TRUE! It was the book ‘Bird Song’, by Sebastian Faulks that allowed me to appreciate my Dad’s horrendous time in the French trenches of WW1.
My father, S/11172 Pte Joseph Edgar, was attested for the 3rd battalion in the Black Watch, Newcastle; 7/8/1915, aged 19 years. In fact, he was just 18 years in January of 1915, being born in 1897, so he’d lied about his age. Mum told me he wanted to get out of the ‘Pits’. (He went down the Durham mines when he was 14 years old, working in ‘The Monkey Pits’, hewing coal with a pick-axe and shovel, crawling on his hands and knees in narrow seams, and sometimes up to his waste in water – 8 hour shifts, around the clock, rotating weekly; mornings, afternoons and nights. After 4 years underground, going to War seemed a welcome escape!)
The 3rd battalion was a training battalion, at Nigg, Ross-shire. (There were 14 Front-line Service battalions in The Black Watch) He subsequently served in the Front-line 8th battalion; as part of Kitchener’s New Army raised in 1914.
His letters passed down to me were censored with a stamp; at the top they have the address of ‘B.E.F’ – British Expeditionary Forces.
He spoke to Mum of the battles of The Somme, Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, and Ypres and in particular ‘The Plug-Street Battle’ (Correct name Ploegsteert village with its notorious Wood).
He did tell me, “I was one of only 23 soldiers to come back from 1,100 going ‘over the top’ in one battle.” His eyes stared into the far distance when he told me this, saying, “why me?”
I saw the scar on the side of his right knee where he had been wounded by a bayonet thrust through it. At the time he hid up a tree in the ‘Plug-street Wood’, lying along a branch and holding on to his kilt to stop it hanging down: he was terrified that the blood dripping down from his wound into the snow below would give his position away. His kilt, being sodden wet, the edges were icy and stiff, which chafed his legs as he ran or crawled along. The boots, and the puttees wrapped around ankles and legs to protect them, would become icy too in the snow and muddy trenches. He said he was lucky not to get frost bite or gangrene as many of his comrades did. (Mum, as his fiancé, sent khaki woolen socks and gloves knitted on four steel pins: as did many other women-folk.)
Only one other momentous life-threatening event stuck in my 10 year old mind, told to me by my mother – not my father. He had been walking and searching through a field of ‘fallen-dead’ soldiers, identifying casualties: suddenly, a bullet whizzed past from behind him, clipping his right ear lobe. He spun around and saw a young wounded German soldier leaning on his elbow taking aim once again. Without a second thought father stepped over and plunged his bayonet into his chest. He felt deep sadness then to see this young man, the same age as himself, at the end of his short life – realizing, him or me – but asking himself, WHY?
He finished up in the Army of Occupation in Cologne in 1918-19. He returned to mining in 1920, working at the “Tribley”, “Buster”, “Low Main” and “Monkey” pits: whence he married my mother in 1922. With two young daughters in tow, he moved from Durham in 1926 to work in the newly opened Hatfield Main Colliery, Yorkshire, as a Charge-man.
I was born in Hatfield 1934, in time to experience the 2nd World War during 1939 – 1945. Aged 5 to 11 years I never thought to ask Dad about WW1!
Dad volunteered for the Home Guard in-between his shift work as sergeant and gun instructor.
We had evacuees sent from bomb-ravaged Hull: on one occasion as we slept together, 3 in a double bed; an unexploded incendiary bomb crashed through our roof in the middle of the night, falling through the ceiling just missing our bed, then on down to the room below. We hung over the side of the bed looking down through the hole watching Dad with a shovel carefully lift the bomb into a bucket of sand to carry it outside. It was pouring with rain – which had saved us from the bomb exploding – and so we went back to sleep with mackintosh coats and his Home Guard great coat on the bed, – with an umbrella over our heads – a bucket and chamber pot beside the bed to catch the rain.
Dad, still a miner, died from a coronary heart attack in 1957 aged 60 years.
I am now 80 years old and looking back at his life it is hard to imagine how he spent it either totally underground or fighting in the WW1 trenches in France. His greatest pleasure was growing prize leeks, mushrooms and catching rabbits at Finningley and Lindholme airfields and local farms, together with the local ‘Bobby’, (who had a car!) He was proud of his three daughters, one in the RAF, and the other two as qualified nurses.
Our parent’s adversities in the first 60 years of the last century were borne with tolerance and pride. I am grateful for their wisdom, love and guidance, which provided me and my children with successful and satisfying lives.
Ref. ‘Perspectives, – Pitmen Painters’ – Robson Green (Google)
The above film shows clearly the life that my father would have led before and after WW1.
Story kindly submitted by Elona Rogers.