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Walter Carter
WW1 Soldier's Tale

18th October 1918

Walter: I’ve cheered up no end today – not only have we heard that Allied forces have captured Lille, Douai and Ostende, but I’ve just bumped into Ed Carter in Courtrai! He does look a state without his teeth but it’s been wonderful to see him. I almost didn’t recognise him at first. Haven’t seen him in years so it was strange to see him in uniform and even stranger to hear him called ‘Bombardier’. He did a double take as well and we stood and stared at each other for a second or two before he grinned and came over. Said I looked too old to be his little brother. We both had a bit of time, rare as that is, so we took a walk around the town to catch up. Walked past all the returning refugees living in covered wagons outside their own front doors. Their children seem happy enough, marching around like army bands playing makeshift musical instruments and waving flags, and I half expected the church bells to be ringing, but of course they all got pinched for the metal. Anyway, I’ll be sad to say cheerio to Ed. Didn’t quite realise how much I missed him until I saw him.

Mary: How lovely that you two saw each other! I wish I could see you both too. And wonderful news about all those places being retaken. I have to say, the mood here at home is very anti-armistice. The more we hear about the Allies coming out victorious, the more everyone’s keen to see the Germans beaten fair and square, without letting them off the hook with a truce agreement.

Walter: You can’t count your chickens, Ma. The Germans were here so recently their signs are still up, look:

To read more about Belgian refugees, visit https://goo.gl/kaRjxc

16th October 1918

Ed: I wasn’t far behind your advance yesterday Walt. And guess what? I got my bloody teeth knocked out. A blast sent me flying and I smashed my front teeth on a chunk of concrete. Cut my chin up a bit too but that’s alright. It’s the teeth I’m worried about. My two front ones. What will Thelma think of that? And it’s not just her. You know what they say about blokes with missing teeth. About cowards pulling their own out or losing their false ones so they can get sent back from the line. It’s hard to manage out here without your pearly whites. After all, they’re not going to send special pureed food up the line just for you are they? Lucky I can get by with my others for now. I do look a picture though.

Walter: Ouch. Make sure you can still get your gas mask on, Ed – you’ll need to grip the mouthpiece with your other teeth…

Mary: Edward, your lovely teeth! Couldn’t you hang on to them?

Ed: You try fishing them out of two foot of mud while you’re trying to get out of the way of an enemy attack. They’re long gone mother.

Rose: Oh Ed. Hopefully the army will find you some dentures. For now, I’ve got a toothless soldier on the ward who says the best thing to do is grind your biscuits to a powder and mix that with a tin of milk and a tin of jam. Then heat it up if you can.

Ed: Thanks Rosie… I have still got some teeth.

To find out more about WWI and tooth loss, visit https://goo.gl/YyMuLP

To read more about dentistry in WWI, visit https://goo.gl/VUweif

15th October 1918

Walter: I’m trying to think about the good that’s happened over the past two days. I made it through two bombardments, we captured our objective and even put an enemy battery out of action. Sounds alright put like that, doesn’t it? Really, it’s been hell. First the tail of our column got shelled on the way to the line. Then the enemy must have learned when our Zero Hour was scheduled because they started shelling again just when we were all assembled to attack. It was awful. About 20 killed and must be hundreds wounded. The dust from the barrage mixed with the thick morning mist until we couldn’t see a damn thing, so those of us who’d survived the first shelling all got muddled up and lost our bearings. But we gathered together the remnants of our troops and somehow reached our objective. That’s all the staff will care about – the Allies have done well between the Lys River at Comines and Dixmude.

Mary: Thank goodness you’re alright. Somehow, the more the papers talk about armistice, the more nervous I get about you, your brother and sister.

Lily: I’m the same, Mrs Carter. It’s the hope – I can hardly stand it. I’m terrified that the moment I dare to think he might come home safe, something will happen.

To read more about this episode, visit https://goo.gl/Dc3mjW

12th October 2018

Walter: On our way up the Menin Road on foot towards the front line. Stopped at ‘Clapham Junction’. That’s what we call the crossroads near Hooge because it’s the busiest spot behind the line. All sorts of roads and paths and railtracks meet here. Makes sense, eh Fred? I miss our days as porters back at the real Clapham Junction. This one’s far more dangerous. The Germans shell it because there’s so many people and vehicles passing through that they’re almost guaranteed a hit. Last night we were ordered to bivouac here but I don’t think many of us got much sleep – we were so close to the crossroads that the shell blasts shook the ground, and mud kept spattering against the side of my bivvy. No casualties, thank God, but I’ll be glad to move on.

