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john clarkson pt3

by age concern st helens

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age concern st helens
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29 November 2004

WD Did you, what about gas, any gas precautions?
JC Yes we had gas masks but we hadn’t these has masks it was a lump of blanket with two goggles in and we used to call it a bap in your mouth. You sucked in and when you blew out you blew through this, we had that on and then had to dipped in disinfectant, that was stinking stuff and then wrung out and then given to you carried in a case that was supposed to be waterproof, pull it out and put it on, oh! That was nasty stuff, nasty stuff.

WD Did you have to go through a gas chamber?
JC Oh yes we went through a gas chamber, we pretty well touched everything.

WD Did you do any special training yourself I mean in machine gun or signalling or anything like that?
JC What I did was SOS, scouting, observing and sniping yes I wore a green badge, I was given two stripes.

WD And you did that at Codford, at Codford you practiced that. What was that then SOS, can you tell us about the training for that I’ve not heard of that before?
JC I was sent to another school then to be trained for this.

WD Where was this special training school?
JC It was not far from Codford, just outside Codford, only a small place and we were on map reading. I had to map read and different things out of the ordinary and we used to rail and be able to direct and instruct anybody to go wherever they wanted to go and we would trace it on the map and say you will do such a thing and you will go somewhere and you’ll turn and follow the bearings.

WD So what about the sniping, you practiced sniping?
JC Yes I practiced sniping, that’s where my good shooting came in.

WD How did you practice that?
JC When we were in the trenches they would instruct us to go out and make a place out there and watch him and pick him off when you saw him coming.

WD Hang on, I’ll be coming to that, but did you practice that at this school outside Codford, did they actually train you in it?
JC Oh yes I practiced this and then we went to a village and we were outside a village they would miss a brick out in the wall and we used to go upstairs and look through these and watch him, you could see him in the distance and get ready and pick him off.

WD I’ll come to your sniping. You were training at Codford, then you did your advance training, then you did this SOS training and you were made a corporal were you?
JC Yes I was a corporal.

WD Did you go out to France from Codford?
JC No, hey where did I go from? I’m blowed if I know.

WD Was there another training camp you went to after Codford or did you go straight, because you said you went to the Eleventh?
JC I went to Accrington Pals the Eleventh, yes I’m trying to think, where did I go to France from the first time? I went twice to France?

WD Do you remember what month it was when you first went out to France or roughly what time of the year?
JC No, no.

WD Was it before Christmas 1916 or after Christmas 16?
JC Just a minute, on the 7th June 1917 there was the Messines Ridge, that’s right, it’s coming now that’s better.

WD Was that when you were sent out?
JC I’d been out a few months in 1917 up to this June 7th I’d been out a few months with the Eleventh Battalion.

WD So you had gone out in early 1917?
JC That’s right early in 1917

WD So when you went out do you remember anything about the crossing?
JC Yes I remember the crossing, nothing outstanding just an ordinary thing.

WD And then what happened?
JC We were sent to the 19th Division a Butterfly Division. I said “Why Butterfly?” Well they said “It’s always flitting about it never stops anywhere long.” We were sent on different fronts because it was a Butterfly Division.

WD Where were the Eleventh when you joined them?
JC It’s getting hard now! You mean what part in France, you mean what front? We were facing up to as I come back to the Messines Ridge. He was on a big high ridge and he looked down on us and whatever went on he could watch whatever was were doing. If the ration party was coming on he’d blow it out, whatever was going on he blew it out, so the authorities said “Well we can’t walk up the hill to him what we will have to do is tunnel underneath him, they tunnelled underneath him. They put an order out “Does anybody know anything about mining or have they experienced any mining.” So they got a few results, a few lads volunteered and they went to be colliers and they dug underneath him on the Messines Ridge. It took about a month or so however, they took it underneath and then it was ready and on the 7th June they had packed that with explosives and we went up, we were about, I would say a quarter of a mile away waiting for it to go up and then we were to go then we were going to go to be in the middle of it if we weren’t careful so on the 7th June at half past three in the morning a scorching how day it was this went up. We were in the trench and it just went like this (WD- Rocking from side to side?) blowing up just like that, terrific.

