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Walter Carter
WW1 Soldier's Tale

24th May 1916

Walter: In the front line again. At Carency. It’s a rough sector – been smashed up something rotten and there’s bodies everywhere. Some lying out getting picked at by rats and birds, some buried so you put a spade into them when you’re not expecting it. Of all the places to help Fred get his head back together, this wasn’t it. Should only be here for a day though, thank God. Had a briefing earlier on – our casualties over the past few days are 5 killed, 1 missing, 25 wounded. 2/Lt Bennett says that’s more than an eighth of our battalion gone.

Mary: It sounds like you’ve had a time of it. I hope you get some decent rest now and Fred has a chance to clear his head, poor boy. It’s all quite at odds with what’s going on over here. We’ve had the celebrations for Empire Day. All the schoolchildren was out in their best clothes with flags and singing all the songs. I felt bad having to keep Annie in but since the weather got hot the roads have got dusty and they’re not getting watered so much because of the cutbacks. All the dust in the air’s bad enough even if your lungs ain’t packing up, so the poor little one’s really suffering. Well, get some sleep love and take care of poor Fred.

Walter: Poor Annie. Keep the windows shut if you can. I never thought about them cutting back on watering the streets…

To see footage of Empire Day 1916, visit: http://goo.gl/UiqRmF

and to read about the history of the day, visit: http://goo.gl/Syp9uw

23rd May 1916

Walter: We made it out of the Zouave Valley and back to the Bajolle line. Just about. Lost more men over the day but not as many as we might have. I didn’t realise until just now that Fred’s Lewis Gun section had been called forward to take part in the assault. I came across him sat outside the latrines looking worse than I’ve seen him since that time he went AWOL after Givenchy. Thought he could do with a drink so I sneaked him the bit of my rum ration that I’d managed to save and sat him in an empty dugout. Turns out they’d had a hell of a time. The bombers who’d gone ahead of them to clear the enemy trenches hadn’t been able to do a good enough job and the machine-gunners got hit heavily on their way over. Fred’s mate Redvers, who’d been carrying his ammo, took a bullet in the eye and went down. Fred showed me the blood on his shoulder from it. They had to pull back in the end – he said he’s still not sure how he keeps making it back alive. He keeps sort of checking over his shoulder, as if he thinks his luck’s about to run out. Poor Fred. He’s the sort of bloke who never ought to have seen this sort of life. He always treated everything as a big laugh and a joke but I think he’s run out of humour.

Mabel: I’m worried about him, Walt. I wouldn’t want him to change a bit.

Walter: I’ll see what I can do to look after him Mabel, see if he’s got some leave coming up. He’ll be a bit different from what you remember though, just warning you.

To read veteran Harry Patch’s memories of the war, including friends who were Lewis gunners, visit: http://goo.gl/Vnwkhb

22nd May 1916

Walter: What a night. Just after the heat of the day had passed yesterday we received orders to be ready at half an hour’s notice to move up to the Maistre Line, near Souchez. Turns out there’d been heavy shelling at Vimy Ridge and we had to relieve the 15th Londons (mostly civil servants, that lot) when they advanced. Half past midnight we got placed under the orders of 140th Infantry Brigade and moved up to support in Cabaret Rouge – that’s where the little café used to be. All bombed out now of course. Spent the rest of the night with the 21st and 24th battalions, who are South London lads too, taking out carrying parties in the Zouave Valley. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone – we’ve had 5 wounded so far and young Anderson from Corporal Winwood’s section copped it almost the moment he stepped out. Poor lad. No sign of being relieved yet so we’re keeping at it.

Rose: Sorry to hear it, Walt. Hope you get on alright. We had the gas attack signalled here – they rang all the church bells, so we knew something was coming. Just getting the first wave of casualties through now so I’ll be rushed off my feet for the next few hours.

To read more about Cabaret Rouge, visit: http://goo.gl/mv6xjK

20th May 1916

Walter: Everyone at home is losing an hour! Word is we’ll have to do the same over here in France next month.

Lily: Don’t forget to wind your clocks on! I’ll knock for you tomorrow, Mrs Carter – see if you need a hand. I wouldn’t mind seeing Ed too. Sounds like he had a rough day with the tribunal.

