The Account of 1713 Pte. F. Lewis (Royal Warwickshire Regiment)
Introduction by Tom Oates
Somewhere at the back of every Great War historian's mind lurks the hopeless desire to travel back in time and witness the actual events taking place. Since this is impossible, the closest alternative is to meet with a living witness in the places where the events happened.
|I first encountered Fred Lewis near the Ulster Tower, overlooking
the Ancre valley. It was the summer of 1984 and I was 20 years old. I was
touring the Somme battlefield, retracing the footsteps of my 19 year old
great uncle who went missing in action on 20th July 1916, during the assault
on 'High Wood'. But that is another story.
Whilst examining a stack of unexploded artillery shells I noticed a bus approaching. It halted and some tourists stepped off.
Among them was a very elderly man. What struck me first about Private Fred Lewis was his diminutive height - not more than 5 feet tall. Now, 68 years after the battle, he had returned to the Somme for the first and only time.
Although I wasn't on the guided tour, the bus driver kindly gave me a lift down into the Ancre valley and up the slopes to Beaumont Hamel. There, at Newfoundland Park, Fred and I spoke for a while and he gave me his address in England. Later, in the autumn, I wrote to him at his home in the Midlands. His response was to invite me over to interview him. Naturally, I accepted the invitation.
It is easy to define the survivors of the Great War solely in terms of their role as participants in that conflict. Although it was impossible for participants to be unaffected by their wartime experiences, life went on after the Armistice:- the survivors got married, had children, worked, paid their taxes, witnessed another World War, grew old and retired.
When I interviewed Fred he was living in a small council flat on one of the upper floors of a 1960s tower block in Yardley, Birmingham. His wife had died ten years previously after which he lived alone, though his family paid visits. He would spend most days at a small café close to the tower-block. The lady who owned the café liked Fred. The café's regulars were welcoming, too. Although Fred wasn't officially employed there, he'd bring used plates to the counter and clear the ashtrays etc. My guess is that Fred went to the café because he was lonely. However, it would be inaccurate to portray Fred as a sad figure. If it is true that Fred sometimes felt lonely, it is also a fact that he cured this by taking the lift downstairs and walking over to the café.
When I visited Fred's flat for the weekend, I'd sleep on the bed in the spare room, surrounded by his old fishing rods and tackle. Fred was happy to stay up late at night telling his story. He wanted to give his account because nobody had ever recorded it in its entirety. The closest he came was via local journalists, but all they wanted was pithy quotes for yearly remembrance items. Nobody ever recorded the full story, which frustrated Fred. He was as glad to meet me as I was to meet him.
Fred Lewis has gone now. He died in 1986, seventy years after the Battle of the Somme. For all I know, the tower-block where he lived may also have gone, perhaps replaced by a more modern concrete monstrosity.
This is a flimsy memorial, but it will have to do. Read on, and hold his head above the tide of oblivion for a few minutes.
The Colonel's Runner
The account of Private Frederick Lewis, Royal Warwickshire Regiment (1910-1919), Army number: 1713. Interviewed in December 1984, by Tom Oates. The account which follows is a verbatim transcript of the original sound recording, except that my occasional questions have been omitted to preserve the flow of narrative.
I joined in 1910 when I was 15 years old. The recruiting Sergeant said "We can't take you in because you're too young. Go and have a walk round the square and come back and put another year on your age." And of course I done that and that was it. I told him I was 16. I was born in 1895. I'm 89 now. I'll be 90 on the 20th of March.
The pay was a shilling if I remember right - a shilling a day. It didn't go very far. It would be about 7 shillings now. When the war started I wasn't enthusiastic - more inquisitive. We didn't really know what we was in for, if you understand what I mean. It was a common attitude then. I was in the Battle of the Somme from the start. I was fighting before the Somme - I had seen action before. I was stationed at Gommecourt Wood. We were there about 9 months before the battle.
The summer of 1916 was a very hot summer. My first impressions of the battlefield was inquisitiveness, trying to find out what it was all about, until they started shelling and that. And then you realised what it was. During winter the battlefield was all mud and slush and the trenches were full of it. In the trenches you would dig a square hole for all this slush to drain into and there was several soldiers lost their lives in them square holes. In the middle of the night they'd tread in them and drown.
In the summer you took it in turns to be on duty while the others relaxed. Sometimes it would be very quiet, that's if the Germans kept quiet we kept quiet. See what I mean? It was a deal, but not verbally. And that's how it went on until they decided on a battle like Passchendaele or Vimy Ridge, Messines Ridge, La Bassee Canal. All them was Battle fronts. Now at Gommecourt the Germans had got a mortar in the Front line and they used to send over into our Front line what they call er - great big... they were tanks... round tanks... all full of glass and metal. "Minniewoffers" we used to call them. You'd know when them was a-coming. You'd hear the gun go in the Front line, then all you got to do was see these things going over and over. Well you could see 'em coming. They got me to watch for these when we heard the gun go off. And then when I saw them coming I'd shout "Right!" or "Left!", see? And all them in the trenches wherever it was a-going to drop they went the other way down the trench, you see. These Minniewoffers used to blow a hole in the ground you could drop a bus in. The idea was to blow all your trench up. Of course this was happening on and off all the while, then you'd have a rest from it. That was at Gommecourt.
I saw my first dead man and it upset me. I was right by him. It was a mistake, really, that he got killed. He was on duty and the Germans was sending shells over and they was dropping round him. He wasn't hurt until what happened. An officer on duty came along and he says "If I was you so-and-so, I should take a walk down the trench being as though they're dropping these shells round you." And he went down the trench and stood in this position and a shell come over where he'd gone to and killed him outright, instantly. That was one of them things. Well I looked at him as he lay there and I thought "Oh dear, what a bloomin' shame!" And we went and got a blanket when the Medical Officer come along. They sent for him to see whether he was actually dead. And he was as dead as a dormouse. He wasn't cut up, but some part of the shell had got him in the vital parts, you know. We got a blanket and put him in and sewed it up and waited for night-time. Then they took him down behind the lines to bury him. They kept a record of where they put the dead soldiers. But in these big battles some of the fellers was all blown to bits - you couldn't recognise them.
I went over the top in the big battles. Otherwise, it was trench warfare. You spent more time actually in the trenches than these battles. The battles only came every now and again. It's hard to describe going over the top. You took it in your course as though it was your duty. You wasn't frightened - well, I wasn't anyway. I did as I was told. They gave us instructions the night before that we was going over the top. I dare say that there was some of the fellers properly upset. I was 21 during the Battle of the Somme - about your age. You didn't keep a record, you had only your memory. My memories are still vivid. It was horrible - physically as well as the fighting. But it was horrible physically more than anything else, because if you went over the top and you got shot or killed that was the end of it - but I had four years of it, in and out of the Front line. You couldn't forget. People ask me so many times "What was it like?" The memories are still vivid. I can remember it as if it happened just now. That man getting killed struck me more than at any other time. It's hard to describe seeing all these people getting killed.
I was a Battalion Runner, the Colonel's Runner. One morning I was taking a message. I'd got to go the matter of about half a mile. It was on the Somme. I come across a soldier, he was all on his own and he was lying on the ground. I bent down to look at him and there was no movement at all. He was as dead as a dormouse. Well I thought "What a bloody shame! I wonder who he is?" And I felt in his pocket for his paybook 'cause it told you in his paybook who he was. And as I pulled his paybook out a couple of photographs fell on the ground. I had a look at these photographs and there was his wife apparently, and two little girls. I thought to meself, I thought "Good God! I've just seen him here as dead as anybody could be. I wonder what his wife's thinking now, about him?" Things like that you kept bumping into.
At Passchendaele I was taking a message to one of the Company Commanders. That's where all the mud was. It was reclaimed land from the sea. You couldn't walk on the ground at all, because you'd sink right in it. There it was all smothered in duck-boards everywhere. I was going along these duck-boards with this message and there was a great big circle of Scottish soldiers in kilts. And they were all dead. I couldn't believe me own eyes. I stood there and I thought "What the hell has happened here?" And they was all in lovely kilts, you know. I come to the conclusion that they must have run into a machine-gun and it had caught all the lot. There'd be about thirty. You got used to it. I saw more of this sort of thing than all them still back in the trenches 'cause I was covering a lot of ground with these messages all the while, backwards and forwards. My uniform was khaki shorts and that red band on my arm. That was to let any officer know who I was. I always carried a rifle.
It's hard to know in a battle if you've shot anybody because you don't see anybody until you jump in on top of them in the trench. You might be firing anywhere hoping it'll hit someone. Personally, I don't ever remember killing anyone - and I was a sniper as well. I used to lay down on top of the parapet in a thing specially made with a steel front and a slot in. And we used to lie there, me and the Sergeant Major, when it was quiet like - no messages or anything. We used to lie there and pick 'em off 'cause you could see right behind the German lines. I aimed at one or two, but I don't know whether I hit 'em because they was behind the line. It was at a range of about half a mile from us. Of course you couldn't hit anyone in the trench. I used to do the sniping in between taking messages. And I was a scout. They used to get me to do all sorts of things. But my main job was the Colonel's Runner - and I was with him when he got killed. It was on the Somme. We'd only gone over the top a few yards and he was killed instantly - right at my side - a bullet through his head. Colonel Innes his name was.
