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William Bryan’s memories of WWI

A brief outline of my war experiences whilst serving with the 91st Siege battery R.G.A. From its formation in Dec 1915 to Nov 1918.

Enlisting at Doncaster 8-11-1915  4 of us, all coal miners at Bullcroft Colliery Doncaster — all volunteers.

The first taste of army discipline we had at the recruiting offices. Three of us were told we were of required height etc, for artillery work but the fourth man was too small. He couldn’t pass so we all decided,all four of us or none. The recruiting sergeant, not wanting to miss his commission for four, finally said ‘I’ll get the small one through’ and he did. We were in the army. In December 1915 the 91st siege Battery was formed at Plymouth, composed of volunteers from all over England, even as far away as Aberdeen and the Orkneys and Ireland too. Our commanding officer was Major W Christian D.S.O and a very fine sportsman he proved to be. We got together a fine football team, playing many games and it looked cheeky on our part to challenge the Guards in London and Horsham, our team winning 2-0 and 4-0. The team and Battery were getting talked about and this spirit lasted throughout the war.

Leaving Plymouth the Battery moved to Horsham where training began in earnest. Our next move was in April 1916 to Lydd for intensive training and shooting on 6 inch and 8 inch Howitzers. We were now ready for our part in the great adventure. Having been equipped with 9ft 2 inch Howitzers everyone was pleased and felt as big as these guns. Later we were to have experiences, both sad and amusing. In May we proceeded to Bristol to mobilize and soon to Woolwich to draw guns and stores. While in Bristol after training on our new guns, route marches were done and these proved to be popular especially with the ladies. On these occasions we took with us our mascot, a real Shetland pony owned by one of the officers, a Scot. Led by 2 of our biggest men, the pony only 29 inches high, we were a familiar sight and the 2 grooms had a few invitations out to tea from the ladies, providing they brought along the pony. Alas the pony had to return to Scotland before we moved to Le Havre via Southampton. Arriving in France we stayed at various camps and on June 3rd marched to our first position, a village named Pommier. The inhabitants were still in the village (later nothing remained of it). Our guns had to be mounted at night to avoid being seen by airmen. Hard work in the dark, the guns being trained on hostile trenches etc at Gommecourt.

Our guns were mounted under apple trees in an orchard and during firing hundreds of apples came down on us. In this position, an old disused well was found. The oldest inhabitant knew nothing about it. In front of number 2 gun, it was 105 ft deep with 3ft of water at the bottom. 70Ft down were chambers from which chalk had been mined. Use was made of this mine and the miners in the Battery were working day and night making recesses for a B.C. post, telephone exchanges and room for all the personnel. All this took about 3 weeks and was the safest cover we had out there.

Everything now was being got ready for something big and it proved to be July 1st, the Somme Battle. About the end of June we were unlucky. All guns in action, when a round from No 2 gun sounded queer. The shell (each weighing two and a half cwt) had exploded in the bore 3ft in the muzzle. The gun was later condemned after inspection and replaced by another gun from another battery. Luckily we had no casualties. It was here that I saw for the first and last time, a soldier doing 28 days field punishment. No 1 consisted of being tied to a gun wheel, like a cruciform and then after a time marched up and down carrying full army kit, a very sorry sight to all.

Came July 1st and the memorable Battle of the Somme. We were very busy firing on targets and many hostile batteries were wiped out by our guns. In all, about 800 rounds were fired by our guns on July 1st, each shell weighing two and a half cwt. I myself fired 91 rounds from gun no 1. About the 3rd or 4th July a number of shells were fired into our Battery, one of them thought to be a dud. The sergeant in charge of a party of us commenced digging this out. The shell burst underground making a good sized hole. Gunner R went into the cavity holding the sergeant’s hands. When inside Gunner R collapsed. Gunner T then went in and with difficulty raised Gunner R to be pulled out.

Gunner T then collapsed. Bombadier C went in but collapsed before he could get Gunner T out. Lieutenants T and S put gas masks on and went in and with great difficulty got T and C out. Sergeant K and 3 men were all unconscious with gas and took some time to recover.

During the intense bombardment by our own guns at the rate or 2 rounds per minute, it was found to be too much and the guns had to be overhauled. More target firing both day and night through July, August and September. The weather now was bad. Wet, slush and mud knee deep round the guns and ammunition. Ordered to move out in October to a new position at Mailly-Mailly. Before leaving Pommise we had a good laugh. Living in the village was a dirty and villainous looking French peasant. He appeared one day in a clean shirt and for several days was gloriously drunk. Investigations as to his sudden wealth disclosed the fact that he had put in a claim for 550 Francs for alleged damage to the remains of his cottage. He has sold his interest in the claim for 100 Francs and was spending the proceeds. Needless to say his claim was not upheld.

