Friday, 1 July 2016

1st July 1916 - One Hundred Years On

Every family in the United Kingdom probably has a family story about the Somme. This is ours.

My Grandfather, Walter J. Evans,  was a Private in the 8th KOYLIs and took part in the attack on the 1st July, 1916. He was one of Kitchener's 100,000 who signed up in the early days of the war.

In his own words this is his story.

THE SOMME

Before entering the front line trenches late at La Boiselle for the attack on 1st July, we bivouacked in Henencourt Wood. Conscious of what the morrow could bring forth, there was little sleep among Officers and men. I was restless and apprehensive, so decided to walk around and see what my comrades were doing.

By the faint flickering light of short pieces of candle most of them were writing to their folks at home (tragically in so many, many cases the last letter they ever wrote). Some were gambling; some drinking, finishing the bottles of wine they had carried with them from the estaminets; a few were in meditation and prayer. Among the men there was a strong feeling of comradeship, in the knowledge that we were shortly to face a common danger, perhaps death. I thought there were three chances, death, wounded, survival, so the odds two to one on living.

Officers were similarly unrestful, but more noisy. They had an old portable gramophone. They played an old record of two songs, over and over again, - "I love a girl on a magazine cover" and "We've been married just one year". They sang lustily, and it became very boring. Among the men there was a growing fear, that the forthcoming attack could go wrong, with disastrous consequences. Previously we had spent some time in a village, rehearsing the attack which was to be made on the German trenches. Tapes were laid down, showing the position of their trenches, and of the redoubts, and villages behind which in some cases were to be our objectives, eg Bapaume and Pozieres. We rehearsed these attacks over and over again, and we were always successful. The German trenches were always captured and our positions consolidated! It was going to be so easy. Little or no opposition!

No allowance was made for nor plans made for the possibility that the attack would fail. The Generals never gave this a thought. They were so sure their plans would be successful. But what if they were wrong, and the confidence and hopes they gave to us of victory proved false? Further fears were added to our already doubting and troubled minds when it was learned that the attack was to be made at 7:30am in broad daylight, because we knew that attacks were always made just before dawn. Every front line Officer and other rank from private to Company Sergeant Major knew full well that to attack at such an hour was "ordered" suicide. We would be shot down like the clay pipes in one of those shooting booths at a country fair. We asked who was the lunatic at large, responsible for giving such an order? It was a ghastly mistake, costing so many lives. Whoever he was, after the war I would have had him confined to the Tower of London, and tried by a Jury of private soldiers who had survived. Rumours had begun to circulate and men became extremely bitter and resentful when it was learned that the three Senior Officers of the battalion would not be taking part in the attack. We felt we had been left in the lurch, and badly let down in our hour of need. It fell to the lot of a Captain, H E Poyser, to lead the attack. We were the only battalion to attack on the 1st July without a senior officer leading! There were also many familiar faces missing of comrades we had trained with for nearly two years. Where were they? Ten percent of our fighting force had been withdrawn! How did they chose who was to go into action, and who was to stay behind and fight. All in all those of us who were going into action were very, very unhappy, and morale was low.

Zero Hour 7:30am 1" July 1916

A perfect morning, brilliant sunshine from a clear blue sky. It was going to be hot. It was a day for me which has never died. Each succeeding 1st of July since 1916 has been a day of thanksgiving - sadness - and deep sorrow. Thanks, and gratitude to the two unknown stretcher bearers who found me at first light on Monday, 3rd July in No Man's Land severely wounded, carried me down long winding tortuous communication trenches to a waiting ambulance at Crucifix Corner.

Since this day I have lived with sadness, sorrow and everlasting quiet remembrance for so many of my comrades and good companions, whose lives were sacrificed on this day. Such a grievous loss of fine men who never stood a chance of survival, due in a large measure to the arrogance and stupidity of Generals and very incompetent Staff Officers.

Just before 7:30am there was an enormous explosion, the ground shook and trembled and we wondered what had happened. At La Boiselle, where we were, mines had been blown by us. Huge craters appeared, but much too big to shelter in. Whether any Germans were killed as a result, we never knew. Cold fat bacon for breakfast. No tea, -nothing hot. Whilst waiting for 7:30am precisely, I took the opportunity of making my will in my Army Pay Book. No witnesses were necessary. I recalled those three chances. KILLED - WOUNDED - SURVIVAL. But the heart thumped a bit, and the stomach felt a little sick. I wasn't feeling very brave.