I forget a lot of these things. There was another place very early at the beginning of the war. We used to put sandbags on top of the ground to form a short trench, only 15 feet long. You couldn't dig because you'd come to water.
I do remember being gassed. We was in a wood. There was some dug-outs in the wood. It was my job that morning to be sentry at the top of the dug-out. And I was a-standing there doing nothing, then I saw a lot of mist coming through the wood all the way along, like the mist outside this flat. I thought "Blimey! What's this?" I could hear shells a-bursting and all you heard from gas-shells landing was "pwuff... pwuff... pwuff " - like that. There wasn't a loud explosion or nothing. When I turned round I shouted to them down in the dug-out. There was about eight of us in each dug-out. And they come running up out of this dug-out. I said "Look at all this coming through the wood. It's like fog." Of course we didn't know nothing about gas-shells or anything like that. I said "I wonder what it is?" Well while we were talking there it gradually got nearer and nearer to us. And it was this mustard gas coming out of these shells what we heard in the distance. I was blistered from the top of me head right down to my foot. All down me side and everywhere I was blistered. Even though I was wearing clothes - it goes through anything that mustard gas. And I was also blinded for a fortnight. They never sent me anywhere. I had to have treatment every morning with the Medical Officers. We all had to go to this medical dug-out and we was all holding hands on our shoulders because we couldn't see. We was blinded with it. It didn't affect me lungs.
When the Germans started using gas we didn't have gas-masks - not then. We had orders that every morning you'd got to soak your socks in your own urine and put it over your nose and mouth to save getting it down your lungs. Then after that they come along and issued some pads with tapes on, that took the place of the socks. In the recesses in the trench there was a bottle of something we used to soak this pad in every morning. Then they invented something else - a hood. You know the Ku-Klux-Klan? Well it was like that, right over your head, with a rubber thing you held in your mouth. It was horrible - the taste of this rubber thing. But it done its job to a certain point. Then they come out with this modern gas-mask - 'course we'd got to do all this while we was waiting for them to be made in England and sent out.
I had frostbite in both my feet. I nearly lost my feet but for an officer. I was on duty in the trench. It would be about midnight. It was a very dark, wintry night you know. I was standing there and the duty officer came along and he says "Got anything to report, sentry?" and I says "No, Sir. No movement of any description." And he said "If I was you, Lewis, I shouldn't stand there too long, you know. Have a walk down the trench a bit." - like the same one as got killed by the shell - the first one. I went to move and I couldn't. I nearly fell over. I says "I can't walk!" and he says "Half a minute, I'll go and fetch a stretcher bearer." And there was two of them come up and they picked me up and carried me into their First Aid dug-out and they massaged me feet. I think it was whale oil - I'm not sure. They put hot socks on and that was that. If that officer had never come when he did I'd have had proper frostbitten feet.
I was wounded in my right foot. I went to England with that. It was a Blighty one - I couldn't stand. It happened at the Battle of the Somme. I'd gone over with Colonel Innes. He got killed and God knows how many more. We was a-pushing the Germans back to their fourth line. Where his fourth line was, I was a-lying down with all the others ready to charge into his fourth line with fixed bayonets. Then all of a sudden something went "bump!" I heard this "bump!" but I couldn't tell what had happened. No pain or nothing. And what had happened was this bullet had got in on the instep and turned inwards into the bottom of my foot. And of course when I tried to get up to walk I couldn't do it. So I had to crawl all the way back. As I've told you I wore khaki shorts - being a runner, and I cut me knees all over the place crawling back over the pieces of shells and barbed wire and God knows what. Anyway it was a Blighty, that was.
They took this bullet out of me foot in a hospital in Cardiff. The surgeon got this bullet and he says "Do you want it for a souvenir?" And I says "Oh, I'd love it!" But I lost that. I don't know what happened to it. I kept it for a hell of a while. I had about a month in England, then I was back in France again.
I remember a feller, he'd got what they call a synovitis knee. It had swollen a bit. I'd seen him get a wet towel and start banging his knee. I said to him "What are you doing that for?" He said "I want to get home. If this does what I expect it to do I shall be in Blighty - out of it." He used to go sick every time. He never got back. I used to laugh at him when he used to do this. And I saw him jump off a ledge or anything to try and twist his ankle. It never entered my head to do anything like that.
Until the very end of the war - I was there four years with the routine over and over again - I was never dry below me knee. You know them big khaki overcoats? They was all soaking wet round your legs. This was in the winter, like. I turned round to my mate one day and said "I'm not wearing this overcoat any more." He said "Well, why don't you cut a piece off it?" So we got a jack-knife. He held it one way and I cut it off at the waist and I got rid of that. That helped it a lot. The officers weren't bothered about anything like that - it was every man for himself.
Unless you've gone through it, it's hard to describe what it's like coming under shellfire. There was shells a-dropping in the ground and blowing up - big holes. And there was shrapnel coming just above your head. They exploded above your head and scattered everywhere. There was the 9.2 inch shell - about 2 foot long. Now that was a nasty shell that was. There was our... what they call "whizzbangs". That was an 18 pounder - it weighed 18 pounds. Of course the others in the Front line weren't runners so they didn't see these things. Then we'd got a 15 inch gun - a howitzer. When they fired one of these, they'd all got cotton wool in their ears and they fired it on a lanyard. This 15 inch gun it used to go right back. Now the French '75 was like a glorified machine-gun - that was a lovely little gun. The men firing the 15 inch guns used to stand right away. I remember there was a 15 inch gun where the shell exploded in the barrel. It shattered all this gun to bits. I forget how many it killed of the crew. I remember that well.
One night they had me in the wiring party, putting the barbed wire up where the shells had broke it. They had me in charge of the covering party. Now that was right out in no-man's-land. There would be about ten to every working party. I led them over into no-man's-land. They'd come up in a draft from England the night before. They were only young kids - honest. They talked about the Germans having young kids in their lot, but you ought to have seen them in our lot. You haven't got to believe all what they put in the papers you know. I got 'em and I laid 'em all out all across no-man's-land in the middle. The reason for this was if the Germans was doing the same, you didn't interfere with anybody. They wouldn't interfere with us and we wouldn't interfere with them - although you could hear them knocking the stakes in. They didn't fire star-shells up when you was on a working party. It was all done in the pitch dark. Coming back to this covering party what I was in charge of, I lay them down and I come to the last one. And I said "Now you lie here." He was a-crying his eyes out - absolutely scared stiff, 'cause he'd only come up the night before in a draft. So of course I done no more than lie down by the side of him, to comfort him. But when he knew where he was - in no-man's-land, in between our line and the German line, it frightened him to death. That's true that is. He was about sixteen I think, only a kid about my age when I went out.
I remember when we was a-going up the line for the first time. The Argyll and Sutherland Regiment was holding the Front line. So we went up for instruction - and me being little and one of the youngest. They was all in extended order going up. We was all following one another. The Very lights was a-going up - the Germans was sending them up. Anyway, before we got to the trenches, I was trying to keep up with them and everybody was hurrying. I don't know what they was hurrying for. All of a sudden I went head over heels. Now this'll make you laugh - I fell over a dead cow. And all its insides was out. I wasn't half in a mess. When I got up into the trench they was all Scotch blokes - and broad Scotch at that. I called our Sergeant, I says "Hey Sergeant, I've fallen over a dead cow. And his insides is all over me." And he says "Alright, I'll go and get some cloth or something and you can wipe yourself."
We was all allocated. "You stay with this Scotchman, and you stay with that Scotchman, and do everything what he tells you." When it comes to my turn he says "You go with this Scotchman on a listening post." Now that's out in no-man's-land. Of course I didn't know what it was, so I started to ask this Scotch soldier. He started to tell me and I couldn't make top nor tail of what he was a-talking about. Broad Scotch he was, so I give it up. We was out there for about two hours in no-man's-land. When I got back, I said to one of our fellers "What's a listening post?" and he said "Well, you're only a few yards from the Germans." I said "What!?" It scared me stiff. That was the first experience I had of the war.
You were in the trenches for eight days in the Front line, then you'd go in support line for four days. Then into the reserve line for another four days. Then you went back into the Front again. It was as bad in the support and reserve trenches as it was in the Front line, 'cause the shells was nearly all dropping behind, so you'd catch the lot there. Then after a time they took you out of the trenches altogether for a rest period. This was for about eight days, then you'd come back and start the routine all over again.
