I Was There: The Great War Interviews


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I Was There: The Great War Interviews

Documentary which features interviews with nine eyewitnesses of the First World War, filmed in the 1960s for the BBC series The Great War and which include soldiers and civilians.


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In the early 1960s, the BBC broadcast a documentary series

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that was unparalleled in its ambition and scope.

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Over 26 episodes, the series told the story of a conflict

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that affected virtually every family in Britain, and most of the world.

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Those who'd lived through the war remembered it as vividly as ever.

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I'd never seen so many dead men clumped together as what I saw then.

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And I thought to myself, all the world's dead,

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they're all dead.

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They're all dead.

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The first idea that sort of flitted through my mind

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was that the end of the world had come,

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and that this was the day of judgment.

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50 years after they were filmed, this programme presents a selection

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of the very best of the Great War interviews.

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This is the closest we'll ever get

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to what it was really like for those who were there.

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When the war was not very active,

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it was really rather fun to be in the front line.

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I thought to myself,

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"Well, if this is death, it's not so bad."

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What was it that we soldiers stabbed each other,

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strangled each other, went for each other like mad dogs?

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I was a young soldier of 17 just before the war.

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I joined a territorial regiment for the sport,

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and the boxing and swimming.

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And when on the 3rd August 1914, mobilisation orders came out,

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we were all very excited, and apprehensive.

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Because the whole feeling in the air was one of anxiety,

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at the same time great endeavour...

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..and most of us wanted to be out in France

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before the war was over by Christmas.

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By 1914, technological progress had created a new kind of war.

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To protect themselves against the increased fire power

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of artillery and machine guns,

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infantry soldiers had to dig elaborate trench systems.

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To Henry and his comrades,

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trench warfare seemed to be a big adventure.

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We enjoyed our first visit to the trenches.

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The weather was dry,

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and the whole feeling was one of tremendous comradeship.

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And I can honestly say there was no fear at all.

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It...it was a picnic.

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Henry's picnic didn't last.

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It started raining, and the rain wouldn't stop.

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We walked about a lot.

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We moved very slowly, in a mire,

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a pug of yellow, watery clay.

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When the evening came, we could get out.

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It took about an hour to get out.

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Some of our chaps slipped in and were drowned

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and weren't seen until we trod on them, perhaps, later.

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It was 60 yards to the Germans and they could snipe right down it,

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and so we had a lot of men sniped.

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I had my friend standing beside me.

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We were trying to work a pump which we'd carried in at night.

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It wouldn't work.

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And suddenly there was a tremendous crack, going like that.

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The bullet hit my friend in the front of the head

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and took away the back of his head, and he fell down, just slipped down.

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Winter came, and the Christmas of 1914

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was one Henry would remember all his life.

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On Christmas Eve, we had a job to do in no-man's-land,

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which put the wind up everybody.

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That is to say, we were all quiet among ourselves.

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The job was to knock in these posts, 18 inches into this frozen soil,

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and we were 50 yards away from the Germans and we crept out,

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trying to avoid our boots ringing on the frozen ground,

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and expecting any moment to fall flat

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with the machine guns opening up. And nothing happened.

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And within two hours, we were walking about and laughing

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and talking and there was nothing from the German lines.

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And then about 11 o'clock,

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I saw a Christmas tree going up from the German trenches.

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And there was a light.

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And we stood still and we watched this and we talked.

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And then a German voice began to sing a song -

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"Heilige Nacht".

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And after that, somebody, "Come over, Tommy, come over."

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And I still thought it was a trap, but some of us went over at once,

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and they came to this barbed-wire fence between us,

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which was five strands of wire hung by...

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hung with empty bully beef tins to make a rattle if they came.

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And very soon we were exchanging gifts.

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MUSIC: "Silent Night"

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The Germans started burying their dead, which were frozen,

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and we...we picked up ours and buried them.

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And little crosses of ration box wood were nailed together,

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quite small ones, and in indelible pencil they would put,

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the Germans, "fur Vaterland und Freiheit".

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"For Fatherland and Freedom."

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And I said to a German,

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"Excuse me, but how can you be fighting for freedom?

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"You started the war, and WE'RE fighting for freedom."

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And he said, "Excuse me, English comrade - Kamerad -

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"but we are fighting for freedom, for our country."

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And as they also put

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here rests in God an "unbekannter Held" -

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"here rests in God an unknown hero, in God."

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"Oh, yes, God is on our side."

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"But," I said, "he's on our side."

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And that was a tremendous shock.

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One began to think that these chaps, who were like ourselves,

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whom we liked and who felt about the war as we did, and who said,

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"It'll be over soon, because we will win the war."

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And we said, "No."

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"Well, English comrade, do not let us quarrel on Christmas Day."

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After the Great War,

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Henry Williamson became an acclaimed writer.

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His most famous novel is Tarka The Otter.

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Unlike Britain in 1914, Germany had conscription.

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Stefan Westmann was a young German medical student.

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In April 1914,

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he was called up for national service in the German army.

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In December 1914, his unit was ordered to attack British troops

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defending a French brickworks.

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We cut zigzag lines through our barbed-wire entanglements,

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and at noon we went over the top.

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We ran approximately 100 yards,

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and we came under machine gun fire which was so terrific,

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that...the losses were so staggering,

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that we got orders to lie down and to seek shelter.

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Nobody dared to lift his head

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because the very moment the machine gunners saw any movement,

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they let fly.

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And then the British artillery opened up.

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And the corpses and the heads,

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and the arms and the legs flew about and we were cut to pieces.

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All of a sudden, the enemy fire ceased.

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Complete silence came over the battlefield,

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and one of the chaps in my shell hole asked me,

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"I wonder what they're up to."

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Another one answered, "Perhaps they are getting tea."

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A third one says, "Don't be a fool. Do you see what I see?"