WD Could you hear the noise, what was the noise like?
JC Yes it was terrific you were going into Hell he said we are going into Hell, nay we’re not, yea we are, what a mess. Well it eventually stopped so after, there was certain period, I don’t know how long it was while we let it settle down and then we were off, over. So over we go and this broken territory, what a mess! What a mess!

WD What do you remember about it, do you remember it in any detail?
JC Yes I remember it well.

WD Could you tell us about then?
JC I’m walking along with my bayonet, full marching order and a box of bombs, an extra bandoleer of bombs around your chest and we are walking on and in the distance, we never thought we would see anybody, in the distance, cordite was stinking, in the distance I could see one fellow, he must have been a German, and we shouted of him to come back, whether he heard us or not but he wouldn’t do, come back! Come back be a prisoner but he wouldn’t he kept on running. So we could see we couldn’t overtake him so what we did, well what I did, I stopped and I had one in the breech ready and I took aim and I stood still for a minute and let him have it. Oh! I hit him lovely; he dropped just like that just! (At this point there is a long pause and Mr. Clarkson can he heard becoming very emotional until he continues in a still very emotional state) well I’m looking at my rifle like that when there was a shell burst very very close and all at once I get hit here…

WD Your left shoulder
JC My left shoulder I didn’t know where so oh! I said I’m hit and nobody heard me they went on and left me, well I dropped my rifle threw it down oh! And I staggered I staggered but where am I hit I didn’t know. So I undid my belt and took my epaulets off and got out, left my stuff there and I slid down this hole that has been made by these shells, slid down and I was laying about 45 degrees then. I was gradually going worse I couldn’t breathe so I thought what am I going to do but where am I hit, I didn’t know where am I hit. So after a long time I’m laid there and it was scorching oh my tongue was way out just then two stretcher bearers came along so they said “Hello we haven’t to take nobody back as is too far gone, we have to leave them and carry on to them as is more able” So I said “I’m alright, I’m alright” I couldn’t talk I had to tell them as best way as I could “I’m alright.” They have a meeting and they said, “Alright, we will take you back then” so I was fortunate. So they took me back put me on a jinni road a little jinni road that they had and they out the stretcher on and let it go back and they carried on again. So they took me then to a clearing station, CCS Canadian Clearing Station. This clearing station they looked at you, like a first aid dressing placer that’s all. Look at you and said “we can’t do nothing with him he’ll have to go back, take him back, anywhere Rouen, either Rouen or Etretat take him back.” So I was bundled back and then I gets to this hospital, it were a proper hospital then and they had to find out where I was hit. Well blood, this sounds a bit bloody, blood had seeped straight down to my shoes, in my hoes, blood everywhere I hadn’t a drop of blood I don’t think I had a drop of blood. They had to cut everything off, shoes everything off, strip me naked, what a mess! Dear! Dear! Dear! (Here again Mr. Clarkson became very emotional) terrific! So they said “we’ll have to do the best we can to find out.” Well they looked they said “Oh you been hit in your shoulder blade, the bone has turned it down it has gone through your lung and come out at your back.” “No” I said “it’s not come out because I can feel something there.” “Well we’ll have a look we’ll turn you over” and true enough they turned me over and at the bottom of my back just a black dot, just a black dot (again Mr. Clarkson became very emotional). Well he just nicked that and he put one of those enamel kidney things in that they can press to you and pulled it out and it dropped out and it tinkled (again a pause and emotion) terrific dear, dear. (Very quietly) “I’ve never told this tale.” He said “I’ll have to operate.” Well they operate I was better but it weren’t right no, my lung kept filling up, there was black blood, where it were coming from I don’t know, just like treacle, nasty stuff. So they said “the only thing is we will have to put an aperture into your back to drain it off bottom of your lung as your making it you’re draining it off.” Well they had to have another operation then. You have ribs at your back, cut a rib and fit a tube into your lung; mind you it’s 1918 you see there was no blood infusions then you had to make your own blood. So he put this into me and every morning it had to taken out and washed out and if they thought it was draining cut a little bit off and put it back again. So they said “that’s that only think we can do now for you, we can’t do no more, but you’re no good here you are in the way here now we’ll have to send you back.” So of course I got back, back to England. Well I was sent to Bury St. Edmunds, that’s right in Suffolk I think. I’ve never been to that place, I’ve never been yet to it, however it’s an ordinary hospital, just a General hospital and they sent for my mother and my sister to come down to me. So they came down (again Mr. Clarkson became very emotional) however they stopped for about a week and eventually they went back. So I was improving a little bit, a little bit, I got up then knocking about but I couldn’t bear, I had to have this still in my back, I had to be very careful, I couldn’t pretend to lie on my left side always on my right. So it got better and better and they said “from here we can send you to another place now where you can be more convalescent.” So I got sent to Newmarket, Tate and Lyles Racing Break at Newmarket and they had a separate place where they used to go when there was racing on, they had parties there when there was racing, of course the war stopped all that, so it was turned into a hospital. I was at Severals House for five or six months and I had another operation it wasn’t draining as it should be, so I had to have this other operation. What they did I don’t know, but anyhow I felt better after it. So when I’m 16,17,18 of course you are not developed properly and I was doing extraordinary well so they kept saying “you’re getting over this very well aren’t you” and I said “I’m getting better now I’ll soon be shut of this lot now.” So they nipped and nipped and kept cutting a little bit off and then I got as I could do without it and I let it heal up so they said “you’ll have to very careful now, your flesh will grow into that and fill it up and you’ll not know you’ve had it done.” I used to show my wide I said “Look there” however I still got this here, I’d show if I didn’t have a collar on and it splintered the collarbone and turned it down well he had to pick lumps of this collarbone it shattered the bone anyway it got done. So now it’s very good the only think now if I get a cold it flies there.