Our new position in the battered village of Mailly-Mailly wasn’t very healthy. We had arrived to take part in the capture of the Beaumont Hotel, which ended the Battle of the Somme. Our shelling took part every day and night, the enemy retiring underground as soon as we started.

This ruse was a complete success and large numbers of Huns were found buried alive in the deep trenches. From November 13th to 22nd the battery had been in action over 10 days. During this action, the breach of No 2 gun blew out, wounding Lieut C and killing 3 other ranks. The breach block was blown out about 500 yards to the rear of the gun and the shell remained in the bore wedged about 4ft from the muzzle. The gun was taken behind our lines and a full charge put in. The shell came out into a hillside, no damage was done and the gun was used a long time after in action. At the end of 1917 our B.S. Major Newton left on discharge after 36 years service aged 56. A fine old soldier and always smart. One day at Horsham he was giving a lecture on hygiene and cleanliness, telling us how any one of us could get ITCH on our hands from handling various tools etc. He said ‘Smart men get it. I had it’. At that there was a great laugh. He had a real adornment under his nose, like our present Jimmy Edwards.

We were withdrawn from the line about the middle of Feb 1917, having been in the line since June 1916. After that it was Arras and Messines and all objectives captured including Vimy Ridge. We were ordered to get a couple of guns into position near Bailleue-Arras road. All the roads were shell pitted, impossible for lorries. Lieut S dismounted No 2 gun at 10pm and reported the gun in action by 5am next morning. A great feat with one caterpillar, a couple of hand carts and some stout hearts. We had fired many rounds and had many fired back at us and with some casualties to our side. In Arras the officer’s mess was blown in by a shell. When the shell arrived all occupants of the premises made a dive for the cellar. Ten seconds later the mess waiter remembered a bottle of whisky had been left on the table. He went to see if it was safe just in time to see the whisky vanishing through the hole in the wall. Some Scotchmen were billeted next door. Time from shell to vanishing whisky 20 seconds.

On to Belgium now, all flat country, dykes and canals. All 4 guns were behind a Belgium farm. As soon as we opened up on targets we were treated to real bombardment from the enemy. Sergeant B. Carrol was killed here on his day of promotion. He was a grand chap and one of the grooms who looked after our mascot in England. I have a small photo of his grave in Pervysee with a cross and a wooden model of a gun made by the Battery carpenter. It was here that I learned to swim in the canal. Bombadier Bradshaw and others fixed up some diving boards on the canal banks right outside the officers’ mess. Everybody was enjoying the water. Someone suggested a race of 100 yards in the canal. Someone for fun entered me in a heat and I was given the most start (although I couldn’t swim then). We got into the boat (all naked) the officer holding his watch. ‘Now Bryan, do you want to dive in or just walk in?’ ‘I’ll dive in, Sir.’ ‘Right. Go.’ In I went and nearly drowned, the others were at the finish when I recovered.

On another occasion at the same spot, we had been shelled out and got orders to clear out. We went lower down the canal to a pub and had a few drinks while the shelling ceased. On our way back my pal says, ‘I’ll give you 10 francs if you will dive off the top board’, but I had to turn a somersault before I hit the water. (He had seen a sergeant doing this.) It was getting dusk and I didn’t like the idea. Up on the plank I went, naked as usual. All the other officers came out and wanted to know about the noise being made. ‘Bryan is diving off the top board Sir,’ someone said. They all stayed and I turned over before hitting the water. Had I been sober I would never have attempted it. Anyway my pal gave me the 10 francs and we went next night and spent it in the pub. This lad was later killed behind me when I was gassed. The end of 1917 saw us moving again to another front, Vendelles and Jeancourt. Here we had more casualties and after having pulled out we were told later the enemy had occupied our position. Gunner O was killed here and about 35 other casualties, all suffering from the effects of gas. This is when I left the Battery having been gassed etc.

