Published: 00:00, 28 March 2014 |
Updated: 16:20, 28 March 2014
My dad, Daniel James Herley, never spoke much about the First World War, and his part in it.
We guessed that life in the trenches was no picnic, but he rarely spoke about his experiences and the facts only gradually emerged.
As the only boy, he lived in Bermondsey with his widowed mother, and three doting sisters, who combined to spoil him.
He left school at 15 to start work in a sawmill, where he and the other lads discussed the war. Everywhere, posters of General Kitchener appeared, pointing imperiously, compulsively. Dad must have thought he was pointing at him!
He joined up in the Royal Horse Artillery, which had its headquarters in nearby Woolwich, having seen the unit on ceremonial occasions and been impressed by the colourful uniforms and fine horses.
His workmates would have joined Dad in a show of patriotic solidarity, thinking ‘it will all be over by Christmas’.
Initially the conflict followed a traditional pattern, as teams of horses drew the guns up to face the enemy. But soon the poor horses got eliminated by heavy gunfire.
The combatants were forced underground as trench warfare was born. The Germans had been rehearsing this for years, but for the British, it was a steep learning curve as they had to learn new excavating techniques, which involved hard physical labour, biting insects, rodents, and pouring rain. The trenches would collapse if not adequately supported and morale collapsed just as rapidly.
Dad described one of his officers as never having had to change any clothing in his previous, privileged life, as he was always attended by nursemaids or valets.
He must have written home and told mummy that socks were a problem as each day subsequently a parcel arrived for the young ‘aristo’ from his mummy containing a pair of socks from Harrods, and a packet of tea from Fortnum’s.
One evening, Dad had to take the officer a mug of tea in their compartment of the trench and found him seated, holding his vest, which was alive with lice, rocking back and forth, sobbing pitifully.
Musing on his privileged background, Dad sympathised inwardly with the man’s plight. Soldiering in the trenches had become grimmer each day.
The Kentish Express is hoping to collect other stories. See below for more.
At a signal from an officer, the men had to grab their rifles and rush into No Man’s Land – the barren strip of land in front of their trenches. The objective was to find cover and commence firing at the enemy while the relentless bombardment continued overhead.
On one such sortie Dad found such a position, enabling him to commence firing, but suddenly a shell landed close by. Propelled by the blast, he was thrown some distance away.
He started to walk, but had no idea in which direction he stumbled, when he was hit by a copper bullet in his right hand, which must have been from a French weapon, in what we would now call ‘friendly fire’.
His forced march took him nine miles across country. Taking off his shirt to stem the flow of blood from his injured hand meant the cold took its grip and hypothermia threatened. He was rescued by a Canadian Medical Unit, who made an excellent job of saving Dad’s hand and stopping gangrene – a common feature of such wounds.
He managed to get on a cross Channel transport to Brighton, where the old workhouse had become a hospital.
In later life, Dad reflected on his wartime contribution, describing the experience as “abysmal”.
Did he think anything was achieved by the conflict?
“No, it was donkeys led by donkeys, clearing up the mistakes of the European ruling classes.”
It was billed as the war to end all wars, but within 19 years of its conclusion, another even larger slaughter began.
Will we never learn!
The Kentish Express is hoping to hear from other residents with stories about their families involvement in the First World War.
Write to Kentish Express, 34-36 North Street, Ashford TN24 8JR or email email@example.com
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