WD So you only went out to the front the once and then you were wounded?
JC I was wounded yes I had about four months and then I was wounded. From there I left Severals House and they said, “You’re fit now you’re getting fit but you will never do anymore soldiering. So go on a fortnight’s leave, your hospital leave and then report to Colwyn Bay, no not Colwyn Bay, Redcar go to Redcar in Yorkshire and report there and they’ll see what they can do with you.” So of course I had a fortnight at home just before Christmas in 1917 and I was back in Redcar.

WD So you had been in hospital about six months?
JC Six months yes

WD You had gone to Redcar, now who were you joining at Redcar?
JC I was joining a feeding battalion but when I passed out at Redcar to go to France again second time I was taken to the Second East Lancs. Eight Division Second East Lancs.

WD When you went to Redcar you had been told you wouldn’t do anymore soldiering?
JC Yes I’d been told I wouldn’t do any more soldiering, well I’ll give you an instance when that was changed. I got to Redcar I reported at the office there and they said “Well go to a billet.” In Redcar it’s like Blackpool all lodging houses at the front I’ve been evacuated, with being sitting in the North Sea very dangerous there in the North Sea straight opposite Germany, they said it’s straight opposite Germany, no civilians lived in these houses they out them in for billets everything was stripped off only the boarded floor, nothing else. So there were so many in a room so they said “go to number so and so promenade, take your bed from here your blanket or your sheet take your bed and go to this number so and so on the promenade.” I went to this promenade and I knocked at the door, there were a few in, I asked if there was any room and they pointed some out. So I settled down and looked round and asked what they were doing. They were cleaning their buttons and their shoes I said “what are you doing that for?” “Well we have to do.” I said “you shouldn’t have to do that, they are putting us here away from everybody and you have to do this.” “You’ll see in the morning when he comes and he’s a big bully and he’s this and the other.” I said “is he, well him and me are going to have a row that’s all.” So true enough, went to bed and fell asleep, fast asleep and it was still dark when he came, throws door open bang, bang clapping his hands “come on, come on, kicking that board that goes round “come one, come on get up.” I said “hey no not me, look,” I said “I’m not getting up for you.” He said, “You’re not!” If you’re not out of that bed I’ll dump you out.” He was going through the door and my shoes were down here and I picked my shoe up and threw it at him I hit the door, I missed him I hit the door. “Who threw that?” I said, “I threw that.” “Do you know what you’ve done?” I said, “I know what I haven’t done, I haven’t hit you which I should have done.” “So alright I’ll report you, I’ll fix you up.” I said “will you, get me fixed up then I can’t do this cleaning buttons its ridiculous.” So of course I’m due to Company Bunk, Company Officer and he looks he says “Do you think because you’ve been to France you can do what you like.” I said “I don’t think that at all but I know I don’t need to do that what he wants to do, cleaning.” “Well” he said, “We’ve got to have a certain amount of order.” “Order my foot,” I said oh I rhymed of at him. “You know you’re getting a difficult fellow,” he said. I replied “I’m not that difficult, its common sense.” So he said “look if you don’t want to go you don’t have to do