|You are in: Special Report: 1998: 10/98: World War I|
Thursday, 12 November, 1998, 15:11 GMT
World War I : Your stories
BBC News Online invited readers to share any special memories or family stories about relatives who fought in World War I. Here are the stories we have received so far.
After talking to my 87-year-old mother in Chicago she told me her memory of the day her father took her (at the age of 7) to the Chicago central business district (locally called "the loop") on the day of the "false Armistice" on November 9. You can imagine the impression that a 7-year-old might have of seeing adults in offices all over LaSalle Street yelling and tossing the contents waste paper baskets out of the windows and on to the streets.
He took her again to the office on the real Armistice Day on 11 November. They did not have a general quarantine in Chicago that day even though many people died in the preceding weeks due to Spanish influenza. Even at age 7, my mother was happy about the Armistice because she knew it meant her Uncle James would be coming home from the front.
I also have my great uncle's journal (he was a journalist in real life) of when he was a major in the quartermaster corps of the Rainbow Division. He volunteered at the age of 57 for the division Teddy Roosevelt wanted to raise.
He wrote that at 57 he was "fit and would not let age be an excuse for being a slacker." Wilson vetoed the Roosevelt division but my great uncle, Maj. Paul Valorous Collins, went anyway.
Near Verdun and next to an ammo train on 11 November, he wrote that there was a terrible crash of artillery on both sides all along the front at 10 minutes before 11 AM and he did not then know why. It turned out later that the artillery officers wanted to fire not to hit anything but so that they would not have to haul the ammo back after the armistice.
At 11 AM, everyone in his sector got up out of their trenches, walked toward each other, and traded cigarettes.
I have two diaries written by my father, Benjamin Mills Crenshaw, beginning with his departure from New York on 14 September, 1917. It covers his time in France as a 2nd Lt. with Pershing. It ends with his return from France. He was wounded in the head and woke up in a French hospital. Here is one excerpt. "Drilled. Packed up tents. Paraded in memory of Col Roosevelt who died yesterday. Major complimented me on having the only Platoon in the Battalion which passed in review in step and with a good line!" On 8 January 1919 my father came down with the flu just as he was going to sail for home. Luckily he survived.
Carolyn Crenshaw Griffin, USA
I never knew my grandfather, Percy Smith: although he survived the fighting in WW1 his health was severely affected and he died while still in his 50s, before I was born. Like many veterans, he was never willing to talk much about his experiences and only told a few anecdotes to my father, which were passed on to me.
He first saw action on the Somme, probably in September 1916 as he told my father that he accompanied the first tanks into action. He was later transferred to the Ypres sector and fought in the Third Battle of Ypres at Passchendaele, and recalled marching out along the Menin Road with a feeling of dread.
During one attack his company got caught in machine gun crossfire and most of the men around him were mown down. He and one other managed to take cover in a shell hole. Then his commanding officer appeared standing on the rim of the hole, yelling at them to get out and move on. As they started to climb out, the CO was almost cut in half by the machine gun fire - they stayed put. When he did eventually reach the German trenches and came to use his rifle, he found the bolt mechanism jammed by a bullet that had struck it as he was crossing No Man's Land. He was also hit in the chest by another bullet, which was stopped by a tobacco tin carried in his breast pocket.
I still have the official telegram sent to my grandmother informing her that her husband was missing in action, on or about 28th March 1918. He spent the remainder of the war as a POW in Germany. When the armistice was signed, no-one bothered to inform the POWs, who remained under guard in the prison camp for about another two weeks before one of them found an old newspaper and learned that the war was over.
The authorities showed no interest in helping the POWs and my grandfather and a friend ended up walking all the way back to the Channel coast, where they had to stow away on a ship to get back to England. When he was demobbed, the Government showed its gratitude for his service by deducting the sum of 10 shillings from his back pay to cover the cost of a greatcoat he had discarded.
My grandmother had several brothers, all younger than herself, who joined up in the First World War with the exception of the youngest, who was only 15. He was upset at not being old enough to go and one evening they discovered he was missing.
His father went to the army recruiting office to make inquiries there. To his dismay he discovered that his son had told the sergeant he was 18 and had been enlisted. He tried to convince the sergeant that his son was only 15 and should be discharged as under-age, but the sergeant's reply was, "It's too late, he's in the army now" and there was nothing to be done.
