Port Elizabeth of Yore: PE’s Machine Gun Section in WW1

Inside view of a WWI trench at Massiges, northeastern France

As all Regiments in the Union were disbanded for the duration of WW1, this applied equally to the Prince Alfred’s Guards. On being notified of this decision, at the insistence of some Port Elizabeth citizens, a complete machine gun section of twenty-two men was privately formed. The story which follows is taken from a souvenir brochure entitled “For Remembrance” published after the cessation of hostilities. 

This is a commemoration for the bravery displayed by all of these men and especially to the five who paid the ultimate price. 

Main picture: Inside view of a WWI trench at Massiges, northeastern France

For Kitchener’s Army

A rousing farewell was given to the following young men, comprising a complete machine gun section, which left for England on the 17th August 1915 by the R.M.S. Saxon, to enlist in Kitchener’s Army. They were seen off from the Jetty by a crowd of several hundred friends who cheered them heartily.

Their names are listed hereunder:

W.W. Nothard (Major M.C. with bar) T.H. Whitehead (Major, M.C., D.S.O.) D. Murrell
A.                  ‘A. Perkins (Died of wounds) E. Perkins E. Murrell
‘A. Chipp J. Gordon W. Paton
W. Sewrey C. Barwell R.S. Wooton
W.D. Vardy (Died of wounds) G. Lyall F. Arrow
F.W.S. Williams (Died of wounds) W. Wallis (Killed) W. Bennewith
Stutter F.M. Sykes E.B. Sykes (Killed)
P.C. Eaton

 

The M.G. “22”

Immediately after the close of the “German West” campaign in July 1915, and the disbandment of the PAG [Prince Alfred’s Guards], a Machine Gun section was privately formed, consisting of 22 members under Lieutenant Nothard of the P.A.G. at the insistence of some patriotic citizens of Port Elizabeth, who being too old for actual fighting, had thought of this method of “doing their bit”.

The RMS Saxon Castle was the first ship to carry airmail collected in South Africa. During WW1 it was requisitioned as a troop ship

The RMS Saxon Castle was the first ship to carry airmail collected in South Africa. During WW1 it was requisitioned as a troop ship

After a few days occupied in settling our affairs, our party left the Bay per the “Saxon”. Quite a number of people were on the North Jetty to see us embark, and they gave us a rousing send-off, the memory of which was to hearten us on many a weary day of digging or “foot-slogging”. After two days stay at Cape Town on the 21st August [1915], we watched Table Mountain fade away into the distance, and wondered who amongst us would to be the lucky ones to return.

The voyage over was uneventful, except for a brief spell of sight-seeing at Madeira, and a couple of “submarine scares”, one of the elusive fish actually materialised, but turned out to be British, much to the disgust of our tame pessimist. Otherwise, we whiled away the time with deck-games, or looking over our machine-gun work, but as the boat was packed, no—one was sorry when we reached Plymouth on the evening of Sept. 6th, 1915. Travelling all night, we reached London on the Sept. 7th and put up at the Cosmo Hotel, in Southampton Row.

A road sign that reads 'main street' stands in what used to be the village of Bezonvaux near Verdun

A road sign that reads ‘main street’ stands in what used to be the village of Bezonvaux near Verdun

The next few days were occupied with sightseeing, and we wandered about in true “country-cousin” fashion, [this] being our first visit to England for many of us, with mouth[s] agape at the huge buildings; crossing the streets in a manner reminiscent of a hen dodging a motor car, and losing ourselves on every possible occasion. One of our number conceived the idea of carrying a large-scale map of London about with him. So many a time were the eyes of Londoners gratified by the sight of two stalwart Colonials poring with knitted brows over a large map and pocket compass, surrounded by an admiring crowd of gutter urchins. Then, evidently for our edification and amusement, the first Zepp raid over London occurred the day after we arrived, which makes one wonder at the reliability of the German spy system, our arrival having apparently been noted in Berlin! One bomb dropped directly behind our hotel, doing very little damage beyond breaking windows for many yards around.

