Harry Gillham was a long time resident of Frittenden House and wrote his memoirs of his time in WWI. In May 1915, shortly after his eighteenth birthday (the minimum age was 19), Harry enlisted in a territorial regiment – the 15th London Regiment, the Prince of Wales’ Own Civil Service Rifles. He was at the time at Teachers’ Training College. After military training Harry left for France.
Sunday 7 November 1915:- ‘We reached Le Havre next morning... We marched uphill through the town (surrounded by a crowd of noisy children) to the base camp above the town... Here we experienced the utmost discomfort in draughty dilapidated tents, discipline was harsh and the few days we spent there left us with the impression that all units or individuals passing through were to be made so uncomfortable that they would be glad to go up the line to their own battalions.’
‘We entrained for the front. Passenger coaches were available for officers; other ranks were herded into cattle trucks labelled ‘Hommes 40, Chevaux 8 (en long)’. The journey, about 130 miles, took 48 hours. We reached the small country town of Lilliers [which] was able to carry on normal life – there were well-stocked shops and many cafés (estaminets). Harry was allocated to ‘A’ Company and billeted in an old stable and coach-house with a deep layer of clean straw upon which he sat and slept.’
Sunday 21:- ‘After a short railway journey, we marched to a position about 2 miles from the firing line. By the side of the road we found steps cut in the earth which led down to what proved to be the longest communication trench I can remember... ‘Chapel Street’. It led for quite a mile to the ... recently captured German trenches on the outskirts of Loos... In total darkness we stumbled and slipped along the muddy floor of the trench. We heard for the first time the noise of the shells, and learned to recognise the never-to-be-forgotten shriek of the shell that was going to fall near... We were introduced to the ritual of spending one hour standing on the firestep, head and shoulders above the parapet, and then sitting for the next two hours wearily dozing at the feet of the new sentry... Dawn was considered a critical time; the entire company was alerted until the new day gave assurance that no enemy attack was likely, and that we could ‘stand down’. Then came the issue of a tot of rum, preparations for breakfast, and a resumption of the daily life in the trenches.’
After ’about a week in the front line we went back to reserve positions in a village a mile or so to the rear.’
During February 1916, Harry was serving in the coal mining area around Loos known as ‘the Double Crassier’. These coal slag heaps were the only high points in a relatively flat plain and were fiercely contested. Harry wrote that ‘it was the first time I fired my rifle at an individual enemy soldier. I was on sentry in the early morning (just before stand-to); there was a slight mist, but the sun was rising and I saw this German walking about in the distance, silhouetted against the growing light of dawn. He was carrying a bucket and was probably salvaging fuel from the slag heap. I aimed and fired. I cannot say it was fired in anger, or even bitterness, he disappeared, so rapidly that I could never decide whether he had been hit or whether a near miss had warned him to jump down into his trench. I’m afraid in my unsoldierly way I came to hope that it was the latter case’
Harry recalls that during May and June ‘we gradually moved southwards… In this new sector, as the countryside had changed, so had the soil. Here the trenches and dugouts were cut in solid chalk. It was so hard and clean that in many places aspiring sculptors had carved their regimental badges in the walls of the trench.’
Harry noted that in the days leading up to the Battle of The Somme he was living in an old French army hut. ‘Most of us were already asleep or preparing for it when those of us still awake heard the dull thud of a distant gun. The tearing rush and terrifying shriek which followed, rapidly rising in a crescendo and suddenly falling silent warned us that the shell would fall very near. It did. In a moment all was blackness, most of the roof of the hut had disappeared. A rain of earth and debris fell upon us and there followed a shocked silence. This long distance, high velocity shell had fallen on the two bunks directly opposite to where I lay, no more than three or four yards away on the other side of the hut. I was quite unhurt, but it was undoubtedly one of the three or four occasions when death came very near... The two unfortunates near me were blown to pieces, but nobody else was hurt.’
Following this event - Saturday 24 June:- Harry admitted to field hospital for a second time with PUO (Pyrexia (fever) of unknown origin). ‘I think it really meant they had no idea what was wrong- although in my case it was probably delayed shell shock’.
Friday 15 September:- Coming out of reserve, Harry went into a forward sap [a listening post in advance of the front trenchline]. ‘This saphead was a crumbling, muddy affair, and all the next day we did what we could to improve it. It started to rain, mud was everywhere, and it was difficult to keep our rifles clean. It must have been on the following morning that we were suddenly alerted by the sentry’s shout of “Stand to! Stand to! They’re coming over!” ... about half a dozen Germans were dashing towards us, yelling something that sounded like “Hoch” “Hoch” and flinging hand grenades into our saphead. I fired one or two rounds at them when, mercifully, our battalion’s Lewis machine gun opened up and saved the situation. ... In the course of this exciting scuffle I had been wounded, not very seriously. Fragments from hand grenades had caught my left arm near the shoulder and in the wrist.’
