saw an aeroplane and I thought, "That's for me!"
When we were flying off the ships, we couldn't stay airborne for long because we would run out of fuel - that was the trouble. People sometimes had to ditch their aircraft. I saw about seven ditchings. Sometimes the plane would be going up steeply, then it would stop and start going back and it would have no speed - no power. The wind was stronger than the power it had to go forward. In about 12 months they were able to overcome that with a lot more power.
We never ditched - fortunately - because if you ditched, you were in big trouble. We never had any parachutes and we didn't have radio. We had pigeons which we carried in a basket, but I never had to use them. Some of our people who were adrift in the drink could be there for up to five days, and they used to let the pigeons go. They would fly back to the loft at the station, and a search party would be sent out to look for them. As a general rule, after five days of searching, they would give up, and the men were lost. However, I met a fellow once who was on leave from the Halcyon; he was sitting beside me one afternoon by the river Dee, and he said how he had been lucky. He had ditched and they were about to give up looking for him when somebody thought they saw something - and sure enough, it was him. He was very lucky.
In those days, you had an open cockpit and it was very cold. You had a leather jacket and a leather helmet, and you'd put Vaseline on your face, and you had gloves to protect you from frostbite. The standard issue was long johns and you had a thick shirt and a vest. Over the top of that you had a grey shirt and a tunic. Your working gear was a tunic with patch pockets, which was very useful and practical.
Then you had a choice: you could have trews or you could wear britches and puttees [strips of cloth wound around the leg to form leggings], which took a while to put on. With regard to equipment, you didn't have gun mountings in the aircraft until about June of 1916. That was when we first got the Lewis gun. Once Lewis guns were mounted on our planes, we had the problem of trying to shoot through the propeller. In the air, if you tried it, you'd just shoot the prop away. Then they developed the synchromesh gear with the engine, which synchronised the firing of the machine gun through the prop. But when I first got in the cockpit, it was my job to sit behind the pilot and defend the plane with a pair of Lee Enfield rifles.
In September 1917, we were sent to France to support the Royal Flying Corps. I joined No 12 Squadron RNAS at Petit Synthe, near Dunkirk. The squadron had been formed in June 1917 and was equipped with a mixture of Sopwith Pups, Triplanes and Camels.
The first thing I did when I got to Calais was have a nice plate of egg and chips. My job was to service aircraft and to rescue aircraft parts from any machine that crashed behind the lines of trenches.
As mechanics, we had to keep the aircraft flying using anything we could. The pilots liked to take their mechanics up in the plane with them, because that way they knew the mechanics would service the plane properly. I used to sit behind the pilot and drop out bombs. If the enemy appeared, I used to open fire with the Lewis gun.
Once when we were moving forward on the Ypres Salient to support the offensive, we got to this particular place just as it got dark. It was a strange place and we hadn't been cleared to go forward by the Canadian engineers. There was a lot of fighting in the area and you couldn't walk about as it was too dangerous. It was safest to stay put, so I stuck where I was. I put my groundsheet and blanket down on a bit of concrete and I went to sleep. You didn't have a pillow. You put your boots together and you'd sleep with your head on them.
I got up in the night, took a couple of paces and fell straight into a shell hole. It was absolutely stinking. There was everything in there, you name it - dead rats, no end of rats. You know what they fed on in this hole? The bodies of the boys listed as missing.
So there I was, in this filthy great big hole. I decided to take a chance and I moved to the left. If I'd gone to the right, I don't know what would have happened. It was shallow and I managed to get to my feet, and I tried to climb out. I tried several times, but no joy. Somehow, though, and I don't know how, I heaved my belly up on to the side, and I could just pull myself out. I was soaking wet, right up to my armpits, but I had to stay where I was until daylight. I didn't dare move again. I wore that kit until it dried off on my body.
We all got lice in our clothes. We used to run the seam of the shirt over a candle flame to get rid of them. Of course, you'd wash your shirt if you could - and when you did wash it, you'd hang it on a bit of line. Next thing you'd see was the lice crawling along the line.
Thinking back to the first war, I don't think I knew what to expect. I thought we'd win - but I never thought we'd have to fight again like that for 100 years. I'll never forget my comrades, but you can't dwell on the terrible things that happened. You couldn't go on if you did. But on days like Armistice Day, I pray for them. At the Cenotaph in 2004, I was thinking of the blokes I knew who burned. I saw them come down - men I knew, whose planes I knew - crashing into the ground.
