West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
 
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Pontefract Memories and Recollections

2352 SAPPER FRANK H.W. HOLMES

2nd/1st (West Riding) Divisional Signal Company Royal Engineers
Later 482323 62nd Division Signal Co.

Notes Compiled July 1976

PAGE ONE

These reminiscences constitute chiefly a record of quite incredible good luck, I never deliberately dodged anything but just did as I was told; yet – I never fired a shot towards the other side; I was never (as far as I knew) a selected individual target of the enemy; I saw only once the inside of a hospital (and that was when I visited one of our group who had flu).

When I myself caught ‘flu during the epidemic in 1918 my unit was in rest and others of our party took my duties until I was well again; I doubt whether I spent as many as half-a-dozen nights completely in the open; I never did guard duty, nor a fire piquet, nor spent a night looking after the horses; and it is probable that all the spuds I ever peeled would hardly fill one bucket. Though I was often cold and wet I was rarely uncomfortable hungry or thirsty, although at one period my macintosh poncho was wet for so long without any break that it just rotted.. I never had any serious spill on my motorbike and nobody ever ‘won’ it when I had to leave it on the road side (or road end) and continue on foot. I had great good fortune to have as my companions – in a small group which underwent little change during the whole of my time – friendly young men whose education, intelligence and social background at least equalled my own and in several cases much exceeded it. Although a participant in the war I was one of the half-dozen or more required in the background to support each bayonet in front, and I had more than the average soldiers opportunity to observe what went on outside his own immediate locality.

Nevertheless, as my story will show, I had my ups and downs, but I shall never cease to sympathise with the infantry and the gunners and to admire and wonder at the incredible bravery of those whose lot it was to leave the shelter (such as it was) of a trench and face the near certain chance of death or injury in No Mans Land whether in a little raid at night or in a mass attack by day.

It was on 4th August 1914 that Britain took up the challenge of the German Kaiser and his gang and evoked from Sir Edward Grey the historic comment "The lights are going out all over Europe and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." How right he was.

Very soon Pontefract, like other Garrison towns, was thronged with men – not all of them yet in khaki, flooding the Town Hall, the Assembly Room, some of the schools, the pubs, as well as, of course, the Barracks and many tents on its sports fields as reservists and recruits flocked to the colours.

And in the middle of one early August night, from the wide-open window of my bedroom high above Gillygate, I woke to hear long lines of heavily laden and hard booted King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and men of the York and Lancaster Regiment marching through the town to Baghill Station lustily singing "Tipperary" – a song with a future which no-one at that time had forseen. They were on the first stage of a journey which led them straight to Mons – and for many of them ended there

Soon the reports of local men becoming casualties began to come in, the calls for more men for the Army became more insistent, and fingers were pointed with increasing directness at young men not in uniform. I was a big lad for my 17 years and attracted a full share of these fingers – and I did not like it.

Notwithstanding the calls (by many who ought to have known better) that it would be "All over by Christmas" and realising that according to writers in the motor-cycling journals my motor cycling experience might be useful in the Army, I made enquiries.

Thus it came about that I presented myself at the Claypit Lane, Leeds, barracks of the 1st West Riding Divisional Royal Engineers. In unsullied youthful honesty I stated my true age and home I came, for 19 was then the lower limit for enlistment.

By April 1915 the pointing fingers were too much for me and with nothing in my appearance to suggest that it was my 18th and not my 19th birthday which lay five weeks behind me, I found my way to Edenthorpe Hall, near Doncaster, where Lieut. A.B. Glover, R.E., approved me for enlistment as a motor-cycle despatch-rider. He directed me to the Glossop Road, Sheffield, depot of the 2nd Line of the West Riding Division R.E., whose 1st Line had turned me down at Leeds.

This 1st Line was re-numbered 49th and had gone to France on 13th April 1915 – the day before I enlisted at Sheffield. On the other hand, my lot, re-numbered 62nd, wandered round England for nearly a couple of years and when they went out did not see Belgium until the Armistice, though the Division in due course had troubles enough.

On enlistment we DRs were paid 14s (70p) a week, I think it was, and in addition we had another 14s as a billeting allowance, for we were still in private houses at that time.

For about five weeks we trained in Sheffield, marching daily to a place called ‘The Tip’, a big quarry which had been partly filled and levelled and served well enough for he teaching of simple drill activities. But what an atmosphere! We used to make our bras buttons and badges shine before we paraded (at 9, I think it was) at the Barracks, but by mid-day they were a repulsive green.

