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I can still see their faces

History - EY History

Our World War I veterans may be ageing, but their battlefield memories are still sharp and shocking. They must be heard, lest we forget, says author Max Arthur.

For the first time since 1993, veterans of the Great War will be uniting to attend the Remembrance Day Parade in Whitehall. Fittingly, a 1911 Austin International Tourer will be carrying them past the Cenotaph. Back in '93, a vast crowd took these old soldiers, the youngest of whom was 93 years old, to their hearts, applauding them every inch of the way. Many looked on in disbelief that there were men alive from that war which ended 85 years ago. In 2003, a full decade later, 26 veterans of that terrible war remain. One of the youngest, 103-year-old William Stone and the eldest, Henry Allingham, aged 107, are keen to pay their respects to their fallen comrades.

Henry Allingham was born in June 1896 and was six years old when Queen Victoria died. As a young man he became infatuated with motorcycles and wanted to join the Army as a dispatch rider. However, at the time, the Army was convinced that cavalry was the answer and wanted nothing to do with motorcycles. Henry decided that aeroplanes offered a similar sense of excitement and in 1915 he volunteered for the Royal Naval Air Service. Posted to Great Yarmouth, he worked as a mechanic on Sopwith Camels and Bristol Fighters and often accompanied the pilot on anti-U-boat patrols. Henry soon found himself stationed in Dunkirk, repairing engines and patching up planes that had been in combat. He flew in several dangerous raids, dropping bombs over Ypres, where his aircraft was forced down. It was here for the first time that he came face-to-face with the appalling conditions of the battlefield. Henry's memories of that war have strengthened his determination to support the Legion and its efforts to ensure that the nation does not forget its past. In October this year, Henry launched the Poppy Appeal Scratchcard on board HMS Belfast, and reminded the British public of its responsibility to honour our heroes.

He just said, ‘Mother’. Remembrance for our World War I veterans means more than a bowed head and a salute once a year - it means recalling painful first-hand experiences. And their memories of battle are still both sharp and shocking. Harry Patch, now aged 105, served with the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. Harry recently joined myself and the actor Paul McGann on the stage of the Everyman Theatre during the Cheltenham Festival. We both read extracts from Forgotten Voices of the Great War. Then, in his rich Gloucester accent, Harry spoke of his experiences in Passchendaele. "At Pilckem Ridge I can still see the bewilderment and fear on the men's faces when they went over the top," he said. "All over the battlefield the wounded were lying down, English and German all asking for help. We weren't like the Good Samaritan in the Bible, we were the robbers who passed by and left them. You couldn't help them."

"I came across a Cornishman, ripped from shoulder to waist with shrapnel, his stomach on the ground beside him in a pool of blood. As I got to him, he said, ‘Shoot me’. He was beyond all human aid. Before we could even draw a revolver, he had died. He just said, ‘Mother’. I will never forget it."

He then went on to stun the audience further with his account of how, on 22 September 1917, a shell had burst among Harry's machine-gun crew, killing three of his chums and wounding him badly. "I realised I'd been hit in the thigh and could see the blood pouring out, so I put a field dressing on it. Then I must have passed out. How long I laid there I don't know. The next thing I knew, I was in a field-dressing station". The surgeon told Harry he'd run out of morphine and there wouldn't be any supplies for three days. Harry elected to have the shrapnel removed without anaesthetic. He had only served with his crew for four months, but in the intensity of the battle, it must have seemed like a lifetime.

Harry remembers the close relationships he formed with his fellow servicemen. "We were part of the battalion, but at the same time we were a little crowd on our own. We lived hourto- hour, and shared everything we had. My mother used to send me parcels which contained an ounce of tobacco, a couple of packets of cigarettes, a few sweets and cakes." "That ounce of tobacco was cut in half and I had one half and my chum had the other. The cigarettes were divided among the other three - thirteen each. They used to take it in turns as to who would get the odd one. Everything was shared. "Those lovely boys died on September 22nd, and for me that is Remembrance Day. That is the day that I stand to attention and think of them".

At the end of this remarkable account, the audience gave Harry a standing ovation. It was an ovation not solely for his remarkable stories, it was for the fact that this man - who personified the spirit of the British Tommy - was still with us, and had moved us so deeply.

