My great-grandfather, William Kirkman Whiteside, or ‘Grandad Billy’, was Blackburn born and bred, and a local character. When he’d had a few drinks he’d get maudlin about the harshness of life on the Western Front. His only fond memories were of his horse, Bessie, which he tended in his role as a driver in the Royal Field Artillery. The horses were used to deploy medium calibre guns and howitzers close to the front line.
I was familiar with what Grandad Billy looked like as an old man from my parents’ wedding photos from 1963. Everyone is dressed in ‘best bib and tucker’, but he stands out as the only one wearing an old flat cap. So I was delighted when I recently came into possession of an old photograph showing him in his prime at the start of World War 1.
Billy Whiteside’s experiences were shared by millions in the trenches that zigzagged across Europe and Gallipoli between 1914 and 1918, as well as those who fought in the air, or at sea. An estimated 65 million men fought in World War 1; over 10 million of them were killed and more than 20 million were wounded. When it was finally over, most survivors like Billy tried to readjust to lives that were mainly unremarkable as far as the history books are concerned. Some, however, went on to fame, or infamy:
Clement Attlee – Prime Minister of Great Britain 1945-1951
Attlee served as a captain with the South Lancashire Regiment in Gallipoli in 1915. After a period of fighting he became ill with dysentery and was sent to hospital in Malta to recover. When he returned to the front, his company held the final lines while Gallipoli was evacuated and he was the last-but-one man out of Suvla Bay. He later served in Iraq, where he was badly wounded at El Hannah after being hit in the leg by shrapnel from an exploding shell while taking enemy trenches. He was sent back to England to recover and spent most of 1917 as an instructor, having been promoted to the rank of major. He was sent to France in June 1918 to serve on the Western Front for the last months of the war.
Humphrey Bogart – American actor
Bogart enlisted in the United States Navy in the spring of 1918. Bogart was recorded as a model sailor who spent most of his months in the Navy after the war ended, ferrying troops back from Europe.
Alan Brooke – Field Marshal, British Army
Brooke served in France with the Royal Regiment of Artillery, where he got a reputation as an outstanding planner of operations. At the Battle of the Somme in 1916 he introduced the ‘creeping barrage’ system, to try to protect the advancing infantry from enemy machine gun fire. He ended the war as a lieutenant-colonel with two Distinguished Service Orders.
Raymond Chandler - American writer
In 1917 Chandler enlisted in the Canadian Army and saw combat in the trenches in France with the Gordon Highlanders. In 1918 he transferred to the fledgling Royal Air Force and was undergoing flying training when the war ended.
Maurice Chevalier – French actor, singer and entertainer
Chevalier was already a rising star in Paris when World War I broke out, but was doing his national service in August 1914. He was wounded by shrapnel in the back in the first weeks of combat and was held as a prisoner of war in Germany for two years. To pass the time he studied English. In 1916, he was released through the secret intervention of King Alfonso XIII of Spain, the only king of a neutral country who was related to both the British and German royal families. In 1917, Chevalier cemented his stardom in Paris and played before British and American soldiers. He went on to London, where he found new success at the Palace Theatre.
Winston Churchill – Prime Minister of Great Britain 1940-1945 and 1951-1955
Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty at the start of the war, but left the war cabinet in disgrace after the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign in 1915. He took up active service on the Western Front to rehabilitate his reputation. After spending some time as a major with the Grenadier Guards, he commanded the 6th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers as a lieutenant-colonel from January – March 1916. While in command he personally made 36 forays into no man’s land, and his section of the front at Ploegsteert became one of the most active. He returned to England in March 1916 to resume his political career and became Minister of Munitions in 1917.
Charles de Gaulle - President of France 1959 – 1969
De Gaulle was already a professional soldier by 1914, having joined the 33rd Infantry Regiment of the French Army. He fought at Verdunin 1916. He was wounded in action and captured by the Germans, spending the remainder of the war in a POW camp. After 1918 he remained in the French Army and took part in the expedition to assist the Poles in the Russian Civil War of 1919-21.
Karl Dönitz – Grand Admiral, German Navy
When World War I began, Dönitz served on a light cruiser in the Mediterranean. He later operated out of Constantinople (now Istanbul), engaging Russian forces in the Black Sea. In 1916, he was temporarily assigned as airfield commander at the Dardanelles. From there, he transfered to the submarine forces and served as a watch officer, then from February 1918 onward as a U-boat commander. In October 1918, his U-boat was sunk by the Royal Navy and Dönitz was taken prisoner on the island of Malta.
Anthony Eden – Prime Minister of Great Britain 1955 -1957
Eden served with the 21st (Yeoman Rifles) Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, and reached the rank of captain. He won the Military Cross, and at the age of 21 became the youngest brigade-major in the British Army.
