Gallery: First World War - Edward Cunningham, the printing apprentice from Ipswich who left his youth on the battlefields of the Somme

Edward C Cunningham 1919

Edward C Cunningham 1919 - Credit: cont

War today is increasingly waged by drone aircraft controlled from thousands of miles away. A century ago, it was fought from trenches within sight of the enemy. Artillery guns were pulled by horses, and tanks were the new technology.

Edward on his horse, outside the black Boy hotel, Northampton 1916

Edward on his horse, outside the black Boy hotel, Northampton 1916 - Credit: cont

Edward Cunningham was one of the soldiers in charge of the horses. Gripped by a sense of duty and the promise of adventure, he’d broken his printing apprenticeship to volunteer for war. He found himself on the Somme and was made harder by his experiences as comrades died and the shells dropped around him.

Ted came back, and struggled to re-connect with civilian life. He and his pals did, he admitted, leave a good few years of their youth on the battlefield.

In the early 1970s he wrote down his memories and in 2006 they were put into booklet form by granddaughter Linda Cunningham.The Lost Years is a powerful account – not just because of the way it contrasts the horrors of the western front with “normal” life across the Channel in England – but because he reflects with the benefit of historical context.

By the time Ted looks back, we’ve had another world war and gone through massive social and economic change, including the 1960s. It adds perspective.

Edward Cunningham, who lived with his family in Pauline Street, had left school at 14 to become an apprentice with an Ipswich printing firm. When the call went out for volunteers to fight tyranny, it fired the imagination. “Here was a chance to travel and see life and adventure. We hadn’t been out of Ipswich until then,” he explained, about 60 years later.

Brother Tom joined the 1st East Anglian Field Ambulance. Friend Herbert also signed on, and within weeks was on his way to Gallipoli.

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The families of Ted and pal Ray Keeble weren’t overjoyed. “My parents thought one son was enough, but I’m afraid we had different ideas and we wouldn’t settle,” recalled Ted, whose father was a blacksmith on the railways.

“Then Tom came home on leave from Bury, full of sparkle and joy and the fun he was having. We were so crazy we borrowed his uniform and took photographs of each other.”

When Ray joined the Royal Flying Corps, Ted went straight to Gipping Street drill hall in Ipswich and signed up. He became Driver Cunningham 776454 of the Royal Field Artillery – a driver not of trucks but of the horses pulling the big guns.

He’d never even been on one. Now he was learning about feeding and grooming. After a week, the recruits were given a horse each and told to get on. Off they went, onto Handford Road, and began trotting. Soon, Ted had fallen off and the horse had disappeared.

“The next morning I came back with the ride without coming off. I reckoned I was a horseman, and wasn’t I proud of it!” he recounts.

A religious young man born in 1896 – used to attending chapel three times on Sundays – he admits it took a while to get used to the ripe language of soldiers. Soon they were off to Winchester – horses and guns loaded onto trains.

The novice artillerymen learned to ride properly and to pull the guns. He became a leader driver.

Then they were back to East Anglia – to live in tents at Somerleyton Park, near Lowestoft, as a battery for 62nd West Riding Division.

They were given “proper” horses – animals “commandeered from grocers, bakers, butchers, milk floats, and a lot of them came from toffs’ houses, and we had to break them in to six-horse teams. This was where we finished our training, believe me.”

From there, yearning for action, they moved to Northampton. Everywhere they went, the soldiers were treated as heroes. “It seemed as if the gods were smiling on us and giving us a little fun and games because of what was to come later.” One night in 1916, in the street, he met Ida Berrill, who was walking along with library books under her arm – “Petite and a glorious smile”. Ted knew straightaway she was the one for him.

On the western front, though, it was grim. The first Battle of the Somme had been fought, with 27,000 killed on one day. Conscription had been introduced.

Early in January came news: in a few days they’d be off to France. On the last evening, Ted and Ida clung to each other. “She put a small silver chain around my neck, kissed me and said ‘If you don’t come back I shall take up nursing. Nobody else will do. I love you’. And so we made our vow and walked back in silence.” A train to Southampton and an awful voyage to Le Havre in a gale.

In France – wet, windy and cold – eight horses died quickly from exposure after being stabled in the open.

Then came two days on a train, bound for the Somme. Later they were billeted in the stables of a chateau, watching rats run over their feet.

Soon they were sent to the lines. At Mailly-Maillet, devastation: “shell holes everywhere, shattered trees, shattered lorries, equipment and tin hats.”

They took ammunition to the forward line, where many gunners were temporarily deaf because of the barrage day and night. The land was covered by snow and it was bitterly cold. For good measure, Ted and his team started to become infested by lice.

It wasn’t long before they were under shellfire, and their sergeant, from Ipswich, was killed.

There followed a long, awful, period as the Germans retreated further and the British pursued.

“We’re living like animals. We’re soaked through, we haven’t had our breeches off for a month, we haven’t had a wash except in a canvas bucket and we are absolutely lousy.

“We have one ground sheet and one blanket each. The temperature is around freezing all night and very often during the day. The poor old horses…have no cover at all at the moment, and are so cold and hungry they are eating what’s left of the stable rugs they had. The nightmare doesn’t end. There’s nothing but mud and devastation everywhere. There isn’t a tree standing as far as the eye can see. Only shattered stumps; villages are flattened, all ponds and wells are poisoned. A smashed horse ambulance, smashed limbers (the carts used to tow artillery guns), dead horses and dead men on the roadside.

