A young soldier’s miraculous survival after being gassed.

ARTHUR DAWSON:  3116 Machine Gunner 12th Middlesex Regiment 10th Army Corps.

Information collated from his personal War Diary July 1915 – November 1915. His personal footnotes and from his son and daughter – my uncle and aunt.

My Grandfather, Arthur Dawson’s story epitomises a young man’s courage and fortune in surviving the horrors of WW1. His unedited war diary exists to provide a description of his experiences:

Arthur was 15 years old when he ran away from an unhappy home life to enlist, having been falsely told that his mother was dead: claiming that he was 19 years of age and that he had received Notice.

Arriving in La Havre aged 16, passing through Rouen, his first destination was a village called Talmas where his Battalion discovered a nunnery where the Germans had murdered all of the nuns.  He was required to do 24 hour guard, with the sound of Artillery fire throughout the night. The soldiers kept themselves well supplied with fruit from deserted orchards. Church services were attended. They engaged in Parades with ‘smart turn out ‘and sports of all kinds and ‘grub’ was ‘absolutely it’. London papers occasionally reached them. They were paid in paper money which they had trouble changing.

1915 - Arthur Dawson, back row 1st right

1915 – Arthur Dawson, back row 1st right

Musketry drill was their main occupation. Practice was not without danger; a Sergeant of the 11th Fusiliers had a hand and part of his face blown away during bomb practice.  The chief pastime during wet days was cards.

In the August 1915, Arthur along with 64 other men, volunteered to undergo a gas experiment. They put on their masks and entered a room calculated to contain more gas than the Germans could ever deliver in one attack. He bravely notes that “no effect was felt at all”, proving reliability against “this hideous method of warfare”.

He went on to suffer exhaustion from negotiating “heaps of mud” and 15 mile marches. He was put into a Red Cross ambulance before rising the following morning to a 9 mile route march with full pack, (which, he notes “every man done up again”) On the same day: Bayonet and ‘physical jerks’, plus football, then night guard. He was taught machine gun drill, mechanism and semaphore and participated in boxing matches and swimming. Concerts were given by the Officers.

1915 - Arthur Dawson, 5th left

1915 – Arthur Dawson, 5th left

From La Neuville, they arrived at La Heville, just outside Alberi which was in ruins. Arthur received mouth organs and chocolates from home. The men were sent into the trenches for 6 days, followed by 7 days ‘rest’ of digging further trenches. His Battalion suffered 12 casualties. Fighting from the trenches occurred further down the line near Fricourt which was under German occupation on 4th September 1915. Their mine was blown up, they were shelled and a dozen chaps got gassed. Their Artillery started heavy bombardment of Fricourt. It was very cold at night, the food poor and shrapnel flying about. He ‘got two pieces’.

14th September – “I went to the end of the barbed wire 3 times. This evening I went about 80 yards beyond our wire, on patrol. Killed a Fritz too”. The following day he carried sandbags all day. The Battalion discovered ‘Fritz mining beneath our trenches’. Amazingly, they still had energy for sports: Mule races, bike and swimming races!
Further up into the Somme salient he became sick with trench foot on both heels and describes the trenches as being in a ‘wretched condition’ due to the heavy rains.

28th September- “Came into the firing line today.  Did duty on listening post as soon as I arrived. There was a dead Frenchman outside the lines. I crawled out to look at him and found it was a skeleton”.

29th September – “Had a near shave today. Was repairing a dugout, at the same time exposing myself to Fritz, 30 yards distant. A bullet grazed my ear, slit my sleeve and exploded in the mud immediately in front of me”. A comrade was shot in the head.

1st October – “Very cold today. Rum was served out this morning. Very nice too. A flag was seen planted just outside the German lines. One of the Officers went out to get it, as soon as he had a hand on it, he was immediately blown to pieces by a bomb. Moral: don’t touch coveted trophies of that description.”

Sometimes a ‘fine’ parcel sent from home would reach them, with enough in it for all the boys of the section.

After Measlie, they left the trenches and marched to “Happy Valley” where artillery was dug in. Arthur was sent on mine fatigue. 5 men down an 80ft mine. He suffered from the gas, saw the Dr and had a sleep: the first for 4 days. After nearly 2 weeks, he re-joined his Company in the firing line. 2 men including a Lieutenant were killed, several injured. They buried the dead and Arthur was ambulanced to hospital with a fever. He remained in hospital in Rouen for a few weeks. Whilst there, they were treated to a concert and a visit from the Queen’s physician. It appears that he was requested to write home for a copy of his birth certificate…

He re-joined his regiment in Etaples where troops endured torrents of rain and strong winds which blew down and damaged all of their tents. They were entertained in the Salvation Army Hall by a band from Boulogne. Arthur was then given a temporary job as a clerk: he notes that he was feeling very ill again from the gas “arriving on again I think”. Also that there was no sanitation in Etaples, with refuse piled up and everyone very low. He did however manage to go to the pictures and being a talented pianist, regularly visited the Salvation Army Hut in order to play the piano. Remaining ill, he was given a job as line orderly but was soon rehospitalised and on 2nd December, he was sent home on the Hospital ship “Dieppe”. He was then taken by hospital train and private car to hospital before being officially discharged on the 6th.

After about one month however, Arthur returned to France. This time attached to the 13th Battalion. He kept no diary during this period, although notes that it would have made more interesting reading. On 13th April1916 he was seriously gassed and wounded. He was still a Machine Gunner and his 5 comrades were killed alongside him. The team would fire and carry the Lewis machine gun, carry and set up the tripod, carry ammunition and heavy ammunition belts. Arthur was left alone to fight the enemy with no support. He was awarded medals. It was recorded that if the German army captured a machine gun team, they would shoot them with their own gun. During this second tour to the front line, protection from gas attack was minimal. It consisted of holding a damp square cloth to the face. Many men died in the attack.

Arthur was left for dead and placed in a body bag for burial by orderlies after the battle. It was only when it was thought to retrieve his pay book from his jacket pocket that it was discovered that his heart was still beating. Otherwise Arthur would have been buried alive with the other bodies that were gathered. Recounting the experience to his son, he said he recalled hearing the words: “This one is still alive!” and that it was an “exceedingly narrow escape of being buried in my grave alive”.
His diary was condensed, with little detail, but when engaged in conversation, it came to light the true horror of his experiences. It could be imagined to some extent; but not fully apart from those who were also there.

Arthur Dawson went on to enjoy life until he died aged 57 years from Pneumonia and Encephalitis.  Although he never regained permanent full health, he married a young nurse and fathered four children. My Aunt recalls almost annual bouts of Bronchitis or Pleurisy which my Grandmother nursed him through. Also, pustulent, double lobe pneumonia- when she would administer hot poultices. However, he was physically strong and during his life he worked as a chauffeur, owned a greengrocers shop and specialised in transporting pianos. He was a competent pianist, playing at concerts and accompanying vocalists. He played the incidental music accompanying the silent movies in the early 1920s. Motor buses were rarely seen in the early 20s and Arthur quickly became a skilled bus driver, driving the first bus journeying from Yarmouth to Norwich. He also worked as a bus inspector and ran a taxi business.

His four children produced seven grandchildren whom he did not live to see. They in turn have the joy of nine more children between them.  A few months ago his first great, great grandchild was born. When I look at her, my own granddaughter – I am overwhelmed by gratitude that Arthur and other young men had the good fortune to return from the horrors of WW1 to leave the precious legacy of New Life.

Susan Miller