Otto Frank – German-Jewish Holocaust survivor (and father of Anne Frank)
Otto Frank served as a lieutenant in the German Army from 1915. He fought on the Western Front along with tens of thousands of other German Jews, many of whom would survive the First World War only to perish in the Holocaust of the Second.
Hermann Göring – Nazi Government Minister and Luftwaffe Commander-in-Chief 1933 – 1945
During the first year of World War I, Göring served with an infantry regiment in the Vosgesregion and was hospitalised with rheumatism from the damp of trench warfare. When he recovered he transfered to the Luftstreitkräfte (air combat force) of the German army. He flew reconnaissance and bombing missions and won the Iron Cross, first class. He steadily scored more victories and got his first command in May 1917. In May 1918, he was awarded the coveted Pour le Mérite. On 7 July 1918, he was made commander of the famed ‘Flying Circus’, Jagdgeschwader 1. Göring finished the war with 22 confirmed victories.
Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris – Marshal of the Royal Air Force
At the outbreak of the war, Harris joined the 1st Rhodesian Regiment as a bugler, and served with them in South Africa and Namibia. In 1915 he returned to England and joined the Royal Flying Corps. He served with distinction on the home front and in France during 1917 as a flight commander and then as CO of No 45 Squadron, flying the Sopwith Camel. Harris claimed 5 enemy aircraft destroyed and was awarded the Air Force Cross, finishing the war as a major (later re-ranked as squadron leader) in the newly formed Royal Air Force.
Ernest Hemingway – American writer
Hemingway was rejected by the US Army due to poor vision, but served in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps on the Italian Front. In July 1918, he was badly wounded in the legs by both shrapnel and machine-gun fire. Despite his injuries, he managed to drag a wounded Italian soldier to safety for which the Italian government awarded him the Silver Medal of Military Valour. He spent six months recuperating at the Red Cross hospital in Milan.
Rudolf Hess – Deputy Leader of Nazi Germany 1933-1941
Hess enlisted in the 7th Bavarian Field Artillery in 1914 and fought on the Western Front. Transferring to the Infantry, he was wounded several times and was awarded the Iron Cross, second class. He saw heavy action both on the Western Front (at Ypres and Verdun) and in the Carpathian Mountains. After sustaining a chest wound severe enough to prevent his return to the front as an infantryman, he transferred to the Imperial Air Corps. He served as a pilot, with the rank of lieutenant, in an operational squadron from 16 October 1918, but had won no victories by the time the war ended a month later.
Adolf Hitler – Leader of Nazi Germany 1933-1945
Hitler fought on the Western Front as a private in the 16th Bavarian Regiment and was later employed as a runner, earning the rank of lance-corporal. He fought at Ypres in October 1914 where his company of 250 men was reduced to 42 in a matter of weeks. Hitler later fought on the Somme, Arras and Passchendaele. He was wounded in the thigh in 1916 and gassed in October 1918 which left him temporarily blinded. Hitler was twice decorated for bravery, receiving the Iron Cross, second class in 1914 and Iron Cross, first class in 1918.
Edwin Hubble – American astronomer
Hubble joined the United States Army in 1917 as an artillery officer. He served on the Western Front and reached the rank of major.
Buster Keaton – American comic actor
Buster Keaton enlisted as an infantryman in the US Army and was assigned to the 40th ‘Sunshine’ Division in July 1918. He was transferred toFrance, via California, New York and Liverpool, and spent 7 months overseas, but was not employed in a combat role.
Charles Laughton – English actor (and star of one of my favourite ever films, Hobson’s Choice (1954))
Laughton served first with the Huntingdonshire Cyclist Regiment and later with the Northamptonshire Regiment. He was gassed on the Western Front.
Douglas MacArthur – General of the Army, United States Army
Colonel Douglas MacArthur deployed to France as the Chief of Staff, 42nd (‘Rainbow’) Division, in October 1917. In February 1918 he accompanied a French trench raid and assisted in the capture of a number of German prisoners, earning him the Croix de guerre from the French. In March 1918, the 42nd Division launched trench raids of its own and MacArthur’s leadership was rewarded with the Distinguished Service Cross. Shortly afterwards he was gassed, but quickly recovered. MacArthur was promoted to brigadier general in June 1918 and participated in opposing the German Marne Offensive. In August he was put in command of the 84th Infantry Brigade and in the subsequent Allied counter-offensive was awarded a second Croix de guerre and the Légion d’honneur. His leadership in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel in September 1918 earned him more accolades. In October 1918 he was gassed again and 2 days later was wounded, but not severely, while reconnoitring German defences ahead of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He was awarded a second Distinguished Service Cross. On 10 November, a day before the Armistice, MacArthur was appointed commander of the 42nd Division.
