Memories from Conscript Thomas Nash – PART 1

Transcript of interview with Donald Ryder by Robert Surman



66th and 42nd DIVISIONS


Being born in 1898 and with the Great War beginning in 1914, I was too young to become a soldier. As the years went by and the war continued in all its violence, I decided it was time to enlist.

I was still under the required age but decided to take the chance. Most of my pals had enlisted and I was practically on my own. Taking a day off work, I entered one of the recruiting places in Scotland Road. It was above a place called Champion Waites and outside on the window was posted a sign which read, ‘KITCHENER NEEDS YOU’.

Taking a chance, I went inside. A recruiting sergeant was there, and if I was acceptable, I would receive 2 shillings and 6 pence (12p). So he said to me “Come on in and take your testation”. This meant, that I had to pass the medical, eyes, ears, weight and chest measurement. The Army were very keen on you being fit.

The next thing the sergeant asked me was “Which regiment do you want to join?” Having worked with horses, as this was my job on the docks, I said, I would like to join the Royal Field Artillery.

I was now taken before the officers, who took particulars of my age, parents, my job, and that was all, except for the medical examination. However, the army was not for me at the present. I had passed everything except the standard chest measurements. The army regulation stated 32 inches.

Mine only measured 31 and half inches. So I was not accepted I then received my papers, stating why I had not been accepted into the army. As I left the recruiting office, I was very disappointed. But I said to myself, if I cannot join the Army I will try the Royal Navy.

Off I went to Canning Place, where the Royal Navy had a recruiting depot. On the way there, I met a pal and I told him where I was going. He said he would join up with me. So off we went.

When we got there, I did the necessary things, giving in all my particulars. Although I had passed, my pal hadn’t. The reason he had failed was, due to a large bruise on his shin. This, he had received while playing football. As he had failed, I said to the recruiting people I have had second thoughts and didn’t wish to join the Royal Navy.

I felt quite satisfied now. I had tried to enlist but couldn’t and remembering what the recruiting sergeant had said. That was “Come back later, you will soon make up your measurements’! I never bothered going back, content to work on the docks, as I had done for the last few years. Later I received notice that I would be required to the test again. There was no chest measurement problems this time and I passed A1.

Once again I was asked which Regiment I wished to join, I along with a few more said, “We would like to join the King’s Liverpool Regiment”. We were lined up and taken by the Liverpool Overhead Railway to Seaforth Barracks.

While at the barracks an officer came to see us and told us the Regiment was down at Pembroke Dock training, prior to going across to France. We waited all day and we were even offered dinner for two shillings. Having no money except our King’s Shilling we didn’t eat.

It was getting late and still we had no news about what we should do. We sat on the old beds thinking, we would be here for the night. Suddenly a Corporal came in, telling us there’s nothing here, so you can all go home but be sure to be here at 8 o’clock the following morning. So off we went back to Liverpool and our own beds.

Back the next morning, to be informed that the King’s Liverpool Regiment was full up and we had the pleasure to be joining the Manchester Regiment. We were to leave Seaforth Barracks, going by train to the Barracks of the T.A. in Wigan. Here, we were joined by lots of other lads from towns all over Lancashire.

Our first day passed and on the following day we were issued with khaki uniforms. Some of the chaps when given their new uniforms had never worn heavy boots and they found it difficult to get around in them. Our own clothes were collected together in bundles and these we had to post on home.

It was now our turn to be told, that once you put this uniform on you must always do as you are told and to obey orders. Kitted out in our new uniforms we met the Sergeant Major. He was a very smart chap with a fine waxed moustache. He said to us “Don’t act the fool, as here we tame lions!” We soon found out he wasn’t joking.

After the fitting of uniforms and the introduction to the Sergeant Major, we were taken to different houses in the town. We were to be billeted and fed by the town’s people. Two of us had to share a bed and we all sat in the parlour to eat our food. It was quite a posh place we found ourselves in and here we stayed for the next three weeks.

My army number was 202463 and I was posted to the 5th Manchester Regiment, stationed just outside Colchester at a place called Withenhall. Our camp consisted of a number of tents pitched in an open field. Ten of us had to share a tent. Sleeping on the wooden floor was murder as we had no beds, no pillows only our kit bags upon which to rest our heads.

Living in these conditions was hard as it rained a lot, causing us to be ankle deep in mud. The floor of the tent had to be scraped clear of mud many times. An extra hazard apart from the mud was the journey to the toilets. These where situated about ten minutes’ walk away from our tents, on the far side of the field. The night time walk was the worst as it was always pitch dark.

