Sgt H C G Wallin of C Company, 2nd Battalion, London Irish Rifles recounts his incredible time with the Regiment spanning two historic theatres of war.
“MY STORY starts in 1912, when I joined the 1st Battalion, Queen Victoria Rifles (QVRs) as a Territorial. When war was declared in August 1914, I had reached the rank of LCpl, which then felt quite exalted.
When the QVRs were sent to France, I was in a party of NCOs left behind to form the nucleus of a new Provisional Battalion but, when this job was done, I was surplus to requirements and posted to the 2nd Battalion, London Irish Rifles. I consider this to have been a very lucky move for me, as I could never have wished to join a finer bunch of men to call comrades-in-arms. I can barely remember our training at Sutton Vent, from where we were transported, on June 23rd, 1916, to Southampton and then on to Le Havre. Almost at once we were then taken straight up to the front line at Neuville St Vaast, arriving there seven days after leaving Blighty.
Our first spell of duty – comprised eight days Front Line, followed by eight days Support Line, then another eight days Front Line – a baptism of fire lasting twenty-four days, during which we were not allowed to ‘drum up’ (brew some tea), even in the deepest dugout. We were subject to continuous “Minnie” and Rifle Grenade fire, with no hot food or drink. Also, there was the unnerving rumbling of miners under our feet, never knowing if the bumps were being made by our miners or the enemy’s, nor when the explosion was due. I was soon convinced that this war business was no picnic.
A STEEP LEARNING CURVE.
I well remember how inexperienced and green have been during the first twentyfour hours “up” (in the Front Line) and personally saw several of our chaps jump up on the fire-step, to see where our shells were falling in the enemy lines, only to fall back immediately, shot in the head. We were told that we were opposing the Jaeger Regiment, all of whom were reputed to be crack shots and we soon learned the tragic truth of this.
During this spell, one of the look-outs posted in our section of the trench persuaded me to “have a go” at what he said was a Jerry, showing head and shoulders above his trench, only seventy-five yards or less away. I took a shot from our covered firing point but, when my men inspected the scene through the trench periscope, they told me that I had missed. As their Lance Jack, I was humiliated to have made such a poor shot at that range and, to restore my pride, was honour bound to succeed with my second shot. I therefore stealthily slid my rifle over the top and was taking careful aim at the target, when a bullet slashed across the sandbag in front of my nose – the “target” was a dummy, put up to track suckers like me. I fell back into the trench and was amazed to find that I had escaped with nothing worse than a nose and eyes full of dirt and, I am pleased to say, my comrades shared my relief. The near miss was probably due to the enemy sniper having forgotten to “press” his trigger and had “pulled” his shot. Anyway, this was my first lucky escape and my next was later, in the same stretch of line. One of our mines had gone up and we had to rush the large circular crater made by the explosion. We managed only to take the half circle of the lip nearest to us, because Jerry recovered quickly from the shock of the explosion, with its consequent massive upheaval of earth, duckboards and anything else, and he was able to recapture his side of the crater. Immediately, we had to dig “saps” (observation trenches leading forward from the main trench) to the lip of the crater and construct bombing platforms at the ends.
Our orders were to return two-fold any Jerry hand grenades, which he would undoubtedly send over for our amusement and entertainment. On my first night in charge of one of these platforms, I had made myself comfortable in one corner, with my legs astride and stuck out in front of me, because I was too far back on the platform to allow my legs to bend at the knees and rest in the sap trench. We were quietly having a chat, as there was nothing much doing, apart from Jerry’s normal routine of firing Very lights [flares] and occasional bursts of machine gun fire. However, our talk was not as quiet as we thought, because Jerry must have heard us and worked out where it was coming from. We soon found ourselves the target of a shower of grenades all of which, most fortunately, landed sufficiently far away to be harmless, apart from the noise of the explosions.
ANOTHER LUCKY ESCAPE.
