In preparation for the centenary sing at the Millowners Arms in Kelham Island Museum on Monday 30th May 2016, we've prepared a 'Great War Mixtape' of contemporary songs, oral history and poetry, exploring some of the challenges which the war brought to Sheffield people.
A sort of 'living history radio show', Image a character 100 years ago, recording from his gramophone, stories and songs from the time, like we used to do in the 1980's but with tapes decks.
1. Nineteen, not Seventeen
He was walking down the high street when two young ladies approached and said “why aren’t you in the army, with the boys.”
He said, “I’m sorry, but I’m only Seventeen.”
And one of them said, “oh, we’ve heard that one before, I suppose you’re also doing work of ‘national importance’”
She put her hand in her bag and pulled out a feather and he raised his hand thinking she was about to strike him. And this feather was pushed up his nose.
Then a sergeant came out of one of the shops and said to him “did she call you a coward” and he says “yes, and he felt very indignant about it”
“Well, come across the road to the Drill Hall, and we’ll soon prove you’re not a coward.”
He got into the hall and the Sarge says to him “how old are you?” so he told him he was seventeen. And he said “what did you say? Nineteen?”
“no”, he said, “seventeen.”
“when were you born boy?” “1898” he said. “1896?”
Well that were it. He was in.
2. Almost the last feather
Almost the last feather I received was on a bus, I was sitting near the door when I became aware of two women on the other side talking at me. I though to myself “oh lord here we go again”
I didn’t pay much attention, however I suppose I must have caught their eye in some way because one of them leant forward and produced a feather and said “here, here’s a gift for a brave soldier.”
I took it and I said “thank you very much I wanted one of those!”
So I took my pipe out of my pocket, and I put the feather down the stem and I worked it in such a way Ive never used a pipe cleaner before. When it was filthy, I pulled it out and said. “You know, we never had these in the trenches.” And handed it back to her.
She instinctively put out her hand and took it. So there see was, sitting with this filthy pipe cleaner in her hand, and all the other people on the bus began to get indignant.
I just sat back, and laughed like mad.
3. Swarms of Flies
My mate Harry, Harry Boughton was at Gallipolli. He said one of the biggest curses was flies, millions and millions of flies. The whole side of the trench would be one black swarmin mass.
Anything you opened, like a tin of bully, would be swarming with flies.
If you were lucky enough to have a tine of jam and opened that – swarms of flies.
They were all around your mouth and any cuts and sores you had, which then turned septic.
Immediately you bared any part of your skin, you were smothered.
It was a curse.
4. We didn’t do well when there was a battle on.
Mostly the cooks got frozen meat, cut it up and made a stew. And you went along with your Dixie and so much was ladled.
Breakfast was two slices of bread with bacon between them, and, if you were lucky, the cook would dip it in the grease for you.
For tea you might get corned beef or sardines, but if was mostly bread and jam for tea. And there wasn’t any supper unless you’d saved any of your daytime rations.
Of course we used to get stuff sent from home, although we didn’t do well when there was a battle on.
5. very little action on the western front
When we did read the newspapers it made us angry.
Especially when we’d done a big raid on a battalion scale which would be hundreds of yards wide, and you’d penetrated the enemy to, say, a depth of about a quarter or half a mile. Brought back prisoners!
And then you’d read in the papers:
“No action on the western front”
It didn’t seem to warrant, when you’d lost probably 50 men killed, and an equal number wounded. It didn’t warrant a mention.
It wasn;t ‘big’ enough. It used to annoy everyone terribly.
“Very little action on the western front.”
6. A Race Apart
One thing I really notice was that after being with the young fellas in the army, we were a race apart from the civilians.
You couldn’t talk to the civilians about the war, you’d just be wasting your time. They hadn’t the slightest conception of what the conditions were like and so forth, so after a time you just didn’t talk about it.
You went home on leave to forget.
I know that one of the most pleasurable things at home was mother’s cooking and after army cooking it was very nice indeed.
My Father was a good scrounger, and I lived like a fighting cock for 7 days.
It was a life apart from anything you’d done in civilian life. You became like a gypsy, you’d learned to look after yourself. You’d learn how to cook for yourself, to make do, to darn your own socks, sew your own buttons and things like that – things you’d never done before!
7. The Rough with the Smooth
At times life on the front was bloody awful.
When we were training behind the lines we had to march with only our groundsheets to keep out the rain.
Then we’d have to dry out at night: we’d strip down to our pants, and hang our trousers on sticks and things to dry them out.
But there men who were worse off than us, at least we had inside billets, and our bags, so we could get changed.
The men were remarkably cheerful – in fact, the wetter we got, the more cheerful we seemed to get.
I had a great admiration for the British soldier. The soldiers in France took the rough with the smooth remarkably well.
8. Down the Trench with Friends
We had a sniper’s post. Which was just a piece of metal two inches high and a foot high, and just a hole big enough to put a rifle through.
Well, we had two boys that were orphans, they’d been brought up together.
They were standing in the tranches and one said “what’s this George, have a look through here”
And he had no sooner approached it then down he went, with a bullet through his forehead.
Now, his friend was so flabbergasted that he too had a look, and less than two minutes later, he was down the trench with his friend.
9. A Hell of a Weight
I knew this lad from Liverpool when I were on the front. Once, he asked a brigadier if it were possible for the major to put on all our equipment.
So he said “certainly”.
We got two privates to put everything on him: bombs in the pockets, sandbags, spade, kit, rations, extra ammunition round the neck – all of it.
Then he said “how do feel sir?”
And the major said “it’s a hell of a weight”
So he said: “you haven’t started yet – you forgot the rifle – you’ve got to put that up – and where are you going to carry it? Clung over your shoulder? But you can’t because you’ve got to have it in your hand ready, but you can’t have it in your left hand cause in that you’ve got your pannier that weights 46 pounds.”
“there’s a farm field at the back of here that’s just been ploughed, try walking a hundred yards with all that and see how you feel.
And that’s a playground to what we’ll have to do over on the front.”
So, the major says “you feel very strongly about this?”
And he said: “well, wouldn’t you sir? Wouldn’t anybody!?”
10. What could you do with men like that?
This other night I was in the line, I was helping the medical officer do his job and I was doing mine at the same time, when two men came in.
The first was one of our men, and the other was a German. And they were both wounded.
Our man said to the doctor: “Here’s a job I made for you doctor, and he made this one for me.”
What could you do with men like that? They were grand.
11. A desire to finish it off
Now, Mabel – Mabel Ethridge – is a munitions worker, and she says it’s strange, you know.
When her fathers, brother, uncles, relatives or friends are back home or visiting on leave, staying in or visiting the house, she noticed a strange lack of ability to communicate with her.
They couldn’t tell her what it was really like. They’d perhaps make a joke but she’d feel it sounded hollow as there were nothing really to laugh about.
They were restless at home, they didn’t want to stay, they wanted to get back to the front.
She said they always expressed a desire to finish it off.
released May 19, 2016
Oral histories read from 'Forgotten Voices of the Great War' by Max Arthur.
Also the poem 'In Memoriam' by Ewart Alan Mackintosh and a Sheffield War Poem by A Shevvild Lad.