It was like this till you had a battle and the big nobs - the Generals - decided they'd lose a few men, so they had a battle. That's what we used to say. You very rarely saw the men who led you. Now I'll give you an instance of what happened:- we was out on rest and the orders came through that General Haig was coming to review us. And they said "Get everything cleaned, your buttons..." well no, not your buttons. They was all made black 'cause of the sun. And "Get all your equipment clean and spotless" - this that and the other for Haig, though it may have been General French. Anyways, we had to march about two miles onto a main road behind the line. We all stood there waiting for General Haig to come along. And he came along and we said to one another "Here he is." But he come by at about sixty miles an hour in a bloody car. And that was that. We'd just come out of the Front line and cleaned everything up and stood there for about two hours and he went by at about sixty miles an hour. He was supposed to inspect us. I suppose he said to himself "I've had enough of this! I'm off!" Real comic. You had plenty of laughs you know. It wasn't miserable all the while. I remember where the Front line went through a farm yard. The people in the farm had gone. There was a cow in this farmyard and we used to milk it every morning. Eventually they had this cow sent back somewhere I don't know. It used to be a game this going up milking this cow right behind the Front line. That was on the Somme.
The messages I took was private. I never saw what they were. The Armistice message was early in the morning. I took it to the Company Commander. There was C company, D, E and F Company. I used to be in F company before the war. The head of each one was a Captain. There seemed to be a mystery about this message, taking it so early in the morning. I thought it was another battle going to start. I took this message to this Captain. I said to him "Excuse me, Sir. Is it really important, this message?" He said "Do you really want to know?" This would be about half past six in the morning. He said "Well I'll tell you. I'm not divulging any secret - everybody'll have guessed. The war's over, son. The ceasefire's at eleven o'clock." Of course I wouldn't believe it. When I got back to Headquarters I told some of the blokes. Of course you know what soldiers are - they told me I was talking through my bloody hat - "You're pulling our legs" and this sort of thing. Eventually it sunk in and they went barmy. They was a-running about all over the place. Some of the officers didn't know. We was in a village where the civilians was 'cause we'd drove the Germans right back to Mons. It ended where it started. We drove the Germans back and they went that quick we couldn't keep up with them. The atmosphere was electric - all the civilians was giving us everything what they'd put by for when it was over - wines and all this out of the cellars. Everyone was a-dancing and going mad in this village. When the guns fell silent there wasn't a sound. We was fighting right up to the end. On the way chasing the Germans we was going across a field. And there was an old man and woman. And she'd got a great big dish like what you'd put a joint of beef on. The old man had a big knife. There was a dead horse right by them. I stopped and watched what they was doing. He cut a big joint off the horse's behind and put it on this dish. Then they went back to the village. I remember that distinctly. There weren't any parties after because they all wanted to get back to Blighty. They got 'em all loaded up and back. Of course I stopped in France for the six months after. There were no bars or cafés - everything was devastated. There was nothing.
The food was alright. We used to give a lot to the civilians. When we went out on rest you was issued with bulk food like a big lump of cheese and tins of pozzy - jam, plum and apple. And Maconochies - it was like Irish Stew. It was real good I thought - that Maconochies. There was no way to heat it up except over a candle. You had very little spare time - nowhere to play a game. My life was spent in the trenches, all the four years. I don't know what went on behind the lines. The cooks in the winter got a cannister. At the back it was bent in. About three feet long, bent in to fit your back. I've fetched many and many of these tanks of hot soup. But the cooks was that far back - when they give it you it was hot but when you got back up the trench it was nearly cold. I've fetched stacks of it up.
Lice were horrible. At the beginning of the war there was a brewery handed over to the army. Great big vats, you know - in which they brewed the beer. They turned them into tubs so you could have a bath. But when you went up the Front line all that disappeared. There was only one thing you could do about these lice: you used to light a candle and pull your shirt off and go all down the seams with the flame. Thousands of soldiers went into hospital with scabies through these lice. Scratching yourself all the while - under the arms and everywhere. Half of them, the soldiers, wouldn't wear a new shirt. Apart from the fighting the physical side was horrible. During the winter you was never dry below your knees. What the Germans was going through was almost identical to what we was going through.
I've been by 'High Wood'. It was all blown to bits with shells going through 'em. Because these woods was a place where you could hide. They didn't put Scottish soldiers with you - they'd be on their own holding the line. I spent my twenty-first birthday in the trenches. I had dog-biscuits about four inches square and a tin of bully beef. That was my birthday. And the same at Christmas too. It's real comical when you come to think about it. You more or less forgot how old you was. Whenever my Mother wrote to me, which was once a week, she always used to get a packet of 'Three Castle' cigarettes. She used to squash them and put them in the envelope flat. When the soldiers saw I'd got a letter they knew there was a packet of cigarettes in. They used to come up and say "Give us a fag, Lew!"
I was never conscious I was making history. When the Second World War started I immediately volunteered for the Home Guard. Have you seen "Dad's Army" on the telly? Well, that's exactly how it was at the beginning. I've never laughed so much in all my life because you'd got all sorts of people. I mean, I knew what I was going in for. Some of these was young kids, teenagers - they joined. And there was old men. There was nobody doing anything right. I was protecting the factory I worked in. I was an electrical engineer.
One night in the trenches there was a bombardment started up. The shelling got very hot. We all took cover in the trench. When it stopped everyone come out. There was a feller, a machine-gunner of ours, and he was on a Lewis gun. Well, he left his Lewis gun on top of the parapet while he took cover, which he shouldn't have done. He should have stopped there and very likely copped one or two of the Germans. Anyway, when we all come out they'd pinched his gun - the Germans had. "Oh, they've 'ad me gun!" he was screaming. Everyone was tickled pink. And he got Court Martialled for neglecting his duty. Everybody was laughing their heads off. Well the next thing we heard was we'd got to have a raid and try to get it back. That was a week after. It was dead comical. The officers was deciding how we should do this raid. But it would be a different raid to the Germans' - we wasn't going to shell at all. We'd got to do it quiet. No firing or nothing, no shelling. There was about ten of us in this raid. We got two Mills bombs in our equipment - that was in case of emergency. No rifles or nothing like that. But we got the engineers to make us some coshes. And these coshes they'd got a leather thong on them as you put over your hand. And there was great big horses' shoe nails all round the top and a lump of lead drilled into the top. They'd kill a horse, I don't know about a human being. We'd got a feller called Gerry Platfoot. He was an Irishman about as tall as you - six foot, only he was heavily built. Now his job in this raid was to catch hold of a German alive and bring him back so as we could get some information. The officer in charge of this raid was to cut all the telephone wires. Well we crept over, ever so quiet. All of a sudden somebody gives the word to jump in the trench. We jumped in and the Jerries was a-running in all directions. This Irish bloke Gerry Platfoot got hold of one by the scruff of the neck and dragged him over no-man's-land into our trenches. I don't know what went on at the interrogation, but I don't think they gained a lot out of him. He was only a young kid and all - not above seventeen. Anyway, we couldn't find no sign of this Lewis gun we lost. I don't know what the Germans had done with it, but we couldn't find it. There was one or two Germans got killed in this raid. I didn't do anybody harm - but I went over with 'em and done what I was told to do - I didn't have any opportunity. All the others was a-doing it - they killed them. And that cosh is in Warwick Castle Museum. I brought it home and kept it for years. Every time I went in the bedroom and opened the door of the wardrobe, this cosh always used to be there right in front of my eyes. I thought "What am I keeping this for?" Then it dawned on me that Warwick had got a museum, so I wrote a letter to them. I had a letter back which said they'd send someone to collect it. Then one day the knocker on the door went and two big Sergeants from the Fusiliers come in uniform. That was five or six year ago. When I showed it them they said "You never used this, did you?" I said "Yes, we used 'em in a raid." He says "Good God, there's enough to kill half a dozen soldiers there!" If someone who didn't know saw a thing like that he'd think what a lot of cruel blokes we was. I left the army in 1919.
While training, I was on a Vickers-Maxim machine gun - one of the old type with great big wheels. It had two long ropes. You went on duty two or three times a week. You used to run with this machine gun. Some on the ropes and others behind. When we went on parade in full dress - that's blue trousers, red coats and a helmet with a spike on the top - me and another feller used to get the antelope on two long white ropes, one each side on his collar. We used to march along with this antelope in the front of the battalion. This antelope was very timid. Our job was to look after this antelope. We got a little rifle range down at Whitton barracks and we used to keep him in there on straw and all that. It was nice and warm. We used to take it in turns stopping up all night with him. But eventually he died. They had a little memorial made about two feet tall where they buried him in the barracks.
