Looking Back – Memories from John James Atkins

Transcript of interview with John James Atkins by Robert Surman

John James Atkins, No. 51113,

1/6th Cheshire Regt. B.E.F. France.

Wounded at Proyart, Somme March 27th 1918. Lewis Gunner.

1914                  3019 2/4th Cheshire Regt.

1915                  3019 1/4th Cheshire Regt.

1915-1917       102743 M.T.A.S.C.

1917-1918       57113 1/6th Cheshire Regt. 118 Bde. 39th Division.


Saturday Morning, December 1st 1914. The Drill Hall, Grange Road West, Headquarters of the 1/4th Battalion Cheshire Regiment.

My Seventeenth Birthday. Seated at the table, strewn with army forms was a Corporal Arthur Rice. Telling him I wanted to enlist, his words were “What’s your name?” I told him.

After that “What’s your age?”

“Seventeen” I said.

The interview was over with his parting words “Come back on Monday and be nineteen.”

The recruiting age at that time was 19 to 45. Mid-morning on Monday December 3rd 1914, back in the orderly room, all particulars taken, I am presented with a shilling and a number. I am now Private Atkins, No. 3019 2/4th Cheshire Regiment. The rest of the week we seem to spend in Birkenhead Park, just below Cannon Hill, learning how to form fours and to form two deep and going through all the movements of the forward, upward, sideways and downward stretch exercises. Out of the blue, we have news that the battalion is leaving for Aberystwyth, next Monday December 10th 1914. In the meantime I had made friends with a Samuel Bennett, Regimental No. 2990, a journeyman blacksmith from Claytons Shipyard, he lived in Church Terrace, Higher Tranmere. We were to be together for the next six months.

Come Monday morning, the Battalions all formed up and eventually moved off down Grange Road West, Grange Road and on to Woodside Station, all headed by a pipe band. On the train journey to Aberystwyth, we were stationary for a few minutes at Shrewsbury Station which overlooked the jail. There in the exercise yard, just ambling around were German P.O.W.’s

These were the first Field Grey uniforms I had seen, but were by no means the last I was to see.

Arriving safely at Aberystwyth and being sorted out. C. Company, my unit seemed to occupy the whole of Custom House Street. Seven or eight of us are billeted with a Mrs. Hughes at ‘Buena Vista’, No. 17 Custom House Street. It was quite a full house. The officers I remember of C. Company were Captain Johnson, Lieutenant Danson, Lieutenant Collins (of the Iron and Steel firm, a well built and genial gentleman) (my section), Lieutenant Carter, who had his two and three quarter speed motor cycle (a Douglas) with him. At the top of the street would be Lieutenant Pemberton, a younger brother of Major Pemberton the second in command of the 1/4th battalion, who at this time was stationed at Northampton.

Aberystwyth at that time had a population of about 10,000 to 12,000 but with the different regiments there you could call it a garrison town. The Cheshires, A.S.C., from Harrowby Road, The Monmouths, The Royal Welsh and the Royal Welsh Fusiliers etc. Our training there up in the fields outside the town overlooking Cardigan Bay which we would often scan looking for submarines etc., seemed to follow the same pattern day after day.

Route parade at 7.30 a.m. The company would form up, followed by a short march, then a double along the promenade in the direction of Constitution Hall. One had to be very wary, because if the sea happened to be rough, the waves would crash against the sea wall and you could easily be drenched with the spray that overshot the sea wall. Route parade over it would then be breakfast time.

The next parade was at 9.a.m. Usual roll call then up to the fields again. Rifles I think, didn’t seem to be plentiful (not the short ones). I think they called them Lee Enfield Mark ls. We had the long ones, nicknamed ‘Gas Pipes’ (left over from the Boer War). About four inches of the barrel extended over the woodwork.

Now we are beginning to learn how to slide arms, order arms, present arms, the whole lot. After that of course we learnt how to shoot. Taking aim, getting the tip of the foresight in the centre of the U of the back sign and in line with the shoulders, all very interesting.

Pay day was on a Friday early afternoon. Paying out was done from a house lower down the street, from the open window of the parlour, with a table pushed close to the opening. Your name being called out, you would smartly take two paces forward, salute, take the money, then two paces back, salute once more and that was that. For that I had collected the wonderful sum of three shillings and six pence. The other 3/6d went home to my mother as an allotment.

Friday night was Picket night and you might be on duty. This meant parading around the streets. About a dozen men comprised the picket, to quell any unruly behaviours, drunks etc. I believe one could get drunk on just less than a shilling in those days.