The boy was killed in action just a few weeks later, and most of his brothers also died in the same war.
The following is a note sent via postcard from the Great War by my Grandmothers brother Thomas Mcguigan from Newburn, Tyne and Wear, addressed to his mother my Great Grandmother.
Dear Mother, just a few lines hoping to find you all well at home as it leaves me at present we are out for a few days rest but we expect to be back soon. I have had word from Billy and he is allright give my best respects to all at home from your loving son Tommy.
I have this postcard, the hand woven needlework type, framed at my home. Tommy and Billy did not survive the war. I believe one died in action and one died from injuries after the war but I'm not sure.
My Grandfather Mr. Robert Lawrence Jones served with the 2/5th Battalion, the Lincolnshire Regiment during the Great War and was taken prisoner in April 1918 and held until the end of the war. He wrote an account of his experiences during this period which he dictated to his sister many years later.
"Then came that never to be forgotten explosion, and when I awoke I found myself and Handcock both lying half buried in the earth. Both Handcock and I were helped out by what proved to be Bavarian Infantry, and really we must have been a weird looking pair. Our tunics were in ribbons and our steel helmets torn from our heads. I have only a very hazy idea of how we arrived at the dressing station, and our first act was to fall fast asleep side by side with the men we had so lately been fighting.
We were awakened by a German Red Cross man who could speak English who told us we were to be sent up the line to help carry their wounded. From that moment things seemed to be forced home to us, making us realise the grim reality of war. It seemed strange to have to load shells on lorries which were soon to be dealing death to our men.
We carried a long pole with a piece of sacking tied by the four corners to it, making a rough but serviceable stretcher on which we carried many a poor wounded man, back to the dressing station. We had not much time to think about them though for we were under shrapnel fire from our own men.
We only got one bath in a month and also had our clothes fumigated. The feeling of cleanliness only lasted one or two days and the insects soon took up their old quarters again.
We were quartered in old barrack rooms, and awful places they were. We had less food than ever there. I exchanged my army boots for a loaf, a pair of inferior German boots and some imitation jam. Everything seemed a substitute for something else."
My great-grandfather's photograph hung in the parlour of my great-grandmother's house in Birmingham, in a frame which had a pattern of blue flowers and the words "forget me not".
My grandad's earliest memories were of being given pennies by his father's former comrades as he sat outside the local pub.
Great-grandmother only ever had the return of her husband's tobacco-pouch, still stained with his blood. My great-grandfather served with the 14th Battalion (1st Battalion Birmingham Pals) Royal Warwickshire Regiment from November 1915. He survived several savage battles during the Somme offensive, before receiving a fatal wound at Guillemont.
He is buried in the communal cemetery at Corbie, where last Tuesday my mother placed a poppy on his grave. Just another soldier in another regiment; but he was ours, and we still remember him and those like him.
My great uncle Alfred was a young man from Nova Scotia when he joined the Canadian Army to fight in France.
Not much is known of his experiences because he was killed after the war while working on the railroad in western Canada in 1922.
What is known was relayed by his sister, may great aunt. He took part in many of the horrific battles that the Commonwealth troops saw between 1916-1918.
I believe that his untimely death after the war is a tragedy. One would think that if you survived all of the horrors of war, you would be allowed to live out your life fully.
My grandfather Charles E Trevis fought on the battlefields of the Somme and never forgot it. Years later he still had nightmares and was unable to discuss the details of the hand-to-hand fighting which left him with bayonet wounds to his sides, bullet wounds which shattered his kneecap and the loss of several toes caused by frost bite.
He was 19-years-old, tall, handsome with a shock of red hair and masses of freckles when he joined up. Just a young man called Eddie, but from that day his youth disappeared .He even returned to pick his former colleagues off the barbed wire with the War Graves Commission which, considering the horror of the trenches, must have been a very brave action.
After the war he returned to his home village in the Midlands and raised money for a war memorial, which is still there today. We have a wonderful old photograph of my grandfather dressed as a clown perched on a donkey fund-raising for the memorial - a very different picture to him as a soldier on the Somme. But he knew he was one of the lucky few from his home area that had survived and was committed to honouring his dead friends.