it.” So I said “well what about these lads?” “Well” he said, “they are different.” I said “they are no different than me I’ve been where they haven’t been maybe but beyond that they are lads just like I am,” they were same age group I would normally be called up with them had I been in a civvy. So I get seven days notice seven days CB (confined to barracks) again. So of course I do and am not able to go out at night but it was pitch dark then you formed about it was shocking because they daren’t have a light on there. So my time went on there and then it came one day and it said we are picking a draft, there’s one for Egypt and one for France, and you are down for Egypt. I said “Alright I’ll get you exchanged and they’ll jump at the chance to change you.” So he picked somebody to take my place in Egypt and I went to France, so I got back to France.

WD Hang on, why didn’t you want to go to Egypt, what didn’t you like about that?
JC I didn’t want to go to Egypt; I didn’t want to get fried up.

WD You didn’t like the heat, weren’t you scared about going back to France?
JC Oh no, no, as I said I feared nothing when I was well, I didn’t.

WD What about your wound had it healed up properly?
JC Yes it had healed fine and I gave it every encouragement to heal up I didn’t trail in. So eventually I got back and I was drafted to the Second East Lancs. Eight Division right on the front, they were a Line Battalion; they were soldiers, real soldiers.

WD About what month was that?
JC I honestly couldn’t tell you.

WD Was it into 1918?
JC Well it would have to be, it would have to be, wouldn’t it? Yes the last year of the war and we were in mobs that we would have to fight our way out, we were being driven back and then it came “nobody must retreat you haven’t got to retreat.”

WD That was March 1918, was that when you joined them just during the German attack?
JC No, it was before then, I wasn’t long when I left Saltburn, I wasn’t long, was it Saltburn?

WD Redcar, you said Redcar.
JC Redcar yes. It wasn’t long before I was there, it would be early in 1918. This is messing you up isn’t it bit I can’t help it.

WD You’re doing fine; it’s a long time ago, 70 odd years ago. Do you remember any of what you were doing in trenches in 1918?
JC Well of course it was slow moving up to March, up to April really, he drove us back and then we made this stand and we said nobody will retreat now.

WD Do you remember anything about the retreat before you got that order, could you tell us about it?
JC We got to Amiens and we had the civvies to evacuate, we used to wheel a truck and get the civvies they had to flit their stuff out so the troops could come in. We held Amiens and then form Amiens we marched on and we went every day more and more catching him, but we could never get hold of him. He used to go the night before or the afternoon before and we never for him we never for in contact with him. He was on the retreat and we were on the go until we got to Little Mons, not Big Mons, Little Mons, where the War first started Mons, well we got to Little Mons just before that and then the Armistice came. We were absolutely tired we could never catch up to him; however we got one night in Little Mons.

WD Hang on, before you go on, do you remember anything about fighting? Any stories that you could tell us to show us what it was like.
JC No, I don’t think so as I said you could never get hold of him.

WD You said you were a sniper can you tell me something about that?
JC We couldn’t get to snipe them, they had gone we couldn’t catch them, I finished with it then.

