Harry Fellows was born on the 5th May 1896, the son of a Nottingham coal miner. His mother had been in domestic service until she married. In Harry’s youth, the principal industries in Nottingham were Raleigh Cycles, John Player Cigarettes and coal mining.
Times of course were hard, but as long as you remained in work you got by. Harry supplemented the family’s income by becoming a butcher’s delivery boy. He also collected and delivered, in a little cart his father had made for him, the washing that his mother took in to make ends meet. The family grew and Harry became the eldest of four, with a sister and two brothers.
In later years when asked by a student if he learned his poetry skills from listening to his mother read to him Harry replied. “The only time I can remember my mother sitting down was at meal times and on a Sunday afternoon, and even then she was either darning or mending old clothes. The kitchen of the house in winter was always covered in clothes hanging up either drying or airing. The poor soul didn’t have time to read to me!” In addition to all this his mother took in two girl lodgers from Birmingham who came to find work at Raleigh.
If it was necessary to help support the family, and providing a certificate of education had been achieved, a child was able to leave school at the age of thirteen. Harry therefore left school on Friday and started work at Raleigh on Monday for the weekly wage of five shillings. The year was 1909.
Harry worked hard and moved from department to department learning the various skills of bicycle manufacture, and finished up in the wheel-making department. Little did he know that in a few years time these skills would possibly play a great part in saving his life. However, there was always the threat of ‘lay off’ or ‘short time working’, and the disastrous effects that had on a family’s income and ability to cope.
In 1912, Harry’s mother died at the age of 42. He never did believe the old saying that hard work never killed anyone. There then followed a long unsettled period of lay offs and short time. In 1914 Harry’s father changed pits because of the possibility of more reliable work, the only problem being that to preserve family finances he had to walk seven miles each way to work, and then on arrival a further mile to the pit face. One day he arrived home, having walked in freezing rain, and running a high temperature. Harry sent for the doctor who arrived two days later and his father was taken to hospital where he died of pneumonia at the age of 47.
Harry was now an orphan, and the breadwinner for a family of four. He was eighteen years of age and still on short time working. His sister went into domestic service, in which capacity she stayed for the rest of her life, and Harry made arrangements with some members of the family living in Melton Mowbray to look after the boys.
War had been declared. Harry had made up his mind; he was going to join the army. Years later when asked if he joined up out of patriotism and for King and Country, he was adamant in his reply. “Not for patriotism, but to escape poverty, and not for King and Country, for neither had done very much for him. I didn’t want to kill anyone, I wanted to get clothed and fed and have a shilling or two in my pocket”. When he went to sign on there were hundreds there like him of the same opinion.
Being only 18 and the official age for joining being 19 was not a problem. No one asked! Everyone of course wanted to join the Cavalry, but that was to be denied them, their lot in life was to be Poor Bloody Infantry. There was a choice of two Regiments, The Notts & Derby’s or the northumberland Fusiliers. Harry’s mind was easily made up for him. He fancied the long train journey to Newcastle, and so he became a Private Soldier in ‘C’ Company, 12th Battalion, northumberland Fusiliers, 62nd Brigade, 21st Division.
Out of chaos, order and organisation gradually took place, and after training at Alnwick, Tring and Halton Camp the Battalion took shape and were up to full strength. Harry had been selected for specialist training, and having passed his course, was now a fully qualified Lewis Gunner. They were now considered well enough trained to go overseas on active service. On the evening of the 5th September 1915 the Battalion transport left southampton for Le Havre. They joined up with the rest of the Battalion at Eperleques in northern France.
On the 20th the Battalion left Eperleques for a series of five night route marches, marching through the night, no singing or smoking, and only sleeping and eating during the day. To where they did not know! On the road with them was the 24th Division and much confusion and stopping took place, but the sound of the guns kept increasing.
Eventually the Company Commander Captain Pole addressed them. He said they were entering a battle that commenced in the early hours of that morning, and they were going in to relieve a Scottish Battalion, which had done rather well. “We all cheered like mad”, said Harry, “little did we know … We were nearing Loos”.
We joined the Royal Scots, but did not relieve them. Some of our men got into the trench with them if room allowed, we others lay along the back of it. We were at the bottom of a shallow incline, the brow of which was 400 yards away. Skirting the top we could see belts of barbed wire. We were looking for the first time at the infamous ‘Hill 70’.
