Memories from Observer Donald Ryder

Transcript of interview with Donald Ryder by Robert Surman

Sergeant Donald Ryder – Observer. No. 62396

A. Battery. Royal Field Artillery, 153rd Brigade. 36th Division (Red Hand Division).


I was born twelve miles south-west of Shrewsbury in the village of Worthen in 1896. My father was a tailor in the village and my mother worked as a teacher at the village school.

When war broke out, I was 17 years of age and in November 1914, myself and the local telegram lad joined together. Why did I join? Well, I suppose it was after listening to the old Parson and what he had to say that caused me to join up.

After joining up we were sent to Portsmouth. Here we spent the night before being sent on to Sturminster Newton in Dorset. We stayed here at Castle Farm until April 1915, when we entrained for Southampton and finally to France. From Southampton we crossed the Channel to France and Le Havre and then up to Hermies and Amiens.

We went to Amiens by train. When we got there, we continued to train, doing other jobs as well, whatever was needed.

The end of April saw us moving to the north to take part in the 2nd Battle of Ypres. We were now using 181 Bs and my job as an Observer was to go up to the observation post in the front line. While in the O.P., I did mapping and range finding. Each officer had four guns to range find for, he would work out the details and then pass them on to me and I would write them down. Sometimes, we often had to correct the guns as they were either short or too far over.

An example of range finding would be correct at 1550, range 365 yards, 3 round battery fire, 5.0 sec. corrector of nose cap of shell. Then we would hear the shell or shells coming overhead like an express train.

To relay our information back to the battery, we at first used D3 telephone. However, after a while we did away with it, as the enemy were picking up our messages by using the railway lines. After getting rid of the D3 telephone, we switched to the Fuller Phase Power buzzer and battery with cables underground. Being up the front at the O.P, I only occasionally felt scared. I never noticed being frightened, always too busy doing my job and looking after myself.

Plenty were being killed all around me, but even this didn’t worry me or even depress me in anyway. One had a job to do and you just got on with it.

I was known as Ry to the lads in the battery and was also thought of as being lucky. The reason behind being thought lucky was that I always managed to get to the O.P., and back in one piece. Once the signallers asked me “Which way do we go to the O.P? They thought that if I told them they would return safely. I suppose I was lucky in fact I was only hit once by a piece of shrapnel, which hit me behind the ear.

There was no problem in finding the OP. and making my way back. Once I did miss my way. Fortunately I got back to my own wire just as the shells and bullets whistled overhead. The gunners also used to say I was lucky. I was going so far forward, while they had to stay behind and they were always getting shelled.

While at Ypres, I noticed Indian troops fighting alongside our lads. It couldn’t have been very warm for them, as they were dressed in light khaki, which wouldn’t keep the cold out. It was also during our time here that we came across three Germans. They were in the trench smoking as they stood in front of a brazier to keep warm. We came back later, and to get into their trenches and dug-outs, we used amothole tubes to push through their wire. There were seven of us and the tubes were filled with all sorts of explosives. We could only push the tubes through at the last minute in case they were spotted and it would give our positions away. Anyway, we did this and looked down the dugout and all three Germans were playing cards. They didn’t play cards for long as we threw Mills bombs down on them.

The second Battle of Ypres died down and our Division was ordered to Gallipoli. We travelled on a 16 knot merchant ship called the Mercia. While near Malta, we were attacked by a submarine. However my luck held and we managed to get away from it, continuing our journey to the Dardanelles.

When we reached the Dardanelles, we were told that we were not needed, so our journey back to Malta began. This time we had no close shaves. From Malta we went to Marseilles and here we entrained back up to the north of France.

Arriving back in northern France we went as reinforcements to Amiens and when we got there, the S.M. said to me “Fancy sending signallers again!”

“Well” I said “I can’t help that, here we are and here we stay”.

Anyway, the next thing is we are told we are going on O.P duty tonight. I went up with Kilburn, who as well as being a Gunner was also a married man with four children. He was a happy fellow and I liked him. He was so happy, that I wished I could be as happy. Later in another part of the front, we were fired on by a German aeroplane, and an armour piercing bullet hit him on his helmet. If ever a man knew his time was up then I am sure Kilburn did. Our Gunners returned the fire but by then the plane was out of reach.

During the Battle of Loos, one of the worst sights I saw was in one of the field ambulances. It was full of wounded men and it was literally running in blood, it was an awful sight.