To see the Menin Road today, visit https://goo.gl/ck8ynk

10th October 1918

Mary: What a shock. I’m shaking like a leaf. I’ve just had Mr Wiggins from next door knock for us. I hardly ever see him but today he was looking broken, poor man. He stood back from the door, said he wouldn’t come in or get too close, and told us how Margaret had felt a bit of a chill yesterday, then cooked up a high temperature overnight so they called out the doctor but she took a turn and by this morning could barely breathe. Then, oh goodness, he said she passed away. At 1 o’clock this afternoon. Can you believe it? She was right as rain yesterday morning! It’s this flu that’s been going about. I’m terrified of it. I make your father wash his hands three times with the carbolic soap after his shift at the railway. Poor Margaret. She did tend to stick her nose up at us but we had been getting on well lately. And to think it took her so quickly... Mr Cox down the grocers has had it too – had to shut the shop. And Mrs Hibbs in our street. Well, I’ll have to take Mr Wiggins over his dinners from now on. Heaven knows, the man won’t manage by himself, especially with his last boy still at the front. Oh poor Margaret.

Walter: Can’t believe it… have you seen this Rose, Ed? Poor Mrs Wiggins. I didn’t like the woman, but still. Hope you’re alright Ma.

Rose: Ma, that’s awful news! Poor Mrs Wiggins. I can’t help but worry about you too. The flu has been spreading like wildfire out here. Keep up the hand washing and maybe take some Condy’s Fluid.

Mary: Thank you Rosie, we will. I’ll need to help sort out the funeral arrangements for Margaret so I can’t very well stay away from the Wiggins house, can I? Perhaps I’ll wear my gloves indoors. 

To find out more about how the flu outbreak affected Britain, visit https://goo.gl/yQ444f

8th October 1918

Walter: Still fed up. No more news about the armistice and we’re stuck in a freezing cold siding (better than a trench, I suppose) for the night, waiting for trains to Douglas Camp that haven’t showed up. Delays down the line or something. Worst of all, we’ve had word that all leave has been cancelled! Just when I’d managed to scrounge a new tunic from the QM thinking I might get to see you, Lily. Reg has been trying to cheer everyone up by saying if there’s no leave that means the powers-that-be think we’re onto something and need all the men we have to see it though, but I don’t think anyone wants to be cheered up today.

Ma: Your friend Reg sounds like just the sort of chap you need out there. Stay warm, love. I hope the trains arrive soon.

Walter: He is that. He’ll make a great Sergeant Major one day. Anyway, the train’s turned up so we’re off finally…

Lily: That’s rotten news about leave being cancelled! Still, if it does mean the war’s ending then I can spare you just a little longer if it means you can come home for good.

To see footage of light railways in use in WWI, visit https://goo.gl/m5W9WK

5th October 1918

Walter: Right. Reg says there’s rumours that the German and Austro-Hungarian governments have asked America for an armistice. Some are saying it’s only going to be for two months, but that’s daft, isn’t it? We’re getting on alright now, gaining back miles of land, and two months would just let Fritz take stock and strengthen up. And even if it’s an armistice for good… well, we all want peace, of course we do, but it seems like a bit of cop out to let them have a truce when we’re on our way to beating them wholly and forever. I don’t know. What do you think?

Ed: Why on Earth wouldn’t you want peace as soon as possible? Millions have died. You might be next. Is beating the other guy all that matters?

Mrs Wiggins: You know we all want you all home and safe as soon as possible. But I do think Germany should be punished for all those deaths. Think of your brother Charlie. The papers say we need to send a clear message that they can’t pull these tricks in the future – make them pay now and they won’t try it again. There need to be ‘assurances’. That’s what President Wilson says.

Evan: Ed’s right. We need peace without recrimination. And it wasn’t just Germany that brought about this war. What about Austria-Hungary? What about Turkey? What about us?

