IN HIS OWN WORDS
FROM THE MEMOIRS OF MY GRANDFATHER
To mark this year’s Rememberance Day, I’m going to write a copy of my Grandfather’s memoirs which were included in my Uncle Jim’s book “Our Father”. What better way than to write it from his own perspective. We are lucky to have this account of his war years.
“Harold has left an account of you youthful years in Hoylake which he has entitled “Memoirs of a Cheshire Cat”. The story begins in 1914 when he was 18 years of age. Quote: “Meet you as usual on the ‘Prom’ tonight, near the band.” “Right-o, Ernie!” The ‘Prom’ in question, my home, a small seaside town (Hoylake) some eight miles from Liverpool. The Band – a small band of Hungarians who came for the season each year, making a living from the collections amoung the seaside visitors. Ernie – my pal, Ernie Bryers with whom I spent most of my leisure hours. Time – the last week in July, 1914. The sun was just setting behind Hilbre Island, in a fiery sea.
Ernie was already at the rendevous when I arrived … but no band! Odd clusters of people waited around; there was a rumour going about that the Hungarians has been suddenly recalled because of a threat of war with Austria. On that beautiful evening, with straw boater worn at a rakish angle attached to the lapel of my coat by a thin black cord, set off by a bow tie and a winged collar, there were no thoughts of war which meant nothing to us.
Within a week, ‘war’ was on everyone’s lips. Ernie and I still met on the Prom, but all our mates had gone, being Territorial Reservists. Come the 6th August – Yes, we’d better go to town and enlist like everyone else; the show will be over by Christmas, and we may as well be in for the fun. Upon enlisting, our first taste of things to come was to stand naked in long rows, waiting for the doctors to ‘pass’ us. I walked out of St. George’s Hall in Lime St., a soldier for the duration – Private 16471, H. Norris of the 18th Kings Liverpool Regiment, with the customary shilling.
Little did I know ‘which’ Christmas would see me home again. There followed five years of intense military training, crammed into twelve months, by officers and N.C.O.s of the Grenadier Guards, under Colonel Trotter. By the time we were to go overseas – sailing from Southhampton in November, 1915 – we had been tested to carry our 90lbs pack on a route march of 28 miles in one day. In truth, the regiment was fighting fit, the men at their physical peak.
A murky November morning found us in Calais, being herded into cattle trucks for destination unknown. We arrived eventually at Doullens, whence we trekked to Bray on the Somme, taking over a quiet part of the trenches in the village of Carnay. Then followed six months of soul-destroying boredom, living with lice, filth and general physical misery. Alternate 8 day spells in the trenches and out, until June of 1916, when things began to stir all around us. Heavy artillery, shell dumps, new troop concentrations. Our own preparations were pepped up by special courses and lectures: all talk was of the coming offensive. On or about the 24th June, the bombardment started, the din indescribable, night and day; as each day progressed, the tempo increased.
On the 30th June, we moved up the line for going over next morning. Most of the fellows were writing letters. I am sure that many of them had some premonition it would be their last, and so it was for 75% of the battalion. We were detailed to go over in waves. Some only reached the parados, others fell immediately in front of the trench and very few of the first wave reached their objective. What hell let loose! What slaughter! What a sorry line up for roll call after that first Somme scrap! So many of my cobbers missing.
I am transferred to Battalion transport and given charge of two mules in a limber wagon, ride and drive. Our work consisted of transporting ammunition and food rations as close to the front line as possible under cover of darkness. Food is packed in sandbags, water in bensine tins, Mills bombs and .303 bullets in boxes. A Transport Officer with sergeant would lead the convoy, usually three limber wagons and a medical cart. Trips up the line varied according to the amount of shelling and the nature of the road or track. In the intense darkness, one developed cat’s eyes, and we dreaded moonlight. ‘Jerry’s’ artillery could spot our silhouettes and at times we became sitting targets for them. Our mounts sensed the danger and a near-hit made them bolt on many an occasion. Several times I have crouched over the centre pole between the mules, hoping for protection from shell splinters. Am sure I’d have made a good trick rider in either a rodeo or a circus! The risk of falling in front of the wheel was of no concern; my only thought was self-preservation.