Summer soon came and off we were packed to Thoresby Park. There, having made the journey on the private bike of one of our officers, I arrived before the advance party of which I was theoretically a member, and I spent my first night in a big Y.M.C.A. marquee, which soon became a canteen for the several battalions which in a few days more were under canvas in the park.

We motor-cyclists number fourteen, plus a sergeant in charge of us and an artificer to repair our machines, and these two took out messages only in times of stress or shortage. In those days motor-cycling was young and somewhat exclusive and it could have been in recognition of this, plus the fact that none of the N.C.O.s were permitted to address an officer – which soon became a commonplace feature of our routine – which now brought us the two stripes which had been promised to us before we enlisted. Our pay as corporals rose to a guineas a week, but our billeting allowance ceased, of course.

About this time our first motor-cycles arrived. They were Douglases, 350cc. flat twin with outside flywheel, a simple two-speed gearbox, no clutch, chain to gearbox, and belt to back wheel. Acetylene headlight. Most of us had been well nourished and were not featherweights, but the roads were good and we got along very well. I suppose there must have been some rain, but I remember chiefly only sunshine and pleasant country runs to our three infantry brigades 185, 186 and 187 and a few other units. Until we became used to it, it was a little disconcerting, on returning to camp during the night, to be stopped three or four times by young sentries with bayonets fixed – sentries who generally did not know what to do next when we had stopped and answered "Friend." Incidentally, one of my wife’s distant relatives was killed by a fidgety sentry somewhere in Scotland.

Presently, two of us were sent to each of the infantry brigades and other units and some to Divisional Headquarters at Edwinstowe Hall. At this place the signal office was in the laundry, which also served as a quartermaster’s store, and I have never slept more comfortably than I did there on a pile of blankets a foot thick on a wooden table, awaiting distribution.

It was there that I saw something of the skill of some ex Post Office telegraphists. One in particular, would hear a call from one of the morse instruments, and without breaking off his conversation would tap out ‘g’, the signal for the message offered to be sent, continue his conversation, send ‘RD’ indicating message received, and not until his visitor had left would he write out the message. Was it mere coincidence that most of these men were quite grey-haired though only about thirty years old?

It was at Edwinstowe Hall, later, whilst billeted in a private house, that I for the first time suffered the indignity of sleeping in the same room as a man so drunk as to be sick in the night. He was such a witty fellow, though, that I could forgive him. Not much later he had a spill, damaged an ankle, and was discharged. He lived in Leeds and died young.

We lost another man too through an accident. He was Dick Crump, one of the sons of the secretary of Brice Butler and Lee, wine merchants, Salter Row (subsequently Muscrofts). He had a spill from his bike in Nottingham and for the rest of his life had one leg shorter than the other. His younger brother Ernest was one of our lot for all my time. The two Crumps and two Groocock brothers, sons of the Vicar of Dronfield, after the war set up the Pelican Engineering Co. in Dewsbury. The Groococks dropped out, the Pelican moved to Sheffield and then to Leeds, and both Crumps have since died. Ernest, the last, leaving £30,000 or so. A pelican silhouette – head well up and one foot raised – had been 62nd Div. Sign, very distinctive by comparison with the signs of some of the other divisions.

The autumn of 1915 saw the division moving into schools and such places in Gainsborough, Newark, Southwell and district, with Division Headquarters at Retford House – where the first arrivals (of which I happened to be one) gathered most of a wonderful crop of walnuts from a fine old tree in the garden. At this place (which was uninhabited when we took over) we DRs had the use of the servants hall and it was my privilege (with others) to sleep in a servant’s bedroom which had concrete floor – and we had only the minimum of blankets.

Shortly, however, we were required to change quarters with the Northumbrian Division in Newcastle, where the men had been so close to their homes that discipline had been difficult. To save transport each side had to take over the equipment of the other, but whereas the Northumbrian Signals Officer who came to us checked every nut, bolt and screwdriver, our emissary signed for everything unseen and hopped off to the theatre. Consequently we had to leave our light but well-maintained Douglases and take over some 500cc Triumphs which, although more powerful than the Douglases and had a three-speed gear and a hand-operated clutch, had been almost battered to death and had no spares worth counting.

The bike allotted to me, for instance, simply would not run straight ‘hands off’ unless I leaned far over to one side. When I could put up with it no longer and dismantled it I found that a part had been distorted (probably in a bump) and when this had been replaced the machine gave no trouble in this respect. By the way, I don’t think any of us ever came within miles of the trick-cycling skill of the present-day Signals motor-cyclists.