About mid morning the order was given for ‘C’ Company Lewis Gunners to go to the transport and collect their guns and ammunition. My No. 2 and best pal Pip Henson, a Geordie from Ashington, and I started to make our way to the transport. When we got there an appalling sight met us. An ammunition limber had been hit by a shell and had exploded, inflicting carnage around. Men and mules were lying dead and dying, and men were shooting the wounded animals. We returned empty handed.
As we passed H.Q. the adjutant asked me to take a message to our Company Commander. I waited, Pip left me to walk back to the trench…and out of my life…I never saw him again.
The message the Adjutant gave me read :- “The C.O. wishes the attack to be carried out with the bayonet in the true northumbrian manner”.
“I reached the trench looking for Captain Pole just as the attack got under way, with the men cheering as they moved up the hill, and not a shot being fired. I went after them. The leading men would be about 100 yards from the German wire when their machine guns opened up on us. I was about a 100 yards from our trench and saw the Battalion being decimated, men falling to the ground like scythed corn, some rising to fall again and many lying in their agonies on the ground. I hit the earth behind a young lad who had received a bullet through the head, he would move no more. It seemed like hours, but in fact it was only ten minutes. Ten minutes, which killed 150 of the northumberlands. Ten minutes which gave us casualties of over 600”.
The firing stopped and those that were able moved back down the hill, some helping each other. There were no stretchers, they had been left with the transport!! There was nothing that could be done for those who were left on that deadly, deathly slope of “Hill 70”.
The German Commander of this sector at the time is reputed to have said, “My machine gunners were so filled with remorse, pity and nausea at the Corpse Field of Loos that they refused to fire another shot”. Harry believed him!.
It was back at the rendezvous in Vermelles that Harry was at last able to deliver his message to Captain Pole. “But isn’t that what we tried to do”, he said with tears in his eyes.
They were eventually withdrawn to begin their prelude to their first winter in the trenches at a place called Houplines. It was a quiet sector, and a live and let live attitude prevailed. They settled down to trench life, if in fact it can be called trench life. The water table in this area was so high that water was usually found after about only a foot of digging, so the alternative was to build parapets of sandbags. Fortunately the enemy didn’t bother them, but the rats did, the place was swarming with them. In Harry’s own words, “As soon as you killed one, another ten would come to the funeral”.
Harry reported. “Early in 1916, whilst out at rest, a notice was one morning posted on Battalion Orders. It read: – ‘All men previously employed in the Mining and Shipbuilding Industries wishing to return to their previous employment may seek particulars from the Orderly Room.’ I think that it would be safe to say that 50% of the men in the Battalion fell into that category, and one would have imagined a stampede to return home. However, nothing like this happened. Whether they were looking for certain trades, or if the men thought they would be letting the side down I don’t know. The fact is that only about 20 took up the offer. If the same offer had been repeated six months later I would not have guaranteed the same result”.
Harry had such a mate who would surely have qualified. He was Robert ‘Geordie’ Appleton a miner from Earsdon in northumberland who admitted he was well into his forties, and indeed had a grandson. Regrettably, Geordie declined the offer, an offer that would have saved his life. On May 21st just prior to the great Somme Battle, Geordie was killed in action, and lies forever in Norfolk Cemetery.
It was then down to Amiens for reorganization and accepting in new drafts to restore the Battalion to full strength. They were then moved on to Meault near Albert. Training was in progress for the forthcoming Somme Battle. It was then that they learned that they were going to be in support of the 10th Green Howards who were to attack Fricourt on July 1st 1916.
“We were glad we were only in support, but we prayed that the Howards would be successful, otherwise we would have to go in, in any case. The bombardment started up, the scale of which is now legendary, and we were rather confident it was going to be a walkover. It continued in increasing ferocity, until, just before ‘Zero’ the ground began to shake”.
“For a few seconds there was a strange silence, then cheering. Then the sound of machine gun fire reached us; this worried us because it wasn’t the sound of our guns, they were enemy guns, weren’t they supposed to have been destroyed in the weeklong bombardment?
We started forward up the communication trench and already we were meeting the odd walking wounded coming back. Just as we got to the junction with the front trench we stood aside to let two stretcher-bearers carrying the body of a dead Officer pass. One of our own Officers was following this little cortege, and as he passed he said in a trembling emotional voice. ‘We northumberlands should go down on our knees and praise that Officer this morning”.