To read more about British Summer Time and current debates about changing it, visit: http://goo.gl/h06qil

18th May 1916

Walter: I had no idea it was my brother’s tribunal today. I guess he wanted to keep it quiet. It seems they took no notice of his ‘Conscientious Objector’ plea anyway and want him to start training in 7 weeks. I’m sorry it didn’t go your way, Ed – I know you’ve got strong views on it. If it’s any help, I think you could make a fine soldier. You’ve proved you’re bloody-minded enough, anyhow!

Ed: What a joke. They ask you in, saying conscientious objectors will be given a fair hearing and then do whatever they was going to do anyway. Just come out of me tribunal with nothing to show for it but a 7 week ‘deferment’ to get any ‘affairs’ sorted. They said after that Ma and Pa would have to cope with Annie by theirselves and ‘we all have to make sacrifices’. I could’ve hit the bloke who said that – I’d already told him about Charlie. Anyway, they didn’t want to hear none of what I had to say about being against war full stop. Seemingly, if you’re not a church-goer they don’t believe you’ve got a conscience. One smarmy fellow made a big show of asking the vicar (half the locals turned up) when I last went to church and he couldn’t remember so everyone laughed. I told him that didn’t mean nothing about being peaceful or not but no one took no notice. The same thing happened to Evan when he went in, just after me. He’s hopping mad and reckons we have to keep on fighting it but I don’t know who to turn to now. There was even a crowd jeering at us outside the court – one of them spat in me ear. I just don’t understand why no one else sees it the way we do.

http://www.ppu.org.uk/learn/infodocs/cos/pictsco/ww1_co_tribunal.jpg 

Mary: Let’s put this behind us now, Edward. I’m the last person who wants you to go and fight but it seems to me you’re as likely to find yourself in danger back here as out there. You should hear some of the things that get said to me about you being a conchie. Threatening things. And thank you for arguing the case about Annie but we’ll manage. Let it rest, love.

Margaret Wiggins: I’m glad to hear our courts aren’t being taken in by any of this ‘objector’ business – I thought they’d gone soft when they announced the tribunals. At least somebody’s still got a backbone. And to have to get the vicar to take time out of his day to speak against you! I should hope he shamed you into action.

To find out more about military service tribunals, visit: http://goo.gl/iAjGZq

16th May 1916

Walter: Well, the rain’s let up but now it’s boiling hot. We’ve been in reserve at Carency for two days, doing nothing but ferrying stuff up and down the communication trenches. I’m sick of the smell of sweaty blokes. Anyway, Terence mate – happy Albuhera Day! Did I get that right?

Terence: Cheers! That’s right. 105 years since we earned the name ‘the DieHards’ at Albuhera. Not too much celebrating going on, mind. The weather’s damn hot. Can’t see a blasted thing with the sun glaring off these chalk trenches. Heard the wind’s due to turn to favour the enemy too so we’ve got all our gas defences in place, just waiting.

Rose: It’s baking in the hospital too. And we seem to have been raided by an army of huge mosquitoes who are bothering all of us, especially the patients. One of our orderlies is a dab hand at squashing them with a Bible though, so he’s been leaping around the ward shouting battle cries in French. Somedays I wonder if this is Bedlam after all.

To find out more about Albuhera Day, visit: http://goo.gl/DgbFbQ

13th May 1916

Walter: Supervising marksmanship on the ranges in the pouring rain today. I can’t decide if I’m getting used to being soaked to the skin or if I hate it just as much as ever. At least it’s not freezing rain like it was when I first came back out here. But everything’s gone back to mud. Roll on summer and the dust. I wouldn’t mind some news off you, Lily, to take my mind off it. How are you? I’m sorry I was a bit short with you last week – it was a hard few days. I’m more like myself again now I think.

Lily: Don’t worry sweetheart, I don’t mind as long as you’re alright. And I’m sure you do better than most at holding your nerve. I can’t grumble about being busy compared to you, but yesterday I think I worked harder than I ever have before. There was a taxicab strike over the fuel rises so all of a sudden everyone needed taking places by sidecar. Some of them flinch when they see they’ve got a woman driver but most folks are getting used to seeing girls in what they thought were men’s jobs. I had one very unusual chap on his way to Victoria – he’s a ‘futurist’ artist and the government’s paying for him to go out to the front to paint! I told him he wouldn’t take out many Germans with a paintbrush but he said we’re living through history in the making and it needs to be recorded and maybe if enough people see his paintings it’ll change how they feel about war anyhow? I told him the Daily Mirror reckons they’ve picked futurist artists for the job, “because their paintings are chaotic and, whatever the subject, nearly always suggest a fierce strafing”! Made me laugh but I think he got the hump.

