World War I
Thursday, 12 November, 1998
World War I: Your Stories
Source: BBC News Online
Submitted to Halsey page by John
BBC News Online invited readers to share any special
or family stories about relatives who fought in World War
First World War Story, as told to me by my father.
My grandfather was 15 when he signed up to the British
Army in 1917. He had lied about his age and as no-one
checked, he got in. Later that year he was sent for front
line duty to what my father believes was Passchendaele,
just before the beginning of the major battle there. As a
machine gunner my grandfather was in what was referred to
as a machine gun nest, which is a small dugout surrounded
with sandbags in front of the main trench.
Shelling from the German artillery was regular, but not
intense. Seemingly at random sections of the British line
were periodically attacked and it was a matter of luck as
to who would be on the receiving end. That day it was my
grandfather's part of the line. Shrapnel from an
exploding shell that had landed close to his position
killed the two men who shared the nest and hit my
grandfather in the foot.
After the bombardment was over stretcher carriers came
out; collected the bodies and my bleeding grandfather.
Once behind the British lines he was laid out on the
grass with a hundred or more injured men in various
states. Many were beyond help, with missing limbs, severe
shrapnel wounds, etc.
Medical attention up to this point was almost zero.
Eventually a hard pressed doctor came and sorted through
the men, as to who would be loaded onto the lorries that
had arrived earlier. When it came to my grandfather turn
the foot was quickly examined, without removing the boot,
and he was moved to a lorry for transportation.
Some three days later he arrived back in England where
the boot was finally removed. He had got of lightly. Just
the top of his big toe, above the joint, had been sliced
off. Painful no doubt, but far from fatal.
This proved to be a blessing as he was invalided out of
the army and escaped what was left of the war. As to the
men who he knew, left behind in the trenches, not one
survived the main battle of Passchendaele.
Geoff Halsey, UK
Other World War I
Stories Included in BBC News Online report:
After talking to my 87-year-old mother in Chicago she
told me her memory of the day her father took her (at the
age of 7) to the Chicago central business district
(locally called "the loop") on the day of the
"false Armistice" on November 9. You can
imagine the impression that a 7-year-old might have of
seeing adults in offices all over LaSalle Street yelling
and tossing the contents waste paper baskets out of the
windows and on to the streets.
He took her again to the office on the real Armistice Day
on 11 November. They did not have a general quarantine in
Chicago that day even though many people died in the
preceding weeks due to Spanish influenza. Even at age 7,
my mother was happy about the Armistice because she knew
it meant her Uncle James would be coming home from the
I also have my great uncle's journal (he was a journalist
in real life) of when he was a major in the quartermaster
corps of the Rainbow Division. He volunteered at the age
of 57 for the division Teddy Roosevelt wanted to raise.
He wrote that at 57 he was "fit and would not let
age be an excuse for being a slacker." Wilson vetoed
the Roosevelt division but my great uncle, Maj. Paul
Valorous Collins, went anyway.
Near Verdun and next to an ammo train on 11 November, he
wrote that there was a terrible crash of artillery on
both sides all along the front at 10 minutes before 11 AM
and he did not then know why. It turned out later that
the artillery officers wanted to fire not to hit anything
but so that they would not have to haul the ammo back
after the armistice.
At 11 AM, everyone in his sector got up out of their
trenches, walked toward each other, and traded
Mark Rhoads, USA
I have two diaries written by my father, Benjamin Mills
Crenshaw, beginning with his departure from New York on
14 September, 1917. It covers his time in France as a 2nd
Lt. with Pershing. It ends with his return from France.
He was wounded in the head and woke up in a French
hospital. Here is one excerpt. "Drilled. Packed up
tents. Paraded in memory of Col Roosevelt who died
yesterday. Major complimented me on having the only
Platoon in the Battalion which passed in review in step
and with a good line!" On 8 January 1919 my father
came down with the flu just as he was going to sail for
home. Luckily he survived.