They found out later what had happened. At ‘Zero’ when the Howards began to climb out of the trench to start the attack, the enemy machine gunners, who had been left unscathed by the bombardment, poured a withering fire across the top of the trench. The Green Howards began to falter and momentum was being lost. Their Commanding Officer, Major Stewart Walter Loudoun-Shand, jumped on top of the parapet and started to pull his men up and exhort them to greater effort. Very soon he was hit, but he still insisted on being propped up and continued to urge his men forward. They responded and their objectives were taken. Alas, Major Loudoun-Shand succumbed to his wounds and died. For this brave action he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. The importance of this brave action was not lost on the northumberlands, or in particular on Harry Fellows.
Harry always believed it was this man’s actions which saved many lives. In later years when he was able to visit the battlefield areas he always on July 1st laid, in an emotional little ceremony, a wreath on Loudoun-Shand’s grave. This act of remembrance is still carried out by a member of Harry’s family to this day.
The old Somme battlefield has many woods, both large and small. Fricourt, Mametz, Bernafay, Trones, Delville and Thiepval to name but some. Nowadays these are tranquil, peaceful places, of solitude and birdsong. Not so in 1916, and on the 11th July the 12th Battalion Machine Gunners got their orders to enter Mametz Wood and relieve the 115th Brigade who had captured the wood, but in doing so had suffered such alarming losses that they would be unable to hold it in the event of a counter-attack. Horrendous fighting had been going on for days, which had left the wood a shambles. Shelling had brought down the branches of trees and the forest floor was virtually impenetrable. Mixed up in all this were the dead of both sides, many of whom had lain in the summer heat for days. Harry’s section moved off through the wood to a new position, leaving their colleagues behind. After not too many yards a salvo of shells fell on the position they had just left, killing all but one of the other gunners.
After three days in the wood they were eventually relieved, but instead of going back they had to remain and ‘tidy up the wood’. This meant only one thing, ‘bury the dead’. Harry was by now no stranger to violent death and appalling sights, but what he witnessed in Mametz Wood remained with him for the rest of his life.
March 1917 found Harry on the Bapaume – Arras road near Boiry Becquerelle. They had wintered in the trenches at Hulloch and now as the fighting moved eastwards they were preparing for the battle of Arras.
Harry now had a new No. 2 in his gun team. A lad called Dick Turnbull from Wallsend on Tyne. The weather was bitterly cold. At night they devised a method of sleeping to try and keep warm. Each man had a blanket, groundsheet and greatcoat, not a great deal to help you keep warm. But if you multiplied that by four, that is four men sleeping tightly together, you were able to keep much warmer. The method was two groundsheets on the ground to start with, then two blankets. Then the men got in covered by two blankets, which in turn were covered by four greatcoats. Two groundsheets topped off the whole lot. The two outside sleepers were responsible for lacing up the top and bottom groundsheet. There you were very much warmer, but if the call of nature came during the night, one either had to endure the wrath of his mates or suffer. One particular night, Harry woke up with stomach pains, which he endured for a while, but which he eventually had to attend to. His decision to move was made a little easier by the fact that he was an ‘outside man’. He walked away to attend to his business. Within a few minutes the area was hit with a salvo of shells. Harry went running back to his mates to find a shell had landed only feet from where they had been sleeping. Two were killed and Dick Turnbull his mate suffered terrible leg injuries.
Stretcher-bearers quickly came and took the victims away. Dick eventually got back to Wallsend to spend the rest of his life without legs in a hand propelled invalid chair. The two soldiers killed were John Dyson and George Gunnell, and they were the first soldiers to be buried in Boyelles Communal Cemetery Extension on 31st March 1917.
It would seem that Harry had been blessed with a charmed life. He believed in the maxim: ‘Old soldiers are cautious soldiers, that’s why they are old soldiers’.
The battle for Bullecourt had been going on for many weeks. Both Australian and British forces had been fed into a dreadful inferno and the casualties on both sides had been enormous. Bullecourt had earned the sobriquet ‘The Blood Tub’.
Harry’s luck did eventually run out in June 1917. An attack had just started and he was following the ‘creeping barrage’, when he felt a heavy blow to the head. That was all he knew for some time. When he regained consciousness he was lying in a shell hole with a pounding head and his tunic covered in blood. It suddenly dawned upon him that he had got his ‘Blighty’. He staggered back to the aid station where a small crowd of walking wounded had already gathered. He was told that if he waited for a stretcher he could be there some time, but, if he were able, he would be better off trying to make his own way back. This he did, and although feeling wretched, managed to get to the aid post where his wound was dressed and he was laid down to await an ambulance. He was in considerable pain, but the thought of a precious Blighty wound cheered him up considerably.
