1711: Pte Ralph Nellist
An account taken from the personal notes of Ralph Nellist, Pte. 91260, 18th (SW) Durham Light Infantry
Ralph Nellist grew up in the Undercliffe area of Bradford.
During previous months young men of about my age were subjected to verbal abuse. People, especially middle aged women, tell us to 'Get out to the Front and help those hard pressed soldiers in the trenches!' I went to the Recruiting Office to 'join up', but they could not take me until I was 18 years of age. They supplied me with a khaki coloured arm band to denote that we were already volunteers but awaiting the 'call up'.
July 26th 1917 - (my 18th birthday) My call up papers arrived with orders to go to Halifax Barracks. I went on the appointed day; no time to say good-bye to friends. At the barracks I got 'kitted out' in khaki uniform and was ordered to have a hair-cut by the official barber. He did a thorough ‘skin-head style’! Bang went my curly hair!
Next day I was drafted with the others to Rugeley Camp near Stafford . Training began immediately. After many weeks with this K.O.Y.L.I. Training Battalion we were drafted to Brocton Camp, 2 or 3 miles away, for further intensive training, using Cannock Chase mainly for this. Then later we entrained for Ripon North Camp for a final intensive training, including Night Operations. Sunday morning church parade was a march to Ripon Cathedral. They had put me in the band on arrival at Ripon, as I had played cornet in the Training Battalion in Staffordshire. Therefore I felt it a privilege to play in Ripon Cathedral! Before we left Ripon my father came to see me. He had just enough money for fish and chips, a last meal together, and as the train back to Bradford pulled out, he wept.
Later we were drafted to Aldershot. More training in trench warfare on Salisbury Plain. The next move was by train to Folkestone. At Folkestone we were billeted in ‘posh’ houses on ‘The Leas’. The houses had been evacuated, so our sleeping quarters were on the bare floor boards. After a couple of days we were lined up and marched down to the landing stage and put on a troop ship which took us across the English Channel to Boulogne, and then marched to a transit camp at Etaples, camping for a day or so on the sandy waste. Then a night ride by cattle train, a motley collection of trucks and open waggons. (No lights owing to the activities of German aircraft on night patrol).
After about twelve miles of this slow ‘train’ ride we landed at St Omer, the depot of the Durham Light Infantry (D.L.I.) to which Regiment we were now transferred. It was the 18th Pals Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (affectionately known as ‘The Dirty Little Imps’). Again, I was put in the band on the cornet, but still a fighting soldier.
Ralph had been posted to the sector that bore the brunt of the 1918 German Spring Offensive, a major effort by two German Armies seeking to capture Ypres, and drive west to the English Channel, which would have had the effect of cutting off British forces from their supply line which ran through the Channel ports of Calais, Dunkirk and Boulogne. During the period from 7th until the 29th April the Battle of Lys (also known as The Fourth Battle of Ypres), was fought. German forces on the Western Front had been enlarged following peace with Russia by the arrival of men from the Eastern Front, and some 800,000 German troops were engaged in actions that included an advance of five miles on the first day. German troops advanced across the River Lys and took the village of Méteren, west of Bailleul. During the next two weeks of fierce fighting the British were forced to withdraw from the Passchendaele Ridge and from Mount Kemmel, areas of strategic high ground in the Ypres Salient. This was one of the most perilous points of the war, and Field Marshal Douglas Haig issued his famous backs-to-the-wall order:
"There is no other course open to us but to fight it out! Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end."
Ralph’s notes give glimpses of his movements during this time. At the end of April when the threat of a German advance on the channel ports was acute, Ralph was with the 18th Battalion digging defences and training, at Sercus, not far from Dunkirk. On May 9th the battalion received orders to relieve the 2nd Battalion, Australian Infantry. The men travelled by bus as far as the support system north west of Méteren, a village on the French-Belgian border, where by 3.00am they had relieved the Australian troops on the Front Line. The 18th Battalion now held a sector between French troops on one side and Australian troops on the other. Daily records from the following three weeks describe the Front in terse phrases: ‘fairly quiet’; ‘working parties repairing trenches’; ‘some gas’; ‘some shelling around Headquarters’. Throughout the summer of 1918 the 18th Battalion alternated periods of respite with action in the Front Line, where they conducted a number of minor operations including trench raids. By the end of June it is clear that the tide has turned: actions led to the capture of guns and the taking of prisoners, and the casualty list was shorter. On July 19th the Germans lost control of Méteren. The final action recorded for the 18th Battalion is their part in the capture of Bailleul and Mont de Lille in late September. Though initially the Spring Offensive was a military success for the German High Command, losses were very high, with some 120,000 killed, wounded, or missing, and such losses could not be sustained. The arrival of thousands of American troops, on the other hand, boosted manpower on the Allied side.
