My Grandfather, Norman Marshall Woodcock, was called up on the day war was declared in 1914, aged seventeen. He came home five years later having been to Gallipoli, Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia (now Iraq), Libya, the Suez Canal, Sinai, Palestine, Jerusalem and the Western Front in France. For fifty years after his return he rarely spoke about what had happened but he cried each year on Remembrance Sunday. As he grew old and had time to reflect he began to write and in time he also began to answer the questions from his grandchildren when we asked him why he was crying. Usually he told us it was about his horse, Timbuc, but it was also about what he had seen, what had happened to his friends and comrades and about the futility of the war. ‘On that day I left my boyhood behind’ combines my Grandfather’s stories of the First World War with an accessible history of the war in the regions covered. The book starts in Leeds and Yorkshire, then moves on to army and signals training in Biggleswade, sailing to Egypt and the invasion of Gallipoli, then to Salonika and Greece, North Africa, Mesopotamia, Palestine and finally the Western Front on the Somme.
On the evening of Saturday 24th April 1915, the ships were in motion, two hundred of them. We were to land at dawn on the beach at Cape Helles on the Gallipoli Peninsula, where the village of Sedd-el-Bahr stood. The fort nearby had been shelled by the Navy and was out of action we were told. As we set off, the shore around the harbour was lined with cheering troops.
Fortunately, the sea was calm as the battleships, cruisers and destroyers towed boatloads of soldiers the 50 miles towards the beaches. I was in a boat of the battleship Euryalis, towed by a steam pinnace, a patrol boat. It was to be a long night.
We were surrounded by the Fleet, when at dawn, about twenty miles out, the Queen Elizabeth opened fire. She was the flagship and the biggest in the Fleet, carrying 15-inch guns with a range of 20 miles. We couldn’t see the shells burst, but what a noise it was – rather like an express train going through a tunnel – but we could see the puffs of black, brown and white smoke they created. Then, as we came nearer, other ships joined in. Soon we saw a cloud on the horizon and the cry came ‘Land Ahead’.
We saw land before the enemy opened fire. Suddenly, all hell was let loose and we were amongst it. As we moved nearer to the beach, shells were bursting overhead, in the water, on the land, everywhere, all around us. Then the fire from the Turks got heavier, until it was like hail whipping up the water. Men began shouting and crying out but in our boat all we could do was watch and wait. The troops in the forward boats jumped out into the shallower water and we saw them fall – very few made it to the beach. Then as we drew closer, our boat came under fire too.
The noise was tremendous, but I seemed to have no fear, I don’t know why amongst all that noise and confusion. Then I saw my first comrade killed and the reality of what was happening came to me. A shell burst, hitting the boat and him. The boat was packed; all we could do was watch as he bled to death. His colour changed, he became whiter, the sunburn became paler. There was nothing we could do to help him. We looked at each other in the boat – some silently, some shaking, some shouting excitedly – all of us waiting our turn to land, knowing we could be next. We put his body over the side. I still see his face to this day.
A few brave souls managed to get ashore during all this, and we watched as they lay down under a low sandbank where bullets passed over their heads. Others died in the boats, crowded together. The boats drifted away full of dead and wounded.
All around our boat the sea ran red with blood.
On that day I left my boyhood behind.