After a short spell behind the line, back again for the second battle of the Somme, this time alongside the New Zealanders at Dicketbush near Ypres. The intense cold, that Silver Fern Y.M.C.A. Marquee where one could get a steaming cup of cocoa for a penny, worth all of a quid. To see those Kiwis opening their wonderful parcels from home – real butter, cakes and cookies that made our eyes goggle. What a wonderful country New Zealand must be! The boys found a piano in a deserted house and hauled me along for a sing-song. The house was crammed with Scots, Aussies, East Lancs, Bedfords, everyone singing their heads off. Jerry planes were overhead dropping bombs too close for comfort, but no one worried.
We move up to Ypres, Zellebeck Lake, Stirling Castle and those hellish duckboards. Everything goes up front by packhorse. The Battalion dump is at the end of about 1 ½ miles of duckboards along which, in pitch darkness, we lead our pack mules, and on frosty nights, it was a nightmare trying to keep one’s feet. To slip off was to plunge into a sea of mud. I can still smell the dead mules and horses left abandoned alongside those duckboards.
Living conditions around Ypres were very bad. Constant shelling made ‘bivvying’ in shell holes the safest, with one ground sheet stretched across the top; underneath, with one’s mates, it was warmer to sleep together on the other ground sheet. No baths, no change of under-clothes for weeks; we are now lousy. In fact, it becomes a relaxation to burn the eggs under our armpits with a lighted match.
We shift to a new sector, behind Zelleback Lake, next to a battery of 4.7 howitzers, a very unhealthy position. The horses were restless on the line. Bill Watts, my mate and I had rigged a ‘bivvy’ with empty shell cases and in a few minutes we were asleep, with the horses fed for the night. A mightly crash woke us and instinct made us run to release our horses. Our camp was being shelled, pandemonium reigned among the horses that, in their fright, had pulled tight the halters on the line. I was one of the last to free my two, hanging on to them like a demon. I hung on to their bridles whilst they carried me into the pitch darkness, racing to catch up with the others.
My delay in getting away proved providential for me. Just as we caught up with the tail end of the other horses, a shell dropped in their midst. What a mess! The screams of horses and men! My mate was killed, together with a number of other drivers and were all buried together in a mass grave the next morning.
I think this was the hottest part of the line and we were more than thankful when relief came so that we could move back from the trenches for a spell. At last, a bath and change of clothes! My skin was pitted all over with bites and scratches from the lice. These rare spells gave us the opportunity to scrape the mud off the horses and our clothes and try to restore the harness to fit state for inspection, even to the polishing of our brass buttons.
During these periods we generally had the opportunity of hearing Mass and going to Confession, mostly out in the open or, if available, within the remains of a church. If there wasn’t time before going back into the line, the padre would give us general absolution sitting on his horse as we passed by en route. We instinctively made an act of contrition. What a tremendous comfort that was to us, and I’m sure, to many non-Catholics also.
As the war progressed, we seemed to get hardened to the dangers, the hardships and the food, but life could still be made miserable by the sergeant if he wasn’t strictly fair and just with his men. For instance, the convoy work was allocated equally among the drivers. The strain of one convoy per night was usually quite enough, but if a driver had to do two trips it was tough for both horses and driver. If one was unfortunate enough to annoy the sergeant during the day, he could and did make a man do more than his share of driving The horse lines were picketed every night in three shifts, 9-12, 12-3 and 3-6. Naturally, the worst picket was from 12 to 3 a.m.
It might happen that after long periods in the saddle, when the opportunity to sleep does come, it is very deep sleep, and if one happens to be on the 12-3 picket, unless the man on duty before you wakes you up properly, it is inevitable that you will fall asleep again, so that the 3-6 picket is also not called. A hiatus of 6 hours! This would be a very serious offence, and according to the leniency or otherwise of the officer in charge, could have dire consequences.