There's good stuff to remember: the camaraderie and knowing you can depend on your mate, but not the other things. I used not to think about it at all, but now people want to talk to me about it because I'm one of the few left. So now I have to think more about it.
But there are things I would rather not think about. In fact, it often feels like something that happened to someone else.
105 (born Sep 29 1900)
Corporal, Royal Flying Corps
My dad was in the Royal Engineers. He joined in August 1914. I remember his number was 43968. One day in 1915 I went with my mother, who originally came from the Dudley area, to stay with her relations in Birmingham. While we were there, we got news that my dad was home at a barracks just outside London, and we could see him there. He had his week's leave with us, and then it was "cheerio" and that was it. I never saw him again. He was due home from the trenches in December 1915, but he never came. A German sniper got him.
After that, I wanted to join up. I wanted to join the Durham Light Infantry, but they wouldn't entertain having me. I was too young - 16, I think. Eventually, when I was 17, I joined the Royal Flying Corps. I thought I was a big man but I got a shock.
I was sent to Laffans Plain at Farnborough, where they had no accommodation indoors so we were all under canvas, near the aircraft repair factory. My job was to maintain the aircraft engines. My number was 81853. Not bad for my age, to remember that, eh?
They used to take the planes out, fly them and test them. Rather than go to the bother of putting ballast in, they'd take a passenger up with them: usually one of us youngsters who wanted to fly. One beautiful sunny day, it was my turn. The aerodrome was a blaze of blue sky and green grass. We were in an old Maurice Farman pusher machine with the engine at the back. A great big thing; I'd never been in one before. I listened to the engine and we started to move.
I looked up at the beautiful blue sky, when suddenly, there was this loud zoom and I was hanging upside down, staring at the ground. I undid my safety belt and fell flat on my head. The plane had gone completely over. The pilot was a Belgian officer. He got me by the shoulder and he said, "Run away, because it'll go up in flames - and if the fuel goes over you, it's worse." And I did run. An hour later, that same pilot took up another plane, which crashed and killed him.
I look back nowadays, and I think of the great war as a lot of political bull. There shouldn't be wars. That war was a lot of bloody political bull.
109 (born June 25 1896)
Sergeant, 5th Battalion (TA) Black Watch
When I finished school, I started an apprenticeship with my brother, but he went to Canada - in fact, both brothers did - before the war started. I decided to join the Territorial Army when I was 16 - quite a few lads my age joined up. We didn't have family holidays and it was great fun to go to Montrose or Crieff for a week's camp every year. Our instructor, Max Beverley, had been in the Boer war, and he used to train the 14 of us every Saturday afternoon in Newtyle. I remember our third camp at Monzie near Crieff in summer 1914 - we trained on Lee Enfield Rifles and did route marches. I was there with my friends Jock Mackenzie and Jim Ballantine - I don't think we thought much about a war to come, even though troops were mobilised all around us.
When war was declared, our battalion - the 5th Battalion, the Black Watch - was called up and, after two months' training, we left by train for Southampton in late October. I didn't give it too much thought; I was too young for that. We had a night there, then we sailed to Le Havre on a cattle boat - which was clean, but it really stank. We spent a night in a tented camp at Le Havre, which was bitterly cold. We couldn't wash in the morning because the water had frozen in the pipes. We were glad when they marched us up to the front - which took three days - because it warmed us up a bit.
We got our billets in bits of farm steadings, if you could call them that, then we got to work digging trenches under the supervision of the Pioneer Corps. We soon heard the first bullets and men started being wounded and killed. Two of my mates from home were wounded. It was a shock, but I think because my father had been a joiner and undertaker that helped me in a strange way. I'd seen death before.
I remember the eerie silence that first Christmas Day. All the explosions stopped. We were billeted in a farmhouse at the time and we went outside and just stood there, listening - and remembering our friends who were gone and our people back home. We'd spent two months with the cracking of bullets and machine-gun fire, and sometimes distant German voices - but now it was quiet all around.
In the dead silence we shouted out, "Merry Christmas" - although none of us felt at all merry. We were so tired, we didn't have the energy to play football - and we were quite a way from the front lines, so we didn't do any of the mixing with the Germans that was so famous. The silence came to an end in the afternoon when the guns started again. The killing began again, too. It was a very short-lived peace. Now, at Christmas, I think of that day in 1914 and remember all my friends who didn't make it. But it's too sad to think too much about it.
Conditions in the trenches were terrible. We slept on sandbags and there were rats everywhere. They used to gnaw through the phone cables so our communications were cut off. We often had to stand up to our knees in water and I got trench foot.