The list of casualties

3 officers killed

16 ordinary ranks killed

5 officers 81 O.R’s wounded and gassed

3 O.R’s died of influenza

Total 108

I was told after of a very sad day for the 91st Battery. A few shells had been fired and a lot came back, all 8 inch. Lieut A, Sergeant E, Bombadier N, Gunner G and Gunner McCullough took refuge in a cellar under a house, together with 9 French civilians. A shell hit the house and the cellar collapsed. Bombadier Bradshaw and Gunner Fletcher among the rescuers at great risk before the shelling ceased. Desperate efforts were made to reach the children but it was 7 hours before the last bodies were reached. All the civilians were killed except a girl of 15, Maria Louise Lariche. She was a heroine, only her head being free and gave useful help telling the rescuers the structure of the cellar. The bodies of her mother, brothers and sisters and grandparents were all removed before her eyes. All the trapped soldiers were killed –only one survivor out of 14 buried by the shell. Lieut N, Bombadier Bradshaw and Gunner Fletcher were suitably rewarded.

Signed Gunner F. W. Bryan

67326 R.G.A

,

Undertaking

Dad was a joiner and worked for the local undertaker. His original workshop was on the ground floor of a building which housed the working men’s club on the upper floor. There was always a low rumbling noise coming from above, which I could never fathom. I realised later it was the noise of the members enjoying their pint and a natter. Next to our house was a series of buildings which had once been used by a wheelwright and blacksmith, and the business was transferred there, which meant that Dad only had a few steps to take to go to work.

Mum used to go to the cinema one night a week so then it was just Dad and me. If he had a coffin to make and had to work late, I would join him in the workshop next door and watch him working. Sometimes he would set me on dusting the shelves, which contained all manner of boxes of nuts, bolts, screws, and so on. That was a thankless task as they were always covered in dust, especially sawdust. I used to imagine I was in a shop selling those items.

I can still see Dad now making a coffin. First he would saw the wood to the right shape using a motorized circular saw — a task I didn’t like to watch as I was afraid he would lose a finger. Luckily he never did. Then the sides of the casket had to be shaped by cutting grooves across the sawn pieces and scalding them with boiling water to make the wood pliable so that it could be bent into shape After the coffin was assembled boiling pitch was poured in to seal it. Dad was quite adept at tilting the coffin to cover the inside with the black stuff. It was almost like coating a tin before baking a cake. The next step was the lining, which would be finished off with a frill round the edge. Dad prided himself on his handiwork and spent ages polishing the exterior, which I helped to do. The lid was cut into shape also and beading put round and nailed on. There was also beading round the base of the coffin. Then there was the job of attaching brass screws to the lid, and last of all the nameplate of the deceased was added. The engraving of the nameplate was done by a professional engraver, I think. If a more expensive coffin was required, Dad would ask us to go and view it when he had completed it. We took it all in our stride and didn’t see anything gloomy about it all. If there were several deaths simultaneously Dad would sometimes stay up all night to complete his tasks. The neighbours couldn’t have been very pleased with all the hammering which ensued.

When Dad’s boss got too old to conduct funerals himself, Dad took over and enjoyed dressing up in his frock coat and top hat, which he would polish with a handkerchief before setting off. I think he only ever had one suit to wear on these occasions, and I recall noticing in later years that the backside of his striped trousers was nearly threadbare. It’s a good job the coat had tails to hide it.

There was always a bottle of disinfectant spray in the kitchen, which Dad used to spray the bodies when he went to measure them up, which he did with the aid of a local woman who used to act as unofficial layer out. This disinfectant was not particularly nice in my opinion. It was certainly no Eau de Cologne!

As he went about his daily work in the village, Dad would now and then hear on the grapevine of people who were very ill, and he would come home and say, ‘Old so-and so’s nearly dead!’ He was thinking that another casket would be called for. Unfortunately, there was great rivalry between funeral directors and he would be most disappointed if he found that the Co-Op had been commissioned for the task.

During summer, farmers would bring drays into the yard for repairs before haymaking started. They needed new spokes on wheels and other repairs. I hated hot summer days and recall spending lots of time sitting under these drays to keep out of the sun. I suppose I could have stayed indoors but then Dad would worry that I wasn’t well. He seemed to have an obsession with my bowel habits and every day when he came home from work he would ask my mum if I had been to the toilet. If I hadn’t it would be a dose of syrup of figs, which was horrible. Thankfully he stopped enquiring when my sister was born. Maybe he transferred his concern on to her, but I was very relieved, if you’ll pardon the pun.

The workshop was in three sections — the main workshop and two adjoining sections. One of the latter was used to store timber, while the other was converted into a Chapel of Rest to keep up with the Co-Op. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very big and if there was more than one body to be left in there, the others had to be moved out if relatives were coming to view their nearest and dearest. I’m not sure where Dad moved them to. It’s a good job he never mixed them up.

