Soldier George T Coles
In April 1916, George T Coles from Ebbw Vale, South Wales, enlists and trains as a driver in the Royal Field Artillery. He serves with the Small Arms Ammunition Section of the 38th Brigade RFA in Mesopotamia during the Battle for Kut-el-Amara and the capture of Baghdad (September 1916 to July 1917). He spends time in hospital in India, and in Egypt he transfers to the Royal Flying Core to train with No 3 Cadet Wing, Cairo. He is posted to France with No 107 Squadron RAF and is taken prisoner of war when he crash lands in enemy territory in September 1918.
The following extract, taken from George's memoir written in 1934, covers the point at which he is captured.
Every moment I expected we would either burst into flames or part company with our wings.
September 4th, 1918
Sept 4th dawned dull and cloudy but insufficiently damp to wash out our daily raid. The Klaxon horn sounded the raid warning at 5am. Cursing raids. War and everything else. I made my way to the 'drome. Orders were in to bomb Valenciennes gas works and station. The squadron took off at 6.30am and climbed via Montreuil and Boulogne. We picked up a Bristol Fighter escort at Port Noyelles and crossed the line at Arras at 15,000'. It was intensely cold and Archie [anti-aircraft fire] commenced, worrying us considerably and we zig-zagged continually in an effort to dodge its attentions.
Whilst passing over Cambrai I spotted a formation of about 20 Hun machines away to the right. Our Bristol fighter escort had spotted them also and cleared off to give battle. We were left defenceless and proceeded on our unromantic task of blowing up Valenciennes. We reached Valenciennes at about 12,000' and dropped our bombs. I fear we did not get the station but we definitely got two gasometers which went up with a roar and a crash. I got splendid photographs of the bursts. Each squadron carried 3L-type cameras in the machines of the flight leaders. Whilst returning in perfect formation I spotted an odd Fokker at about 2000' below us. I had escaped from the dog fight with our Bristols, which was proceeding a few miles to the S. I gave the tip to Sproule; we each fired a test burst of our guns. Everything was OK and down we went after it at 130mph. On our dive Sproule fired about 100 rounds but did not hit the Hun; I waited patiently for it to appear above my tail. The Hun was obviously aware of the fighting limitations of DHq bombers. [...] As he crossed below our tail he put in a lucky and accurate burst - one tracer bullet lodged in my left ankle where it burnt out. Two bullets broke Sproule's left leg and another one cut the latch of my Lewis gun into two. This gun being out of action I waited until we passed the Hun and fired 100 rounds from my fixed tail gun. As I could not sight this gun the burst was ineffective.
By this time Sproule had fainted across his joy-stick and with full prop: on we were rushing earthwards. Every moment I expected we would either burst into flames or part company with our wings. In the meantime the Hun circled us firing spasmodically. I do not think he hit us more than twice - the first lucky burst which wounded us and a further burst as now narrated. Finding my gun dead I whipped off the magazine and threw it overboard. I took another from the side sack and whilst jerking it on to the gun peg 3 bullets whipped through it - one cutting through my flying gloves en route. It seems as though an invisible wood-pecker was pecking holes in the magazine pan. The ensuing seconds stand out in my memory as though they were years - though the most lasting impression I have of the occasion is that my dear mother who died in 1913 was standing in the cock-pit with me comforting and sustaining me in what appeared to be my last moments on earth. In plain print this looks absurd, but in reality it is a statement of fact which neither time nor added experience of life can efface. My mother was there - of this I am sure.
Spinning and rolling, out of control, we rushed earthwards. Suddenly the realisation of my useless gun flashed upon me - I whipped out my Very light signalling gun and fired a light at my circling opponent. Then - prompted by some strange physic urge - I hit my unconscious pilot across the head with the butt of my pistol. This proved our salvation - Sproule regained his senses and at about 4000' he pulled back the joy-stick, arrested our dive and dragged the nose of the bus uppermost. He switched off his engine and steeply dived down to a field below.
Just before we touched ground I got out my Shorts' Flare (a contraption for firing an aeroplane which we carried for occasions such as this) and pulled the fuse. The thing refused to act and it went overboard. I pushed a new cartridge in my Very pistol and fired into the tail of the machine. In the meantime Sproule, by a supreme effort of will and courage, had landed the bus. We bounced unevenly along the rough field coming to rest with one with touching the ground and one landing wheel forced up through it. Thus, despite every probability to the contrary, here we were, alive, in German territory, "somewhere" between Douai and Cambrai.