As well as normal duties, I was detailed to look after one of the officers - Lieutenant Bruce-Gardyne - and when he went away on a course, I was posted for a while as batman to Captain Fergus Bowes-Lyon, the brother of the late Queen Mother. He was from Glamis, which isn't far from my home in Newtyle. I really regret that I never got to meet the Queen Mother and tell her about my time with her brother before he was killed at Loos in 1915. He was a fine young man. A meeting was mooted once when she was at Glamis, but she took ill and it never happened.
The Battle of Loos was dreadful for the Black Watch and casualties were very high - especially the first day, September 26, when Captain Bowes-Lyon was killed among hundreds more of our regiment. You see, our bombardment wasn't strong enough to break the German wire or to destroy their machine-guns.
I often had to go out with the officer to a listening post out in no-man's-land. We'd crawl out to a position in a shell hole or a depression in the ground after dark, and stay there all night, listening for sounds of tunnelling or German activity in their trenches, then we'd crawl back to our lines at dawn. On one occasion, we were entrenched in a listening post on the Somme front and I was brewing up some tea when a shell exploded over our heads, killing several of my pals and injuring many others - myself included. I was hit by shrapnel in the neck and shoulder, but I managed to crawl to the officers' dugout, where someone put a field dressing on it. I had to lie there all day bleeding and in a lot of pain until dark, when they could send out a stretcher party to get me back to the trenches. My wounds were properly dressed later at a field dressing station behind the lines, but then I had to wait for a wagon to take me back down the lines. My fighting days were over, but I'd been lucky just to survive. That day, my dearest friends were left behind in that trench for ever.
After a very painful journey which took a night and a day, I arrived at the hospital in Boulogne. They stripped off my uniform and deloused me, gave me something to eat and a cup of tea, and the medical officer removed the shrapnel. At last the pain eased, and they sent me back to Britain for the first time since 1914.
I soon got fit enough for duty and was sent to the infantry training camp at Ripon, and was promoted to lance corporal. After taking courses in musketry, physical training and a general course at Aldershot, I was appointed battalion instructor and seconded to the Queen's Own Yorkshire Dragoons. It was while I was at Ripon that I met my future wife, Susanna Iddison, who lived just outside the town. We married in St Andrew's Church in Kirkby Malzeard on June 2 1917, and I had a week's leave to visit my family in Newtyle.
When the war finished, they offered me the chance to sign on as a regular, with promotion to sergeant major. I was very tempted because I loved the comradeship of the army and enjoyed my work as an instructor, but there was the family joinery business to run. Both my brothers were in Canada, and as my father had started to suffer from chronic asthma, he needed help. I gave up the army and we moved back to Newtyle, where we had six children - Betty, Jim, Minnie, Andrew, Christina and Neil - between 1919 and 1935.
At the time of the war I didn't give the reasons much thought. I was too young for that, and it was all a kind of jaunt for us. It was a different kettle of fish once we got to the trenches. I saw fellows I knew dying around me, and all I thought about then was living. I've been trying to forget war for the past 80 or so years, but wars just keep happening, and it's ordinary folk who pay the price.
105 (born Sep 23 1900)
Ordinary seaman stoker, Royal Navy
Just two weeks before I was 18, I was driving a big steam engine, hauling timber, and my father came to my work, and said, "Your papers are at home to join the army." But it wasn't to join the army - it was to go to Exeter to be medically examined. So I got on my bike and caught the next train to Plymouth and joined the navy. We were all naval men, you see.
I only served a couple of months in the first war. At the end of the war, on November 11, I was in hospital with flu in barracks at Devonport. I had just started training then. Thousands of sailors died of flu in Plymouth. They would be on parade and they would just keel over.
I fell on my head in my dinner. I didn't fall on the deck, and maybe that saved me. I had 10 days in bed. One day the doctor came around to the man next to me who said, "I'm all right now." He said, "Fourteen days' leave," So when he came to me, I said, "I'm all right, sir." "Fourteen days' leave." It got you out of the hospital. Our clothes all had to be fumigated. It was terrible.
All over the world, there was more died of flu than was killed in the war
· These are edited extracts from Last Post: The Final Words From Our First World War Soldiers, by Max Arthur, pub. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP £18.99.
Copyright: text © Max Arthur, 2005;
· To order a copy for £17.99 with free UK p&p, call the Guardian Book Service on 0870 836 0875 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop