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Schoolboy into war

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Schoolboy into war

H. E. L. Mellersh

pub. William Kimber & Co., 1978. ISBN 0 7183 0136 0.

You can find copies of this book for about £15 - £20. It is a classic memoir, and I strongly recommend it to you if you are interested in the East Lancashire Regiment, the 8th Division, or in the role and temper of young officers.

The author, a native of St Albans, begins his memoir in his days at Berkhamsted school. Classic pre-war stuff, all sports and classics. He noted that he did not know one of his best friend's Christian names, "they were never used". Along came the war, and his rudimentary military training carried out with the school OTC would stand him in good stead.

Two of his chums soon volunteered: one, Gray (and we find out his name was Charles) took a commission after initially joining the London Scottish. Another, Harold Smith, became a Kitchener's man in the Seaforths (he soon transferred to the RNAS, with which he was to die in May 1917). It was a letter from Gray that influenced Mellersh to apply for a commission by joining the Inns of Court OTC, in the Unattached Contingent, a sure-fire way to gaining a speedy pip. At this time, he would commute from home to the OTC to carry out drill and other training - always in civilian clothing - on a daily basis. He received a commission in the Special reserve of Officers within a few weeks in June 1915, and was off to spend his parents money plus the Government grant of £50 to buy his uniform and equipment. His first posting was to a Young Officers course at Worcester College, Oxford, and after that to his new unit, the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment, at Plymouth. Here came the first real military experiences, including his first servant, a veteran of Second Ypres.

Mellersh was finally posted to France in April 1916, where he was transferred to the 2nd Battalion of his regiment, a regular army unit in 8th Division in the trenches near Loos. He remarks that they called themselves the Five-Nines, 59th, or 2-E-Lan R, never the East Lancs.

In his first serious action - at Fricourt in early July - he received two shrapnel wounds which were enough to send him to Blighty for treatment. A photograph taken at this time shows him with a whisp of moustache: the schoolboy was growing into a soldier. He returned to France in October 1916, and his old Company at Bouchavesnes. He was rather shocked to find that only two of the officers were the same as when he had left it just weeks before.

Within seven weeks, he had been hit by a rifle bullet whilst on a patrol and was again in England. By the time he returned to the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion - still in Plymouth - he found it had changed. The early spirit had gone...it had "ceased to be an active training battalion and had become not much more than a receptacle for the recuperating returnee", which must be true of many similar units. However, soon after the battalion moved north, to Saltburn to man the North Sea defences there. "It was a job the home service wallahs took very seriously and that the returnees considered a lot of footling nonsense".

In September 1917, Mellersh was surprised to be posted to the 5th Training Reserve Battalion. He "hated it, and had no idea what TRB exactly stood for". He ruefully compares life wit a regiment, where somehow one picked up the traditions, with this..."In belonging to the 5th TRB one belonged to nothing. The war was becoming impersonal". But within three weeks he was posted back to his old Company again.

After a pleasant time on a Transport course, the author experienced a harrowing tour at Passchendaele. He was given seven days leave in early 1918. The Battalion was moved down to the Somme to help stem the enemy attack in March 1918, and saw much action at Villers Bretonneux. On 26 March, the author was wounded again, this time by the explosion of a shell. While he was on an evacuation train near Amiens, it was bombed from the air.

While convalescing, Mellersh heard of the death of his other school friend Charles Gray. He was killed by a sniper while serving with the 1st East Lancs. [Lieutenant Charles Dixon Gray is buried in Laventie Military Cemetery. He was still only 19 years of age, the same as the author].

He was passed fit for general service, but was not posted back to France until late November 1918, and was in London when the Armistice came.

"I still dream on occasion that I am in World War 1. Sometimes the war dream is unhappy, full of foreboding of death such as I felt carrying that cross up to the front line or hoping ignobly for reprieve as I marched towards the 1918 German attack. But sometimes I am happy and proud and in uniform, and about to be someone important - a wish-fulfilment dream if ever there was one". In writing this memoir, surely that dream was at last fulfilled.

This review has been copied from the mother site, to kick off this new section.

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  • 1 year later...

Thought I'd bring this up since it sounds like a good read, especially for those interested in the East Lancs. Maybe an addition to a christmas list as well.


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