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And we looked over the brim of our shell hole

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and there, between the brick heaps,

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out there came a British soldier with a Red Cross flag which he waved,

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and he was followed by a stretcher-bearer

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who came slowly towards us and collected our wounded.

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We got up, still completely dumb from fear of death,

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and helped them to bring our wounded into our trenches.

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But such acts of generosity remained an exception.

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This was war, and ordinary men like Stefan had to learn to kill.

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I was confronted by a French corporal,

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he with his bayonet at the ready, and I with my bayonet at the ready.

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For a moment, I felt the fear of death.

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And in a fraction of a second,

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I realised that he was after my life exactly as I was after his.

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I was quicker than he was.

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I tossed his rifle away and I ran my bayonet through his chest.

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He fell, put his hand on the place where I had hit him,

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and then I thrust again.

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Blood came out of his mouth and he died.

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I suddenly felt physically ill.

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I nearly vomited.

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My knees were shaking,

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and I was, quite frankly, ashamed of myself.

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My comrades were absolutely undisturbed by what had happened.

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One of them boasted that he had killed a French soldier

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with the butt of his rifle,

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another one had strangled a captain,

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a third one had hit somebody over the head with his spade.

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And they were ordinary men like me.

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What was it, that we soldiers...

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..stabbed each other, strangled each other,

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went for each other like mad dogs?

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What was it that we, who had nothing against them personally,

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fought to them...fought with them to the very end in death?

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We were civilised people, after all.

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After the war, Stefan completed his medical training

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and became a surgeon.

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But in the 1930s, when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party took control,

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Stefan felt compelled to leave his homeland.

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Remembering the incident in 1914

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when British soldiers stopped fighting

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to let his comrades collect their dead and wounded,

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he chose to settle in England.

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Stefan Westmann set up a medical practice in London's Harley Street.

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When Britain went to war in 1914,

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it had less than 250,000 battle-ready troops.

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It desperately needed volunteers to build a whole new fighting force.

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One man willing to sign up was Katie Morter's husband.

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We was very happily married, very, very happy.

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Because we was very much in love,

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and he thought the world of me and I thought the world of him.

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And then it came to be that the war started.

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We had a friend over in Canada that had enlisted over there,

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and he came over here, and he came one night and asked us,

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would we go to the Palace?

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He'd booked seats for the Palace, and would we go?

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We didn't know what was on, of course,

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and it was a great treat for us, so we went.

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When we got there at the Palace, everything was lovely.

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And Vesta Tilley was recruiting,

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which we never knew till we got there.

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I wouldn't have gone if I'd have known, of course.

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She was dressed on the stage beautifully.

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She also had a big Union Jack wrapped round her.

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And she introduced that song,

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We Don't Want To Lose You, But We Think You Ought To Go.

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# We don't want to lose you

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# But we think you ought to go

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# For your king and your country

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# Both need you so... #

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We were sat at the front, and she walked down

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and she hesitated a bit and she put her hand on my husband's shoulder.

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He got up and he went with her.

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# We shall cheer you, thank you

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# Kiss you when you come back again... #

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And I was terribly upset, and I said I didn't want him to go

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and be a soldier, because I didn't want to lose him.

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I didn't want him to go at all.

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But he said, "We have to go."

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He said, "There has to be men to go and fight for the women.

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"Otherwise," he said, "where should we be?"

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Private Percy Morter was posted to France in September 1915.

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During the time that he was away, I was very, very lonely.

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All the thoughts I had was for my husband.

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I used to try to do a bit of reading,

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or a bit of sewing with my hands, to pass the time away like that.

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But it was very, very hard,

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and my times would wander,

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and wonder what he was doing and if he was thinking about me.

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And wondering how he was going on, and when I should see him again.

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By the start of 1916, Katie was living back at her mother's

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and working in a local leather factory.

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One January morning, as she was getting ready for work,

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she had a surprise visitor.

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There was loud knocking on the door, such a big knocking on the door,

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and this voice shouted, "Open the door, the Jerries are here."

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See?

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So my mother said, "Oh," she said, "it's Percy, I can tell his voice."

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And in he came, you know, all mucky and what have you,

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right from France.

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And he only got six days' leave,

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and he'd two days travelling out of that,

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had to be taken off the six days.

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So he didn't have very long.

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And he said, "Now," he says, "now, Kitty..."

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He called me Kitty. He says, "Now, Kitty,"

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he says, "what would you like for a present?

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"I'm going to buy you a present while I'm home."

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I said, "Oh, I don't know," I said.

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But I was... I'm afraid I was rather vain in those days

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and I was a rather attractive girl and I said,

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"Do you know, I've seen a beautiful hat down the street.

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"Oh, it is a lovely hat." I said, "I would like it."

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And it was in a shop window and I'd looked at this hat several times.

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But it was such a terrible dear hat.

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And he said, "Well, come on,"

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he said, "We'll go down and have a look at it."

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And I'll never forget that hat.

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It was white felt, and it turned up all around,

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and with me being dark, and it had a mauve...big mauve feather

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all the way in the brim and it hung over. Oh, it was gorgeous.

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We got dressed up after I got this hat, he bought it me.

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And I took him to Noblett's leather works, where I worked,

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and I introduced him to Mr Noblett himself,

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and they all shook hands with him.

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And how pleased and proud I was when he went in the leather works

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and everybody could see him.

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# Brother Bertie went away

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# To do his bit the other day... #

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He went back about the Thursday night, I should think.

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I didn't go with him to the tram.

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One of my brothers went with him.

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And a friend of his.

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And he told his friend, it seems, afterwards, he told me,

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he said, "I'm afraid I shall never come back again."

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Anyway, he went, and...and then I found out that I was pregnant.

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Katie continued to work in Noblett's.

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Then, in July 1916,

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there was another early morning knock at her door.

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I heard the postman come and I knew that it would be a letter for me,

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so I ran down in my nightdress and opened the door

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and snatched the letter off the postman and run in, shut the door.

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In my nightdress and my bare feet.

