Friday, October 31, 2014

On That Day I Left My Boyhood Behind

Susan Burnett, at Imperial College London, writes:

My grandfather, Norman Marshall Woodcock, was called up on the day that war was declared in 1914.  He came home five years later. For fifty years after his return he rarely spoke about what had happened, but he cried each year on Remembrance Sunday.  As he grew old and had time to reflect he began to write, and in time he also began to answer the questions from his grandchildren when we asked him why he was crying.

Susan has now integrated her late grandfather's stories with the historical context, the history of the war in those areas where he was fighting.  The book is called On That Day I Left My Boyhood Behind and is a compelling first-hand account of the Middle East portion of World War I, with a special emphasis on the tragedy and debacle that we now simply call Gallipoli.

I place this book with Emily Mayhew's Wounded on my short list of must-read World War I books (of which there are many in this centennial year.)

Here's one excerpt from Mr. Woodcock's account, as a member of the Signal Corps.  Remember this occurred before the common use of wireless transmitters, so communications across the front were carried out on lines set out and maintained by the Corps:

During one battle the Navy was firing heavy Artillery from the ships anchored offshore towards the Turkish trenches ahead of us . . .

I was in charge of the communications lines that day. One of these lines ran to a Naval observation station, a dugout on the cliff top above W beach where the Lancashire Fusiliers had won five Victoria Crosses for bravery during the landings in April.  The sailors in the observation station sent these messages from the cliff top to the Admiral on the Majestic, anchored below.

Suddenly, a voice rang out "N.O.S. Lineman," that was me, "Line Dis" -- our communication line was disconnected to the Naval observation station, broken, probably damaged by a shell.  I picked up a Field Telephone and hurried out into the heat of the battle to test the line. The fault was not in the vicinity so I ran along the ground looking for where it was broken, falling flat when a shell burst near and hugging the ground to avoid rifle fire. I knew the observation station was the only link between our sea and land forces, so this was important. The line had to be repaired, and quickly.

I couldn't find a break and eventually, panting, I arrived at the observation station. A dreadful sight met my eyes. All eight men were dead. A shell had landed and burst inside the station; it had killed everyone. They were unrecognisable. It was awful. I collected myself as far as I could, and hurriedly connected my telephone, hoping it would still be through to the Signal Office where I had come from.  I held my breath and called.  Yes. To my relief it was in order. Quickly, I described the position, and then a voice came on: "Signal to the flagships. Stop Fleet bombardment. Our ships are firing into our men." I explained I had no signalling flags with me and everything in the dugout was destroyed. The answer: "Find some, it is very urgent, our casualties are mounting."

I thought for a moment as I surveyed the grisly scene, "Where can I get some flags?" and I remembered that further along the cliff was a 60-pounder Battery and they would have some.  I dashed along and explained my need as rapidly as I could to the Battery Commander.  As signallers we wore blue and white armbands wherever we were, and they allowed us to go anywhere without hindrance. The battery was in action and between my panting breaths and the big guns firing he gave an order for the flags to be brought, sending two of his signallers with me, presumably to make sure my story was true.

We set up station by the dugout and I sent the message to the Majestic.  The ships ceased firing and a boat party came ashore. They had gathered something was wrong when the station went quiet. When they saw the dugout there was silence for quite some time.

Then more messages were send describing the scene.  I returned to our Signal Office and learnt that the Navy had decimated our boys with their fire and when the inevitable counterattacks came, were driven off the hill and never recaptured it.

2 comments:

Charlotte said...

And yet we rush into war, time and again, for the slightest perceived infraction.

Bob Kavanagh said...

A great read on medical services in WW1
The Roses of No Man's Land by Lyn Macdonald