To read about the controversial conditions of peace, visit https://goo.gl/gVW5KB

3rd October 1918

Walter: Left our billets yesterday and marched to the Kruiseke Area. Lots of shelling and the weather’s bloody awful. Most days you can get on with what you have to do out here and other days you get to feeling like you just can’t stick it any longer. Today’s like that. Not that I’d ever let the men know. And whenever I get the blue devils, I can’t help but miss Lily Howes. How are you getting on, sweetheart?

Lily: No wonder you’re fed up. It’s a marvel how you keep so chipper the rest of the time. I miss you like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve been really busy with the couriering – delivering parcels as far away as Alexandra Palace these last few days – so it keeps my mind off the war. But when things are quiet in the evenings I always think of you and when I might see you again. Is there any chance of you getting leave? You must be due some by now?

Walter: Word is the fighting will go on all winter, so they’re still giving out leave passes. Maybe it’ll be my turn soon. Times before, when I’ve come home injured or on leave, I’ve almost missed the work out here. And the lads. But they can have all that. I just want it all done with now. Anyway, better get back to it – as CSM, I can’t be seen to take my eye off the ball.

Lily: Oh I hope you can get some leave! Let me know as soon as you do. Keep smiling in the meantime darling. I’ll be here waiting for you.

1st October 1918

Walter: Guess what? We’ve just been relieved in the line, but not by any old battalion – by the 23rd London Regiment! My old lot. I’ve missed being part of the Territorials (me, Fred and Bert will always be Terriers at heart) and I’d been half hoping for a transfer back there now they’ve got themselves together again. Unlikely though. Anyway, I got all excited about seeing them and then didn’t recognise a single face. The battalion’s been totally rebuilt after the disaster at High Wood in 1916. Even the new men are having to be replaced time and again – our NCOs had a debrief from theirs and they said we’re gaining ground but losing far too many in the process.

Fred: I’m glad they reformed. I still go up the old drill hall on St John’s Hill to see Bert sometimes.

To find out what happened to Walter and the 1/23rd in September 1916, visit https://goo.gl/7Y2Lny

28th September 1918

Walter: What a day. Finally getting some sleep. Shattered and sore but feeling bloody proud of ourselves. Along with the 36th Division, we’ve just helped to take back the whole of the high ground east of Ypres, back where all the fighting was last year. Not easy getting here though. Zero Hour was 05:30 but our battalion was held back until 15:00, so we could follow on and ‘mop up’. It meant that every concrete dugout we came across (or machine gun nest or arms dump) had to be searched and made safe. Most of them still contained the odd live German. Some gave themselves up as prisoners straight away and some of them put up a fight. Reg was following me into one of these dugouts and maybe some of his luck rubbed off on me because a bullet zipped past us, close enough to feel. When I found the Fritz who fired it, I was half a second away from shooting back before I saw he was just a scared kid. All his mates had scarpered and he was backed into a corner, sobbing. Dropped his weapon the moment I shouted at him. So now he’s one of our 63 prisoners from today. Add that to 16 machine guns, a battery of field guns, a howitzer and a bus and we think we’ve done pretty well.

Bert: You’re getting soft, aren’t you? That hesitation could have cost you your life. I wouldn’t have given him the benefit of the doubt. Nice work on taking the high ground though.

Mary: What wonderful news about the advance! We’re so proud of you. And for sparing that young lad. I know they’re Germans, but I’m glad another mother might be getting her boy back one day.

Ed: That poor kid…

To see a map of the army’s progress in the Fifth (and final) Battle of Ypres, visit https://goo.gl/8Hnsno

26th September 1918

Walter: Crikey. We’ve had word that our troops have begun an attack on the Hindenburg Line. That’s the hugely reinforced German defence line which has been in place since early 1917. It’s got rows and rows of fortifications all set back from each other and is lethal to attacking forces, so breaking through all that will be quite a feat… I hope our boys can stick it. Still, if they can get on as well as the troops in Bulgaria they’ll be alright – the frontier has been crossed and it looks like Bulgaria will be forced to sign an armistice.

Mary: More good news! I’m praying this really is the beginning of the end.

To watch a short video about the Hindenburg Line defences, visit https://goo.gl/qtH9ex

24th September 1918

Lily: There’s so much in the papers about the Turks being done for and the Allies in the Near East taking cities and prisoners left, right and centre. The Express says one of the battles was fought over 3,000 square miles! “The Turks are now dispossessed of practically all of the Holy Land, now in Christian hands for the first time since the days of Richard I.” Have you heard anything about it, Walt?