The trouble with the Vickers machine-gun was that everything was too heavy. The machine-gun belts with all the bullets in were in oblong boxes and they was heavy to carry. Then there was the machine-gun itself - all got to be man-handled. It was a hell of a game. Somebody must have thought "We'll have to find a machine-gun as good, but a lot lighter." So from that we had what they called the Lewis gun. Then I believe - but I never saw one - they superceded the Lewis gun for another one, the Matthews they used to call it - lighter still. The Lewis gun and the Vickers-Maxim was both very reliable. Usually you'd use them in battle. But occasionally, say the Germans had a spot what was overlooking our position, our people would rig us this machine-gun in a position protected all round aiming on that spot where the Germans had got one. And they'd use it occasionally like that. But chiefly it was used in battle.
They told us that when the war was over the country would be fit for heroes to live in. Well, it was nothing of the sort. It was the opposite. They'd got no houses for you to live in. You were thrown on the dole straight away. It was more or less like it is now with all this unemployment. And the same thing happened in the 1930's.
I never had bad dreams about the war afterwards. I took it all in my stride. It was a job got to be done and you went and done it. There's lots of people have interviewed me and asked me what it was like. But you see the interview wasn't done like you're doing it - it would more or less go in one ear and out the other. All what I've told you tonight is absolutely as true as I can remember. There's no "ifs" or "buts" or putting some on and taking some off another. It's all been the Gospel truth. Now look here, when they've been interviewing some of these old soldiers, I've sat and listened to them. Now I can prove... well I don't know about I can prove or I can't now of course. But to myself I can prove that they're not telling the truth - they're putting a lot on to make it look as bad as ever it was. And I always listen when they're interviewing anybody like that, just to hear what they do say. That's what I've discovered - they're bumming it a bit. Now that fellow on the trip to the Somme this year said something in the coach giving his experiences like I am with you only it was short and sweet. And he said they went over the top on the first of July at 7.30 - they were the first to go over. Now I know for a fact that's wrong. I know exactly the time when we went over, and it was 6 o'clock. And we was some of the first to go over.
Tanks first went into action at the Somme. None of the officers knew what a tank was. They said it was a war machine. We heard this tank coming along in the middle of the night amidst all the shelling and ballyhoos going on. Nobody had got any idea what they was, or like. They called them "land-ships" - and everything but what they was. In the morning we'd got it right up by our Front line this one tank. There was only one to our Battalion. When we went over the top this tank went over behind us. And of course all the soldiers they run behind the tank as it was a-going along. Of course the bullets was hitting this tank. That's how they started the tank.
I was a-taking a message one day across some land and I come across a tank, one of the very first as come out. Now these tanks was a wash-out - the very first. I'll tell you for why:- they was that heavy and big that when they went up on the soft ground where the shells had churned all the ground up, the back of the tank used to stick in the ground. That's where the tanks failed. When you went up an incline the back stuck in the ground. So they done away with that idea and got round to making a perfect tank. I always remember that tank coming up. Everybody was impressed. They thought how great it was - a tank - a machine like that. Coming back to that message when I come across a tank. It was one of these old tanks. Being a bit inquisitive, I thought I'd have a look inside. It was stuck in the mud, see? And I had a look and there was about eight blokes inside, all dead. They must have been there weeks. The stench was terrible. I shut the door and come away. It was horrible. Sitting targets, if they were stuck in the mud - the Germans had only got to get the range.
I don't know as I ever run the Germans down. I mean we was doing the same as they was. You couldn't blame 'em - they was only doing what they was told to do. Some fellers would say "Them so-and-sos! I wish I'd got 'em here!" It never entered my head, that sort of thing. There's no comparison between the youth of the Great War and the 1980's. The whole atmosphere's different. I know it's difficult for 'em - they can't get a job, but also I know a lot as won't get a job. They're not all bad - but a lot are.
I wouldn't care to say anything about the Falklands War because I don't know anything about it. I don't know who's in the wrong and who's in the right. There's a lot of confusion about that ship what they sank - the 'Belgrano'. It may be like what they said. My honest belief is that there will be a third war, but it won't be a nuclear war. It'll be a war like our war was, only more up to date.
What I regret about being in the Great War is that they didn't do justice to the men as come back. I think they should have helped them men as went through it more than they did. That Margaret Thatcher has taken a pound off my social security. Now that ain't good enough, you know. How do they think that a feller like me is going to buy bed linen or a bit of furniture? But I can't buy new clothes. These I'm in is all second hand. Old soldiers get a bad do.
Nobody don't want to know. I lose patience with 'em. I know a woman, and when the First World War come up in conversation she said "Oh, you want to forget all that!" Now look here, how on earth can you forget when your mate drops down dead right at the side of you like the Colonel - my Colonel? He'd gone over the top and he was as dead as a doormat in three minutes. How can you forget them sort of things? No, they don't want to know, Tom. I don't say like you - you're interested. But how many people are? It's because so many years have passed. These days everything's the Second World War. I don't think about the Great War every day. But there are times, you know - when I go to all these reunions. I go to Warwick every year. I go to Ashton Old Church - there's a monument down there. Then I go to the 'Hall of Memory' in the middle of Brum. I'm very pleased that I do go because that is when you feel it - what you've gone through, when you see all these old soldiers from different places, all white haired. When I laid that wreath at that Thiepval memorial, do you know I cried me eyes up? It's true as I'm sitting here. I was standing there crying. Anything that's sentimental it touches me. I remember I met you in the trenches at Beaumont Hamel this year. It didn't seem anything different to an ordinary field, only that I knew it wasn't an ordinary field. You see everything has changed so much in 70 years. I mean, there was no trees or anything there, and look at them now - the height of them. And them shellholes - them are nearly flat with the top of the ground now. And the same as that trench as I was standing in with an elderly man. It's nothing like a proper trench what we fought in. All the sandbags when we was there was all dirt and anything thrown inside a sandbag.
It's nice to go back - I was lucky as I went. I scraped the barrel to go. I robbed Peter to pay Paul. I'd put 500 pound in the bank and then that would cover my funeral expenses, instead of it falling on my sons. I was talking to them in the café about it. They said that my funeral wouldn't cost 500 pound. But that's what I'd intended to do - to save my sons having the expense. Anyway, they talked me out of it. Gradually it dwindled - I've got it down to 300 now. They said that'll cover it. I drew one hundred quid out to pay for this trip.
When I was at Newfoundland Park, I was thinking "Well who'd have believed this was ever a battlefield?" I was a-thinking if people come and seen this they'd think we was telling a lot of bunkum because you couldn't compare it to what it was like. It was the first time I'd been back to the battlefield since 1918. I'm glad I went. I thought it was wonderful. On the coach they had a microphone - it was wonderful. Me and this other old man - of course he was a-going off like a steam engine he was - I don't know whether it was all true. The one part of the Great War that stuck in my mind was the Battle of the Somme. There'll never be another battle like that. You know it was on a sixty mile front and there was 60,000 casualties on the first day. There was twenty-five of us left out of nine hundred in our battalion. That was in the first day. Twenty-five mustered at the end of the first day. I can't tell you if all the rest was killed or just wounded. There was me and my eldest brother among the twenty-five - funny that. And he caught shell-shock the very first day - shattered he was. He'd only been in the army a week - I didn't know he was in the army. He was called up in Lord Derby's or Kitchener's scheme, I think. It's amazing.
In the Battle of the Somme I was sitting wounded in the foot, and waiting for them to pick me up in a sunken road. Where I was sitting was a First Aid dug-out with the doctors and all that. There was two of our soldiers a-carrying a German with their arms underneath him. He'd been shot in the private parts - all blown away. He wasn't dead, but he was in terrible pain. The one held him while the other went in the dug-out and told the doctor. The doctor slipped out and had a look where he was injured - everything had gone. And he was a-moaning and groaning, this German. The doctor said "Sit him on the edge of that shell-hole." That was just outside in the sunken road. They sat him down there and he said "Give him these. I can't very well waste any time with him because he's gone too far. But give him this in a drop of water" - and it was summat to see him off. I felt real sorry for him. I saw one of our own doctors as went over the top. And as I was crawling back he was down at the bottom of a shell-hole. And when I was by him I said "Are you alright? If I see any stretcher-bearers I'll tell 'em where you are." And he says "Oh, look at this!" and all one knee had all blown off. His leg was hanging. Of course I didn't see any stretcher-bearers. I always felt sorry for the stretcher-bearers because they was going backwards and forwards.
I didn't think the Germans was any worse than we was. I suppose there was the same as in our lot - some rough customers. The youth of today have too much money. They was tougher then in the old days than what they are today. Life's too easy for 'em today. Nobody likes war. If they do they ought to be in a barmy-house. About them C.N.D people - it all depends on what the war started for. I've no regrets about being in the Great War. Personally I think it done me good with all the trials and tribulations. It was a hard life. It wasn't an easy life at all. You might call me one of the lucky ones. While it was going on I never used to think what it was like. I learnt a lot from being in the Great War - if I had the power there wouldn't be another war. But of course that's silly talk because it never would happen. But nobody wants war - nobody in their right mind. All that what Lloyd George said about a "Land fit for heroes" is a load of codswallop. They promised us the war would be over in six months. Then they said "You'll come back to a land fit for heroes" and it's all the opposite. Instead of being on six months it was on four years, and as regards a "Land fit for heroes", the first thing they done was put us all on the dole. All that sort of talk was propaganda - the whole world was full of propaganda. Of course a lot of people believed it. But the land wasn't fit at all for heroes. There was nothing heroic about it. I do believe there'll be a third war and it won't be a nuclear war, because nobody's going to win a nuclear war.
