The company was formed in March 1915 in Nuneaton. I was one of the first to enlist together with Ernie Addison and Will Cox, on the 16th March, 1915. Prior to us enlisting were Drv. Orrill and Sapper Joe Webster. The strength was made up to 105 and included men from Tamworth and Fenny Compton. From Fenny Compton came Joe Harris, Bill Draper, Jack Hunt, Bert Money, Edgar Dunton, Alf Brackle, Percy Keen, Bill Gibbard and from Tamworth came Bill Keen, Oliver Lago, Fred Follett, Mick Cuff, George Baxter and Roly Shepherd. Our numbers commenced from 92680, mine being 92685.
The Commanding Officer was Capt. F.C. Cook, Borough Surveyor, later to become Sir Frederick Cook, Chief Engineer, Ministry of Roads. Lieutenant K. Knox, son of Jimmy Knox, brickyard owner, (Mr K. Knox was a brother of V.C. Mr. Knox) and Lieut. Smith completed the officer strength. Lt. Smith was rumoured to be a relation of Gypsy Smith, a noted boxer.
C.S.M. Mitchison was the senior N.C.O. C.S.M. Mitchison a regular soldier and strict disciplinarian came from Birmingham and was an instructor in infantry training. He wore the Warwick’s cap badge.
Our Depot was the Drill Hall, Nuneaton. At first we wore our own clothes and a typical day would be as follows: Report at 0700 hrs. in canvas shoes for P.T. under our C.S.M. until 0830 when we went home for breakfast. We were given an allowance for meals and Kate Smith, Billeting Officer, dished out the money. 1/2d a day and I allowed my mother 6d. The rest of the morning was spent in Foot Drill, company drill and general infantry training. It struck me that much of the drill was inspired by the Boer War experience. On the flanks for drill were the ex C.L.B. (Church Lads Brigade) members as we were acquainted with the drill.
Then home for dinner and back on parade about an hour later. The afternoon session, included Visual Training exercises such as judging distances, a military version of hide and seek and so on. There would be route marches sometimes taking all day and covering up to 25 miles.
On August 9th, 1915, the company left for Farlington Redoubt, Cosham, Portsmouth. We marched from the Drill Hall, for the last time, to Trent Valley Station where we boarded the train which took us, via London, to our destination. By this time we had been issued with uniforms, Lee Enfield Mark. VII, 303 ammunition, rifles, bayonets, webbing straps, pouches and haversacks and we marched off led by the Borough Band and cheered on by wives, sweethearts, relations and townspeople in general.
Mention of a band leads me to include “How the C.O. acquired a ready-made Bugle Band”. I was instructed to get Drums, 4 side 1 big, and 4 Bugles from the Chilvers Coton Coy. of the Church Lads Brigade. The big drum was inscribed 3rd Worcester Batt. The band was made up of Frank Hestall, big drum; Harry Fenn, Sym Fenn, Wilf Cox, George Pullen, side drums; Frank Adams, Bill Ross, Fred Mobbs and myself, Arthur Daulman, bugles. We were all practised in our instruments as Frank Hextall and Frank Adams were ex-Scouts; the two Fenn brothers, Cox and myself had been trained in the Church Lads Brigade; Pullen had been a Salvation Army bandsman and Mobbs in a brass band. The total cost of the band? 18/- a week! 2/- each! We used to lead the company on route marches. We used to strike up loudly under Coton Arches. The arches, of course, magnified the sound. However, Nuneaton horses, and there were plenty about in those days, did not appreciate our efforts and showed signs of hurriedly removing themselves so we had to be restrained. At the end of a march Capt. Cook would say “Well done the band”.
To return to Portsmouth. There we picked up horses and mules, G.S. waggons, Tool Carts and Limber Waggons. The following month, September, we left on the 9th for Buxton where we were to begin R.E. training and, in particular, training in Heavy Bridging, Pontoon Bridging and Barrel Pier Bridging.
As from leaving Nuneaton the Company was increased in strength from 105 to 125 men and designated 216 Army
On arriving at Buxton, it was a Thursday and dark by now, it seemed like Fairy Land from the lights up in the air from a large Hotel. I found out later that it was the Palace Hotel. At the Station we were met by a number of Policemen with Lanterns. Then we left the Station and marched through the dark streets to our Billeting area which was Nunfield Road. Arthur Sambrook and I were together although as many as 4 soldiers could be put in one house. Arthur and I were put in the first house with an old lady who was a good cook and looked after us well. I remember that she made apple tarts and jam tarts and we lived like lords. The following morning, Friday, we paraded on the Square in front of the Council House. I was detailed to get a Bugle and learn the R.E. call for the Sunday Church Parade. On Sunday we were sized up in side streets and marched on to Company Markers. At first about 10 Companies were paraded. Companies were Coventry, Rugby, Leamington, Nuneaton, Isle-of-Wight, Monmouth, Abergavenny, Dundee. After Church Parade we were free for the day.