A chap named Turner, in my section, who was exceptionally combative and courageous, decided we did not have enough Mills Grenades to return the full quota of our ordered retaliation, so he went back down the sap trench to get further supplies. When he returned, he dumped the box of grenades by my outstretched legs, took one out, tried to pull out the safety pin and, in the dark, said to me “Blimey, Corp, these bloody Mills’s are so bloody rusty, I can’t get the pin out”. He must have then made an extra effort, as I heard him saying to himself “Got you yer bastard” and in the same breath “Blimey, I’ve dropped it”! There I sat, in the pitch dark with a live Mills Bomb somewhere between my legs and five seconds to live. As he was saying, “I’ve dropped it”, he must have been scrambling to try to find it, which, fortunately he did, otherwise I would not be writing this. We were all covered in the loose earth from the crater as, in one continual action he found the bomb and threw it over the top. This was lucky escape number two. I think Turner must have lead a charmed life up to this time, though unfortunately, I can not recall his eventual fate. While it was usually fatal to show oneself, even for an instant, to our sharpshooting enemy, I once saw Turner, annoyed by Jerry’s nagging mortar and machine gun fire, jump upon the fire step in broad daylight and, by rapid fire, empty several magazines from his rifle in the direction of the enemy trenches and get away with it. To show just how lucky he was, I also saw one of our own snipers open the tiny slot in his fire-shield and immediately get shot in the head. The bullet had come through an aperture only just large enough to receive the barrel of a rifle.
Conditions were atrocious for, apart from the normal hazards of being shot at by the enemy, we were beset by swarms of mangy rats and hungry lice. Most of the time in mud and water, at one time almost up to our waists – we waded about, feeling for the duckboards, which were fast disappearing without trace. However, I managed to avoid becoming a casualty and we were eventually lucky enough to be withdrawn from France and shipped to Salonica.
Our troopship, I believe it was the Caledonia, was dogged by a U-Boat for most of the journey, but our Torpedo Boat escort kept it at bay. I was later that the U-Boat waited outside the port of Salonica and got the Caledonia on her way back to Marseilles, empty apart from the crew.
Life was comparatively quiet in Macedonia, because the Bulgars were entrenched sufficiently far away to give us a ‘no-man’s-land’ of about a mile. Nevertheless, there was no joy in leading a patrol through a deserted village in that area in the moonlight, expecting at each corner to run slap into an enemy patrol doing the same job for the other side.
The worst part of this situation was that we had to endure very severe weather – bitingly cold and penetratingly strong winds. It could quickly chill one to the bone, particularly when it was necessary to expose oneself in the open, for essential purposes. We lost several men through exposure and exhaustion, but the last straw for many was when we lined up one morning to get a tot of rum, almost literally freezing to death, after a particularly cold night spent in bivvies (tents) only to find that somewhere on it’s journey up to the front, some unscrupulous blighters had substituted lime juice for our rum. Eventually we were again transferred to another theatre of war. This time it was Palestine which we travelled to via Egypt and saw our next action at the battle of Gaza. Our job was to attack Beersheba on the right of the line and in this successful action our battalion was fortunate to be in a follow-up wave. All we had to endure was the sad spectacle of recently killed fellow Londoners from our brigade, who had died in making this victorious assault. We followed through and later, our own attack was made on the enemy’s new position at Tel El Sheria. Here, we were first off and my platoon helped to push Johnny Turk out of his very strong position, back into a support line further to his rear.
AND ANOTHER LUCKY ESCAPE.
I was leading my lads and was concentrating on taking pot shots at one particular Turk who, with his pals, was galloping away to comparative safety. My shooting must have been very erratic because I was running myself, and he was eventually successful in reaching safety in the rear. So intent had I been with this chase, that I suddenly realised I was out on my own and this time I was “the rabbit”. I took a quick look round, to try to find cover for myself and found I was much too far in front of the old Turkish front line, which we had just captured, to hope to get back there safely. I spotted a small mound not too far in front of me, so I decided to try and get behind it, but when I got there, still being peppered by Johnny, I found it was actually a hole in the ground, so I jumped in, naturally.
