“This is war indeed” – Memories of an RFC man serving with the Welsh Heavies

These extracts are from a 40 page memoir of 1st Class Air Mechanic William T Manns who was an RFC wireless operator attached to the 1/1st Welsh Heavy Battery. Searching the catalogue at the IWM I was hugely intrigued to discover these. Already counting my luck by finding the account attributed to Llewelyn Edwards, I came across these recollections from an outsider who’d never expected to spend two years with the Welshmen.

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After taking the oath in Whitehall and enlisting as a radio operator, linking the RFC to the artillery, he went through training at the Polytechnic School in Regent Street (above left) continuing at Brooklands then on to Farnborough, Hampshire.

He eventually arrived in Boulogne on the 1st June 1917 traveling to the no.1 RFC aerodrome at St Omer. After a month with the 137th Heavy battery he found himself with the Welsh who’d just moved in to replace them. He wasn’t too happy about this, but the blow was softened when he found himself reunited with a pal called Irvine from his Polytechnic days. He even got to like his new unit as the north Welsh (by this time with a few English and Scots) turned out the be “On the whole, a pleasant and good natured lot”.

After two weeks with the 1/1st he experienced shelling for the first time near the village of Annequin.

“Then suddenly at dinner time the first shell landed in front of our guns. The shelling continued all afternoon but no damage was done.”

Being his first experience of shell fire he didn’t take much notice. It was only when he saw the size of the shell holes did he realise that it was something “to fear”. It was he declared “war indeed.”

A week later he was to experience the concentrated enemy fire described vividly in the 1/1st war diary and witness the commended bravery of the gunners as they carried out there own timed barrage. With 400 enemy shells falling about their position, a shell splinter destroyed his aerial putting his wireless out of action.

Manns’ cellar billet was also in the firing line. Hundreds of gas shells were stacked on the floor above him doing little for his nerves. He and Irvine moved to a dugout in the middle of a field making themselves comfortable and safer with the addition of a makeshift gas curtain. By October 1917 the battery was ready to move on, taking lorries to Bethune and welcome accommodation in an old hospital. The suspicions that they were heading to Ypres became a reality. Bertie would now be in command of the battery as Major Brymer had gone home on leave to get married.

belge“The congestion on the main roads was something awful for the troops who had borne the brunt of the Passchendaele push were being relieved, and there was one long continuous stream moving in all directions. One soon realised that one was in Belgium as for immediately crossing the frontier the renown Flanders mud began to appear – and it was not lost sight of again until the return to France”

As with Edwards, Manns describes a wretched place with men struggling to exist in the mud and create an orderly camp.

“I call it a rest camp, but it was more like a piggery. I shall never forget that night”

“Several fellows did catch their feet on the treacherous wire and measured their lengths in the slime. Eventually I reached the tarpaulin and found 5 or 6 other men already there… News was received that tea was ready but we chose to forgo the tea rather than risk crossing the quagmire again.”

The next day orders were received to move further down the road to another camp close to the crossroads at Café Belge on the Ypres to Dickebusch road.

Café Belge by S.Chilvers

Café Belge by S.Chilvers

Here they stayed a week with Manns and three others sharing a warm and dry shelter made from the ruins of a corner house with two welcoming Australians. Eventually the men were to make the journey to the new battery position. It was at this time that Morris, Parker and Kidson made their own “fateful shortcut” while the others followed later along the sleeper track from Shrapnel Corner.

Manns observed a squadron of 15 German Gotha bombers fly blithely overhead showing disregard for a British barrage below. Five or six observers made the wise decision to parachute down from their balloons to safety. By chance this is corroborated in the diary of the 14th Field Ambulance – the medics who first reported Bertie’s death with a message sent to the War Office.

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Café Belge at Dickebusch today

Arriving at their position beyond the Zillebeke church and close to Dormey House, he looked around for his new home and wireless station. Seeing a pile of old tins, corrugated iron and sandbags he was told that this was the officers’ quarters and mess. Surveying the area he wondered how anyone could live in this “hole”. His sleeping place literally was a hole in the ground. Unable to even bend his knees in the cramped space, he discovered that the same burrow had been shared by three other men.

d-houseSpying a radio aerial he found a dugout containing a map room and telephone exchange. While helping the vacating men with their equipment, several shells fell around them causing the horses to bolt.

“It was just a little welcome to the Salient for the Welsh”. Seeing a blanket shrouded corpse being carried away by Australians he thought to himself “This is war indeed”.

It’s here that they discover that Bertie and the two lieutenants had been killed.

“Officer killed…

At the time the battery commander, Major Brymer was on leave and the Captain was in charge (Capt Parry Morris). He and the two Lieutenants had set out to walk to the position before the men left Cafe Belge. Lieut Kidson having gone forward to arrange the handing over. An hour or so passed after the departure of the 23rd Heavies and there were no signs of the three officers, so enquiries were made and news was received that the Captain and one Lieutenant had been killed.”

As can be imagined, this news did little to improve the spirits of the newly arrived battery. Hoping their “sojourn would be short lived” the Welsh were to remain here for 10 months. With no one left to command the battery Captain Anderson from the 113th Heavies was brought in to take over.

His reminiscences continue describing a visit (via Hellfire Corner) to the ruins and “havoc” of Ypres, the battery moving to new positions in the Salient and the loss of 35 men in one day. The Germans now held the high ground at Mount Kemmel making their overlooked position very precarious indeed.

Happier days are recalled with a visit by “The Tykes” , the concert party of 49th (W Riding) Division,  while at rest behind the lines.

Interestingly for me, I found out that Manns had a few days rest by the coast to a place I’d recently visited. The lovely town of St Valery-sur-Somme on the estuary of the great river. Twenty one men in a 3 ton truck left the picturesque hill town of Cassel at 11.40 am arriving in St Valery at 10.15 that night.

“The ride was tiring, uncomfortable and everyone was white with dust.

stV

St Valery with views out to estuary beach

The camp was pleasantly situated and overlooking the sea about 2 miles from the village.

This rest did me a lot of good and made a fine break from life in the line. There were no restrictions and one was free. Several of us picked up a lorry and paid a visit to Cayeux, a small town nearby. Here were some fine sands, and an enjoyable bathe was partaken of.

On Monday week, that lorry journey had to be endured again. The dust was simply awful.”

As the war moved towards its conclusion the battery found itself back in France in an area between Arras and Valenciennes. His happiest time was when he a five other “battery lads” were billeted with a Belgian family and doing their best to cheer them up. The head of the house – Monsieur Lapont had been arrested and jailed for providing passports for men wanting to escape to England and enlist. Sadly he died after two years while being imprisoned. His wife and daughters had chosen to remain in the house and living in the relative safety of the cellars. They were overjoyed at the arrival of the Tommies and “could not do enough for us chaps”.

In return the men shared their suddenly much improved food supply with the family who were still rationed and worse off than the soldiers.  This “pleased their hearts” and the men were only too happy to share bread they had obtained from the Quartermaster Sergeant.

armistice

He ends his account with these words..

“On May 1st 1919 I left Netherton, proceeded to Salisbury thence to Crystal Palace Dispersal Station, and arrived home at 4.20 completely demobilised and finished with His Majesty’s service, I hope.”

Underneath in his own handwriting it says:

Total casualties during active service

42 killed
289 wounded
Estimated 150/200k rounds fired
Number of guns worn out and shattered by enemy shellfire was 49.

Wm T Manns 9338 1c AM RFC”