My family has lived in this area for 250 years and I am the fifth generation to live in the house where I live now. Consequently I inherited a lot of items that were left over as my predecessors moved out. So I’ve built up quite a collection of stuff, including things relating to World War I.
Arthur William Davies
My grandfather, Arthur William Davies, was in the Royal Engineers. He trained as a blacksmith and was 24 when the First World War started. He and his eldest brother Charles Ernest Davies signed up and went to the front. Their two middle brothers were in reserved occupations: one as a blacksmith at the Hanwood coal mine and the other as a coalface worker.
After training in North Wales, grandfather moved to Chatham, ready for embarkation. It’s where the Royal Engineers HQ is. I think it was early 1916 that they then went over to France, ready to move into the front line for about two to three weeks.
It was traditional, when someone joined up, before they went to the front, to have a photograph taken and sent back to their family. So here he is with his baton, puttees and his flat cap. Flat caps were worn in the first two years of the war, before steel helmets came in as part of the uniform. The background is a softer, more lyrical scene, not a military one which was very typical of the time.
Arthur Davies spent three weeks in Northern France in 1916 and he was then taken with his company over to Palestine where things were starting to warm up a bit with the Turks (the Turks being allied to Germany in World War One).
They landed in the port of Haifa and they were in combat against the Turkish army there. The Turks of course were quite buoyant because they’d just won a famous victory in Gallipoli the previous year against our army, the Australians and New Zealanders. They then started to move down through what was still called Asia Minor.
My grandfather saw action right through Palestine and in Jerusalem where the Russian Orthodox church had been completely destroyed. I don’t know whether it was by our forces or by the Turkish forces. Lying on the ground was this icon, amongst all the rubble and the ruins. So he picked it up and put it in his sack. I suppose it can be classed as spoils of war in a way, but in any case he brought it home. It’s painted on olive wood and edged with gold leaf. There is Russian text on the top. (I’m not sure what it means, but the family were told once some years ago). It depicts a scene from the Bible.
My grandfather came back with two medals. They’re fairly common for people who saw active service. When he wasn’t actually fighting he played the piccolo in the Royal Engineers battalion band. He also played football and he won quite a few medals.
He played as left half (which was an old -fashioned position). I’ve still got his genuine 100-year-old football shirt, made in Accrington, Lancashire, representing the Royal Engineers. I don’t think he played on Christmas Day in No Man’s Land. This has survived, probably kept in his bag until he came home, put in a drawer somewhere. It’s one of the items I’ve inherited.
I knew my grandfather very well. He lived well into his 90s and died in 1985. He didn’t talk much about the war. He never mentioned the conditions that we know about now, like the terrible conditions in the trenches. That’s not to say he didn’t come across some sticky moments at some time, he probably did. But all in all it was just sort of ‘part of life’ to him; the time came for him, the country needed him, he joined up, did his bit, and came home and carried on with his life.
Charles Edward Davies
Charles Edward Davies was my great uncle. He served in the Machine Gun Regiment, which was classed as the cutting edge of technology with regard to warfare. They were some of the most feared regiments during the First World War on both sides. In the Battle of the Somme they were used just to mow down our boys as they went across. (And of course we most likely did the same to their boys.) There are tales that if members of the Machine Gun Regiment were taken prisoner they were often executed on the spot. So it was mentioned to them that, if there was any chance of them being captured, they were to remove their uniform badges. This is what my grandfather told me about his brother.
The photograph here is actually taken in the trenches on the Western Front. It was quite unusual for someone to have a family member photographed in this way. I can remember looking at this – still now, today, I get it out and have a look – and I think to myself, ‘What was just over the top there, over the parapet? Was there a sniper, levelling a gun, looking for any movement?’ Who knows? Something happens: one minute his mate is there, next minute he’s not. That’s how quick it was: one minute you were alive, the next minute you were history.
Uncle Charlie, as the family knew him, saw service on the Western Front in France, and then he too went out to the Middle East. He and my grandfather actually met up in Egypt for a couple of days. Like my grandfather, he survived the war.
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