Incidentally, in our early days in Newcastle it was ordained that we should use the excellent tram system, but it was soon realised that this was not much good as training for the work in the field for which we should be required.

Near the end of 1915 we were moved to Larkhill Camp, Salisbury Plain (which I think we were almost the first to occupy). We entrained in Newcastle cattle market early one morning and although before we left I had learned from the driver of our train that we should pass through Pontefract, it was not until we reached York that I was able to despatch a telegram home to say so. Not surprisingly, it arrived too late to bring anyone to the station – and if it had done it would have made little difference for we sailed slowly but without pause straight through Baghill Station almost in sight of my home. It was very late when we ended the journey, and my outstanding recollection of my first night at Larkhill was of the clammy dampness of the blankets issued to me.

At Bulford Camp, near Larkhill, I was one of the many innocents who were disgusted to see lines of new lorries standing in the open with no protection. It seemed recklessly wasteful but we little guessed what waste and destruction we would shortly be witnessing. And that reminds me of January 1917, when it was a routine duty all night of a team of four men to go round running the engines of the A.S.C. lorries parked with quilted canvas bonnet covers to keep them from freezing. One man sat at the controls, another took the starting handle, and one on each end pulled in turn on a rope attached to the starting handle. Larkhill hsd its own theatre and we had some good shows by amateurs and visiting professionals. On Sundays we had a church service and I remember some of the soldiery were made uncomfortable by a sermon on gambling by our new Chaplain, Capt. Chavasse. Later, in France, it was Capt. Chavasse who found hanging in our officers mess a picture of the Vie Parisienne type. Having discovered who had provided it he bought it from him with a French bank note – which was promptly put in the frame in place of the picture. It was this same Capt. Chavasse who, when our Division was in the line, was known to lose himself for hours at a time amongst the wounded in the advanced trenches – and even in front of them, according to the stories which we heard. I am not sure but I think he later became Bishop of Liverpool, was it?

We had much mud at Larkhill and it had hardly begun to dry when we were sent on a three-day trek as an exercise. In the middle of one night I was sent with a message to a unit whose orderly room corporal I tracked down asleep in a GS wagon in the middle of Devizes Market Place. His words escape me, but I well remember the trend of his remarks when he discovered that my despatch in the middle of a February night described methods of keeping down horse-flies in hot weather.

Early in 1916 we moved again, this time to the borders of Norfolk and Suffolk, with Division HQ at Flixton Hall, near Bungay. We had units at Somerleyton (near Lowestoft), Henham, near Southwold and elsewhere, and three times a day (7,1 and 7) two DRs left Flixton with official letters for the outlying units. We had a little time to wait at our terminal points before we returned with the incoming despatches and on the morning trips we usually managed to pick up an extra breakfast for the runs were 20 or 25 each way and we were all young and heart of appetite.

Our duties were far from arduous and soon after we arrived one of the Divisional staff officers gave us a very wide order – When at liberty go out and learn the lie of the land: Joy-rides unlimited!

We had boating on the Waveney and much swimming. After the first parade of the day, when the roll had been called and the parade state reported, the first order was always "Fall motor-cyclist." This was theoretically to enable us to service our machines but in practice all of us who were not on specific duty had an hour or two to spare before breakfast. Most of us then toddled off to the river, only a field or so away, and I was generally one of the first in and usually the last out.

It was during this period that we had our first air-raid when one night a Zeppelin put a ring of bombs on Bungay Common – and frightened some cows. I think it was about this time that we saw the ‘Pulham Pig’, a dirigible balloon which lived nearby and used to go out submarine spotting. Later of course, we had many air raids. I was travelling one night on the road from Bapume towards Albert at a period when the fighting had moved on beyond Bapume and the land on both sides of the road was of the deserted tortured moonscape type so pitifully common in those parts at that time. Not much short of Albert – with its statue of the Virgin and Child still projecting horizontally from the tower of the semi-ruined church below – I heard the drone of a plane and was soon able to see its iron cross markings. I felt it unlikely that he was looking for solitary me in this blank expanse but – just in case – I dropped into a shell hole and soon heard explosions in poor battered Albert. In the outskirts of the town I found a house ablaze and was met at the end of a side street by a man who begged my first-aid packet for his pal in a lorry near the blaze. I obliged but did not loiter. It was not until the German advance of 1918 that the statue received the hit which finally brought it down. Both church and tower have since been rebuilt.