Seconds before 7:30am we were surprised and amazed when bombardment of the German frontline trenches suddenly lifted! It had been going on continuously day and night for a week. There was an uncanny silence, doing nothing for morale. It increased the strain, and nervous tension, and it required a large measure of self-discipline and control. Later it was learned that this manoeuvre was designed in the hope that it would induce the Germans to stay in their dugouts for a few minutes, instead of manning the trenches when we attacked. Another stupid blunder and tactical mistake by the Generals.

Now my thoughts were all of Home, and the loved ones I had left behind, - Edie - my parents - her parents and so many others. Time was running out.

During the waiting there was plenty of rum available. Not for me in such circumstances. I wanted a clear head and my wits about me. I was not going over the top in a fuzzy state, half drunk.

There was a full jar passed along the front line, to which an Officer had tied a note which said, "Don't forget the chap at the other end. Good Luck." That jar reached the chap at the other end still half full!!

Then it all began to happen, - 7:30am.

Whistles began to blow their shrill notes. Loud shouts of "Over the top you go". First up the scaling ladder was our platoon officer, (Lt Morris) and platoon sergeant (Dean), closely followed by the rest of us. We passed through our own barbed wire, into No Man's Land (without difficulty). Bayonets fixed, and rifles held across the chest we spread out to five paces apart, and commenced a slow advance towards the German trenches.

LOOK RIGHT - LOOK LEFT, as far as the eye could see, - one long line of men in khaki, advancing at a slow walking pace forward. "No rushing - no shouting - no cheering" was the order given. Only a few yards from our own trenches we were met with withering, murderous machine gun fire from the German trenches. A veritable hail storm of lead. Few could live in this. We were surprised - shocked - and bewildered, because we had been told that when we attacked there would not be any Germans left in their trenches! My battalion, the 8th Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry had been told "When you go over the top, you can slope arms, light up your pipes and cigarettes and march all the way to Pozieres, before meeting any Germans".

The Germans were not all dead, but very much alive. During the lull in the bombardment which had been given to them they had manned their machine guns in selected spots and were creating terrible havoc in our ranks. Five paces to my left was platoon Sergeant Dean: five paces to his left was platoon officer Lt Morris. Both were killed within a few yards of our trenches. There was now no one to lead us, but we still moved forward towards the German trenches. The concentrated German machine gun fire was so accurate and devastating that those five paces apart now became 10, 20, 30, men were going down like ninepins, looking right and left again there now seemed to be hardly anyone standing. Imagine a thunderstorm, thunder and lightning, in every raindrop a bullet, how could anyone escape. Then how could the German machine gunners miss us? It was broad daylight and we were moving forward at walking pace, as some idiotic general had ordered. It was ordered suicide.

On my small sector the hail of bullets made it impossible to advance even as far as the German wire. I was still on my feet when I felt a sharp crack and felt pain in my right buttock. I had been hit with an explosive bullet. I fell to the ground and placed my hand to where the pain was, it was covered in blood, and a patch of my trousers had been blown away, where the bullet had hit me.

Knowing that the wounded were not going to receive any attention, I threw away my rifle, tin hat, ammunition and Mills bombs, as far away from me as possible, but kept my water bottle by my side. From the inside pocket of my tunic I took out my Field Dressing, just a bandage and safety pins, and tried to apply the dressing to where the wound was. It was useless, as the explosive bullet had made such a large messy wound that the bandage seemed to fall in a hole. Later I found that the bullet had splashed, and travelled a bit, and I had wounds at the base of my spine and a superficial wound in the left buttock.

I had done the best I could with the dressing, and had to leave it at that. I guessed I had been hit between 8am and 8:30am, but had no means of verifying this. I tried to stand up, but could not do so. I must have been lying in a depression in the ground, as I cannot remember being sniped at. Maybe the German riflemen had easier targets nearer to them. Time passed, the Sun began to get hot, and I felt very thirsty, and badly wanted a drink of water. I reached for my water bottle, but decided against moving. It was still brilliant sunshine, and any movement, however slight, could have invited a sniper's bullet. My one great fear was that I would be taken prisoner. I made a great effort and managed to crawl nearer to our own trenches, where I found a longer depression. I managed to turn my body round, and point my head towards our trenches, thinking that if I can manage to crawl at all, that is the way I must go, straight ahead! The Sun began to set, and I guessed the time to be about 9pm. I had been in No Man's Land about twelve hours. All around things seemed strangely quiet. The crash of shells - the monotonous rat-a-tat-tat of the machine guns, the hiss and whine of bullets had died away. Only a sniper's bullet was occasionally heard. The noise of battle was over. No Man's Land was completely deserted of fighting men, only the dead and wounded remained.