Terence: This is what he meant by ‘futurist’. French troops, this one:

To find out more about art in wartime, visit: http://goo.gl/GdKWjK

12th May 1916

Walter shares: The sections are practising fire and movement today, at Bois d’Ohlain. Just started to rain… thought it was supposed to be nearly summer?! Anyway, just seen this from Terence in the 4th Middlesex – he reckons they’ve got a fan that can get gas out of the trenches! Invented by a woman engineer.

Terence: Finally had chance to practise in the facsimile trenches at La Neuville. It’s hard to train well anywhere else around here. All cultivated land. They gave us a demonstration of a new device. Called an Ayrton fan, after the woman that invented it. Hertha Ayrton. Supposed to waft the gas back out of the trenches. Here’s hoping it works.

To find out more about Hertha Ayrton and other female engineers of the First World War, visit: http://goo.gl/zx3exv

10th May 1916

Walter: Should have been Charlie’s 31st birthday today. I’ll raise a glass to him down the estaminet later. There’s loads of estaminets along the line now – sort of bars or cafés especially for us soldiers. Run by French ladies usually. Good for taking your mind off things. We’ve not got much time for relaxing though… got a smoke helmet drill this afternoon and a march to Fresnicourt tomorrow morning for an address by the Corps Commander, Sir Henry Wilson. So I’d better not let the boys get too blotto later! Anyway, sounds like even the local kids are getting smoke helmets now – look at this from Rose

Rose: Thought a lot about Charlie today. Happy birthday big brother, wherever you are. I managed to get along to the orphanage to visit Edouard earlier too. You remember the little lad who lost his parents in that bomb blast down the road? I was meant to go the day before yesterday but we all had to have the typhoid injection (after that rotten business at Wittenberg) and it left me feeling sick as a dog. Still, he wasn’t expecting me so it was a nice surprise. I wasn’t sure if he’d remember me but he came running straight over and wrapped himself around my knees, poor mite. He seemed happy enough though. Was keen to show me his new smoke helmet. They’ve all got them now in case the gas comes drifting over from the line. He did look a picture with it on, I had a job not to laugh. I didn’t like to leave him but I’ve promised I’ll go back to visit as soon as I can. Trouble is, ‘soon’ isn’t quite the same thing when you’re three years old.

Mary: It’s too hard thinking about Charlie some days. You make sure you look after yourselves, all of you.

Lily: Thinking of you all. Mrs Carter, if you’d like to join us for dinner tonight, please do. Saves you cooking. My new wages with the motorbicycling mean I’ve got enough to put a bit more on the table, so you’re all welcome.

Mary: Thank you, Lily. You’re a good girl.

To find out more about estaminets, visit: http://goo.gl/A8QahZ

9th May 1916

Walter: Starting to feel like myself again after two days out of the line. Not too bad for fatigues either – just kit inspections and cleaning today. How are things at home, Ma? Is Annie alright? How’s Pa? I don’t get letters from him.

Mary: Hello love. I’m glad you’re starting to feel a bit better. We’re all getting on alright. Your sister’s feeling a bit better in the warmer weather and your father’s your father. I’ll get on at him to write to you. The big news over here, apart from what happened in Ireland, is that they’re messing about with the clock times. We’re switching to something called ‘Summer Time’, which is an hour ahead of what it is now or something. It’s going to change at 2 o’clock in the morning on Sunday week! I hope they’re not expecting me to stay up until the middle of the night waiting to wind the blasted thing on. And what about the big clocks in the stations? I don’t want your father waiting around that late in Victoria. Well, they reckon the new time will give us more hours of daylight so we can save fuel while the war’s on, so that sounds alright I suppose. We’ll see if it does any good. Keep safe, love.