Walter: We heard this too, Lil – some of my old pals in the London Regiment are out there. It seems General Allenby (or his troops, more like) destroyed two whole Turkish armies in three days. And the Arabs finished off a third after the Allies stirred them up against each other. It was the Indian and Australian cavalry that clinched it (or so says our CO) by working with information from aircraft – so I suppose the new ways and the old ways can work together after all.

Ed: What’ll they do with Palestine once they’ve taken it though? They’ve double promised it to the Arabs and to the Jews…

To find out more about this area in WWI, visit https://goo.gl/dbiu4Y

20th September 1918

Walter: Another busy day of training ahead – this morning it’s mostly on how to attack strong points, so it seems other companies must have had the same trouble we did a couple of weeks ago, with that machine gun nest. Makes sense to update the training now that we’re dealing with isolated troops and redoubts instead of trench lines. Just wish we’d had it sooner.

Lily: I thought training was running about, but you’re all sitting down!

Walter: We have lectures as well. Got one this afternoon on ‘Peaceful Penetration’.

To see Walter’s schedule of training and lectures, visit https://goo.gl/KiE2Cm

18th September 1918

Walter: Training here in Liques and there’s hundreds of Americans coming and going. All full of beans, not just because they’re new out here but because their lot are doing so well down at the St Mihiel Salient. Reg says amongst them they’ve got whole battalions of black soldiers. I’ve not seen that before. Not unless you count the South African labour camps. But seemingly the white American soldiers won’t fight alongside them, so they’ve been put into the French Army with a French uniform and everything.

To find out about the ‘Harlem Hellfighters’ of the 369th Infantry Regiment, visit https://goo.gl/Z4XrWb

 

17th September 1918

Lily: Here in the south of England, when the wind is in the right direction, sometimes you think you can hear the guns on the Western Front. Usually you end up telling yourself you’re just being daft. And then sometimes someone will turn up at work and say they heard something odd and you only need a couple of people to say ‘Me too!’ for it to turn into a fully-fledged story by lunchtime. That’s what happened today. A handful of the girls thought they’d heard or felt something and Winnie said her father, who travels up from Dover, told her a ship had been torpedoed in the harbour and 100 poor souls killed in a huge explosion… Not that you’d hear about it in the papers.

Walter: Haven’t heard anything about this… and the papers are trying to keep everyone’s morale up, so that’s why no one’s read it there either.

To find out what really happened to HMS Glatton at Dover, visit https://goo.gl/KxndDK

 

14th September 1918

Walter: All piling into buses heading for Licques, up away from the line. We’ll be training there for a while. Always glad to be out of immediate danger but still all anyone talks about it is how the advance is going on. Despite getting miserable about the rain and the counter attacks the other day, it does seem things are mostly going our way. We’ve heard the German Drocourt-Queant Line has been broken through and much of the old Somme battleground has been taken back. If we could only get through the Hindenburg Line, I might start believing Reg when he says we’re onto a winner…

Mary: I’m glad you’ll be out of the way for a bit, love. Me and Lily will send some post out to you.

To find out more about the battles of the Hindenburg Line, visit https://goo.gl/cvqNgd

13th September 1918

Walter: Pouring rain and the only one who still manages to be chipper is Reg. He and Defector (that’s the ridiculous name he’s given the dog) seem to keep each other in good spirits. Not only that but he’s found this quote from Lloyd George in the paper. I’d like to think it’s true but it’s daft to get your hopes up, especially when the rain looks likely to slow down our push forward and we’re getting reports of counter attacks along the line.

Reg: If I’d known the lads were going to nickname him ‘Defecator’ I might have thought twice…

10th September 1918

Mary: It seems the world and his wife are either on strike or threatening it. And everyone else has an opinion. Women are striking for equal pay with men and even the police went on strike for the first time ever last week. You can see why – the cost of living has gone up nearly double during the war but the police are still paid less than unskilled labourers. And because so many have gone into the army, the ones that are left are doing nearly 100 hour weeks with only one day off a fortnight. Thomas is with the National Union of Railway Men and Women, who are after better pay. If you ask me, they should hold out for better hours of work too, like the bakers. But I can see the other side of it as well. After all, how are we going to win a war if no one’s working? And I bet you lot, Ed, Rose and Walter, will scoff at people thinking they’ve got it hard back here. All the same, your father has to decide if he’s going in tomorrow or not…

Walter: To be fair, we do more than 100 hour weeks out here… but then, Pa isn’t young like us and if he’s doing the work of the missing men as well as his own then he deserves more pay. Not at the expense of winning the war though, surely?

