Walter John Eugene Elliott (1890- 1977): War and Memory (2)

I previously wrote about how Walter approaches the discussion of his experiences in the first world war, in War and Memory (1). Now, i will use this second post to discuss Walter’s role in the First World War further and some of the experiences Walter divulges.

Royal Engineers working on train tracks during WW1

In October 1914 Walter signed up for the war and was positioned as a Sapper with his registered trade down as a ‘motor and cycle mechanic’ (41). A sapper is a soldier who would perform a variety of military engineering roles. The Long Long Trail claims that ‘the war of 1914-1918 relied on engineering’, therefore, Walter held an important role in the war. This was because the Royal Engineers ‘maintained railways, roads, water supply, bridges and transport…telephones, wireless and other signalling equipment’. As well as all of that the Royal Engineers ‘designed and built the front-line fortifications’ and ‘maintained the guns and other weapons’. Being a part of the Royal Engineers meant that you had a lot of responsibility in ensuring that there was access, communication, protection, and power throughout the war effort. In the Royal Engineers the Sappers did most of the work. In his memoirs though, Walter explains how ‘in the early days of the war an Engineer Officer’s average time in the front line was fourteen days…a Sapper’s time was two months’ (42). Thus, although Walter was a Sapper, and was considered ‘lower’ than an officer, he could be considered lucky for the position he held. This is because of the speed in which Engineer Officers became ‘sick, missing, wounded or killed’ (42).

This idea of Walter being considered lucky can be seen throughout the 60 pages that he uses to talk about the war. There are four events which I felt Walter experienced a great deal of luck:

How ambulances would have looked during WW1

Primarily, was the time that he was injured, he describes how in 1916 as he was checking to see if there was any tea there must have been an explosion. He says, ‘I didn’t hear or feel anything…When I regained consciousness…I felt a bit dizzy…I noticed blood running from my left shoulder’ (60). He goes on to explain how ‘there seemed to be a lot of blood’ (60) and that he ‘thought the jugular vein must be severed, if so [he] knew [he] only have minutes to live’ (60). Although he survived this wound, Walter explains how a month later he found out that ‘some of [the soldiers] saw [Walter] lying there, they saw the big gash in [his] neck and that [his] ear was severed’ (61) and that they knew ‘it was no good to bother about the dead’ (61). Thus, because Walter ‘must have been unconscious for some time’ (61) he was very nearly left for dead. Another bout of luck that Walter experienced was in December 1915 when he was called for Leave. Prior to being called for this Leave, Walter was attempting to replace an overhead cover which ‘could only be fixed by getting up on top where [he] could be seen by the enemy’ (57). Walter found out when he returned, that the soldier who took his place in completing this job, was hit by a ‘machine gun bullet’ (58) which ‘struck his hand and ricochet off the plate right up his arm’ (58). Walter goes on to explain that he later saw the solder who took his place and found that ‘his right arm was missing’ (58). Thus, we see Walter having another lucky escape when it comes to life threatening or life changing injuries.

In 1918, Walter also went on to find himself making a potentially life threatening mistake. Walter explains how at the time he took on a role as ‘Sapper Guide’ (79), who was to show the Infantry working party who was working alongside him the way around. During a night where he was to be the Sapper Guide he found himself alone, having been told a password to use to gain entry to some farm buildings. The mistake Walter made this night, was to forget this crucial password. Walter admits how he was a ‘fool’ (79) and said ‘Napoleon’ (79) rather than ‘Wellington’ (79). Walter ‘heard the bolt of [the sentry’s] rifle open and shut’ (79). Therefore, through a simple, yet crucial, mistake Walter found himself, again, nearing deaths door.

Finally, another experience Walter recalls whereby he had luck on his side, was when he ‘found [his] wedding ring was missing’ (83). He explains in the memoir that whilst he was sent to find out how far the Germans had advanced, he had to dig ‘a shallow hole with [his] bayonet to get into and pushed the earth out with [his] hands’ (83) to keep himself hidden. Yet, when he had finished he realised his ring was missing. Walter goes on to explain how ‘as dawn broke [he] searched all through the turf and earth that [he] had pushed out and eventually found’ (83) the ring. As well as highlighting how Walter often had luck on his side throughout his war experiences, this anecdote emphasises how much something like a wedding ring meant during the war. Walter remembers this event very clearly and it is one of the few times in his memoir that we really get a sense of Walter’s feelings. The apparent panic that went through Walter as he realised he had lost his wedding ring, emphasises how much he may have missed his home life and his family. This is because something like a wedding ring would have been one of the only physical connections the soldiers would have had to their home life and to their wives.

Although being involved in the war and being away from his family would have been difficult for Walter, through his memoir we get a glimpse into how he got himself through it. We see him write phrases like ‘but I was still alive’ (85) and ‘ah well, it was another day of the war over’ (86). These phrases give us an understanding that Walter was the type of person to take everything one day at a time. At that point in his life he was simply happy to be alive at the end of a day, that he would rather think positively about his situation, than think of all the negatives that had happened. This clearly was an effective technique as Walter got himself through the entirety of the First World War.

Little Common War Memorial

Come November 1918, following a hard 4 years at war, it was understandable that not all people believed that the Armistice was real. Walter recalls how an Officer did not believe it when ‘an Infantry man had called out ‘There is an Armistice’’ (98). The Officer stopped the man and said, ‘Stop that loose talk, there is no Armistice, we fight on’ (98). However, the Armistice had come, and the war was to be over. On the closing pages of Walter’s memoir, we get the understanding of the mark that this war left on him. He says how he ‘regretted the death of [the people he had known in the war], also [his] school day chums whose names are on the Little Common War Memorial’ (100). He speaks of how he has looked on the Bexhill-on-Sea Memorial for somebody he knew but ‘failed to find it’ (100) and that he even travelled so far as to look in the ‘sacred book in Canterbury Cathedral’ (100), but had no luck. The pages thus highlight the effect the war had on those who survived their experiences. This is because, even 50 years later, Walter continued to be haunted by the people he once knew.

 

Bibliography

Elliott, Walter J.E. ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:227, available at: http//bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/9520

The Long, Long Trail: The British Army in The Great War of 1914- 1918. N.d. Web: http://www.1914-1918.net/faq.htm Accessed 29 March 2017.

Walter J.E Elliott in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:227

Images:

Image 1: http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/army/regiments-and-corps/the-corps-of-royal-engineers-in-the-first-world-war/

Image 2: http://www.vlib.us/medical/ambulnce/ambulnce.htm

Image 3: http://www.metaldetectingworld.com/05_sib_story1_p6.shtml

Image 4: http://www.roll-of-honour.com/Sussex/LittleCommon.html

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