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.
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.