Carolyn Crenshaw Griffin, USA
I never knew my grandfather, Percy Smith: although he
survived the fighting in WW1 his health was severely
affected and he died while still in his 50s, before I was
born. Like many veterans, he was never willing to talk
much about his experiences and only told a few anecdotes
to my father, which were passed on to me.
He first saw action on the Somme, probably in September
1916 as he told my father that he accompanied the first
tanks into action. He was later transferred to the Ypres
sector and fought in the Third Battle of Ypres at
Passchendaele, and recalled marching out along the Menin
Road with a feeling of dread.
During one attack his company got caught in machine gun
crossfire and most of the men around him were mown down.
He and one other managed to take cover in a shell hole.
Then his commanding officer appeared standing on the rim
of the hole, yelling at them to get out and move on. As
they started to climb out, the CO was almost cut in half
by the machine gun fire - they stayed put. When he did
eventually reach the German trenches and came to use his
rifle, he found the bolt mechanism jammed by a bullet
that had struck it as he was crossing No Man's Land. He
was also hit in the chest by another bullet, which was
stopped by a tobacco tin carried in his breast pocket.
I still have the official telegram sent to my grandmother
informing her that her husband was missing in action, on
or about 28th March 1918. He spent the remainder of the
war as a POW in Germany. When the armistice was signed,
no-one bothered to inform the POWs, who remained under
guard in the prison camp for about another two weeks
before one of them found an old newspaper and learned
that the war was over.
The authorities showed no interest in helping the POWs
and my grandfather and a friend ended up walking all the
way back to the Channel coast, where they had to stow
away on a ship to get back to England. When he was
demobbed, the Government showed its gratitude for his
service by deducting the sum of 10 shillings from his
back pay to cover the cost of a greatcoat he had
Dedric Smith, New Zealand
My grandmother had several brothers, all younger than
herself, who joined up in the First World War with the
exception of the youngest, who was only 15. He was upset
at not being old enough to go and one evening they
discovered he was missing.
His father went to the army recruiting office to make
inquiries there. To his dismay he discovered that his son
had told the sergeant he was 18 and had been enlisted. He
tried to convince the sergeant that his son was only 15
and should be discharged as under-age, but the sergeant's
reply was, "It's too late, he's in the army
now" and there was nothing to be done.
The boy was killed in action just a few weeks later, and
most of his brothers also died in the same war.
Geraldine Martin, UK
The following is a note sent via postcard from the Great
War by my Grandmothers brother Thomas Mcguigan from
Newburn, Tyne and Wear, addressed to his mother my Great
Dear Mother, just a few lines hoping to find you all well
at home as it leaves me at present we are out for a few
days rest but we expect to be back soon. I have had word
from Billy and he is allright give my best respects to
all at home from your loving son Tommy.
I have this postcard, the hand woven needlework type,
framed at my home. Tommy and Billy did not survive the
war. I believe one died in action and one died from
injuries after the war but I'm not sure.
Dale Toothill, USA
My Grandfather Mr. Robert Lawrence Jones served with the
2/5th Battalion, the Lincolnshire Regiment during the
Great War and was taken prisoner in April 1918 and held
until the end of the war. He wrote an account of his
experiences during this period which he dictated to his
sister many years later.
"Then came that never to be forgotten explosion, and
when I awoke I found myself and Handcock both lying half
buried in the earth. Both Handcock and I were helped out
by what proved to be Bavarian Infantry, and really we
must have been a weird looking pair. Our tunics were in
ribbons and our steel helmets torn from our heads. I have
only a very hazy idea of how we arrived at the dressing
station, and our first act was to fall fast asleep side
by side with the men we had so lately been fighting.
