Sunday, 3 July 2016

Going to War - September 1914

As requested, here is my Grandfather's account of joining up in September 1914.

World War 1 Reminiscences by Walter James Evans no l4602 “Wally”

WHO WERE WE? Certainly not a group of men eager for war, and we did not join His Majesty's Forces because we had nothing better to do, or because we were unemployed (At the time he was employed by McMillans the Publishers, St Martins Street, London, doing clerical work and "Memorising the stock of books on the shelves". Salary was "10/- a week with annual rises"). The vast majority of us knew little or nothing of the armed forces, except that we were nurtured in the belief that the Royal Navy rules the waves and was invincible; that the Regular Army although small (all volunteers) was the finest professional Army in the world, highly skilled in the use of the rifle. It was therefore shock news when the papers told of the successive defeats suffered by the Army in the very early days of hostilities. Day after day these tragic events were reported and there was nationwide distress. They followed so swiftly after each other. The papers also told the moving story of the "Angels of Mons". Retreating fast many men said they saw in the sky angels, giving them encouragement, comfort and support. But the odds against them were much too great. Vastly outnumbered in men and disastrously out weaponed, the flower of the British Army suffered enormous casualties, and as a fighting force within itself virtually destroyed. Lord Kitchener then issued his appeal for 100,000 volunteers. So we answered by coming from mines, foundries, factories, offices, the land, elementary schools, public schools and universities.

There was an overwhelming response to the appeal. We had a common purpose, to help our country in its hour of need, and from sheer patriotism, sacrificing much in coming.

On 7th September 1914, I enlisted in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and on the 9th Sept 1914 with some 200 others I entrained at a London railway terminus to join the Regimental Depot at Pontefract. On the train there was no hilarity or cheering. There was quiet conversation, mainly about what we had left behind. Wives, sweethearts, parents, friends and companions, and speculation as to what lay ahead for us. Many confidently expected to be back home for Christmas! We arrived at Wakefield late evening, with an hour to spare for a connection to Pontefract.

A few of us walked out of the station, and following the scent of "fish and chips", walked along a cobbled stone street, found the shop, and enjoyed a very welcome meal. We had not eaten since leaving London.

I had not been so far North before, and it was a strange new world for me. All around there were reflections in the sky from blast furnaces, foundries, mines etc. There was a heavy mist falling, just like a drizzle of rain, and dressed as I was in a summer lounge suit, and straw hat, I was cold, wet and miserable.

Arriving at Pontefract very late at night, we found absolute chaos! The streets were choked with men, who had been instructed to join the depot. They were very angry, saying they were refused entry into the barracks, and we had no chance of being admitted. Those of us who had come up together from London made our way to the Depot, and were turned away. What a beginning! We were told that the Depot was full to overflowing. Men at the gate produced A.F.B. 21("Recruiting Pass for Recruits"), which was the Official Pass instructing the holder "the proceed by railway to Pontefract to join the Regimental Depot". The answer to this was "The Depot have not been informed you were coming". There was nothing to do but to walk back to Pontefract. Some said they would sleep in the fields and try to find a haystack; shop doorway, many said they would be off home in the morning.

I had left good regular employment, and a comfortable home to enlist, and was extremely shocked and bewildered to find myself in this position, nowhere to go, but I did not think of returning home, - that would seem cowardly. There was however one bright spot. Although very late at night many good people of Pontefract, hearing of the chaos, and what was going on came into the streets, offering accommodation for the night. I was taken into the home of a miner, given a comfortable bed, and a good breakfast in the morning. It was my first experience of Yorkshire hospitality. I made my own way to the Depot and gained admission, was given two blankets, directed to a huge marquee and told "Find a place in there". We slept on the ground, packed side by side like a tin of sardines. There were squabbles, gambling, and fighting during the night. All around there was chaos-chaos-chaos. No administration could cope with such a situation. The Depot was swamped with men.

Arrangements for food were crude. Queues were formed and you had to walk past a hatchway. From this a long arm shot out offering a doorstep sandwich and alternatively one of luncheon sausage. You never saw a face! Being in civilian clothes exit from the Depot was easy, so in the early days I walked into Pontefract, bought tea in a shop or the YMCA. Who was to blame for all this? Had Kitchener called too early for so many? There was no suitable accommodation, no uniforms, and no equipment. Most of us felt we would have been put into uniforms and armed. Alas we were to wear our civilian clothes for a long time yet, and a much longer time for rifles.

The Depot was still chock a block full of men strolling around doing nothing. As yet there was no order of any kind. After some days, numbers in the Depot were being daily reduced by asking men to volunteer for other units. We were all lined up, the number required counted off, the rest, back to idleness. A call was made for men to join a Royal Naval Division. I thought if this is the army then I'll have a go at the Navy, but they got enough volunteers without me. But what a change of fortune it would have been had I been successful. Had they wanted four more I should have been in! I understood that those who were successful were taken by train to London, (Crystal Palace) given Short Lee Enfield rifles, and shipped off to Antwerp. Back at Pontefract we learned that on landing, they were cut off by the Germans, did no fighting, pushed into Holland, where they were interned till the end of the war! We could have done with at least a look at those rifles.