At that moment I knew our attack had been a complete failure, and my battalion had suffered severe losses.

I made many unsuccessful efforts to move nearer to our trenches, and thought my chances of survival NIL.

I thought of my sweetheart, Edie (later my wife) - my parents - relatives - Edie's parents and relatives and all my friends and companions!

It seemed a pathetic and awful way to die, alone, severely wounded and unattended. I managed to turn myself partly on my side (I had been lying on my back) and resigned myself to accept whatever fate awaited me. I could do no more to help myself, except to be patient, and self-disciplined. I had lost a lot of blood, so perhaps it was as well I could not move. I must have lapsed into periods of sleep and unconsciousness, for as night fell I can remember little more thereafter until I felt myself being touched and handled and the sound of voices - BRITISH! - What a relief! "There's a KOYLI here" said one. "Can't be," said another, "they went out on Saturday night." "Well, he's got a KOYLI cap badge alright" I said "What day is it then?" "Monday morning" was the reply. I said, "I have been here since 8:30 Saturday morning. They said "We know", and put me on a stretcher.

I had been found at first light (before dawn) by two regimental stretcher bearers from another unit. Who they were I never knew. They carried me on a stretcher, along tortuous winding, zig-zagging communication trenches, sometimes shoulder high, to a waiting Ambulance at a spot known as Crucifix Corner. I received no treatment at Battalion Aid Post, nor at the Field Ambulance Dressing Station, - I was a chalky, muddy, bloody mess.

Lifted into the ambulance, and knowing the spot, all inside were surprised how near the ambulance had come to the front line. Well within German shelling distance. Our destination was Corbie Casualty Clearing Station.

I must tell this story. The ambulance was full of men suffering from loss of and badly shattered limbs - severe body and facial wounds. At the start of the journey the ambulance driver had to pass along a road which contained many ruts and shell holes in it. Each time the ambulance passed over one of these we were shaken up and it was unpleasant, and when this occurred there was much swearing. When well on the journey the driver stopped and said, "I am a Quaker and all this swearing disturbs me. I don't like it; Will you please stop it."

I don't know what passed through our minds (I had done my share of cursing), we moved on and there was no more swearing. Perhaps we admired his courage in bringing his ambulance so near the firing line.

We reached Corbie Casualty Clearing Station, and found it choked with wounded. RAMC Officers and their men were attending feverishly to those cases needing urgent medical attention, and there were many extreme cases, and operations and amputations were being performed on trestle tables. What I saw turned my stomach. My own stay was short. I was examined, left on the stretcher, and given an anti-tetanus injection, and put on another ambulance.

On the 5th or 6th July I was admitted to No 14 Stationary Hospital, Boulogne. It was entering a "Heaven on Earth". Lights to see with - everything so spotlessly clean. I was taken down the ward where standing by a bed there was a real Angel, - a Nursing Sister. Looking at the beautiful white sheets, I said to the Sister, "You cannot put me in there, look at the mess I am in." I was still in my muddy and bloody uniform, and dirty boots and puttees. She just smiled and said "We'll see".

I was undressed, thoroughly cleaned up and put to bed. I shall never forget the thrill and joy of resting once again between clean white sheets, and the lovely face of that Sister.

I do not know how long I remained in this Hospital. All Hospitals were under extreme pressure, and so many wounded were still coming down from the firing line. Leaving No 14 Stationary Hospital, Boulogne, I was taken on to a Belgian Hospital Ship, named the "Jan Bruedel", and disembarked at Dover. Taken into the Railway Station where we were laid side by side on the platform. Once again I looked RIGHT, - looked LEFT, as far as the eye could see. One long line of stretcher cases, not even one pace between them!

Lifted on to an ambulance train, I arrived at the 2nd Eastern General Hospital, Dyke Road, Brighton, one of the first convoy of wounded to arrive at this hospital from the FIRST DAY OF THE SOMME Battle, on 1st July 1916. Sister Farnon (?) told me the wound was as "large as a tea saucer", but there were other wounds to the left buttock (small) and to the piece of gristle at the bottom of the spine (medical report "Sacro-Coccygeal region”).

There was a stroke of good fortune for me. An aunt and family lived nearby at Worthing, and was quickly over to see me. Also Brighton was only a short railway journey from London, where Edie and my relatives and friends lived. So I had plenty of visitors. I understood that whilst on Dover Railway Station men who appeared to belong to Northern Regiments were sent South, and vice-versa!