Our extra kit had to be spread out very neatly with a towel on the top, the blanket underneath and all dead straight, all this out in the open air. If there was no one around to put our kit in the tent when it rained, it often did, then there was a nice wet blanket to cover us at night.

Night time was a huddle with the ten of us in the tent and one candle in a tin for light. We were awakened at 6.30 in the morning by the call of a bugle. In half an hour we had to be washed, shaved and ready to do some drill.

The drill consisted of arms up and down, knees bend. All very unnecessary but carried out by a specialist drill sergeant. The bugle would sound again and those sick would fall out. A third bugle call and it was time for breakfast. A line was formed, with us holding our knife, fork and spoon.

We then marched over to the dinning tent and sat down at the tables. To drink out of we had enamel basins, instead of cups and enamel plates to eat off. Our breakfast, which was dished out at the end of each table, consisted of porridge, a very small piece of bacon and one slice of bread. The margarine was on a plate, you being one of the lucky ones if you managed to get any. Tea came along in buckets.

If you sat at the far end of the table, and as your plate was being passed back someone swiped your bacon, especially if it was lean then you could complain. The Orderly Sergeant of the day would shout out “Any complaints?” If you had any, you would answer the Orderly Sergeant and he would tell the Orderly Officer.

You would shout out “No bread Sir,” and the Orderly Private would be told to slice off a piece of bread for this man. All this simple duty had to be carried out for you to get your bread. Over on the orderly room notice-board was posted the names of the men required for special duties, even down to the job of washing dishes.

Now breakfast over, and another bugle call, for all the men to ‘fall in’. This meant you had to be washed, shaved, boots polished, buttons shining and your rifle spotless. You were then inspected by an officer who even looked close to see if you had shaved. He went behind you to see the back and was especially keen on your boots.

The officer was usually accompanied by the Platoon Sergeant, who had his book in his hand, noting down anything out of order. If anything was out of order, you were placed on a charge. If you were put on a charge it was often two day C.B. (confined to barracks).

These orders were classed as part of the discipline, one had to accept in the army. You were told never to argue with any non-commissioned officer, and if you did you only made it worse for yourself. However, even if you were alright, or you thought you were, they would always find fault, something would be wrong.

This camp, outside Colchester was not the best of places. After a while it began to get you down, all of us felt the same. Although we were quite tough by now, many men still went sick, not that too many people cared.

It was not long before we moved to fresh billets. These consisted of old empty houses and shops situated down a back street, which then led on to a shipyard on the River Colne. Five of us were billeted in an old shop with rooms upstairs. These rooms upstairs were damp and smelled musty. The only furniture in one of the rooms was an old iron bed, along with a couple of sheets. The rooms upstairs had been unoccupied for years.

The young woman who owned the shop was making a mint, by hiring these rooms to the army. If we had been out in the fields training all day she wouldn’t let us up to our rooms, until we took off our boots and puttees. This was, so she said, in case we dirtied the stairs, which we had to scrub anyway.

Her boyfriend was an army Sergeant, who she thought was someone important and special. If the Sergeant was in her kitchen and we came down at night to her shop to buy cigarettes she would play merry hell with us. This was just to show off in front of her sergeant boyfriend.

Not only was the billet awful but we had to do drill in the street. So when the time came to move again, we were extremely happy. This time we moved into cleaner billets in Colchester. The officers were billet in the barracks while we were put in large houses. It was six to a room, the rooms even had baths but unfortunately we had no coal to heat the water.

We had been in the army for a couple of months, and it was nearing Christmas 1916 and many of us hoped for some home leave. All we managed was four days. Two days spent travelling and two days at home. We were all back by Christmas. However, Christmas 1916 past by happily and we all had a good time. We had toasts to our officers and the beer flowed freely. The only drink I was ever interested in was tea, so no beer for me instead I went to what was known as the ‘Soldiers Club’ or ‘dry canteen’, although, we had little money to spend on anything.

We were receiving only 6d (3p) a day or 3/6d (18p) a week, so we had no money to throw away. To receive our pay was quite a ritual. We lined up passing our Sergeant who would shout “Cap off”. Besides him was the barber and if our hair did not suit him, the Sergeant would shout very loudly “haircut”. The barber would the take your name and number, then you would have to report to the barbers shop for a hair-cut before being paid.