It must have been the Turk’s latrine, prior to our attack and, for once in my life, I really was “in it, up to my knees”. Fortunately, my head was just below the surrounding mound of earth and, although circumstances were very unpleasant (to use an under-statement), in that moment it was Heaven tome, provided that the enemy did not mount a counter-attack and so catch me where earlier they had been with their “trousers down”. They continued to take pot shots at where they had seen me go to ground, but eventually things quietened down and I endured my unpleasant environment until darkness fell, a period which felt like many hours. Then I managed to scramble out and go to find my comrades but, when I did so, I was far from welcome in my unsanitary condition. Water was in exceedingly short supply, so my predicament lasted for several days. This must have been my third lucky escape.
From Tel El Sheria, we pushed on towards Jerusalem. First, we had to take a Turkish strong point at a place called Nebi Samwil, where I was again fortunate, as the two wounds I sustained there were comparatively trivial. The first was a slight wound to the left leg by a shrapnel splinter, which I was able to deal with myself by using the field dressing, which we all carried. Later, I got a second wound in my left foot which was not very serious, but necessitated me going back to an Advanced Dressing Station and then, by Field Ambulance, Camel Calcolets and Hospital Train, to the Military Hospital at Kasr El Nil in Cairo. A large tag was attached to my uniform, informing all and sundry that I was a “GSW. [gun shot wound] left foot” case, but as the wound had been treated on the train, being dressed and smothered in cotton wool and bandages. I was able to hobble with the aid of a stick, provided by the medical staff on the train, and must have looked a typical “wounded warrior” when the ambulances took us from the train to the hospital.
On arrival, my label was inspected and I was sent to the surgical ward, but when the wound (a chipped big toe) was inspected next morning by the doctor, doing “his rounds”; it was obvious that the treatment received during week or so taken on the journey from the front to Cairo, had sufficed to lead to “recovery’’, The foot displayed all the colours of a nasty black eye, but when I was instructed to walk up the ward wearing a pair of military boots, I searched in vain for sympathy from the doctor. He was not impressed, but he proved to be a good sport and ordered me two weeks convalescence.
This period, plus the time taken to get back to my unit, meant that I missed further attacks, leading up to the actual capture of Jerusalem. However, I was back in time to take part in the triumphal entry, with the local inhabitants shouting “Velcom to the Inglish – oranges one shilling”. We thought at the time this was a bit pricey, so when one of our number carefully cut the label from a tin of Ideal Condensed Milk (which at that time was rather ornate) and successfully bought a sackful of oranges with it, I gleefully joined the fruits of his transaction. The poor vendor had not had time to accustom himself to the liberators’ currency, but I am consoled that he undoubtedly got plenty of real ‘Akkers’ before we left. We visited the Holy Places and were entertained by our Divisional Concert Party, ‘The Roosters’, which later became quite well known and did some shows on the BBC. We also did duty at what, I suppose, was some sort of investiture by the Duke of Connaught, accompanied by Gen Allenby and other military commanders with their entourages. We also got our first sight of the fearsome visages of Lawrence of Arabia’s men, with their personal weapons, who were also on this parade.
FIRST JORDAN RAID.