On the other hand, on Friday night we would be marched off to the plateau lying just below Pen-Dinas, supposed to be night manoeuvres, but on second thoughts it was to keep up the spirit of the lads and keep us clear of the pubs and out of trouble until they shut.

At the bottom of Custom House Street about 30 yards away, D. Company used to form up under Captain Bradbury, always to be seen with a hefty ash walking stick. He was often busily to be seen talking with Sergeant Percy Facet (of the Wellington Arms, Lower Bebington). Little did I think that three years would pass before we came face to face with each other again. At this time I was with the 1/6th Cheshires, Stockport Battalion, 118 Brigade, 39th Division. C. Company had been detailed for a raid on the German trenches, immediately in front of those two famous woods ‘Romeo and Juliet’, on the rising ground above Gouzeaucourt lying just ahead of Nurlu and Fins on the Somme.

The date was Tuesday February 12th 7918, the time 4.55 a.m. Our Company take over the front line trench and the Cambridgeshire are withdrawn and there, after being issued with a good ration of rum, you are waiting with a Mills bomb in each pocket, your rifle and bandolier of cartridges slung over your shoulder as the minutes are ticking away.

Zero hour is 5.a.m. The signal is given, I think by one single shot from a 9.2. Howitzer Battery. Then all the small batteries join in, 8”, 6”, 4.5 and the 18 pounders. Next thing you know is the lads are scrambling over the top of the trench. It was here that I met Captain Bradbury (after three years). There he was giving the lads a leg up out of the trench and away you went out, following a white tape across No Man’s Land.

Instantly our bombardment starts. So does the Germans. Their S.O.S. red flares seem to create a complete curtain for half a mile either side of where we are attacking. The intensity of their bombardment was terrific. There wasn’t much left of the front line trench we had vacated only half an hour a go. Once we were up and over I find I’m with a Corporal Stewart (Scots lad I think he was) and we cross over the sunken road to the right hand side. Between us and the red glare of the German S.O.S. we notice smoke coming out of a dugout. Looking down into the trench we sling our bombs. “Come out you B. “Although they were no more b than we were. The first German emerges very suspiciously, so he became a casualty. The second one I help out and up on top. Then along comes Pat Marsden towards us and we hand him the prisoner to take back. We again try to persuade any others to come out and one did.

I help him to the top, he’s a six footer. I’m looking up at him. Evidently he was a medical orderly and kept jabbering away about his wounded mates in the dugout and pointing to his Red Cross badges on his left sleeve. Unfortunately his concern for his comrades cost him his life. We had to get back quickly, someone was shouting “Here’s the tape lads”, and that was it.

I later heard about the result of the raid. It had cost us five killed and nineteen wounded. We were fortunate, I think to get off so lightly considering the terrific bombardment the Germans put up.

My stay at Aberystwyth with the 2/4th didn’t last long. I’m included in the Draft to make up the 7/4th to full strength. They were at this time stationed down in Cambridge (close to the jail). The first night there we were accommodated in the skating rink with two blankets each and we kipped down on the floor until they found us some billets, just close by in Beach Street I think it was.

Here again I’m posted to C. Company the same as my next to elder brother, who joined the Army on August 6th 1914. His number is 1967. The officers I remember best were Captain Gregory (senior Captain), Captain Pegram and Lieutenant Pullen. Then there were Sergeants Jones, Casey, Cowan and his brother Corporal Cowan (Eric and Jack).

Later on, all the draft left for Northampton to visit the two rifle ranges. One was at Hackleton and the other one was at Dallington. There was heavy frost and light snow on the ground, lying on ground sheets. While at Northampton we were billeted at St. James End until we had completed our firing course. Then it was back to Cambridge again to re-join the Battalion. A short while afterwards the Battalion moves off the Royston, about thirteen miles from Cambridge. We were in billets while stationed there. One fatigue I remember while there was taking ration round on a handcart, at team time to the different billets. After a short stay here, the battalion moved on to Bedford, a distance of just over 25 miles. Quite a march on a warm day and quite a few fell by the roadside. We were carrying everything I think except steel helmets, as they weren’t in issue yet.

Colonel Swindells would ride down the length of the column seeking any casualty out for the count, while we would be having our ten minute break I’ve heard him say “What’s the matter with that man”. Needless to say the casualty would finish the journey by train.

Here in Birkenhead in 1914, the Army Service Corps was all horse transport. I don’t remember seeing any mechanical units at all. However, here in Bedford, we were seeing three ton trucks and private cars such as Daimler and Vauxhall etc., all with the usual W. D. markings.

