from the Guardian 8 November 2001
Interviews with 3 Veterans
'I kept a clear head and never took undue risks'
Jack Davis lives in a nursing home in High Wycombe, on the side of a steep hill that only the most indomitable pensioner could climb. He would find it hard now - he uses a Zimmer frame - but I bet he could have managed it until a few years ago. Davis, now 106, volunteered at the outbreak of war in response to Kitchener's appeal for 100,000 men (more than two and a half million eventually responded). He worked at the National Liberal Club, and all 30 of the staff enlisted. They were put into the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry and posted to Falmouth, where they staffed what must have been the best officers' mess in the entire army. But Davis hadn't joined the army to uncork wine.
"I volunteered for active service and went out to Ypres in July 1915," he recalls. "I spent six months in the trenches there. The Germans held all the main positions, and we were in the most appalling conditions. There was no drainage system, and most of the time we were knee-deep or thigh-deep in mud."
Davis had three brothers. One was a regular soldier who had been wounded at Mons and discharged. Two others, his younger brother William and an elder brother called Percy, had also volunteered, but William was rejected as too young, Percy because he needed treatment for varicose veins. "One day I was detailed to go up in front of the battalion. I couldn't use the communication trench and was scrambling around in shellholes until I got to within 10 or 15 yards of our front line. I got the usual challenge, 'Halt, who are you?' I thought, 'I know that voice'. It was my two brothers, on double sentry. They had been working in the Naval and Military club, and it was common knowledge that they had a brother in Ypres and wanted to go and join him. So by some devious means they had got through. I never knew they were there."
After one terrible engagement, when his brothers' company had suffered fearful losses, he left his battalion to search for them. "When I got back I was arrested for going Awol. When I returned to the regiment I was up before the commanding officer the following morning and he listened to my story about my brothers. He said, 'You can demand a court-martial or you can take my punishment'. I said, 'I'll take your punishment, sir'. 'Three days' pay stopped,' he said. He was a very compassionate man. Had I lost my way back to the regiment I would probably have been shot as a deserter."
Davis always believed he would survive. "I had a strong sense of self-preservation - keeping a clear head at the most dangerous times and never taking undue risks - and it stood me in good stead right the way through." He gave a wide berth to enthusiastic young officers, especially while on patrol in no man's land. His trickiest moment came when he was part of an attack on a German trench. He was detailed to be the last man out, providing covering fire as the company retreated. Just as he was about to leave the trench, his commanding officer shouted to him to grab a German rifle as a souvenir... and not to forget to pick up the unexploded bombs. Luckily for Davis, the officer eventually relented on the bombs.
'We went over the top. Crawled over really. If you stood up you were dead'
Harry Patch was waiting for me in the entrance of his nursing home in Wells, Somerset. He had spoken little of the war for eight decades, but in the past couple of years has given interviews to the BBC and others, and there is now an almost theatrical polish in his delivery. He is also a man of solid Christian principles and they shine through.
Patch, an apprentice plumber in Bath, was conscripted in January 1917 at the age of 18. Would he have joined up voluntarily? "No," he says. "I had a brother who was a regular soldier serving in the Royal Engineers. He was wounded at Mons. I was 16 when war broke out and he used to say, 'The war will be over before they call you up.' But it wasn't. He used to tell me what it was like over there, and I didn't want to go."
Patch, now 103, trained as a marksman, and reached France just in time for the battle of Passchendaele. "We went over the top there. Crawled over really. If you stood up you were dead. I came across A and B company of our battalion, which were the assault corps. C, my company, and D were supports. We crawled forward and came upon a Cornishman [Patch, like Jack Davis, was in the Duke of Cornwall's light infantry]. He was ripped from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel. As we got to him, he said, 'Shoot me.' He was beyond all human aid, and before I could draw a revolver he was dead. The last word he uttered was 'mother', and that has run through my brain for 84 years. I can't forget it. I think it's the most sacred word in the English language.
"I would like to have got the Cornishman's identity disc, found his name and number, and written to his people, but number one on our machine gun had gone on and found some cover, and being number two I had to follow him, so I never found out who that Cornishman was. We got to the second line and four Germans stood up. They didn't get up to run away, they got up to fight. One of them came towards us and spotted that we were machine gunners. He couldn't have had any ammunition or he would have shot us, but came towards us with fixed bayonet instead. My right hand was free, I pulled my revolver out and shot him in the shoulder - I was a crack shot.
"He dropped his rifle and he came over with the intention of, I suppose, kicking us. If he kicked the gun into the mud, it would have been useless. As he came towards us something came into my mind. I thought, when I joined the army they made me take an oath - to serve my king and my country. But when Moses came down off Mount Sinai he brought down the commandment 'Thou should do no murder'. That German coming towards me, I thought why should I murder him? He may have a mother, he may have brothers and sisters, he may be married, bringing up a young family, I can't kill him. And I didn't kill him: I shot him above the ankle and above the knee, and brought him down. He said something to me in German - I don't expect it was complimentary - but for him the war was over. He would be picked up by British stretcher-bearers, interrogated, sent to a concentration camp, and at the end of the war he would rejoin his family."
