A new book and CD brings the voices of First World War veterans to moving life. STEPHEN LEWIS reports on York Oral History Society's latest project

JACK Bouch has the voice of a kindly grandfather telling stories, to a favourite grandson perched on his knee, about his long-ago youth.

His voice is calm and measured. But the things he has to say are quite extraordinary.

Mr Bouch - who hailed from Alne - was a survivor of the First World War, you see.

His voice was captured on reel to reel tape in the early 1980s by the great York-based historian Dr Alf Peacock. Listening to him - or reading his words transcribed into black and white - brings home as very little else can the reality of life for the young men who went off to fight in the trenches for King and Country 100 years ago.

Here he is, on arriving at the Western Front with his unit of the Coldstream Guards. "Now I expected (surprising how childlike you can be) that when we got there we'd be met by the regiment: 'Hoorah! They're here! The help, they're here!' Instead of which we met a colonel with a long face who proceeded to tell us that if the Germans didn't kill us, the British would, because we should be found guilty of this, that and the other. In other words, it looked like a very grim business..."

Mr Bouch describes the deadly sniper fire that was a constant threat to those in the trenches. "We could see the German wire, very close... It was a game of sniping, which went on all the time. We had no helmets, just ordinary service caps. Then suddenly a call, 'stretcher bearers!' It strikes a cold chill down your back. And in due course it (the stretcher) came back. 'Bennett's got one through the napper'. They carted him off on a stretcher, but he was dead."

He also talks about life in the trenches - the dirt and the vermin. "Our two constant companions in the line were rats and body lice." And, in a light-hearted moment that moves wrenchingly to sadness, he talks about the entertainment the troops laid on for themselves when they were behind the front line itself, such as this battalion band concert: "It was a beautiful evening and it was just coming twilight. We had the usual three or four comedians who did a few ribald songs. Then a lad called Freddie Sinclair, a librarian, got up with the band. And if you can imagine this beautiful evening and Freddie, with a very good voice, sang 'Somewhere a voice is calling'. And I bet there wasn't a man in those thousand men who hadn't got a lump in his throat. I shall never forget that night..."

Freddie, Mr Bouch says, went on to be very badly wounded on the Somme. And Mr Bouch himself? Well, he survived the war, to tell his story as an old man decades later.

Mr Bouch wasn't the only First World War veteran that Dr Peacock recorded. In all, he recorded on reel to reel tape conversations with more than 200 survivors of the war. Many had never even told their own families about what happened to them. Yet they confided their stories quietly to Dr Peacock, a magistrate, historian and ward of the York Educational settlement.

For many years, those tapes lay in a cupboard at Cambridge University until, following Dr Peacock's death in 2004, his partner Brenda Naylor told York Oral History Society about them.

The society began the process of transcribing many of the tapes. And the result is an extraordinary new book, published next Wednesday - These Were Earth's Best: Voices Of The First World War.

It is a heartbreaking, beautiful, devastating book: a book in which the ordinary men and women of York and elsewhere who were thrown into a situation for which no-one could ever be prepared are allowed to tell their stories in their own words.

Quite literally, often: because if you buy this book, in addition to the almost 300 pages of transcribed interviews, you get a CD containing the recorded voices of more than 20 of the interviewees. You can actually listen to Jack Bouch talking about Freddie Sinclair singing on that beautiful evening almost 100 years ago when a thousand men got a lump in their throat at the thought of home...

The book is not a military history, says Van Wilson of the York Oral History Society in her introduction. "It does not pretend to be a comprehensive history of the war. But it tells the stories, in their own words, of men - and one or two women - who experienced the war, whether in the army, navy or air force, on the home front, or in prison for their pacifist beliefs."

It may not be a military history: but it is possibly the most powerful book I have ever read about the First World War.

As Van says, none of these First World War veterans are with us any more.

So here, the best we can do is allow a few more of those who talked to Dr Peacock to tell their stories in their own words about the long-ago days of their youth when the world descended into madness...

Gilbert Loadman, from Vine Street, York, who joined the West Yorks Territorials and was assigned to the quartermaster's store: "I went all over the place in France...I'd take the rations up in a limber wagon, two small wagons joined together. I had to see they were carried into the trenches... When they were shelling, I'd take shelter in an old shell hole. The horses were doing what they were told, same as everyone else. But sometimes they stampeded, broke loose...Several of my friends were killed. I can picture them now."

Jim Melody, from York: "You had to go over to the ridge of Passchendaele. They were giving us some stick. The barrage had started and we were slipping and sliding, men were drowning in shell holes, it was hellish. A Canadian sergeant said 'We're taking over", and they got the worst because they was waiting for them..."

Arthur Pierse, from York, who joined up at 16: "We were big-headed, young and silly, we wanted to kill the Germans. We didn't know the consequences and we wanted to follow the other boys to join up...

"We were shipped to the front. As we got nearer, it was all desolate, all barren, and you could hear the guns going and soldiers coming down and ambulances going up all the time."

Isaac Bowman, from York, who was near Ypres in September 1916: "We went into the front line there, Sanctuary Wood. The artillery were sending whizz bangs. They were travelling sharper than sound.

"I was put on sentry there, and a man had shot at me straight away. I heard the gun go off and I felt it whiz z by me. You was up to your knees in water. I felt I was walking on something. And there was four dead soldiers had been killed at that post, under the water and mud. After dark we dug some holes and buried them. We don't know who it was...

"At Passchendaele, we were down in the hole for six days. When we came out, you could hardly see any flesh on my feet. They started to swell. There were four of us with trench feet...

These Were Earth's Best: Voices Of The First World war by Van Wilson is published by the York Oral History Society next Wednesday (July 16), priced £9.95. Van will attend a book signing session at W H Smith in Coney Street at 11am on Saturday July 26, when there will also be a display of photographs.


Listen to the voices of Jack Bouch and Arthur Pierse: