There aren’t many people these days who wait until they are 22 for their first alcoholic drink. In 2016 someone of that age is highly likely to be working in an office, coming back to a nicely heated home and then deciding whether to spend the weekend playing a computer game or hitting the bar.
At the same age in 1915 my grandfather had a rather different set of experiences. The first time Clifford Brown tasted intoxicating liquor was outside a distillery in Kilmarnock on New Year’s Eve at the back end of 1914, having volunteered in Manchester early in the war and then being drafted to a Scottish regiment. By March 1915 he was in the front line at Ypres.
I know this because my father eventually realised he couldn’t make sense of a random series of stories that his own father told about experiences in the war and so asked him to write a short summary. When I came across it I discovered that it contained a lot of facts and very little emotion. That was the way that generation was brought up. As a result when he does give a few details of what took place it is stark and to the point.
“At 5pm a terrific bombardment opened the Second Battle of Ypres. Three of us were having a meal in a farm house when the bugles sounded assembly. We rejoined the battalion and found that the Germans had launched the first gas attack on the French and Canadians and that we had to retake the trenches.
“We advanced towards St Julian with orders not to fire as we were supporting British troops. After sustaining many casualties we eventually found that the troops we could see were German. We were advancing without artillery support or reserves.
“Our small detachment, composed of men of various regiments, stood between the Germans and Ypres. The Germans retreated before our advance and we came across the dead and the wounded of the Durham Light Infantry. It was pouring with rain and we were very hungry. I had a small empty tin of cafe au lait and we let the rain drip in, then we had a drink in turn.”
Few of us nowadays can even begin to imagine what it must have been like to sit in a trench in Ypres in the pouring rain sharing a drink of rainwater and hoping against hope that the Germans wouldn’t release another wave of gas or begin a bombardment of wrecked trenches. Nor is it easy to imagine how it must have felt to be taken away from danger into the rear for a period of recovery and further training only to find yourselves cast back into the worst of the frontline action.
As early as December 2015 he was in action again at the Somme. By this point he had been trained to use a machine gun, so he was relatively fortunate. He didn’t have to run towards a machine gun emplacement as quickly as he could, in the hope that he could knock the relentless weapon out before he was killed. Instead he would have had the opposite experience.
His job was to come up out of the dugout immediately it stopped being shelled so that he could provide protective fire for British troops before they were overrun. If he sheltered from the shells a bit too long then his fellow soldiers died. If he came out too quickly then the artillery fire might start up again and he could be the victim.
By March he was sitting on top of a German mine crater during incessant rain as part of a spell of 86 days in the front. It isn’t easy to imagine what this means but one detail in his account helps us to understand. For two whole weeks there was not a single opportunity to take his boots off. As a result he got trench foot and was sent to a field station medical facility. Fortunately he wasn’t one of the stretcher cases as they got hit by a shell. Instead he was able to shelter from the artillery barrage and got out alive.
Returning to England to recuperate gave him a chance to apply for a commission. A few years previously the son of a tripe shop owner from Eccles would never have been considered for such a rank. But the First World War is one of the few conflicts where front line officers died more often than other troops. There were gaps for a talented young lad with fighting experience. The mowing down of a generation of young sons of the well-educated classes created an opening for those less privileged.
For my grandfather this training as an officer probably saved his life since he was sent to Keble College, Oxford, for a few months instead of being sent straight back to the trenches. It also gave him one of the most exciting opportunities that could have come the way of any young man at the time. He was offered the chance to volunteer to become an airman. Twelve of his fellow trainee officers applied but only four were successful and he was disappointed to discover that he had passed but only as a navigator – because he wore glasses.
Nevertheless he set off for the training and shortly after arrival discovered that someone had made a paperwork error and put him down to train both as a pilot and as a navigator. He spotted a chance and went to his officer and persuaded him that this meant it really would be better to put him on the pilot’s course.
This act of first class blagging paid off. It is highly likely that he was the only pilot in the Royal Flying Corps and later the RAF who wore glasses. He trained on primitive pioneering aircraft like Sopwith Pups, Avros 504s, and Sopwith Dolphins, taking full advantage of the whole five weeks that was provided. I think it now takes around five years to train a pilot and the computer does a lot of the work!
By 1918 he was flying in serious combat missions and in October experienced a forced landing in no man’s land. Put more simply this means that he was in a plane crash. No one came to help him. Rather the reverse. He knew that he would either be taken prisoner or shot so he climbed out of the crash and walked to safety.
When he got back to safety he found himself taking a rest with a couple of other airmen. They didn’t look well and seemed to want to wear their leather overcoats even in a warm hut. There was a good reason for this. They had flu; the flu that killed almost as many people as the entire war. After all his experiences in the front line it wasn’t shellfire that put an end to his participation in the war – it was a tiny virus which fortunately he survived.
As I sit in my warm home a hundred years later I have the luxury of deciding whether to bother or not with my winter flu jab. After reading my grandfather’s account I think perhaps I should. That sniffle I’ve got could play havoc with my social life if it turned nasty!