Killing Fields

Interview with Walter Hare,
British Infantry

Photograph of Walter Hare Q: Did the training you got prepare you for trench warfare?

Hare: It wasn't a scrap of good. I was trained at West Hartlepool, I learnt how to salute officers, which seemed to be the main thing in the army, I learnt to slope arms and present arms, which you can't do in a muddy trench. I fired five rounds before I went out to France, I never saw a grenade...I never saw a machine gun, so I was a rookie when I went to France, but I think the fault was that the chaps who trained us were regular soldiers, there was a corporal and a sergeant, and all they knew was rote marching and drilling. If we'd had somebody who'd been out of France, say wounded in the trenches, [who] could have told us something, about trench life, what it was like, [that] would have [been] a lot more use to us, but they couldn't tell us anything, because they didn't know.

...I was told to take a -- a find the commander of the battalion on our left, and I was moving down this support line having a word or two of our fellows and then I came to bays where there was nobody at all. They weren't occupied, and I thought perhaps it weren't the battalion on our left, perhaps they were Germans.

So I went very carefully round the next bend and I saw one of our battalion lads laid out on the ground on top of the parapet with his legs up in the air. And I said, "What -- what are you trying on?" He said, "Well I'm trying to get a wound if I can in my legs." He said, "There's quite a bit of machine gunning going on and a few rifle fires." He said, "I thought I might get a bullet through my leg and get home to Blighty," which of course meant to get home to England. I said, "Get down, old lad, and forget about it, and I'll forget about it and your name will never...pass my lips -- we all feel exactly like you." He said, "No, you don't feel like me." I says, "Oh yes, we do, every one of us, but as we have a job to do, we're going to do it." So I said, "You go back and get to your mates," which he did. And we were very big friends after that because we had a secret that nobody else knew.

Q: You were gassed once, weren't you?

Hare: Yes.

Hare: Well, we were holding trenches...and at that time the Germans were shelling pretty heavily and they started using gas shells as well, which couldn't hear them, they didn't explode like the high velocity shells. And they used to mix them in between so that we didn't know that there was gas. We cases we used to bang when there was gas about, but this particular time I was given a message to take to our C. Com who were in front of the village. I didn't know what it was but when I got there, the Captain Cox -- what they called him -- he looked at his message, he says, Where's your gas [mask], why haven't you got your gas mask on?" I says, "Why should I?" He says, "Well they're...sending gas shells over." He said, "This is the message to say 'get your gas mask on'."

Now I'd had to crawl through the village because it was all shattered and...then I'd been crawling through this gas all that time before I got my gas mask on. Well I was all right for the day and then, then the sergeant major said, "You're not well, I think you'd better go out, we'd better get you out." So the next ration party came up, they got me outside to some... camp,...and so they put me to bed there and looked at me a bit. Then I had two or three days, I began to feel a bit better and they told me they'd send me to Itaps. I said, "No, not Itaps, no thank you!" We'd heard about Itaps, it was worse than being in the front line. I said no, "Let -- get me another day and I'll be, I'll be fit to get to the front, which, which I did." I had another day and I went back and joined...the lads in the trenches...

Q: They must have been using chlorine gas --

Hare: It was chlorine, yes.

Q: -- Which you couldn't smell. Was that why you'd not noticed it?

Hare: Yes -- yes.

Q: Did it do you any lasting damage, this gas?

Hare: I've still got it of course.

Q: How does it affect you?

Hare: Well, I was having a lot of breathing trouble, and eventually my doctor said, "I think you'd better see a specialist." So I went to see this specialist at Pontefract infirmary... He said, "Have you ever worked down a pit?" I said no. "Have you ever worked in a factory where there's a lot of dust?" I says, "No, I've always worked in the grocery business." "Oh, can't understand it." He says, "You've got a smoker's cough, and you've got a miner's lungs." Then he looked at my list -- "Oh, 1897 you were born, were you? Were you in the first war?" I said yes. "Were you ever with any gas?" I said yes. He said, "We needn't look any further." He says, "We know what your problem is." They checked me up, and I went a few times, he says "You've got asthma and emphysema, and both your lungs are damaged," and they put me on these inhalers, which I have four times a day, and I've had them ever since.

Q: And people always go on about how terribly frightening it was and the terrible conditions you lived in. Were there periods when you were in the trenches when you were just simply bored?

Hare: Lots of times when it seemed to be fairly quiet, and then suddenly it broke out and they started shelling. Summer wasn't too bad, [the] wintertimes were the worst of course, but in some places it was so, so quiet...we moved up to [the] Bouverie area in the La Bas area and the first morning we were up -- I had a pal -- and we, if we went to a new area, we usually had a walk round to have a look at the guns and see what it was like. And this particular morning we went for a walk, down this road we hadn't been before.

We'd gone maybe half a mile or so when a chap in the trenches at the side of the road said, "Where you going, mate?" I says, "We're just going for a stroll." He says, "This is the front line." I said, "It can't be -- nobody shot at us." He said, "Oh it's quiet here." He said, "They don't shoot at us, we don't shoot at them." I says, "It's different to that where I've come from on the Somme." I said, "Well I'm in Bouverie, it's only half a mile back, and they haven't shelled that." He says "No... they don't shell Bouverie, [and] we don't shell La Bassie." And it was quiet as that.

