My grandad. One of the lucky ones.
Passchendaele. I remember hearing the name during my childhood. I think now I confused it with the Passion play of Oberammergau, the Bavarian village which once a decade enacts the story of Christ’s death over several days. Both names were said with a kind of awe. It is only now as we remember the end of the First World War that I realise that Passchendaele was one of the worst trench battles. My grandad, William Bainbridge Bailey of Thornaby-on-Tees, was there.
He joined the Royal Fusiliers in 1915 aged 19. He was trained in Oxford and Edinburgh with two pals, Fred and Jack, who were sent to the front before Bill. “What a sad parting,” he noted in his diary, “Fred kept up wonderfully but poor Jack, it took him all his time. I think he had a premonition that all would not go well with him. It was the last time I should ever see him on this earth.” Private John Brothwood Skipp of Stockton, was killed on November 13th 1916. His body was never recovered, and his name is inscribed on the Thiepval monument in the Somme with the 72,190 other Missing of the Somme.
My grandad, Bill, was transferred to the Northumberland Fusiliers in June arriving in France July 15th 1916 and then transferred to the Durham Light Infantry. He was sent to Contalmaison on the front line on August 1st. On August 4th Bill went over the top and was hit by a machine gun bullet in his right thigh. He attempted to dress his wound but a shell exploded close to him and he was almost buried in earth. “Had awful experience of laying out between the lines in no man’s land for three days without anything to eat or drink. Can’t believe it now when I am in hospital that I went through it. Early Monday morning August 7th I crawled back to our lines and eventually arrived in hospital.”
Bill’s diary is now in the Leeds University archives, and as a result of those few precious pages (written against the rules for a mere private) he was featured in a cover article in The Northern Echo in 2014. Further details of his ordeal were part of family legend; that he sucked a button from his tunic to keep his mouth moistened, that he crawled across no man’s land in the wrong direction towards enemy lines and then had to crawl all the way back again. Since I first posted this my brother has reminded me of a family joke- he didn’t get a medal, he got a compass. Some joke.
That was just the beginning. He was taken to hospital in Rouen and then sent back to England on a hospital ship on August 13th. After convalescence he served in the Northumberland Fusiliers near Hull, and spent Christmas 1916 back in Thornaby. On January 9th he was sent back to France, the French – Belgium border. He was then marched down to Arras and his diary reads, “ Four days in the trenches – had a hot time, came out April 2nd, the night before my birthday. Got my birthday parcel and diary the same night.” It was his 21st birthday.
On 9th April, Easter Monday, he went over the top at Arras. “Had a very rough time in trying to take position and heavy casualties. Just one hour before being relieved on Monday night, April 30th, was very heavily shelled and we lost a lot of men. Had a very narrow escape myself. Five men killed next to me and two wounded. Left for long rest well behind line.”
After being in and out of hospital with impetigo, a skin disease brought on by the appalling conditions in the trenches, he returned to the battlefield for a third time, crossing the channel in a paddle boat. He suffered terrible sea sickness. He spent the next two months in the trenches around Arras, “very hot time, no let up at all.”
On 5th July he left for the front line at Peronne and spent four days at the front. They went over the top east of Hadecourt, and captured just 600 yards of enemy trench.
He was deployed to Ypres on October 7th and on October 16th was sent to the front line- to Passchendaele. That night he was hit by shrapnel in both legs and right arm. He was taken to the Australian General Hospital in Boulogne, “Had three operations. In third one, had to have left leg amputated above the knee,” he records.
“November 9th. Left Boulogne hospital for Blighty. Sheffield. Had a bad time for about a month with right thigh. Got the wind up. Thought I was going to lose it.” He convalesced in the Derbyshire Dales and had an artificial leg fitted. He was discharged from the Army as “no longer fit for war service,” on October 9th a month before the armistice.
He “lost his leg” was the expression always used, as if somehow he had mislaid it. Like the weasely expression, “War broke out,” as if it was some kind of disease, not a deliberate decision to start killing each other.
Bill returned to Thornaby and resumed his apprenticeship as a printer. He married Mabel Featherstone at Thornaby Baptist Chapel on September 4th 1920. I assume they were already acquainted before the war; there is a page in his diary where he writes:
L stands for Lovers that is you and me
O is for One dear that we soon shall be
V is the Vow I made you for life
E is for Ever and Ever a bond between man and wife.
They went on to have seven sons, the second of whom was my father, Walter Bailey, and a daughter. It is as if Bill was replacing his comrades, and bearing out the fact that after a war there are more boys born than girls. I recall visiting my grandparents, seeing the leg propped beside the bed, straps dangling, which we all took for granted. When they retired they went to live in the Yorkshire moors in the village of Commondale, to look after a Wesleyan chapel. Grandad always had an allotment – I remember going to see the chickens as a child, but in those later years he installed an enormous train set in the greenhouse. Go Grandad! Many years later I drove through the Somme, and stopped to pick a poppy for my father.
At the end of his diary Bill writes, “Enough of war. How little we realise how close God is always to us. “ And later he wrote to his grand-son, Kevin, “Don’t believe anyone who says war is glorious. It is CRUEL.”