“Dear God! And this is civilisation?”

Eventually they leave the valley for high ground at Mory. They stay a long time, taking ammunition to the line by night and dodging shells. They’re hungry and cold.

In April, 1917, Ted “celebrates” his 21st birthday. He has to dig gun pits for their new position.

There’s a blizzard that Easter Monday in the Somme and they have to walk five miles in a snowstorm. A German observation balloon spots them digging the new gun trenches, so they’re peppered with shells.

The coming of glorious sunshine raises spirits after an awful winter. “We’ve had several chaps killed and wounded, and others in hospital sick. So already we are not the battery that left Northampton that Sunday and we are certainly not the innocents we were, and we’re men now.”…By the end of the month, lots of ammunition, guns, duckboards, barbed wire and other equipment is being moved up under cover of darkness. A big battle looms.

“The fight to take Bullecort begins in the dark, with a flash and a blinding roar. One just hangs on to one’s horses and prays. It was just indescribable.”

Daylight sees the walking wounded coming back in twos and threes. Bullecort has been won and then lost again.

“Another attack is mounted. The dead are lying six-deep now and we are only holding part of it. Our guns haven’t moved yet. We’ve been shelled again: five killed and our water cart blown up.” A consignment of wooden crosses arrives to commemorate the dead. Someone has heard Ted was a signwriter. One Sunday morning, in a copse on the edge of Mory, the padre holds the first service for a fallen gunner.

“So I gathered some hairs out of our pet billy goat, made a brush and carried the said cross to a chosen spot, where I could hear the singing, and got started on it. Within 10 minutes Jerry sent over four heavy shells and completely encircled the copse. As it happened, there were no casualties, but it broke up the meeting. Ye Gods! What a life.”

Not surprisingly, Ted realised war had changed that unworldly boy from Ipswich. “I wasn’t so sensitive as I used to be. I’d got harder. I could help wrap the dead up in a blanket and bury them, or clear bodies out of a dugout if we wanted it for our own safety, or handle wounded, or see horses with the most awful gashes and help them.”

In August, 1917, they have to take their gun away for maintenance. It’s the first time they’ve been out of the line in eight months – an indescribable feeling as they discover good roads, don’t have to listen for incoming shells, and hear children again.

In November they’re in reserve at a battle to take Havrincourt woods. The barrage starts at 5.30am, the enemy retreats, and Ted and his colleagues are among the pursuers “and so we career through Havrincourt up onto a hill just below the wood and it’s littered with dead and dying Jocks (Scottish soldiers).

“In fact, I have to drive my team between the bodies and to my horror some of them are still moving and I can’t do a thing, only keep my team going.” Mid-March brings 10 days’ leave! Troops, misty-eyed, cheer when they see the white cliffs of Dover. “Plenty of us never thought we’d live to see this day.” Back home in Ipswich, everything seems small to a soldier used to open spaces. “I certainly couldn’t sleep that first night in a bed.” Ted also gets three precious days with Ida.

It was hard to settle, though.

“There was definitely a gap between me and the people in England. The people here hadn’t heard it, smelled it, seen it, seen their friends killed, rotting dead in shell holes, blood, mud and explosions, and I felt I only wanted to be with chaps who had been there,…it was time to go back.”

In France, the guns move to Sailly-au-Bois and are hidden in a copse. But they’re spotted, and blasted. Six men die.

In July they’re sent to protect Paris but soon find themselves on the move again. They dig in near Fremicourt, but the shelling starts.

“When daylight came we found our six grooms blown to pieces; they were all together and suffered a direct hit.” Ted was later asked to become a groom for a lieutenant, which he did, though it meant breaking up the team. Not long after, their wagon line was hit and his friend Jimmy died. Another friend was wounded.

And then in November, suddenly, a notice went up to say hostilities would stop at 11 o’clock.

He was demobbed on the last day of April, 1919. The switch to civilian life was hard. Ida was in Northampton and his firm seemed stuck in the past. He got a job with a bigger outfit, and put his name down for one of the council houses being built on the Nacton estate in Ipswich.

He and Ida, the girl “who made my life complete”, married on August 7, 1922, at St Peter’s Church. She was by his side for 47 years.

The couple lived in Coniston Square first, later moving to Cliff Lane. Ted worked as a signwriter at engineering firm Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies.

They had two children: Neville, and Ken (Linda’s dad). There were three grandchildren: Linda, and her cousins Pat (Howe) and Glynis Garrard.

Glynis, who lives in the Stowmarket area, has fond memories of the granddad known as Poppy. “He was a fine, upstanding man who I always remember looking up to. Wonderfully warm, kind and loving, and within whose company you would always feel safe,” she says.

As he set down his memories before he died in the spring of 1973, Ted had no doubts about the correctness of what he and his comrades did, insisting “we knew we were fighting a war to end wars, and us teenagers had given up everything to do just that.

“Thousands were dying in France just to keep alive the little that’s left of the world’s humanity. So you teenagers of this permissive age, never forget that.”