Q: How were these arrangements worked out?

Hare: I just don't know. And he didn't seem to know either. He said there seems to be some arrangement.

Q: So tell me about your experience in Strasbourg [as a prisoner of war]...

Hare: ...They took us by cattle trucks to...Germany and the first stop was Strasbourg. I can, I can see it now, that...station. It was there and there were a few people on the platform and they got us out of our cattle trucks, some of us, and stood us there in the -- on the platform, while the people had a look at us. And then they, they took us out into the streets and marched us round in, in Strasbourg -- the streets in Strasbourg, stopping us from time to time and evidently explaining to the German population that...these were the sort of troops that thought they could stand up to the mighty German army.

...It was pretty awful because we were in our filth, we hadn't been able to get washed or -- or clean our clothes at all. We'd been in all that filth, and it was most humiliating because we'd always prided ourselves on keeping -- well a British soldier did, keep themself smart and clean. And to be shown to an enemy in a condition like this was really awful.

Q: ...Tell me about that attack on Rossinel wood, how you disobeyed the officer...

Hare: ...We were told that we were going to make an attack on, on the wood in front of us. That was all the information we got about it and...we'd go over at three minutes past seven, cock-eyed time, but I remember we -- I -- we climbed...out of our trench and through the barbed wire, which was supposed to have been cut, but it hadn't. We had very little artillery bombardment before we went over.

...Some of our chaps were dropping down at the side of me, but I kept going. I got to the German barbed wire, I got through that all right, and jumped into a German trench.....I jumped on to a dead German laid in the front line trench.....

Well I kept going, I got to the German support line, there would be about twenty of us left...and there was one officer. And after we'd been there some time [the officer] says, " can prepare -- we're going to attack the wood," but by that time there was a corporal from a different regiment he'd got mixed up with...he said, "We're not going up there, sir." [The officer] said, "This is an order." [The corporal] said, "I don't care, sir." He said, "I'm not going up there." [The officer] says, "When you get out, I'll report you to be court martialled." [The corporal] says, "None of us will get out if we go there." [The officer] said, "...well fix your bayonets."

And this corporal said -- "You can't -- you can't fight machine guns with with bayonets." He said, "I'm stopping here." I said, "Well I'm stopping with you," and the officer said, "This is an order, follow me," but nobody followed him. He went off on his own, and I never saw him again.

...This corporal suggested we get behind the trench because the Germans would soon be firing down it or lobbing bomb[s] over, which they did of course. He said, "Get behind and lay down behind the trench and...make a little bit of a parapet if you can with your trenching tools," which we did. But it was muddy so we laid there all that day and kept firing a few shots to let them know we were still here, expecting them to make a counter attack, which they never did.

We stayed there all that day and that following night. No food, no water, getting short on ammunition.... On the third day the corporal said, "Well, I don't know what we're going to do...we're just short of ammunition, we've no food," he says, "we, we can't do any more attacking on our own, we'll just have to stay here and see what happens."

But during the morning, one of our chaps from headquarters came forward to us and he said, "I'm bringing orders for you. You've got to retire to the trenches you left, as best you can. Get back as best you can." So we did, one at a time, we dodged off back and got through this wire and back to our trench.

So I finished up there, where I left. I think there were two hundred and thirty odd casualties, and we never gained a yard of ground. and we never gained the wodd of course, and the stupid part was, we could have taken that wood later on, the Germans left it, we could have got it without firing a shot.

I lost a lot of me pals that we -- we needn't have done...Well I thought, how stupid it was.

The trouble was that the people who gave these orders -- for the attacks -- were in a chateau ten miles behind the line. They'd never been to the trenches, they didn't know...what the conditions were like.

...I've always said, if some of these generals had spent one day in the front line with us, they wouldn't have been so keen on looking at a map and saying, "Oh there's a wood here -- we'll attack this."

Q: Looking back on the war, I mean the experience of the war, what did it mean to you?

Hare: Well it meant three years of my life were wasted. It made me see things in quite a different...light. I knew how, how you could be treated by an enemy. There were ones who were decent fellows... I had to realize that...they weren't all bad -- it was just the odd ones here and there. I suppose there were the same type in our British army, some of our chaps were pretty rough.

Q: So what was the main thing you learned from the first world war...?

Hare: To forgive and forget.

Transcript of RealAudio Excerpt

I kept going. I got to the German barbed wire, I got through that all right, and jumped into a German trench. / We stayed there all that day and that following night. No food, no water, getting short on ammunition. / ...One of our chaps from headquarters came forward to us and he said, "I'm bringing orders for you. You've got to retire to the trenches you left, as best you can. Get back as best you can." / So I finished up there, where I left. I think there were two hundred and thirty odd casualties, and we never gained a yard of ground. / I lost a lot of me pals that we -- we needn't have done...Well I thought, how stupid it was.

Note: Red text is available in RealAudio.

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