There's thousands and thousands of war graves on the Somme, all nicely looked after. It's a lovely sight. Well, it isn't a lovely sight - but you know what I mean. I think eventually all that'll die out. When the people that's looking after them now get old and die off I reckon nearly all them graves will die with 'em. They might bring one or two youngsters in. What'll happen in my opinion is one of these land-owners or grabbers will be wanting the land.
When I came home on leave it was a bit of a comedy affair. They said "You're having five days leave, Fred." There was a day going across the water, a day coming back across the water, and three days at home. And I was dead lousy. I got the boiler man at the Victoria Baths - I went there straight away. I wouldn't let anybody touch me. I told 'em "Don't come by me! I'm lousy!" I got one of them old bear-skins with no sleeves in - and that was full of lice. My seat of my trousers was worn away - they hadn't got a pair of trousers to give me to come home. I asked the boilerman "Do you mind boiling some of these clothes that I've got on?" He asked why so I said "Well, I'm dead lousy. I've come to have a bath and a change of clothes." Of course my eldest sister went and got my clothes what I'd left behind. And this fellow at the baths says "Oh I'll burn 'em alright for you." And he burnt the lot - the fur coat and everything. And when I got in Brum it was coming down in buckets. And I was the only one I was.
The stretcher-bearers had it bloody awful at the Battle of the Somme. I got out of it the first day with that bullet in my foot. But these stretcher-bearers had to keep going backwards and forwards into all this shelling and bullets flying about. I felt real sorry for 'em I did. I wouldn't have been a stretcher-bearer - it must have been terrible. In my travels as a runner I've seen hundreds of soldiers get it. I don't know why, but you didn't used to worry about it. You'd look at them lying there all gashed - legs off, arms off and stomach all ripped open. You'd think "Poor bugger!" and that was it. It was a matter of being used to it.
I never saw any women all my four years in the trenches - and I was in the trenches the whole while. I never seen any woman in the services near the Front line. I was never conscious of being part of history.
The faces are still bright. I know two brothers - McManus the name was. They was both in our lot. They was killed before the Battle of the Somme. They lived up Lozells Road - that's in Birmingham. I got their address because when the elder of the two brothers got killed - and he's another one who ought to have got the VC, although he was foolish. It was his own foolishness as he got killed. I was right by 'em. I was the mate of one of 'em. I was there when they come and told him as his other brother had been killed. This elder brother was a bit of a daredevil. Just before daylight broke properly he used to go out into no-man's-land and see what had been going on during the night. He used to come back and give this information to our officers. Oh, he done it umpteen times, at what they call a dangerous time - when it's just breaking day, and when it's just getting dark - that's the most dangerous time of any day as regards seeing anything. Anyway, he'd been doing this for a hell of a while and the younger brother who I was always with carried on to him about it. He said "You bloomin' idiot, you'll go and get killed!" And so it happened - he got killed. It was early one morning and he was coming back in the trench and a bullet hit him. A sniper I suppose had been watching him previously. I was with his younger brother when the Corporal come and told his brother that he'd got killed. Then, not very long after, his brother - my mate - he got killed with a bullet. And I went up to this Lozells Road to see the mother and tell them how they died - what I'd seen. And of course they was ever so pleased.
I was absolutely glad as I went back to the Somme this year. I wouldn't have missed it for any money. Yet really there was no comparison. But in my mind I could see the difference. Yes, I was very, very pleased I ever went. There's been one or two as said "That's a thing of the past - you don't want to remember them things." I says, "You don't know what you're talking about." I says, "Do you know anything about the First World War?" They says "Oh, I knows a bit" and all this silly chat. How can you forget when you see your mates drop down dead with a bullet through them? You can't. I firmly believe that.
I remember the Americans. There was three of 'em. I happened to be on duty in the trench when they come up, a Sergeant of ours introduced them. They wanted to know something about trench warfare. So I says "Yes, Sarge." The Sergeant of the three Americans said "Where's all these God-dammed Germans?" You know how they talk. And I says "I beg your pardon?" So he asked again. I says "Hang on a minute, you'll soon find out. There'll be about a dozen shells come over and you'll know where they've come from. They aren't our shells, they're the God-dammed Germans'!" And of course I told 'em one or two things about trench warfare.
Major Townsend was the Colonel's handicap. My Colonel - Colonel Innes - was killed three minutes after we went over the top on the Somme. Major Townsend used to give me five francs for every shell nose-cap I got. The shell would explode but the nose-cap would fly off and bury itself. He wanted them for souvenirs. I even dug up a mile-stone for him. He had them all sent back to England for his shop in Corporation Street. The milestone had 'Foncquevillers' on it - and that place was flattened. Where we used to take cover there was a big brewery. That was flattened, all but the cellar. We put some wire beds down there. I used to entertain them doing funny dances and trying to sing. They'd lie on these beds laughing their heads off. The Front line was only fifty yards away. All I can tell you about trench warfare is it was bloody horrible. You was always soaking wet and you got no proper beds - just holes dug out in the back of the trench. You wasn't safe from shelling in the trenches. One time our artillery used to shell us. There was one part of the line and they was having a raid. Somehow or other somebody or other had got the bloomin' time mixed up 'cause they was a-putting the barrage up. All of a sudden this barrage lifted. And it wasn't in front of our trench, but it crept over. They was all dropping in our trenches and killing our blokes. There was quite a few killed through it. There was a hell of a row over it - it wasn't hushed up - a hell of a do over it. When I go to these reunions and see an artillery bloke with his badge, I say "Was you in the First World War, artillery?" They say "Yes", and I say "So you were one of the buggers as shelled us are you!?" We laugh over that.
At Ypres there was a place called 'Dead Horse Corner' - we nicknamed it that. The horses and wagons had got to come round that corner. Jerry had got the range worked out. When they used to come round with wagons of rations and artillery, he'd let go with his artillery. And of course 'bang!' would go the poor horses. Two horses to a wagon. They'd be killed and they used to pile them on this corner. And there was dozens of them. The stench was terrible. Right behind the lines, two miles, there was a concert party. There was these different comedians and singers. Behind the Front line there was forming up trenches, communications trenches - used to take you miles back. I had very little to do with the French soldiers. They was on our side, but nobody give 'em a good name. They was like the Italians - we called 'em ice-cream wallahs. Their mentality was different.
Our officers - I can only speak for our officers - was real bricks. I give 'em full marks because they was brave. If they told you to do anything they done it themselves. One officer comes to mind. His name was Adams. He was one of the bravest officers I ever come across. He deserved the Victoria Cross. Eventually he got killed. The soldiers in the Front line hated the guts of the conscientious objectors.
I never saw anybody praying. There was no religious services in the trenches. I know that there was some behind the lines, but not in the Front line - it would have almost been a mockery. My religion is Church of England. I was only devout when I was a child. My mother used to send us to Sunday School, and half the time we used to play the wag. When we got back mother used to try and catch us out, asking what the service was and all that. My son is a Jehovah's Witness. I don't like to fall out with him, but I've said to him "Here, you talk about religion and religious people and religious carryings-on. Well, what do you think about God Almighty allowing all these thousands and thousands of young men to be killed?" And he turns round and says "It's man's own fault". Well, in a sense it is - man makes wars don't he? But we'd better not talk about religion any more or we'll end up in hot water again. In the Front line there was no religion. It was full of swearing - everyone fed-up. People used to talk fatalistically - I heard a lot of them.
You know, there was a lot killed and it was their own fault. I know one who was a bus conductor in Birmingham. In our lot there was Saltley College fellows, the Police, Bus Drivers and Conductors - all sorts. Anyway this one was a Conductor. If the trench was a bit deep you got a wooden step to stand on. Every morning this man used to get on this step and look over the top of the parapet. And we got sick and tired of telling him. We said "One of these days you'll stop one! There'll be a sniper waiting for you to pop your head up." He had it one morning - right through his temple. It was only a little hole, but it was big at the back - blowed your brains out. The Germans fired dum-dum bullets. They weren't supposed to. It was against the law of any country. They did use 'em. But we never used dum-dums at all.
In the trenches there was no discipline - not real discipline like on the barracks square, because everyone was suffering the same. You was all in the same boat. There wasn't a lot of insubordination, not that I knew of. Because when you're on Active Service, insubordination was a very serious thing. There might have been a bit behind. But in the Front line you were likely to be stuck up against a wall and shot. I never seen anyone on our side shot ever. You know what a coward is? It's someone who's nearly scared stiff. They can't help it - not in every case mind you. But in the majority they're scared stiff, afraid to say 'yes' or 'no'.