WD When did you do your sniping then, could you just tell me what you did as a sniper what you actually did, how would you go about it?
JC I waited till he would bob-up, just come up; spot his tin hat, but I could never get him.

WD Where would you hide?
JC I was in anywhere in an outhouse or anywhere like that I could get some cover.

WD Weren’t you worried, wasn’t it very risky in trying to snipe, that you would be sniped yourself wasn’t that a risk you took?
JC Well I was in charge of snipers really.

WD You can’t remember much about it?
JC No, I’ve forgotten those are the little things; you took them with a pinch of salt.

WD So you don’t remember much more about your service on the Western Front?
JC No not really, o yes a little tale end here. When the war come to be finished the Second Battalion, a Line Battalion every one all old time servers they sent out all them that had been signed on for the duration of the war, I was one too and they said “How about joining up, having a five year spell?” I said “Five years, I wouldn’t have five minutes here.” So they said, “I’ll tell you what, try and see what they say at home.” So I wrote home and they said “cotton trades doing nothing, I wouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to get home, you are doing alright there I would stop if I were you.” So of course I stopped I took on for twelve months. Twelve months, well its better than nothing, well from then on we were sent to Ireland at Cork, we were sent to camp there, I’ve forgotten the name it was a little village it was in Ireland and we were there for six months and then we moved to another place, I forgotten the name and then of course my time comes to be up, twelve months I said “I’m off, I’m off.” “Get away, you’re silly you know.” I said “I’ve had it enough, I’ve had enough, I’ve had a good basin full, I don’t want no more.” So I came out, I could claim my discharge I came out and I left it and I came home.

WD What didn’t you like about it, why had you had enough?
JC Well I’d enough really to be told, I’m very independent, I’m still independent now and I like to be independent and to think I can fend my own battles and do what I want and I thought I’ve had enough, being told when to go to bed and when to get up in a morning and that I said I want a change, so that’s how I gained and I came home. So that’s the tale.

WD Did you find it easy to get a job again straight away?
JC Yes I was sent to, what’s that place? It’s a well know rail head place here we come back, oh and coming back it was very rough sailing across to Ireland and I lost my tin hat, my tin hat fell overboard and my tin hat is in the Irish Channel now, so I came home without a tin hat.

WD Did you go straight into the cotton trade again?
JC Eventually I did, yes I did but I didn’t stick it very long, no longer then I could help and I bought a place, I struck out then in business and left it there.

WD Thank you very much.

Mr. Clarkson a remarkable character died in a St. Helens Nursing Home at the age of 97, there were very few at his funeral, the beauty and the tragedy, he had outlived all his old comrades.

To that day in the top drawer of his bureau, wrapped in a piece of lint, was kept the German bullet that had so nearly ended his life eighty years previously.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - John Clarkson

Posted on: 30 November 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Many thanks for posting this most remarkable story ('remarkable' to us, that is, but unfortunately all too common to the millions who served in WW1). It is deeply moving, a young lad severely wounded and barely recovered, grotesquely sent back into the front line - and don't you just wish that that shoe had hit that idiot's head?

John Clarkson modestly says "we were being driven back and then it came “nobody must retreat you haven’t got to retreat”. This undoubtedly refers to the last huge German onslaught (very much like the surprising Ardennes Battle of the Bulge offensive in December 1944) when on 11 April 1918, after the Allies had struggled for six days to defend successive lines behind the Lys and all seemed lost, Haigh issued his famous Special Order of the Day, which was read out to every man as an explicit order: "There is no course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight to the end".

John Clarkson's epic story of course has nothing to do with WW2 but please leave it here, just ensure that it is copied to the BBC WW1 website.

Kindest regards,



Message 2 - John Clarkson

Posted on: 03 December 2004 by maltjoseph


Glad you found Mr. Clarksons story interesting. I was a neighbour and friend of this remarkable man, he was indeed a wonderful character with an epic story to tell. He was an extremely intelligent man with a ready sense of humour and fun which was also matched by his wife. They were in fact a lovely couple to know and to be with.

Best Wishes

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