The ambulance took him to Achiet le Grand where the medical facilities were situated next to a complex of railway sidings. After a while he was placed aboard a train which was staffed by female nurses. When he asked one of the nurses if he was going home to England she replied ‘No, Rouen!’.
This was a great disappointment to him, as he thought if he got to Rouen he would be treated there and then sent back to the front. However that was not to be, for his journey continued from there to Le Havre, across the channel to southampton and on to eastleigh in Hampshire. After some time here awaiting assessment he was sent on to Lincoln for an operation.
From August to November was spent recuperating at Alnwick in northumberland, until the need for more and more men, to replace the mounting losses on the western Front, brought Harry into the reckoning again. So after draught leave, over which he delayed his return, and which cost him his Corporal’s stripes, he found himself once again in France, at the hellhole of Etaples.
Here there was a regime of bullying and intimidation by the base staff, who tried to convince those unlucky enough to be there that it was a much better billet at the front. Harry remarked that one of the saddest things he remembered was men with three or four wound stripes being hounded by yellow tabbed base staff who had never been anywhere near the front.
A parade was called one day to which all men had to bring their paybooks. The C.O. went along the ranks noting the mens’ peacetime jobs. Miners, shipyard workers, toolmakers draughtsmen etc., were sent home for discharge and to resume their civilian occupation. Men with trades such as bricklayers, plumbers and joiners were retained and transferred into the Royal Engineers. Electricians and fitters, if suitable went into the Flying Corps. The others without skills were transferred into the Labour Corps.
When the C.O. approached Harry he asked him his trade. “I’m a wheel truer sir”, said Harry. “What the hell’s a wheel truer?” replied the C.O. When Harry told him what his job entailed and whom he worked for, the Colonel said. “Raleigh!, damn fine bikes, I ride one myself, Sgt. Major, put this man down for a Flying Corps test”. Harry breathed a great sigh of relief when he realised his soldiering days at the front were at an end. Thank God for Raleigh and the wheel truing shop!
Along the right hand side of the road from Etaples to Bolougne was a long line of hospitals for British, Australian, Canadian and south African units. On the left hand side between the dunes and the road was a large cemetery. Midway between the hospitals and the road was a mortuary. During Harry’s stay there he was placed on permanent ‘Burial Detail’. He would report to the mortuary where they would collect the first body of the day. This would be placed on a wheeled stretcher and covered with the Union Flag.
Then the cortege would set off led by a Corporal, followed by the Padre, four Guards of Honour and four escorts. When it reached the main road, which was an extremely busy road, the Corporal would step out and halt the traffic. As the procession crossed over, Drivers would get down from the vehicles and salute. Even Staff Officers would dismount and show their respect.
When they reached the cemetery, where the requisite number of graves for that day’s business had been dug, the Padre read the committal, a volley of shots was fired and the ceremony completed. Then they would return the way they had come and repeat the process. In the time Harry was at Etaples, he reckoned he assisted in about 200 burials, but he said he never once stood at the graveside without thinking ‘of those poor boys in Mametz’.
At last, and not before time, orders came through for him to go and take his trade test at St. Omer. This he passed quite easily and he moved into the Royal Flying Corps repairing motorcycle wheels, which despatch riders had managed to bend.
We now are coming to the end of Harry’s service life. In the great German push of March 1918, Harry’s unit was moved to within two miles of the sea where, it seemed, he enjoyed the life of Riley. When events turned once more in favour of the Allies, the unit was posted near to Rouen. The Armistice duly came, but demob came slowly for the men. Raleigh sought his release and he was eventually demobbed in March 1919.
He immediately started work again in the wheel shop at Raleigh. It could be said that Harry Fellows had been recycled. He went on to devote all his working life to Raleigh and reached the position of General Foreman. He retired in 1962 after 53 years loyal service.
A flavour of Harry’s poems can be found in the following poem ‘THEY GROW NOT OLD‘, which Harry wrote for the 70th. anniversary of the Somme.
A small A5 sized book entitled ‘REFLECTIONS of a Veteran: HARRY FELLOWS: His Life and His Poems’, plus a CD of Harry talking about his experiences in Mametz Wood, can be purchased for £10 (postage and packing included). Cheques made payable to ‘The Friends of Lochnagar’ and sent to George Heron at 8 Glendue Close, Nunthorpe, Middlesbrough, Cleveland, TS7 0QN.
For further information, George can be contacted by email firstname.lastname@example.org