Fascinating tales of WW1 hero

Edwin Barnes, far left, on horseback with other troops
Edwin Barnes, far left, on horseback with other troops

A PENSIONER has told of her father’s role in the First World War, fighting off enemy forces in the desert.

Brenda Wallis, 89, who lives in Lewis Road, St Leonards, said her father, Edwin, was called up to serve King and country when he was just 18.

His job was to pursue Turkish troops and drive them back to their own border.

Turkey, under the Ottoman Empire, sided with Germany, Austria-Hungary and the other Central Powers.

The British feared that the Ottomans might attack and capture the Middle East oil fields and the British Royal Navy depended upon oil from the petroleum deposits in southern Persia (Now Iran).

Brenda said: “We have heard a lot about the terrible loss of life in France and Belgium during the First World War. My Dad’s war was very different.

“Born and brought up in Hollington, in a Wesleyan Methodist family, he was, at the age of 18, drafted into the Royal Field Artillery. Stationed at Canterbury barracks he was assigned to work with horses.

“Dad was the lead driver, riding one horse and leading the other, with two other pairs behind him. The training was long and hard, but in early 1916 the time came for them to be sent overseas.

“The journey began at Southampton, crossing to Le Havre in France. Because of very rough seas, the six-hour crossing became 18 hours. Many of the horses were seasick and one of Dad’s pair was so sick that it had to be left behind. He was given another as they boarded the train for the three-day journey to Marseilles. They had occasional stops for provisions and water and hay for the horses, and Dad and a mate volunteered to stay with the horses for most of the time.”

After leaving Marseilles Edwin and his troops sailed across the Mediterranean Sea to Basra, via the Suez Canal and the Red Sea.

His daughter told the Observer: “Dad remembered waking up in Basra harbour to see the most beautiful sunrise he had ever seen. I was amazed to hear that when all the men, horses and guns were assembled, there were 300 horses in the battery.

“They were now in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and their job was to pursue Turkish troops and drive them back to their own border. They travelled about 30 miles a day, in desert conditions, between the Tigres and the Euphrates. The horses were able to drink from the river when they camped each evening and again in the early morning when Reveille sounded at 4am, so that they could begin their travelling before it got too hot.

“Their destination was Baghdad, about 500 miles from Basra.

“One sad incident that Dad remembered for the rest of his life occurred on March 5, 1918. It was approaching midnight when they reached the River Tigres, pursuing the Turkish army, and their officer was keen to get across the river on the Maud Bridge.

“About half of the brigade had got across safely when the bridge collapsed due to the extra weight. A gun carriage, six horses and the men all went into the river. Dad’s team was just about to cross but managed to pull back in time. Of the team in the river, one man and five horses drowned, the sixth horse managed to get up the river bank on the other side. The man who died was from Westham in Sussex and had only married the week before he left England.”

Brenda said her father suffered from the effects of heat during the long journey to Baghdad.

She added: “He was taken by motor ambulance to a hospital ship which took him across the Tigres, then by motor ambulance to Baghdad Hospital where there were English speaking nurses.

“He arrived at the hospital at night, and imagine his surprise on waking in the morning, to find in the bed opposite, a man from Hollington, Tom Pettitt, who was the brother of Bert (father of Heather who ran the shop next to Hollington Methodist Church for many years).

“Tom had been in the Salvation Army before the war and was now with the Church Army. Neither Dad nor Tom new that the other was in the area.”

In November 1918 on his way home with a few others Edwin made the long journey by train to Karachi, only to be diverted with the rest of his unit to go to the border of Afghanistan.

Brenda added: “The troubles there delayed their homecoming for almost a year. Dad finally made it home in November 1919 and some years later, after he retired from work, he applied for the Afghan Medal, which he duly received.”