Flixton Hall was a very fine mansion, probably well under a century old when we moved in. When I re-visited it forty years later – what a change: The Park had been ploughed, most trees were missing, the drive deteriorated, the outbuildings flattened, pigs in the partoves, bullocks in the ballroom, the gardens gone and a bulldozer loading bricks and rubble to make farm roads. It did seem a shame – and it had not been done by the Germans.

The Signal Co. was a mounted unit and its horses and mules required daily attention and exercise. At one period sickness and leave reduced the number of their normal attendants and some of us who were not fully occupied ‘volunteered’ to participate in an exercise outing.

About horses I knew even less than my fellow motor-cyclists and when I saddled and mounted the animal I was to ride the creature got the bit between his teeth and set off at a mad gallop across the park. Fortunately, I had given a little thought to the principles of horse riding – and even more fortunately the animal kept a straight course and avoided the trees with low branches. Nevertheless, we seemed to have travelled some miles (though it could not possibly have been so far) before my mount began to yield to my steady pull to the right, dropped to a canter, then a trot, and finally walked calmly back to the horse lines. I overheard some complimentary comment on my performance – but none seemed to have guessed how great had been my luck and how very narrow my margin of safety.

At Flixton I performed what I feel was one of the silliest tricks ever done with a horse. I had agreed to hold it for a few moments whilst its rider made a call at Divisional HQ. As soon as he was out of sight I tried to mount with a spring direct from the ground to the saddle – but something went wrong and I went straight over on to my hands on the road on the other side. Luckily, the horse was better trained than I and stood quietly a few feet away and allowed me to lead him back to the starting point.

For lack of the spares we awaited, our Newcastle Triumphs were by now in a very poor state and we could no longer keep one man to one machine. We found that the handlebars were not difficult to bend cold to suit our individual riding positions, but this did not do them much good. One day on a run to Henham, where the signal office was in a tent at the top of a steep bank, I was commencing my return when, on this bank my right handlebar broke off. I took a tumble, but was unhurt, moved all controls to the left and reached home, 20 miles away, without further trouble.

The chief reason 62 Division stayed so long in England was that infantry recruiting was much behind that for other branches whilst infantry casualties were much higher. By this time however, conscription had come in and the batallions were growing.

The Division was nevertheless, counted in for home defence which one fine day led to a huge laugh. An exercise had been planned, to include a mock invasion and a defence, to be done without warning. Unfortunately, when the starting order was given in the small hours one morning, the girl at the local telephone exchange was asleep and nothing happened. What disciplinary results or what changes were made I never learned, but no exercise took place either then or later, as far as I knew.

With the autumn the risk of invasion diminished and we were moved to Bedford, Northampton, Wellingborough, Rushden, etc., but with the close of the year our holiday (for it had been little more for us DRs) came to an end.

On 9th January 1917 we arrived at Southampton where the steamship Archimedes, a 10,000 tonner, absorbed what seemed to me an impossible number of men, horses, wagons, cars, lorries and endless quantities of stores.

We had a naval escort and an uneventful crossing to Le Harve, but we DRs had a shock on disembarking, for instead of the Triumphs we had brought up to good condition but had had to leave behind us we now had to take over some Douglases which, though new, had been standing in the open at Southampton for some months.

We were to have had one night only in a rest camp but had to stay two or three days before we had our machines fit (or so we thought!) to take us to the war. The motor industry before 1914 had relied almost entirely on the German Bosch magneto but these Douglases had American Dixies (Splitdorfs on the Triumphs we later had), and we blamed these very largely for our necessity after only a very few miles to heave-to at Yvetot for the night. Here we treated ourselves to a night at an hotel where our assembled personal equipment was so heavy that it pulled the hall hat-rack off the wall. We did little better the next day, and spent another night at our own expense, this time in Neufchatel, where one of our party surprised madame at the café by expressing our willingness to sleep even "sur la plafond" (ceiling) when he should have said "sur les planchettes".

Eventually, we came within the sound of the rumbling of the guns and we realised we were now really at the war when, as we settled for the night with other troops in a big barn, the Company Sergeant Major read to us an order of the day recording that some unfortunate individual had been shot for desertion. (My school-days friend, my best man in 1921, once had to give the order at one of these dreadful events).

Frank H.W. Holmes
Notes compiled July 1976

PAGE TWO | PAGE THREE


Further reading from Frank Holmes:

Recollections of Pontefract Part One
Recollections of Pontefract Part Two
Recollections of Pontefract Part Three
One Man in His Time - A Short Autobiography


 

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