[James Warner recalls his World War I experiences]. 1982-04-25.

Media type
Item unavailable online
Ask about this item

Ask to use material, get more information or tell us about an item

Media type
Item unavailable online
Interviews (Sound recordings)
Sound recordings
RNZ Collection
McRae, Andrew, Interviewer
Warner, William James Frederick, Interviewee
Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand (estab. 1976, closed 1988), Broadcaster

In a three-part interview by Andrew McRae, Jim Warner of Taupo recalls his World War I experiences including call-up, training and transport to England. He tells of the trenches, Somme, Messines and Passchendaele where he was injured and returned to England. He later returned to France and talks about the conditions at the front and how the war ended for him a few hours before the official end. He discusses the role of the Flying Corps in the war and how he feels about the prospect of nuclear war.

[Edited highlights were broadcast by Radio Lakeland on Anzac Day, 1982.]

Part 1.
He was born 13 Jan 1897 and lied about his age to enlist in Hamilton. At the time war broke out he was living on a farm at Paterangi about seven miles from Te Awamutu. Many others were putting their age up as well and most got away with it. He was called up to join the Territorials (which happened at the age of eighteen) while he was already in training for active service, as he was supposedly twenty-one.

He says patriotism was tremendous at the outbreak of war. Young people felt they had to get in or miss their chance. A chap he knew from Cadets and Territorials, Horace Jemmett was killed on Gallipoli. He describes being surprised when Horace told him it was 'his duty' to go and fight.

He describes training in Featherston and Trentham camps. Accommodation was in bell tents, with the floor made of ' biscuits', which were canvas-covered mattresses, which they slept on, with an Army blanket over them. He had brought his pyjamas but soon learnt they slept in their uniform. He had already used a rifle but some men he knew were very scared at first of using them. The training wasn't too tough.

He was in camp for four months before transport to England onboard the Opawa from Wellington in January 1916 [1917?]. She was a steel ship which had been used in the meat trade. There were no bunks, just hammocks. They went via Sydney, then Albany or Fremantle, Capetown, Sierra Leone and England. They arrived February or March, taking about six weeks.
There were a few Māori and English troops relocating on board as well. From Capetown, enemy submarines were active and for eight hours each day sentries were posted on each corner of the vessel to fire on anything floating in the water.
There were about 1500 men on the ship. They had lectures about what trench warfare would be like. A lieutenant from Kaipara organised boxing matches on deck each morning, and he got some good hammerings.

On arrival in England they went straight into further training in Sling Camp. It was the toughest training he had experienced, in 'the bull ring'. The instructors were professional soldiers and experts in their fields. You became a number and lost your identity. Trenches were specially built on Salisbury Plain with barbed wire for training in.

They shipped to France from Dover at night in a transport with mules lined up down each side of them. They suffered from the mules 'doing what natured compelled them to.' They arrived in Le Havre next morning after taking a zig-zag course across the Channel. They went into a camp in Le Havre and then next day went up to the Somme by train, getting out at Rouen and marching for three days. They saw enemy planes, but had no enemy contact until first engagement on 25th September 1916.

The Rifle Brigade had gone over at Flers on about the 8th or 9th of September. He was in the First Brigade on the left. It was known as a bloodbath and that describes it well. The battle had opened on the 1st of July. The casualties of the British Army on the first day were 40,000 killed or wounded. They lost 140,000 men in eleven days. A bird couldn't whistle through the shells, they were so thick. The battlefield itself gave a clear indication of what they could expect. They went into the line about the 23rd and went over the top on the 25th. They lost a lot of men that day, including his friend, sixteen year old Arthur Huckin. He was six foot two and took size eleven boots. " We used to call him 'Feet' and poor devil, bang - a bullet, he copped it."

He describes conditions in trenches as not good. He marvelled at how they didn't get colds being wet through, day after day. A ration party would be detailed off to go back to a specified place to meet to fetch rations, which were brought up by mule in pack saddles, along with ammunition and barbed wire. Eight men would go out with one mule.

