First World War: Bravery award for man who served in both wars
PUBLISHED: 15:45 06 December 2014
Captain George Gregory was awarded the Military Medal for bravery, though you’d never twig that from his memoirs.
Steven Russell hears the story of a man who served in both world wars before being drawn to the farmlands of Suffolk.
Pat Gregory was always intrigued by his father’s spoils of war. George had served right through the Great War: leaving England in 1914, fighting on the Somme and at Ypres, and learning the guns had fallen silent when a man emerged onto the street in Le Touquet, drew a crowd by banging a drum, and declared the news of the armistice.
George had survived. Somehow. Many of his fellow soldiers did not. When conflict broke out again in 1939, he was willing to serve anew, even though he was pushing 50. Age and fitness wrecked hopes of active duty, but he more than did his bit for his country by building defences at aerodromes. And then he bought a farm near Halesworth, even though he perhaps wasn’t a natural. Son Pat remembers, as a boy, questioning his dad about his First World War exploits. “He’d got so many souvenirs. At Magpie Cottage” − where the family lived before moving to Suffolk − “he had souvenirs all round the walls of what they used to call the nursery. It became his study. He had one of these German helmets with a spike. It had the golden eagle on the front and a cloth cover to protect it. On the side, there was a half-moon shape, where a bit of shrapnel had gone through and killed the man, and inside were all the bloodstains. At the top, a bullet had hit that spike. That was a souvenir!”
George was in his 70s when he wrote his Great War memoirs, in often-indecipherable longhand and from memory. Pat’s had those recollections published. “I am very proud of my father. He was a true British soldier and, later, officer. He always made sure his men had food and water, and what comfort they could under the circumstances. His one aim was to defeat the Germans.”
While George admits he could be a bit short-tempered because of stupidity (such as a drunken soldier) he was modest about his achievements. Take the episode that earned him the Military Medal. In his memoirs, he refers to himself simply as “the platoon sergeant”, as if he’d played no part in the heroics.
It was May, 1916, and he and his men were at Givenchy in France − very, very close to enemy trenches.
At about 1.30pm the Germans exploded a mine (possibly deliberately, possibly not) just about where his platoon had a saphead (a covered trench/tunnel). Grabbing his rifle, George rushed towards the entrance. The sentry was shaken but unharmed, “although all manner of things were now falling to the ground, having been hurled some 100 feet in the air: bits of iron, pieces of timber, bricks etc rained down”.
At the end of the trench, George found most of the men were all right, though one who had been working on soil removal had a broken leg. George told soldiers to lift the injured man onto his shoulders and he carried him to the main trench, where a rough splint was put on the leg.
On his way there, George had passed an injured “miner”, lying under a timber firestep, who had called out. George “again went back through the shrapnel shelling which was going on and fetched this man in, who had an injured back. He is alive today”. Oddly enough, George invents a conversation with “the platoon sergeant” − that is, himself! “He told me that he thought his men up the sap would be attacked, and when he found they were alright, and Jerry wasn’t attacking, he thought he might as well bring the man with the broken leg back.
“He said ‘It was b----y hard work; they were both heavy fellows and I was fagged out!’“
There was another honour later: the Distinguished Conduct Medal, awarded for conspicuous gallantry on the Somme in northern France.
The details: “He arranged for water and ration supplies and materially assisted in the evacuation of the wounded. He set a splendid example of courage and coolness throughout.”
In the summer of 1914 George had been in the Hertfordshire Regiment, a territorial force, and was camping near Tring. Those annual camps were usually held by the coast, and many men grumbled about being inland and so close to home. It wasn’t long before they learned why.
They packed up their tents and went home, and within days George and the rest were reporting to Watford and on to Bury St Edmunds, and camping for a week by the churchyard at Long Melford.
Then came Rougham, where they stayed for 10 weeks, training hard.
On November 4 they were on the train for Southampton and on to Le Havre, where they glimpsed bloodstained bandages in tents here and there. The men merely said to one another “in excited tones ‘We’re going right there, boy!’ And they were”.
We can only give a flavour here of what George experienced in those early weeks, but it included cold, sleeping in fields, limited food (no hot meals for three weeks, at one point), long marches, and shells shooting over their heads.