Six weeks after that engagement, a shell burst among Patch's gun crew. "It killed three of my mates - though I didn't know it at the time - and it wounded me. I went down with a flash and when I came to my senses, I realised I'd been hit, could see the blood and put a field dressing on it. Then I must have passed out again. How long I laid there I don't know. The next thing I knew I was in a field dressing station." The shrapnel was removed without anaesthetic - it had all been used on the more seriously wounded - and Patch was sent back to Blighty, never to return.
Bob, the number one on the gun, had survived and the two always kept in touch, but the three other gunners had died. Patch barely knew their names - nicknames were always used, never real names - yet he still mourns their deaths. He had only served with them for four months, but in the intensity of battle it must have seemed a lifetime.
"We were part of the battalion, but at the same time we were a little crowd on our own. We lived hour to hour, and everything we had was shared. My mother used to send me a parcel once a fortnight. In that parcel was an ounce of tobacco, two packets of cigarettes, a few sweets and cakes, a couple of socks. That ounce of tobacco was cut in half - number three had half, I had half. The cigarettes were divided among the other three, 13 each. They used to take it in turns who would get the odd one. Everything was shared. They died on September 22 and for me that is remembrance day."
Patch never went back to France, despite being encouraged to return. "People said to me that the trenches are beautifully kept with floral tributes. I say that's not the way I remember them." He says he felt no jubilation at the end of the war, only relief - "relief that I didn't have to go back to those filthy trenches".
He had recovered from his wounds and been stationed on the Isle of Wight when the armistice was signed. "We were on the rifle range on armistice day. The people at the base said, 'If it is signed we'll send a rocket up from the fort'. We watched and watched, and we finally saw that rocket go off. We had a certain amount of ammunition left. I said, 'I'll fire it out to sea - it won't hurt anybody out there.' The fella next to me, I could see his rifle pointing across mine, so I said, 'what are you firing at?' He said, 'That galvanised hut at the end of the targets.' I said, 'You bloody fool, the markers are in there'."
'I fired over 100 shots. How many I killed I don't know'
Douglas Thomson is a remarkable 103 - feisty, coherent, charming. "Am I boring you?" he inquired at one point when my attention wandered. Now the sole survivor of the 10,000-plus men who served in the Honourable Artillery Company in the first world war, he was reading a book of Oscar Wilde's collected prose when I arrived. "Hard going," he said. "I'm having to take it very slowly."
Thomson, who was born in Edinburgh but moved to London when his father's printing business went bust at the start of the war, volunteered in January 1916 at the age of 17 (too young to join up, so he lied). He doesn't seem to know why he joined: constant questions from street-corner recruiting sergeants who wanted to know why he wasn't in uniform (he says they encouraged under-age recruits to lie about their age); a hankering after army life; a desire to fight for his country; the fact that he loathed his bullying father and had an unhappy home life.
He was stationed first in Richmond Park, then at the Tower of London. "The HAC have the privilege of being allowed to march in London with bayonets fixed to their rifles. We did a march down the Mall, and at the outset our colonel - a man of 70 or more - was warned that the Guards would be coming down. The old fool ignored the warning and halfway down the Mall they appeared. We suddenly had to stop, turn right and present arms to the royal colours. It was an absolute shambles."
Thomson trained as a marksman and was sent with his regiment to the Somme, stationed in what he says was a quiet sector. "The first man we had killed was shot by a sniper. When they examined him he had a suit of body armour which his beloved mother had bought for him. But it didn't do him any good: he was shot clean through the head."
Thomson's take on war is remarkably matter of fact. It is the comic detail that appears to have stayed with him. He says he once wrote a memoir - sadly, it has disappeared - and it may have been close to Evelyn Waugh in spirit. "We were in the remains of a forest," he recalls. "Latrines had been built there, and one day a chap who became a great friend of mine was sitting next to me when we heard a mortar shell land nearby. We almost had a fight over who would go to collect a piece a shrapnel.
"He and I both became runners: there were eight in the battalion and our job was to carry messages from the headquarters to the frontline when the phones broke down, which was often. Carrying messages under bombardment was reckoned to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the army, but not one of us had a scratch. I think the reason was that you could hear the shells coming and automatically knew if they were going to land near you or not. If they were, you had to jump into a shellhole.
"We arrived after the battle of the Somme and took over part of the line. It was a bloody awful place - German trenches which had been captured by the Marine corps. Some of the men who had been killed had been left unburied when we took over. There was one place where men's legs were sticking out of the side of the trench."
I sympathise. It must have been hell for a callow youth, I suggest. "It had no effect at all," he says. "I don't know why. I was never afraid. That's not a boast. I've never been afraid of anyone or anything since."
Thomson, who trained as an electrical engineer when he was demobbed and rejoined the army as a technical adviser in the second world war, only had to use his skills as a marksman once. "The Germans had retreated and our chaps were in shellholes at the base of a hill. We were in a trench at the top. The lights went up to indicate that they were under attack, so we left the trench to give them support. There was the remains of a hedge at the top of the hill, so I got down behind it and for the first time in all the months I'd been out there I fired more than 100 shots, every one of which was aimed at a German. How many I killed I don't know."
The coolness breaks down only once, when he talks of being on leave and having to return to what he realised was likely death at the front. "I knew we were going back to a very bad show and I think my mother knew it too," he says tearfully. "We knew there were rehearsals going on for a big push. She thought I should get out, run. But you couldn't, you'd have been shot. I realised when I got down the street that she hadn't wanted me to see her burst into tears. I had a lovely mother."