A Personal Account of World War I
by G. V. Elwin
Rosemary Collins, 10th March, 2016
“I saw hundreds of dead and wounded men, scores and scores of dead horses and mules, many overturned gun limbers, water carts, ammunition limbers, half destroyed villages … it was a pitiless war.” Corporal Gilbert Vernon Elwin, 112 Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, spent the First World War on the western front as a signaller. Born in 1895, his life spanned almost a hundred years. As he grew older, he began visiting schools to tell pupils about the war. His talks evolved into a memoir dictated to his family at the age of ninety seven. This online version allows his voice to reach people all over the world.
At the outbreak of war, Elwin was living in a large detached house in Radcliffe on Trent with his parents and brothers. He was working in his father’s printing business. He enlisted in December 1914 with older brother Harry and the two fit, tall men were immediately assigned to the artillery. His account takes us on a journey from training camps in the south of England to Le Havre in September 1915, action in the mining villages of northern France, then to the Somme area in 1916. He went north to Belgium for Passchendaele in 1917 and then to Ypres for his final months of service abroad. He was sent to Brighton in July 1918 for officer training and was still there when the armistice was declared in November.
Elwin’s account is vivid, practical and down to earth. The job of a signaller, crouched in the trenches using a field set, out in the open running telephone lines in the dark under enemy fire, mending lines when broken, setting up observation posts and sending hundreds of reports in the midst of battle is recounted with tremendous energy. Descriptions of arduous artillery work in between, such as hauling 60 pound guns through the mud, are interspersed with tales of killing rats, dealing with lice, pilfering food and the shock of stumbling over dead bodies.
Elwin provides many examples of soldiers’ ingenuity under desperate conditions. During Christmas 1917 he was living with seven other men in a captured pillbox at ‘a hellhole called Passchendaele’. The men were told they had to cook their own Christmas dinner so:
‘We set about building an oven in the side of the trench outside the pillbox. We searched for and found an empty five gallon oil drum, cut off the top with an old German bayonet and a piece of stone as a hammer. We thoroughly cleaned it with boiling water. That was our oven … We roasted the pork and cooked the vegetables over a second fire. The meal was delicious – we had not tasted roast meat since coming out to France years earlier’.
Elwin’s narrative races forward: ‘We were absolutely in the midst of the bursting shells… I dropped flat to the ground, burying my face in the mud and gripping my steel helmet on the back of my head and over my neck’. The account is dominated by how he survived nearly three years on the western front, frequently under enemy fire. There is no room for him to reflect on deaths and injuries to friends posted elsewhere, dwell on his feelings about his family and fiancé or to consider the impact of the war on civilians, whose ruined homes are part of the landscape. Variations in his sleeping arrangements show us how he experienced the war over time. Starting from his comfortable home in Radcliffe, he moves to Nissen huts in the U.K., then tents at Le Havre followed by deserted cottages at Mazingarbe. He spends the first three months on the Somme sleeping in an orchard and then lives for a year in cellars from August 1916. His quarters at Passchendaele are worse: ‘we had no shelter from the everlasting rain, sleeping in the open just when and where we could, dressed as we were in our overcoat, steel helmet and gas mask. So we slept where we were stopped, in the open, in the rain’. He moves from lying on the open ground to a flooded dyke and then to a pillbox where he lives for four months before going to Ypres in 1918 which ‘was the best position we had for a year or two. Six guns in line covered with camouflage netting and sandbagged living dug-outs at the side of the guns for the crews. So easy too for we signallers, just two main telephone lines to maintain’. He leaves Belgium to live once more in U.K. based Nissen huts until his final return to Radcliffe on Trent in 1919 where ‘as soon as I arrived home I stripped off all my army clothes in my father’s greenhouse and went into my house and had a luxurious hot bath’.
Elwin’s script has been available as an e-book on this website for some time, by kind permission of his family. It is now relaunched as a more accessible and easier to read document. The new version is broken down into manageable, linked chapters with sub-headings and a large font. The account is newly illustrated with original photographs and postcards showing signallers working on the western front, villages where the 112 Battery were billeted and the background movement of hard-working horses and artillery men under extreme conditions. Gilbert Vernon Elwin’s eye witness account of serving in WWI stands as a valuable testament to the memory of all those involved.