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And I opened the letter and it was from his sergeant,

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and it was...it just said, "Dear Mrs Morter,

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"I'm very sorry to tell you of the death of your husband."

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Well, that was as far as I could read.

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You see, I couldn't read anything else.

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So I...I didn't know just for a few minutes what happened,

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but I ran out, I ran out of the house as I was, my bare feet,

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and I banged on the next door, the next-door neighbour.

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And it was a Mr and Mrs Hirst.

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And they let me in and, "Whatever's to do?" she said.

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And I said, "Will you read this letter, Mrs Hirst? Read this letter."

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And she said, "Oh," she said, "you poor child."

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Lance Corporal Percy Morter was killed on the Somme

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on 7th July 1916.

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Eventually the baby became to be born. It was born at home.

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But, er...I don't remember it being born at all.

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I had a very bad time.

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I had two doctors and I don't remember the baby being born.

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And I felt I didn't want to live.

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I'd no wish to live at all.

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Because the world had come to an end, and for me,

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because I'd lost all that I'd loved.

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Katie named her son Percy Edward.

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He too christened his son Percy Edward,

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after the father he'd never met.

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Katie married three more times.

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She survived all of her four husbands.

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During the Great War, soldiers from Britain and her dominions

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didn't only fight in France and Belgium.

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In 1915, they were launching a naval attack on Germany's ally, Turkey.

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Frank Brent took part in this ambitious operation.

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Well, I was one of about 2,000 blokes stuck in the Galeka.

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The crew brought us some hot tucker to get on with,

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but I don't think any of us felt like eating.

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And then somebody said, "Well, you'd better have a snore off,

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"you've got a job to do in the morning."

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But we couldn't sleep,

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but we just talked about anything but the job we were going to do.

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The old boatswain of the Galeka came along and said,

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"Anybody got any of those dirty postcards that you bought in Cairo?

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"If you have, you'd better put them down on the deck

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"because if you get knocked, they send them to your next of kin."

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Well, by this time I was feeling

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just about as brave as a ring-tailed possum,

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and I wished that I was anywhere but on the Galeka.

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Frank Brent joined the British Army Service Corps when he was just 14.

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He was discharged as medically unfit when he turned 18.

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Frank emigrated and became a soldier in Australia.

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Now serving with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps,

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or Anzacs, Frank and his antipodean comrades

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were to spearhead the assault on Turkey's Gallipoli peninsula.

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As the pinnace hit the shore somebody said, "Out you get,"

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and out we got.

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There were dead and wounded all around.

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And we scampered as hard as we could

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till we had a little bit of shelter,

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dumped our packs, and then somebody said, "Well, up you go,"

0:24:500:24:54

and away we went up the slope.

0:24:540:24:56

It wasn't too bad, but just halfway up somebody shouted out to me,

0:24:590:25:04

"Alan Gordon has stopped one."

0:25:040:25:06

Well, Alan was one of my best pals.

0:25:060:25:10

That made me feel a bit better,

0:25:100:25:11

because if they'd got him, I felt I'm going to get them.

0:25:110:25:15

Eventually we came to a post where...

0:25:260:25:29

obviously one of the strong points that he'd put up,

0:25:290:25:32

and I suppose there were about 20 of us in my group.

0:25:320:25:37

Er... Nobody in charge.

0:25:370:25:40

The bloke with the loudest voice seemed to take charge in the setting.

0:25:400:25:45

And three or four blokes got knocked.

0:25:450:25:47

And then I heard somebody say, "Well, this is no good to us.

0:25:480:25:52

"Come on, heads down, arses up and get stuck into it."

0:25:520:25:55

And we went into it.

0:25:550:25:58

And we cleared them, bayoneted them, shot them, and the others ran.

0:25:580:26:03

And we sort of dug in on that post for a little while.

0:26:030:26:06

There was no coordinated effort about it.

0:26:130:26:17

We were just a crowd of diggers working with each other,

0:26:170:26:21

trusting each other blind.

0:26:210:26:23

A little while afterwards, a bloke out of the Eighth Battalion said,

0:26:250:26:29

"Here, look at that bloody bush, it's moving."

0:26:290:26:32

And we looked at it, and it was obviously a sniper.

0:26:320:26:36

He was a sniper and he was done up like a Christmas tree.

0:26:380:26:42

He'd got branches out of his head, out of his shoulders,

0:26:420:26:46

and he was for all the world like a bush.

0:26:460:26:50

But he didn't look like a bush when we'd finished with him.

0:26:500:26:53

The bloke next to me was Robbie Robinson,

0:27:000:27:03

a corporal in my battalion.

0:27:030:27:06

And I can see him now, grinning all over his face,

0:27:060:27:11

and next thing I remember was his head fell on my shoulder

0:27:110:27:15

and a sniper had got him through the jugular vein.

0:27:150:27:18

And I really think that that was my baptism,

0:27:180:27:21

because Robbie's blood... spent all over my tunic.

0:27:210:27:26

After three days, Frank and his surviving comrades

0:27:300:27:33

were shipped further up the Turkish coast

0:27:330:27:35

to fight in one of the bloodiest battles

0:27:350:27:37

of the whole disastrous Gallipoli campaign.

0:27:370:27:40

The barrage had been so heavy that we thought,

0:27:440:27:46

"Well, this is going to be a cakewalk.

0:27:460:27:48

"There's nothing to stop us."

0:27:480:27:50

But the mistake we made was that

0:27:500:27:53

after we got out of our hop-out trenches,

0:27:530:27:56

our own artillery began to put down a barrage just in front of us.

0:27:560:28:01

Some of it was firing short.

0:28:010:28:03

You could see your mates going down right and left.

0:28:030:28:06

And...you were face-to-face with the stark realisation

0:28:060:28:12

that this was the end of it.

0:28:120:28:14

Despite the fact that we couldn't see a Turk,

0:28:200:28:23

he was pelting us with everything he'd got from all corners.