We were awakened by a German Red Cross man who could
speak English who told us we were to be sent up the line
to help carry their wounded. From that moment things
seemed to be forced home to us, making us realise the
grim reality of war. It seemed strange to have to load
shells on lorries which were soon to be dealing death to
We carried a long pole with a piece of sacking tied by
the four corners to it, making a rough but serviceable
stretcher on which we carried many a poor wounded man,
back to the dressing station. We had not much time to
think about them though for we were under shrapnel fire
from our own men.
We only got one bath in a month and also had our clothes
fumigated. The feeling of cleanliness only lasted one or
two days and the insects soon took up their old quarters
again. We were quartered in old barrack rooms, and awful
places they were. We had less food than ever there. I
exchanged my army boots for a loaf, a pair of inferior
German boots and some imitation jam. Everything seemed a
substitute for something else."
David Weatherill, UK
My great-grandfather's photograph hung in the parlour of
my great-grandmother's house in Birmingham, in a frame
which had a pattern of blue flowers and the words
"forget me not".
My grandad's earliest memories were of being given
pennies by his father's former comrades as he sat outside
the local pub.
Great-grandmother only ever had the return of her
husband's tobacco-pouch, still stained with his blood. My
great-grandfather served with the 14th Battalion (1st
Battalion Birmingham Pals) Royal Warwickshire Regiment
from November 1915. He survived several savage battles
during the Somme offensive, before receiving a fatal
wound at Guillemont.
He is buried in the communal cemetery at Corbie, where
last Tuesday my mother placed a poppy on his grave. Just
another soldier in another regiment; but he was ours, and
we still remember him and those like him.
Simon Fielding, UK
My great uncle Alfred was a young man from Nova Scotia
when he joined the Canadian Army to fight in France.
Not much is known of his experiences because he was
killed after the war while working on the railroad in
western Canada in 1922.
What is known was relayed by his sister, may great aunt.
He took part in many of the horrific battles that the
Commonwealth troops saw between 1916-1918.
I believe that his untimely death after the war is a
tragedy. One would think that if you survived all of the
horrors of war, you would be allowed to live out your
Glenn Stetson, USA
My grandfather Charles E Trevis fought on the
battlefields of the Somme and never forgot it. Years
later he still had nightmares and was unable to discuss
the details of the hand-to-hand fighting which left him
with bayonet wounds to his sides, bullet wounds which
shattered his kneecap and the loss of several toes caused
by frost bite.
He was 19-years-old, tall, handsome with a shock of red
hair and masses of freckles when he joined up. Just a
young man called Eddie, but from that day his youth
disappeared .He even returned to pick his former
colleagues off the barbed wire with the War Graves
Commission which, considering the horror of the trenches,
must have been a very brave action.
After the war he returned to his home village in the
Midlands and raised money for a war memorial, which is
still there today. We have a wonderful old photograph of
my grandfather dressed as a clown perched on a donkey
fund-raising for the memorial - a very different picture
to him as a soldier on the Somme. But he knew he was one
of the lucky few from his home area that had survived and
was committed to honouring his dead friends.
Mrs E Lyall, UK
My grandfather had a metal left leg all the years I knew
him - he died in October 1980, aged 94. He was a sergeant
in the Devonshire Yeomanry and fought at the Somme and
Passchendaele. He talked very little about his
experiences but my father told me that he lost his leg
when a German shell landed on his foot and failed to
He ordered a German to take him back to the British
trenches and was subsequently invalided out. The surgery
was so primitive that the skin and flesh which was folded
over to cover his stump was too thin and throughout the
remainder of his life he suffered great pain when cold or
damp made the nerves under his stump sock jump.
Anthony Phillips, UK
World War I in France is often called "La Grande
Guerre". Although it happened a long time ago,
families were so badly affected by this war and they
I am 35, French but living in the UK. My grandmother, who
will be 85 next year, has never known her father as he
was killed on the war front. My great-grandmother was a
war widow at 20. My grandmother says that he only saw her
briefly before being sent back to the front. He never
To this day, the only memory that she has is a strand of
hair that was sent to my great-grandmother when he died.