I was now a fully trained soldier and proficient on the machine gun (Lewis Gunner). I was capable of finding all the faults on the gun. These, I could even find in the dark. We had been trained by being blindfolded, finding our way around the gun just by touch. I could replace and fit any spare parts, whether it was in the dark, in a muddy trench or in the pouring rain.

I had now been in the army for six months and as we were part of the Southern Command, there was no likelihood of us going to France or elsewhere. Our job was to protect England from invasion by the Germans. However, this idea of being invaded by the Germans by December 1916 had gradually lessened.

By early 1917, we were ready to sail across to France. We had all our kit, our heads had been well cropped (even our officers), this was to do with hygiene. We had lined up to receive our jabs in the arm, to protect us against fevers and suchlike.

The stores, of which there were plenty where loaded on transport, steel helmets, gas helmets even ones for the horses were issued. All, was soon ready for the off. It was quite ‘hush hush’.

Suddenly, we were told to leave behind any extra clothes and to only take what we could carry on our backs. We received extra identity tags or as we called them ‘death tallies’ to hang around our necks. A page in our pay books had to be filled, leaving our last will and testament to, whoever was next of kin. This was in case we were killed on active service. New numbers were issued and we had our Divisional colours sewn on our coats.

It was now the month of March and we had still not moved. Everybody was waiting and we had little idea of when we would be on our way. It was still very much ‘hush hush’. The only things we were told was, we must not keep a dairy or take a camera; all our letters would be censored if we tried to put things in code or our sentences didn’t satisfy the officer, he would cross them out and return our letters.

Before we left, we learnt about our allies the Portuguese. We were given a photograph of a Portuguese soldier, and told how to distinguish him from the Germans, as they also wore a type of field grey uniform.

One night in March word came that we had to be ready to move. We had to tidy up our billets and to be ready to move just before midnight. We entrained for Folkestone, while the stores were to sail from Southampton. No one saw us off, there was no farewells, no waving of handkerchiefs on the platform, we just left in the early hours of a March morning. Even the blinds on the carriages were drawn.

Arriving at Folkestone we boarded our transports for the trip across the Channel. A terrific storm was blowing as we left the safety of the harbour and sailed out into the darkness of the English Channel. Our ship, which was packed tight with soldiers, tossed about like a cork on the storm blown waves. Quite a few were sick but some still managed to retain a flicker of a smile.

The early hours of the morning found us docking at the port of Boulogne. We were all very hungry and thirsty, even those of us who had been sick. However, the idea of getting any food quickly, was soon dispelled. Our stores, which were to have sailed from Southampton had been held up. We heard a couple of reasons why our transports were late; first they had to return to Southampton as a German submarine had been reported off the coast and secondly because of the bad weather.

Leaving the transports, we marched out of town and up a steep hill to the very top. The camp was situated on the top of the hill; the camp being known as St. Martins Camp. On top, as well as the camp was a large wireless station. Here, we were told to bed down. This we did on the hard wooden floors. We were not even allowed to undress, as we had to be ready to move as soon as possible.

As our transport where still on the way, the only food we managed were some hard biscuits and a little tea. We couldn’t leave the camp and had to stay there. There wasn’t even a canteen, where we could buy cigarettes. Not many of us had cheerful faces as we had nothing to be cheerful for.

Although, we were hungry, it was awful to see the French children begging for bully beef and biscuits. However, good news soon reached us that our transports had arrived safe and sound. We were now taken to the railway sidings and piled into cattle trucks, each truck holding forty men. We all had to sit on the floor and after a few hours our train left. We were on our way to the mining area of Northern France and the British front line. It was a most miserable journey taking as it did long weary and hungry hours to reach our destination.

We finally arrived at a place called Lacon which is near Bethune. Here, we gathered together and got ready for a long march. As darkness set in, we reached a small village. Some of the men were found billets in a barn, the rest had to make do with a farmyard. We were not far from the front line, as we could hear plenty of gunfire.

Those soldiers who had not settled into the barn, where moved into a small village school. Down on the floor we docked, tired and hungry. It was next morning before we had a first decent meal in France. This consisted of bully beef, biscuits and tea. No decent cooking or billeting arrangements had been made for us, because within the next few days we were to go to the trenches.

As it was only March, the weather was cold, it rained continually for days and everywhere was soaking, muddy and damp. It was in weather like this that we made our way up to the trenches. We were to relieve the Norfolk Regiment in the line. Shelling was going on continually all around us. It was a deadly place to be in. At night, even the rear areas received their fair share of gas attacks.

