John Arthur Wilson MM
As a boy, after Sunday lunch, I recall sitting on my grandfather's knee and he would start off with the line ‘have I told you about the time ...' and he'd then add, ‘.... we were gassed' or '.... we took a German prisoner' or '..... I was transferred to the Royal Flying Corps'. Perhaps this started my interest in history.
In his 96th year Jack returned to Passchendaele with Lynn Macdonald and I recorded some three hours of interviews (soon to be shared). We even visited the armoury at the Imperial War Museum where he immediately squatted down behind a Vicker's Machine Gun and started to work through a routine of checks.
Jack was watching the first Iraq War on TV, whilst a contemporary member of the Durham Light Infantry was being interviewed, and he said, ‘That's nothing compared to Passchendaele', which I turned into a TV script of the same name. Since then I've used this memoir and library of references to write: ‘Get Jack Back' relating to the week in late November 1917 when he was stuck in Houlthoust Forest; and ‘Angel of the North' about his imagined younger sister who gets herself onto the Western Front. With the Great War Centenary nearly upon us, now is the time to remember. Jack died in his 97th year.
Jack Wilson was born in August 1896 on his grandparent’s farm near Dalston, Cumbria
The son of Twentyman Wilson, the head groom and then chauffeur for the Murrays of Consett, Jack grew up around ‘The Big House’ in Benfieldside.
Fig 1: Jack Wilson, aged nine. Jack is in the middle distance in the centre of the road wearing a straw hat. He’s carrying a bamboo cane and jam jar and is with his younger brother Billy.
The second of five boys, Jack appears aged nine with his kid brother Billy in a photograph taken by his English teacher William Lubbock in Shotley Bridge in 1905. His earliest memory was the celebrations to mark the Relief of Mafeking in 1900.
At 14, Jack left school having completed Standard 7; he went to work for J G Murray, whom they called ‘The Governor’ at the head office of the North Eastern Brewery, based at the Royal Hotel, Consett. Here, as the office boy, he experienced all kinds of shenanigans in the office, hotel and pop factory.
Fig 2: Gustav Hamel, who flew a Bleriot in demonstration flights all over England.
In 1911, Jack saw the aeronaut Gustav Hamel fly around Carlisle Racecourse and took to buying model aeroplanes from Gammages.
In 1915, when appeals went out for volunteers to join up, Jack went along with some lads from the office to the recruiting office in Consett and shortly after was sent to Fenham Barracks, then on to Gateshead to train with the Durham Light Infantry. He recalled the medical, learning to put on a puttee, a wonderfully friendly Sergeant Major and the names of everyone who joined up with him and what happened to them.
Fig 3: Machine Gunners on the Western Front
A strapping lad and mechanically minded, the army transferred Jack to the Machine Gun Corps. He trained in Harrowby Camp, Grantham, then headed for France.
Fig 4: Jack Wilson MM with WW1 author Lyn Macdonald and visitors to the Passchendaele salient to mark the 75th Anniversary.
Although he didn’t keep a diary, many decades later (in his 96th year) he recalled every detail to his grandson Jonathan Vernon who recorded several hours of interviews. He also attend the 75th Anniversary of Passchendaele tour with the author Lyn Macdonald. The interviews will become available as podcasts.
Highlights include seeing a soldier undergoing Field Punishment No 1, the first casualty (a lad kicked by a cow) and their first fatality, an officer shot through the head by a sniper. On the Somme, he went in after each push and soon gave up on the idea of collecting souvenirs on finding a head in a Picklehaube helmet.
Fig 5 A concrete pillbox in the mud of Passchendaele.
From the Somme he went north to Ypres and was positioned on the French flank. Jack survived the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) fighting at Langemark, Poelcapelle and Houthulst Forest.
Fig 6: John Arthur Wilson as featured in the Consett Gazette in 1917
On one occasion no relief was possible and he kept the machine-gun in action for a week. For this he was decorated with the Military Medal ‘in the field’ by Brigadier Sandlilands. In his absence, a mate sent a letter home saying Jack was missing and, for some weeks, his family assumed he had been killed.
Fig 7: Flight Cadet Jack Wilson with is plane at Crail
By this time his brother, Billy Wilson, who had joined the RFC as a 16 year old cadet, was piloting De Havilland Bombers. Jack got his papers in to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps and finally left the Western Front on 27 December 1917.
Fig 8: RAF Cadets on the sand, Hastings, June 1918. Jack is centre frame, in the back leaning into the camera and showing his bare right arm. He was, as he would describe ‘fighting fit’.
After a medical in London in January 1918, Jack enjoyed his first leave in over two years. He then went through training in Hastings, Bristol, Uxbridge and flying training in Avroes and Bristol Fighters at RAF Crail in Scotland. Below you can see his pilot log book which, like the hand book for the Vicker’s Machine Gun, was an item he kept safely all his life. Hear him in his own words.
Figs 9, 10, 11: Jack’s RAF Pilot Log Book, photo of a crash and the note on the back written by Jack.
At Crail, pilots and instructors were killed in accidents. Jack had to get along with the Public School mentality of the mess and even play that foreign (to him) game of rugby. He stayed on into 1919 to help with the demobilisation.
Back at the Head Office of the North Eastern Brewery, a collection kept during his absence allowed Jack to purchase a motorbike. His greatest regret was, in his words, not to ‘get back to France and have a go at Jerry’ in the Second World War.
Fig 12 John Arthur Wilson. Probably in the 1920s or early 1930s
Jack married into the Hogg family in the late 1920s. He remained with The North Eastern Brewery until Murray sold it to Vaux; after a short hiatus he joined the Scottish & Newcastle brewery where he remained as one of its Regional Managers until his retirement in the 1960s.
Fig 13: Mrs Sheila Vernon (nee Wilson), Jack’s daughter with John Wilson at the Tynecot cemetery.
Always keen to recount his stories of the First World War, in the early 1990s Jack attended MCG and RFC events as a veteran and travelled as a guest to 75th Anniversary Events to mark Third Ypres, or the Battle of Passchendaele – it broke Jack’s heart to mark spots where his friends had died, the locations remarkably easy for him to find despite the decades since the War.
Article and images kindly contributed by Jonathan Vernon.
You can view Jonathan's website here: That's Nothing Compared to Passchendaele.