He moves on to describe a lack of rations at Messines. The attack was on 10 June 1917. They were at a place called Bailleul, and then went to Ploegsteert Wood. The ration train from Le Havre going up to the Second Army at Armentieres, which they were part of, was bombed and destroyed and there were no rations at all. They went from Sunday morning to Wednesday night with no food at all. They had iron rations, which were only to be used if you were isolated. This was a small container with tiny biscuits and a tiny bit of tea and sugar, but they had been forced to hand these in and not keep them, so they were very hungry. A friend called Tommy Hancock, his lips split through lack of water and blood was running down his chin and he suffered terribly.

The last five minutes before you went over the top was terrible, not knowing what you were going to meet, but once you got out there you had to keep going, there was no way out. At Passchendaele, after Messines, at a small village named Le Rois [?] they found a grindstone and kept their bayonets sharpened. They were told food in Britain was very short and prisoners weren't needed and that was why they were sharpening their bayonets. [He declines to answer whether the bayonets were used.]

The noise of the barrage was so loud you couldn't speak to the man next door. Eight thousand guns fired the barrage at Messines. The noise was shocking. On the morning of the 7th June at three o'clock, Lloyd George went out of his residence in Downing Street and heard the explosion of the mines under Messines and the British and German artillery barrage.
[ends mid-sentence]

Part. 2

The roads on the Somme were dug out seven or eight feet deep with perpendicular sides, as the idea was the peasants never built a fence and the cattle never tried to get down. The Germans took full advantage of the sunken roads.
He describes the size of the battle field on the Somme. There was about 150 to 200 yards between the two front lines, but sometimes much closer. At Armentieres the enemy was only about thirty yards away, too close for comfort. At night you could hear the enemy when you went out on patrol to check the barbed wire entanglements. If the wires was cut and you could get close, you could hear them talking quite plainly sometimes. An officer would whisper from one man to another if you were going to attack.

He discusses how much the average soldier knew about what was going on. He describes training before the attack at Passchendaele. After the attack at the sugar refinery at Le Basseville, where Andrews from New Plymouth [Leslie Andrew] won the Victoria Cross, they went to a little village named Le Ouse [?] and trained on a hill with contours that were very similar to where they would attack at Passchendaele. They also knew from airplane photographs where machine gun posts would be and had piles of bricks on the hill to represent them in training. They had a fair idea of casualty numbers but weren't told officially 'in the line'.

He left the Somme at the end of November and went to the Hoop Line [trenches] north of Armentières and a little village called La Bourget [?] or what was left of it.

Messines was the next big battle he went into. Casualties weren't as heavy as the Somme. The Somme was rolling country, devoid of any cover but Messines wasn't so bad.
The Tunnelling Corps, made up of miners from all over the United Kingdom, Australians and New Zealanders, had been there long before them. They tunnelled under the River Lys from the British trenches to under Messines. They could hear the German tunnellers as well and would blow each other up. Nineteen mines were blown at Messines. Before the explosion on the 6th of June, you could stand in the trenches and see Messines, the church, the school and other buildings on the crest of a hill. But four or five days after, when you could see through the haze, there was nothing left but a crater 300 yards across.

After Messines they went into trenches called Ayr St and Seven Trees Avenue [?] and from there they moved up to Passchendaele.
A piece of shell the size of a breakfast cup hit the web equipment he was wearing and injured him, but didn't break his ribs. He was sent back to England for a while, where things were very grim. Food was short because of the submarines. Americans were supplying ammunition and food was coming from the colonies.

He describes a commissioned officer Bill McAdam coming in one night and telling them there would be an attack in the morning on the Basseville line. They needed to know where the New Zealand Second Brigade, the 1st and 2nd Canterbury and Otago were, somewhere on their left. They needed someone to go and look for them, so he volunteered. He wandered through no-man's land until he saw a chink of light in a big heap of bricks, the remains of a farmhouse. He called out that he was from the 16th Waikato 1st Auckland Battalion and was answered in English. There were three New Zealanders from 1st Canterbury there, about twenty yards from the River Lys and the Germans were on the other side of it. They told him he had walked right in front of their brigade's machine guns coming over no-man's land and told him a safer way to get back. He was telling this story years later to a man, Claude Watson from Christchurch, and discovered he was the same soldier who he had met in the ruined farmhouse that night.