We have never been able to visit his grave as we do not
know where he is buried. For the record, his name was
René Perruchot. "Tombé pour la France" and
for our freedom.
Sophie Vallejo, UK
My maternal grandfather, Grant Robbins Willard, was a
volunteer ambulance driver on the Western Front in World
War I. He sailed to France in May 1917 and cared for
wounded soldiers, French and American throughout the war.
During his two years in Europe, Grant kept a detailed
diary. Here is an excerpt from that diary that speaks of
the horror he experienced.
Sunday, 19 August, 1917
"Beautiful morning. No calls came in during the
night. We made one trip to La Source, two to St. Five and
got no more calls until 2 a.m. Monday when we went to
Berjes on a call for five bad "couchés." It
was a terrible trip. The road was jammed and it was close
to 4 a.m. before we were able to get a passage... We
finally got our load of 5 "couchés" (very bad
cases) and started on our return journey. By 5 o'clock we
had reached the Citerne and by 6 o'clock Beauveaux. The
worst case had died on our hands. It was a depressing
feeling to think that a man had suffered and bled to
death in your car. He had one leg shot entirely away, the
other leg badly crushed up to the knee and a bullet wound
through the head. During the ride he had threshed around
in semi-consciousness until he had broken the bandages on
his left crushed leg and had bled to death. The car was a
pool of blood. I am glad he didn't live, however, because
he was suffering terribly and would probably have had
both legs removed at the thigh had he lived."
Peter Fifield, USA
My grandfather came from the east end of London and
joined the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry at age 29
years in December 1914. He arrived at the Regimental
depot in Bodmin, Cornwall on the 31st December 1914 and
by April 1915 was fighting in France having left a wife
and five children behind.
He was wounded twice (a photo shows two wound stripes on
his uniform) and was badly gassed. He was finally
discharged from the army in March 1919. During his war
service he served not only with the DCLI, but also the
Royal Berkshire Regiment and finally the Labour Corps.
When he came home he worked on and off in the docks but
he suffered badly with the effects of the gas and he
finally died in 1932 aged just 46 years - yet another man
killed by the war albeit many years after it ended.
I never knew my grandfather, but through researching his
army service I felt that I "met" a brave and
courageous man. Not unique I know, but nonetheless
something I'm very proud of.
Keith Adams, UK
My grandfather, John Henry Stemp, was born in 1900. I
have a picture of him aged - I think - 16, in uniform,
just as he began his training for the Royal Flying Corps.
He passed through the Officer Cadet exams and was just
preparing for service when he caught influenza. By the
time he had finished convalescing the Armistice had been
signed, or perhaps I would not be here now.
His second wife, my grandmother (who is still alive) was
six in 1914, and still remembers her primary school drill
for air raid attacks (by Zeppelin?): remove your slate
from the slot where it stands in your desk, lay it flat
on the desk top, get under your desk, put your hands on
your head and sing "There'll always be an
Jane Stemp, UK
My wife keeps an old family-photo. It shows her great
grandmother with her six children (one boy and five
girls) aged between one and about eleven. There's no
father on the picture, the photo was taken in 1914 and he
had already left for the war. The photo was supposed to
remind the father of his family: beautiful children, all
dressed nicely and a worried looking mother at the far
left. Before he could look at it, the father was dead.
Most of the girls have a smile on their face, only the
boy is looking really seriously. Did he know that he
would follow his father, about 30 years later?
And did the eldest daughter, who later emigrated to the
United States, know that the boy she would give birth to
would have to fight his uncle and other relatives in that
Hubertus Klink, Germany
As an expatriate from Birmingham now living in the US,
this timely reminder of the anniversary of World War 1
brought memories of my grandfather flooding back.
One story that I remember he told of the second war, was
he was working in a factory that built Spitfires, and at
the time was a "panel beater" for the engine
cowlings on the plane. The air raid siren went off, and
he was about to retreat to the air raid shelter as was
required. A few of his friends suggested that they go to
the men's lavatories for a smoke instead, as the warnings
rarely meant anything. Eventually, he went to the shelter
and his friends went for the "smoke".
