My name is Harry (Harold) Postill, the Furniture Maker at Fangfoss near York. If I tell people that my dad was captured at the Battle of the Somme, they usually say, ‘You mean your grandad don’t you?’ Well no, because my dad was born in 1899 and didn’t have me until 1948.
My dad, Harold, was a farmer’s son from Manor Farm, East Lutton, the youngest of five children. I’m not sure whether he was called up or volunteered.
His first barracks for basic training was Durham Gaol where, as well as learning basic drill, when they were presented with a bayonet an officer would pass down the line, passing a bayonet to each soldier with the words, ‘This is to kill or be killed.’ The sergeants, during training, would bellow insults at the new recruits such as, ‘You’re like a lass in pink socks,’ or ‘You might break your mother’s heart, laddie, but you won’t break mine.’
I think that, as was the case with many who have experienced the horrors of war, my dad managed to block much from his mind but during our conversations over the years, bits and pieces of memories and events he would recall to me.
I do not know when he crossed into France but his regiment, The Durham Light Infantry, were in action in Passchendaele and Ypres and they were moved around quite a bit. Harold spoke of the artillery bombardments when, at night, the barrels of the big guns in constant use would glow red. He said at this time he could feel the whole earth rocking below his feet. It was a “Hell on Earth”. As the shells whistled over they were able to tell from the tone of the whistle where the shell would land. A high-pitched sound meant it would go over you, a low pitch meant it would land short. All would take cover if the tone was right but if it “had your name on it” there was nothing you could do.
The RULES at that time were not to allow ammunition in the rifle during a bayonet charge but dad said he always had one ‘up the spout’. The Scottish soldiers at that time would fight in their kilts and he said the Germans called them “women from Hell”.
My dad never spoke of human injuries or death but he did speak of his sadness for the horses. Because the horses had to move all the equipment the Germans would shoot down the horses first in order to stop progress. Mustard gas was used and my dad got a small dose. They carried gas masks and the regulation was to fit masks to the horses first.
On the day Harold was captured, they were briefed that they were being sent as a sacrifice because it was imperative to hold Gerry back.
They began to advance up a hill and when German machine gunners opened fire, men were dropping all around. Dad said he was laid flat on the ground and if he had held his hand up it would have been chopped off in the hail of bullets. After a while, an officer stood up, waved his revolver in the air and shouted, ‘Come on, the buggers are going high,’ meaning Gerry had lost his aim. They advanced a little more, then once again, began falling all around. The same officer then shouted, ‘It’s every man for himself!’ Dad said to himself, ‘Well I think I’ll stick with you mate,’ and so on they ran through the bullets from tree to tree. At some point between two trees the officer went down. When dad reached him, he was just opening and closing his mouth from which blood dribbled. Dad said he had a lovely watch but didn’t have time to get it. I was horrified when he told me this but he meant he would have sent it to the officer’s family. Dad ran on and got behind an old wall but the German guns were accurate and as he lay there, the bullets were bringing the wall down brick by brick, so he ran on again and jumped into a shell hole to find other soldiers in there. After a short while, everything fell silent and, as if out of nowhere, they looked up to see their shell hole surrounded by Germans with fixed bayonets. Dad said, ‘I thought aye up, we’re going to get stuck here.’ A voice from another shell hole shouted, ‘Stretcher bearer!’ Dad said, ‘You’ll be lucky, mate, there’s nobody can stand here!’ (meaning they were all totally petrified, expecting the bayonet.) A German soldier shouted, ‘England kaput, England graveyard!’ They were then all taken prisoner and, in due course, marched off. I’m pretty sure dad did not know where he was as a prisoner but he was kept for about nine months. During that time, he said they were kept in cages one above another, three deep. Fleas and lice were rife and the man on top would pick them off and they would drop onto the man below. When the man at the bottom died, they were moved down to the next cage.
Things must have improved a bit because, although penned in, they must have been allowed outside as food was in such short supply they had to eat all the leaves from hedges and trees. Food ration was a quarter loaf of black bread per man. The loaf was given to one man who broke it in half then handed it to the next man who did the same. Dad was A1 fit when he joined up and C3 on his return. His father had sent food parcels which never arrived. He was a wiry, athletic-looking person but, during his confinement, he lost four stones so he must have been between five and six stones when he got home.
People have told me that he looked like a skeleton, covered in skin. The local doctor apparently took one look and exclaimed, ‘The bastards!’ He was advised to take an outdoor job in fresh air because of the mustard gas poisoning. So he worked as a forester until retiring at Welburn, near Castle Howard, at the age of 65. He lived to be 85 years of age and always smoked a pipe. He was also a regular churchgoer.
He was obviously very tough to survive all this but what I admire most about him was the fact that he did not hate the Germans. ‘They were doing their job and we did ours. We didn’t have a choice,’ he said.
Last year (2013) I thought it was about time I paid a visit to the Somme area and the researcher from the Durham Light Infantry museum was very helpful. I was given a timeline of the regiment’s movements throughout the whole of the war. It seems my dad would have been captured during the Battle of the Aisne in Picardy, which is an area just NW of Reims. With my wife, Nell, we followed the route that the soldiers had marched to battle, along peaceful single-track country roads, through the towns of Fimes and Glennes and finally to the battle areas of Concevreux, Chaudardes and Craonne. Craonne is a very typical, quiet, French village. We drove on for about two miles and stopped at a layby which had a memorial and information boards where we learned , to our amazement, that this was the site of the original Craonne. It had ben totally devastated in 1918. It was so bad that it had to be rebuilt two miles away because the land where it had stood was not even good enough for agriculture. The French government, therefore, decided to plant a forest there as a memorial.
During a visit to Burton Agnes Hall a couple of years ago, I took a look in the church there where I came upon the Roll of Honour for the Great War. To my surprise the name, Harold Postill, looked back at me from the board. This cold reality brought tears to my eyes because it was a miracle that it was not my dad, Harold Postill, who died and, if it were, myself Harold Postill Jnr would never have existed.
My philosophy now is to try to enjoy life as to be here at all is some kind of miracle. These events may be from almost a hundred years ago but they are still very relevant to me today.
The curved ceiling of the Menin Gate Memorial with the rebuilt town in the distance.
A detail of Panel 11 of the Memorial with Joe’s friend Fellowes among those without a grave.
Army map of 1st Ypres 29th October, 1914 – source, copy in the 'In Flanders Fields Museum', with permission. Where Joseph Garvey was captured is circled.