My grandfather had a metal left leg all the years I knew him - he died in October 1980, aged 94. He was a sergeant in the Devonshire Yeomanry and fought at the Somme and Passchendaele. He talked very little about his experiences but my father told me that he lost his leg when a German shell landed on his foot and failed to explode.
He ordered a German to take him back to the British trenches and was subsequently invalided out. The surgery was so primitive that the skin and flesh which was folded over to cover his stump was too thin and throughout the remainder of his life he suffered great pain when cold or damp made the nerves under his stump sock jump.
World War I in France is often called "La Grande Guerre". Although it happened a long time ago, families were so badly affected by this war and they still are.
I am 35, French but living in the UK. My grandmother, who will be 85 next year, has never known her father as he was killed on the war front. My great-grandmother was a war widow at 20. My grandmother says that he only saw her briefly before being sent back to the front. He never came back.
To this day, the only memory that she has is a strand of hair that was sent to my great-grandmother when he died. We have never been able to visit his grave as we do not know where he is buried. For the record, his name was René Perruchot. "Tombé pour la France" and for our freedom.
My maternal grandfather, Grant Robbins Willard, was a volunteer ambulance driver on the Western Front in World War I. He sailed to France in May 1917 and cared for wounded soldiers, French and American throughout the war.
During his two years in Europe, Grant kept a detailed diary. Here is an excerpt from that diary that speaks of the horror he experienced.
Sunday, 19 August, 1917
My grandfather came from the east end of London and joined the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry at age 29 years in December 1914. He arrived at the Regimental depot in Bodmin, Cornwall on the 31st December 1914 and by April 1915 was fighting in France having left a wife and five children behind.
He was wounded twice (a photo shows two wound stripes on his uniform) and was badly gassed. He was finally discharged from the army in March 1919. During his war service he served not only with the DCLI, but also the Royal Berkshire Regiment and finally the Labour Corps.
When he came home he worked on and off in the docks but he suffered badly with the effects of the gas and he finally died in 1932 aged just 46 years - yet another man killed by the war albeit many years after it ended.
I never knew my grandfather, but through researching his army service I felt that I "met" a brave and courageous man. Not unique I know, but nonetheless something I'm very proud of.
My grandfather, John Henry Stemp, was born in 1900. I have a picture of him aged - I think - 16, in uniform, just as he began his training for the Royal Flying Corps. He passed through the Officer Cadet exams and was just preparing for service when he caught influenza. By the time he had finished convalescing the Armistice had been signed, or perhaps I would not be here now.
His second wife, my grandmother (who is still alive) was six in 1914, and still remembers her primary school drill for air raid attacks (by Zeppelin?): remove your slate from the slot where it stands in your desk, lay it flat on the desk top, get under your desk, put your hands on your head and sing "There'll always be an England"!
My wife keeps an old family-photo. It shows her great grandmother with her six children (one boy and five girls) aged between one and about eleven. There's no father on the picture, the photo was taken in 1914 and he had already left for the war. The photo was supposed to remind the father of his family: beautiful children, all dressed nicely and a worried looking mother at the far left. Before he could look at it, the father was dead.
Most of the girls have a smile on their face, only the boy is looking really seriously. Did he know that he would follow his father, about 30 years later?
And did the eldest daughter, who later emigrated to the United States, know
that the boy she would give birth to would have to fight his uncle and other
relatives in that same war?
As an expatriate from Birmingham now living in the US, this timely reminder of the anniversary of World War 1 brought memories of my grandfather flooding back.
One story that I remember he told of the second war, was he was working in a factory that built Spitfires, and at the time was a "panel beater" for the engine cowlings on the plane. The air raid siren went off, and he was about to retreat to the air raid shelter as was required. A few of his friends suggested that they go to the men's lavatories for a smoke instead, as the warnings rarely meant anything. Eventually, he went to the shelter and his friends went for the "smoke".
A lone German Heinkel, that was damaged by anti aircraft fire and attempting to limp back across the channel, decided to lighten it's load - directly over the lavatories! A 500-llb-bomb fell and all his friends died.
He was a brave man who volunteered for service in two world wars, and survived. He brought up four daughters without a wife (my grandmother died of a brain aneurysm while quite young) and managed to keep his sense of humor. I feel he still looks over me today.
