Story

Memories from Lead Driver Arthur Chappell

Transcript of interview with Arthur Chappell by Robert Surman

Lead Driver Arthur Chappell. No. 681024

B Battery, Royal Field Artillery,

286th brigade, 57th Division.

I was born in Blackpool in 1899 and when war broke out, I was not yet sixteen years of age. One day, while I was walking around town a Recruiting Sergeant stopped me and asked me if I wanted to join the army.

It was now 1915 and the war had been going on for over six months and the idea of joining up set me thinking! Although I was underage, I decided to join up. Our main Recruiting Office in Blackpool was the Town Hall, so up the steps I walked. When inside a Sergeant asked me my age. I knew what the legal age was, so I said “Nineteen of course”. The next piece of information was my date of birth, this I gave as 1899. The Sergeant looked at me and told me to go outside and walk around the block, and only to come back when I could remember my correct date of birth.

Feeling puzzled at this, I went out! Only when walking around the block, did I realise what I had done. To be nineteen, I would have had to be born in 1896 not in 1899. Getting the date fixed in my head, I returned to the Recruiting Sergeant in the Town Hall. With my correct date of birth and all my other particulars also correct, I was enlisted in His Majesty’s Army. All this for the princely sum of 7/6d. (32p.) and a 1/- (5p.) a day or 7/- (35p.) a week.

I was not the only Blackpool lad who joined the Royal Field Artillery that day. Many came from the town as well as Preston or villages in the Fylde. We were told to report the following day to the barracks in Yorkshire Street, Blackpool. It was now the 22nd of May 1915.

After reporting at the barracks, the next day we moved to Wheaton Camp in Blackpool for initial training. Whilst at Wheaton Camp, I was only the Battery Clerk and we never had anything to do with horses. We didn’t stay long at Wheaton before we moved to Ashford in Kent. Here, the real training began to be a successful member of the Royal Field Artillery.

Our training started originally on 153 b’s but at Ashford we became a six gun battery of 18 lb’s. We were told that we would be the first line of defence of south east England.

Never having worked with horses before, and these animals being an integral part of any field battery, I did my best to keep away from them. To be truthful, I was scared stiff of them. However, one day one of the Sergeants informed me that my day would come to ride, so beware!

Not looking forward to this, I was apprehensive when the day arrived. The same Drill Sergeant was in charge and the so and so gave me the lead horse, with a smirk on his face, as much as to say, now we’ll have fun! I mounted the horse and led off around the ring. I was determined to stay on whatever the difficulties. I hung on for dear life, and after a few trips around the ring, we were told to dismount and to take a rest. So, over the next few months our training continued.

Each day, we had to ride our mounts around the training ring. Various exercises occurred, such as riding with hands outstretched, trotting with no stirrups, guiding the horse just by the use of our legs arms folded across the chest, drop reins when going over jumps, all this until we were capable of riding without falling off. From being scare stiff of horses, I became proficient and taken to it like a duck to water. I now felt more at home on a horse than I did walking, mind you we did little of the latter.

After this period of training was over, the battery moved to Deepcut Barracks at Aldershot. Here, yet more training being involved in even more exercises with both horses, guns and limbers. It was while we were at Aldershot, that we were inspected by His Majesty, King George V. I remember that inspection as everything had to be highly polished, all shining like brand new.

Not long after the inspection by the King, we were warned to be ready to move. We were no longer required for the defence of England but were to join the 286th Brigade, which was part of the 57th Division in France. Where in France we were going to we did not know?

Our guns, horses, limbers and ourselves were loaded onto trains to travel down to Southampton for embarkation to France. The journey started with us loading our horses into horse boxes, each capable of holding eight horses and eight men. The horses were put four down each side and down the middle was placed a truss of hay. Upon this truss of hay I placed myself for the journey to Southampton, which took some time, as we often stopped to water the horses.

We eventually reached Southampton and off loaded our horses and got them ready to board the ship. That was a heck of a job, as I recall! The horses, which must have wondered what was happening to them, were loaded in two ways. We eighter ran them up the ramp and on board, or else they were put on board by huge nets. This caused panic amongst one or two, but as soon as they left the ground they became quite. The net and the horses was then hoisted up and over the ships side and onto the deck.