0:28:230:28:27

And the marvel to me is how the dickens he was able to do it

0:28:270:28:31

after the barrage that had fallen on him.

0:28:310:28:34

And sure enough,

0:28:340:28:36

we'd got to within about a mile of Krithia village

0:28:360:28:40

when I copped my packet.

0:28:400:28:43

And as I lay down, I said, "Thank Christ for that."

0:28:430:28:46

Seriously wounded, Frank was evacuated.

0:28:500:28:52

He spent nearly a year in hospital.

0:28:520:28:55

The Gallipoli campaign never achieved its objective,

0:29:000:29:03

but for the Australians and New Zealanders,

0:29:030:29:05

it marked the birth of national consciousness.

0:29:050:29:08

The date of the Gallipoli landing, 25th April,

0:29:080:29:11

is known as Anzac Day,

0:29:110:29:13

and is the most important day of commemoration of war

0:29:130:29:16

in Australia and New Zealand.

0:29:160:29:18

Technological progress not only created trench warfare,

0:29:310:29:35

it also opened up a new battlefield.

0:29:350:29:37

The air.

0:29:410:29:42

Aeroplanes were crucial for reconnaissance of enemy positions,

0:29:450:29:48

and the British Royal Flying Corps

0:29:480:29:50

fought to gain air supremacy from the German Air Service.

0:29:500:29:53

Cecil Arthur Lewis joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1915.

0:29:590:30:03

He was barely 17 years old and he lied about his age.

0:30:030:30:07

He had his baptism of fire at the Battle of the Somme

0:30:070:30:10

in the summer of 1916.

0:30:100:30:12

The British prepared for the battle with a massive bombardment

0:30:180:30:21

of the German lines, which lasted a whole week.

0:30:210:30:24

Reconnaissance planes had to report on the effect of the bombardment.

0:30:300:30:34

When they began to build up towards the main bombardment,

0:30:360:30:39

we used to go out and photograph.

0:30:390:30:41

And these jobs were among the most terrifying that I ever did in the whole war.

0:30:410:30:45

When you had to go right over the lines, you see,

0:30:460:30:49

you were midway between our guns firing

0:30:490:30:52

and where the shells were falling.

0:30:520:30:54

They had orders. We were told - you know, the artillery -

0:30:570:31:00

not to fire when an aeroplane was in their sights.

0:31:000:31:03

They cut it pretty fine, you know, because, really,

0:31:040:31:07

one used to fly along the front on those patrols,

0:31:070:31:09

and that lasted for two or three days,

0:31:090:31:11

and the aeroplane would fly up, you know, with the shell

0:31:110:31:14

which had just gone underneath and missed you by two or three feet.

0:31:140:31:17

Or flung down when it had gone over the top.

0:31:170:31:19

And this was continuous, so the machine was continually bucketed

0:31:190:31:22

and jumping as if it was in a gale.

0:31:220:31:24

But, in fact, it was shells.

0:31:240:31:26

You didn't see those - they were going much too fast -

0:31:260:31:28

but this was really terrifying.

0:31:280:31:30

One had the sort of feeling, "They're firing at us. "It's us they want to get," you know.

0:31:340:31:38

So many of the boys - my best observer and many of my friends -

0:31:390:31:42

were just hit by this barrage

0:31:420:31:44

and destroyed by a direct hit from a passing shell.

0:31:440:31:48

Young Lewis was awarded the Military Cross

0:31:530:31:56

for his actions over the Somme.

0:31:560:31:58

He was moved to 56 Squadron

0:31:580:31:59

and joined the ranks of the elite fighter pilots.

0:31:590:32:02

It was their job to shoot down enemy planes.

0:32:020:32:05

Our eyes were continually focusing, looking,

0:32:100:32:12

craning our heads round, looking for those black specks

0:32:120:32:15

which would mean enemy aircraft at a great distance away.

0:32:150:32:18

Clinging close together, about 20, 30 yards between each machine,

0:32:180:32:22

swaying, looking at our neighbours, keeping our throttle,

0:32:220:32:25

setting ourselves just right so that we were all in position, as it were.

0:32:250:32:29

And then, sooner or later, we would find the enemy.

0:32:290:32:32

The whole squadron would enter the fight in good formation,

0:32:360:32:39

but within half a minute the whole formation had gone to hell.

0:32:390:32:41

Nothing left except just chaps wheeling and zooming and diving

0:32:410:32:44

and on each other's tails, perhaps all four in a row even, you know.

0:32:440:32:47

A German going down, one of our chaps on his tail,

0:32:470:32:49

another German on his tail, another Hun behind that.

0:32:490:32:52

Extraordinary glimpses one got of people approaching head-on,

0:32:520:32:56

firing at each other as they came

0:32:560:32:57

and then just at the last moment turning and slipping away.

0:32:570:33:00

The fight would come down from 15,000 feet

0:33:000:33:03

right down to almost ground level.

0:33:030:33:04

You had to fight as if...

0:33:130:33:14

There was nothing but you and your guns.

0:33:140:33:16

You had nobody at your side, nobody who was cheering with you,

0:33:160:33:19

nobody who would look after you if you were hit. You were alone.

0:33:190:33:23

And you fought alone and died alone.

0:33:240:33:27

But those who died...

0:33:270:33:29

weren't there when we came back.

0:33:290:33:31

After the war, Cecil Lewis became one of the four founders of the BBC,

0:33:380:33:43

and he wrote a memoir of his wartime experiences,

0:33:430:33:46

Sagittarius Rising, a best-seller that was turned into a movie.

0:33:460:33:51

If only other girls would do as I do,

0:34:070:34:11

I believe that we could manage it alone...

0:34:110:34:13

As the Great War dragged on

0:34:130:34:15

and more and more men were sent overseas,

0:34:150:34:18

women had to take on men's jobs.

0:34:180:34:20

Mabel Lethbridge started to work in Hayes Munitions Factory at the age of 17.