A lone German Heinkel, that was damaged by anti aircraft
fire and attempting to limp back across the channel,
decided to lighten it's load - directly over the
lavatories! A 500-llb-bomb fell and all his friends died.
He was a brave man who volunteered for service in two
world wars, and survived. He brought up four daughters
without a wife (my grandmother died of a brain aneurysm
while quite young) and managed to keep his sense of
humor. I feel he still looks over me today.
One of my grandfathers, John McCarthy, fought as a
Canadian at Vimy Ridge. He was impailed through his arms
to a fallen barn door by the enemy. He was certainly an
iron man, over six foot tall. He eventually got his arms
working again and also served in World War II in the
Auxilliary Fire Service - but he never let my uncles join
the boy scouts, he hated war so much.
When he retired he had a window cleaning round in
Manchester until he was about 70-years-old. One day my
mother asked me, a 12-year-old then, to follow him on his
window cleaning round because there was ice on the ground
and he might have slipped carrying his ladder. I was
warned not to be seen by him otherwise we would all be in
deep trouble. He didn't slip and I wasn't seen. What a
relief. A really iron man.
Ray Cookson, Saudi Arabia
My grandfather, a captain in the United States Army whom
I shall not name, was something of a child prodigy. At
age 20 he graduated from Vanderbilt University with
bachelor degrees in both mechanical and electrical
engineering, and immediately entered military service. It
was 1917, and the US had entered the war.
Though I can't relate much about his experiences on the
Western front - he never liked to talk about them, even
years later - I can tell you that he did participate in
the Allied Expeditionary Force which was sent to Siberia,
after the Armistice in 1918, to help the White Russians
fight the Bolsheviks.
This little known invasion of Russia was a nasty epilogue
to the Great War. There, while assigned to the Army Corps
of Engineers, and as the youngest captain in the US Army
at the time (or so I have been told), he was twice
court-martialed. The first was for killing two Russian
soldiers, with whom my grandfather had been drinking.
Some words were exchanged and the Russians pulled knives
on my grandfather, who promptly shot both of them with
his service revolver. For this he was acquitted.
The second was for contracting venereal disease from a
young Russian lady. For this he was stripped of his
commission, as was Army policy at the time. Despite this
disgrace, and the fact that he could never again be an
officer, he pursued a long and highly decorated career in
the Army, serving in both the Second World War and the
Korean War, eventually retiring as a Sergeant Major.
Paul Hollander, USA
My grandpa, volunteered to fight and defend Serbia. He
was the only one of his 5 brothers to survive the
Albanian winter, attacks of Albanian gangs, wounds on
Corfu island, and the fight back to Serbia from Saloniki
front. And it was 1,450,000 Serbs who died in WWI!
Marko Ristic, Serbia
Recently, sorting through some papers my grandmother left
behind, we came across a dog-eared photograph of a young
boy in a uniform, two army pay slips and a fragile,
delicate letter written from Ireland in 1917. This
belonged to my grandmother's uncle, William Smart,
18-years-old from the close-knit South Wales coal fields
near Fleur-de-Lys who was killed in action. We don't know
where or how he died, where he is buried or even which
regiment he served in. All we know, from the letter, is
that Uncle Billie was trained on heavy machine guns and
was desperately lonely. He was surrounded by hundreds of
fellow men - boys - in similar circumstances and all he
wanted was a hug from his Mam.
Andy Rozzier, UK
My grandfather died in the early stages of WWII in
Greece. He had lied about his age, being way over age,
but I guess in those days nobody looked too closely. As
he had fought in WWI he was given a squad. On being
informed that the Germans were a few miles up the road he
formed up his little squad and marched off to meet the
enemy. Unfortunately the Germans were waiting, and he
inadvertently marched his squad into the fire of a
machine gun, taking a bullet between the eyes and
becoming one of Monmouth's first casualties of the war.
