Guest-blogger, Dr Peter Halkon, reflects on his grandfather’s experiences at Passchendaele.
Today, on the centenary of the commencement of the 3rd Battle of Ypres and the horrors of Passchendale, I have cause to reflect on the experiences of my maternal grandfather, who despite seeing some of the fiercest action of the Western Front, survived to lead a happy and successful life until he died at the age of 87. I treasure the memorabilia he passed on to me. My object for the BBC’s History of the World in a 100 Objects was his cap badge (http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/r0RLUUvCTiipbLORc58FqQ).
My maternal Grandfather, Arnold Machin (1895-1982) born at Frodingham, Scunthorpe, volunteered after the German shelling of Scarborough. He enlisted January 4th 1915, in the Royal Horse and the Royal Field Artillery. He served at Arras, the Somme, Passchendaele and the German offensives of 1918. After the war he worked as a locomotive driver for the Winn’s ironstone quarries eventually became a Director and Works Manager for Eccles Slag, a subsidiary of the Scunthorpe steel works. He was a magistrate and served on many committees in North Lincolnshire.
My recording was made several years before his death in 1983. In the last year of his life he became confused at times – although he spoke little about his experiences, it was clear that they always remained with him. I shall never forget one Sunday lunchtime whilst sitting in the pleasant dining room of my grandparents’ house, he anxiously pointed to the floor where he envisaged a rat running around – clearly in his mind he was back on the Western Front. Here is an extract from the transcript of an oral history recording I made of him a few years before his death:
“We went up the line to a place called Poperinghe on the Ypres Road and camped on this roadside, horses and everything. We used to pick the ammunition up from the ammunition dump, put it on to horse drawn lorries and take it up to the line. There were different classes of vehicles all over this road. Later on it used to be shelled incessantly. Our guns were in one part Ypres and German guns in another part of town, one firing at the other. There were people still living in the town. We got on well with the local people. They preferred the British: one time they were in German Lines, the other they were in ours. Even the odd shop continued, I remember one roomed shops in houses – they would cook some cheese cake and pastries and make coffee. We went into these places when we were not in the line. Sometimes we used to stay behind the line with the horses. We met a character called Woodbine Willy (Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy) – a person attached to a unit at the Poperinghe Headquarters. He had a room in there and people used to go in for a cup of tea and such like. He was a “hail fellow well met” type of chap, pleased to see anybody who went up there. I went in to see him several times. At Albert we saw the “Hanging Virgin” as we called it – it was knocked over at the top of the church tower at an angle. The legend was that when it fell over the war would finish – it never did of course.
It was different from the Somme – then we were going to make a big attack, but it never came off. If they were defending, the gunfire was pretty heavy –normally everybody was saving shells and firing was restricted to a thousand shells a day or something like that.
My Lieutenant, Lt C.S. King was a good fellow – he got a medal for taking up ammunition to the front with a couple of guns. We were just on the fringe of a gas attack at Ypres – we were very lucky – we didn’t get the worst. We used to pick these chaps up who were walking away. Anyone who could see was leading.
We were at the battle of Passchendaele. There was very, very heavy shelling – a lot of guns all firing at once making a terrible din. They were firing night and day and the whole sky was lit up, just like tipping slag at Scunthorpe Ironworks. We were up the line a week at a time. We got rest two or three miles away. We very seldom took our uniforms off. There were lice and rats – we used to sleep on the floor and the rats used to keep running over you during the night regularly. We used to try to kill them but still could not catch them. You got to the stage you used to ignore them.
I was once detailed to take ammunition to a gun on its own. We were going to make an attack and we had to try to get the gun up as far as we could. I had to wrap old bagging and sacking and such like to the wheels to try to quieten it. Most of the ground was mud, but in the odd place there was stone. We used to ride this gun horse, you see, and two or three loads of ammunition strapped across the pannier over the back of the horse. One time I had to take a gun and some ammunition to where this gun emplacement had been prepared at night – the wheels were wrapped and everything, to keep quiet. I used to ride up there with a feeling of terror – it was an incredible risk”.
Dr Peter Halkon is Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Hull.