0:34:240:34:30

I was put on to a job in bomb stores,

0:34:320:34:34

which was really cleaning detonators.

0:34:340:34:37

It was very dull work but the workers were gay and charming and I liked it.

0:34:390:34:44

But the day came when I got the job that I think perhaps subconsciously

0:34:440:34:48

I'd always been looking for.

0:34:480:34:50

They asked for volunteers for the danger zone.

0:34:500:34:53

The danger zone was at the heart of Hayes Munitions.

0:34:580:35:01

Set in open countryside,

0:35:010:35:02

shed after shed marched along nearly two miles of railway track.

0:35:020:35:06

Working in each was a team of women or boys packing heavy shell cases

0:35:060:35:11

with high explosive and detonators.

0:35:110:35:13

The machines that we were put on that morning were

0:35:190:35:23

Heath Robinson sort of machines,

0:35:230:35:26

and so difficult to describe to you.

0:35:260:35:29

But they were operated not by machinery, really,

0:35:290:35:33

but by a great weight lifted up on ropes

0:35:330:35:37

by girls behind a pile of wooden boxes.

0:35:370:35:41

They had no other protection.

0:35:410:35:43

And they had to drop the weight down on top of the shell,

0:35:440:35:47

and you were only allowed, say, 12 blows.

0:35:470:35:50

You'd call to the girls, "Steady, girls,"

0:35:500:35:53

and they'd drop that weight very slowly

0:35:530:35:56

and bring a lever out to stop it.

0:35:560:35:58

Only that first morning I was there...

0:36:000:36:03

..some girl didn't call, "Steady, girls," but she put her head forward.

0:36:050:36:10

The weight came on her head and that was...

0:36:110:36:15

goodbye to her, anyway.

0:36:150:36:17

It was a very unhappy feeling for us all.

0:36:170:36:20

All the time there were people walking to and fro,

0:36:270:36:30

emphasising the great danger.

0:36:300:36:33

And we were continually searched. Cigarettes, matches -

0:36:330:36:37

anything that you might have of metal was taken from you.

0:36:370:36:40

And this went on, sort of, hour after hour -

0:36:400:36:42

you were pulled out for a search.

0:36:420:36:44

And there was a great feeling, all the time, of tension.

0:36:470:36:51

A woman came up to me and she said, "How are you getting on?"

0:36:560:37:00

And I said, "Well, not very well - it's taking a lot of blows."

0:37:000:37:04

And the pullers, who had to pull that great weight up,

0:37:040:37:06

were getting very angry with me.

0:37:060:37:09

And, er, my...

0:37:090:37:10

my carrier - that's the girl who carries the shells to you

0:37:100:37:13

and carries them away from you,

0:37:130:37:16

she's a stacker and a carrier -

0:37:160:37:18

she said, "I think the mixture's too cold. It should be hot."

0:37:180:37:22

And the overlookers told her to shut up and told me

0:37:220:37:25

to scrape a little out.

0:37:250:37:27

And...to try again.

0:37:280:37:31

I said, "All right," and my carrier -

0:37:370:37:41

the girl who was helping me to carry the shell -

0:37:410:37:44

she said, "I don't like that.

0:37:440:37:46

"I don't like any scraping out."

0:37:460:37:49

Well, the whistle blew and we went to the canteen lunch.

0:37:490:37:53

Mabel had only been filling shells for three days.

0:37:540:37:57

She was still learning the ropes.

0:37:570:37:59

But after lunch, she volunteered to do an extra shift.

0:37:590:38:03

At three o'clock in the afternoon, each afternoon,

0:38:040:38:08

they brought us milk to drink.

0:38:080:38:11

A trolley came round and we went and we drank this milk.

0:38:110:38:14

And I, sort of being curious, asked why.

0:38:140:38:17

"Really it is to save you from getting the TNT poisoning -

0:38:170:38:23

"it acts as a neutraliser."

0:38:230:38:25

And TNT poisoning was really a yellow poisoning.

0:38:260:38:29

You went completely yellow.

0:38:290:38:31

And your clothes came off you yellow.

0:38:310:38:34

It even affected your clothes.

0:38:340:38:36

I don't know what it was - what it was caused by.

0:38:360:38:39

It was very unpleasant.

0:38:390:38:41

You got it very quickly and you carried it.

0:38:410:38:44

You never got rid of it. Just stayed there.

0:38:440:38:48

You got more and more yellow and people looked at you.

0:38:480:38:50

When you got into a bus or a Tube or anything like that,

0:38:500:38:54

they sort of looked at you. They wondered what was wrong with you.

0:38:540:38:58

We felt like lepers going home.

0:38:580:39:00

But on that day...

0:39:000:39:02

Well, I'd just had my milk and, on that day,

0:39:040:39:08

we didn't go home like that, because...

0:39:080:39:12

..my shell exploded.

0:39:160:39:18

Mabel lost her left leg in the explosion.

0:39:270:39:29

For her courage, she was awarded the medal of

0:39:290:39:32

the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

0:39:320:39:35

# It's a long way to Tipperary

0:39:530:39:58

# It's a long way to go... #

0:39:580:40:02

The Great War had transformed the role of women in society.

0:40:020:40:05

But women had no idea of what it was really like

0:40:080:40:10

for the men at the front.

0:40:100:40:12

# Goodbye, Piccadilly

0:40:120:40:16

# Farewell, Leicester Square... #

0:40:160:40:19

This world of the trenches which had built itself up for so long a time,

0:40:190:40:24

which seemed to be going on for ever, was the real world

0:40:240:40:29

and it was entirely a man's world.

0:40:290:40:31

Women had no part in it.

0:40:310:40:33

Charles Carrington was just 17 when he enlisted in 1914.

0:40:350:40:39

By 1917, the long years of war

0:40:390:40:41

had changed him and his country profoundly.

0:40:410:40:44

And when one went on leave,

0:40:470:40:50

what one did was to escape out of the man's world

0:40:500:40:52

into the woman's world.