One on board our troubles were not over, as we had to get our horses from the deck down into the bowels of the ship. The lower decks had been fitted out in the form of stalls, each horse having bar between them. Straw was covering the lower deck and each horse had a truss of hay in front of him.

Even before we left Southampton the horses were restless. At no time could you leave them, you had to stay with them all the time. Fortunately, the journey across the Channel wasn’t too long, and we soon arrived in Le Havre.

However, it hadn’t all been plain sailing for the men or the horses. The sea was quite choppy and the ship was tossed about. We had a bit of satisfaction in that our Sergeant Major, who had a bit of fun on seeing me take my first ride, was as sick as the rest of us. I had taken great care of my little pony on getting her on board and bedded her down, but she was soon in trouble. I noticed that she had blood coming down her nostrils, so I got hold of Sergeant Beckeff.

I told him that there’s something wrong with my horse. All I got from him was, that he couldn’t be bothered. He did nothing and there was little I could do. By the time we docked at Le Havre, the horse was dead. I was collared by the sergeant and asked why I hadn’t reported it. He played hell with me, but I told him that I had told him about it. He wouldn’t have it and continued to play hell with me.

What had caused her death I cannot really say, perhaps she had died of fright, I don’t know! I later found out that she had originally driven a milk float in Preston. So being taken away and put with guns and on board a tossing ship was obviously too much for her.

After disembarking at Le Havre we entrained the next day for Armentieres. Leaving the train, and hitching up our guns and limbers, we made our way to the position our guns were to take up. We were in positions around Houlines. After taking up the guns and unhitching them, we were told that the horse and wagon lines were to be stationed on the banks of the River Lys.

The area we were in was extremely low lying, it was very dull looking, with slow moving streams all over the place. Remains of farm buildings littered the place, it was a most dreary spot to be in, but this was where we had to stay. It was February 1917 when we arrived and the cold, wet weather and the dull appearance of the land did not put a lot of cheer in us.

It was while at Houlines that I saw a friend of mine killed. He was the first casualty I had seen in the war and it really gave me a turn. He was only a young bloke like me and we have come over the France together. We were in the gun positions at the time and there was a lot of heavy shelling going on all around. Anyway, one of the shells landed right amongst the guns not far from where he was standing, he was killed outright.

Not far from our gun lines was a large civilian cemetery, which was continually being shelled by the Germans. The cemetery was a right mess, with headstones smashed, upturned and all over the place. The place was full of shell holes, it really was a frightful place to be in.

It was while up at Houplines that I nearly caught one. We were taking shells up to the guns, when the Germans began to shell us. Luckily none of our party was hit, but it had been too close for comfort, giving us all a shaking up.

Having been stuck around Houplines for some time, we had had little opportunity to change our clothes or for that matter to have a decent wash. We were all lousy spending most of our time itching and scratching, then one day an order came through, saying that we were all going to have a bath. Traipsing down to a large building, we discovered our baths consisted of a number of huge vats. We certainly enjoyed ourselves, and when the time came to go back to the wagon lines we all lined up in our new underwear, ready to get our new uniforms. There was plenty of laughing and giggling from the French girls, who were lined up opposite the wash house as we came out in our underwear.

We received our new uniforms, dressed and made our way back to the wagon lines. All of us felt reasonably clean, but it wasn’t long before we were all lousy again. Searching our new uniforms, we found the seams full of lice. We hadn’t after all received new clean clothes, we had got clothes belonging to others, and these had not been cleaned properly.

During our stay at Houlines, not only did I lose a close friend but we also lost our C.O. He was up at the gun lines one day when the Germans opened fire. Our guns were plastered and our C.O. was one of the unfortunate ones to get killed. We took his body back to the wagon lines and here he received a military funeral. He was one of the better C.O.’s.