Before enlisting I was employed by the Mersey Motor Company, serving my time as a mechanic. Also during that time I had done quite a bit of driving in different makes of car. So naturally I thought it was the M.T.A.S.C., I ought to be in. Forthwith I applied for a transfer, forwarded on by Captain Gregory for the Colonels perusal. Back it came in no uncertain terms “I do not see that there is anything to be gained by allowing this.” J.H. Swindells.

The last few days of May 1915 and I am on leave and it’s now (as I’m still 18 months under age) that I enlist again. June the 1st 1915, the recruiting office would be at number 40 Conway Street. In charge was a Major Strachan, a Scotsman in his plaid trousers. After filling in the usual forms I’m sent off to Chester Castle and some more particulars are taken. Then I’m on my way to Grove Park, London. A few days later I’m driving a three tonner in a big convoy bound for Bulford Camp on Salisbury Plain.

The O.C. at Bulford Depot was a Colonel Lindsey Lloyd and his second in command was a Captain Brand. The one we had most contact with was Sergeant Major Dean, a very bronzed figure sporting the Kings South African Medal. He was very busy trying to persuade lorry drivers to change to light cars.

Compared with the infantry (P.B.L) life in the Mechanical Transport was a holiday with pay. The Gernment taught men to drive at Osterley Park and paid them 2/4d. per day, with the prefix in front of their regimental number 0M2. Those who could already drive were paid 6/- per day, with the prefix M2. At Bulford companies would assemble and be dispatched to various towns.

July finds me stationed at Witney in Oxfordshire with 347 M. T. Company. The O.C. being a Captain Noote. We had a fleet of Peerless and Wolsey three tonners. A short stay here, a couple of months and I’m back at Bulford Depot again.

It’s now that I’m noticed by Captain Brand the second in command of the depot, when he is inspecting the Headquarters Guard. I just happen to be the right hand man, marker for the fixing and unfixing of bayonets. My six months in the 4th Cheshires stood me in good stead, especially in rifle drill. Approached by Captain Brand there and then, would I like a stripe? I now find myself a full Corporal attached to No. 588 Bus Company and now stationed at Cheltenham, with a fleet of locomobiles under the command of a Captain Newton.

Here again, the stay is all too short and it’s back to Bulford Depot once again. But not for long, for now another company is formed up, 609 M. T. Company. We are to be stationed in Bath. 120 Peerless three tonners, four mobile workshops and 48 motor cycles and Douglas and Triumphs under the command of Captain Mayhew. After a few weeks here, I am given a third strip and l’m not eighteen yet. 608 M.T. Daimlers, Pulteney Street, 609 M. T. Bathwick Street.

While stationed here at Bath should the occasion arise when the orderly room were short of any army forms, it was a case of visiting the headquarters of the Gloucesters at Horfield Barracks Bristol, a short run on a 2.3/4 h.p. Douglas motor cycle, and a very pleasant trip. Having had six months of infantry training “P.B.l.”, I was now aware of the cushy jobs there were to be had in the M.T.A.S.C. I was eventually recalled to Bulford Depot, along with dozens of others. I am there until April 20th 1916, when I’m detailed with a draft for overseas. Leaving the camp with what must have been the oldest three ton Peerless truck – Bulford No. B7333, 100% reliable from start to finish. We soon find ourselves at Avonmouth Docks and embarking on the Santa Isobel, bound for Rouen, France.

Arriving at Rouen, somewhere near the transporter bridge (carrying traffic across the river), tied up at the quayside, a little further up, about 200 yards, I see the Heather Cock belonging to the Liverpool Screw Towing Co. Limited. She was the only one of their fleet to possess a wheelhouse. She wasn’t the most powerful in their fleet. I think the Black Cock or the Storm Cock was. Assembling at the base at Rouen, I find we are now the ammunition column attached to No. 710 Siege Battery, equipped with 8” Howitzers. They are in position, I think between Blangy or Feuchy outside Arras.

Trips to the battery at night time were something of an eerie run and the road from Arras to St. Pol was screened off for quite some distance. Looking across towards Mont. St. Eloi and Vimy the ‘very lights’ were illuminating all around, everywhere else was in complete darkness. One got used to driving in the dark, with no lights on the vehicles. At times one might find oneself having to pull up quickly, seeing a shadow on the ground, only to find the cause would be the moon filtering through the trees.

