Will Knifton v the Kaiser (Round 4)

This is the fourth, and final, round of my Grandfather, Will’s, tales about his life in the First World War.

The pinnacle, or perhaps, nadir, of Will’s relationship with the upper classes came when he was given an officer’s beloved horse to look after. This was the kind of thing:

In the stable, the highly strung beast decided it would kick Will, very hard and very painfully. Will, however, was not a man to take things lying down, so he took a run up, rather like a football goalkeeper about to take a goal kick, and kicked the animal very, very hard in the testicles. This would have been honours even, perhaps, but unfortunately, the officer had just returned to the stable to see how his pride and joy was faring, and was actually standing right behind Will as he did the evil deed.

For his crimes, Will was charged, court martialled, found guilty, and given Field Punishment Number One, which consisted of being handcuffed, fettered and then tied to a gun carriage wheel for twenty-four hours. This picture is the closest fit I could find:

In similar vein, I remember as a teenager, talking to another veteran, an old man who used to spend all day, every day, sitting on the bench seat, watching the traffic go around the Tollgate roundabout in our small mining village, Woodville. This man had been gravely wounded on July 1st 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. When a shell went off in that disastrous attack, he had been knocked unconscious, coming round to find that he had lost both of his legs in the explosion.

Luckily for him, as he acknowledged later, he was found by the Germans, who saved his life. He was always to say that the levels of care among the German forces were so much better than those in the British Army, where the officers’ horses tended to be better looked after than the men. This is a German military hospital:

Much to my very great regret, I have forgotten the name of this man, but I will never forget the bitterness or the truth of his words. Sharply resentful, he told me how every day, for almost sixty years, he had no choice but to put on his two artificial legs. He began with leather straps under each groin, and then the large strap around his waist. Then came more straps over both of his shoulders.

Even after all these years, he had persistent sores wherever the rough leather rubbed into his skin, particularly on his shoulders, and the poor man was in constant pain. Many people in Woodville thought that he was just a moaner, but he had a lot to moan about. Like my grandfather, he was not much of a fan of Field Marshall Haig either.

At the end of the Great War, Will returned from France directly to Woodville, and the life he had known before he emigrated to the New World. He went back to his church in Church Gresley, where everyone was delighted to see him. So much so, in fact, that they presented him with his own copy of “The Methodist Hymn Book”

Inside the front cover, it was inscribed…

“Wesleyan Church, Church Gresley

Presented to Mr.W.H.Knifton as a token of gratitude to God for his preservation while on Active Service during the Great War, and as a momento of the hearty good
feeling with which he is welcomed on his return.

On behalf of the Church and Sunday School,


Will never seemed to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but the war certainly affected some aspects of his thoughts and behaviour. In the trenches, for example, there was a seemingly permanent shortage of sugar. For this reason, long years after the conflict had finished, Will would never fail to celebrate the existence of the delectable white powder. If you visited him and he made you a cup of tea, he would normally put between six to eight spoons full of sugar in it, and even when there were objections, nobody ever escaped with fewer than four spoons full.

Another fear which Will brought back from the trenches, beyond that of running out of sugar, was the much more real one of rats. There were certainly plenty of them about. Here is a French military ratcatcher, “un dératiseur” and his dog:

Will knew very well that besides an entire suite of unpleasant, and occasionally sickening, behaviours, rats carried Weil’s Disease, an ailment which even now, as I write, has no known cure. In 1941, during his ab initio training for the RAF, Fred was to experience the same fear as his father had known twenty or so years previously, as rats, bold and unafraid, ran over his chest and feet as he camped out in the winter woods.

Incidentally, a lot of people nowadays want to think that the First World War was a “war for democracy”. It wasn’t. It was a war for power and empire. Just to knock the democracy idea firmly on the head , the figures I found on the Internet were that 7,694,741 people were eligible to vote in 1914. The population of the United Kingdom and its colony of Ireland was approximately 46 million. That is 16.72 percent who were able to vote. And who do you think did most of the fighting? The 16% or the 84%?



