Talk­ing to a teen on the West­ern Front

Whanganui sol­dier Leslie Sargeant was one of the youngest men to serve on the West­ern Front in World War I and as to­mor­row brings the 100th an­niver­sary of Armistice Day, his­to­rian JANE TOLERTON re­calls an in­ter­view with him 29 years ago.

Whanganui Chronicle - - Opinion -

Hav­ing joined up at age 17 in 1915, Leslie Sargeant of Whanganui was one of the youngest men to see ac­tion in the Great War. Men did not have to give proof they were the re­quired age of 20 and, if their par­ents did not claim them, they got away with it.

Sargeant was in­ter­viewed in Whanganui in 1989 for the World War I Oral His­tory Ar­chive, and his story fea­tures in a new e-book, Kiwi Teens on the West­ern Front.

He was work­ing as a printer’s ap­pren­tice when war broke out.

One morn­ing he said to the fore­man: “Would you give me half an hour off, I’ve got a bit of busi­ness to do in town?”

He went straight up to the drill hall and saw the en­list­ing of­fi­cer.

Sargeant re­calls the day.

“He said, ‘Where are you go­ing, son?’ and I said, ‘I’ve come up to en­list’.

“‘Go on home,’ he said, ‘you’re too young’.

“‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m not too young.’ I had a great old go with him.

“In those days we went from cadets to ter­ri­to­ri­als, and I never went into the ter­ri­to­ri­als be­cause you had to be 18.

“He said, ‘What about Ter­ri­to­ri­als?’ I made ex­cuses ga­lore: once I was in hos­pi­tal and once I was away on hol­i­day. I think he knew how old I was, but he said, ‘Go on, if you want to go, you go for the doc­tor. See if you get through.’

“I came back and said, ‘There’s my pa­per. The doc­tor says I’m fit as a fid­dle.’ And I was in those days — re­ally fit. Within a fort­night I was on my way to Tren­tham.”

Sargeant sailed with the 10th Reinforcements and ar­rived in Ar­men­tières when the New Zealand Divi­sion first went to the West­ern Front in April 1916.

“We went up into the front line. We seemed to walk for miles up com­mu­ni­ca­tion trenches: ‘Keep your head down, don’t go look­ing over the para­pet, a sniper will get you’. Ev­ery­one was get­ting warned.

The first night we went up there … I was one of them that was picked and I’ve never for­got it to this day.

“We had to climb over the para­pet, and down and go un­der­neath the barbed wire. Out­side of all those trenches there was tens of thou­sands of miles of barbed wire – that was our pro­tec­tion, you see – and we had to go and find where the hole was – un­der­neath the barbed wire – and go out into No Man’s Land. “And there was lit­tle me with an­other fel­low and two other blokes, and we were lay­ing out there, and the Ger­mans were only just a few yards away from us.

“That was our job: what they called ‘lis­ten­ing post’. And if we heard any­thing at all, that there was go­ing to be a raid, one of us had to get back to warn the oth­ers.

“We lay there still as mice – fright­ened to move, be­cause if you moved a Ger­man ma­chine gun would go chu! chu! chu! chu! They’d cut you in bits.

“Af­ter two hours we had to come in, and an­other crowd went out.” Sargeant was wounded on Septem­ber 15, 1916, the first day the New Zealan­ders joined the long-run­ning Bat­tle of the Somme.

“I was num­ber 2 on the ma­chine gun — I car­ried the spare parts bag. As we were go­ing up the line we were start­ing to see all the sights, the tragedies of war. A lot of horses, mules, men lay­ing all over the place.

“A big shell would come over and when it burst it would kick up a ter­rific hole, and if you went over near it you might find a hu­man hand stick­ing out. That per­son had been buried, and a big shell had gone over and un­earthed a body. “The big bar­rage lifted and away we went. That’s when I re­alised what war re­ally was — the num­ber of fel­lows you could see drop­ping all over the place. They’re still there in my mind, fel­lows that I partly knew in the army.

“I thought to my­self, ‘You’ll never make it home’. I could see them with their leg shat­tered or arm blown off, and they were bleed­ing to death and I knew it — that was the ter­ri­ble part of war­fare, but we kept go­ing.

“All of a sud­den num­ber 1, in front of me, he dropped down. I looked down and said, ‘Mac!’ But he was dead. A sniper got him in the head. “I picked up the ma­chine gun, and I had the spare parts bag to carry as well. Just as we were get­ting near to where we had to go, I got a bul­let in the shoul­der. I fell over hang­ing on to the gun. That was the fin­ish of me in the Somme and I was in­valided to Eng­land.”

Af­ter re­turn­ing to France, he was badly wounded at Pass­chen­daele on Oc­to­ber 4, 1917.

“I don’t re­mem­ber get­ting hit. Th­ese pieces of shrap­nel, when they hit you, they burn, but I can’t re­mem­ber that, so it must have knocked me out.

“The stretcher bear­ers were out col­lect­ing the dead and wounded. They picked me up and took me to the first dress­ing sta­tion.

“A med­i­cal of­fi­cer came out, ripped my shirt off, ‘Take him away, we can’t do any­thing for him.’

“So, on they went to an­other dress­ing sta­tion. When we got there, ‘Take him away; we can’t help him.’

“They man­aged to get me into an am­bu­lance and I ended up in a French hos­pi­tal, and it was in the hos­pi­tal I nearly died, I’d lost so much blood.”

Sargeant was in hos­pi­tal in Eng­land for a long time, and ar­rived home in May 1918.

Wan­ganui East Pres­by­te­rian Church held a home­com­ing party at which the min­is­ter said Sargeant had had “the hon­our of hav­ing been twice wounded, and still car­ried two bul­lets in his body”, ac­cord­ing to a Wan­ganui Chron­i­cle ar­ti­cle on May 23.

Sargeant had to ex­plain to his girl­friend, Eliz­a­beth Potter, that the doc­tors had said he prob­a­bly would not live long.

“She said, ‘Never, mind, son — we’ll keep go­ing as best we pos­si­bly can. I’ll look af­ter you. We’ll get through.’

“But any­way I didn’t die early, did I?” Leslie Sargeant did farm work and then ran a dairy. In the mid-1920s he was given a pen­sion of 10 shillings a week for life.

“Maybe they had the idea. ‘he’s not go­ing to live that long any­way’. But I fooled them.”

■ Kiwi Teens on the West­ern Front can be or­dered from jane­tol­er­ton.co.nz. @$9.99.

Leslie Sargeant pic­tured dur­ing an in­ter­view in 1989. On leave from the army, Leslie Sargeant in Ed­in­burgh in De­cem­ber 1916.

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