0:40:520:40:54

And one found that however pleased one was to see one's girlfriend -

0:40:540:41:00

and I'm speaking only of the light emotions of a boy,

0:41:000:41:03

not of the deeper feelings of a happily married man -

0:41:030:41:09

one could never somehow quite get through.

0:41:090:41:12

However nice and sympathetic they were,

0:41:120:41:15

the girl didn't quite say the right thing.

0:41:150:41:19

And one was curiously upset, annoyed,

0:41:190:41:23

by attempts of well-meaning people to sympathise,

0:41:230:41:28

which only reflected the fact

0:41:280:41:30

that they didn't really understand at all.

0:41:300:41:32

And there was even a kind of last sense of relief

0:41:320:41:37

in which you returned to the boys.

0:41:370:41:40

When one went back into the man's world,

0:41:400:41:44

which seemed the realest thing that could be imagined.

0:41:440:41:47

# And when they ask us

0:41:470:41:51

# How dangerous it was

0:41:510:41:55

# Oh, we'll never tell them

0:41:550:41:58

# No, we'll never tell them

0:41:580:42:02

# We spent our pay in some cafe

0:42:020:42:05

# And fought wild women night and day

0:42:050:42:09

# 'Twas the cushiest job

0:42:090:42:12

# We ever had. #

0:42:120:42:16

In 1917, British and Allied forces launched an attack in Belgium.

0:42:160:42:21

The plan was to reach the coast held by the Germans.

0:42:210:42:25

The attack lasted for months

0:42:250:42:26

and became known as the Battle of Passchendaele.

0:42:260:42:29

Lieutenant Carrington commanded a company at Passchendaele.

0:42:340:42:38

We advanced, just like those battles, under, er,

0:42:380:42:41

an enormous barrage - a much heavier barrage than I'd ever heard before.

0:42:410:42:47

We ran into a lot of Germans

0:42:470:42:48

and we had a lot of very severe fighting in the first five minutes,

0:42:480:42:52

in which I myself got mixed up in a really awkward shooting-out affair,

0:42:520:42:58

rather like gangsters shooting it out on a Western film.

0:42:580:43:02

However, we shot it out and we won that little battle

0:43:020:43:04

and we got through.

0:43:040:43:06

By the time we got to our objective,

0:43:060:43:08

I found that my company was completely scattered.

0:43:080:43:11

Both my officers, all my sergeants,

0:43:110:43:14

and three quarters of my men were killed or wounded.

0:43:140:43:17

And there was me and the Sergeant Major

0:43:170:43:20

and a scattered handful of men which we had to get together somehow.

0:43:200:43:24

Well, we got them together somehow and we settled down on our objective

0:43:240:43:29

in a group of shell holes, and there we sat for three days.

0:43:290:43:32

On the second and third days we just sat in the mud,

0:43:360:43:40

being very heavily and very systematically shelled

0:43:400:43:45

with pretty heavy stuff.

0:43:450:43:47

You'd hear in the distance quite a mild pop

0:43:520:43:56

as the gun fired five miles away.

0:43:560:43:59

And then a humming sound as it approached you through the air,

0:43:590:44:05

growing louder and louder

0:44:050:44:06

until it was like the roar of an aeroplane coming in to land on the tarmac.

0:44:060:44:11

There comes the moment when a shell is right on top of you,

0:44:140:44:16

and your nerve would break and you'd throw yourself down in the mud

0:44:160:44:19

and cringe in the mud till it was past.

0:44:190:44:22

There were ways in which you could maintain your self-control,

0:44:320:44:37

and there is some strange connection

0:44:370:44:40

between small physical actions...

0:44:400:44:42

If you, er,

0:44:420:44:45

hum a little tune to yourself

0:44:450:44:48

and feel that you can quietly get through this tune

0:44:480:44:52

before the next explosion,

0:44:520:44:53

it gives you a sort of curious feeling of safety.

0:44:530:44:56

Or you'd start drumming with your fingers on your knee,

0:44:560:45:00

and have a-a-a...

0:45:000:45:03

..quite irrational desire to complete this little ritual.

0:45:040:45:08

These minute things

0:45:080:45:11

protect you from the...

0:45:110:45:15

..nervous collapse which may come at any moment.

0:45:160:45:19

On the third night, under the cover of darkness,

0:45:210:45:23

Lieutenant Carrington and his exhausted men

0:45:230:45:26

managed to get out of their shell hole.

0:45:260:45:29

They scrambled through the mud

0:45:290:45:31

to the relative safety of a makeshift camp.

0:45:310:45:34

To begin with, I was in a state of complete

0:45:340:45:36

physical and mental prostration.

0:45:360:45:39

And I think for a few days after the battle,

0:45:390:45:41

I was getting near having a nervous breakdown.

0:45:410:45:45

But when one is young,

0:45:450:45:47

physical rest very quickly puts that right,

0:45:470:45:51

and in quite a few days I was almost as good as ever.

0:45:510:45:54

Here I was - I was 20 years old,

0:45:560:45:59

a young acting Captain, and I had to form a new company.

0:45:590:46:04

I had to begin by actually collecting and organising the men,

0:46:050:46:10

and finding out what had happened to those who'd been killed

0:46:100:46:13

and those who'd been wounded. I had to write 22 personal letters

0:46:130:46:16

to the wives and mothers of men in my company who'd been killed.

0:46:160:46:20

Then we got a draft of 100 very good men up from the base

0:46:250:46:29

and we started all over again and had a new company.

0:46:290:46:32

And at the end of a month, we were ready to do it again.

0:46:320:46:35

And this seems to me the strangest thing of all when I look back on it.

0:46:360:46:39

# We're here because We're here because

0:46:390:46:44

# We're here because we're here... #

0:46:440:46:48

Charles Carrington was awarded the Military Cross.

0:46:490:46:52

After the war, he became an academic and writer.

