The story of a machine gunner with the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers, as recorded by Sergeant Hugh Wilson from August 1914 to April 1915. The relatives of Sgt Hugh Wilson very generously donated his medals, army documents, photographs and two volumes of a hand written journal to the Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum in October 2003. The museum published his vivid and moving journal in September 2004 as a tribute to the "Old Contemptibles" of 1914 in the ninetieth anniversary year of the start of the First World War.
In "Angels and Heroes" the simple, yet wholly articulate words of Sgt Hugh Wilson describe the trials and tribulations of a soldier from the British Expeditionary Force of 1914. An account of the activities of the 1st Battalion is interspersed with Sgt Wilson's Journal, and sets the scene for his actions during those first chaotic months of fighting, when both Sgt Wilson and the British Army were on a steep learning curve.
Many of the 100,000 strong BEF were Reservists recalled to duty because of the war. In one of his first journal entries Sgt Wilson recalls how he:
"arrived at Armagh the following morning and had hardly time to look round and visit a few old friends before I was back again with 300 men for Shorncliffe. I had been previously stationed at Armagh for 3 years, so it was not strange to me. I left Armagh on Saturday night and oh such a send off we got, the streets were crowded and all along the line were fog signals which made an awful row as the train began to move."
At the time the Armagh Guardian reported that at 11pm on 8th August around 300 Reservists marched through the crowded streets of Armagh to the railway station. They were led by the band of the 3rd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers and the mounted troop of the Ulster Volunteers, followed by the local UVF Company who were singing patriotic songs.
Hugh was the son of Samuel and Mary Wilson, born into the Presbyterian church of Knocknagor near Gilford, Co Down on 30th April 1885. He had a brother, Samuel and two sisters, Marion and Lily. By the time he was 12 years old the Wilson family had moved to Manchester. Hugh followed the family tradition and joined his father's regiment, the Manchesters on 26th August 1901, when he was 16 years and three months old. His army pay book records that he was just 5 foot tall with blue eyes and auburn hair, and that he had a heart tattooed on his forearm.
He was an exemplary and intelligent soldier who by 1907 had transferred into the Royal Irish Fusiliers and gained the rank of sergeant. He qualified first as a Physical Training Instructor and then as a marksman and was appointed the Battalion Shot. All his years of studying and hard work paid off when he was given his first posting away from the Regiment on 24th July 1914 as a Sergeant Instructor for the Lewis light machine gun.
He embarked with the British Expeditionary Force in August 1914 and fought during the first battle of the war at Le Cateau, where for his bravery under very heavy fire he was mentioned in despatches and awarded the Médaille Militaire, the equivalent of the British Distinguished Conduct Medal.
The following extract from his journal describes his first taste of battle:
"a shell burst as it seemed to me right on my head. I fell down and was just wondering what happened when I heard groans coming from all round me. The man in front of me was kicking nearly in my face and when I looked I could see he was in his death throes. I got his bandage out and when I went to start to bandage him I did not know where to begin, for he had that many holes in him. I counted seven, but there was in all probability more. Anyhow I put the bandage on the most serious one I thought, that was in the throat, but I might have spared myself the trouble for as I finished I noticed he had one through the heart. He died before I left him."
On Christmas Day 1914 the Royal Irish Fusiliers were billeted at La Crèche near Armentières. It was a fine frosty morning, with services for the Roman Catholics being held in the village church and for Protestants in the schoolhouse. The Christmas cards sent by the King and Queen were distributed along with Princess Mary's chocolate and cigarette boxes. Sgt Wilson details his Christmas:
"The next day Friday was an ideal Xmas, the ground being covered with snow, and the morning was employed in getting good things given to us. Gifts of Christmas pudding, cigarettes and cakes we got in abundance and what with the parcels we got from home, we began to forget there was a war on at all. In the evening we had a little concert on our own in the kitchen and I managed to borrow a mandolin from a Frenchman, so that we had a little music also, not forgetting the French girls who came in with their gramophone. We did not understand the songs but the dance music we did and had a good time on the floor dancing. We were all pleased at this time to see our King and Queen had not forgotten us, for we each received a present."
By March 1915 Sgt Wilson had become inured to the stench and degradation of life in the trenches and described the daily presence of death in the trenches in a matter of fact manner:
"Our guns and rifles were doing their work, as we could notice the crosses getting more numerous, as indeed our own were, as we had a carefully kept little grave yard just behind the trenches. When we came to this position, the fighting had not become settled like it is now, so that when men were killed they were for the most part buried where they fell, and it is common to see graves all about the trenches, sometimes just at the parapets.
At one dug out I was in there was a German buried not two yards away, and this was the third resting place he had had, the first time he was dug up by a working party in the trench, they buried him afresh but a shell dislodged him again and now he is within a foot or so of my dug out. In the next dug out I came to there was one of our own men buried just up on the bank, so that I had to tell men that came there not to be throwing tins up there as one of our chaps was buried there."
Sgt Hugh Wilson was shot in the leg on 25th April 1915 on the slopes leading up to the heavily fortified village of St Julien as part of the Second Battle of Ypres. Pte Robert Morrow VC was killed in the same attack.
Whilst Sgt Wilson was recovering from his wounds in an English hospital he wrote his Journal of the first eight months of the war.
After six operations he was discharged from the army as no longer fit for active service. He settled down, married and raised his family in Manchester. However, he had difficulty finding work as the injury to his leg and subsequent operations had left him with a shortened and extremely painful leg, and restricted mobility. He died in 1947, aged only 62 years.
By the end of the war, Britain had mobilised 8,375,000 of whom 702,410 were killed. France mobilised 8,500,000 of whom 1,391,000 were killed. Germany mobilised 13,250,000 of whom 1,950,000 were killed. In total there were 60,000,000 combatants in the First World War, of whom 10,000,000 were killed and 20,000,000 irretrievably damaged in mind and body. And to what end? With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the botched Versailles Treaty ensured that the First World War was only a dress rehearsal for the Second.
Copies of "Angels and Heroes" are available from the Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum, The Mall, Armagh, telephone 028 3752 2911, priced £12.99.