We had only been here a day or so when a Corporal of the Norfolk Regiment took twenty of the men up the line. They came back in a shocking state. Mud was plastered to them above their knees and they were all soaking wet. France, at that time, seemed to be having all the winters rain in one go and we poor devils were sharing it.

We soon left the school and moved ever closer to the front line. As we marched along the road so shells began to explode. We finally arrived at the mining village of Annequin. Here, a few huts stood, to be used when the men came out of the line. Being still in the danger zone, we never knew the minute when a shell would land amongst us and kill us.

High above the German lines, observation balloons flew keeping a good watch on our activities as well as that of the miners. Even though the area was constantly shelled, the miners continued to do their job. However, only during the night hours did they venture out. Some of the mines where very close to the front line but continued to be worked.

The time quickly arrived for us to go up to the forward trenches Where we were going was extremely close to the German lines and with us being newcomers our minds and thoughts dwelled on the chances of us coming out alive. We were given our ‘iron rations in a small white canvas bag. The bag contained a few biscuits, a packet of tea and a tin of bully beef. None of this food could be eaten unless we were unable to obtain food for twenty four hours.

Only, then could we eat our ‘iron rations’. When we came out of the line we had to show our ‘iron rations’, and if we had used any, we would be told off and had to replace them before we went into the trenches again. As darkness approached we made ready to move. Each man had two hundred and twenty rounds in his ammunition pouches; his gas helmet was checked to see there were no holes in it and finally a check was made on his field dressing, it being a crime to be without it.

The appointed time arrived for us to move. We were taken up the road, marching each side of the road leaving a space down the centre. The reason for this was because the roads where being shelled and if we closed up we stood every likelihood of being killed. However, even marching this way a few of the lads were killed or wounded long before we got anywhere near the front line.

It was a wonder we ever found the front line as it was pitch dark. We had a ‘runner’ from the Norfolk Regiment who we were going to relieve to guide us in. We followed him as well as a tape laid out on the ground until we reached the first trench. As well as us moving up the line, there were men moving out, so that hundreds of men were moving about in total darkness, all being as silent as possible.

As we approached a number of whitewashed cottages, we had to crouch down low, as the Germans had them under fire. Bullets whizzed about as we left the broken cottages, to make a dash to the trench. Once in the trench we were told not to bunch together and to keep moving, until we reached the post we were to occupy for the next four days and nights. Our front line ran through the mining village of Quincy close to the mines at Noyelles. We had been told before going up the line to always be on the alert, not to show our heads above the parapet. We were to hold the line and kill or be killed, death was our constant companion.

The trenches we had taken over from the Norfolk Regiment were full of water. This we had to get out as best we could and as silently as we knew how, otherwise we would be visited by German shells and there was no place to hide. Our trenches were out in the open fields and as the rain poured, so more and more water flowed into them. Although there was plenty of water we hadn’t shaved or washed for days. We were soaked and covered in clinging mud, so this was our introduction to trench life and all its horrors.

During our first night up the line, we had a dozen or more killed and some injured. If any man was killed or even wounded we could not leave our posts to attend to him. We had to stay on duty and only permission by the Corporal in charge allowed us to help those killed or wounded.

With us being a machine gun section (Lewis gun), we had six men in it, as well as a Corporal in charge. The reason for so many men in the section was that, if our number one was killed or wounded our number two would take over and then number three and so on. We were all well trained in keeping the Lewis gun in working order, being able to repair it in total darkness or to make any alterations that might be required.

Life continued in the front line trenches, with quite a few of the men being killed or wounded but we managed to survive and to do our duty. One soon forgot about dying but the moans and cries of the wounded still preyed on one’s mind.

The Germans opposite us were keen on trench raiding, and it was on one occasion when our rations where being brought up that this happened. The ration party were struggling through the mud up to our front line. The rain, which had poured down for days had now eased off and only a faint wind blew.

Looking through the periscope, the top half just appearing above the sandbagged parapet, into No Man’s Land, we suddenly noticed great clouds coming towards us. Gone was the thought of a drink of tea and fried cheese, which the ration carriers were bringing up.

The Germans had placed cylinders on the top of their trenches and making a hissing sound they were sending over clouds of poisonous gas. Suddenly, everyone was moving around and the shouts of “Gas!” echoed along the trench. To make more noise so that all the troops would know it was a gas attack the alert was banged out on an old shell case.

With the arrival of the gas cloud, we expected at any minute to be attacked by the Germans. Every man had his gas helmet on and bayonets fixed. This being our first attack every machine gun and rifle blazed away. However, the Germans made no move, as our heavy guns bombarded their front line trenches.