0:46:520:46:55

His book A Subaltern's War

0:46:550:46:57

is one of the best-known war memoirs.

0:46:570:46:59

He re-enlisted at the outbreak of the Second World War,

0:46:590:47:03

in his own words, like an old fool.

0:47:030:47:05

There were no times of duty regarding mending telephone wires.

0:47:220:47:27

Nobody knew when a wire would go.

0:47:270:47:29

But we knew it had to be mended.

0:47:290:47:32

The infantrymen's lives depended on these wires working.

0:47:320:47:36

And it didn't matter whether we'd had sleep

0:47:360:47:38

or whether we hadn't had sleep - we just had to keep those wires through.

0:47:380:47:43

John Palmer had one of the loneliest jobs on the battlefield -

0:47:440:47:48

keeping the field telephones working.

0:47:480:47:50

These linked the troops on the front line

0:47:510:47:54

with the command posts and the heavy artillery further back.

0:47:540:47:58

I'd been out on the wires all day, all night.

0:47:580:48:01

I hadn't had any sleep, it seemed, for weeks, and no rest.

0:48:010:48:05

And it was very, very difficult to mend a telephone wire in this mud.

0:48:050:48:09

You'd find one end

0:48:090:48:11

and then you'd try and trudge through the mud to find the other end.

0:48:110:48:14

And as you got one foot out, the other one would go down.

0:48:140:48:18

I was tired of all the carnage,

0:48:180:48:21

all the sacrifice that we had there just to gain about 25 yards.

0:48:210:48:25

I think I'd reached my lowest ebb.

0:48:250:48:28

And then, in the distance, I heard the rattle of harness.

0:48:320:48:37

I didn't hear much of the wheels

0:48:380:48:39

but I knew there were ammunition wagons coming up.

0:48:390:48:43

And I thought to myself, "Well, here's a way out.

0:48:430:48:46

"When they get level with me,

0:48:460:48:48

"I'll ease out and put my leg under the wheel.

0:48:480:48:52

"I shall be bound to get away, and I can plead it was an accident."

0:48:520:48:56

Eventually I saw the leading horses' heads in front of me,

0:49:070:49:12

and I thought, "This is it."

0:49:120:49:14

And I began to ease my way out.

0:49:140:49:17

And eventually, the first wagon reached me.

0:49:170:49:20

And, you know, I never even had the guts to do that.

0:49:200:49:24

I found myself wishing to do it,

0:49:240:49:28

but hadn't got the guts to do it.

0:49:280:49:30

Well, I went on.

0:49:300:49:33

I finished my wire, I found the other end and mended it.

0:49:330:49:35

I was out twice more that night. I was out next day.

0:49:350:49:39

And the next night,

0:49:390:49:41

my pal came out with me.

0:49:410:49:42

He wasn't busy on the other wires.

0:49:420:49:45

And after the Germans had stopped shelling a little while,

0:49:450:49:49

we heard one of their big ones coming over.

0:49:490:49:53

And normally, within reason, you could tell

0:49:530:49:56

if one was going to land anywhere near or not.

0:49:560:49:59

If it was, the normal procedure was to throw yourself down

0:49:590:50:04

and avoid the shell fragments.

0:50:040:50:06

This one we knew was going to drop near.

0:50:060:50:09

My pal shouted and threw himself down.

0:50:090:50:12

I was too damned tired even to fall down.

0:50:120:50:17

I stood there.

0:50:170:50:18

Next, I had a terrific pain in the back and the chest

0:50:180:50:22

and I found myself face downwards in the mud.

0:50:220:50:26

My pal came to me.

0:50:260:50:28

He tried to lift me up, and I said to him,

0:50:280:50:31

"Don't touch me, leave me, I've had enough, just leave me."

0:50:310:50:36

The next thing, I found myself sinking down in the mud,

0:50:360:50:41

and this time I didn't worry about the mud.

0:50:410:50:45

I didn't hate it any more.

0:50:450:50:47

It seemed like a protective blanket covering me.

0:50:470:50:50

And I thought to myself, "Well, if this is death, it's not so bad."

0:50:500:50:55

I found myself being bumped about and I realised that

0:51:050:51:09

I was on a stretcher, and I thought, "Poor devils these stretcher bearers,

0:51:090:51:14

"I wouldn't be a stretcher bearer for anything."

0:51:140:51:17

And then something else happened. I suddenly realised I wasn't dead.

0:51:170:51:23

I realised that I was alive.

0:51:230:51:26

I realised that if these wounds didn't prove fatal,

0:51:260:51:30

that I should get back to my parents,

0:51:300:51:33

to my sister, to the girl that I was going to marry.

0:51:330:51:37

The girl that had sent me

0:51:370:51:40

a letter every day, practically, from the beginning of the war.

0:51:400:51:43

And I must then have had that sleep that I so badly needed,

0:51:450:51:50

for I didn't recollect any more until I found myself in a bed

0:51:500:51:55

with white sheets, and I heard

0:51:550:51:58

the lovely, wonderful voices of our nurses -

0:51:580:52:02

English, Scotch and Irish, and I think then I completely broke down.

0:52:020:52:09

Next, the padre was sitting beside the bedside.

0:52:130:52:16

He was trying to comfort me.

0:52:160:52:19

He told me I'd had an operation.

0:52:190:52:21

And he told me that he had some relatives out there

0:52:210:52:24

that had been out there right from the beginning,

0:52:240:52:28

and by God's grace they hadn't had a scratch.

0:52:280:52:31

He said, "They've been lucky, haven't they?"

0:52:310:52:36

I thought to myself, "Lucky? Poor devils."

0:52:360:52:40

Over the course of the Great War,

0:52:550:52:57

the British Army developed new tactics and new weapons that

0:52:570:53:00

would eventually enable Britain and her allies to defeat the Germans.

0:53:000:53:04

The most important new weapon was a machine

0:53:040:53:07

that was initially called His Majesty's Landship.

