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Walter Carter
WW1 Soldier's Tale

30th April 1918

Walter: Never sure if what we’re hearing is rumour or the truth. Three of us are still stuck in the CCS, getting over the gassing, and word’s trickling through about unrest in Germany. Not only that but some are saying their blokes in the rear are sabotaging transport routes by uncoupling trains, cutting electric wire and tampering with the brakes on vehicles. Don’t know if it’s true. After all, they still managed to retake Passchendaele and get over the Lys and Lawe rivers, so they’ve nearly got us backed into a corner. The only chance we’ve got is if we can keep them away from the Channel long enough for their supplies to run out and the Americans to get themselves together. I’m desperate to get back to the battalion to help hold the line.

Fred: Just seen ‘Givenchy’ on your map. Read about the fighting there in the papers too. It’s three years now since we were there. Can you believe that? That’s when all my troubles started. I still can’t even see the name of the place without it bringing on the flashbacks.

Walter: That’s right – the Portuguese troops have been backing ours up between there and Armentières. And I didn’t know you had flashbacks too? I thought it was just the shaking.

Fred: ‘Just the shaking’. Nah, I dream about it, don’t I? Nightmares. And then sometimes they get in my head during the day too and I can’t get a proper hold of myself for a good while. Does it never get you that way?

Walter: I’m sorry to hear it mate. I’ve been lucky to never get the shock proper, but I know enough to be terrified of it. I’m usually alright when I’m out with the boys and sleeping like a log after all the hard graft, but it’s when I’m back home or on rest that I notice the change in my nerves. Like your mind’s learnt to be always on guard.

To find out more about the battles of the Lys, visit https://goo.gl/BHjvRM

27th April 1918

Reg: Got lucky again! Had a few lads on sentry duty, nothing doing, nice weather. Thought we was going to have an easy one. Then a few of the lads started saying they weren’t feeling too clever. Sore eyes or what have you. So we all got in a panic and fumbled about, getting our gas masks on, while Sergeant Major Carter sent a lad to run and ring the gas bell. Carter says the gas was left over from the shells we’d had overnight and when the sun came out, it burnt it out of the shellholes. Turned the liquid into gas again. Now we’re in a CCS, me and him and the boys. Feeling right off colour but the nurse says we’re not as bad as some and ought to recover alright. So I’ve been a lucky blighter again, haven’t I?

Walter: So much for thinking we’d outsmarted the gas. I’m being taken care of in a makeshift CCS near Ypres. Throat burning and eyes streaming. Hope they fix up soon – it’s giving me the blue devils not being able to see properly. I’ll leave it to Reg to explain our ‘luck’ in his own special way…

Lily: Oh gosh, are you alright? Your friend almost makes it sound like a jape…

Walter: Reg can make anything sound like a jape. It was nearly very serious, and some of the lads further down the line didn’t realise soon enough. I’m waiting to hear if they’ll pull through. Our lot seem to be alright at the moment. We just need to be smarter about lingering gas, especially when the weather warms up. And the boys should know by now that the moment someone complains of sore eyes, masks should go straight on. Anyway, lovely to hear from you, Lil. Still looking forward to your present.

Mary: Hope you start to feel better, love. How horrible.

To read more about the effects of gas (both physical and psychological), including eye-witness accounts, visit https://goo.gl/hDP11f

25th April 1918

Walter: Not having a pleasant time. Holding the line outside Ypres where it runs through a cemetery, so, as ever, you have to watch where you dig. It’s the main line of resistance now. And the Germans send over mustard gas shells every night, so we’re getting even less sleep than normal. Good job we had all that practice keeping our gas masks on… they’ve saved our bacon so far.

To find out more about the poison gases used during the war, visit https://goo.gl/GiWENn

23rd April 1918

Mary: Well I never. The Red Baron’s been shot down. Even I’d heard of him and his red-painted aeroplane. There’s certainly a fuss around these new fighter pilots. All the young ladies round here go barmy for them. But then, seemingly this fellow killed 80 of our boys, so I’m glad he’s been brought down.

Walter: We heard about this too, Ma. Our side’s giving him a full military funeral out of respect, even though he’s a German. It won’t do their morale any good that he’s been killed, especially after they’ve had to give up on their offensive.

To find out more about Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron), visit https://goo.gl/zi6GA5

20th April 1918

Rose: Moving again. Good job I never unpacked properly. It’s a month since we started this retreat and I’m heartily sick of it. Could do with some leave but fat chance there is of that. Glad Ferdinand Foch has been promoted to Commander-in-Chief now though. Hopefully he’ll lead us well. He was responsible for the ‘miracle of the Marne’ that dear Charlie was part of, isn’t that right?