Kitchener’s call

Fred Lloyd was born in 1898 in Uckfield, where he still lives. In his youth he worked as a gardener. At the age of 18, he responded to Kitchener’s call for men and joined the Royal Artillery who sent him for training at Portsmouth. However, many of his fellow trainees were killed by an outbreak of meningitis and Fred himself only survived after a spell in hospital. After leaving hospital, he was posted to northern France. Despite having little experience of riding, he was posted to the Veterinary Corps and was charged with bringing replacement horses used for pulling supplies and artillery up to the front line.

He recalls: "I brought back the sick and blind horses. There were a hell of a lot of blind horses. I don't know whether it was the exposure to the appalling conditions or the gas." Some of the horses went back to England, some went to the butcher and others went to work on the French farms. Anyone who served with the horses on the Western Front would be haunted by their screams after they had been hit by shell-fire." Fred, one of a family of eight sisters and seven brothers, tragically lost two brothers in the Great War; Bill, 22, who served with the Scots Guards and Tom, 32, who was in the East Kent Regiment. "They had a terrible time of it," he recalls. "I probably wouldn't be here if I hadn't got meningitis; I would have been out there with them. But it wasn't a picnic for me either".

William Stone, at 103, is one of the youngest survivors of the Great War and joined the Royal Navy in 1918. Although he did not see action, he witnessed the surrender of the mighty German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow. "It was an awesome sight;" he recalls. "There were so many of them. We certainly kept our guns loaded in case they changed their minds." William served throughout World War II, returning five times in his ship to pick up soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk. He also survived a sinking by torpedo. When I said goodbye to him recently he said, with a beaming smile, "I've got to go now, Nelson needs me".

Unbelievable sights

Albert Marshall was arguably more in the thick of the fighting than any of the other survivors. ‘Smiler’, as he is affectionately named, remains the last English cavalryman to have charged with a drawn sword. His regiment, the Essex Yeomanry, came across advancing Germans during the early morning. Smiler recalls: "They were a bit surprised to see us. They were advancing and scattered as we charged. We drew our swords and cut them down. It was cut and thrust at the gallop. They stood no chance". SmiIer, who had learned to ride at the age of six, volunteered in 1915 for the Essex Yeomanry. The task of the cavalry was to break through the enemy lines and to hold the position until the infantry arrived.

On one occasion, having established their position and dug out scoops in the ground to protect themselves, they were blasted by a shell that landed nearby. Smiler was buried up to his waist in thick mud and couldn't move. One of his friends, who was obviously dying and practically submerged in the mud, called out for Smiler to sing. Sensing, perhaps, his own end, he began to sing Nearer my God to Thee. A search party heard him and dug him out, but he had lost two of his friends buried in the mud, and that still remains their grave. Smiler always feels that, when people talk of the Great War, the name they always mention is the Somme. "But there were other battles that I recall- Menetz Woods for example. The artillery had bombarded it for two solid days and I never expected anyone to come out alive".

"The Ox and Bucks, a light infantry regiment, had just come out from England. They were  went ‘over the top’. Smiler continues: "By about 8.30 we saw no more than seven or eight of them struggling back towards us. We couldn’t believe our eyes. All those young men we had shared our breakfast with were dead. One of our officers went forward with a white flag and the Germans signalled that it was alright for us to come out and bury our dead. It was a terrible sight. We rolled them into shell-holes and covered them best we could. As we tramped back, we were treading on them".

Defiant Spirits

Afew days after this terrible incident, Smiler saw the German infantry advancing, and before the Essex Yeomanry could saddle up, the Bengal Lancers jumped straight on to their unsaddled horses, pulled their lances out of the ground and charged. "It was a colossal sight - unforgettable. They overwhelmed the enemy". Towards the end of the war, a sniper shot Smiler's best friend. "I held him as he fell from the fire step and he died in my arms. I still wake even now with the memories of his dear face". Smiler cannot recall any of these events without sadness, for like so many, he lost his comrades and his friends. But his defiant spirit is still very much with him, and as I left him recently, he said, "I sang on the way to France, and I sang on the boat as we came back to England - and I still sing - but I always remember my friends".

Albert “Smiler” Marshall

Essex Yeomanry Veteran of World War 1

Extract EYA Journal 2004

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