While up at Arras, the lorry park was for a while at Grand Rullecourt. It was then at Avennes-Ie-Comte. Here, our aeroplanes would be passing, zooming up in the direction of Mont. St. EIoi or Vimy Ridge.

Tri-planes could be seen overhead before June 1916. The noise of their engines was terrific, had they been as speedy and manoeuvrable as they were noisy, the activity in the air would not have been so much of a one way traffic spectacle. From April 1916 to March 1918 the volume of air activity seemed to be behind our lines.

Our anti-aircraft guns (white explosive – the Germans used black) and whether you were up at Arras, on the Somme or at Passchendaele, there always seemed to be more white than black. Brave lads they were, that flew in those machines. It couldn’t have been a comfortable thought flying a few thousand feet up in the air, knowing that your opponent had a machine a shade better.

One incident I witnessed was on the Somme on August 16th. A German airman shoots down an observation balloon of ours in flames. Within half an hour one of our airmen slips across and levels the score, now one each. The front line would be just ahead of Guillemont at the time.

Sometime later the battery – 110 siege, moved down to the Somme and took up positions in some farm buildings in the village of Maricourt. This must have been the extreme right of our line because the ‘Froggies’ were entrenched in Bernafay Wood. This place being a little to the right of the village.

One visit to the battery with rations caused some upset. On leaving I decided to return to the lorry park via Montauban Cross Roads, then turn left. The road here was made up of railway sleepers called the Plank Road. I then went past Mametz but I had only travelled a short distance when shouts from the left hand side of the road “Get the hell out of it”. Looking down at a trench, I saw some Staff Officers weighing up the position.

German observation balloons didn’t seem to be very far away. Here I was in full view, lumbering up the road with a three ton lorry, complete with tarpaulin sheet and unknowingly giving away the position of the road.

Later on the same stretch of road from Maricourt to the cross roads – Montauban, Longueval to the right, Guillemont and Carnoy Valley to the left you would have seen the Prince of Wales. He was seated between two officers of the Guards Division, who had their headquarters at Meaulte. They were not in a regular Staff car a Daimler or Vauxhall but a medium 12/16 Sunbeam open tourer.

I witnessed a tragic incident on the same road. A mounted Military Policeman was standing in front of his horse sobbing, revolver in hand, having to shoot it. It was standing on three legs. The hoof of its nearside leg had been wrenched off, having been caught in the well of a wagon.

Had you been in Corbie on the Somme during the disastrous push of July 1st 1916, you would have seen one of the ‘Birkenhead Bantams’ escorting German prisoners down through the town, past no. 5 Casualty Clearing Station (C.C.S.) Also there was a continual stream of ambulances night and day, seemingly never ending.

Re-organisation took place later on and our column is absorbed into what they called “The Thirteenth Corps Siege Artillery Park’ and stationed at La Neuville, not far outside Bray-Sur-Somme. Here I switched to No. 187 Battery, who are equipped with 6” Mark 7 Naval guns, the same as No. 222 Siege. We are in position on the left side of the road as you make your way towards Bray-Sur-Somme.

Work during the day was the maintenance of vehicles, now Albion three tonners. Early models had small diameter rear wheels, which was hopeless as the driving chains were more often than not running in mud. Later on all seemed to be filled with large diameter wheels.

Off you would go to the ammunition dump and load up with 9.2” shells. These were for 96 Siege Battery, who were just close to the roadside in Carnay Valley (sometimes called Death Valley). Sometimes we would load up with 3.15” shells complete with charges. These were destined for the Royal (Naval) Marine Artillery, their Howitzers being hauled by six-cylinder Daimler (sleeve valve engines) tractor. This honeymoon, and honeymoon it was compared with what the lads in the infantry had to endure, was shortly to come to an end. Manpower shortages in mid-1917 led to a Member of Parliament (was his name Tennant?) to propose that all the single, able bodied young men be withdrawn from non-combatant units, to ease the shortage. This was duly done and eventually I found myself with hundreds of others down at an I. B. depot at Rouen.

Here, we underwent all the antics of trench warfare, throwing bombs, bayonet fighting, the lot! After a few weeks training we are posted to different regiments. I am now Private J. Atkins, 51113, C. Company, 1/6th Cheshire Regiment, 118 Brigade, 39th Division.

The officers of C. Company were Captain Norman, Lieutenants Foden, Ludgate, Bradbury and Facet.

Come the second week in November 1917, we are due to do a sting at Passchendaele, here if you didn’t get shot, you stood a good chance of being drowned should you slip off the duck boards.

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