For the Fallen

Whilst deciding on an #ArchiveoftheWeek Tweet, I can across a slightly unusual item in our archive collection, a published memoir of a First World War soldier. James Carrier, originally from Stanley Common, wrote about his experiences on the Western Front, in a memoir which his son had published in 1978.


Enrolling on 8 September 1914, the so-to-be gunner recalls his trepidation; not at the prospect of enlisting, but at the prospect of being rejected! He saw those who failed the physical examination leaving “… with tears in their eyes …”. However, those accepted were made to feel “… lucky and honoured to be allowed to go to the slaughter house.”

Indeed, the young man was quickly disabused of the any romantic notions of war, even before leaving England. As if a proto-food critic, James wrote of his first meal at training camp “… as soon as I could get out of sight I tipped the lot into a hedge bottom.” The sleeping arrangements proved just as appealing; 40 men on a brick floor of an outbuilding which didn’t have enough air for ten.

Perhaps to alleviate the tedium, rumours of a move to the Western Front began. As if to capitalise on the calm before the storm, James (or rather his fiancée) made plans to get married.

The Territorial Division arrived at Le Harve in February 1915, and it was not too long after getting matched that the 20-year-old saw his first dispatched; the Flanders town of Kemmel greeted them with a dead soldier. From here, James’s war escalated; Spring brought him to the Second Battle of Ypres. Spending three months on the front line, he saw the full horror of war, experiencing the first chlorine gas attack on the Allied Forces. Some 87,000 Allied soldiers were killed, wounded, or went missing in the battle (as well as 37,000 on the German side).

While the Canadian brigade surgeon, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, tended to the wounded at Ypres, he was struck by the sight of bright red blooms on broken ground. McCrae channelled the voice of the fallen soldiers buried under those hardy poppies in his poem, ‘In Flanders Field’.

James held something of a distrust for his commanding officers throughout his service. He perceived them to be of “… the old-established County families – hunting men …”. He perhaps expected this of the ‘old guard’, his colonel, major and captain had all served in the Anglo-Boer War. Yet even the younger officers were “… very County, cold, and unapproachable …”.
Before even journeying across The Channel, a sergeant had a surprise in store – our hero was taught to ride a horse. He later discovered that it was christened Bronco Billy. The steed sent the green private “… flying clean over his head  ..” and down onto the cobbled roads: “I could swear that he grinned down at me …” as the intended mount stepped “daintily” over the bruised recruit.  Following a few days of not being able to sit nor lie down in comfort, Carrier reflected: “… never again was I afraid of any horse.”. 
The conflict only hardened our narrator’s attitude towards his superiors. He described one new officer as “… a bullying, swelled-headed young swine, and a perfect coward, … Men would always put up with a bullying officer provided he had guts … but to brag and bully, and be a funk all in one – it would not work.”.

In complete contrast, if straight the Boy’s Own paper, there was Captain Cassell. Proving a point to the young funk, the captain took a wash outside during a shelling raid. He took no notice as the projectiles dropped nearer. However, it wasn’t long before Captain Cassell staggered back under shelter, riddled with fragments of shell. Sinking on to his bed “… he gave his daredevil smile … ‘The Boche has got me at last.”

Our increasingly battle-hardened soldier admits “We morned a gallant officer and a gentleman.”

The horrors continued for our hero; ” … the Somme in 1916 finally shattered any ideals I had of war; but Lens in 1917 left me numb.” By the final days of the war, a ‘whizzbang’ became “the most nerve-racking fire of any.” Despite all this, James admits that “the war had become too much of a habit … to fully realise the significance of peace.”

Our battered Tommy, downtrodden by his experiences, returned home to an equally disillusioned Blighty: “I had expected flags flying and bands playing in London, but everything seemed very tame … what the deuce is the use of being a hero if no one is going to strew the laurel leaves?” He recalls from his childhood: “I remember as a lad seeing a conquering hero in a landau [a horse-drawn carriage] and a torchlight procession in our village after the South African War. The band played, and there was much speechifying and beer-swilling. There was none of this on my return. Mine was just a sneaking back to civilian life …”

However this was not the end of his war. Carrier discovered that both his sisters-in-law had lost their husbands. One went down on the Queen Mary, the other died in Egypt “in the last days of the war … she had received information of his death on Armistice Day.”

Like many, James’s transition back from the War to End All Wars was difficult. He was haunted by his experiences. He began seeing visions of his former comrades peering down at “this rotten mess”. James wrote: “I feel culpable of a crime … I see the look of happiness in their eyes change to one of unbelief. … I cry to them, I make excuses for myself. I tell them of my shattered nerves, of bodily ailments. It avails nothing.”

He recalls seeing a vision Gunboat, “a big hefty fellow, and as good-hearted as he was big.” Gunboat died in 1917.

It was not until 1927 that the veteran found some peace. James and Margaret bought the cottage in the village where James’s father was born. Finally, “… healthier in mind and body, … at last I was breaking the vicious circle that had encumbered me.” James Carrier may remain relatively unknown, but his experiences of the Great War reflects those of a famous war poet, who wrote of “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

2 thoughts on “For the Fallen

  1. Dear Paul
    Just read this post and found it very interesting, You cannot imagine the horrors and death that people saw

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