Listen to Jack’s story and memoirs:
Click here to read Jack’s memories
Private Jack Davis, 6th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry
The Last Kitchener Volunteer from the heady days of August and September 1914
Briefly acknowledged as Britain’s oldest man in 2003, Jack Davis was also the last Kitchener volunteer from the heady days of August and September 1914.
Born in London in March 1895, one of eight siblings, Jack was working in the Liberal Club when he and thirty colleagues were seized with patriotic fervour and enlisted; he was, he said, depressed for the next four years!
Although a Londoner, he was sent to join the 6th Duke of Cornwall’s Light infantry with which he trained and embarked for France in May 1915.
He served in the Ypres Salient during 1915 and took part in trench raids and patrols in No Man’s Land; he was also made an officer’s servant. In September 1915, his Brigade was used in a diversionary attack in which two of his brothers took part. Afterwards Jack left his unit without permission to seek out his brothers to check that they were all right and a remarkable and memorable reunion was held in a tent close to the Belgian frontier.
After the war Jack married and had two children, living in later life close to one of his sons in High Wycombe, Berkshire. Jack made a number of trips back to the battlefields accompanying both Arthur Halestrap and Harry Patch back on a visit to Ypres in November 2002. Articulate and intelligent, he also appeared in several Great War documentaries.
We didn’t know where we were going or how long we would be on the train, and as most of the lads had been drinking before they got into the carriages, they soon needed the toilet. Anyway, those who were further up the train, where I was, just opened the window and urinated. When we eventually stopped, some of the lads further down who had stuck their heads out of the window were saying:
“Oh, you could feel the steam from the engine”, but it wasn’t that at all!
There was a sergeant and his brother in the same company as me. The Germans had a fixed rifle centered on part of our trench and every now and again they’d fire this, which kept making a hole in the sandbag parapet and it had to be built up every night.
At Stand To the next morning, this brother of the sergeant said he’d spotted the sniper and he got up on the parapet and put his rifle up to fire but the sniper got him first. The bullet hit his thumb and went through his mouth and out again without hitting his teeth.
How lucky can you be?
Anyway, we stuck a cigarette in his mouth and off he went down the line.
I was our company officer’s servant, and so when it was our turn to take over the front line I was sent up in advance of the 6th Battalion to take over the officers’ dugout and headquarters.
I walked from the Menin Gate up to the front line. At that time you couldn’t use the communication trench because it was full of water, and you had to scramble over the top. Walking up, perhaps a mile, to the line, you had to dodge in between shell holes, and the place was like a cemetery, the smell of death everywhere. I got up to within fifteen yards of the front line and got the usual challenge:
“Halt, who goes there?” and suddenly I thought, “I know that voice”. I said, “Bob, it’s your brother Jack”.
And there was not just Bob but my other brother Bill on a double sentry, up to their thighs in water, both wearing waders. Bill was looking through the periscope over the parapet. They were wearing greatcoats, but they’d used their razors to cut the bottom of their coats off because they were dangling in the water – they were both charged with damaging government property for that!
Bill and Bob were both in the 9th Rifle Brigade, and they were in the front line while we were in support. Only a few months before, Bob had been rejected medically unfit and Bill too as being under age and that was the last thing I knew. What strings they’d had to pull to get out there I’ve no idea, but I had no inkling that either was in France. It was such a strange coincidence and a never-to-be-forgotten reunion before I had to leave.
Out in No Man’s Land
At La Basseé we had no recognized front line. We were operating from saps, dug in the ground, Suffolk Sap, Machine Gun Sap, and Lunatic Sap, which speaks for itself. I had to do a tour of duty with my company officer to supply the other saps along the front with a rum ration. So we were out for more or less three or four hours supplying the ration, after which we came back to rest until Stand To.
One day a young officer joined the regiment, and I was told to take him out and show him the route we took to the other saps. So the first night, all right, no problem. But, being an officer, he was taught to lead, while other ranks were taught to follow. So he said:
“All right, I’ll lead tonight,” and he did, and took us onto the German wire. I was furious because he was insistent. He had only been over this ground once, and I had made regular tours with my Company Officer. What can you say? You don’t say:
“You’re going the wrong way”. You don’t argue, you’ve got to follow.
The German machine guns opened up all along our front. Self-preservation took over, and I got into a shell hole for cover and I called him and he came in. The Germans traversed their machine gun, and we waited until they passed us and made a dash for it, it was just a few yards to a bombing post, and we got back safely.
The next night he was still not satisfied, he wanted to lead, so he said:
“Make sure we take Corporal Hubbard with us”.
He was in charge of the machine gun, and the same thing happened, we ended up on the German wire. Once again we jumped into a shell hole but the Corporal lost his head. He was running up and down the German wire while they were machine gunning.
The officer and I got back, but we couldn’t leave the Corporal out there and so I went out again with another man and got into a shell hole. We shouted out for him to join us, which he did, and all three of us ran back to the bombing post. However, as Hubbard bent over to get into the post he got a machine gun bullet right across his back, a flesh wound.
He was the luckiest man alive, for it was within an eighth of an inch of his spine.