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At this time, voluntary enlistment was almost on its last legs, and wherever one went [there] was the inevitable recruiting meeting, with its quota of keen-eyed sergeants hovering like hawks on the outskirts of the crowd. We were tackled times without number, and amused ourselves by giving various reasons for non-enlistment, always winding up, however, by professing ourselves convinced by the eloquence of the sergeant in question. The unvarying retort of one of our party to all enquires was “But I might be shot”, uttered in a plaintive voice. Finally, we enlisted on the 16th Sept. 1915, at Scotland Yard’s Recruiting Office, at the same time applying for and getting a week’s leave for further sightseeing.

The afternoon saw us en route to Winchester, where are situated the barracks of our new regiment, the Rifle Brigade. Our treatment there left nothing to be desired, even those martinets, the N.C.O.s of the Regular Army abating something of their wonted severity in our favour. The C.O., Colonel Viscount Hardinge, informed us the next day that we had been so well reported on that we were “on draft” for France, to join the 13th Battalion, as soon as we could be fitted out and equipped. He also offered commissions to most of us, but as the acceptance of these entailed training in England, the offer was declined with thanks, and on the 1st October our party, now unrecognisable in army garb, was on board a transport crossing the channel.

We had previously balloted amongst ourselves for the position of officer. Nothard was chosen, and established a record for his Commission being gazetted the day after his application to the War Office, so that from that time, he was in charge of us.

Cross-section of a front-line trench

Cross-section of a front-line trench

Upon landing that night, we marched to a rest-camp, leaving the next day for our Army Corps Base. This turned out to be a vast town of canvas and sand, covering miles in area, and after two days there, we were glad to hear that we were to go the next day “up the line with the best of luck”. Our delight was somewhat forced, however, when we were confronted by a truck bearing the inscription “Quarante hommes ou huit chevaux,” and told to clamber in and make ourselves comfortable, together with about fifteen others. However, we managed to arrange ourselves in three layers, and jolted off towards the unknown, and arrived at our destination more or less safely after a nightmare journey, where our train took twelve hours to cover some 60 or 70 miles. The only casualties occurred when one of our men incautiously put his head through the truck door and was promptly stunned by a telegraph pole, and when one of the rough diamonds, who were our truck mates , essayed to clamber on top of the truck and fell off, cutting his head badly. By dint of hard running, however, he caught us up at the next stop, when his sole concern was “Somebaardy’s tuk me rations.”

Cross section of a Trench by Anne McCullum

Cross section of a Trench by Anne McCullum

On the 4th October, we detrucked, and after a short march joined our battalion, whom we found awaiting us with keen interest. Their disappointment was intense when they found that (1) not being black, we could not be Zulu; (2) having no beard we could not possibly be Boers, and therefore we were not real South Africans. However, we found them a very fine lot, trained to the minute, and ready to whip their weight in wild cats, as the saying goes. We were at once turned on to learning the Lewis Gun, or “Hose of Death,” as the cheerful correspondents call it; so between learning to become useful members of the “Suicide Club” and being inspected by every officer, from the rank of Adjutant to that of Brigadier-General, our time was well occupied for the next two or three days.

Finally, on the 11th, the battalion moved from support back to the front line trenches, and we went with them. A small party of us had made the acquaintance of that salubrious spot on a digging party a couple of days previously, but the genial Boche had very rudely interrupted us. Now most of us were to have our first experience of that amazing network of trenches, cut apparently at random. [We] found it rather disconcerting at first on being directed to some place to be told “First to the left down Lulu Lane, second to the right in Conduit Avenue, keep down low at Hell-Fire Corner till you get to Holborn, and there you are.” However, after being lost many a time, we developed a bump of locality, and managed to find our way out fairly well.

Unexploded shells are lined up along a wall awaiting removal by bomb-disposal experts after a French farmer found them while plowing his fields

Unexploded shells are lined up along a wall awaiting removal by bomb-disposal experts after a French farmer found them while plowing his fields

The rains had not yet set in, and so the trenches and dugouts were comparatively dry. We thought at first that the terrors and discomforts of trench life had been greatly exaggerated. What a rude awakening was in store for us. But at the same time we congratulated ourselves with the proverbial bliss of ignorance. The Boche was not very energetic just then, and as our artillery was economising with shells, all [that] we did was to sit still all day under moderate shellfire, and work at digging or barb-wiring all night. After twelve days at this game, we moved back into support for a so-called rest of a few days. For the benefit of the uninitiated, this “rest” is passed in overhauling equipment, in route marches, manoeuvres of all kinds, and last, but not least, marching all the way up to the front trenches for digging, that certain cure for insomnia. We were glad to get back to the trenches again.