Walter: Keep your chin up, Rosie. You’re right, having Foch in charge looks to be a piece of good news, at least. We’re living at Middlesex Camp now, outside the Ypres ramparts. Things seem quiet but we’re too long in the tooth now to take that as a good sign.

Ed: Didn’t cover himself in glory at the Somme though, did he? I heard they reposted him to the Italian Front because so many French soldiers died under his watch.

To see a short video about Ferdinand Foch, visit https://goo.gl/a7e6tw

18th April 1918

Walter: Hopefully getting much-needed extra troops soon. 10,000 Americans are arriving every day, looking fresh and strong compared to our battle-weary lads, and the upper age of conscription back home has been raised to 50 as well. The old boys should be alright, but we’re finding the Americans a bit tough to work with. They don’t want to listen to the knowledge we’ve gained over the past few years (after all, they say, it hasn’t worked!) and insist on doing it their own way. Their General Pershing reckons ‘America declared war independently of the Allies… the morale of our soldiers depends upon them fighting under our own flag’. Trouble is, that means they’re just making all the same mistakes we made at the start. I’m glad to have them here, no question, but I wish they’d cooperate with us.

Ed: Don’t go too hard on the Yanks, eh? My Thelma seemed alright. I wish she’d come back. I could do with another gander at her doughnuts.

Margaret Wiggins: I see your Edward has become a typical soldier after all, Mary.

To hear first-hand accounts of the arrival of American troops, visit https://goo.gl/R8diiv

17th April 2017

Walter: The battalion’s withdrawn to join the defences in front of Ypres. We heard the bad news about the enemy taking Kemmel Hill, so it was decided we should drop back in the dead of night, as silently as possible. It seemed to work – we weren’t shelled during the retreat, so hopefully they didn’t hear us. It was hellish, though, getting over the waterlogged ground, especially with all the shell holes and no light to see them by. Very proud of our lot. No moaning whatsoever and not one casualty at the end of it. Even the six blokes we’d left behind to keep up rifle fire and Very lights made it back eventually. Our last act of retreat was the demolition of our dugouts and the bridge on the Steenbeck. If that holds up the advance, so much the better.

Lily: It sounds horrible but I’m glad you got away safely. Thinking that you boys are dodging shell holes in the dark while I’m fast asleep makes me feel so sad, and so grateful. I wish every night for this all to end so you can get home.

Walter: I wish the same, sweetheart. Don’t worry about us though, we get on with it as best we can. Just think how it’ll be one day when I can come back for good.

To see an (intact) bridge over the Steenbeck from earlier in 1918, visit https://goo.gl/DBte72

12th April 1918

Walter: How are you getting on, Lily? I’ve been thinking of you to keep me going, especially as it would have been little Annie’s birthday today. It’s hard to keep chipper out here, not knowing when the Germans will be on our tail. Especially now Haig’s given us this ‘backs to the wall’ order. Backs to the sea, more like. He wants every man to ‘fight on to the end’, even if things look hopeless. Give me some news from home to take my mind off it?

Lily: Hello, sweetheart. We’ve heard about the ‘backs to the wall’ order here and it’s put the wind up everybody. Otherwise, we’re getting by alright at home. I was put on standby for the ambulance this evening but the Zepp they spotted seems to have gone north, so I’m staying put for now. Still, you were after happy news, weren’t you? Well, the rationing is helping a lot. No more queuing round the block only to find there’s nothing left. So we’re a bit better fed these days. Or how about… oh, I wasn’t going to tell you yet, but I’m making you another present! It should be ready in a couple of weeks so I’ll send it out to you.

Walter: That has cheered me up! Thanks, Lil. The post is haphazard at the minute but it should reach me sooner or later. Nice to have something to look forward to. And don’t worry too much, we’ll give everything we’ve got to stop Fritz reaching England.

Mary: Your father and I have tried to have a happy day remembering Annie but it’s not easy. Sending lots of love to you, Walt. And Ed and Rose.

To see Field-Marshall Haig’s Special Order of the Day, visit https://goo.gl/E9ebSU

9th April 1918

Walter: Guess where we are? Back at Passchendaele. Seems we’re revisiting all the worst times of the war during this retreat. First the Somme, now here. The CO came along the line today and spoke to some of the lads though, which is always good for morale. And the sector seems quiet just now. Hope it stays that way. George has managed to get hold of some decent grub for the first time in weeks too, so we’re doing alright. And Reg (who else?) has started up a song:

“Here we are! Here we are! Here we are again

Paddy and Taff and Jock and Jack and Joe

When there’s trouble brewing

When there’s something doing

Are we down hearted? No!

