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Private John ‘Jack’ Rogers, 1/7th Sherwood Foresters
The Last Survivor of the 1/7th Sherwood Foresters
One of Jack’s earliest memories was watching Queen Victoria in London during her Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1897. He also effortlessly recalled watching the soldiers return from the Boer War in 1902. Born in 1894 and raised in West London, Jack left school to work in his father’s shoe repair shop. A keen cyclist, he joined a group called the Golden Wheelers and regularly rode to Brighton and back over the course of a weekend.
Jack enlisted in 1915, joining a territorial battalion of the Sherwood Foresters. However, before going to France he had been sent to Ireland as part of the British Army’s response to the Easter Uprising in Dublin. After the uprising was quelled, Jack embarked for the Western Front where, shortly after arriving, he narrowly escaped being killed when a shell landed in the trench, burying him alive. He was pulled out just in time.
He served on the Ypres Salient as a sniper and was later involved in army concert parties. In March 1918 he was taken prisoner on the first day of the German Spring Offensive, and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. He was repatriated in December 1918.
In 1998, aged 104, Jack became Britain’s oldest columnist, writing for his local newspaper, the Lincolnshire Echo. He gave several television interviews about his service in the Great War and appeared in BBC1’s two-part tribute to the First World War soldiers, Veterans: the Last Survivors of the Great War. He lived in Lincoln until his death in April 2000.
Charlie Shaw and I were on the observation post one morning, Charlie looking with the telescope and I using the binoculars. There was quite a stretch of country between the German front line and us which was up on a bit of a crest. All of a sudden, Charlie said:
‘Look!’ and over the top, out over the German lines, two men appeared and they walked down the slope a little bit, both of them carrying shovels.
They hadn’t gone down a long way before they started digging quite a large hole. They dug and fug and got a load of earth on the side. Then they went and got a big box with a hole in it and pushed it down into the recess they’d dug. Apparently they were making a latrine, just this wooden box stuck in the ground for anybody to sit on. Charlie said to me:
‘They haven’t got the cheek to build a toilet there, surely, I mean nobody’s going to use it, are they?” I said I didn’t know but we should wait and see.
It wasn’t very long afterwards before another soldier appeared over the top. He came walking down to that toilet and began to pull his trousers down, sat on the toilet and had the nerve to pull out a newspaper and sit there reading it.
“Are we going to put up with that?” Charlie said. “Not if I can help it, what about you, Charlie, about how far, do you think?” He said, “I think it’s best part of a mile, wouldn’t you? Right are you going to shoot or am I?” I replied that he’d better shoot and I would observe, so Charlie loaded up his rifle, got it poised and the man was still sitting there reading.
“Ready?” I said, ‘Yes’. ‘Right,’ said Charlie, “watch out”. And he fired.
I don’t know how near he was to the German but that man never stopped to pull his trousers up. He just got up and tore away as best he could, over the top of the hill out of sight.
Taken prisoner of war
I was given leave the day before my 24th birthday, so I could be home on the day, 21st March 1918. Well, of course this was the launch of the great German offensive. The military authorities didn’t know it was going to be that day, but from prisoners we’d taken, they knew a big attack was due any time.
I’d written to my mother telling her not to send a cake or anything like that because I was on my way home, when, on the 19th, the army cancelled all leave.
Working parties had been sent with engineers in charge to dig a small extra trench. This was being prepared for the expected attack and would be occupied solely by a few snipers, eight I believe, including me. We waited there all night until at five in the morning the Germans opened up as anticipated, the big barrage.
The Germans did not bombard the whole front; they left sections, shelling to the left and right of us, very, very heavily too, but not directly on us. The next thing we knew, German soldiers were seen pouring through but we were still there holding this bit of trench, hanging on, just trying to have a pot here and there.
Eventually we looked round and we could see Germans galore in every direction. Mopping up parties were being sent out to clear up little pockets of resistance, working their way around to us. They got nearer and nearer and they were sort of shouting, not shooting.
Then they began to throw in some of these potato mashers, as we called them, handgrenades, and one of our chaps was badly wounded in the legs. I looked at my mate Charlie Shaw and said:
“What do we do?” He says, “It’s no good, Jack, throw your hands up”. We realised it was hopeless, so we all just threw our rifles at either end of the trench. There was nothing else to do, we looked around and saw these blinkin’ Prussian Guards tearing down the trench.
I didn’t know what to think. One guard came straight for me, fixed bayonet. He came rushing up and from that moment I said goodbye – there was to be no more of me. I expected the bayonet to go directly into me, but it didn’t. Strangely enough, when he got right up to me he stopped, and said:
“Cigarette, Kamarad?” I nearly dropped to the ground in surprise.
He wants a cigarette! Of all the things that anybody would ask for at that stage. So I felt in my tunic, where I carried a little tin of ready-made cigarettes and I said:
‘Yes’ and he took some and put them in his pocket, then pointed to my equipment and said, “los”.
Any equipment had to be taken off and left with our kit bags and sandbags on the trench floor, while we climbed out on top of the parapet.