British and French officers and men standing around a stricken French lorry

British and French officers and men standing around a stricken French lorry

And then came the rains. Not a healthy and brief-lived downpour, but a steady soaking fall, by day and night, for volume and quantity like the Victoria Falls dropping through a fine sieve. Unluckily too, we were not at that time in “chalk district,” but our trenches were cut out of clay, with the result that, despite duck-boards (a kind of wooden ladder paving the trenches) and sump holes (for drainage), the trench system on our sector became almost immediately a collection of vicious swamps. However, we managed to keep cheerful, as the real cold weather had not set in yet in earnest, besides which, judging by the statements of deserters, Fritz was even in a worse plight. Then, in the agglomeration of pulverised bricks and shell craters, called by courtesy a village, in the support lines directly behind us, one could often have a good day’s sleep in a (comparatively) dry dug-out after relief from the fire trenches, so why worry?

A man looks at the names of the missing on the Thiepval Memorial in Arras, France

A man looks at the names of the missing on the Thiepval Memorial in Arras, France

Snow and frost were the next weapons drawn from the quiver of King Winter. The ground would freeze solid, later on the thaw came, whereupon the top and sides of the trenches would fall in, half filling the trench itself, and slowly liquefying under the pitiless rain. The fire trenches became morasses, and the communication trenches mere canal systems; the duck boards covering the sump holes floated away, so that men in rubber thigh boots wading down the trenches stepped upon nothing, and went down into five, six or seven feet of liquid ice. Rations had to be brought up by night over the fields, as the communication trenches were impassable, and those daring spirits who at first attempted the voyage had to be extracted from the watery ooze by means of ropes, or, those petrified waist high in stiffer clay, were dug out by working parties.

Waiting to go over the top

Waiting to go over the top

At the commencement of this month, our division had suffered in quick succession, the loss of two or three small patrols, which crawled out into the darkness of the night and did not return. As the opposing lines hereabouts were some distance (400 – 700 yards) apart, a night patrol was necessary to foil Boche tricks in “No Man’s Land”, so the Brigadier entrusted the policing of this pleasant pasture to our party, thus paying us rather a compliment. For ten nights in succession, we crawled over our parapet, and threading through the forest of barbed wire, lay out for hours near the enemy wire, to find out where their patrols emerged from their trenches, and in what numbers. We soon spotted their starting point, and lying “silent as a stone” while a couple of their patrols swished past us through the long grass, made the discovery that the valiant Boche always hunted in large packs of between 50 & 60 men. Thus armed, having reinforced our patrol, we laid a tricky little ambush for them, which although only yielding a few enemy corpses, had a very salutary effect upon them for some time, and gained some kudos for our party.

We were steadily diminishing in numbers. Chipp was the first to leave us having strained his heart in an attempt to leap over a trench while carrying a heavy tripod. Athol Perkins went down to a Base Hospital with some skin disease, and Arrow, after suffering for some time, at last returned to England with kidney trouble. Several others went into the Advanced Hospital for a brief spell, with various ailments brought on by winter, but returned shortly to the Battalion. An occasional game of Rugby when out of the trenches helped us to “carry on.” No less than nine of us appeared in the Battalion XV, which held an unbeaten record in the Division, beating such doughty opponents as the K.R.R.C. Royal Fusiliers, Leicestershire’s and the R.F.A. quite easily.

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With the approach of Christmas, we decided to make as passable an imitation of the season of “peace and good will” as was possible under the circumstances, and having calculated that on the 24th December we would be relieved from the trenches, began making preparations about a month beforehand. The result was that the evening of December 25th saw in the schoolroom of a little village, “somewhere in France,” as happy a crowd of men as could be found anywhere. The other machine-gunners and signallers of the Battalion were our guests for the day, and all had been eating and drinking steadily since noon, when the signal for attack had been given by a sergeant in these words, “Here’s the grub and there are you, fall to, and make your miserable life happy.” In the night we held a concert, which was attended by several officers of the Battalion, and was, literally a howling success, for though, as a rule, we could muster some fair talent, including a couple of professionals, the fare had proved somewhat too liberal for men accustomed to “tea and bully.” Space forbids detailing of the menu and concert programme, but the memory of both will never fade from the minds of those who survive.