Ralph’s 18th Battalion would soon be caught up in ‘the final push’. But from home came the sad news that his father had died and as the eldest of nine children, Ralph knew that he was needed back in Bradford. The sergeant said, not unkindly, ‘I can’t let you go, lad, there’s a big push on’.
Ralph recalled those weeks before the Armistice of 1918.
"We could not stop advancing of course and, as the enemy collapsed and retreated at high speed, we had to follow on, so our rifles were quickly exchanged for band instruments. We marched and played through Lille – Roubaix (locals dancing in the streets) – Lannoy (inhabitants insisted every man had a bed and would hear of no payment.) - Leers-Nord (taken into houses and fed) – Tourcoing, and on to Brussels where I slept in a pig sty. We had to return to our depot at St Omer via the coast road because of all the people going back home from captivity blocking the road (a three week march)."
Ralph’s eye-witness account of those final weeks corroborates that given in The War History of the 18th (S.)Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, by Lieut.-Col. W. D. Lowe, D.S.O. M.C., O.U.P. 1920, Ch. XIII, ‘The Last Advance and the End 1918’, p.141 .
"During 19th (October) we marched through Tourcoing and Roubaix to Lannoy, and were received with the wildest enthusiasm. The houses were covered with flags; some were very fine ones and represented the combined flags of the Allies, and were, therefore, comparatively new. The people in Roubaix told us that the Germans had actually sold many of these to the inhabitants, just prior to their evacuation. As we marched through, little flags were stuck in the rifle barrels of every soldier in the Battalion, and wine, beer, liqueurs, coffee, cakes, and every imaginable thing was pressed on us. Owing to the pressure of the inhabitants, the column was repeatedly broken into sections, and sometimes into file. On reaching Lannoy we got into excellent billets, but the inhabitants insisted on every man having a bed, and on all sides it was, 'Vous êtes alliés, prenez ce que vous voulez et faites ce que vous voulez.' They would not hear of payment. In spite of this reception, every man was punctuallv on parade next morning at 8.30
a.m., when we moved to Leers Nord, four miles east of Lannoy, where again we were most kindly treated."
Ralph continued to serve in the 18th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, until his ‘demob’ in the spring of 1919. That summer, July 3rd. 1919, Lieutenant Colonel W. D. Lowe, now based with the newly formed RAF No. 3 Group, in St Omer, wrote a reference for Ralph to help him make the transition back to civilian life:
No. 91260 Pte. R. NELLIST, late 18 Battalion DURHAM LIGHT INFANTRY was in the band, first and solo cornet, from April 1918 until the disbandment of the Battalion in April 1919, and is very anxious to re-join a band. Whilst with the Battalion he had a clean conduct sheet and excellent character. He is always clean, smartly dressed and smart on parade.
During his time on active service Ralph thought to himself, ‘If I get out of this, I’ll do something with my life’. He kept his pledge: for twelve years he served as a Salvation Army Officer, and then as a local Methodist preacher for fifty years. Ralph’s long life was sustained by his unwavering Christian commitment, by love of his wife and four children, and by his love of music. He became well known in brass band circles, as a qualified teacher and band master. He was well known as an adjudicator for major brass band competitions and he founded the National Association of Bandmasters. During his 50 years at Hall Royd Methodist Church in Shipley, Ralph encouraged his choir and founded a band to offer opportunities for boys to continue in musical fellowship when their voices broke. Having endured the horror of the Western Front, Ralph Nellist did indeed ‘do something’ with his life.