My grandfather's First World War Story, as told to me by my father.
My grandfather was 15 when he signed up to the British Army in 1917. He had lied about his age and as no-one checked, he got in. Later that year he was sent for front line duty to what my father believes was Passchendaele, just before the beginning of the major battle there. As a machine gunner my grandfather was in what was referred to as a machine gun nest, which is a small dugout surrounded with sandbags in front of the main trench.
Shelling from the German artillery was regular, but not intense. Seemingly at random sections of the British line were periodically attacked and it was a matter of luck as to who would be on the receiving end. That day it was my grandfather's part of the line. Shrapnel from an exploding shell that had landed close to his position killed the two men who shared the nest and hit my grandfather in the foot.
After the bombardment was over stretcher carriers came out; collected the bodies and my bleeding grandfather. Once behind the British lines he was laid out on the grass with a hundred or more injured men in various states. Many were beyond help, with missing limbs, severe shrapnel wounds, etc.
Medical attention up to this point was almost zero. Eventually a hard pressed doctor came and sorted through the men, as to who would be loaded onto the lorries that had arrived earlier. When it came to my grandfather turn the foot was quickly examined, without removing the boot, and he was moved to a lorry for transportation.
Some three days later he arrived back in England where the boot was finally removed. He had got of lightly. Just the top of his big toe, above the joint, had been sliced off. Painful no doubt, but far from fatal.
This proved to be a blessing as he was invalided out of the army and escaped what was left of the war. As to the men who he knew, left behind in the trenches, not one survived the main battle of Passchendaele.
One of my grandfathers, John McCarthy, fought as a Canadian at Vimy Ridge. He was impailed through his arms to a fallen barn door by the enemy. He was certainly an iron man, over six foot tall. He eventually got his arms working again and also served in World War II in the Auxilliary Fire Service - but he never let my uncles join the boy scouts, he hated war so much.
When he retired he had a window cleaning round in Manchester until he was about 70-years-old. One day my mother asked me, a 12-year-old then, to follow him on his window cleaning round because there was ice on the ground and he might have slipped carrying his ladder. I was warned not to be seen by him otherwise we would all be in deep trouble. He didn't slip and I wasn't seen. What a relief. A really iron man.
My grandfather, a captain in the United States Army whom I shall not name, was something of a child prodigy. At age 20 he graduated from Vanderbilt University with bachelor degrees in both mechanical and electrical engineering, and immediately entered military service. It was 1917, and the US had entered the war.
Though I can't relate much about his experiences on the Western front - he never liked to talk about them, even years later - I can tell you that he did participate in the Allied Expeditionary Force which was sent to Siberia, after the Armistice in 1918, to help the White Russians fight the Bolsheviks.
This little known invasion of Russia was a nasty epilogue to the Great War. There, while assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers, and as the youngest captain in the US Army at the time (or so I have been told), he was twice court-martialed. The first was for killing two Russian soldiers, with whom my grandfather had been drinking. Some words were exchanged and the Russians pulled knives on my grandfather, who promptly shot both of them with his service revolver. For this he was acquitted.
The second was for contracting venereal disease from a young Russian lady. For this he was stripped of his commission, as was Army policy at the time. Despite this disgrace, and the fact that he could never again be an officer, he pursued a long and highly decorated career in the Army, serving in both the Second World War and the Korean War, eventually retiring as a Sergeant Major.
My grandpa, volunteered to fight and defend Serbia. He was the only one of his 5 brothers to survive the Albanian winter, attacks of Albanian gangs, wounds on Corfu island, and the fight back to Serbia from Saloniki front. And it was 1,450,000 Serbs who died in WWI!
Marko Ristic, Serbia
Recently, sorting through some papers my grandmother left behind, we came across a dog-eared photograph of a young boy in a uniform, two army pay slips and a fragile, delicate letter written from Ireland in 1917. This belonged to my grandmother's uncle, William Smart, 18-years-old from the close-knit South Wales coal fields near Fleur-de-Lys who was killed in action. We don't know where or how he died, where he is buried or even which regiment he served in. All we know, from the letter, is that Uncle Billie was trained on heavy machine guns and was desperately lonely. He was surrounded by hundreds of fellow men - boys - in similar circumstances and all he wanted was a hug from his Mam.
