Story contributed by William Brooks’ son, Grahame Brooks
My late father wrote up his diaries for many years, so for this evening I have just taken a few excerpts that have some local connection.
My father was born in Eastbourne in 1889, and when he was old enough he enrolled as a Sea Cadet later the RNVR. When WW1began he was working as a Junior for the Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Company in Regent Street, W1. As most young men were keen to volunteer for Military Service in August 1914 he visited the HQ of the RNVR in Commercial Road, Southwark only to find it deserted and nobody there to give any information, so he eventually wrote but did not receive a reply.
Like most young men at that time he was very patriotic and wanted to do his bit for the war effort. With some of his young colleagues they went to the Headquarters of the 1st Battalion, London Scottish (who were away at camp when war was declared), only to be told that the War Office had not given instructions to recruit a 2nd Battalion for the Regiment! So they eventually found themselves at the Headquarters of the 1st Surrey Rifles Battalion, 21st London Regiment who decided that they would accept more recruits, so they all signed up and by the end of that week were square bashing. Some of them did extra drill and after six weeks still in civilian clothes, were issued with tunic, putties etc. and he received a single stripe, a full-blown lance Corporal. Pay was a shilling a day.
At that time they were told that fares for travelling would be stopped and were to find a billet for themselves in the neighbourhood. Landladies would be paid 1/s per night and he found a kind hearted couple in Brixton. Meals at that time were supplied by the Army. Dinner consisted of Bully beef, potatoes, bread or stew. The midday meal consisted of a pork pie & a bottle of mineral water delivered in a commandeered Furniture van. He stayed with the family until Christmas 1914 & before the holiday the Battalion put on a dinner at the Holborn Restaurant for about 1000, with Turkey & Xmas pudding plus lots of beer. After Christmas the Battalion moved to Redhill where they were billeted in rooms above the shops. His billet was above the International Stores and the landladies son was the Manager of the shop. Across the road was Grimes the Bakers and some mornings we were given bacon & eggs, with hot rolls & butter by the girls in the shop. At that time he received his second stripe of Corporal.
[The following extract is taken from William Brooks’ diary:]
“Our next move by night was to St Albans and we travelled across London by train without any changes via Holborn. It was now early 1915 and we expected to leave for France almost every day to replace casualties suffered by the 1st battalion.”
A long time then elapsed and by October 1915 he was promoted to Sergeant, and then received orders to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. The next day, he was told to proceed to Farnborough taking two riflemen with him, warrants had been issued and they went by train via Waterloo to Farnborough. Amongst the crowd on parade at Farnborough were a number of chaps who had been in private service as Rolls Royce drivers, most of whom could be picked out by their dress which in those days was a navy blue suit usually double breasted, with a peaked blue hat. I believe that most of them would have attended a course at the Rolls Royce works in driving and maintenance, considered necessary for private service to handle your Masters car, which at time cost about £1000.
[The following extract is taken from William Brooks’ diary:]
“The next day about 20 of us were transferred to the Cunnagh Camp via Dublin. We stayed just four days being kitted out in RFC uniform and there were two or three thousand of us. I was then posted to Netheravon to join No.21 Squadron. Here I found the RFC barracks were very different from my Army experience. Sprung single beds, with clean sheets & very good catering arrangements. We were then keen to know what type of planes we would have to look after and how soon we would be in France. The first planes we were to receive was the RE7- fitted with a 90HP Beardmore engine capable of doing 90 miles per hour and reaching 10,000 feet, although I never heard of one achieving that, but most of them reached the other side of the Channel to France safely in early 1916. We travelled with the Squadron services & equipment from Southampton to Le Harve and then on by road via St. Omer to Bentangles aerodrome about 7 [kilometres, north east] of Amiens. Here we were joined by 22 Squadron who were equipped with FE2 planes, a pusher type to be used for bombing at night. Our next planes were BE 2c, a two seater plane with a Lewis gun mounted on a pivot in the back seat for the observer.”
My father originally joined the RFC as an instrument technician, but ended up as a Sergeant (Rigger).
I could go on much longer, but my one disappointment is that he made no mention of having been at Kenley aerodrome, perhaps because it was not ready until some months later.
[The following extract is taken from William Brooks’ diary:]
“BE 2c -This machine had an RA.7 air cooled engine, but it suffered like so many of these early machines from the cylinders heating up, so we had many losses. At that time, I was promoted to Corporal and during our stay here had a day’s leave by lorry into Amiens, where we could shop, see the sights, some visiting the red-light district and getting used to drinking vin Blanc, which I think the French had kept aside, a special acidy brew for the troops! After my first sample I left it alone, those that did have a few, either wanted to fight the [Sergeant-Major] and have tummy upsets the next morning. However, we all enjoyed it.
Jerry visited us one evening and straddled the aerodrome with small bombs, about 25 lbs; what we called daisy cutters at that time, but did no material damage and no casualties. We were then sleeping in camouflaged tents, having dug ourselves about 2ft into the ground, piling the earth into sandbags, that we placed around the outside of the tents. Life in the RFC was so different to the infantry and my heart used to go out to those poor devils who used to pass our aerodrome foot slogging and weighed down with equipment to go up to the line.
Being now promoted to Sergeant (Rigger) to which I had to be transferred & accepted, as originally I had joined as an instrument mechanic. I was passed with a fitter Corporal mechanic named Pete, a Scots lad whose surname I cannot remember, he was a nice lad, younger by three years than myself, but we made a good combination, and although I say it myself, we were very popular with those officers under whom we served and serviced their flying machines. We had Australians, Canadians plus many who had transferred from regular army units to become pilots. So many of these fine fellows went west over the lines, Jerry, the German name we gave to our opponents, did I am afraid have slightly superior machines than we possessed at that time.
