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‘Like Hell With the Lid Off’

Fighting at Hill 60, Ypres, in April 1915 described by Sergeant George Loft Dawson of the 6th Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment.

This comes from a letter that George (my grandfather, alongside) wrote home to his wife Charlotte.

We blew up a hill on which the Germans were entrenched; it was an important position, and commanded a fine view of the country. Our signal to commence was the third explosion; we were ready. Then came the report. The ground shook and rocked under us.

Then the battle started; the whole line were in it. We were about a quarter of a mile from the hill, but we opened rapid fire. I walked up and down the line for about ten minutes to see if the men were going all right; then, as every rifle counted, I took my coat off, got on the parapet and waded in. It took two and a half hours to get the upper hand; by that time, although it was a cold night, we were sweating like bulls. Things then quietened for about an hour.

The Germans made severe counter-attacks that night; they retook half the hill, were driven off again time after time. Next day the enemy brought up fresh troops and attacked us again. Our people on the hill had a terrible time, but every time they charged they cleared out the Germans.
This went on for three days and nights. Then the French on our right were attacked. Our people were sent to help them. They opened with machine guns, then rapid fire, and charged through them, driving them back through two villages. We are now holding all we have won, and the latest is that our cavalry have got to work and are clearing the enemy out on our left.
This is a bare outline of what has happened, but to sum it up, it has been like hell with the lid off. We have had a continual bombardment of every conceivable type of shell, shrapnel bombs, hand and rifle grenades, “Jack Johnsons”, and things we have not got a name for. The town behind has been shelled continually all the time and the roads leading there. The only good thing about it is the fact that when we are in the thick of it no-one notices the shelling, or, rather, we don’t care about it, but the din is terrific.

Our men have acted splendidly, and the regulars are simply delighted with them. It is fairly quiet now.

Notes

This letter survives because it was published in The Liverpool Echo in May 1915. I have to confess that I didn’t discover it! It was sent to me by Kevin Shannon, author of The Liverpool Rifles: A Biography of the 1/6th Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment in the First World War, published in May 2019 by Fonthill Media. I am extremely grateful to Kevin for sending this letter as it creates a link to our grandfather that we hadn’t had before. My Dad and his younger brother and sister said very little about their family and what we know has had to be pieced together from scraps of memory of conversations, census records, birth certificates etc.

The Liverpool Rifles had not been long in France when they fought at Ypres in 1915. They embarked from Southampton on 24th February and first had experience in the trenches on 5th March according to the battalion war diary. On 8th March B Company – my grandfather’s Company – suffered their first casualties, 2 killed and 7 wounded.

I don’t know to what extent the newspaper edited my grandfather’s text. Sadly they omitted whatever he said that was more personal to my grandmother and their three sons – Frank aged 10, Bill aged 5 and George (my Dad) who was just short of his second birthday. I imagine that Frank and Bill were excited by the details in the letter though Charlotte must have been horrified.

My grandfather, George, was 38 at this time, having been born in December 1876. He seems to have had a tough upbringing emotionally - his mother died when he was 12 and his elder brother died a few years later. His father was a master mariner who was away a good deal and then during in the 1890s moved to live in Glasgow with his second wife. George’s education was limited as he was working as a servant at the age of 14 in 1891 but by the time of his marriage to Charlotte in 1900 he was working as a clerk, which suggests he’d found some way of continuing his education.

We have two photographs of George from before The Great War.

One perhaps from the time of their wedding, the other shows him in the uniform of the Volunteer Force battalion of the 6th Battalion, King's (Liverpool) Regiment (which became the 6th King's (Territorial Force) in 1908).

 

Given this military experience I wonder if he ever thought of joining the army before he married, perhaps during the Boer War in the late 1890s, perhaps influenced by his father’s life at sea to see more of the world? We’ll never know.

George survived the war, being promoted to Company Quarter Master Sergeant, the second ranking NCO in his Company of around 225 soldiers. He was one of only 99 out of the 1,125 who sailed to France with the battalion in 1915 to still be with them at the end of the war. He and Charlotte had two more children but we have a sense that they also had problems after the war and my Dad said that his father disappeared at times, perhaps the result of the impact of the war. Charlotte seems to have been the rock of the family, unsurprising as she’d brought up the boys on her own for four years, probably supported by her sisters and their families.

The one photograph we have of them together shows them in a car – we suspect this was taken in a photographer’s studio, perhaps at the seaside around 1930.

Charlotte died in 1935 aged 56. Two years later their second son, Bill, committed suicide – we don’t know why. The eldest boy, Frank, had already emigrated to Australia aged 17. George saw his first grandchild born but died aged 73 in 1950, the year before I was born.

My Dad said he was convinced he saw his father in a programme in the TV series The Great War but that was the only occasion that I can remember George’s army experience being mentioned.

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