Spectrum 383/384, Career by the King's Shilling
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In April 1918 Canadian George Lee was shipped from England to the western front in Belgium and the realities of life behind the sandbags. In conversation with Jack Perkins over two programmes, he gives a vividly detailed, intensely human account of the concluding stages of World War I.
Spectrum 383 - Part One: They Taught Us How to Kill Men, But Not Lice.
Canadian George Lee (Lieutenant-Colonel Lee) disobeyed his father and shipped to London in 1918 to join the British Army.
In the first programme, he recalls his training in Lichfield Camp in England.
He gives a very detailed list of all the items that were given to him when he joined the army, recalling also the war propaganda against Germans in Canadian newspapers.
He gives a detailed description of the equipment and training provided to the new soldiers in England, before they were sent to the front.
George Lee talks about soldiers trying to desert, even in the early period of the training. They were brought back, court martialled and sentenced to death. The sentence was turned into life imprisonment for all the duration of the war. Most of the desertion came from fear and from seeing the wounded, especially the men that had been gassed and blinded. Lee describes them walking using guide ropes at the nearby hospital. He says he was always afraid, and any man who said he wasn’t, is a fool.
He talks about women and the different social rules brought about by the war. At that time, women seemed to be more independent and free because they could earn money. They would come and proposition the soldiers on leave for drinks in bars. He talks about the propaganda and treatments provided to the soldiers for venereal diseases.
Lee talks about the entertainment provided to the trainees to keep up the morale of the troops: concert parties, Salvation Army show, cricket matches, people coming to speak about the glory of the British Empire. He says the object was to keep the men so busy they had no time to think.
Speeches were all about the glory of the British Empire. People from the Commonwealth were not often mentioned and he felt overlooked as a Canadian.
He recalls imprisoned conscientious objector: what they wore and how they were treated and remembers his passing out ceremony before going to France.
Spectrum 384 - Part Two: Sandbags and Singing Wire.
On embarking for the Western front, George Lee recalls more medical inspections of soldiers on-board the ship in order to detect and prevent diseases, including venereal disease.
Disembarked at Antwerp in April 1918, he first travelled by train, standing in a cattle truck for six or seven hours in the pouring rain and then walking for two days to reach the front.
Reaching the front, Lee gives a description of what the landscape looked like: the mud, the earth smelling of dead bodies and gun powder, the air was red with great pools of black smoke hanging over the sky. He graphically recalls an explosion killing horses nearby, their screams and the feeling of horse flesh all over his face. Then he was sent to the front line.
He remembers hearing wounded German soldiers crying for help at night out in no-man’s land, on his first night on the front.
He describes life in the trenches, behind the sandbags, and recalls the very close companionships, which he at first thought was a form of homosexuality, created by the circumstances.
He recalls being petrified the first time he was heavily under fire and advice from a trench mate, Private Jack Saunders, to get rid of the lice by using stolen kerosene.
He recalls dead bodies lying everywhere, both German and British, and the Pioneers who were involved in the construction of any new trench, burying the corpse underneath the sandbags when building a new parapet.
He says there were two sorts of deserters: those who were stealing army supplies to sell to the Belgians and those who were shell shocked who he felt great pity for. He also talks about soldiers trying to injure themselves, in order to escape the fighting. He says he heard of executions but never saw any.
He remembers the front being quiet in June 1918 and then a decisive attack on the 17th or 18th of August, which led to them gaining a mile and an half in two hours, more than what had been gained in four years.
Around the end of August, he observed that some gigantic offensive was on the way, with new equipment coming in and new roads being built.
He has memories of British soldiers trying to reach a German’s boot, still with a bit of leg attached, that was hanging from a tree, as a sort of an entertainment.
A night time patrol where he happened to capture a German prisoner who then gave them information about the state of the German troops, which wasn’t good.
In October priests visited their trench, so they thought: “This is it”. He recalls on the very last day of the war, they had bacon and white bread for breakfast and they all thought they were about to be killed in a big fight. In fact, the war was over.
Reference number 21614
Media type AUDIO
Collection Sound Collection
Documentary radio programs
Nonfiction radio programs
Perkins, Jack (b.1940), Interviewer
Lee, George, Interviewee
Radio New Zealand. National Programme (estab. 1964, closed 1986), Broadcaster