We were in civvy billets for about a month and then we moved into the Grosvenor and Kensington Hotels in Broad Walk. Now. our R.E. training began in earnest. On wet days there was knotting and lashing in the ballroom of the Pavilion Gardens. Outside we practised Pontoon Bridging on the lakes in the gardens and heavy bridging, up Lightwoods Road, over a chasm. There was route marching at various times and earthworks (trenching) on Axe Edge. At the Cheshire Regt. Rifle Range on Coombs Moss we went to fire a course of shooting using the Lee Enfield.
Spr. Albert Thomas, Spr. Simmonds and myself learnt to drive a motor cycle. We learnt on a Clyno 5-6 H.P. under the instruction of Spr. Thomas. We also had 2 new recruits, both Buxton men and both engine drivers, namely Spr. Stephenson and Spr. Goodwin.
Some time before Christmas 1915 we were placed under orders for overseas and amid excitement and rumour drew tropical kit only to return it 48 hours later. But we were still under orders. New Year’s Eve brought a special parade. Sgt. Major Mitchinson gave us a tip – there would be no parade on New Year’s Day and a train for Nuneaton left at such and such a time and Heaven Help Us if we were not back by January 2nd. As we had had no leave for a month we went home en-bloc. This was to be our final leave before going overseas. At last we were under orders.
On the night of January 26/27, 1916 we left Buxton in the early hours for Southampton. Departed Southampton on the night of the 27th for Le Havre. We were on our way.
We arrived in the early morning of January 28th, 1916 and disembarked straight away. The first sign I saw read Defense de fumeur. That night we boarded a train, it had wooden seats, and travelled through the night to Abbeville where we were shunted into sidings for a meal. We then left for Doullens, January 29th, stopping in sidings for food. On the 30th we left for Bethune and on to Noeux-les-Mines where we detrained and marched to Mazingarbe. We stayed here for a month, billeted in farm buildings and started on earthworks (reserve trenches). We could see the mine shaft towers of Loos one with the top blown off.
We had been in Mazingarbe just one week when we had our first casualties. It was on the Sunday night, ten minutes to nine, February 6th. Some were lying down, four were playing cards, when a German shell scored a direct hit. We lost seven killed and quite a few wounded. Here are the names of the dead.
Spr. Barrier No. 91818
Spr. Jacobs No. 91819
Spr. Copson No. 92715 )
Spr. Harvey No. 92726 ) Nuneaton Men
Spr. Marston No. 92735 )
Pnr. Ward No. 91700
Pnr. Kerwood No. 91813
In March we moved to Bouvingy. I now had my first leave, 7 days, and came back’on my 18th birthday.
Then to Boyeffles still digging trenches.
We left Bouvingy for Vimy Ridge about the 18th May, 1916. We worked on dugouts for 2 weeks then moved to the Somme, 1st June 1916. Here we worked on 8″ howitzer pits and laying a water supply for the C.C.S. Hospitals (Casualty Clearing Stations).
Then to Ribemont near Albert where we were billeted in a school.
Next move, via Amiens, to the railhead at Corbie where we entrained on July 1st for Poperinge in Belgium in time for the ill-fated Somme offensive of 1916.
We then marched to Brandhoek close to Ypres working on the water supply from Dikkebus Lake to camps at Vlamertinge and the Guards Camp at Elverdinge.
Two weeks later we were at La Clytte (de Klijte), at the back of the church, for 2 weeks, before moving on to Loker. We stayed at Loker for some time working on a dam and filter beds on the slopes of Mt. Kemmel. We laid 4″ pipes and sent the water, via Wulvergem, to Messines. Within 800 yards of Messines all work had to be done by night.
We left Loker in September 1916 for Clairmarais where we worked on hangars and landing ground for 20 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. We were about one month at Clairmarais.
We moved to Morbecque to work on railway sidings and an ammunition dump. We had Christmas 1916 here.
We left for a camp, Renlngelst-de-Klijte by road. We were here from January 1917 until April of the same year.
Then we moved to Neuve Eglise for the attack on Messines, June 7th, 1917.
I came home on a 10 days leave in July, catching the train from Bailleul Station.
At Plugstreet we worked on the natural catacombs nearby and on a water supply to Hill 63. This was when
we were billeted at Neuve-Eglise after Messines, 7th June. We left Neuve Eglise in August or September for Kemmel where we built a beautiful camp and where we stayed until January, 1918.
Then to Peronne on the Somme, mostly bridge building. We built Bristol Bridge on the outskirts of Peronne, 120′ span and 16′ boom designed for tanks and bridges at St. Christ, Enemane and a Pont-Leve (lifting bridge) at Pargny.
The German offensive started the 22nd March, 1918. We retired, digging slit trenches en route till at last at Demuin we finally halted. We were now infantry with 6 hours on and 6 hours off sleeping by the new trenches. On March 30th the Germans attacked and we had lots of casualties. I was shot in the arm and ended up in hospital in Rouen.
That was the end of my service with the 216 Fortress Coy. Army Troop for, after a month, May 2nd, 1918, I was drafted to the 419 Field Coy., 55th Division, the West Lancs Territorial Division and saw the war out with them.