William left a short document recounting his 'Short experiences of Fighting in France' during the early stages of the First World War. This rather understated title prefaces a story of peril and adventure, but also of real hardship and misery. I have presented highlights of his story below with, where possible, supporting material, but you can read the whole document as a PDF here.
8th October, 1914
After three days at sea, my grandfather, Private William Alfred James, landed at Zeebrugge on board the transport ship 'Turcoman', described elsewhere as 'just a cattle-boat'. He was part of the 4th Company of the 1st Battalion of the Grenadier Guards. 'On the same date,' he writes, 'We trained to St André and billeted for the night.'
Private James was 'trained to Ostend'. There he was billeted with his battalion, near a dye-works from which the Belgian authorities issued large rolls of velvet to use as blankets.
Having spent the night with his battalion sheltering in a dye-works in Ostend, Private James was moved closer to the front line in Ghent.
'Heavy fighting just on the borders of Ghent. The Germans drove us out of Ghent the same night and we had a long night march to Somerghem...'
Private James had another long march to Thielt.
Private James reported 'bringing down an enemy aeroplane' just outside Thielt. The incident is reported in 'The Grenadier Guards In The Great War', Ponsonby, 1920:
'A burst of very heavy rifle-fire at 6 o'clock next morning in the very centre of the town brought every one scrambling out of their billets with visions of outposts rushed and Germans in their midst. But it turned out to be only a Taube, at which every one who had a rifle was taking a shot. Eventually it was brought down about a mile off, the Grenadiers, Scots Fusiliers, and Pom-Pom Detachment all claiming the hit.'
4th Company was marched to Ypres where Private James wrote 'I mounted an enemy scout outpost during the night and bagged 2 scouts...'
In 'The Grenadier Guards In The Great War', Sir Frederick Ponsonby writes:
'Rain fell heavily all the way, and the roads were in a terrible state. They reached Ypres at 2 pm, and the King's, No. 3, and No. 4 Companies (of which Pvt James was a part) were detailed to find the outposts on the Menin and Messines roads. As the companies moved out to take up their positions they encountered several parties of Uhlans (Polish light cavalry armed with lances, sabres and pistols), which caused a good deal of excitement among the men, as they were the first of the enemy's troops actually seen. Some ammunition was expended without much result. The men at that time imagined that they had only to scrape out temporary shelters which would be sufficient protection for a night or two. They little thought that they were laying the foundation of an intricate network of trenches which would be constantly used for the next four years. The first battle of Ypres was about to begin…'
Today was a quiet day as Private James 'rested in trenches'.
'During the night, we moved off from Ypres about 3 miles out and entrenched. We expected an attack from Von Gluck's army but he retired about 3 miles'.
The worst was yet to come.
The whole brigade, including the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, was ordered to advance and occupy a ridge at Kruiseik. At night, villages could be seen burning in every direction, set on fire by the Germans, and this was taken as an indication that the enemy was preparing to attack.
Private James wrote, 'On outpost duty at Menin, we were attacked all round at night...'
'Moved a few fields forward and entrenched again for the night. Terrible fighting and bombardment by Germans night and day.'
'A Maxima gun only 50 yds off was waiting for us to put our heads up. We finally charged and captured the gun. Only 22 men and 2 officers were left.'
Private James and 4th Company came under fire at Ypres. He wrote:
'My next pal, Stevens, was shot in the head by shrapnel. The shell dropped in the trench and knocked all the roof off and buried us. While helping to carry my pal back, the Germans attacked and bullets fell like nails. I got through without a scratch.'
Private James wrote only of being 'kept in the trenches'. When you read Sir Frederick Ponsonby's entry in his 'The Grenadier Guards in the Great War' for this day, you can see that it wasn't always the safest option:
'There was some shelling in the morning of the 21st, but nothing serious happened till the afternoon, when the enemy at last attacked all along the line. The line held by the Grenadiers was heavily shelled, not only by the Germans but by our own guns, which were firing short. The men naturally were infuriated by this, but fortunately the mistake did not last long, as the artillery was soon able to correct its own distance.'
'We was [sic] relieved on the night of the 22nd and reinforced the 21st Brigade. Under heavy fire all night.'
'We moved off to shelter trenches and the shells fell like nails. The Germans broke through and our guns were in danger. We were caught under enemy shell fire. Heaps of wounded. Terrible slaughters. Out all night.'
'At about 3.30 we were called out to reinforce our troops. The Germans had broken through and our company (No. 4) had to drive them back. It was estimated by General Paul of the French army that we drove 2,000 Germans back. Out of 225, only 120 (of No. 4 Company) were left. We also lost 5 officers out of 6.'
Private James wrote of being 'reinforced by the 2nd Division and French guns.'
In his book, 'The Grenadier Guards in the Great War', Frederick Ponsonby writes: 'About sunset the Grenadiers were attacked, and one platoon from No. 2 Company under Lieutenant Lambert became isolated, the enemy having taken the trench on its right and also the houses behind it.'
'We was shelled all day. Poured all night. The Germans broke through but we captured them by scores. We were all fed up and had to retire. Lost about 200 men doing so. We went to Ypres and joined the rest of the army. The roll of company was called and only 82 men was left.'
The 1st Battalion Grenadiers moved from billets outside Ypres to a bivouac in Sanctuary Wood, just south of the Menin road. My grandfather wrote:
'On the morning of the 28th, we advanced to trenches. Was in them all night.'
He could not have known that his short experience of fighting for his country would soon be over...
'On the 29th, we was attacked and we were drove back by about 4,000 Germans. We finally charged and lost 3 parts of the Battalion. I had my bayonet blown off my rifle in the charge.'
Today was a turning point in the life of my grandfather, Private William Alfred James of the Grenadier Guards. Having been part of the war for the last three and a half weeks, his experience was to end today in a moment of horror at Ypres. Frederick Ponsonby writes of this day in his book, The Grenadier Guards in the Great War:
'The Grenadiers had just settled down for the night when the Battalion was ordered to fall in and move off with the rest of the Brigade to occupy a new defensive position... The Germans were constantly throwing into the attack fresh battalions at full strength, whereas in the British Army the term "Battalion" meant two or three hundred worn-out men who had been fighting daily for the last ten days or so.'
With chilling understatement, my grandfather wrote:
'On the 30th, we again advanced in reserve. This is where I got my wound while in those trenches and was took to hospital in Boulogne.'
Hit by a German shell, the whole of the bottom half of his face was blown away. Such was the severity of his 'wound', that the church bells rang in his home village to pronounce him dead. In fact he survived, spending 3 years undergoing 23 operations to his face in the days before plastic surgery as we know it.
Out of a thousand men who fought in the 1st Battalion of the Grenadier Guards at Ypres, my grandfather was one of just 200 who came home. As ghastly as his experience was, I often reflect that, if he hadn't been injured and sent home so early, he would surely have been killed later and I wouldn't be sitting here writing this now.