When my cousin discovered that Sam's name was omitted
from the Memorial in Monmouth, the local council rushed
to rectify the matter and promptly put his name under the
fallen of WWI! Their reaction to their blunder was to
point out that at least he was on the Memorial, and did
we want them to do... redo the entire monument?
Keith Davies, USA
My grandfather, Alfred Moseley, from Aston, Birmingham,
fought with the Royal Warwickshires on the Somme in the
First World War. He actually joined the British Army
before the outbreak of the war and was a lance corporal
bugler. He had a number of interesting tales from the
trenches. He said that when the order went out to go over
the top he would try to make his way to the middle of the
line because the German machine gunners always started on
the outside of the line and worked their way towards the
middle. If you were on the end of the line you knew you
were going to die.
On one occasion when they were ordered into no man's land
the platoon suffered heavy casualties and he was forced
to take cover in a shell hole. He sat in there shaking
with fear as he surveyed the carnage. All around him were
the bodies of his dead friends and comrades. He said he
was totally gripped with terror until suddenly and
inexplicably he felt a hand grip his shoulder. He turned
round with fright but there was no-one there. Even so he
could still feel the hand and he heard a voice say 'Don't
worry Alf, you'll be OK'. From that moment onwards he
lost his fear and got up out of the shell hole and made
his way back to the British lines unscathed. He was never
able to explain that experience.
One of the most fascinating stories came from when he was
guarding a group of German prisoners in a dugout. One of
the Germans came forward and he raised his rifle to
signal him to get back inside. But then he heard the
German say 'Don't you recognise me Alf'? It turned out to
be a German friend of my grandfather who he had worked
with in Birmingham before the war. When the war broke out
the man returned to Germany. Out of all the men fighting
along the entire front, fate had brought my grandfather
and this man back together.
Eighty years later I now live and work in Germany and I
wonder what my grandfather (who died before I was born
and would now be 117) would have made of it all. I think
he would have approved of the fact that the British and
the Germans are now working together and building a
strong relationship rather than being at loggerheads and
fighting one-another. He was also an ARP warden in the
Second World War. After the experience of those conflicts
I'm sure that he would never have wanted anything like
them to ever happen again.
Ian Moseley, Germany
PS My Uncle, Arthur Walton served with an artillery
regiment just outside of Ypres during the First World
War. After the Germans had been pushed out of western
Belgium, he recalled walking through the devastated town
of Ypres which had been subject to almost continuous
shelling for four years. He told me how he had spent the
night in the ruins of Cloth Hall in Ypres. His prize
possession from the trenches was a spiked German
officer's Helmet. My Auntie gave it away because she
feared it would be haunted by a dead German soldier!
My grandfather Thomas joined the Royal Marines when he
was 19 having argued with his foreman at the Royal
Doulton Factory in Lambeth. He saw the world with them
(Australia/Cairo etc) - a dream come true for a poor,
working class lad from Lambeth! He married his best pal's
sister, Emma, in 1905 and settled down to family life. By
1914 he had a regular job on the railway and four young
He was called up in September 1914, being in the Royal
Marine Reserve, and was in the BEF (The Old
Contemptibles). Wounded the same month he transferred
back to England and died on his 40th birthday, leaving a
widow and four sons under the age of eight. Thomas was
buried in 1914 at Lambeth with full military honours.
But he did not have a headstone - and in the last month
the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has commissioned a
one with my inscription to be placed on his grave. At
last he will receive the recognition he truly deserved.
My father (now a lively 90 year old) and his dead
brothers were a remarkable tribute to Thomas and
especially Emma, who brought the boys up single handedly
on a pittance, with fortitude, hard work, selflessness
and, even more remarkably, a wonderful sense of fun and
laughter - inherited by her son and my father, Jack
Debbie Cameron, UK
This page was last updated May 21, 2004.