In later years my brother worked with Dad, and he was sometimes asked to be a bearer at a funeral. My brother is not very tall and on one occasion he was asked to perform the task at the crematorium. He was placed at one of the rear corners of the coffin with three tall chaps manning the other corners. Consequently the coffin was higher than him and he wasn’t supporting it in any way. He saw the funny side of this and couldn’t help laughing which didn’t go down well with the grieving relatives. After the service, the superintendent at the crematorium gave him a reprimand and said he would be barred if he did it again. I don’t know what Dad was thinking of in choosing a bearer so much shorter than the others. Mind you, one needs a sense of humour in that job.

For Christmas one year Dad made me a blackboard and easel. Another year he made me a desk with a chair attached. I’m not sure if I was very pleased with these items as I hated school and these seemed an extension of it.

Not so happy days

Mum and Dad used to row a lot — or so it seemed to me — and I was very reluctant to be away from the two of them in case they argued and I wasn’t there to stop them. I don’t recall exactly what sparked the rows, but I suspect they stemmed from the fact that Mum suffered from narcolepsy. She would fall asleep at any time and consequently wasn’t able to do the housework as perhaps she should have done. The house was always in a mess, and I always felt ashamed of the place as a child since my friends’ houses were always neat and tidy. As he left the house to go to work, Dad used to remind Mum to get the pots washed.

I remember one occasion when we were visiting my grandparents and it was decided that I should stay the night with them and Mum and Dad would go home and collect me in the morning. I cried and said I didn’t want to stay, whereupon Dad clouted my backside and told me to go upstairs and stop being a baby. I couldn’t tell anyone the real reason I didn’t want to stay, which was because I thought that if they rowed and came to blows I wouldn’t be able to come between them as I had done in the past.

Maybe I got it all out of proportion, but it did affect me. Looking back, we should all have been more understanding of Mum and maybe medical help would have been advantageous to her.

Dad was always secretive with his money and would always go into another room before getting Mum’s housekeeping money for her. That probably caused resentment on Mum’s part. She never knew how much he earned.

It feels a betrayal on my part now, but I tell it as was. Just after the war, Dad and Mum became friends with another family in the village who had two sons. We used to visit their house on a Sunday night for the grown ups to play cards. We went on holiday with them one year. Mum discovered that Dad was having a fling with the wife. She put up with it. It didn’t last long, as in 1947 Mum became pregnant for the third time and the ‘other woman’ ceased to want anything more to do with us. I think jealousy crept in. Things seemed to improve after my brother was born, but I don’t think things really improved until much later. Dad had another fling after I was married. Mum used to tell me about it, and I was at a loss as to what to do. Mum did nothing and the affair fizzled out. They seemed to get closer in later years, especially when my husband and I presented them with a grandson, of whom they were especially proud.

Going back to the days of the first affair. It was 20 November 1947, the day Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth got married. A gypsy came to our door and Mum told me she had said that she could see a broken ring. I asked Mum what the gypsy meant and she said it meant that she and Dad would part. (Mum always believed these things.) I never did understand why she told me that. I was only eleven. I was so upset, but I couldn’t tell her. I remember going to my aunt’s house in the village wanting to tell her how I felt but not being able to. I felt so sad as the wedding was being broadcast on the radio and the music made me feel so unhappy.

Is it wrong of me to reveal these things? I still loved them in spite of feeling unhappy. I have been so fortunate in my marriage to have had a loyal and loving husband.

Postwar entertainment

After the war, a group of people in the village decided to form a committee with a view to holding an annual Christmas party for the senior citizens of the parish. Dad was one of the committee members, as were a number of his drinking partners and their wives. They organised whist drives and suchlike to raise money for the event. The committee was entitled ‘The Old Folks Treat Committee. Not a phrase one would use today in this politically correct environment!

Regular meetings were held to discuss arrangements at the houses of the committee, and they came up with the idea of forming a concert party to entertain their guests on the day. And so the Barnby Dun Follies were born!

There were about ten people in the group. The men wore white shirts and black trousers and the women white blouses and black skirts. They took their task very seriously and even wore stage make up. They thought they were so good.

On the evening of the event, the partygoers were given their Christmas tea and then settled down to be entertained. The show opened with the whole ensemble on stage singing ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’. Remember this was just after the war. Then there was a series of ‘comedy’ sketches by some of the group. It didn’t take much to make people laugh in those days, and the acts were a bit basic. My aunt and another lady appeared on stage with a pair of handlebars each with bells on and proceeded to waltz around the stage one behind the other singing ‘Two on a Tandem’. There was also a sketch involving a dentist’s waiting room and the dentist appearing in front of the patients with the inevitable extra large drill. We made our own entertainment in those days.