Nothing else of interest happened until we were called on to take part in the First Jordan Raid on Amman. I remember how we marched down from Jerusalem, passing the place where the Good Samaritan is reputed to have done his deed and on to Jericho in the Jordan Valley. Here, in this so-called “valley”, which is well over a thousand feet below sea level, the heat was almost overpowering. It therefore came as a relief, when orders came to attack the bridge at a place called Ghoranyeh. Our first attack failed, but we were able to cross by another bridge, which had been captured by our comrades in the 2/19th. We were thus able to attack the Turkish position in the hills and, with the aid of the Australian Light Horse, succeeded in breaking through and going on to try to capture and destroy a railway tunnel near the town of Amman. Although we came very close to success, we were compelled to retire and eventually found ourselves practically back at our original position. A few weeks later, we were ordered to do it again but this time we were really up against it, because Johnny was well prepared to receive us. I well remember thinking that, on this occasion, somebody back at HQ had got it very wrong somewhere. We formed up for the attack in the darkness before dawn, but it was not until some hours later, in broad daylight, that the order to “go” was given. Johnny was bound to have heard the noise made by our troops approaching the start line and had plenty of time to ensure us a warm welcome. I was fortunate that my luck held again, as my Company ‘C’ was part of the third wave.
The first wave advanced, jumping over positions which the Turks had evacuated, but the poor chaps did not get more than twenty yards further, when concentrated cross machine gun fire simply mowed them down, to a man. Then the second wave started, only to suffer the same fate. Now it was our turn! We could hear above the noise of the action, comrades who were not already dead, crying out for help, many of them writhing in agony on the ground. I was at one end of our platoon line and my young officer, whose name unfortunately, I cannot now recall, at the other. He gave the signal and away we went.
Up to this time, we had been waiting in the shelter of a Turkish ‘sangar’. We leapt over this and immediately came under the same concentrated machine gun and field artillery fire that our pals had had to endure. Within 10 yards, or less, we too were down – mostly killed or wounded. I lay with the others, at a loss to know what my next move would be, but I managed to and saw my young commander wriggling back on his tummy towards the sanger, which we had so recently left. There was nothing else I could do, except follow suit. When I had wriggled the few feet back I found, on what was originally the Turkish side of the sangar, a shallow trench which they had been able to excavate from the hard and stony ground. The actual part of this trench, which I managed to reach, was already occupied by a Turk, who was very dead and very high – his distended body was ready to burst! The trench, if you can call it that, was only just deep enough for us both, as I found when there was only space enough for me to wriggle in on top of him. Even so, I was not more than a few inches below the level of the ground and there I had to lay, listening to the moans and calls of my wounded comrades, but absolutely helpless to do anything. The enemy kept up an incessant fire, not only upon any of the wounded who moved but also by “Wizbang” fire on the few of us left in their old position. As it happened, the trajectory of the shells was such that only a direct hit on the trench could knock us out. However, Johnny must have felt eventually that he had accounted for us completely, as the shooting graduallydiminished. My next worry was, would he counter-attack and so get me like a sitting duck? I could stand the stench of my fellow lodger, which increased with the heat of the day, but the thought of being bayoneted as I lay there, eventually made me try to make a dash for it. I therefore, carefully turned myself over and, using the Turk’s distended stomach as a springboard, managed to scramble quickly up and over the sangar, under cover of which I was able to get back to comparative safety. Subsequently I joined the pathetically few of my comrades who had somehow managed to survive. I think this must have been my fourth and, I suppose, my last lucky escape. I have since read a history of the Palestine campaign and learned that, on this occasion, we were considered expendable and being used to draw the Turkish reserves to our front, to enable a successful breakthrough on the coastal plane.
Everything after this action proved to be anticlimactic. The poor old 2/l8th was left so much understrength that the authorities decided to break us up and send us as reinforcements, in small parties, to various other units who were still functioning as fighting battalions. Thus, I eventually found myself as a platoon sergeant in the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment, attached to the 10th Division.
To properly understand the circumstances which I now found myself in, I must explain that I am rather on the short side, just five inches over five feet; I was a Territorial, these men were regulars and most of them towered over me; I am a Londoner and they were all ‘Paddies’. I was presumed to be capable of giving them orders, but soon found it was politic not to try to “throw my weight about” where they were concerned and ask for their co-operation rather than give orders. I quickly found that if I tried the ordering about business I was told “Och – away out of that yon bloody Cockney” and “Who the ‘ell do you think you are talking to?” I found the best way was to seek the line of least resistance and from then on life became much more orderly and safe.