Saturday 7 October: - ‘We attacked at 1.45pm towards Butte de Warlencourt. Severe hostile machine-gun-fire. Shell holes all afternoon, dig in at night. Advance about 500 yards ... it was not often that we were ordered “over the top” in broad daylight, and we seemed to have little artillery support. A deep sunken road was the first stage of our objective and it was just before we reached this point that I experienced a most extraordinary sensation. For some brief period of time ... it was as though my essential self had left my physical body and was hovering in space above and behind it. Looking down I could see quite clearly that poor unhappy khaki-clad figure, weighted down with rifle and spade and battle-gear stumbling on ... to what fate? ... I eventually explained the feeling to myself as some strong premonition of coming danger; a theory undoubtedly confirmed by events. We went down into the sunken road and climbed the other bank. As soon as we emerged the enemy machine-guns opened up with devastating effect. Some of us managed to reach shellholes and flung ourselves in; many more did not and our casualties were grievous. We got no further.’ This episode proved to be Harry’s last action in the (first) Battle of the Somme.
At the end of 1916 Harry had arrived at the Ypres Salient. At this time ‘it was a relatively quiet, but nevertheless unpleasant area. Continual bombardment had destroyed the drainage system of a naturally marshy countryside, and most of our defence positions were sandbagged earth barricades built above ground.’
In January 1917, Harry had his first home leave of seven days, after fourteen months of active service.
Thursday June 7:-‘Attacked Messines Ridge 3.10am. Estaminet Lane.’ Harry remembers that ‘we went up to our assault positions the night before during a thunder-storm, and, to borrow a phrase “it was difficult to know when the thunder ended and the gunder began”. Not only that, but we were being shelled with gas shells, had to wear our gas masks, and had to hang on to the man in front to keep direction... Although the “Big Bang” was reputedly heard that morning as far away as London. I have no recollection of hearing the mines go up – I expect the local gunfire drowned even that.’
In November, Harry joined the Battalion’s Pioneer Section at Roclincourt... ‘I found myself thinking about the laws of average and probability (if there are any) saying to myself ‘You can’t keep on much longer – you’re bound to catch it sometime!’ Fortunately, at about this time an old pre-war friend, who had been a Pioneer for some time, told me of a vacancy in the Pioneer Section and suggested that I might like to join them...and eventually transferred to ... this squad of ten men and two NCOs [who] formed the handymen of an infantry battalion... they did all the constructional and maintenance work needed by a battalion of near 1200 men on the march. To speak frankly I thought it might offer a slightly better chance of personal survival’
Tuesday 20 November:-“A surprisingly successful British attack was made on the Hindenburg Line, when 400 tanks, with aircraft cover, drove on towards Cambrai... My old company (A Co.) had many dead and wounded in the fighting at Bourlon Wood, and many fine young men, including a sergeant whose courage and tenacity I had always admired, never came back.”
It was not until after the War that Harry learned that his elder brother had been killed at Passchendaele.
Wednesday 2 January 1918: - Harry Gillham on leave in England for 14 days.
21 March:- “Our Intelligence Service had accurately predicted the date and area of the German onslaught... Unfortunately, ‘A’ Company [his former company], holding the outpost line, was surrounded and many were taken prisoner... Our little group ... made our way westward across the old Somme battlefield. At some time we joined up with the rest of the battalion, and then began 5 days and nights of reasonably ordered retreat.’
Thursday 8 August:-“the British and French finally broke through the German lines and more or less open warfare began.’
Monday 2 September:-“We... extended into line and began to climb some high ground. As soon as we appeared above the summit we saw, no more than three or four hundred yards ahead, a German field-gun limbering up ready to move off. Between this and our advancing line was a machine-gun and a small part of enemy infantry, whom we barely saw before we became aware of that ominous swish of machine-gun bullets. I felt a tremendous blow on my upper left arm. Several poor fellows on either side of me were killed instantly... I dropped my rifle and felt for the blood. No blood. Nothing more than two neat holes in the sleeve of my tunic, one tear across my shirt and a graze across the skin. Reluctantly I picked up my rifle and bayonet and went forward again, in time to see the field-gun being driven away and the machine-gunners disappearing into a wood. But the next day we pioneers hastily buried seven or eight of our late companions, many of whom, sadly, had only come out from England just recently, and were quite young.’
Monday 11:- “Armistice” “To us in the line the end came suddenly almost as a surprise... Not until the evening of November 10th did we learn anything positive. Then Battalion Orders for the following day decreed that we were ‘to get in touch with the retreating enemy, but that at 11 o’clock a.m. all fighting was to cease along the whole front’. The morning of the 11th found us marching along the road from Tournai to Brussels. At the stroke of eleven we halted and sat down by the roadside. The war was over. I suppose we should have been overjoyed. But personally, and I think the feeling was fairly general, the effect was quite the reverse. Looking back, I am sure it was one of the most unhappy moments of my life. It seemed that suddenly all the purpose had gone out of our lives – ‘What do we do now?’... Then came a great sadness; and memories of all those good friends who had not lived to see this day – a sense of pity and sorrow that persisted” [for the rest of Harry’s life]. After the ten minutes’ break we rose to our feet and marched back to the nearest village and were billeted in (of all places) a nunnery. Needless to say, the nuns had departed.”
In his memoir Harry sums up his view of the war “One of my medals carries the words ‘The Great War for Civilisation’ but I suggest that it might better be thought of as ‘The Great War against Civilisation’.”