Most of our officers turned out to be decent blokes, we only had one officer who was a little on the rough side and caused us any headaches. One incident, I remember well was when one of our G.S. wagons was returning from delivering ammunition up front to the guns. There was a great amount of shell fire going on and the horses were very nervous. One shell landed too close and this caused the horses to bolt overturning the wagon and spiller the driver overboard. No one was really hurt but this officer had little or no thought for the driver, he was more interested in how the horses were.

Another incident I remember was when I came before one of our officers for not obeying an order. A mate of mine by the name of Marmaduke Blessed, better known at Duke, and I had been ferrying shells up to the guns all night. We were absolutely dead beat, so when we had finished, we came back to rest and sleep. There was ammunition which needed unloading but we both thought that we had done enough for the night and needed our rest, so off we went to our beds. No sooner had we bedded down than an N.C.O. came in and told us to go and unload the ammunition.

Both of us told him no and refused telling him we had done our nights duty and needed our rest. Later, we found that we had been reported to the major for disobeying a direct order. There was to be a trial held or as it turned out nearly held. On the day of the trial the Germans shelled us, so the trial was put off. However, we were given seven days C.B. and told to work two nights on the run. But it had been worth it for the night’s sleep.

From Houlines and after a period out of the line we moved north to Ypres to take part in the Battle of Passchendaele. We found ourselves near the villages of Langermarck and Poelcappelle, an area of complete desolation, it was now getting towards the end of 1917. The fighting around here had been going on for months and our troops were slowly pushing the Germans back.

When we arrived I spoke to one of the fellows who had been up here for a while and he said “If you think you have seen war and been in a war, you have seen nothing yet!”

It was at Ypres that I was drenched seven times on the run. The weather was awful, rain, rain, mud, mud and more mud and yet more rain. I had no chance of clothing, so every time I got wet, my clothes just had to dry on me.

During my time at Ypres, I came across the bravest people I have seen. These were West Africans and they were used on the repairing of roads and the building of them. They had a terrible job, as the roads or what was left of them were constantly bombed and pitted with shell holes. It was while I was carrying ammunition up to the guns that I first came across them. They were working very hard on repairing a stretch of road, as the shells rained overhead. They never flinched or refused to carry on, they just kept on working to repair the road.

One of my jobs was to take up ammunition to the gun lines, because of the lack of roads, we had to take up all the ammunition by pack horse. Night time was the only possible time you could take ammunition up to the guns. We usually left about seven o’clock in the evening and worked all night. We set off the ammunition dump with two horses, each carrying four panniers, these being made of strong canvas and were placed two on either side of the horse.

The journeys to the guns and back were a nightmare, continual shelling, lack of decent roads, shell holes, with only an occasional lull in the firing. We had to make three journeys each night and by the time we had made our third journey dawn was breaking.

The worst part of the journey was knowing that as soon as a line of men were on a certain stretch of road, then the shelling would begin. The Germans would strafe the road as well as both sides. Often we had nowhere to hide, so just kept on going. Either side of the road was mud and slime, which would suck down both horse and man, if you were unlucky to fall into it.

One time, when we were up at Passchendaele, I met a friend. I was on my way back from delivering ammunition and I caught sight of Jack Rimmer. He was a Blackpool lad like me, and I had gone to school with his sister. He was working on the heavy guns, being part of the Royal Garrison Artillery and was on his way up. We both stopped to say hello to each other and to have a chat, as we hadn’t seen each other for years. Little did we realise that we were holding up the traffic in both directions and was told off in no uncertain manner to get a move on.

I never felt frightened during my time at the front, even when taking up shells to the guns during the night time. Nor did I feel afraid when returning just as dawn was breaking, this was usually the time of day when the Germans sent down a lot of shells to plaster us all.

The only time I was scared or felt fear was scared or felt fear was during a thunderstorm. It was a very heavy storm, with thunder and lightning and torrents of rain. The thunder was no problem, the guns were generally louder, it was the lightening that troubled me. My one and only time I can truly say I felt fear, fortunately it didn’t last long and was soon over, that is except for the heavy rain.

