Harold Boughton, British private served with 2/1st Bn City of London Regt in GB, Malta, Gallipoli, Egypt and on Western Front, 1914-1916
When Harold Boughton landed in Suvla Bay on the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 August 1915, he and his fellow soldiers were told to dig in quickly because they would be in full view of the enemy when the sun rose.
Before the war, he’d worked as a clerk and had been a Royal Fusilier cadet – but his arrival in Gallipoli was an abrupt introduction to the reality of the fighting he would face over the following months.
The Gallipoli campaign had started in April 1915 but had met resistance from Ottoman Turkey. Even new landings at Suvla Bay and north of Anzac Cove did not break the stalemate.
Harold would take part in raids on enemy positions that were causing ‘trouble’ for Allied forces, going over the top with his rifle and bayonet.
‘It all happened so quick and so fast, it was really a misty memory – and there [was] a lot of noise and jeering and shouting and screaming and cries of wounded and ‘stretcher bearers here….stretcher bearers there’ that much of it as left a vague memory of what happened.’
‘All you knew is, you were fighting for your life and if you didn’t get the man in front of you, he got you.’
He recalls having a number of ‘narrow escapes’ – a soldier who relieved him from duty placing sandbags on the edge of a trench was shot by a sniper just after taking over. On one occasion, Harold was wounded by shrapnel when a ‘whizz bang’ landed close to his position – the man to his right was killed and the man on his left was badly wounded but Harold escaped with just a graze.
He remembered being given a bandage and the rest of the day off – which meant he was able to sit down five or six yards away from the front line.
Harold remembers life being ‘very, very tough’ – as well as the fighting, soldiers had to deal with lice, dysentery and a lack of facilities to keep themselves clean. Harold could only have a wash when he went down to the beach to pick up supplies – and he didn’t remember having a change of underclothes while he was there.
Supplies such as cigarettes and matches were in short supply and the food was a persistent problem.
‘Our daily ration consisted chiefly of a tin of bully beef, three hard biscuits and a mess tin lid full of water which you poured into your water bottle and saved for emergency.’
‘One of the biggest curses was the flies…the whole of the side of the side of trench used to be a black swarming mess….Any food that you had, the first thing to do was to pick out all the flies.”
‘Blackcurrant jam was very unpopular – apricot jam or marmalade was preferred because you could see and pick the flies out of it.’
Living so close to the front line was stressful – soldiers who were off duty could go and spend time slightly further away from the forward trenches. But there was nothing to do but sit and rest or maybe write a letter.
‘There was nothing behind us but the sea and at any time we thought, well an attack would come on and we’d finish up in the drink. There was nowhere else to go. We almost gave up hope at times. We just had to get on with it.’
With no forward movement, a sense of being part of a ‘forgotten army’ began to emerge.
‘Nobody seemed to bother about us at all. The attack had fizzled out and there it was…we were left there to stagnate.’
By November 1915, freezing weather made an already difficult situation worse – troops huddled together for warmth but it was not enough. Some died and many suffered frostbite.
‘I saw men crawling on their hands and knees and grown men crying like babies. They had to crawl down the beach and the only medical attention down there was a large marquee with a red cross on it.’
Harold says he was ‘always lucky’ – even his glasses survived his time in Gallipoli unscathed. His eyesight had been poor before the war and he had only just managed to get into the army at all – he’d attempted to join a number of battalions but had been rejected because of his poor vision.
Although he eventually managed to join up after a minimal medical exam, his eyesight did lead to him refusing to serve as a company sergeant when asked to – the officer in charge had no idea that Harold had refused due to his eyesight until years after, when they met again at a reunion.
Eventually, the decision was taken to evacuate troops from Suvla Bay. To help cover the escape of other soldiers, Harold was part of the effort to convince enemy forces that the trenches were ‘very strongly held, which they weren’t’.
He remembers troops rushing through trenches, firing their guns and lighting fires to keep up the illusion. Eventually, word came that Harold would be taken off the beaches by boat on 15 December.
‘We were taken out to the bay where we’d have to find a certain destroyer. Each group were allotted to a certain destroyer - mind you, this was pitch dark and we had to cruise round with a naval bloke up the front trying to find the destroyer to which you were allotted.’
Harold’s boat was looking for a destroyer called HMS Partridge but they had trouble finding it. The ‘naval bloke’ was calling out ‘Partridge Ahoy!’ but getting no response.
‘Some wag up the front said ‘the bugger’s flown!’’
When they did find their ship, they received a warm welcome and refreshments.
‘For the first time for months, we had some decent food, sandwiches and ships’ cocoa - it was like a banquet to us after what we’d been used to.’
Harold went first to the Greek Island of Lemnos and Cape Helles before being evacuated on 8 January 1916.
After a few months in Egypt, where he saw Cairo and the Pyramids, he was posted to a camp in Rouen, France in April 1916.
It was here that his time on the frontlines would end when he failed a surprise eyesight test.
‘The optician was furious, and said that the man who passed me for the Army ought to have been shot…he couldn’t understand how I’d got in the army….He said, ‘well, you’re finished now, no more fighting for you’.’
Saying goodbye to some of the men he had served with was ‘rather heart-breaking’.
‘I felt very depressed because it meant the end and it meant that I should be parting from the little remnant of my battalion.’
Upon his return to the Britain, he was posted to London, Suffolk and Surrey before being sent to join the Royal Defence Corps at Leigh POW Camp.
Harold served at the camp between 1916 and 1919 and remembers that relations between the guards and their German prisoners was ‘by and large’ friendly. The prisoners would be taken on working parties to local factories and spending time with them had an unexpected benefit to Harold.
‘As a matter of fact, I could speak a little German, got on very well with them and learnt a whole lot of German from them and was finally able to speak German quite well before I left there.’
While serving at Leigh, Harold met a local girl and married her in August 1918. But his feelings about his job were not positive.
‘Having been on active service and seen fighting and what I’d been through, it seemed absolutely scraping the bottom of the barrel to be put into those Royal Defence Corps.’
As the end of the war approached, Harold and his colleagues would worry about what they were going to do - but when Armistice came, it was a time of great joy.
‘Pandemonium broke loose…everybody went mad,’ he remembered.
He was demobilised in February 1919 and left the army with a bonus and a suit. He went back to his pre-war employer and was able to get his job back – but was told that he’d been away for five years ‘and was no more use to them than I was when I left.’
Things had changed – when Harold had left, the only woman working at his firm had been an elderly cleaner. But by 1919, many roles had been filled by women. As men returned, women were dismissed from their posts.
Employed and having found two small rooms to share with his wife, Harold joined the millions trying to build a life in peacetime. But when he was interviewed by IWM in 1984, he believed that the promises that had been made simply had not materialised.
'Talk of land fit for heroes'
'There was a lot of talk, and a talk of land fit for heroes to live in. But it was a long while comin’, and in fact I don’t think it’s come yet.'
The early post-war years were a ‘terrific struggle’ and Harold was aware that many people faced challenges when trying to find employment and housing.
‘We hadn’t got much faith in what the politicians were trying to do. We’d heard of all the failures that had happened during the war in the various campaigns.’
The legacy of more than four years of war loomed large.
‘The whole thing was overshadowed with the awesomeness of that war and the tremendous losses and it had completely changed the outlook of your life. You really couldn’t see what was going to be the future, you could only work and hope.’
Harold died in 1991 age 96. You can hear his voice in I Was There: Room of Voices, an immersive sound installation at IWM London.