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A few days afterwards, F. Sykes and T. Whitehead left us to take up commissions in the same brigade, with the 13th Battalion Royal Fusiliers. We were sorry to lose them, but wished them every luck in their new regiment. Sickness was still pursuing its devastating course, and through various causes, E. Murrell, E. Perkins and Paton were lost to us for a time, while Wallis received a commission in our 12th Battalion. He was killed a few months later , the first amongst us to lay down his life in the Great Cause.

Early in February 1916, our division sought new hunting grounds, relieving a French division higher up the line. Active operations had not yet recommenced after the winter inactivity, so fighting was confined to patrols and a few sporadic raids, with an occasional artillery bombardment to vary the monotony. However, a whisper had gone around of an attack upon a vast scale in the spring. So with the promise of greater things before us, we were content to plod along at the “trivial round, the common task,” firing so many rounds with the Lewis Gun during the day, and digging, ever digging, during the night.

A monument to local men who were killed during World War I, photographed on June 24, 2014 in Wildenroth, Germany

A monument to local men who were killed during World War I, photographed on June 24, 2014 in Wildenroth, Germany

March, April, May and June passed thus in ever-increasing activity. Cylinders containing gas, rumoured to be of marvellous potency, were installed along the line. Sinister hooded shapes of monster guns rumbled over the village pave, behind “caterpillar” traction engines and shells of all calibres were off loaded unceasingly at the various artillery dumps.

The infantry meanwhile were engaged in that pleasant pastime known as “putting the wind up Fritz,” or, in other words, we were instilling into the minds of the enemy a healthy tenor of our prowess by means of bombing raids etc. Nothard was at that time the Brigade Patrolling Officer, and spent his leisure hours in devising means of strafing the Boche with such an enterprise as to gain him the Military Cross, and later nearly lose him his life. Upon one of his nocturnal expeditions, a German threw a bomb at him with such accuracy as to strike him on the head. It then exploded at his feet. In some marvellous way, only some fragments struck him, one fracturing his upper arm and another gashing his jaw. However, he managed to bring his patrol safety back to our lines, and then was taken to hospital en route for “Blighty.”

WW1 Canadian Memorial, also known as the 'Brooding Soldier' in St. Julien, Belgium

WW1 Canadian Memorial, also known as the ‘Brooding Soldier’ in St. Julien, Belgium

At last, the long expected bombardment commenced, and day and night became one crashing inferno of sound. On July 1st, we heard that only four miles below us our men had gone “over the top,” with what result we had no means of ascertaining. At the same time, we discovered, through various channels, that no attack was intended to be made upon our immediate sector, but the artillery was to keep up a continual bombardment while we made demonstrations by gas attacks and daylight raids with the object of keeping the Boche busy. Many and loud were the grumblings, but after all, our turn was to come.

A sculpture of a Caribou looks out over the trenches of the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial in Beaumont-Hamel, France

A sculpture of a Caribou looks out over the trenches of the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial in Beaumont-Hamel, France

Our Brigade was relieved from the trenches, and after some days on the road, including a twelve hour drive in buses, finally arrived on the evening of the 5th in the town of Albert. Here we billeted ourselves for the night, and in the early morning of the next day were marching along an Albert highway towards the thunder clashing in the distance. The broad road was divided by two streams of men; reinforcements moving towards the trenches with wounded and prisoners returning in the other. The latter were of various types; stalwart, beetle browed Prussians, fair, blue-eyed Saxons and burly Bavarians, but all filthy and depressed alike. Bodies of men swung by carrying helmets and chanting ditties, then came the wounded limping slowly, stretchers bearing their freight of shattered humanity, the different phases of war passed by. At last, we were to take part in a “Great Push.”That day we lay in reserve, just in front of the Field Artillery, and during the night moved up into the support trenches, which were our and the German’s old frontline trenches. It is useless to attempt to set down in cold print the various sights of a modern battlefield, but their horrors, although unportrayable, will ever remain engraved on the memory of those who had witnessed them. Suffice it to say that there was every evidence to show that the Germans had at first put up a desperate resistance. Later of course, as their morale weakened, and their first line strongholds were taken, their valour in many cases showed a corresponding decline.

