Sgt Harold Slocombe RHA
Great-Uncle Harold, who lived until two weeks before his 106th birthday, recounted his experiences on the Western Front.
It was he who told us of the troops’ three main hatreds in the terrifying conditions in which they found themselves in the trenches or with the artillery to the immediate rear. Surprisingly, the German troops were not in the top three! As with Harry Patch in his outstanding autobiography ‘The Last Fighting Tommy’, Harold’s mates saw the German lads as being in the same dreadful position as themselves. Of course, they had to fight but their fury was directed at targets on our side of the barbed wire; the lice, the rats and their own officers.
A sergeant in the Royal Horse Artillery, Harold, along with others, was called upon to crawl up to the front-line trenches when communications with the Artillery were damaged, dragging replacement wire. Usually he and the others were told to go away in the choicest language by their own troops, as any detected movement brought more shelling. Although wounded himself three times, Harold still referred to the boys in the trenches as the PBI, – poor, bloody infantry.
Born 1892 in Liverpool, he was a Territorial undergoing manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain when war was declared in August 1914. His RHA unit immediately returned to Liverpool and were housed in tents in one of the City’s parks. As their guns were those of the Boer War, the Unit didn’t reach the front line until they were re-equipped, early in 1915. Once there, Harold survived everything until the end of the War.
In common with so many other soldiers who saw terrible things, he remained quiet and modest about his exploits. Until his unexpected death in 1998, he had a crystal clear mind and possessed great dignity I say his death was unexpected as a loving tribute to him, for he had been in excellent health and appeared indestructible. Harold, along with such as Harry Patch, were voices surviving to shout accusation at those responsible for the appalling decision to go to war, condemning millions of our countrymen to fight in what became known as The Great War, the most terrifying in European history. We are all aware that those who took the decision to wage war were those who remained furthest from the field of battle!
Harold’s third close encounter with the Grim Reaper was in 1918. By then, the Germans had perfected their technique for identifying British gun positions and quickly destroying them. The British countered by hastily moving their guns to new positions after a short period of shelling and to do this they required the horses to quickly re-position the guns. On one occasion, Harold was on the lead horse of thirty-six horses and in sole charge! He heard the shell coming over, the explosion and of being hit by shrapnel. The horse he was riding sensed that Harold had been hit, panicked and bolted, dragging the other thirty-five horses along. Amazingly, none of the horses was hit, just Harold. Fortunately, pals managed to restrain the horses and Harold was shipped back to hospital in Canterbury and was still in hospital when the cease-fire was declared. As he recovered, he was informed that he would be returning to France in charge of a gang of Chinese labourers to help clear the battlefield! He complained that as he had spent most of the War on or near the front line, it was unreasonable to ask him to do this. His resentment, along presumably with many others, resulted in a change of heart by the ridiculous authorities, who then decreed that clearing the battlefields was to be undertaken only by men who had not served at the Front.
Harold’s 105th Birthday Party
In October 1997, the North West Section of the WW1 Veterans’ Association arranged Harold’s 105th Birthday Party, inviting four veterans along with other guests. The combined years of the five veterans came to more than 500! All five were glittering company and enjoyed recounting their stories for the assembled guests at the care home where Harold lived. One of them was Mick, also from Liverpool, who had been a sniper. It so happened that the home’s dog, Heidi, was an Alsatian cross, a lovely gentle dog much loved by the residents. A male care-worker at the home whispered to me that on no account was anyone to tell Mick that Heidi was German, otherwise Mick would shoot her! In cold print this might not appear as hilarious as it did at that moment, when we had with us five inspiring survivors of the trenches.
Each of the veterans told of horrifying experiences but the story I most remember concerned the night before the cease-fire. An officer told a particular Company that in all likelihood the cease fire would come in the morning but that still meant some men would have to patrol in no-man’s land that night. He called for volunteers but no one would. One of our veterans was selected by the officer to go out on patrol. With his mate, he slithered out and they made their way to a crater where they hid. For some reason they didn’t feel safe and decided to move to another crater. As they kept low in their new position, the German artillery fired some of the final shots of the War, hitting the cratered area they had just left. A fantastic last minute escape that he was able to recount at Harold’s party, 79 years later.