The gas reached our lines and began to settle. It stayed hanging around for a while before the wind altered direction, blowing it back from where it had come, giving them some of their own gas.

This gas the Germans had sent over was deadly poisonous and had dire effects on any man who was gassed. It came over in other forms, usually in the form of shells, these of course coming over a lot quicker. A gas shelling attack we experienced later on and it was most unpleasant.

The worse part of trench life was the nights, these were long and it was a strain on the eyes to be on the look-out for the enemy, but it had to be done. Not only did we have to look out for Germans at night but we also had to go out on patrol into No Man’s Land, where we would often meet German patrols. Bumping into the German patrols produced mayhem. Bombs would be thrown, rifles fired and if anybody was wounded we often had to leave them where they had fallen, unless they were lucky enough to be carried in.

One night some of our men had to go out on patrol into No Man’s Land. They crept out as quietly as possible into the land of wire and shell holes. They hadn’t been out long, when a German sentry heard or saw some of our men, who had crept up quite near to the German wire. Suddenly uproar broke out as they began to throw bombs and to fire at them. With spotting our patrol they immediately sent up flares. These very lights lit up the ground, exposing all of the patrol.

Out there, being fired at the patrol were in a bad way. We didn’t return the fire, for fear of hitting our own men. We could only wait and see as to what was going to happen. One man made his way back, bringing back a message to say that the officer in charge of the patrol was badly wounded and could we send out help.

Lieutenant Bateman, was the officers name, like the rest of us he was only young. His servant was with him and had narrowly escaped being killed. Volunteers were called for to bring in Lieutenant Bateman. It was a do or die chance, as the Germans knew someone was still laying out in No Man’s Land.

Three hours had passed since the patrol had been spotted and during this time the Germans kept on sending up flares. Lieutenant Bateman had, with the help of his servant crawled into a shell hole. Private Guy was the Batman’s name and he had manfully performed his duty by staying out with the Lieutenant. I had known Private Guy for some time. He was in his forties, married man with a family and lived in Birkenhead.

It took a lot of courage to do what Private Guy did, but he managed to drag his officer back over the rough ground and into our trench. On the way in, he was wounded in the back and legs. He never returned to the Army but after the war I met him again in Liverpool.

It was a brave thing he had done, something I was later to witness being carried out by other blokes. He deserved a medal but never got one, as no officer was present to witness this act of courage and bravery. The only thing he received was a blighty wound and twenty cigarettes.

We had been in and out of the line for the best part of a month I had had my share of luck, none more so than when we went out on a wiring party. The Germans had destroyed a section of our wire and a wiring party was ordered out to repair the gaps. To protect the wiring party, six of us had been told to act as a screen in front of them. As they repaired the broken wire, we kept a good look out. Soon the German machine guns opened up and we crawled into a huge water filled shell hole for shelter. The wiring party continued to work. It was an extremely dark night and you could hardly see the bloke next to you, the only exception being when the moon broke through in between the clouds.

All the while we had to constantly dodge machine gun bullets. This was my first experience of the trenches and of No Man’s Land out in front. They had originally been in the hands of the French. Now, as the moon broke from behind the mass of clouds, I caught a glimpse of a face. It wasn’t one of our blokes it was a skeleton of a dead French Soldier. On top of the skeleton was his helmet. I had to lay down by it so as to dodge the bullets. It smelt a lot and at first it made me shiver. I had to stay by it for a while and soon got over my shivering. By now the wiring party had finished and the word was passed around for us to make our way back to the trench. To do this we had to crawl back on our stomachs under our own wire and drop down into the trench.

We generally spent eight days and eight nights in the trenches, but not all in the front line. Four of them we spent in the front line and four in the second line; both uncomfortable and dangerous places to be in. As well as the gas shells, we had to be aware of H.E. shells, shrapnel and machine gun bullets. The shrapnel we feared the most, because, when a shrapnel shell burst it spread its deadly metal like rain. Many men would be wounded or even killed when a shrapnel shell burst above or near the trenches.

Being so close to the German front line, in some areas forty yards separated the two lines and certain parts the distance was down to twenty yards; we had to be quiet and on the alert all the time. In some places we could even hear the Germans speaking. Sleep, in the front line was virtually impossible and meals gradually got worse and worse.

Our time out of the line never seemed long enough and before we knew it we were once more back up the line. This time in a different sector.

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