Today is the 98th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Two years to go to the centenary. I don’t even want to think about what that might entail.

My grandfather Alfred Aloysius Ward was involved in this War to end all Wars. On 25 September 1915, he took part in the Loos offensive. The British enjoyed massive numerical supremacy against their German opposition at Loos, but once the pre-attack bombardment had finished, the battle plan called for the release of 5,100 cylinders of gas from the British front line.  The quantity of gas used was designed to entirely overcome the primitive state of German gas mask design in use at the time, but wind blew the gas back into the British trenches, resulting in 2,632 British gas injuries, one of whom was A A Ward (always known in our family as ‘Alf’).

From here on, Alf was in luck. Disabled by the crude chlorine gas, he wandered about aimlessly, eventually stumbling into a German trench, and was promptly taken prisoner. Had this not happened, the chances of me being here to write about it would be slim indeed.

He was shipped back with hundreds of other POWs to a camp in Bavaria and, having settled in on a Saturday night, the next morning an Oberleutnant came into Alf’s hut and asked all Catholics to identify themselves. The prisoners were wary of some ghastly Hun plot, but grandad dutifully stepped forward, along with a dozen or so others, and confessed to his religious belief. The Oberleutnant bade them come with him.

He led them towards the local town, where they attended Mass. Alf – a keen supporter of Confession – told the priest in garbled German of his guilt at being alive, and then the small group left to return to camp. But after a few hundred metres, the German guard suggested they repair to the local hostelry for a beer. The session turned into quite a few beers and, having wobbled back to the hut, the English soldiers told their mates what had happened.

“Amazingly,” grandad told me many years ago, “next Sunday the entire regiment was Catholic”.

12 thoughts on “Anecdotage

  1. The attitude of Hun towards Tommy in your piece has similarities to the few stories my wife’s grandfather (William Harold Brandom) recounted of his experiences as PBI in the Lancashire Fusiliers in the Great War.

    Reminded me of two tired but I think still relevant cliches – lions led by donkeys, and fickle finger of fate – one has to believe that because of the latter many many more made it home despite the former…


  2. Having been brought up C of E I found, at a comparatively young age, that buddhism – no capital B as I feel that this set of beliefs has no need of such a distinction – is a far more practical guide to life; however, I found myself yesterday in a Catholic church for the funeral of an old friend’s mother. This amusing and courageous lady had the great good fortune to die in her 97th year asleep in her own bed. Naturally, the service was also followed by a short sojourn in licensed premises where the assembled family and friends were able to refresh themselves and remember her.

    After the service I briefly spoke with the Dom and enquired about a famously cantankerous old French lady, a neighbour of my parents for nearly 50 years, who I know to be a member of his flock although she has recently moved into a nursing home. This lady, about 10 years younger than the departed, has for some time past taken to beseeching her friends – my parents, a retired GP and a nurse, included – to ‘help her to die’. In histrionically Gallic fashion. The Dom very amusingly revealed, without me having mentioned it at all, that he has also been a regular recipient of this request; apparently, his stock reply was: “You can cut that out for a start!”. I have known her for most of my life and have always felt that she suffers from the baffling medical condition LWS (Loose Wire Syndrome) bless her. It has long been a source of amusement within my family that, whilst she is not inconsiderably wealthy, she is tighter than a TT Panther with a seized piston. She owns valuable properties in France, and has numerous investments in UK but, although childless, explains that she can spend nothing as it must all go to her only relations – a French nephew and his son. She is, of course, being impervious to all reason, dismissive of the fact that due to exorbitant French IHT they will see little of it. The result is that she has for years held vast amounts of cash in the bank which, even at derisory ordinary deposit rates, just keep increasing. Several months ago my father, having gone over to see that she was alright – and having managed to finesse another appeal for the ‘coup de grace’, happened upon a bank statement and was concerned to see that in the previous 3 months over £100k had been withdrawn in cash which, on questioning her, he realised she knew nothing about. It turned out that the money had been stolen by one of the counter staff who was subsequently convicted. The bank was Barclays.


  3. Chlorine is used extensively in water treatment to kill off bacteria since it creates acid when mixed with water. Thus, in its state of mustard gas, so called because of its colour, being heavier than air, would lie around and react with the moisture in the eyes and lungs of those who came into contact with it. A nasty weapon.


  4. Bombardier Caratacus also suffered from the inhalation of chlorine gas at that time and managed to make it through to 1934 before pegging out and leaving a widow and many children (my mother being the youngest at four years old) to manage somehow on the “largesse” of the state that had condemned so many thousands to the altar of plenty for the few.

    The silly buggers are now gearing up for a fresh round … I despise them all.


  5. 4th August rings a bell in our family Last night we celebrated my youngest 20 th birthday and the fact he is no longer a teenager. But we also remembered that was the date 98 years ago my uncle, 17 years old at the time, was mobilised into the London Scottish TA regt. and went to France a few days later. He lasted till July 1916 when a German shell got him and 18 of his men in a front line trench. Given the tenor of the evening, for once I avoided my gloomy prognostications about where we are headed.


  6. John,
    your grandfather may have been a very lucky man indeed. One of the less well known facts of the Great War is the number of British prisoners of war who died through neglect, starvation and ill-treatment.


  7. My mother lost three brothers in that war, I hope that they found something to laugh about, as I am sure they did, knowing the indomitable spirit of the the British people.
    I wonder what they would say though, about our own politicians who are actively trying to destroy our sovereignty less than a century later?
    Thanks for the chuckle John.


  8. Absolutely. One-off anecdotes like the above give the impression being a British POW was a doddle in the Great War. From most accounts it was a horrific experience. Strange how in the Second War it seemed to change!


  9. lovelly story about your grandad, but, in all fairness, and without the tiniest bit of narkiness, the first time you told it here was funnier.


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