It was about the time of Loos that I lost my cap. (No tin hats yet.) We were in a field and it contained a number of haystacks, so I decided to make a hole in one and go to sleep, if that was possible with all the noise going on.

Anyway, later on we were all lined up by Captain Wilmot. Here, I was without my cap and we were told by the Captain, that we looked like a lot of comic cuts. Little did I know, but a farmer had brought my cap back. The Captain read my name out and for losing my cap, he gave me two nights extra duty. Mind you, although I got these extra duties, I didn’t do them. Another man was given the same duty but not for losing his cap but smoking on top of a load of ammunition.

It is often said to me about being shot for cowardice or for falling asleep on duty. Well, I know that this actually happened. A young 18 year old lad, from London was found asleep while on duty by an officer. He was later shot, the firing party being picked from another Battalion.

Summer 1916, saw us move south to the area of the Somme. Here at Bapaume we took over from the French, right at the end of the line. Before we took over, we watched the French firing their 75mm guns. They couldn’t fire fast enough, 18 rounds to the minute, they were definitely quick firing 75’s. The last thing the French did before leaving was to give us some bread, so in return we gave them tins of bully beef.

My job of course was up at the aiming post to set our guns ready for firing. As we did our job we could see the lights in the cathedral at Bapaume. Our O.P was situated in a graveyard, which was all in ruins.

It was here that I remember we had a marksman who went around in a silk top hat. Where he got it from I don’t know, but he used to go up to the front line in it. There were plenty of dead Germans around this place.

At one stage in the Battle of the Somme, we watched the Irish having a bad time of it. They were in a hard fight with the Germans. Both the officer and myself wondered how we would get back and away from the O.P. especially as it looked as though the Germans were going to attack. Anyway, somehow we managed it and went back to Albert.

It was late in 1916 that I got my first and one and only home leave. I landed back home about midnight and was stopped by an M.P who asked me for my papers and where I was going. So I told him I was going to Worthen near Shrewsbury. Finally I got to Shrewsbury and the only way to Worthen was to walk it, so I set off.

From the station, I walked to the Barracks at Shrewsbury to see if I could get something to eat. When I reached the sentry, I said to him “Will you give me some food?”

“Most certainly me lad” was his reply. “I see you have come from the front!”

“Yes” I replied. He knew this because I was carrying my rifle. Well we had bread and cheese and never did I enjoy it more.

Leaving Shrewsbury Barracks, I then walked the 12 miles to Worthen, with full pack and rifle. While at home my father pressed my clothes for me but even this didn’t get rid of or kill the numerous lice. I still had them with me when I finally went back to France. Fortunately my return to Shrewsbury was by horse and trap, so I didn’t have to walk.

During 1917 we moved once again to the Ypres Salient, in time for the Battle of Passchendaele. It was up here I remember seeing many German wounded and a lot with stomach wounds. Those that were not so badly wounded helped carry out our wounded. I think they were trying to get well in with us because many of them started to sing “It’s a long way to Tipperary”. One German I spoke to said he came from London. When I asked him what he was doing here in a German uniform, all he said was that he was a German, he then continued on his way down the line.

My stay at Ypres provided me with some strange things. I remember once being asked by an Irish infantryman, if I would like to go to Blighty. Sure I would. Right then he said, you walk away and I will shoot you in the heel. So I walked away and then suddenly stopped and turned round to the Irishman and told him to leave it alone.

Often, when working out in No-Man’s Land, many men would try and get one in the hand. Every night the very lights would light up the sky as the men walked about in front and they would be in full view of the German riflemen. Those that got a wound would have to report to the casualty clearing station, where they would be questioned as to how they had been wounded.

Up at Ypres we relieved the Lancs. Division and it was here that we heard that if we were captured we would be shot. This was because we belonged to the 36th Division, and that we had the Red Hand of Ulster on our shoulders as well as belonging to Carson’s Army.

During the Passchendaele battles we lost a lot of good men, dead, wounded and missing. It was one night I remember going up to Menin Road, it was deserted, not a soul in sight; nothing, just nothing at all. However, coming back down the road in the morning, it was littered with dead men, horses and wrecked vehicles. Our Division hammered away at the German defences making one futile attack after another against those strong concrete fortifications. Doing these futile attacks, we lost thousands of good men.

Just behind the lines there was a platelayers hut. One day we noticed smoke coming from it. We later found out that it had been going on for quite a while. Every time a troop train pulled into the area, it was shelled by the Germans. We soon put a stop to that and no more smoke was seen coming from the platelayers hut.