At last there was movement at the Depot. A large number of us were mustered on the parade ground, inspected by some officers in very smart uniforms, about a thousand counted off, and told "You are now the 8th Service Battalion King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry". Senior NCOs, and a few Sergeants were chosen from ex-regulars many of whom wore South African war medal ribbons.

The officers then walked down the lines and here and there told men to step forward. Their names were taken and they were informed "You are now Sergeants". The same procedure for Corporals and L/Corporals. I didn't look so bad in my brown lounge suit, so I don't know why they missed me! Perhaps my straw hat looked a little battered.

What a way to choose NCOs, but what else could they have done? Later, some could not stand the strain, and gave up their ranks. I suppose because we were a Northern regiment, the authorities decided to send us SOUTH, so that men would not be near their homes. We found ourselves put under canvas at Frensham Common, Surrey, on the opposite side of the road to the Ponds. Bell tents, about 12 to a tent, feet to the pole. We were excellently catered for by J. Lyons and Co. Food was very good, and plenty of it. Long route marches, skirmishing over heather clad Frensham Common increased our fitness and strength. Only 1005 fit men were recruited in the First Hundred Thousand Volunteers. No rifles, as yet, most of the time was spent in physical drill and other exercises. We practised "passing messages along the line", and one such message was always good for a laugh. It started "Send reinforcements we are going to advance", and finished "Send three and fourpence we are going to a dance"!!. At Frensham we were fitted out with Kitchener's blue uniform, and a few very old rifles. I think they were called Martini-Henry rifles.

My most pleasant memory was the hospitality and generosity of the people of nearby Hindhead. Every Sunday small group were entertained to high tea, and a most welcome hot bath. With three others I enjoyed both at the home of Mr and Mrs Leuchars (?), whose residence was known as Whitmore Vale Lodge.

On 29th November 1914 a violent storm wrecked marquees and mess tents and we were moved to Albuhera' Barracks, Stanhope Lines, North Camp, Aldershot.

Now everything could be seen more clearly. A battalion of about 1000 other ranks and 25 officers divided into four companies, A, B, C, D. The composition was interesting. A and B mostly Yorkshire lads, C, a large number of Welshmen, D mostly Londoners, with a few from the south and Yorkshire. In all it was an excellent blend. We were all good companions and in battle fought well together.

Our first commanding officer was Colonel H. Manley, a retired regular Army Officer who had fought in one of those long forgotten wars. He had no knowledge of the modern methods of war. On the parade ground he had the battalion continuously "TURNING RIGHT - LEFT" and "ABOUT". Sitting (on) his horse his favourite command was "BATTALION - FORM RALLYING SQUARES - ON THE CENTRE CLOSE". We were formed into the traditional square used in wars of long, long ago and wondered if we were being prepared to fight "Fuzzy-Wuzzys" armed with spears and assegais or Germans with machine guns. The move into Aldershot was very much welcomed. It meant clean, dry, barrack rooms, blankets and mattresses, on the boards, a combustion stove in the middle of the room for warmth and drying out things. It ensured a good night's rest. Accommodation for cooking was good, and our cooks all of whom had served in the South African War made excellent use of these facilities. They were very competent. Aldershot shops were much appreciated. The Kitchener blue uniform was very much disliked, so men purchased second hand khaki uniforms to go home on leave. Army life was becoming more stable, and men began to fully realise what they had enlisted for. To serve 24 Hours, - 7 days a week, - for a period of 3 years or duration of the war whichever the longer for 1/- a day. But, if you were a married man, making an allotment to your wife it was 6D a day.

Just before Christmas there was talk of a married mans strike!! A factory foreman who had enlisted with some of his workmen called a meeting to discuss this. Fortunately he was taken aside by a very sensible officer who told him this was "mutiny", and the penalty for this was severe. That was the end, and all returned to their barrack rooms. This man, E.T. Kipps became my very good companion and close friend until his death in 1969.

Early in 1915, we started a Great Trek from Aldershot to Hythe. Placed into civilian billets once again the luxury of clean sheets and a comfortable bed. I stayed with Mr and Mrs Ben Cloake a prominent local Salvationist, being treated very well. From Hythe we moved onto Maidstone to help dig trenches for what we were told was the "third line of defence of London". Here our miner friends were very helpful, teaching Londoners the correct way to use a shovel and spade. At Maidstone, very good civilian billets. A further move to Bordon Camp. Here we were fitted out with khaki uniforms, Short Lee-Enfield rifles and modern equipment. Fired a musketry course and threw bombs. Ammunition and bombs were in short supply and all I can remember firing on the open ranges at Bordon was "Fifteen Rounds rapid", - ten rounds with bayonet fixed to rifle,- and ten rounds ordinary at (a) target. According to where you hit the target, "bulls-eye" - inner, -outer rings or off the target altogether men were classified as Marksmen, first, second or third class shots. Later in France "Marksmen" were chosen as snipers.

(There was) talk of another move, and we knew that this time it could only mean FRANCE.


  1. A very evocative account, again thanks.

    1. You're welcome. I have some more I'll post in a few days probably.

  2. Yes, that is the authentic voice. My Grandfather told a very similar story. Good to see it.