As our tail was now smoking it was time to get clear of the machine. I fell out rather than got out - standing on my one wounded leg, I dragged Sproule out of the bus and we both lay on the ground about 30 yards distant. Suddenly I spotted my Very pistol lying near and I crawled back to the bus intending to put a light into one of the several jets of petrol issuing from the petrol tanks through the bullet holes. Before I could get at the cartridges in my cockpit our German adversary had landed beside me and with revolver in hand put an end to my intentions.
Several French civilians and German soldiers had by now arrived on the scene and on instructions from the German pilot they chopped off the burning tail of our bus and salved the rest. My Very light had however served its purpose in that the bus was now useless and incapable of flight. The job was not as thorough as one would have liked but it was far better than surrendering an intact machine. The French civilians carried us to a neighbouring farm house and treated us with every kindness. They knew nothing about the progress of the war and plied us with anxious questioning. I told them of our recent advances, the imminence of the fall of Péronne and that I anticipated the capture of Cambrai and Douai within 14 days. My prophecy proved correct.
At the farmhouse some German soldiers took charge of us and cleaned the kitchen of the French, who to show their pleasure at seeing their Allies had loaded our pockets with eggs, black rye bread and honey. Their wealth obviously consisted of food and this they sought to share with us, forgetful of the fact that an hour or so earlier we had been occupants of a British officer's mess. A German officer then rode up on horseback and took command. He ordered the French peasants from the doors and windows. Seeing their reluctance to obey he went out and laid about all and sundry with a thonged leather whip.
Soon afterwards a German doctor arrived and bandaged our wounds with bandages made of white crepe paper. In the meantime our victor turned up. He was a lance-corporal named Nulle - a Fokker scout pilot. He said we were his 5th victim in two days. Although he was undoubtedly a good shot, this yarn takes some swallowing. He seemed a fine type of youth, we shook hands and I gave him my flying helmet as a souvenir. After waiting an hour or so a German staff car arrived and took us to a near-by hospital which was formerly a school. I got into conversation with the driver - he had, before the war, driven taxis in London. He admitted that Germany was already defeated and that her capitulation was near. He attributed defeat to our sea blockade and its consequent starvation of civilian Germany. This, I found out, was the prevailing opinion everywhere. No German would admit military defeat on the Western Front. The War, they said, was lost on Germany and not in France.
On the way to the hospital they car halted at some Kommandant's office and my Sidcot flying suit, my sheep-skin boots, my silk sub-helmet and my puttees were taken from me and handed in - obviously for use in the German air force. My Sidcot suit contained all the food supplied by the French peasants, so that was lost. On reaching hospital we were thoroughly searched. All my belongings were returned excepting a photograph of a group of wounded soldiers at Graylingwell Military Hospital, Chichester, and my field cash pay book. Here we began to feel hungry and said so. A huge bowl of carrot soup was brought in together with a mug of "Koffee". This was our first encounter with German ingenuity in the matter of substitutes. There was no such thing as tea, coffee, cocoa or sugar in Germany. Koffee consisted of an infusion of burnt acorns and burnt barley without milk or sugar. "Tee" was a weak brew of Senna pods occasionally sweetened by 'himbeer syrup'. All bandages and dressings were made of crepe paper. There was no such thing as 'soap' - Seife was its substitute made of wood ash and sand. It cleaned by friction and resembled Monkey Brand. Rubber tyres on motor vehicles were replaced by two concentric metal rims separated by volute springs. Cloth and linen were used up long ago - suits, shirts, and handkerchiefs were made of woven paper fibre. Clogs were almost universally in use, but where boots were owned they had wooden soles. What a contrast to the resources on our side of the line! Poor Germany, she's about Kaput!
To return to my narrative - after four hours' rest, two German Flying officers (obviously intelligence men) drove up. They spoke faultless English and tried to get us to talk. Like Br'er Rabbit we said 'nuffin'. They took us in their car to a large casualty clearing station at Caudray. The building was formerly a factory and was crowded with wounded Germans. The beds were nothing more than verminous straw covered egg crates arranged in tiers. We were put side by side in one of these with groaning Germans above, below and along-side us. Here our wounds were re-dressed and we were inoculated against tetanus. Our daily diet here consisted of 3 slices of black bread made of rye and sawdust, 1 bowl of carrot soup and 3 cups of Koffee. Towards evening Sproule's leg got worse and I had trouble keeping him quiet. At 9pm he was taken to the operating theatre - he returned at 9.30 unconscious. I followed him to the theatre at 10pm - was given a dose of chloroform, had my wound cleaned out, the bullet extracted and the broken ankle tendon sewn together. I came round and was fairly comfortable by 11.15pm. I could have slept but Sproule groaned and writhed with pain all night. His wounds were much more serious than mine.
An elderly World War One veteran reveals his reservations about the conflict.