Harold Macmillan – Prime Minister of Great Britain 1957-1963
Macmillan served with distinction as a captain in the Grenadier Guards, and was wounded on three occasions. During the Battle of the Somme, he spent an entire day lying in a slit trench with a bullet in his pelvis, reading classical Greek literature while awaiting rescue. He spent the final 2 years of the war in hospital and he saw no further active service.
A A Milne – English writer
Milne served as an officer in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and later, after a debilitating illness, in the Royal Corps of Signals.
Bernard Montgomery – Field Marshal, British Army
Montgomery served as a captain in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in France from August 1914. He saw service during the retreat from Mons, during which half his battalion was destroyed. During an Allied counter-offensive in October 1914 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his gallant leadership in turning the enemy out of their trenches by bayonet, before being severely wounded by sniper fire; he was shot through the lung and the knee. He recovered and returned to the Western Front, serving 1915 – 1918, and ended the war as a lieutenant colonel.
Benito Mussolini – Fascist Dictator of Italy 1922 – 1943
Mussolini served in the Italian Army on the Austrian Front. He reached the rank of corporal and totalled about nine months of front-line trench warfare. In 1917 he was wounded accidentally by the explosion of a mortar bomb in his trench. He was left with at least 40 shards of metal in his body and was discharged from the Army.
George Patton – General, United States Army
In 1917 Captain Patton was the first officer assigned to the new United States Tank Corps, establishing a Light Tank Training School for US troops in France. In September 1918, Patton was wounded in the leg while leading an attack on German machine guns during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He was still recuperating from his wounds when the war ended. For his service in the Meuse-Argonne Operations, Patton received both the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal, and was brevetted full colonel.
J B Priestley – English writer
Priestley served initially in the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. He took part in the Battle of Loos and in 1917 accepted a commission in the Devonshire Regiment. After being wounded later that year in a dug-out collapsed by a trench-mortar, he was sent back to England for 6 months. Soon after returning to the Western Front he endured a German gas attack. Treated at Rouen, he was classified by the Medical Board as unfit for active service and was transferred to the Entertainers’ Section of the British Army.
Basil Rathbone – English actor
In 1916, Rathbone enlisted in the London Scottish Regiment as a private. He was later commissioned as a lieutenant in the Liverpool Scottish Regiment, where he served as an intelligence officer and eventually attained the rank of captain. In September 1918, he was awarded the Military Cross. His younger brother, John, was killed in action.
Arnold Ridley - English actor
Ridley was a student teacher when he volunteered for British Army service in August 1914. He was rejected due to a toe injury, but in 1915 was able to enlist as a private in the Somerset Light Infantry. He saw active service and sustained several serious injuries: his left arm was left virtually useless by injuries sustained on the Somme, his legs were riddled with shrapnel and the legacy of a blow to the head by a German soldier’s rifle butt left him prone to blackouts. He was medically discharged from the army with the rank of lance corporal.
Erwin Rommel – Field Marshal, German Army
During World War I, Rommel fought in Franceas well as in Romania and Italy, first in the 6th Württemberg Infantry Regiment, but through most of the war in the Württemberg Mountain Battalion of the elite Alpenkorps. He was wounded three times and awarded the Iron Cross, first and second class. Rommel also received Prussia’s highest award, Pour le Mérite, after fighting in the Battles of the Isonzo in the north-eastern Alps. While fighting at Isonzo, Rommel was caught behind Italian lines but managed to escape capture, though almost all of his staff were taken prisoner.
Angelo Roncalli – Pope John XXIII 1958 – 1963
During World War 1, Roncalli was drafted into the Royal Italian Army as a sergeant, serving in the medical corps as a stretcher-bearer and as a chaplain.
J R R Tolkien – English writer
Tolkien was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers, and arrived in France in June 1916. He served as a signals officer at the Somme, participating in the Battle of Thiepval Ridge and the subsequent assault on the Schwaben Redoubt. In October 1916 he came down with trench fever, a disease carried by the lice which were common in the dugouts, and was invalided back to England. He also suffered on more than one occasion from trench foot.
Harry S Truman – President of United States 1945 – 1953
Truman served as a battery commander in an artillery regiment on the Western Front 1917-18. His unit fired some of the last shots of World War I into German positions after the Armistice was signed at 5 am, but before the ceasefire took effect at 11 am.
