PTE Thomas (Tommy)

RJ, Going Postal
“Tommies” from the Royal Irish Rifles in the Battle of the Somme’s trenches during the First World War.

This is a potted history of the time my grandfather spent as an infantryman in WW1. He only wrote it down because my cousin was interested in military history and requested it. Other than that he never talked of it much. In some ways I wish he had written a more complete record, but it is what it is. I transcribe it verbatim.

Left school at 14. Went to Thomas De La Rue. Was given a job in the gold nib department. The then famous, “Onoto Pen”. To better myself I found work in Birmingham doing the same thing, making gold nibs. This was during the years 1912 – 1914. War broke out August 1914 around the bank holiday. On going back to work some of my workmates had gone. They were in the Territorials, and a couple like my brother were in the Army Reserve, having been in the regular army. A few joined up, which left some of us to carry on making gold nibs to the trade. Wages then were one golden sovereign and a half sovereign, ( I wish I had some now) and no deductions. Army requirements were still high for enlistment, height, weight, good sight and good health etc, which left me out. But this was not enough to bring in the numbers for a volunteer army, so some encouragement for the fit and strong to join up was made. The Derby System was introduced at the beginning and uncle Bill and myself went along. Now what to do with those under height? Well built, stocky, round about 5 feet, mostly miners from the midlands and the north. Right, they formed what they called Bantam Regiments and Christmas 1915 sees me in the 14th Gloucester Regt, Bantams. In January 1916 we find ourselves training at Chiselhurst near Swindon. The following May we are bunged over to France. The idea it would seem that we should be in time for the Somme Offensive. July 1st 1916. The story goes that a Bantam Regt from the midlands came up against the Prussian Guards before the offensive proper. You can imagine what happened! The result was to draft so many of us to other regiments. Mix us up somewhat. Hence I am transferred to the 6th Royal Berks. We had finished training at a big base camp at Etaples near Boulogne. Not in time for the 1st July but a week later. What an experience! Our jumping off ground was at Montubert Farm, where the Berks has come to a halt and like most had not reached their objective on the 1st. Try again, which was to relieve the South Africans and advance through Delville Wood. Another carve up. Indeed as I write memories flood back. I can see it all. To go into all the details would find me writing page after page. Withdrew from the Bois De Deville, back to the reserve lines for rest and await drafts to make up the full strength of the battalion. It was obvious that the next place on the map would be Bapaume. Of course other places would have to be taken first, which meant Thiepval, a small town that was an objective on the 1st of July. It was now September, three months later it was taken. Back behind the line again. Became a flying column all along the front from Albert on the Somme to Bouleue, the most northern part of the line in France where if one stepped across a ditch , one was in Belgium. And in the end that was where we ended up for a period in the Ypres sector. On the move again all the way back to the Somme. Was taken ill with a slight attack of dysentery, sent back to a field hospital. Recovered and on the way back to the front my luck was in. I was found a duty with the 18th Divisional Headquarters. This meant soldiering always around three miles from the front. Cushy!? I say it was. Carried on like this until the big German push in March 1918. The retreat took us all the way back Amiens. The first few weeks a few of us got cut off and were picked up by a French unit and found ourselves in the French Army. It made a change, if only from the point of a change of rations, ie a litre of French wine a day. It was horrible, just like drinking red ink. Black bread etc. Man power got so acute during this period that many, many regiments were disbanded. This was the fate of the 6th Royal Berks and I was destined to be transferred to the 1st Battalion Royal Berks. Didn’t get there, but instead was sent to the base camp at Rouen. The late summer was drawing on and the war was nearing the end, 1918, and my next job found me in a P.O.W company. Interesting work from our point of view. I don’t think Jerry cared for it much. Collecting all types of shells, H.E’s, rolling up barbed wire, filling in the trenches, a thousand and one jobs, scrounging for hidden treasure in the shape of bully beef, pork and beans and any of our canned stuff. Some of the prisoners were very clever at making souvenirs. I had plenty but have lost most of them. Well, that’s about the lot. Released in September, 1919, returned to Birmingham. Married in November, 1919. You know the rest. I was familiar with all the big towns in northern France, spending days and weeks in most. Here is a list of well known places in the First World War, and again in the Second.

Abbeyville, La Basse
Amiens, Calais
Armentiers, Dunkirk
Arras, Noyou
Boulogne, Poperinghe
Bethune, Ypres

18th September 1966 PTE Thomas (Tommy)

We Will Remember Them

RJ 2018

Audio file