Andy Rozzier, UK
My grandfather died in the early stages of WWII in Greece. He had lied about his age, being way over age, but I guess in those days nobody looked too closely. As he had fought in WWI he was given a squad. On being informed that the Germans were a few miles up the road he formed up his little squad and marched off to meet the enemy. Unfortunately the Germans were waiting, and he inadvertently marched his squad into the fire of a machine gun, taking a bullet between the eyes and becoming one of Monmouth's first casualties of the war. When my cousin discovered that Sam's name was omitted from the Memorial in Monmouth, the local council rushed to rectify the matter and promptly put his name under the fallen of WWI! Their reaction to their blunder was to point out that at least he was on the Memorial, and did we want them to do... redo the entire monument?
Keith Davies, USA
My grandfather, Alfred Moseley, from Aston, Birmingham, fought with the Royal Warwickshires on the Somme in the First World War. He actually joined the British Army before the outbreak of the war and was a lance corporal bugler. He had a number of interesting tales from the trenches. He said that when the order went out to go over the top he would try to make his way to the middle of the line because the German machine gunners always started on the outside of the line and worked their way towards the middle. If you were on the end of the line you knew you were going to die.
On one occasion when they were ordered into no man's land the platoon suffered heavy casualties and he was forced to take cover in a shell hole. He sat in there shaking with fear as he surveyed the carnage. All around him were the bodies of his dead friends and comrades. He said he was totally gripped with terror until suddenly and inexplicably he felt a hand grip his shoulder. He turned round with fright but there was no-one there. Even so he could still feel the hand and he heard a voice say 'Don't worry Alf, you'll be OK'. From that moment onwards he lost his fear and got up out of the shell hole and made his way back to the British lines unscathed. He was never able to explain that experience.
One of the most fascinating stories came from when he was guarding a group of German prisoners in a dugout. One of the Germans came forward and he raised his rifle to signal him to get back inside. But then he heard the German say 'Don't you recognise me Alf'? It turned out to be a German friend of my grandfather who he had worked with in Birmingham before the war. When the war broke out the man returned to Germany. Out of all the men fighting along the entire front, fate had brought my grandfather and this man back together.
Eighty years later I now live and work in Germany and I wonder what my grandfather (who died before I was born and would now be 117) would have made of it all. I think he would have approved of the fact that the British and the Germans are now working together and building a strong relationship rather than being at loggerheads and fighting one-another. He was also an ARP warden in the Second World War. After the experience of those conflicts I'm sure that he would never have wanted anything like them to ever happen again.
PS My Uncle, Arthur Walton served
with an artillery regiment just outside of Ypres during the First World
After the Germans had been pushed out of western Belgium, he recalled
walking through the devastated town of Ypres which had been subject to
almost continuous shelling for four years. He told me how he had spent the
night in the ruins of Cloth Hall in Ypres. His prize possession from the trenches was a spiked German officer's
Helmet. My Auntie gave it away because she feared it would be haunted by
a dead German soldier!
My grandfather Thomas joined the Royal Marines when he was 19 having argued with his foreman at the Royal Doulton Factory in Lambeth. He saw the world with them (Australia/Cairo etc) - a dream come true for a poor, working class lad from Lambeth! He married his best pal's sister, Emma, in 1905 and settled down to family life. By 1914 he had a regular job on the railway and four young boys.
He was called up in September 1914, being in the Royal Marine Reserve, and was in the BEF (The Old Contemptibles). Wounded the same month he transferred back to England and died on his 40th birthday, leaving a widow and four sons under the age of eight. Thomas was buried in 1914 at Lambeth with full military honours.
But he did not
have a headstone - and in the last month the Commonwealth War
Graves Commission has commissioned a one with my inscription to be placed on his grave. At last he will receive
the recognition he truly deserved. My father (now a lively 90 year
old) and his dead brothers were a remarkable tribute to Thomas and
especially Emma, who brought the boys up single handedly on a
pittance, with fortitude, hard work, selflessness and, even more
remarkably, a wonderful sense of fun and laughter - inherited by her
son and my father, Jack Cameron.
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