He describes seeing Flanders poppies at Messines, but at Passchendaele there was just complete devastation. They moved in to take over Hill 37 from some English troops. There wasn't a blade of grass for six or seven miles on either side. He and George Weir from Te Kuiti sat down for a spell and a shell landed a couple of hundred yards away and he could see a red haze. George told him they were sitting in the remains of a village called St. Julien and the shell had hit the remains of a cellar and the haze was the red brick dust.
There was never anything like the mud there, anywhere else in the world. He knew men who were wounded and collapsed and disappeared into the mud, never to be seen again. They went in on the night of the 1st of October, went over the top on the 4th and came out on the 7th.
In that attack there was the 1st Brigade and the 2nd Brigade of Auckland and Wellington Battalions.
On the 12th of October, the Second Brigade and the Rifle Brigade, known as The Dinks, went over the top and copped it worse, as in between the two attacks in rained in torrents and all the little streams that ran in the areas flooded as the banks had been blown apart. They had tracks but if you got off the tracks you were never seen again.

He went to Boulogne for ten days after Messines and saw the Americans landing but he didn't have anything to do with them. The soldiers were relieved when Americans entered the war after the collapse of the Russian forces and the Russian revolution, as that had meant they were going to cop it as the Germans could leave the Russian front.

Part. 3.
He discusses the Royal Flying Corps. He had no personal contact with them, but saw them flying overhead from the trenches. He describes the role of 'contact planes' who were attached to a battalion on the ground and detailed to fly as low as possible and observe the ground troops action and fly the information back to Divisional Headquarters. They had the greatest respect for the airmen as they knew what they were flying in, and called them 'flying banana crates'.

He didn't see much of the Navy, but from the Opawa he saw someone on the Walmer Castle fire a field gun at a packing case thrown overboard. He also saw ships in the harbour at Boulogne, with huge holes in their sides from mines.

The war ended for him when he became ill with high temperature and was evacuated at 7am on 11 November 1918 at a place called Solesmes, at the top end of the Second Somme. He was sent down to Calais and evacuated out to Hornchurch [Hospital]. He knew nothing about the Armistice signed later that morning. He believes his illness was caused by the lice everyone was infested with and describes how lice infested their clothes.

He describes his last engagement in the war was taking Le Quesnoy and describes the town. Their advance was so rapid the artillery couldn't keep up with them. They surrounded the town, which was held by the Germans but French civilians were still in there too. They sent a German prisoner in with a note demanding the Germans surrender but they refused. There were moats surrounding the town. He and two others, Jack Hyland and Bill Moore got over the outer moat but then there was a twenty-five foot high stone wall. They found a small three-foot opening and then a ladder was put up against the wall of the moat and Lieutenant Averill was first over the walls Two startled Huns lined him up and he shot both of them. Then everyone else could come up.

He returned to New Zealand in June 1919. It was nice to be back but he had left with no trade and when he got back he had to earn a living for the future. It took him a long time to settle down, three or four years.
He talks about his feelings on the outbreak of World War II.
[break in the interview]

He describes an air battle he witnessed at Le Bourget [?] involving a British plane and as he later discovered, the famous German pilot Baron von Richthofen, the Red Baron. He says von Richthofen stayed on the edge of dogfights but would follow damaged planes and pick them off by flying with the sun behind him so he couldn't be seen. They went out to see the downed plane after the battle was over. The occupants were dead and he saw the German do two or three circles and fly away. Later they found out it was von Richthofen.
There was also another German pilot in the Ploegsteert Wood trenches who used to come over from the direction of Dulemans [?] and follow their trench about 100 feet above the ground and fire if he saw any one.
He describes how furious he would get at the pilot and fired at him with his rifle, even though he had no hope of hitting him.

The interview ends with his fears about nuclear war.