The next 18 months or so was spent in various hospitals and convalescent camps as far north as Alnwick, Northumberland. During the period I was receiving treatment for my wounds I was sent to Worthing for a few months. The Hospital had been loaned by the Nuns for this purpose, and a regular visitor to the Hospital was Mrs Day, the famous Music Hall Artist, Kitty Colyer. Her chauffeur came every week, picked up six patients and drove us to her bungalow in Lancing, the rear of which ran across the beach, down to the sea. An excellent tea, cigarettes for those who smoked, chocolates for the others, then a drive back to the Hospital. Only those who were wounded were taken, - I never missed an opportunity. Another memory of 1916 was visiting the Kersall to hear Mark Hambourg the famous pianist.

Near the end of 1917 I was sent to London for my discharge. On arrival home in Chelsea there was a message asking me to report to the War Office. I was interviewed by Staff Major Arbuthnot who I recall quite well and a Staff Captain whose name was I think Chandler. The question was would I be prepared to do some clerical work to relieve a fit man to be sent to a theatre of war? I was in clover, hours were 9 to 5, I went home to Chelsea each evening and received ration and fuel allowance. In times of stress I was always prepared to do Sunday duty. I was finally discharged on the 17th February 1919. I was instructed to report to Wellington Barracks where there were about 200 of us on the Parade ground. We were formed into columns of four and marched to Victoria station where we boarded a train for Crystal Palace which was a dispersal unit. Passing through all the formalities I think I was given a civilian suit in exchange for my Khaki, - it fitted where it touched - but what did that matter. One last incident I remember was a Redcap, noticing my CSM Badge, reprimanding me for drinking in the wrong bar.

I did not return to my previous employers, McMillans, but entered a Civil Service examination which I was fortunate enough to pass.

The First of July 1916 was a day for me which has never died, and never will. In the space of a few hours 518 of my comrades were killed or wounded. Every anniversary of that day is a day of deep sorrow remembering my comrades who gave their lives for their country, and a day of thanksgiving for my survival

After the War men of my battalion did not want to lose the comradeship and goodwill we had enjoyed during hostilities, forged in common sacrifices and suffering. Annual re-unions were organised which were very successful in maintaining contact with each other. The 8th (Ser) Battalion had (its first) reunion in 1932, 5 members attended, but by 1939 numbers had increased to 139. After the Second World War re-unions of the 8th Bn continued until 1966 when unfortunately numbers dwindled. The re-unions were held in London, Leeds and Doncaster.


Post Script:
My Grandfather lived to a good age, and died peacefully in his sleep. He was a lovely man, and a joy to be with. The time he spent in the trenches, however, remained with him all his life and he would often speak of it. However he had had enough of war and refused to join the Home Guard during WW2. 

17 comments:

  1. I've read every word- stories such as your Grandfathers should not be forgotten-his writing brings it all back as if yesterday.

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    1. It makes me cry whenever I read it. I can hear his voice in my head, & see him in his armchair by the fireplace.

      I'm so lucky he came back.

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  2. Inspirational...this country owes me like your grandfather a great deal

    thank you for sharing

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    1. I meant Men not Me - bad keyboard skills

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    2. I knew what you meant.

      He was a lovely, lovely man.

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  3. Thank you for sharing your grandfather's recollections. Extremely moving words. Best Regards,

    Stokes

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    1. My privilege. It is wonderful to be able to keep his memory alive.

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  4. Trebian - absolutely brilliant... many thanks for sharing that...

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    1. Thank you. I think he would be pleased to know his words were being read today.

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    1. My pleasure. My Grandad signed on in London on the 7th September, and was sent to Pontefract on the 9th. He'd never been to the North before.

      He left an account of his enlistment. I will post it at some point in the future.

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    2. That would bee wonderful to read.

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    3. I'll see what I can do.... ;-)

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  6. Thank you for posting this. There will be many who lost relatives on that dreadful day who have no account of their own to tell of the realities of war for the lions led by donkeys.

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    1. I'm very lucky that there is no name on a monument for our family.

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  7. Fascinating and nicely written.

    Did he write his memoirs or just fragments at your/someone else's request?
    Thanks
    Andrew

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    1. He wrote an account of his experiences of the Great War because he thought it was important to write it down. The first, longer, version we believe was thrown out/cleared away by my Grandmother.

      He wrote one main narrative, but he also wrote down other fragments and accounts as he remembered things and also for other members of the family.

      What I did was pull them all together into a coherent story and circulated the whole thing round the family. If you haven't had a look already, go and read this blog: http://wargaming4grownups.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/my-grandfathers-favourite-war-story.html

      It contains his favourite story, which he told many times.

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