Christmas Eve found them bedded down in a barn within 800 yards of the firing line, where they were visited by the Prince of Wales... the fact he was attached to the brigade having been momentarily forgotten.
On Boxing Day night they relieved a company in the line, knee-deep in muddy water and slush, with three or four dead Gurkhas still lying around from November.
And so it went on.
More experiences: A new trench, seven feet deep − a thunderstorm − water gushing between their legs like a mountain stream. Dugouts full of lice. It was May and they were still wearing the clothes they’d come out in.
George got leave. He had three days at home and got an engagement ring for sweetheart Marion. They’d met in 1912.
In September he’s back in the fray, near Loos. About 100 yards behind the front line. A major attack. Men are killed going over the top. When George returns to Bethune, he’s touched by the sight of piles of parcels waiting for men who will never come to claim them.
Later: they’re in a trench and being relieved by the Guards when a large shell bursts a few yards away. Mud and stones fly. Something sharp cuts through a sergeant’s mess tin “and a piece of the wreckage caught my right cheek and just caused a trickle of blood − that was the only drop they got out of me in 3 and a half years of warfare; not that they did not try”.
They come across some trenches at Beaumont Hamel, in the Somme, and George steps accidentally on an injured soldier indistinguisable from the clay and the bodies round him. The corpses are two-deep in places. The platoon is gassed...
In that area there’s “a dead representative of nearly every infantry regiment in the British Army, including Dominion troops, between the opposing lines... our lot was a hard one and our casualties from artillery fire very heavy. My batman, Arthur Walker, was killed: a quiet, nice fellow if ever there was one.” Later: the Ypres salient. Three months in and they’d “suffered grievously”.
After George returned to England to accept a commission, he missed fierce fighting at St Julien, where the Hertfordshire Regiment lost about 700 of 900 men in two days.
In the spring of 1918 he thought he’d soon be back off to Europe. He and Marion decided to get married. The new groom soon found himself in France, leading a platoon in “open warfare” in a valley. German machine-gunners held the high ground and the British lost many, many men. It was a dreadful time.
George went to Le Touquet in the first week of November, for seven days’ leave, and soon the war was over. Aged 28, he hoped to carry on in the army, but he couldn’t kneel on his injured right knee and had arthritic shoulders. Marion was expecting their first child. He had been in uniform for the duration. It was time for a new start.
He returned to Hertfordshire and had a few jobs before launching himself as a poultry farmer.
In 1939 he was keen to be involved. “They were desperate for experienced people, but of course he wasn’t fit to fight,” says Pat. “He spent the war building defences on aerodromes.” He also had a spell in Africa.
It was during the second war that George got his nickname: Duckboard. The bars on the ribbon of his Distinguished Conduct Medal looked like the bars on the duckboards in the trenches. These helped keep soldiers’ feet out of the mud.
Unlike some, George didn’t clam up about his experiences in the Great War, says Pat. “You know all the silly questions you ask. ‘Did you ever kill a German, Father?’ That was one I wanted to know. I think he answered honestly. ‘No, I didn’t.’ He said the Germans were once making coffee. ‘I took a shot at them; I think I hit them in the bum...’ With regards to war, I wouldn’t say he enjoyed it, but he knew he had a job to do.
“The only reason he really survived was he was in the right place at the right time. When he went back to England to be commissioned, the regiment was decimated. If he’d been with them, his chances of survival would have been quite small.
“People think they’re in the trenches forever; they’re not. Perhaps 48 hours; perhaps longer; and then they’re relieved. Often he was relieving people who’d suffered huge casualties. He says that about one of the Scottish regiments. Their dead were everywhere in the trench. But they (George’s platoon) were in the trench without being shelled or machine-gunned. So he had luck. He took the attitude that if you were going to be killed, you were going to be killed. But he did take great pains to ensure he and his men were as protected as possible. When he was ordered to do one attack, he didn’t do it. He could have got in trouble, but he put it in his report − never heard anything more. But he would not go through that barbed wire [it was set out a bit like a maze] with the machine-guns covering. He could have lost his men.
“Survival wasn’t just about luck all the time.”
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