Vanuatu, 11 November 2015
At this time when we are commemorating the end of the First World War (“the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month”), I thought I could do my modest part to remember those who fell in that War, by recounting my English grandfather’s role in the conflict. It was not, I hasten to add, a heroic role. In fact, when all is said and done, it was very much less than stellar. But he tried to do his part to the best of his abilities and he regretted for the rest of his life that he was not able to have done more.
Until recently, I didn’t know much about my grandfather’s war record. My grandmother had a standard story which she trotted out to all her grandchildren, to the effect that he was a Captain in the Army, that he had gone to France in 1916 a few months after marrying her, that he had gotten food poisoning almost immediately, that he had been shipped home, and that a few months later he was invalided out of the Army. My father never talked about his father’s war record. The only thing I ever remember him saying was that my grandfather always got depressed at after-dinner sit-arounds in the living room when his peers began to tell stories of their days in the trenches, because he had not been there. That was the sum total of what I knew.
All of that changed a few months ago when, cruising the Internet, I stumbled across a cite to my grandfather’s War Office file, now in the UK’s National Archives. Much intrigued, I asked for, and received, a copy. The story it told, through the dry, matter-of-fact medical board reports, letters, and other bits and pieces which it contained, confirmed my grandmother’s tale. My grandfather went before three medical boards between July and November 1916, he couldn’t shake off the symptoms of whatever nasty bug it was that he had caught in France, and the Army eventually decided to let him go. But the papers in the file also told me some other things. They told me what battalion and regiment he had belonged to: the 11th (Service) Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment, the St. Helens Battalion, so called because it had been raised in the autumn of 1914 in St. Helens, Lancashire, a gritty coal and heavy industry town not too far from Liverpool. They also told me when he had joined up. One of the pieces of paper in the file was his sign-up sheet, which showed that he had joined up in late October 1914, I suppose as part of that mad rush of volunteers which the first months of the War witnessed. Why he joined up in St. Helens is a bit of a mystery to me. He wasn’t from that part of England, and he was working in Wolverhampton, in the Midlands, when the War broke out. Perhaps it was easier to join up in St Helens than elsewhere; there are tales of huge queues at sign-up stations as literally millions of men tried to all join up at the same time.
In any event, by early October 1914, he was a 2nd Lieutenant in the 11th Battalion, part of Kitchener’s New Army. Of course, the Battalion wasn’t sent immediately to the Front. Since the UK didn’t have military service, unlike just about every other country in the War, very few men had any military training. So the new recruits of the 11th Battalion were subjected to a year of training, after which, in November 1915, they shipped out to the Western Front.
They went without my grandfather. At some point in the intervening year, he had become a Captain, and at the end of September 1915 he was made Commanding Officer of a new Battalion that was created, the 13th (Reserve) Battalion (I discovered this because of a little research done for me by the Lancashire Regiment Museum). Like all Reserve Battalions, it remained based in the UK and had the thankless but very important task of training up new volunteers (or conscripts by the middle of 1916) and of retraining men, who because of wounds or disease, had been taken out of the line for recuperation. My grandfather wasn’t in the new position for very long. By November, the Army had dragged some retired senior offices out of their retirement and they began running the 13th Battalion.
I lose track of my grandfather’s movements at this point. My guess is that he made his way back into the ranks of the 11th Battalion and was on his way to joining them when he fell sick in Rouen, before getting anywhere near the trenches, in the middle of July 1916. And that was the end of his military career. He might have regretted this twist of fate all his life, but I have to say it was lucky for me and my siblings, as well as for my numerous cousins. If my grandfather had made it to the Front, I don’t suppose he would have sired the children he eventually did sire – assuming he would have survived the holocaust of the Western Front in the first place.
If my grandfather had made it to the 11th Battalion in that July of 1916, he would have found himself caught up in the Battle of the Somme, which had already started on 1 July and finally petered out in November. As usual, the casualties were enormous (on the first day of the battle alone the British Army suffered its worst-ever casualties in one day of fighting: 570,000), although after intensive involvement in the first few days of July the Battalion played quite a modest role in the whole wretched affair. I should explain that it was not an infantry Battalion but a pioneer Battalion, which means that it spent most of its time on the Western Front digging trenches, maintaining roads, putting up Nissen huts, that sort of thing. Not a very glamorous job, but a necessary one. Thinking about it, it can’t have been coincidence that a Battalion raised in St. Helens was a pioneer Battalion. Most of the rank-and-file must have been miners since they made up the bulk of the local population, and who better than miners to dig trenches and fill shell craters in roads?
I found out what the Battalion did exactly when I came across the Battalion’s War Diary on the Internet. It gives you a fascinating picture of its day-to-day life at the Front, Company A off to dig this communications trench, Company B to fix that forward road, Company C to help the Royal Engineers do something else. All very humdrum, yet all the while a steady bleeding off of its troops was occurring, one man here, another there, a third the next day, no doubt as individual soldiers got hit by bullets, shrapnel, or other pieces of metal flying around the battlefield. From time to time, the numbers of men “killed in action” or “died of wounds” would spike, as it did in the first few days of the Battle of the Somme, as it did again in the third Battle of Ypres in 1917, and as it did for a final time during the last German offensive in the Spring of 1918, when the Battalion just happened to find itself in the way of the German attempt to punch a hole in the Allied line (it was during these desperate days of trying to hold the line that the Battalion earned its one and only Victoria Cross).
Armies, at least in those days, were made up of lots of rank-and-file commanded by a handful of Officers. So the great majority of the Battalion’s dead were “Other Ranks”, mostly privates, a sprinkling of corporals and lance-corporals, some sergeants, all poor lads who were doing their best under very difficult circumstances and who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn’t them who had precipitated this stupid, pointless War, but it was them who bore the brunt of the suffering. So it is them that I remember most particularly today, and not so much the Officer class to which my grandfather belonged.