The battlefield of the Somme contains many cemeteries - Beaumont-Hamel (front), Redan Ridge Cemetery No.2 (R) and Redan Ridge Cemetery No. 3 (top) on March 27, 2014 in Beaumont-Ha

The battlefield of the Somme contains many cemeteries – Beaumont-Hamel (front), Redan Ridge Cemetery No.2 (R) and Redan Ridge Cemetery No. 3 (top) on March 27, 2014 in Beaumont

After three days, we stumbled at night over the debris up to the attacking front, about two miles through the first enemy system of defence. Here we lay unmolested all morning but a fierce bombardment in the afternoon cost our battalion about 112 casualties. Towards evening, the message came down the trench, “Machine gunners on the flank of the company at the double,” and picking up our gun and paraphernalia, we reached the end of the trench in time to see our company going “over the top” at a brisk walk. Our team, consisting of E. Sykes, E. and D. Murrell, Eaton and Smith followed. Sewrey was hit in the first 30 yards, Sykes and E. Murrell some distance further on, D. Murrell and 20 yards further, while Eaton was untouched, although a piece of shrapnel pierced the brim of his steel helmet. Sykes, E. Murrell and Sewrey managed to reach our lines again, and were soon en route for hospital, but D. Murrell, more unfortunate, lay out for three days before getting in. In the attack, our battalion suffered approximately 725 casualties out of a total of 900 men (many of course, being slightly wounded), but nevertheless did what was expected of it.

Crosses stand at the WWI Douaumont ossuary near Verdun, France, on March 4, 2014

Crosses stand at the WWI Douaumont ossuary near Verdun, France, on March 4, 2014

Such is the organisation of the Red Cross, that a couple of days after[wards], those of us who were wounded, found ourselves in “Blighty” but alas scattered all over the country. Then we heard the news of and mourned for the loss of first Athol Perkins and then “Toody” Vardy, two of the “very best” and bravest. There, too, we heard of the wounding of Barwell, Eaton, Lyall, E. Perkins, and Paton, the remnant of our little band who had left Port Elizabeth barely a year previously, the existence of which as a unit is now terminated. The remainder were scattered along the line, holding commissions in various regiments, and only lately have we heard of the death of another of our gallant comrades, E. Sykes. But though we are now widely dispersed, and only received news of one another at long intervals of time, a day will come when the survivors will meet again to talk over our past experiences, and drink a silent toast to our dead brothers-in-arms. On that day, we shall not be ashamed to recall the part played by the “Machine gun 22” of Port Elizabeth.

A sculpture by German artist Kathe Kollwitz, titled 'The Mourning Parents' at the World War I Vladslo German Cemetery in Vladslo, Belgium

A sculpture by German artist Kathe Kollwitz, titled ‘The Mourning Parents’ at the World War I Vladslo German Cemetery in Vladslo, Belgium

 

Post script

Clearly the Machine Gun 22 must have been involved in the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916. This offensive was to eliminate the flower of British youth. Many lessons were learnt by the British, amongst them being that a prolonged artillery barrage, only prevented the tanks from advancing as the ground had been ground to mush. Also the speed of the advance of the gunfire should be based upon the infantry’s actual progress and not at some preset rate. Lastly the inflexible mind set of the officer class had to be accommodate flexibility in order to allow for changes as circumstances dictated.

 

Sources:

For Remembrance – Souvenir Brochure

The M.G. 22The M.G. 22 by Riflemen E. Murrel and S. Swerey

The Port Elizabeth “22” Machine Gun Section in World War 1 in Looking Back dated March 1974

Pictures from The Atlantic: World War 1 in Photographs


1 Comments

  1. Unfortunately the British did not learn the 3 lessons that you mention in your postscript and repeated them again in WWII.
    1. Gen Montgomery time and again called for excessive artillery bombardments and heavy bombing that always ended up impeding his tanks.
    2. Every one of the creeping barrages that I have read about in WWII ended up outstripping the infantry’s advance. Again, particularly in Normandy with the Brits trying to break around Caen.
    3.I cannot think of any battles where the flexible thinking of the officer class was demonstrated. The situation was definitely better in WWII, but the unthinking arrogance of the officer class was still prevalent in WWII. Apart from rigid tactical thinking, the British strategic thinking was still woefully rigid and out of date in WWII.

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