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Sapper Arthur Halestrap, 138 Brigade, Royal Engineers
Last combat veteran of the Royal Engineers
Arthur was born in Southampton in September 1898, the son of a police constable. His father’s access to the port allowed Arthur to visit many of the great liners that pulled into the city’s docks and in 1912 he was able to walk around the most famous ship of them all, RMS Titanic, shortly before she set sail on her fateful voyage across the Atlantic.
Arthur left for France in January 1918 and served as a wireless operator in the Royal Engineers. He served throughout the German Spring Offensive and that summer, the Allied assault to break the Hindenburg Line in September. After the Armistice, he joined British forces sent to Germany as part of the Army of Occupation and remained there until 1919 when he was demobilized.
Owing to his experiences as a wireless operator he was able to find employment with Marconi where, incidentally, he worked with the wireless operator from the Californian, the ship blamed for ignoring the distress signals from the Titanic. He married and had two children. In the Second World War he joined the Royal Corps of Signals and in 1942 he was seconded to the Special Operations Executive.
His only son, John, who was serving with the RAF, was killed returning from a bombing raid in March 1945. After the war, Arthur worked in the Diplomatic Wireless Service until he retired in 1970. He lived a fiercely independent life in Kings Norton until his death in April 2004.
“I joined a convoy of wagons and horses going up at night from Division to Brigade Headquarters. We had reached a crossroads when a Very light lit up the place, an eerie sort of light, and, as it fell, the darkness came again; then another Very light, and another one, and inevitably the shelling started.
The fire was very accurate and in no time there was carnage and carcasses all over the place. The wagon to which I was attached was halted because the leading horse of the team got its left legs in the mud on the side of the road and it couldn’t move, and the lead horse on the other side was pawing the air.
All the horses were screaming, and there’s nothing worse than screaming horses, they are terrifying. The situation was immediately seen by an NCO in charge, and he ordered some of the men to get of the back of the wagon to push and others to get on the wheels to wind them. I was sent to get underneath the horse stuck in the mud. When the order came to move, I heaved and everyone pushed on the wheels and we got the wagon going.
That was my baptism of fire. It wasn’t a nice one but strangely enough I wasn’t frightened. I had a job to do. I look back upon this with amazement, but that’s the truth. It was the result of the discipline instilled in us, to do the job that we were told to do, regardless of anything else.
Shooting at enemy aircraft
At regular times in the morning and evening, an enemy observation plane would come over and of course we would take pot shots at it with our rifles. This German airman was so low that we could see him using his revolver.
As the plane went over, I suddenly felt a bang on the table beside me, and there was a bullet hole in the wood; the bullet had missed me by an inch. No one was hurt in these exchanges and in fact we took it all as a joke and enjoyed it, really.
Going into action
For the attack on the Hindenburg Line, we had a transmitter receiver, a trench set as it was called, in a wooden case with a carrying strap. Then there were batteries, which were very heavy cells, also carried in a wooden box with a strap. We had two tubular fifteen-foot steel masts in three-foot sections to cling over our shoulders with ropes and guys all together in a sack with a mallet and aerial wire.
On top of this we had our own rifles, ammunition and field equipment, a knapsack, groundsheet and gas mask, amongst other things, as well as six days’ rations of bully beef, canned fruit, biscuits and beard, which had been placed in a sandbag.
We had been told a carrying party was coming to help us through the trenches, but we received a note from a runner to say that the infantry had no men to spare. The three of us struggled on but the job was impossible. We had to dump something and the only thing we could afford to lose was the sack containing our rations. When we finally got to the front line we found the infantry waiting to go over.
Because we’d had to dump our rations, we ate anything we could find. We dug biscuits out of the mud of the trench, washing them with water from petrol cans, and that’s the way we managed until the corporal found a packet of oatmeal on a railway track, and we lived on that for some considerable length of time. When you are hungry and you find something discarded, you’ll use any means to make it edible.
When we had the orders to go over and erect our aerial the shelling was still very heavy. Then the corporal said:
‘Oh dear, he’s no good,’ and the third man with us was lying at the bottom of the trench gibbering; he was absolutely shell-shocked, his teeth were chattering and he was moaning, because the barrage was so fierce.
The noise of the guns and the shells bursting, it’s impossible to describe a barrage of that nature, the different tones of the shells, the high whine of the machine gun bullets, and small arms and the heavy shells going over: it was a medley of sound, all mixed together. The corporal looked at me, shrugged his shoulders and said:
‘Come on, we’d better get on with it.’
We went on without this man and came back for him afterwards. He’d recovered and didn’t remember a thing about it. The corporal said nothing to him and neither did I.
As soon as the Armistice came into force there was a sudden, terrible silence. It was a silence that knocked one silly. It was so sudden. Straightaway we felt that we had nothing to love for. There was nothing in front of us, no objective. Everything you had been working for, for years, had suddenly disappeared.
What am I going to do next? What is my future?