Contributed by: John Gouriet, on 2008-11-05
|Year of Birth||1897|
|Year of Death||1973|
|Place of Wartime Residence||Washford, Minehead, Somerset|
My late father Alfred ('Wings') Gouriet was 17 and still a boy when he volunteered for Army service and joined the 16th Middlesex (Public Schools Battalion) in 1915 as a private. That winter his battalion moved to France and he took part in the first battle of Ypres, commenting on the huge rats that gnawed their boots, the incessant rain that flooded the trenches and the snipers' bullets that picked off many an unwary soldier who stood to pull his trousers up in the makeshift latrine at the end of a trench.
Boy survived Somme and Ypres to become RFC pilot
In April 1916 16 Middx were redeployed to the Somme in preparation for the forthcoming major allied offensive. They joined 29 Division and were reserve battalion in 86 Brigade, marching forward, unscathed at that moment, into position behind 87 Brigade during the night of 30 June 1916. A lark heralded the dawn and the great mine duly exploded under the German front line at 7.30am on 1 July, leaving a vast crater 350 yards in front of the first wave of British troops. Recovering rapidly however, German machine-gunners poured a withering fire into the advancing British and Canadian infantry.
My father was in the second wave and actually reached the lip of the crater through the continuing hailstorm of lead and shrapnel. After resting for a while behind some bodies and realising that he was virtually alone he made his way back to his own line, miraculously unwounded, one of about twelve survivors in his company of 144 who had set out an hour before. 16 Middx suffered some 84% casualties that day, part of a total of more than 10,000 killed and wounded before midday.
However another shock was in store. The following night under a full moon, he was part of a patrol, sent out to recover identity discs and personal possessions of casualties in the next door battalion - the Newfoundlanders. He found the whole battalion in lines as though on parade with scarcely a gap - all dead, mown down by machine-guns. The Newfoundland Regiment had lost over 90%.
My father was so frightened by this experience; he was still only 18, he volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps, imagining that life in the air would be free as a bird and more peaceful. He duly became a commissioned pilot, earning the nickname 'Wings' which endured throughout his life. He crashed twice - the first time he broke a leg, pinned under the engine and the second time he crashed in the North Sea and trod water for several hours until miraculously, once again, he was picked up by a fishing boat. He retired to civilian life in 1920.
However in 1939 'Wings' rejoined immediately, was a ground controller in Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain and later as a squadron leader at several fighter stations, did a spell at the War Office and was posted to Gambut near El Alamein where he became station commander at the end of the war, but declined a posting to Lord Mountbatten's staff in Burma as a group captain and retired to be with his family.