For some time I had been in the sergeant’s bad books, and things had been most uncomfortable. My turn came this night for the 12-3 picket. I could have slept standing up but a kick woke me, the sergeant standing over me. “What’s the meaning of this? No picket all night! Norris, you’re for it!” Fortunately for me, our Transport Officer, Lt. Williams, was human and undoubtedly was well aware of the amount of strain and work we had undergone; furthermore, it was now nearly two years since I had been in the line without leave. The matter was prevented from going to the Colonel, and it was with relief I took my medicine from the sergeant.
March, 1918 – We move through Abbeville to face Ham. Rumours that “Jerry” is massing in from St. Quentin. Intelligence thinks Zero day will be either the 20th or 21st. Sure enough, before dawn, the bombardment began and we were pasted with everything. About 7 a.m. he broke through on our left; soon we realised he was encircling us and our only line of escape lay across the Ham bridge. All roads led to the bridge. In no time, the road to the bridge was jammed with remnants of different regiments, and by the next day it became a rout. We on transport followed the leader until we approached Amiens where we came to a line of Frenchmen newly dug in. By this time the English were well and truly disorganised; we seemed to have lost contact with our battalion. However, we continued our trek to the coast, where we handed over our transport to the newly arrived Americans.
After being re-grouped, I was transferred to the 13th Kings, 13th Platoon, 13th Section. In no time we were engaging the “Jerries” near Maubeuge, close to the French – Belgium border. We appear to be on the move north. Jerry is really on the move at last. We seem to be taking the front line in relay with the rest of the brigade. At least we are now in open country and moving, but for how much longer? Again we are moving up front. After one of our usual road-side fall-outs, we get the order to “About turn!”. What’s this? On the way back, whispers, wild guesses pass through the ranks until we arrive at our camp of the previous night. We are lined up in front of the Colonel seated on his dapple-grey horse. “Well boys, the job is over.” In the stunned silence that greeted his announcement, hardly a voice could be heard. It took some time to sink in. For myself, I felt like bawling like a kid.
After nearly fiver years of continual misery, hardship, tension and grief … to end so suddenly! My first thought – I’m sure to see ‘HOME’ and all it means, again. Over the next few days, we regain our spit and polish before moving into Germany for the occupation. We trekked through Namur, Liege and Aix-lachapelle, finally arriving in Kerpen, a suburb of Cologne. We were billeted with German families. How heavenly to taste civilisation once again, a soft bed and in my case, a Catholic old couple. The walls were adorned with photos of their sons in U. boats, in Artillery, some draped with black bands.
Now I lived for the day when I would board a train from Cologne to Boulogne, en route to London and HOME. It was not to be until Feb. 1919, and when the day of my discharge came, I received a petty 25 pounds for five years service. It scarcely paid for my working clothes.
Upon reaching home, I found that my brother Doug had arrived before me. I saw him only once overseas in the Ypres sector. He was with the artillery, the 18 pounders, I think. I exchanged just a few words with him, hoping to get a chance for a yarn the next day, but when I returned, his battery had moved during the night to the Italian front. My first days at home saw a thorough de-lousing, burning every vestige of under-clothes. How heavenly to feel clean again! The terrible toll of the war was brought home to me when I found that so many of my cobbers had not returned, but how soon they were forgotten in the mad round of dances, parties, etc. that followed when the chaps returned from overseas.”
The memoirs go on to describe Harold’s emigration and early years in New Zealand, where he met my grandmother and went on to have nine children including my father Cyril. He passed away when I was just 2 years old. It’s only been in the last few years that I have been researching my family tree, that I have come to appreciate his war service and what it meant to his country and all the Allied forces. It’s a miracle that he survived, considering so many didn’t. He is buried with my grandmother in Rotorua cemetary.