We moved about several times to different aerodromes in France, such as Beryangles/ Chipily/ Flez/ Baisieux/ Teteghem/ Marieux/ & Martigny, and in early 1917 we were snow & frost bound for about six weeks. I contracted conjunctivitis in both eyes due to this severe weather, and was sent back to a hospital at St Valery sur Somme, near the coast for treatment. Unfortunately, I developed a cornea ulcer on my right eye on which they had to dispence, and I think I stayed for about three weeks. My eyes having got back to normal I was passed A1 again. How I hoped I would be going back to Blighty, as England was called, but it was not to be. Instead I was given a Warrant to proceed to 24 Squadron, who were equipped with DH2 pusher scout machines and then back to my old aerodrome at Bertangles. The nearest railhead to this was Amiens and all trains to Paris passed through this station. I am afraid that I was in no hurry to get back to a new squadron, and as I was travelling on my own, boarded the Rapid to Paris, with one stop at Amiens.
My companions in the 3rd class carriage was a peasant type man & woman with a young son, so I aired my small knowledge of their native tongue. They seemed very interested in me as I was a Corps d’Aviateur, as I don’t think they had seen one of my ilk before! However, I was asked to share their food; bread, sausage and red wine, after which I was feeling very fit. Now Paris had always had a fascination for me and having been there before via Gare St Lazaire, I had made up my mind that I was going to let the Air Force give me a few days holiday to visit my Aunts parents Mr & Mrs Bombois at Asniers! I had to get out at Amiens to make the gay city by early afternoon. The station was alive with red caps, but my luck was in and I managed to evade them and waved my warrant card at the collector at the barrier, who smiled and so did I! Here I was free as a bird, outside the station and now to make my way to Asniers to see the Bombois.
I arrived in the early evening and went to an address which I understood was where they were living, but alas this was incorrect, and after much discussion with folk who seemed anxious to help I gave up the chase. It was now about 10pm and I was feeling a bit tired and hungry, so I made my way back to the Gare St Lazaire. I placed myself in the hands of the RTO, to whom I told that I had come on a fast train which had not stopped at Amiens. It worked and they told me to make myself comfortable in their room, gave me a cup of tea and a warrant for next morning to go back to Amiens, which I reached about midday. The RTO then phoned Squadron Headquarters and they sent a Crossley tender sometime in the afternoon to pick me up. Nice of them as there was a war on, but the RFC did look after one. I soon settled down in this squadron, nice crowd of chaps, with an old sapper Major Hawker VC., a wonderful squadron commander and a gentleman.
Our machines-DH2, were scouts with front mounted Lewis guns, pusher type, monotype with Le Rhone rotary engines. We lost the Major soon after my arrival, being shot down during a dog-fight over the lines. This caused a very sad feeling amongst all ranks as he was well liked. However, in war our sad loss went with many others and I am afraid that life became very cheap at this time. During my stay with this squadron I was again fortunate in being sent down to Camiers for a Lewis machine gun course for two weeks. This was enjoyable as we were in tents right in the sand dunes and as it was Summer we enjoyed a few swims in the sea. We also met fellows from different units who had come down from the front line to be instructed in the latest manner on how to handle this gun, so it was known as the Lewis Machine Gun School. A pleasant change. Then return to the squadron full of machine gun know-how and the war rolled on!
Now a surprise, a bit of leave to Blighty, to visit my home in Eastbourne via Boulogne-Folkstone to see my mother & sisters. Also my sweetheart in the town, where a large convalescent home had been established at Sun meadow. My old colleague George Hutchings had been there and of course visited my mother with some of his pals and by all accounts, the boys in blue, as they were then known, had a whale of a time, blackout was of course then in vogue. Leave over and back to France, when soon after the Great Somme battle and the push up to St. Quentin, our aerodrome being one that the French occupied at Chipily.
After this we experienced a reverse and the V Army of which we were attached looked like being pushed into the sea. We came back like the rest, burning every-thing we had to leave behind, and set ourselves up about 20km back in field hangers to be there for two days and then back again. I suppose more this time where we stayed put, as jerry came in so fast he also had to stop, no doubt finding his lines of communication were getting too long, or that we might be leading him into a trap. Little I think he must have known about our strength, because our troops I saw staggering back seemed to have had enough, so had he continued his push, goodness knows where he might have got to! However, luck was on the side of the British Army, and the 4th Army with reinforcements I believe filled the gap, and we all settled down again to war.
A little later pandemonium broke out, and from where we were behind the lines we heard a 48 hour artillery bombardment going on, and the British and French were making a combined push, which was successful, and everyone seemed more elated Leave again was started for the troops, and by this time things seemed to be moving in our favour, and towards the Autumn of 1918. Fortunately, I was sent home in November of this year, as being one of the longest in the Squadron overseas, a system introduced in the Flying Corps.
I remember coming down from our aerodrome we passed a squadron of Handley Page bombers who had just arrived from England. I believe the object was to bomb Berlin. The bombs were tremendous things to me then, I believe around a 1000 lbs which I saw around the [aero]drome, but I don’t think they ever got around to doing this job, as the war finished in November 1918. I was sitting pretty at the time, at a place called Boscombe Down in Wiltshire in a very cushy job, from which I managed to get my discharge in January 1919.”