I saw some action with these splendid fighting men, but at long last the Armistice came and after a time, we were moved back to a camp near Cairo to await demobilisation. Once there, the RSM decided to form a Sergeants’ Mess and [thus sought someone] to take charge of it. Against my will, I was compelled to take the job, ostensibly because I was the only member of my rank in the battalion who was considered capable of keeping accounts, look after cash transactions, and generally that the Mess remained solvent. My unwillingness was soon replaced by a very nice sense of wellbeing, as I was provided with my own quarters, a batman, an officer’s charger (for my personal use) and a General Services Wagon for transport purposes. There was a revolution in Egypt at this time, which had some rather tragic results – some important officers were trapped by mobs of natives in Cairo and brutally slaughtered. My battalion, the Royal Irish, was sent off with others to ‘restore order’. On recollection, I think this time became the Great War, as far as I was concerned, for there I was, left behind in the comparatively deserted camp, to take charge of the Mess, its stores and other appurtenances, leading a life which can only be called luxury, in view of the active service conditions which up to then had been my lot. Subsequently, when the battalion returned from their punitive action, I was given the 4 weeks leave to which we pre-war enlisted Territorials were entitled. Unfortunately, I had to spend this leave in Cairo, unlike others nearer home, who managed to get Blighty leave. However, with months of back pay to spend I did “set the ground alight”.
One particular event during this leave, which I recall even now with great satisfaction, was when I attended Gezira Races. I paid my entrance, into what was their equivalent to Tattersall’s and managed to spot, what I considered the potentials of a horse called ‘Roger’. From the top deck of the grandstand, I had the pleasure and satisfaction of seeing him lead from start to finish. Then I collected about 15 to 1 for my 20 Piastres stake and had the added satisfaction of joining the queue at the Tote paying out window, which was chiefly composed of high-ranking members of the Forces. I could not escape the ill concealed superciliousness of my brothers-in-arms.
ON THE TOWN.
Thoughts of this kind were soon forgotten as I went “out on the town” with my winnings. A posh dinner, followed by a box to myself at the local opera house, where an English touring company was providing the show. Finally, I ostentatiously called to my gharry driver (booked in advance) and was driven off in regal and isolated splendour, enjoying the puzzled expressions of my fellows in the departing audience, with their female partners recruited from the local medical institutions. They must have wondered how one of humble rank was enjoying the perks usually reserved for the exalted. Nothing further of interest happened, until the excitement of receiving orders to proceed home for demobilisation.
Eventually, going aboard ship and, at last, landing in Europe – at Taranto in Italy. We were immediately put on a train comprised of the usual cattle trucks, with their familiar sign denoting “40 hommes or 8 cheveaux”. This was considered passenger accommodation. We proceeded all the way up the Adriatic coast, greeted on the way by Italian females working in the fields, with cries of” bulli bif, biscuit”. These were the first women and girls, apart from our nurses, most of us had seen in 3 years or so and, need I say, every one of them seemed to possess all the looks, charms and figures of modern Italian film stars. We carried on through the Simplon Tunnel and across France to Boulogne, where we impatiently waited in camp for our turn for transport across the Channel.
At long last, the great day came and even now, I can see my fellow travellers on the “SS Biarritz”, some unashamedly with tears in their eyes and jumping on each other’s shoulders to get a better view. The White Cliffs of Dover and our homeland emerged at last through the sea mist. On then to Crystal Palace for demob issue ‘civvies’ and, at long last, the joy of walking down the familiar road (so often in the recent past, thought of as being in another world) and the arms of my beloved young wife. She was holding our three-year-old son who, up to then, had to depend on tales of his Daddy, as he was born whilst Daddy was away in France. A real ‘Soldiers Return’.