Having to deal with horses, even if previous to my army service I hadn’t been near one, let alone ridden one, I found it quite enjoyable. My position in the Battery was that of lead driver. This meant that I rode up front on the left hand horse, guiding the one on the other side. We had six horses to pull the gun and the limber.

When we arrived in the line, our job that is after the horses had been unhitched, was to take the horses back to the wagon lines. Here, we had to bed them down, feed and water them and also to clean them. Usually the horses were left out in the open, only occasionally did we manage to rig up any form of cover.

At Passchendaele, our horses where a little way back and we went to great lengths to give them some form of protection. We made this out of wire netting and earth to form a kind of embankment and behind this we put our horses. Even though we were quite a distance behind the lines, the Germans still reached us with their shells. Once I remember a shell exploding just at the height of the horse’s belly. There was no chance for the horses, they were all killed. When this happened all we did then was to skin the horses, and then bury them. I can still recall the sight of the dead horses, six of them had been killed, fortunately outright.

If anything like this happened, we would get re-mounts from the Re-mount Depot, way behind the lines. Once they gave us mules but they were not very good, very stubborn and we found we could do nothing with them. We were much better off with horses, even if some of them could be naughty.

The two horses I was in charge of were named Tommy and Sweet. I rode Sweet who gave me no trouble at all. It was a different thing with Tommy. Although he never gave me any trouble he could sometimes be very naughty.

On the outside of my leg, I wore an iron, this you could press against the side of the right hand horse to give him a bit of a gee up and to get things moving if you weren’t quick enough, he would try to squeeze your leg between the two horses. I don’t know what it was, but I never had any problem with any of the horse. Tommy never tried to squeeze my leg, even if he did try it on with other blokes.

During my one and only leave period, the lads left in charge did not have an easy time, they ended up with quite a few difficulties. On my return, the Sergeant came to me to complain about Tommy. “Why are you standing behind Tommy?” I asked the Sergeant, who stood there looking annoyed.

“I’m waiting for him to start his tantrums!” He replied.

“Don’t be daft” I said,” He’s well behaved and a good horse and never gives me any trouble.”

“Well he has this time, he’s put poor old Dillon in hospital” was the Sergeants reply.

I couldn’t make out why Tommy was given so much trouble. However, I soon found out the reason. To me Tommy had always been good, even if I knew him to be crafty, as well as being a bit fat and lazy. What was happening was, the first thing they had done was to clean his hooves out or attempt to dean them, but Tommy wouldn’t lift his feet.

Dillon must have hit him and Tommy had clotted him where it hurt, putting him in hospital.

To clean out his hooves, we had an iron bar bent at the end to scrape the muck out. All I had to do to clean his hooves out was to tap him in the hoof and he would lift his leg without any trouble.

The second problem arose when they came to hog him, that is to cut his mane and crop. The cutters we used worked by turning a handle and it was quite a noisy machine. The noise of the machine made Tommy restless and they couldn’t do the job. They had also held the cutters in front of his face, which he didn’t like one bit. So I told them how to do it. You had to climb on his back and let the cutters run for a while, then slowly cut his mane and crop, no difficulty doing this.

Both horses were good, never worried by shell fire, in fact the rest of the team were no trouble. Often at night we had to take up three G.S. wagons, so we only needed to use three horses at a time. When Tommy was used, I had to make sure that his traces were not too tight, because if they were he would cause a lot of trouble. Therefore, I usually left them reasonably slack, this also applied when in the gun teams.

As well as my job as lead driver, I also got the job at the Major’s Trumpeter. In fact I got it being senior by two days to Jack Sharples. It was strange really, because I wasn’t a trumpeter but Jack was. In civilian life, he had been a member of the Ribchester Brass Band.

Our stay in the Ypres/Passchendaele area continued, although we moved to another sector. Here, we took over a site used by a different battery. There were plenty of bivouacs here, made out of mounds of earth with small holes for entrances. The only water available for the horses came from a nearby pond. The cooks had water for brewing mugs of tea. For washing water, we also used the pond. We would full up canvas buckets and by the time ten of us had washed and shaved, it was very filthy.

