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A British horse artilleryman in 1916

1035 Views 2 Replies 2 Participants Last post by  Calgacus
Here is a picture of my grandfather, who served as a horse artilleryman on the Salonika front from 1916 to 1919. While this is just conjecture, there is a good chance he was with the territorial horse artillery battery from Ayr in Scotland, which went there in that year. I know it was on the way out, for he came back a corporal, mostly of horses.

He was 37, and a farmer with children, including my mother who was born in January 1916, and dubious eyesight. So he could probably have got out of going then, although they'd probably have got him later. He used to tell me how the recruiters tempted him:

"Work wi' horses? That means the Middle East. Ye'll no' have tae go tae Flanders."

"Is Flanders that bad?" he asked, producing much indecision and weighing honesty against duty.

"It's no' that great."

I think it was my sister or a cousin who asked if he did anything heroic in the war, and he said "No' a thing, except I went." Indeed his only war wound was a permanently bent finger, sustained showing Bulgarian prisoners how to play leapfrog. He was in Salonika by November 1917, for he remembered Col. Dimitrijević being shot by the Serbs, officially for a domestic Serbian assassination, but actually for getting his country into deep trouble by masterminding the Sarajevo assassination plot. I'm not sure whether it was later than he heard that bit of the story. He had mixed views on the Serbs, whom he considered the keenest, toughest, most efficient people in the region. But he didn't like them. He told me "They started it a', for their ain advantage, and they'll do it again someday. But don't worry, this Communism business means it'll be after your time." Not bad for a 75-year-old ex-corporal.

He also told me how when he was younger than I was then, which would have been the early 1880s, he met an old man who had fought at Waterloo. All he could remember was "We fired three shots tae their twa, on land as we did at sea," because he was scared to ask questions. He said "Let that be a lesson tae you, laddie. Ask the questions."

There is a good chance that he was in the London area on the night of the 2nd September 1916, as he had a distant view of a Zeppelin being shot down, and that was the night Lieutenant Leefe Robinson did so. For more than forty years after his death I've known his memory was confused, for he called it the Graf Zeppelin, which was a civil aircraft. But only recently I found out why. I've seen a German aerial photograph taken just six miles from his farm, by Graf Zeppelin II on her famous spying mission just before the Second World War. I know he was in London sometime in the war, for he and one or two others walked under Marble Arch at night on their own, that being the unique privilege of the Horse Artillery, which his battery had been negligent in exercising.

The other picture is the centre of town, with a window of my apartment visible, and the poster for the one-day visit of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which he therefore saw on the 13th September, and was greatly disappointed that miss Oakley wasn't there. I'd like to think that that could be him walking down the middle of the street after seeing the poster.

My mother told me of the night he came home. When they got up and were about to go to bed, she brought him his knapsack, because male visitors always left the house. Many a man would have been glad to see that.
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Strictly speaking L16 shouldn't have been called a Zeppelin, since it had a wooden frame, and wasn't designed by Graf Zeppelin. But we live in a world where we clean the floor with hoovers Hoover never knew.

There is a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (though unfortunately not among those available for free download on, which I think is called "A Surviver of 1815". It is about a soldier of Waterloo who lives to see his granddaughter marry a progressive young soldier of late Victorian times.

I heard my grandfather's rank mentioned by someone else, I know, since he was undemonstrative about his elevated status. I know about the rank of bombardier in field and garrison artillery, and that it was at some point used by horse artillery, but do you know if it always was? I know a lot of their customs and millinery were borrowed from the cavalry, which is what "Horse" meant in the days when all artillery had horses, if you were outside elephant country.

I also remember reading in his newspaper (unillustrated text columns at the age of seven, but it was a media-deprived age) of an old man who had scratched at a growing wen on the back of his neck, till he picked out a smooth but entirely blackened German rifle bullet, which was thought to have exited forty years before. It didn't surprise my grandfather, who though the army doctor had done for his finger. He said "I've nothing o'the kind mysel', but some of my pals gie a wee rattle noo and then." I still wonder if he meant it.

For the benefit of foreigners and that class of person, British sergeant-majors being treated as gods by all ranks, doesn't just mean by all lower ranks. There must be some piece of paper somewhere that says a lieutenant wins an argument with a sergeant-major. Well maybe he does, but things probably get said to him quietly afterwards. One of the most telltale things about some First World War memoirs, including those of Harry Patch which everyone British should treat like Mao's little red book, is the haemorrhage of manpower producing sergeant-majors who were little better than ordinary people.

Here is another picture I have always liked, showing Buffalo Bill making the big time by meeting survivors of the Light Brigade.
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