To find out more about the history of Daylight Savings Time, visit: http://goo.gl/PJJtvc

6th May 1916

Walter: Getting ready to take out a raiding party once it gets dark. We call it a ‘suicide club’ outing, and for good reason. The idea is to silently cross No Man’s Land in the dark, then leave about 6 lads with rifles to give covering fire, if we need it, while the rest of us leap into Fritz’s trench hoping we’ve caught the blighters off guard. If we can grab a couple of prisoners, we take them back to our lines, running like billyo before their mates realise what’s happened and all hell breaks loose. Once we get them back in our own trench we hand them over for ‘interrogation’ in the hope we can get some useful information from them. Dangerous work. Got to make sure none of the men are wearing any equipment except a waistcoat with 10 bombs in and a cosh and knife. Then I’ve got to make them jump up and down to check nothing rattles, make sure their water bottles are full (half-empty ones tend to slurp) and check they’re not showing any identifying marks or carrying papers that might give anything away if they get captured themselves. I’ve got a card on me with my number, name and rank and that’s it. In case I cop it. Each man has sewn a white patch on the back of his collar so we can spot each other and we’ve got burnt cork on our faces to hide them. Not that you can tell much amongst the dirt anyway. The stretcher bearers are ready and a team of medics are waiting in a dugout to treat any wounded. Right, we’re off up the sap. I’ll be back with a few Fritzes before you can say Jack Robinson.

Rose: Sounds awful. Let us know if you get back alright – I’ve seen enough aftereffects of these trench raids to know it’s no picnic.

Walter: I’m alright. Had to fall back without a thing to show for it. After all that. No prisoners, no nothing. Skin of our teeth. One of their sentries must have heard us and got a flare sent up. Total waste of time.

Rose: Sorry it was a waste but I’m glad you’re back in one piece. Are you alright in yourself though? You sound a bit off.

Walter: Do I? I suppose that’s how it gets. I’m fed up, if that’s what you mean. And I could do with a hot bath and a damn good sleep. If I could have brought back just one German it might have cheered me up a bit but it was all a bloody waste. And my Platoon Commander is turning out to be worse than useless. I’m going to have to speak to somebody.

To see a video on ‘Trench Raid Tactics’, visit: https://goo.gl/AaehHe

5th May 1916

Mabel: Had me day off today so I got Lil to give me a quick lift in her motorcycle sidecar – don’t tell the boss! What a day for it too. We ended up down the riverside watching an old coalie from the Wandsworth Gasworks get cheered back in. They reckon it fought a German U boat in the North Sea and won! Imagine, a little boat like that, full of lads from down the road. Lil had to shoot off quick but I stopped to give the boys a good welcome.

Walter: Nice to get a bit of news from home every so often. I could do with it after a day like today – feels like we’ve been in the line for weeks. Anyway, good on the ‘Wandle’! Who’d have thought a little local coalie could take on a U boat?

Fred: What’s a ‘good welcome’? I might consider coming home for one.

To find out more about the adventures of the ‘Wandle’, visit: http://goo.gl/ZTylmK

3rd May 1916

Walter: Fritz is busy. We’ve had four lads from the battalion wounded by shrapnel today. Thank God we’d drawn steel helmets from the QM’s stores (although we have to give them back afterwards) otherwise they’d have copped it instead of just getting knocked out. No one wants a head wound, mind. Corporal Winwood just came to tell me that one of the boys from his section got sent flying. When they got to him he was face down under the fallen parapet with a hole blown in his helmet. Still alive, just, so they dug him out and got him to the Regimental Aid Post but heaven knows how much of his senses will be left if he ever comes round. I don’t know if I’d rather be killed outright… At least we’ve all learnt to wear the helmet strap at the back – if you have it under your chin, where it’s supposed to go, it’ll most likely break your neck if it gets blown off. Anyway, they reckon the Irish rebellion failed, so there’s a thing. I have to say, it seems a long way away when you’re out here.

To see a video about the riddle of steel helmets and head wounds, visit: https://goo.gl/ZgcvA7

and to find out more about the Irish rebellion, visit: http://goo.gl/AbL8P1

2nd May 1916

Sidh: After many weeks we reached close to Kut but could get no further. We heard General Townshend and his men could not hold out and it is surrendered to the Turks. I am one of many taken prisoner. We are nervous for our future – so far we are made to march and treated harshly. We are most likely headed for prisoner camps, from where I may not be permitted to write. I will do my best.

To read more about General Townshend’s surrender at Kut-el-Amara, visit: http://goo.gl/F5sX6d

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