Apart from the lack of decent clean water, we never had much reason to complain about the food or drink, not like those poor blokes in the infantry, who never had enough of anything. The food wasn’t bad, as we had a good Q.M.

He, unlike some others I heard about was not on the fiddle, even if his assistant was and we generally got enough to eat. The only time I remember being hungry was in 1918, when the division was on the move, we were advancing. Then we went a few days without anything to eat or drink.

When the Americans arrived, we used their canteen facilities for things like biscuits. After queuing for what we wanted, we often re-joined the queue to get more. We were not really allowed to do this but it generally worked.

One thing we always enjoyed was watching the observation balloons the Germans put up. They would send up between ten and fifteen during the early morning, so as to spy over our lines. Soon we could hear the crackle of rifle fire, as somebody fired incendiary bullets at the balloons. Some mornings it became quite exciting especially if a balloon was hit. Then the balloonists bailed out of their baskets and you could watch them falling to the ground, dropping slowly under their parachutes.

Another side show, was when our very heavy guns began. Sometimes they only fired two or three rounds before packing up and moving out. We thought, that will teach them a lesson, which I suppose it did. However, the only problem then was we always got a reply and were plastered for our efforts.

During 1918 we moved from the Passchendaele area, down towards Armentieres, Arras and then over the Cambrai. Before leaving Arras we had the chance to see a concert, which cheered us all up.

It was while at Armentieres, during a terrible gas bombardment that I had my first and fortunately only touch of gas. Luckily it wasn’t that bad and I quickly recovered from it.

I remember it was up at Armentieres that I had a chance of a spot of home leave. We were still taking ammunition up to the guns, and I had been out for some time to qualify for some home leave. However, it was stopped. I had received 100 Francs from the Day Sergeant and when the leave was cancelled, I decided it was better to give it back, than to walk around with it in my pocket and possible to lose it. Anyway, as things turned out I did lose it. Instead of us having a go at the Germans they had a go at us, capturing not only our guns, our mess, but my 100 Francs.

We didn’t stop until the Guards Division came. The Portuguese in front of us broke and ran, leaving us in the air. We received new guns and soon began to push the Germans back. At one stage, we were all lined up to go into action alongside the tanks. The battery was ready and the tanks moved off. The ground was awful, mud upon mud, it was so churned up that it was a failure.

The push forward continued and we came to the Hindenburg Line. How we crossed it I don’t know? It was so fortified, the dugouts were so deep and strong. Inside was like a home from home, very neat and tidy and well kept. But cross it we did and on into Cambrai. In fact our battery was one of the first gun teams to enter Cambrai, for that I got a piece of red, white and blue ribbon. (Unfortunately since lost.)

It was on the way to Cambrai that I got my second attack of fear. We had stopped the team and I dismounted and dashed into this abandoned hut. However, I soon dashed out again, because sitting upright on a wire bed was a German holding a rifle. Closer inspection though, we found that he was dead, but it had startled me into running for my life.

The tanks on the breakthrough at Cambrai brought another surprise as we continued on the move, we came across a number of knocked out tanks or disabled ones. I decided to have a look inside one of them. Inside I saw a body, in truth it was only part of a body. All that was left of the body was from the puttees downwards, where the rest of the body was I did not venture to look.

After taking Cambrai the Battery moved to Lille and Roubaix. We were billeted in Roubaix, stabling the horses in a dye works in the town. It was while the horses were stabled in the dye works that one of them fell in a vat of dye. Fortunately for the animal it was alright and none the worse for its adventure.

November 1918 dawned and we were told to get ready to move on. Just as we were about to move, we were recalled, and told by the Sergeant Major to parade instead. While on parade we were told that an Armistice had been signed at 11 a.m. that day, which was the 11th November 1918. The next thing we were told was to go to the stables and to groom our horses.

Here, at Roubaix, we stayed until early January 1919, when we came home via Dunkirk. When we landed the Captain said to me “Do you want to go straight home?”

“Yes” I replied.

“Right then, you can come with me.”

So I journeyed up to Preese Heath in Wales and the end of January 1919 saw the end of my service with the Royal Field Artillery.

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