But the ‘old folks’ seemed to enjoy it, word got around to neighbouring villages, and the Barnby Dun Follies went on tour. To villages close by. I was about nine or ten years old at the time and used to travel with them to these events. I would sit in the front row feeling proud as punch that I was connected with the travelling players. My brother from an early age could play the mouth organ, and he was called upon one year to entertain the troops. As he wasn’t very old, he seemed to go down well with the audience. In later years more polished groups were enlisted to entertain.

In the later years I was asked to help, and I will never forget my first party. I had a large teapot and was going round the tables pouring tea for our guests when I suddenly poured hot tea down the back of one old gentleman! He was very nice about it despite the fact that he could have been scalded, but his wife wasn’t so understanding and had a few choice words to say. I fled into the kitchen and didn’t reappear until the guests had all gone home.

Memory fails me as to how long the Follies were in existence, but the Christmas parties continued until about 1975. Dad had been chairman of this committee and he died that year and the remaining members seemed to lose heart. And the old folk were better entertained with TV and bingo.

Dad’s ‘acting skills’ must have been passed on to me as years later I appeared in two pantomimes organised by colleagues at the glass factory where I worked. My first appearance was in a non-speaking part. I and another girl were handmaidens to a sultan played by my boss. Our roles consisted of standing on either side of him fanning him with carpet beaters. The poor sultan suffered from piles and had to sit on a tyre covered with cushions for his performance. I’m not sure which pantomime it was. Maybe Aladdin.

My next appearance was as the Fairy Queen in Red Riding Hood . I may be wrong, but I don’t think there was a fairy queen in the original story. Maybe they created the part just for me. I was required to trip lightly across the stage as fairy queens do and my little attendant fairies would follow. My first line was to say, ‘Fairies, salute your queen!’ and they were all to curtsy. Unfortunately for me, I have big feet and tripping lightly was not easy. I sounded more like a heavy horse. One of the group tried to teach me, but as he was a six foot male with bigger feet than mine, he didn’t help much.

No more acting for me, I decided, so neither I nor the Follies ever got further than a village stage. Them were the days.

Holidays in Scarborough

After the war, holidays were taken in Scarborough. We stayed in a boarding house owned by a lovely buxom lady called Mrs Parks. As money was tight, we always went self-catering, but Mrs Parks would cook our evening meal if Mum supplied the raw materials. It was a real treat for me if we had salad as Mum would buy a bottle of salad cream, which was something which we never had at home.

The bedrooms were comfortable, but there was no bathroom. I’m not sure where the lavatory was. We had a jug of cold water and a bowl on a stand in our bedrooms to use for our daily ablutions. Brrrh!

After breakfast, Dad would always tell us to hurry up so that we could get to the beach before all the deck chairs were taken. It seemed compulsory to stay there until teatime. There was always a stall on the beach selling jugs of tea to have with our packed lunch.

One evening we would go to the open air theatre in Peasholm Park to watch a variety show. There were always clowns on stage and they would come into the audience with buckets of water and pretend they were going to throw them. I used to be petrified. Another evening was spent going on the miniature railway to Scalby Mills.

In 1948 the Australian cricket team visited England captained by Don Bradman, who was making his final appearance for Australia on tour. We were on holiday in Scarborough when the Australian team were playing at the North Marine road cricket ground. One could get in for free after tea, so Dad took me to watch. After the match, Don Bradman walked down the street surrounded by small boys all asking for his autograph. Dad and me followed too as he walked past the end of the road where we were staying. That memory of the great man wearing a gaberdine raincoat and a flat cap has stuck with me and it got me interested in cricket. Dad used to take me to knockout matches on Doncaster town ground if our village was involved, and one of the player’s wives used to tell us to sit on our hankies to bring luck to the team. I don’t know why sitting on a hankie could bring good fortune.

Dad’s boss, Mr A used to take us to Scarborough in his Austin car. I still remember the registration number — VL9524. This was a real treat, but there was always a feeling of apprehension going down the steep Staxton Hill near Scarborough. Mr A used to kid us on that the brakes would fail. Not such a nice thing to say to kids. It’s ironic really, as Mum died in a coach crash years later when the coach’s brakes failed on a similar hill.