I nearly saw someone on our side get shot for insubordination. I was taking a message and I come across some old dug-outs. Being a bit nosy I went in one and had a look round. Up on the corner there was a bit of a shelf, and this stoneware jar of rum - well I thought it was rum. I undone the stopper and just put my finger on the top. Then I tried it - 'cause I thought somebody might have a-piddled in it or summat like that. But it was rum, so I filled my water bottle with it. These two stretcher bearers come along and they filled their water-bottles with it. I asked one of me mates if he'd like a drop of rum. I put some rum in his water-bottle - and he drunk the bloody lot! Of course he was blind drunk. I was a-struggling with him 'cause I knew he'd get shot if they saw him. He kept flopping down. I thought I'd drag him somewhere and hide him. I got hold of him and he was helpless - blind drunk. I come across a little dug-out nearby. I thought I'd shove him in. It was full of slime and mud. Just as I'd got him to the entrance an officer come up. He wanted to know what the matter was with him. I said he felt ill. The officer bent down and said he was drunk. The officer said "Get him in there quick, afore anyone sees him". And he pulled his revolver out "If you don't I'll put one of these in him." I'm sure he would have done and all - being drunk on Active Service is very serious. When they give you an issue of rum it would be half a pint mug full. Mind you, you hadn't got to have it all. You'd got to have a sip out of that and pass it down the line - all waiting to have a sip. Well you imagine him with his water bottle half full. I can't remember there being any problems with morale. Of course other people might have known different to what I knew. I only saw one case of shell-shock and that was me own brother. All his nerves was shattered. All the continual shelling - banging and blasting, lumps of iron flying everywhere - it upsets your nerves. It didn't affect mine, but I did feel frightened, by a farmhouse where the Portuguese was wiped out. It was just before the Somme. You couldn't tell the Portuguese from Germans. The uniforms was exactly the same as the Germans. But they was on our side. Our orders was these:- the officer said "Now look here lads, you'll see some soldiers coming down here. They're not prisoners, not Germans either - they're Portuguese. So don't take anything into your own hands. Leave 'em alone, they've had a severe wiping out - gassed and blown to bits. We've got to go and take their place." We went up and had no idea where the Front line was. We had to go and find it.
There was an officer who told me I'd been recommended for my good work, but I never heard anything more. McManus was brave. He didn't know what fear was - but he was killed all the same. He deserved the VC, but he never got it.
I never saw any rough stuff with German prisoners. It had been drilled into us that a prisoner was helpless, therefore leave him alone. Don't get up to any tricks and don't bash him about.
I've had lots of narrow escapes. I've had shells drop behind of me, in front of me and sideways as I've been taking a message. And I've got away with it. You could have a shell drop right by you and get away with it - well, I did. It depends where the shell hits the ground - it may hit a pile of earth, and the blast goes the other way. When a shell went up there was a huge "bang!" and a loud echo from it. Shrapnel was terrible stuff - if you was underneath a shrapnel shell then you'd had it. Of course when it exploded it was all like an umbrella. If you was underneath that, you'd got to be hit somewhere. The shell-bursts had bluish or light pinkish flashes. The smoke from them was a greyish colour.
I didn't have any experience of booby-traps, but I know where it did happen. You know that old man cutting meat off the horse? Well, we was a-pushing the Germans back into Germany then. And we was going through little villages on the way. As the Germans went through 'em they set all sorts of booby-traps. Such as if there was a house with a piano in, they'd know we was sure to have tinkle on it. And if you did, up it would go. If you opened a door, it would go "bang!" - that would go up. They lost that many men from these booby-traps that orders come: "Nobody must go in any house under any circumstances until it has been passed fit by our engineers." I never experienced anything like poisoning of wells.
In England there was rationing during the war. You had to get there early with your ration book. It wasn't a very nice thing. The only spy I knew about was in Belgium. He was on a farm a mile behind our Front line. He used to get his horses out and plough his land, and whilst ploughing he was watching our movements; where we was going, what roads we used on a night. I don't know how he got the information back to the Germans. They set a trap for him. They knew that if a certain piece of information reached the Germans, they'd know who'd give it 'em. And they caught him, and proved it was him who was giving this information away all the while. They stuck him up against a wall and then they shot him.
There was all sorts of propaganda. They used to tell you all sorts of things, like the war will be over next month - things like that to keep you going. Of course it was a load of codswallop. I don't think the Germans was that bad.
In the trenches, you made sure never to stop in one place for very long - keep moving about. I always took care to keep below the parapet - never showed meself. Everything had to be done at night - people coming back from leave and the like. I was in a queue waiting for breakfast. This particular feller was tall, like you. He'd just been on leave to England and had come back the night before. He was in the queue just behind me. He was shuffling along in the queue when all of a sudden I heard a "bump!" and a sniper had got this feller right through the head. Come back from England the night before. He was dead in half a minute. It wasn't his fault - he was so tall. You can't go about doubled up in a trench all the time because you're tall. There's got to be some time when you poke your head up. That's why I never got shot by a sniper - because I'm not very tall. The only time they could hit me was when I was out in the open taking a message.
The trenches was dug with picks and shovels, depending on the state of the ground. And there was miles and miles and miles dug like that. There was the Front line trench, forming up trench, communication trenches and some more, but I forget what they was called. But they all linked up into the one - the Front line. You could easily get lost - these trenches went back two or three miles.
I haven't told you about the night before the night before the Battle of the Somme. It was absolute chaos. I've never known anything like it. I was there with the Colonel, sitting right by him ready to take messages to the different officers. The Front line was absolutely packed - shoulder to shoulder - thousands of troops. All in the communications trenches, the forming up trenches - they was all packed. And I'd got to work me way through all them to take these messages. And the shells and guns was going and Very lights going up - you never seen anything like it. All night long - you couldn't hear yourself speak. I never witnessed anything in all my life like it. There must have been thousands of guns going. The atmosphere was electric. It was like as though there was a prairie fire or something - pushing and shoving. Fresh troops coming up and going. Well, I had to struggle through the whole lot. In the morning I went straight over the top with the Colonel. When we went over the top we encountered nothing at first, only the shelling. Of course that was the Germans shelling. What had happened was the Germans had fell back to his reserve line. Then, all of the sudden he counter-attacked and he drove us right back again. I was in his fourth line trench when I stopped this bullet. I was under machine-gun fire all the way back - huge shell craters and everything. I honestly believe that if I hadn't got wounded when I did, I wouldn't be sitting here tonight. I'll tell you this - I prayed to Almighty God that if I got wounded that it would be light, wouldn't be serious, and it's just what happened.
I've stood and watched dozens of air battles up in the air. You'd see 'em chasing one another, and then all of a sudden, when one had got the other one in his sights properly there'd be a great big ball of flame. The plane would come down and go round and round. I've seen all these crack pilots: Albert Ball and Ryder - Sue Ryder's husband - he's still alive you know. They were all biplanes - very maneuverable. I've seen dozens of 'em come down in flames over the battlefields. You got used to it - it wasn't a surprise. There was one, a German, I forget his name now, but his plane was red. If our airman was one of the cracks, he'd have a go at him. Our fellers wasn't afraid of him you know - they'd have a go at him. It was a sight worth watching. We used to stand with our back to the trench watching them. We could hear the machine-guns on them. The troops was very glad to see the air-force because the Germans used to come over reconnoitering and have a go at us.
I'll tell you about the brothels. When we first went out, we went to a distribution centre and stopped there the night. While we was there they paid us our money. My money was five francs. The Sergeant Major come to me round about tea-time and he says "You want your hair cut, Lew. While you're down here at base you might as well get it done by a proper barber. And another thing, if I was you I should have it all clipped off. If you get a wound in your head, it'll help the surgeon to treat the wound if all your hair's gone." So that's what I did. I asked the barber how much and he said five francs - and that was my wages gone.