Mabel: We’re so proud of you boys at the front but winning the war depends on us at home as well as you out there. And where women are doing the same jobs as men, they should be paid the same - simple.

Ed: That’s one of the reasons why this whole thing’s a disaster. We’re away fighting for reasons everyone’s lost sight of, while trade at home goes on the backburner…

To read about labour movements, trade unions and strikes during the war, visit https://goo.gl/XGeaNh

7th September 1918

Walter: Back out into billets so we can clean up and re-equip. All feeling a bit blue until we heard Reg hollering and I looked up from shaving to see he was leading a dog behind him! It’s one his platoon found wandering about, lost, with a German dispatch strapped to its neck. Probably got sent to a post that’s not there anymore, Fritz having scarpered. So Reg brought the message box for me and my Company Commander to have a look at, but of course we couldn’t read a blasted word of it because it’s all in ‘Deutsch’, and coded at that. So I’ve had to get it to the Intelligence Officer at BHQ, double quick. I asked Reg what he plans to do with the dog and it turns out he wants to keep it as a mascot... It can’t have been fed for some time and the old softie is looking after it like it’s his own child. So I suppose there’s one more on my ration roll now.

Bert: Reading things like this makes me wish I was back out there with you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad every day for being home safe, but that’s just the sort of thing I’d have done – picking up a mangy dog.

Fred: I think it would’ve helped too, having a dog about. As long as he ain’t a German spy, eh Walt?

Walter: I hadn’t thought of that. I’ll get Reg to question him! Good to hear from you both. It ain’t the same out here without you. Especially as CSM. I see some of the younger lads in the battalion getting to be good pals and it always puts me in mind of us three.

To see footage of German messenger dogs in WWI, visit https://goo.gl/DDdmvj

5th September 1918

Rose: I’m starting to see things the way you do, Walter – this war is far from over, even if you boys have taken back all the ground we lost earlier this year. And to think we’re heading into our fifth winter! Perhaps it will just drag on until none of us can remember life before it. I hardly do now. Living at the women’s lodging house in London and working quietly in the local infirmary seems a world away…  We’ve had a tide of wounded coming to us here and the trains never come to take them away quick enough. Not only that, but news of our push forward seems to make relatives at home more keen to write to me for news of their sick and dying boys. They each deserve a kind and thoughtful reply – I know my letters are read and reread and likely put on mantelpieces – but, God knows, I’m too busy to take the time for them all.

Walter: I know how you feel, sis. Chin up though – you’re doing a grand job.

Jamie: The thought of a fifth winter of war is hellish enough from a warm room here in Scotland – you must be absolutely dreading it in a tent out there. But don’t lose heart, Rosie, and don’t wear yourself out. Even a firecracker like you has to take a break sometimes.

To read letters home from a First World War nurse, visit https://goo.gl/j9h2GF

3rd September 1918

Walter: The company attacked at 05:30 this morning. All fairly sure of ourselves after running into no resistance over the last few days. Stupid. I was further back with the Company Commander but it turned out a pocket of remaining Germans was hidden around a camouflaged machine gun nest and took the leading section by surprise. Our poor lads had nowhere to run. We’re just starting to regroup now, but the latest word is we’ve lost 13 killed and 26 wounded. Can’t stop to write more – I've got to get them evacuated. Taking them to a German Advanced Dressing Station as that’s the nearest one – out here they treat anyone, the same way Rose has Germans in her CCS. Could do without it bloody raining though.

Lily: Oh Walt, thank God you made it through again. I wish the Germans would just give up and say they’re beaten. It makes no sense to keep fighting when the papers all say they’re on their last legs.

Walter: They’re not beaten though, Lil. Today just goes to show you. After all, we had our backs to the wall in the spring and we fought back – now they’re doing there same. So I wouldn’t count on the war being over any time soon, much as I can’t wait to come home and see you.

To read a first-hand account of an Allied soldier’s attack on a machine gun nest, visit https://goo.gl/ng5GzV

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