Lest We Forget – One Hundred Years On….
My granddad, Albert William Jones, was just twenty-one years old when war was declared on Germany on 4th August 1914. You can only imagine the wave of patriotic fervour which will have engulfed him at that time. Life in Lancashire had been tough. There had been strikes of railwaymen, transport workers, miners, and amongst the spinners and weavers, and there was a real threat of civil war across the water in Ireland.
Just three years earlier, Albert had been living with his parents and two siblings, above his father’s newsagents and sub-post office in Beeston, Leeds. But in 1914, Albert, born in Irlam, chose to join one of the many Lancastrian Pal’s Brigades. He had been working as a machinist in the locomotive industry. Perhaps the owner or manager had gathered the men together and, with assurances that their jobs would be waiting for them following a swift victory over the Bosch, encouraged them that, for now, the army needed fit, and able engineers more than they did.
So, no doubt accompanied by his colleagues and friends, perhaps sporting their Sunday best, Albert volunteered and joined the 42nd Territorial Division as a Sapper in the Royal Engineers.
Things moved quickly, thereafter. The men must have wondered if they would see any action at all – most thought a modern war could not be sustained beyond a month or two and, as such, would be over before Christmas. As we now know, it was not to be so.
Training began in camps around Bolton, Bury and Rochdale but on 5th September a telegram from Lord Kitchener advised that training would continue in Egypt, where the Division would relieve regular troops bound for the Western Front.
Albert will have boarded an excited train to Southampton and at midnight on 10th September 1914 the first convoy to leave the British shores since the Napoleonic wars slipped out of harbour, with 15,500 Lancastrians on board, along with some 900,000 horses. These were the first Territorials to volunteer for foreign service.
Emotions must have been running high as the ships slipped anchor. Many of these men will not have strayed far from home so far in their short lives and now they were heading for a foreign continent. They were accompanied by escorts from a bygone age, with rigging for sails alongside their steam funnels. All lights on board and on land had been doused. All was in darkness and the men sang songs as they left their homeland.
The beginning of the voyage must have been awful. The weather was very bad. The men were cramped together with equipment and six terrified horses to every man, in ancient vessels that rolled and rocked. With such overcrowding the air must have been stale and hot and sea-sickness was rife. Records show that many mealtimes were missed in those days, but the daily allowance of one bottle of beer per man was always drawn, perhaps to be saved for happier times, or to be sipped while writing letters home, or during games of cards, while cleaning equipment, or during moments of quiet contemplation and a prayer or two.
The convoy manged to evade enemy ships off Portugal and one week after leaving England, Albert will have sighted the great Rock of Gibraltar, emerging through mist, and the northern coast of Africa beyond. What must he have been thinking at the sight of such a symbol of Empire and British defiance?
On 25th September, the Territorials entered Alexandria Harbour in Egypt. They were greeted by the crew and band of a neutral American battle-cruiser, playing God Save the King. The band of the 8th Manchesters reciprocated with a rendition of Marching Through Georgia.
Albert was based in the Kasr-El-Nil barracks near Cairo. Khaki helmets were issued immediately, but the tropical uniforms had been mislaid and took longer to arrive. The strange heat must have been difficult to bear in the heavy serge.
Training now began in earnest. Memoirs give evidence to how the men suffered greatly from the daytime heat, the glare of the sun, the dust, sandstorms, flies, and the severe drop in temperature at night. And the drills and long desert marches.
But, the men apparently also played hard. There were games of cricket, rugby, football, lacrosse and hockey. There were boxing contests and horse races. There were concert parties and Pierrot Troupes. War, at this time, mustn’t have seemed all that bad.
But, on 26th October 1914, my granddad was sent to the Suez Canal Zone to shore up defences in anticipation of a surprise attack. Turkey had not yet entered the war but had eyes upon the jewel of Britain’s Empire, Egypt. It was here that Albert lost his first friends.
The sappers were engaged in building bridges, manning searchlights, building water supplies and fortifications, laying cables, and crewing steam tugs. One such boat exploded, with seven men killed. It must have been very sobering to lose so many friends without facing the enemy.
It was at the Canal Zone that Albert encountered his first foreign allies as the East Lancashires were joined by troops from India, Gurkhas, Australians and New Zealand.
Imagine the conversations and stories which must have been swapped. Strong bonds were built as the men served and worked together. One prized photo of Granddad Jones shows him sat on a camel, in Australian uniform in front of the pyramids.
War was declared on Turkey on 5th November.
Christmas 1914 was the lull before the storm. Celebrations were as traditional as they could be in such a foreign setting. There were plum puddings and carols. There were garlands of palm leaves, flowers, lanterns, and coloured paper. Christmas lunch was followed by a swim in the sea and Boxing Day saw a sports meeting in the Gezireh Sporting Club. Despite such festivities we can imagine that the mood in the camp will have been poignant. Thoughts must have turned to home; to events on the Western Front; and to past celebrations; and comrades whose lives were lost so cheaply.
Albert was back in the Canal Zone in February 1915 when it was attacked by a force of 12,000 Turks and Germans. This was his first real action in the face of the enemy. Thankfully, the fortifications he had helped to build did their job and the attack was repelled, with only light casualties. I wonder how he felt. Afraid. Excited. Angry. Relieved to have survived.
But, worse was to come.
On 2nd May 1915, Albert left Alexandria, one of 14,600 men destined for the Dardanelles. They boarded transports only recently arrived, carrying wounded. He will have been greeted by a horrific sight as he clambered on board. The decks of the transports were apparently still littered with dressings and stretchers and awash with the blood spilled by the first British, French, and Anzac forces that had landed in Gallipoli. This was Albert’s first glimpse of the horror to come. Just three days later, Albert disembarked at Gallipoli and immediately came under heavy, hostile artillery, rifle and machine gun fire…. Albert’s war had started.