The following night we went out on a spree and I'd got no money, so one of the blokes I was with lent me some. So we seen one of these red lamps. We'd heard about 'em mind you - what they was. My mate says "Come on Lew, let's go in." I think it was in Le Havre. I said I was only going in to have a look. Of course I was only a youngster, about eighteen. I was scared to go in. But anyway, when I got in I sat down on a chair and one of these women come up to me. I looked at her and she had only like a curtain over her - only a curtain - and everything else was bare. And she come and sat on my lap. And I thought "Ohhhh! I'm going out of here!" And I run out of there I did. I was scared stiff. I always remember it. My mates all followed me. It was a comical affair that was. Then of course the next night we set off and we'd got to walk all the way to the Front line. We done it in stages - put up during the day and starting again the next night, and so on. And that's when I fell over that dead cow. It tickled everyone to death that did. Somebody asked me, not so long ago, what them red-lamp places was like. I said "Don't ask me, I run out!" I'd got no money or nothing. Oh, they were filthy places. You couldn't go in the wrong doorway, honest. I found this out when the war was finished and I was a-living at that café in France. You couldn't go in the wrong doorway - it was a brothel. And our blokes used to queue up to go in. There was one place what was a brothel - they was all a-dancing, our soldiers. This bloke as owned the brothel - they were his two daughters that was supplying all the soldiers. The soldiers were queuing up and all! I remember why we was there. We'd come out on rest from the trenches. This place was about ten mile behind the Front line - there was civilians in them places. That's how it was. I only went in to have a look round. Of course I'd got no money or nothing. I started making a few enquiries. I asked this bloke who the girls was. He says "They're the Gaffer's daughters." And he was a-serving the wobble while they was doing their stuff. There was another like that place - Charleroi. Oh, they were filthy holes - you couldn't go in the wrong doorway. There's people who want that sort of thing to happen here in Brum, you know. I wouldn't - I'd vote against that. They're dirty places - disease-ridden.
I saw flame-throwers used. It was in a canister on your back with a tube. There was another thing, a Hotchkiss gun I think it was. Like a long tube which you fired from the shoulder. We got shelled by phosgene too. It made all your eyes water. You couldn't see the gas coming towards you, it was invisible. In my experience, when I was gassed, they fired about 100 shells at us. They were like 18 pounders. I knew when I'd been mustard gassed because my skin began to itch. I was blinded for fourteen days. I had treatment for it in the trenches - I never went out. Mustard gas was grey and cloudy - a cloud was about five feet high.
When I got out of this hospital in Cardiff, after being shot in the leg, I was moved to a great big house in North Wales. It was a convalescent home. They had two kids - ever such nice kids. They clung to me. I don't know why but they seemed to like me a lot. They used to call me "Fritz" 'cause me hair had all gone at the barbers. This house was right up on a big hill. These kids used to come running to me. And we used to collect snakes in this wood and bring 'em back and put 'em in a tub. They were grass-snakes. Then we fixed up a big frame on the lawn to catch birds. We put bread down. There was a big rope leading from the kitchen window. We used to sit there - the three of us - and pull this rope and catch 'em. We released the birds after - it was only a fad, like. We got up to all sorts of tricks - and I was only there a week. We had a game with the other soldiers that was convalescing there. We told one "This bloody place is haunted!" And we used to go out for a walk. We got some cotton and fixed it to some of the pictures on the wall over his bed. When he used to go to bed we crept up after him and peeped through the door. He was getting into bed and the pictures would start swinging. He looked up and said "Old Fritz is right, it is haunted!". He come running out and said the pictures over his bed was swinging. We used to frighten this one bloke - he was frightened scared stiff. Down below in the sitting room there was these coal forks and pokers. Well we got some black cotton tied to 'em. We was sitting round talking and then all of a sudden some idiot pulled this cotton and all the things was a-rattling. And this bloke run out of the room frightened to death - he'd come just from the Battle of the Somme. He really thought it was haunted. Then the week after that we was back in France again.
There's a lot of difference between the women of the Great War and those around today. I prefer the women of the old days. They were better behaved, better dressed. Fashions have changed. There's no fashion today as far as I'm concerned - it's a load of rubbish. Now this "Boy George" - if there's anyone who gets up my back it's him, because it's not necessary. It's all a load of codswallop. Of course I know he only does it for the money, but it doesn't amuse me in any shape or form. And these women's fashions today - well, I don't know what they think they are. I seen one come in the café this morning. Now she's a good customer, she works at a garage, and I know that's a dirty job. But when I look at her it turns me stomach over. She's got one of these woollen hats and she pulls it all over her hair - and her hair's all straggly. And her footwear - well, a pair of clogs would be genteel compared to what she wears. And the socks as she's got on are all down, and her jeans are tucked in the socks. I never seen such a mess in all my life. I saw one woman dressed ever so nice in a blouse, nice skirt and nice pair of shoes. And I couldn't help it - she was just coming towards me - and I said to her, I said "Excuse me, madam, do you mind me telling you you look very nice." And it opened my eyes to see someone like her instead of bloomin' jeans and their hair in spikes sticking up. I hope she didn't think I was after her! A lot of the men and all are as bad. They come in all sorts of bloody clothes the men do. With these tight jeans on - when they got to pay for anything, a sandwich - they can only get one finger in the pockets of these jeans. They're fiddling about trying to find some money. I've give up hope of ever seeing any well-dressed people about. The women have changed - you wouldn't see a woman walking along a street with a fag in her mouth. You might say "Well, that's nothing" - but it is to me. What do you see today? Out comes the cigarettes, stick it in their chops. Then they fake it and start talking as the smoke's coming out. And you see very few men with handkerchiefs. You hold a door open in a shop for them - and nothing - they say nothing. Some do, but I'm talking about the majority. They are so ignorant... I reckon this generation is terrible.
If someone got hit by shrapnel exploding overhead it would shatter you to pieces. With an ordinary shell it would come over and you could hear it towards the end and you'd drop down flat. The shell would explode and if you was lucky you got away with it. It was horrible when someone was hit by a bullet. You just turned away from it and left it to the doctor to certify they were dead. It's like they've been hit on the head with a mallet - they go down in a heap. Some got away with it when they got hit in the head. There were other instances:- in your pay-book, in your breast pocket here - there was many lives saved by these things in their pockets. I never come across anybody wearing bullet-proof vests. We often used grenades - the Mills bomb. They were very effective, a lovely little grenade. They were like miniature shells, serrated like a chocolate bar. They was fused for four seconds, that's how long you had to get out of the road. The German grenades had got a long handle on.
In the trenches in the winter it was horrible, because you were never dry. The bottom of the trench wasn't level - nine times out of ten it was on a slope, so you were slipping and sliding everywhere. It did smell. When I used to go down these communications trenches with the messages, well where they'd been dug there was bones sticking out of the side where a soldier had been killed or blown to bits and there was only his bones left. There was a smell when you went by them. Of course at night I used to go miles to fetch this hot soup, and that's when you'd come across these smells in the communications trenches - all the bones and rotten flesh of soldiers who'd been blown to bits. There was nothing to collect after - only the bones, and they left them where they was. There must have been thousands blown to bits. But they didn't know who they was - the paybook wasn't there. It would all be among the debris. We did wear dog-tags. One had your religion on it, the other was your name, regimental number and the name of your regiment. It was made out of thick cardboard sort of thing. You always had to wear them. Then if they come across you and you got hit or blown about, they'd know who you was.
I used to have all sorts of things - photographs and that. My wife got tired of seeing them and she threw them out. I'm sure it's the wife that got rid of them. I'd love to go back in time to the old days when I was a teenager. It was definitely far better than today, in every way. We knew our manners. I'd not go back in time if I had to be a soldier in the war - not knowing what I know now. You see, we didn't know nothing about the war - we thought it was something to be proud of, to go into battle. They told us it would only last six months. That was all propaganda, to keep you going.
You didn't know it was Christmas in the trenches - it wasn't much different from normal. That's as far as I can remember. Mind you, there might have some plum pudding sent up with the rations, but that's about all. There was no jollifications. You was just doing the same on Christmas day that you was doing any other day. I can only tell you what it was like where I was. But you can bet that there was bound to be some skirmishes going on, whether it was Christmas, Easter, August or what. You see, you had long periods of calmness. Take this Gommecourt wood - we was there nine months and we knew every inch - where to go, where not to go. That's where I got those souvenirs for that Major. The village was named Foncquevillers. The Germans flattened it. I was never at Albert on the Somme, I may have passed through it but I can't remember - at my age you forget a lot of the names. There was a church at Foncquevillers. The Germans couldn't miss it. And while we was there for nine months before the Battle of the Somme the church and everything was absolutely wiped out except a spire. And at the top there was a statue of Jesus Christ and it was hanging to one side. It was like that when we left. Then we moved from Gommecourt to where we went over the top on the Somme. I forget the name. It wasn't a village anyway. If there were any village buildings within range of the light guns - 18 pounders, they was all brought to the ground.
Now this is what I heard. I can't vouch for it meself. This Irish lot was out on rest and they refused to go back into the Front line. Our people put 'em in a camp all on their own. That's what I heard. I don't know whether it was true. I served in Italy. They rushed us over there when the Austrians was pushing the Italians right back. We helped stabilise the Front line. The Italians wasn't good fighters. The Austrians had pushed 'em right back to the river Piave. It was somewhere round about 1917. Anyway we went up into the mountains. We taught the Italians what to do and left them. There was a river out in no-man's-land. Then they rushed us back to the third battle of Ypres - and that wasn't half a battle. You couldn't stand on the ground - you had to walk on duck-boards. And if you come off the duck-boards you was almost a gonner. In my case, being a runner, if I'd gone off these duck-boards I'd have been a gonner - providing there was nobody about. You'd go down and if you tried to get out, the more you sank. There was only one way, and that was to keep still and trust to luck of someone coming by. Of course you had to go across this land to get to the Front line. One day I saw three blokes in the distance. One was stuck in this ground up to his armpits. The other two were stretcher-bearers and they were pushing the stretcher through the mud to him. They got him out and carried him away on the stretcher. It was one of the worst places. You see you couldn't dig down or anything. Your Front line was built on top of the ground. It kept sinking and you had to keep building up on top.
