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The final word from the Great War heroes

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BerichtGeplaatst: 12 Nov 2006 18:24    Onderwerp: The final word from the Great War heroes Reageer met quote

The final word from the Great War heroes

Historian Max Arthur interviewed the last 21 servicemen to have experienced the horrors of the First World War for his book, Last Post. Today, only four arestill alive. Ahead of Remembrance Day, Lindsay Jennings reports on their legacy for future generations.

GEORGE Rice could remember the day distinctly. He was 17 and was at the Territorial Army training camp near Llandudno, in Wales, having travelled down from his native Stockton.

Life at the camp was, George considered, a bit like a holiday. One day, during a break, he set off with some other lads to climb a hill to get a good view of his surroundings. That's when he heard the sound of a bugle.

"I wondered what was going on and when we returned to camp we were told that the war had started," he recalled. "We were all shocked when they ordered us back to Stockton on August 3. Nobody talked as we marched to the railway station to go back to our barracks."

Little did George know how the sound of that bugle would signal an end to life as he knew it.

George was eventually called up to the front line in 1917. He transferred from the Durham Light Infantry to the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, where it was his job to operate the Lewis (machine) gun with a fellow soldier. Early in 1918, he set sail for Boulogne before being sent to Havrincourt in northern France.

Telling his story to historian Max Arthur two years ago, George remembered the Germans were halfway into France as he got to the front line.

"We were moving 1,000 yards at a time, leapfrogging in the direction of Germany," he recalled. "The fighting was incessant and ferocious. The trenches were horrible; wet and cold.

"On one occasion, my section fought intensely all day to capture a commanding ridge. We secured it and started to dig in. The 'old sweats' in the unit, young men in their twenties, said 'be careful, because Jerry will counter-attack almost immediately before we can dig in'. Sure enough, minutes later, the enemy came at us from nowhere.

'They charged with bayonets raised, screaming wildly to demoralise us. They were so close that they weren't using their rifle-sights - they were shooting openly over them. The lieutenant in charge, standing right next to me, was shot dead. I had no time to react and I could not wedge the two front legs of my Lewis gun into the ground. Those around me desperately tried to help to secure them as the Germans ran closer.

"When the gun was finally stabilised, and the Germans were almost on top of us, I pulled the trigger and eight Germans fell dead. I didn't have to aim, they were so near. They ran in a line into my bullets."

Whatever George would think about the war later, at the time it was his job as a solider to pull the trigger.

"It was them or us," he said. "Feelings didn't come into it."

But although George served for only months, the fighting was relentless, right up until November 11. He remembered one time, when there had been a lull in the battle noise, when silence had fallen on the lane next to a railway bank his comrades were spread along, seeing a lone German soldier come into view.

"Although we were under orders to hold fire, someone in our sector couldn't resist taking a shot at this lone man. At once, this triggered a massive discharge of arms along the line. The German soldier, facing certain death, went into a panic. He zig-zagged, ducked and dived to avoid the hail of bullets. Suddenly, one of the more sensitive among us called out in a very loud voice 'give him a chance, chaps'. The firing ceased and the sentry ran off. We all felt very emotional and strangely moved."

George's story is one of 21 captured in the book, Last Post, by historian Max Arthur. Many of those last surviving veterans of the First World War, including George, have since died. Only four are alive today. But in speaking of their experiences, some for the first time, they have provided a lasting legacy for future generations.

Alongside George was a fellow private with Durham Light Infantry, George Charles, of South Shields. George, who died on December 10, 2004, aged 105, speaks of how a sense of humour helped negate some of the bloody and diseased conditions they were living in, recalling the time he was on sentry duty alone.

"I heard this rustling in the trees behind me, and I thought I'd had it," he says. "Then something knocked into my back and I turned around to find a horse that had got loose. It helped to have a sense of humour to get you through."

Other North-East veterans telling their stories include Corporal William Roberts of Hartlepool, who died on April 30 this year, aged 105, and Tom Kirk also of Hartlepool, who died on November 9, 2004, aged 105.

Max, 67, of North London, tracked down the men through Dennis Goodwin, chairman of the World War One Veterans' Association. Through their families, Max encouraged all of them to talk of their experiences. His knack in getting them to open up would be to talk about their childhoods first.

"I had to be careful though, because they would get very tired very quickly because they weren't used to being interviewed," he says.

"Some of them couldn't remember very much at all, so I would talk to their families. But sometimes they were speaking for the first time. I remember a chap of 106 in Wales. While I was talking to him, his son was crying because he'd never heard his dad talk about the First World War. He came out with the greatest line. I said to him 'did you have lice' and he said 'no, the lice had me'."

There were times, understandably, when the sheer futility and awful experiences of the men pierced Max's heart. At times like this, Max says, he would simply walk away for a few minutes, wipe a tear from the eye and collect himself.

"You simply couldn't fail to be moved," he says.

Max is due to record the memories of the remaining First World War veterans across the world - there are 50 still alive. He hopes that in tracking them down, it will ensure their bravery is never forgotten, long after their deaths.

"These are the last voices," he says. "In a couple of years there won't be any more voices left."

For George Rice, his experiences of war made him grow up quickly. He later moved to the Midlands, found work at a motor company and married Elsie, going on to have four boys, two of whom sadly died.

He lost his beloved wife Elsie in January 1997 and spent his latter years in a residential home, entertaining the residents with a tune or two on his mouth organ.

"I never used to talk about my wartime experiences," he told Max. "I was very young at the time and so much has happened to me since, but now that there are so few veterans left, everybody wants to speak to me.

"Even though I still enjoy life, I sometimes feel as though I've had enough. I know that, one day, Jesus will call and take me to Elsie."

* Last Post by Max Arthur (Orion Books £7.99).

9:16am Friday 10th November 2006
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