Saturday, May 10, 2008

The 5th Leicesters learn bomb throwing

Back in the early 1980s, having recently lost my grandfather and regretting that I'd never spoken to him properly about his own First World War experiences, I decided to set out and interview as many surviving veterans as I could find. My introduction to Chailey happened at this time when I was loaned an autograph album kept by a VAD nurse who'd worked with Sussex 54 VAD in Chailey and Newick. But I was principally interested in meeting the old soldiers and over the next ten years or so I probably interviewed or corresponded with about 100 Great War veterans - mostly in the Chelmsford area where I grew up, and at Loughborough where I went to university. I've recently started re-transcribing these tape-recorded interviews and I'll publish extracts here. As far as Chailey goes, it's slightly off tangent, but it is still WW1 and the old soldier tales are too good not to be shared.

So I'll start with Private Harold Shephard of the 5th Leicesters whom I interviewed in Loughborough in June 1984 when he was 88 years old. Mr Shephard joined the TF in 1911 and by 1915 he was in France. Here he is describing a Mills' bomb training course:

"Before we went to Egypt we had reinforcements come up to us at Marseilles. Now we’d been using the Mills bomb for twelve months near enough in the trenches and all the instructions we’d got were pull the pin out, count three and throw it.

Now in the reinforcements that come out we’d got an instructor as had been instructing on this bomb in England and had never thrown one - not the live thing - he’d thrown the dummy. And he come out to us in Marseilles and
he says, I’ve come out from England to give you instructions on this bomb. So we all said, well what instructions are there? So he said, I’m coming to that in a minute, let me describe what I’ve come out here for, I’m stationed with the regiment now.

So he says, this is a Number 5 Mills’ Bomb. He says, you unscrew the bottom like this and take it off and at the top of that there’s a little detonator - and it’s only like a bit of electric wire and it’s about an inch long like that and curled up and then goes into the bomb. Now he took it out – we didn’t know nowt about this – he took it out and he says, now look, I’m going to tell you what not to do. So I says, he's pulling us bloody leg, you know, and all this that and the other. He gets this detonator out - and it weren’t only about that high - and he gets a little pocket knife and he says, now this is what I don’t want you soldiers to do. And he just touched the top of it and off went three of his fingers.

He’d been using the dummies in England but as soon as he got out here he was playing with the live stuff. We all said, fancy a bloody man coming out like that and telling us this when we’d been using them for twelve months.

Harold Shephard died in Loughborough in 1988 at the age of 92.