Lost stories from the trenches

Lost stories from the trenches

British infantrymen on the march in 1916 in Northern France during the First World War.

British Troops going over the top

Charles Seymour: From These Were Earth’s Best... Picture supplied by Richard Seymour

Clarence Ward: From These Were Earth’s Best... Picture supplied by Tony Wood

Ernest Moorey: From These Were Earth’s Best... Picture supplied by Chris Moorey

First published in News
Last updated

A remarkable new book and recordings lets us hear the voices of the soldiers, reports STEPHEN LEWIS.

THERE are no survivors of the First World War any more. Most died in the 1980s and 1990s. Harry Patch, the 'last fighting Tommy', passed away in 2009.

Thanks to an extraordinary new book from the York Oral History Society, however, we can still hear the voices of those who fought and suffered in the trenches.

In the 1980s, the York-based historian Dr Alf Peacock recorded interviews with almost 300 surviving First World War veterans, many from York and North Yorkshire. The men were in their 80s and 90s. Most had never even told their families about what they went through in the war.

Yet they opened up to Dr Peacock, telling their stories with a simplicity and immediacy that brings the awful events they describe vividly to life.

With the help of a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, members of the York Oral History Society transcribed the interviews for their new book These Were Earth's Best: Voices Of The First World War. The book even includes a CD in which you can listen to the voices of more than 20 of those interviewed.

Here, thanks to the book, we allow some of those veterans, now sadly all passed on, to tell their stories in their own words...

Clarence Ward, from York, on enlisting as a volunteer in Exhibition Square one Monday morning early in the war:

"There was 60 or 70 Kitchener's men. The doctor got you to touch your toes, and he touched your shoulder, that was your examination. I got signed in about quarter to 12, and we was on parade at half past two.

"We used to march round York. We was in the nurses' home from the hospital, three storeys high, then moved to York barracks where we got some horses which had come straight from Canada. There was stables there where a horse trainer used to break horses in. Every day we'd groom them, water and feed them and then after breakfast we'd take them for exercise."

Ernest Moorey, from York, describes the journey to Poperinghe, near Ypres

"We got off the boat (from Folkestone to Boulogne) at about 11 and went into a camp on the cliffs and it was a long march with a full pack and about 250 rounds of ammunition.

"We got a lay down and most of us were marching before three o'clock the next morning, it was so cold. They moved us up in cattle trucks to a farm amongst the straw, which was luxury. But another couple of days they took us up near Poperinghe, in London buses.

"There was no trenches, just open land. And we marched in artillery formation and casualties were very heavy. We were ordered to dig in with our entrenching tools. Then, to our surprise, we were ordered to retreat into a sort of wood, and spent a night in pouring rain.

"Some of the lads started to light little fires to boil the dixies and one stray shell came over and killed one of the chaps. There were... 200 of the rank and file either killed or wounded the first day! I was just a week out from Newcastle."

Ernest again, on an attack on his trench on May 1, 1915: "A shell must have burst just above us and it really wiped out the whole of my section. There was dead and wounded lying in a pile. Three of my school pals from Helperby were killed instantly and the other two died two days after. One laddie from Bedale was laid by me, badly wounded, and he died.

"I was wounded in the left shoulder. When I came to, I lay in the trench for a couple of hours. I jammed my balaclava helmet into the wound to stop the flow of blood and I could feel the artery thump, thump, thump and I thought I'd had it..."

Charles Seymour, from York:

On a gas attack: "A gas shell exploded close to my chest and I'd got my jacket open and I got blistered. It wasn't enough to put me out. Those people who were in the middle of it, where there was a density of gas, they suffocate, it fetched their insides out."

On being targeted by a sniper: "We started to shave and a bullet went by my throat. A sniper had seen me, and missed me by a 16th of an inch. I should have been killed and I felt it, the heat of that bullet."

On finding a Colt revolver: "I put it into my haversack and kept quiet about it. When we got out of the line I thoroughly cleaned it. It had five cartridges in the barrel. And I took it into the line and I was quite cocky about this revolver. The sergeant was half asleep in the dugout and a sapper saw the revolver in my haversack.

He says "Does it work? Let's see it'. So I pulled the trigger but I shot the sergeant right through his leg and he went straight back to England. And our officers, after they told me off, said: 'Seymour, if you shoot me in the leg I'll give you 500 francs.'"

George Harbard, from York, who served with the 44th Field Ambulance:

"We were collecting casualties from the Cloth Hall in Ypres. They were brought there from the Menin Road. The Medical Corps had no rifles, only first aid dressing bags.

"We were divided up into areas. The stretcher bearers went into the line itself, the first aid men brought casualties to a clearing station and our people patched them up. The Friends Ambulance Unit operated from the final clearing station behind the lines and there were a lot of women taking you back.

"One morning, the Germans were shelling and there was a platoon of our infantry in one of the cellars in Arras. A shell dropped on the wall and blew the gas into where these chaps were sleeping. They came into our dressing station and by midday they were all dead. The whole platoon. One of my pals was sent crackers and had to be evacuated and sent home. He was one of the stretcher bearers and he went absolutely nuts."

John Blakeway, from Alne, on going 'over the top' to launch an attack:

"Early on the 15th it was misty. At the attack we went across no man's land. We were told that if there was any turning back, we'd be shot. There were dead and wounded lying about. We had to leapfrog over the trenches. We were weighted down. I had three bandoliers of bullets, pockets full of hand grenades. We had bandages, rations, a little entrenching tool (it wasn't much good).

"I went into a shell hole with a Lewis gunner and he was shot through the wrist. I had a spare bandage so I wrapped it up. He went and then before I knew where I was I was sailing through the air. I was hit in the head. I didn't lose consciousness but was concussed. My eyes cleared and I felt blood running down my face. I took off the helmet and a piece of shell was stuck through the front."

Arthur Pierse, from Richmond, recalls a cavalry charge by the Bengal Lancers:

"As we were drawing into Lens, with our guns, we passed the Bengal Lancers riding their horses and the sergeant was leading with his flag.

"They made a full gallop. There were a hundred of them. Eventually as they got nearer and nearer to the Germans, one went that way, another that way, and I thought 'there'll not be many of these come back', because the barbed wire entanglements were about 15 to 20 yards wide. It was terrible, you couldn't get through and I knew the horses couldn't jump them.

"Eventually I saw one of the Bengal Lancers. He had the sergeant laid over the horse and it happened to be white. The blood was running down the side of the horse and that was the only one that came back in that attack..."

These Were Earth's Best: Voices Of The First World War by Van Wilson is published by the York Oral History Society, priced £9.95. Van will be at a book-signing session at WH Smith in Coney Street on Saturday, when there will also be a display of photographs.

 

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