It was easy for your rifle to clog up. When I was in the trenches with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, I was put on the peg the very next morning 'cause the barrel of my gun was all clogged with mud. It could have been dangerous if I'd have fired it. Anyway, I got put on the peg, which meant that when we come out of the line I had to do digging and that, whilst the others was resting.
Somewhere near Hill 60, there was an area of about half an acre. And it was full of German equipment of all sorts. There was revolvers, bayonets, belts. I went through this pile souvenir-hunting. I come across a revolver. Oh, it was a beauty! All pearl handles. And it wasn't very big, more like a civilian make. I can't remember the make. I put it in my haversack. When I got back I showed it to an officer. He went barmy. He said "I'd love that. Will you sell it me?" I said I wouldn't. I told him that if I was running short of cash I'd let him know. I carried this revolver about with me in my pack for months and months. And at the end I was broke. We was going out on rest for a few days. Of course you'd go to these big army canteens where you could buy anything. So I went to the officer and asked him if he'd buy it. He offered me 50 Francs. I said alright. The only souvenir I brought back was that cosh that's in the museum.
Our Engineers dug a tunnel into no-man's-land. And at the end they shaped it with a table in the ground. And they put a bowl full of water on this ledge. It was called a listening post. There was a bowl of water filled right up to the top. And if there was any sign of the water moving, you knew the Germans was out in no-man's-land and you'd send a message back on the field telephone. The tunnel was about fifteen yards out in no-man's-land. The Front lines was various distances apart. There was one place where you could distinctly hear every word they was saying and they could hear us too - we was that near to one another. On average the lines was about fifty yards apart. Sometimes it was less, sometimes it was a bit more. It all depended on the lie of the land. The barbed wire was always being blown down by shells. It was repaired every night. The entanglements were fifteen feet thick. You could climb over slowly, but you were a sitting target. At first it was all systematically arranged, like shelves in a wardrobe. The only way to get rid of it was shellfire - and of course these shells used to blow it all over the place. You'd got to go over with big cutters. If you were going over the top you'd cut a gap through this barbed wire so as the soldiers could crawl through it.
There was one or two sings-songs in the trenches. I used to do a bit of entertaining when we were out on rest at this old brewery - I use to do a song and dance - acting the goat. You could sing in a trench, but nothing else. But if the Germans heard you they might send over a trench mortar.
There was a lot of dud shells lying about during the war. You'd hear them coming and they'd go "plop" with no explosion or nothing. But they was bloody dangerous if you tried to interfere. What our people used to do if they went in the ground and never exploded was to take no notice. That's how these farmers got killed after the war - ploughing the land up and then hitting some of these duds. And then up they went. These dud shells had got some little bit of the fuse stuck and if you disturbed 'em, it was likely to move the obstruction and up they'd go. They wasn't all buried deep, they was usually about two feet underground. You had to send for the artillery blokes about dud shells. I think that there'd be two fellers, one at each end and they'd pick it up very carefully, put it on some bags where it wouldn't upset it. Then they'd go to the depot I suppose, where the real experts would see what was wrong with it.
We used to see lots of rats in the trenches. They come out at night. We used to play about with them. They used to run along the parapet and we used to wait for 'em with our rifles. When one was a-coming you'd shoot him and up in the air it'd blow him - there wasn't much left. They was in your dug-out and everywhere. They lived on food what the soldiers used to throw away - it was all jam, cheese, bully-beef, and biscuit. Never any fresh fruit. We got letters even in the Front line. When the letters come from England they'd go to the base. They'd be about two hundred miles behind the lines. Fellers on motor-bikes would set off from the base to the nearest part of the Front line with these letters. You could send letters home when you were in the Front line. You didn't have to pay for the stamps. All letters was censored. You got given a card with "Don't put this down, don't tell 'em this, don't tell 'em that..." on it. You hadn't got to tell 'em at home anything appertaining to the Front line. There was very little you could say. Now, when I got wounded in the foot a Parson come to me and asked me if I wanted him to send a card to my parents in England. So I said "Yes". These cards were a khaki colour. It had got "Wounded on Active Service" printed on it. I said "Half a minute, before you fill it in, don't tell them I'm severely wounded at home. I'm not severely wounded, I'm just crippled in the foot." He says "Alright my lad, I'll see to it, they shall have it." Anyway, he sent it off. He was an officer. That was his job at the Field Hospital.
When someone got killed in the trenches they sewed them up in a brown blanket. We had to wait till nightfall to take them down the line. They'd form a party of about four soldiers as was off duty in the trenches and they'd take him to a certain place. They'd make a note of where it was. And all his belongings was put in a bag, tied and sealed. And that bag went with him. But he wasn't buried with it. It was passed on to his relatives in England. They was buried in temporary graves - like this feller as I saw killed. He'd be put in a temporary grave with a little cross on and his name and regiment. Then when the war was over he'd be lifted out of that bit of ground and carted off to where they was collecting the dead. And they'd put him there in a proper grave. No, they wasn't left where they first put 'em. They went when this commission collected them all. If a soldier was severely wounded and he was unrecognisable, they'd know his name from his regiment. And his name would be put on that memorial at Thiepval.
I never thought about meself getting killed. I used to concentrate on my job. I'd sit outside the office and wait for these messages. It was in a little dug-out with about four officers in. The messages was in a sealed envelope. It never used to enter my head about getting killed. If I was a-going across land and the Germans was a-shelling and the shells was dropping close I used to drop down on the ground flat and wait for a while till it all calmed down.
The night before the Battle of the Somme it was hell on earth. I didn't think about all the men who was going to get killed. Some of the others was. They was all upset. But some of 'em was raring to go. No-man's-land was all lit up with hundreds of Very lights. There was orange mostly - showed up ever so light. There was some green ones and all. They was going on all night. The noise and these lights going on all night was absolutely hell on earth. You could see the guns flashing. How far behind they were depended on the size of the shell. The 18 pounders was almost on top of the Front line. Howitzers was further back, about a quarter of a mile back. Then there was 9.2s, and behind that 15 inchers. It was absolute chaos the night before the Battle of the Somme. When I was taking these messages all through the night, I had to fight every inch of the way. It was a dark night, a warm night. I've never seen so many soldiers. There was cooks and carpenters, too - they'd all got rifles. I reckon they pushed them in the battle. It was a lovely morning on the first of July. The sun was breaking through. It was a clear sky - beautiful it was. Nine hundred men went over the top with me. We had a check up at night-time, after tea, and all that was left was twenty-five. I was with the Colonel when we went over the top. I was walking with him. There was no fear on my part or thinking of getting killed. The German machine-guns was at work - where we went over there must have been about twenty of them. The 900 men was in a Battalion. I lost nearly all my friends that day. I wasn't on the Somme on the 20th July when your relative got killed because I was wounded on the first day. After having the bullet removed and convalescing, they packed me off to Cheltenham and re-fitted me out with a new kit. And I was back in France in about three weeks.
There was another bright spot - the La Bassee canal. That was terrible that was. The canal was running all along. The Germans was on one side of the canal and we was on the other. There was a hell of a lot of filth thrown at one another there. There was a place called Poperinge. That was near us - Foncquevillers. After being by Gommecourt Wood for nine months we was pushed about all over the place - relieving different regiments. We got hardly any notice. They might pass the word down that we were moving out that night. We didn't know where we was going or nothing. You couldn't shave or wash in the trenches.
It was awkward going over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. You'd got a rucksack and entrenching tool, and your rifle. It was heavy - you couldn't run - you'd shuffle along. I had about nine ammunition pouches. Each pouch held about fifteen rounds, so there was a bit of weight there. You'd only have one Mills bomb. If a soldier got wounded, the first thing the stretcher bearers would do was throw the equipment off the wounded soldier.
I met a French girl after the war in 1919 when I stayed behind in my billet, which was a café. We were very good friends. She used to play the piano when I asked her. She'd got diplomas for it. She used to play Belgian tunes - I didn't know 'em. Her parents was very good to me, like being home from home.
That was the First World War. It's all over now. I wouldn't go through it again.
Fred Lewis (1895-1986)
Details from the CWGC register:-
Edgar Arthur Innes, CMG, Lieutenant Colonel (Commanding), 1st/8th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, died on Saturday, 1st July 1916. Commemorated on Pier and Face 9A, 9B and 10B of the Thiepval Memorial, Somme, France.
For a direct link to the author of this article, email Tom Oates
Copyright © Tom Oates, December, 1984.
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