Ralph Vaughan Williams - English composer
Vaughan Williams was 41 when World War I began. Though he could have avoided war service entirely, or tried for a commission, he chose to enlist as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. After a gruelling time as a stretcher bearer in France and Salonika, he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery on 24 December 1917. Prolonged exposure to gunfire began a process of hearing loss which eventually caused severe deafness in old age. In 1918, he was appointed Director of Music, First Army, and this helped him adjust back into musical life.
Some World War 1 veterans found fame towards the end of their lives by being the last.
Henry Allingham – last surviving founding member of the Royal Air Force
Henry Allingham enlisted in the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) as an Air Mechanic in 1915 and was posted to the RNAS Air Station at Great Yarmouth after training. In 1916 he was involved in the Battle of Jutland while on board a naval trawler; he was responsible for helping to launch the boat’s Sopwith Schneider seaplane. In September 1917, he was posted to the Western Front on aircraft repair and recovery duties; he also instrumented the very first reconnaissance aircraft camera during the First World War. He transferred to the Royal Air Force when the RNAS and the RFC were merged on 1 April 1918. He was formally discharged to the RAF Reserve on 16 April 1919.
Harry Patch – British Army, the last surviving soldier to have fought in the trenches of the First World War.
In October 1916, Harry Patch was conscripted as a private into the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, serving as an assistant gunner in a Lewis Gun section. He arrived in France in June 1917. During his time in France he fought at the Battle of Passchendaele. In September 1917, he was injured in the groin when a shell exploded overhead, killing 3 of his comrades. After this he was removed from the front line and returned to England in December 1917. He was convalescing on the Isle of Wight when the Armistice was declared.
Claude Choules – Royal Navy, the last World War I combat veteran
Choules was 13 at the start of World War I. He was able to leave school when he turned 14, at which point he attempted to enlist in the army as a bugler boy but was rejected as too young. With his father’s help, he trained to join the navy instead, joining the nautical training ship Mercury in April 1915. In October 1917, he joined the battleship HMS Revenge, stationed at Scapa Flow. While serving aboard, Choules saw action against a German zeppelin and witnessed the surrender of the German Imperial Navy at the Firth of Forth in November 1918, as well as the scuttling of the German fleet in Scapa Flow. Choules remained in the Royal Navy after the war, but was posted to Australia in 1926 on loan as an instructor. Choules decided to transfer permanently to the Royal Australian Navy, where he served throughout World War 2 and remained until 1951. He was, therefore, also the last veteran to have served in both world wars.
The Great War was a collective trauma for all the nations which took part in it. The men who fought in it became known as ‘the Lost Generation’, a term popularised by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway also wrote:
When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you. . . . Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you…
Disillusioned veteran J B Priestly wrote:
The British command specialised in throwing men away for nothing. The tradition of an officer class, defying both imagination and common sense, killed most of my friends as surely as if those cavalry generals had come out of the chateaux with polo mallets and beaten their brains out. Call this class prejudice if you like, so long as you remember … that I went into that war without any such prejudice, free of any class feeling. No doubt I came out of it with a chip on my shoulder; a big, heavy chip, probably some friend’s thigh-bone.
My great-Grandad, Billy Whiteside was just an ordinary working man and could not express his experiences as articulately as Hemingway and Priestly. The effects of the war on him came out in behaviour that seemed eccentric and annoying to those who lived with him. If his children were too noisy, he’d send them all outside, rain or shine. While he couldn’t stand loud noises, he would listen to brass band music on his gramophone at full volume. He clearly suffered from Combat Stress reaction, or ‘shell shock’ as it was commonly known. His left hand would involuntarily tremor and curl up. These symptoms persisted in old age, as another photo of him at my parents’ wedding shows – compare his left hand in 1915 and 1963. Billy only started to talk about the Western Front when he’d been drinking. It was usually the cue for his family, who didn’t want to hear about it, to tell him to “pipe down”.
The ‘last fighting Tommy’, Harry Patch, kept his silence about the war for eight decades following his discharge from the Army. He not only avoided talking about his wartime experiences, he also could not watch any war films, read books about war or get involved in veterans’ reunions. It wasn’t until he reached 100 years old that the BBC persuaded him to appear in the TV documentary Veterans. As part of a very small and fast dwindling group of men with direct experience of combat in the Great War, Harry Patch’s vivid memories were compelling for their recall of the horror and misery of life in the trenches. He summed up his experiences thus:
When the war ended, I don’t know if I was more relieved that we’d won or that I didn’t have to go back. Passchendaele was a disastrous battle – thousands and thousands of young lives were lost. It makes me angry. Earlier this year, I went back to Ypres to shake the hand of Herr Kuentz, Germany’s only surviving veteran from the war. It was emotional. He is 107. We’ve had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it’s a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?