From the Ypres Salient our Division moved south to take part in the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917. Our guns were positioned near a mine-shaft, not far from a place called Hermies. I well remember that place, as it had a church with a leaning tower. Also around this area were a number of walnut trees and one fellow told me about a good one full of walnuts. So I decided to climb it but no sooner was I up that tree, than the Germans began shooting at me. I soon got down, quicker than I had gone up.

The mineshaft I mentioned earlier got a direct hit one day, killing 20 men who were inside. The Germans had shelled us and a lucky one had hit the mine and just killed those within.

It was at Hermies that I got a touch of gas; I got it of all places under my arm. I was on sentry duty that night the gas came over, it was mustard gas. It smelt like rotten potatoes. I shouted gas, as the rest of the men were asleep and had to wake them all up. Even the Officer was asleep. By his bed was a bottle of whisky, so I had a quick drink before waking him up. I think I could have been shot for taking his whisky but it was worth it.

Having a touch of gas under the arm, I was taken down to the C.C.S., where they dressed my arm. Fortunately I was alright but quite a few had been killed. It was at Cambrai that I watched the tanks going over. The attack started about 6.30 in the morning. The tanks advanced and the infantry followed behind. The Germans sent reinforcements and as they were coming off the train so our tanks went over and our infantry following closely behind captured them, helping themselves to their clothing. The trenches we captured had a winding gear to wind you up and down, they were very deep. They turned out to have fantastic trenches. One fellow we caught had killed a lot of our men (I heard, how true I don’t really know!). Anyway an officer said don’t kill him, he is to be taken to the rear for questioning. With this he was marched off, but I don’t think he every made it, our infantry shot him.

Following up behind the tanks and infantry we went as far as Ribecourt. Here, who should I meet but my old teacher Mr. Hoggins. I never thought to see him out here. I later wrote to my sister about him. She then wrote back to say that she didn’t think he would be out there very long as he suffered from rheumatic fever. Anyhow, it wasn’t long before he was invalided home. On one leave I took him home an 18lb. shell (live) but with no corrector on it. I often wondered about it, he used it as a door stop.

While at Ribecourt, I noticed a marquee at the back of the line. It was well camouflaged, so being nosey I went in and had a look to see what was happening. Inside was a “Red Hat” interrogating a German prisoner. I heard that this German had swallowed secrets, so they gave him something which caused him to pass it out within half an hour, which I later heard he did. What the secret was I never found out.

We were still at Hermies when we saw the Canadian cavalry advancing. They moved forward towards Havrincourt and Bourlon Wood. They looked grand with new equipment. The never really had a chance charging against barb wire and machine guns. I believe most were wiped out. There was also South African cavalry with them, they too didn’t last long.

We were known as the “flying artillery”, because if an attack needed support we would be sent up. Mind you we always managed a rum ration before going up.

1918 saw us taking over from the South Africans, who had had a bad time and then a little later we took over from the Portuguese. Going back to drinking rum reminded me of the time I had my rum ration and the fellow’s next to me as he didn’t drink. I drank it out of a cap of an 18lb shell. I quickly passed out. The other lads put me on a duck board. An officer came galloping up to ask what was wrong. “Oh he’s ill” said Jack Norton, “We’ll take him down to the C.C.S.” Anyway they didn’t and the next day I was really ill. The rum tasted and looked like treacle, it hadn’t done me any good at all.

As March 1918 came we were driven back by the German advance but our turn came to push him back. We were told that the Germans were destroying all their guns and materials by General Plummer and that we would win and as it happened so we finally did.

By November 1918 we had matched and pushed the Germans back into Belgium. We finished up at a place called Courtrai. Here I met a Belgium woman who told me that the Germans were a dirty lot and had left their things all over the place. I came across another Belgium, this time a man and his son who had lived all during the time the Germans had occupied his village underground.

One night the church at Courtrai was a blaze of light. Jack Norton and I wondered what was up. Suddenly a man came over and told us that the war was over. I had never been so glad in all my days.

With the war now ended, we went forward into Germany. Wagon loads of goods stocked up high passed us going in the opposite direction – War loot! Germany was a very clean country and here I spent the next two years as part of the Army of occupation. I had quite a good time while in Germany and I remember visiting Cologne Cathedral, it was a lovely old building. Inside was a notice in English and French which read “Beware of pickpockets”.

1921 saw my last days in the army, as we were at last relived. The Regiment that relived us were the Guards, all very smart as none had been in the war. So from Germany it was back to England to be demobbed.

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