0:53:070:53:11

The tank was designed to withstand machine gun fire

0:53:170:53:20

and break through trench defences.

0:53:200:53:22

Horace Leslie Birks was put in charge

0:53:220:53:25

of one of these early tanks at Passchendaele.

0:53:250:53:28

This was the first time I'd actually commanded a tank in action,

0:53:300:53:34

and I was petrified. I hoped the whole way up

0:53:340:53:37

that I should sprain my ankle or something like that,

0:53:370:53:42

that we should never get there or the whole thing would be called off.

0:53:420:53:46

We had no luck at all.

0:53:460:53:48

And the ghastly hour got nearer and nearer,

0:53:480:53:51

and the worst moment of all,

0:53:510:53:53

when we started up our engines, and they would backfire

0:53:530:53:58

and you got a sheet of flame out of the exhaust, everybody calling

0:53:580:54:01

each other a bloody fool and waiting to know what was going to happen.

0:54:010:54:06

However, nothing did happen, and we climbed into the tank.

0:54:060:54:10

We had to close down.

0:54:100:54:12

Because the... We were in very comfortable machine gun range,

0:54:120:54:17

and once you were shut down, you were completely isolated from the world.

0:54:170:54:22

We had no means of communication at all.

0:54:220:54:24

The thing got hotter and hotter and hotter.

0:54:300:54:32

The only ventilation was concerned with the engine,

0:54:320:54:34

and not with the crew.

0:54:340:54:36

You could only see forward through a little slit in the front visor, and

0:54:360:54:42

if you wanted to see out of the side you looked through steel periscopes,

0:54:420:54:47

which gave you a sort of translucent outside light, all distorted.

0:54:470:54:55

The noise inside was such that you could hear nothing outside at all.

0:54:550:54:59

And people made little gestures to you, rude or otherwise.

0:54:590:55:03

That was all you could do, your sole means of communicating.

0:55:030:55:07

We went off line ahead, and my own tank was the fourth.

0:55:070:55:11

And we'd only got about another ten minutes along the road,

0:55:110:55:15

when I thought the world had come to an end.

0:55:150:55:18

We ran straight into the counter-barrage of the Boche.

0:55:180:55:21

He'd evidently seen our leading tank,

0:55:210:55:23

which was some way ahead, and we caught it.

0:55:230:55:26

I've never been so frightened in my life. I think everybody was.

0:55:300:55:33

Blues and reds and yellows, all the pyrotechnic colours in the world.

0:55:330:55:39

And then there was the most almighty crash

0:55:390:55:42

and a sheet of flame came up from the starboard side.

0:55:420:55:46

And we'd had a direct hit.

0:55:460:55:48

The shelling was still going on.

0:55:510:55:53

If anything, more intense than we'd been machine gunned.

0:55:530:55:56

I had three men wounded.

0:55:560:55:59

One had got his leg blown off and he died later on that night.

0:55:590:56:02

And we got the whole lot out with the tank between us

0:56:020:56:06

and the Germans, and then sat down to take stock.

0:56:060:56:10

Didn't know what to do exactly.

0:56:100:56:13

Ten tanks were written off, none were recovered.

0:56:180:56:21

And nothing was achieved at all.

0:56:210:56:22

Appalled by the debacle at Passchendaele,

0:56:260:56:29

the British High Command was on the point

0:56:290:56:31

of abandoning these clumsy contraptions.

0:56:310:56:33

But the tanks were given a last chance to prove themselves

0:56:330:56:37

at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917.

0:56:370:56:41

Here there was no mud,

0:56:480:56:49

and tanks were deployed in much larger numbers.

0:56:490:56:52

Almost 500 tanks took part in the battle.

0:56:520:56:55

We got in, shut down our tanks, and we set course for the enemy line.

0:56:580:57:03

And then we got into this belt of wire.

0:57:030:57:06

It was quite terrifying because it was about seven feet high,

0:57:060:57:10

very, very thick wire, and it was over 120 yards deep in places.

0:57:100:57:14

And of course, if we'd have stopped in that or got our tracks

0:57:140:57:18

ripped off, then we should have been for it.

0:57:180:57:21

Instead of that, the tanks made great swathes in the wire, and

0:57:210:57:25

Jocks who were playing with us, they came through the gaps we'd made.

0:57:250:57:30

The Germans had just finished breakfast.

0:57:320:57:34

They were completely taken by surprise.

0:57:340:57:36

They were running about with their hands up,

0:57:360:57:39

hands down, hands everywhere.

0:57:390:57:40

My crew got out for a smoke and to have a look around,

0:57:480:57:51

and when the time came to go on, I found I had no crew at all.

0:57:510:57:55

They were all looting. However, we got them back.

0:57:550:57:58

I had two men from Scotland in the crew,

0:57:580:58:02

they came back with pistols, binoculars and all sorts of things.

0:58:020:58:05

I was furious with rage, so they presented the best pair to me,

0:58:050:58:08

and off we went again.

0:58:080:58:10

Cambrai was the first battle where tanks took on a decisive role.

0:58:150:58:19

Tanks and new tactics involving tanks would eventually

0:58:190:58:23

play their part in winning the Great War.

0:58:230:58:26

Horace Birks stayed in the Army.

0:58:290:58:31

He spent all his military career with his beloved tanks.

0:58:310:58:34

In the Second World War, he commanded an entire tank corps

0:58:340:58:39

and retired with the rank of Major General.

0:58:390:58:41

This version of the BBC Two documentary made especially for schools features interviews with nine eyewitnesses of the First World War. The interviews were filmed in the 1960s for the BBC series The Great War and include both soldiers and civilians: an infantryman who fraternised with the Germans during the Christmas truce of 1914, a German corporal who recalls the moment he killed a French soldier with his bayonet, a woman who lost her beloved husband on the Somme, a fighter pilot, an Australian soldier who fought at Gallipoli, a munitions worker, an infantry officer, a signaller and a tank commander.