Horrors of the trenches reveal true cost of war

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Raymond Bushell was among the Yorkshiremen who went to war and ended up being captured by the Germans. Chris Bond talks to his grandson about his story.

THE young men in the photograph look almost nonchalant. Some of them lean casually on the staircase while others opt for a more formal pose with chests out and heads held high.

If it wasn’t for the uniforms it could almost be a holiday snap, or a picture from the last day of school. Instead they’re getting ready for war.

Raymond Bushell is one of three brothers in the photograph, taken in 1915. He survived all the horrors trench warfare could throw at him but his brothers Horace and Neville were not so fortunate, joining the vast list of fathers, sons and brothers claimed by the First World War.

Despite this devastating loss Raymond felt duty bound to record his wartime experiences and his journal full of photos, letters and postcards has been handed down to his grandson David Quarrie.

Born in 1894, Raymond was the youngest of three brothers and was educated at St Peter’s School in Clifton, York. When war broke out in September 1914 he was among the first wave of volunteers to sign up. “For some reason, and he never said why, he was allocated to the Durham Light Infantry rather than a Yorkshire regiment,” says David, speaking from his home in York.

Raymond headed to France in 1916 where he rose to the rank of lieutenant and David recalls talking to his grandfather on a couple of occasions about his wartime experiences. “I remember him saying the survival rate for a lieutenant was six weeks. He said officers wore big brown belts and when they went over the top this was an absolute giveaway which the Germans spotted of course. He asked if he could take his off but he was forbidden and he felt one of the reasons they lost so many officers was because they stood out.”

David says his grandfather suffered badly in the trenches. “It was all horrible but he said the worst thing was the fact that your feet were nearly always wet, damp, or in mud or water, and he suffered terribly from trench foot.”

In March 1918, having already endured two years on the front, Raymond was part of the Allied force defending Amiens which bore the full force of the German Spring offensive along the Somme. “Where my grandfather was it’s reported
that 455 British non-commissioned soldiers were killed as well as 19 officers.”

As the Germans poured forward the situation grew increasingly perilous with pockets of British troops finding themselves isolated and hopelessly outnumbered. “My grandfather was eventually left with 19 ordinary soldiers, they were surrounded and ran out of ammunition and eventually gave themselves up on Good Friday.”

After surrendering Raymond had an unlikely meeting with Kaiser Wilhelm’s son. “He appeared on a white horse and asked my grandfather, because he was the only officer amongst them, if he was all right. My grandfather said ‘no’ and told him they had been ordered to sleep outside next to a hedge and that they were cold, wet and hungry.

“He said this wasn’t the way they should be treated and the Kaiser’s son agreed and arranged for the 20 of them to spend the night in a church, so that at least they were dry and he made sure they had a drink and a bit of bread. It’s not much but it was a lot more than they would have got if he hadn’t appeared.”

The PoWs were then marched across Germany to a makeshift prison camp at Graudenz in an area now part of Poland, which housed 800 British soldiers and 600 officers. “Conditions were grim, there were no Red Cross parcels like there was in the Second World War,” says David.

Raymond and his comrades remained in the camp until the war ended in November. They were then taken by train to Danzig on the Baltic coast where they travelled first to Sweden and then back home to Britain in time for Christmas.

Interestingly, David’s grandfather was among the officers who received a letter from George V. In the hand-written note the King gave thanks for his safe return. “The Queen joins me in welcoming you on your release from the miseries and hardships which you have endured with so much patience and courage during these many months of trial,” he wrote. “We are thankful that this longed for day has arrived and that back in the old country you will be able once more to enjoy the happiness of a home and to see good days among those ahead.”

However, David says his grandfather was appalled by what he saw as the colossal waste of the war. “The needless slaughter, that’s what came across the most when I talked to him and the sheer numbers of good people who were cut down in their prime.

“The whistle went and they had to go over the top, they were even told they had to walk. There was this idea that so many shells had been fired that nothing could survive and of course this was rubbish. The Germans were very well dug in and they just came out once the barrages stopped and manned their machine guns.”

At which point the air became laced with deadly flying metal. “He mentioned this constant fusillade and the fact there was no cover. Even in 1918 despite all the evidence they were still fighting that way, it was a miracle that he survived.”

After the war Raymond returned home to his family’s farm machinery business, H Bushell & Sons Ltd, in York. He started a family – his own son fought in the Second World War – and lived to the ripe old age of 99.

“He never showed any intense bitterness towards the Germans,” says David, “it was just the futility of it all”.

We can never truly appreciate what the war must have been like for Raymond Bushell and all those who witnessed its horrors at close quarter. But a century on we can remember their remarkable, and moving, stories and ensure that we never forget.