Let ‘em all come!”

 

To see the lyrics to more Great War songs, visit https://goo.gl/bHLEuY

 

5th April 1918

Ed: Sorry you haven’t heard from me. We’ve had a time and a half, retreating over the old Somme battlefield. It’s a dangerous wasteland now. Full of old shellholes and men two years dead. I know how hard won it was, so losing that ground to the enemy has been tough. And we haven’t only lost ground. Half the men in my battery have been taken prisoner. Or killed. I’ve dodged it so far, somehow. But at least the advance is slowing up again. Not only is Fritz hungry and low on ammo, but it seems he doesn’t have fodder for his horses neither. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that an army won’t get far without its horses.

Walter shares: Relieved to hear you’re still with us, Ed. We’ve had prisoners taken too. Seems the advancing troops captured more than 21,000 just on that first day. God knows what the number is by now. But at least the boys at Amiens seem to have held out. Got to go – have to speak to the RSM about one of my boys who’s up for promotion.

Evan: I feel for those poor Germans, if they’re running out of food. Don’t forget they’re not the ‘enemy’, Ed. You’re all just thousands of half-starved, tired men, to-ing and fro-ing across the continent and shooting at each other for a cause you don’t fully understand. And I was sorry to hear your mate Saunders was hit, but I remember you saying he was the reason you didn’t leave – what’s keeping you in the battery now, with him gone? 

Walter: Don’t be stupid. Don’t you realise what happens to deserters?

To read one story of desertion, visit:  https://goo.gl/fy9v5k

To listen to a podcast about prisoners of war, visit https://goo.gl/k3yVBa

4th April 1918

Rose: Moved to a temporary CCS, south of Amiens. Hell of a bombardment going on in the town. So much for the Germans not being able to fight any more. Can only hope our boys can hold out. As yet, it seems the enemy haven’t captured any meaningful objectives (even if they have gained ground) so that’ll be why they’re going hammer and tongs for Amiens. In the meantime, we’re struggling to deal with casualties here. We had to leave most of our equipment behind during the retreat, so we’ve pooled resources with another displaced CCS and managed to set up an ad-hoc operating room staffed by Medical Officers whose units are out of action. But we’ve got no beds, no stoves, no lamps and no duckboards. Struggling to keep the men warm and dry, let alone treat them. And food is hard to come by. Right now we’re surviving on boiled mutton twice a day, and are somehow glad of it!

Walter: Good luck, Rosie. It was Amiens we were fighting for in March. The lads have to stick it or we’re in trouble. Good job the Aussies are there too – I’ve heard they’re doing a grand job holding them off.

Mary: Can you get your address to me? I’ll try to send you a food parcel. Maybe some blankets for the men too?

Rose: Thanks so much, Ma. The problem is, not much mail is getting through and, what’s more, I don’t know how long we’ll be here. For all I know, it’ll be up sticks again in the morning.

To locate Amiens and see how close it is to the Channel, visit https://goo.gl/niQKcc

2nd April 1918

Walter: On the move again, but with more direction this time. Back to Poperinghe in Belgium. The mood seems to have changed a bit too. We’re hearing that the German advance is slowing up. Something about the enemy troops finding abandoned French towns with shops full of food and liquor and being so starved that they’ve stopped to eat and drink themselves into a stupor! Got to hope it’s true, for our sake. More good news too – The Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service have merged to form a new service called the ‘Royal Air Force’. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Mary: There’s a change of mood here at home as well. Mrs Talbot at my cooking group said it feels like ‘1914 spirit’. Something about the war getting moving again and even having to brace ourselves for possible invasion. It’s a horrid thought but it’s stirred everyone, somehow. Your father has thrown himself into VTC training even harder, ‘They won’t get past us!’ and so on.

Rose: It seems to me the ‘1914 spirit’ was foolish. Don’t forget, we know better now. I’ve seen enough refugees and ruined towns here in France and Belgium to be terrified of the idea of the war reaching Britain. There’s nothing ‘stirring’ about it.

To read an article from the time about the formation of the Royal Air Force, visit https://goo.gl/eZfX4K

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Now available as a Paperback and on Kindle
Walter Carter
WW1 Soldier's Tale