Filed under Canada, Criminology, France, History, Personal, Politics

25 responses to “Will Knifton v the Kaiser (Round 4)

  1. Excellent article, John, with an ending that resonates.

    • Thank you very much. You are very kind. One further detail that I have never liked is the way that other countries were dragged into the war. Firstly it was Canada and Australia, which I understand to a certain extent, and then it was the USA. For me personally it just doesn’t seem right to declare war against another country, fail to beat them and then start casting around to find allies to take up the struggle. No doubt a historian would prove that I was completely wrong, but I have always felt so sorry for all those young men who were dragged across half the world to fight in somebody else’s war.

      • It was a World War! They were Dominions of the Empire and obliged to join in. I suspect that that regular employment and a chance of glory also helped with recruitment!

        REPLY: As far as I am aware, the Canadians at least were volunteers. My Grandfather was, as far as I know and he gave up a well paid job. For me, the Americans were nothing to do with a European war but were dragged in to it to make up for the slaughtered thousands.

  2. Chris Waller

    A fascinating, though harrowing, story. The fact that your grandfather would talk about his war probably helped him surmount the psychological trauma. My grandfather never would and suffered depression and anxiety all his life. I recognise your grandfather’s obsession with sugar from my own grandparents’ hoarding of same. Your final paragraph says it all.

    • I actually saw a TV programme where a veteran was waking up screaming because of his dreams about the war , and he was 104 years old. The people who start the wars never have to deal with that.

  3. The world in which you mature in seems to govern how we behave later in life. For example, neither of my parents wasted anything, of course they grew up in the Depression. AND I can well understand Will’s dislike for Haig!!

  4. A good word for the Germans John?

    • I cannot do otherwise as I had the privilege of speaking to a primary source. As far as I am aware, the Germans in WW1 behaved in a correct and civilised manner. WW2 teaches us that the majority of them, the ones who cheered their Führer. were neither of the two.

  5. An excellent commentary on the great fiasco

  6. Ugh, John, that photo with the ratcatcher is horrid.

    I doubt that any of humanity’s wars, past and present, are truly “wars for democracy.”

    • I don’t think he would necessarily be my first choice as a dinner guest either! Presumably, if we didn’t have rat poisons he would be our only defence.
      As regards wars for democracy, you are probably right. I don’t know enough about American history to know whether the population was told that democracy was the key issue in Vietnam or Korea. Apart from that, none of the other wars I can think of were really about democracy although people like Hitler were always quick to stamp it out. Thanks for getting me thinking!

  7. PTSD is a terrible illness that manifests itself in many ways. I’m sure to have gone through what your grandfather went through, it would be no surprise if he did suffer in some way – even if silently. It’s amazing to think that in all the blood and guts that humanity did exist for the ‘enemy’, and that there were those who took pity on the injured and gave a little to heal their wounds. A heartfelt story John, just a shame the 16% weren’t able to read it.

    • Years ago, I used to read Desmond Morris, and he always said that, frequently despite ourselves, we cannot avoid being cooperative. I suppose that is why there are so many stories about good deeds in the dark world of war. For me, WW1 was a lot better than WW2 for general decency. You would struggle to find many good deeds by the Japanese in WW2, and the Germans were just as bad, if not worse. From what I’ve read the Italians were always very kind, although they were not necessarily the most effective of soldiers!

  8. John – sorry to go off subject but have you seen Lockdale’s forthcoming auction (available on-line). Lots 1136, 1137 and 1138 are of Derby County interest. There might be a story in there for you.

  9. John, I’ve been reading a great deal of books that I’ve been drawn to, novels, but based on actual history. And one thing that was pointed out again and again was the inadequacies of the British medical system. Even the every day care of the soldiers were disgraceful compared to the opposing enemy. Wars are stuff for nightmares. And they are mostly never due to justice but for power and greed for those who are NOT actively fighting. What a great write!! I do thank you!

    • Those are very kind words, Amy, and thank you for them. The First World War exposed the inequality in British society in other ways, too. Lots of men were from poverty stricken backgrounds and were not tall enough for the height requirements to join the army. Eventually, special regiments were set up to take them.

  10. So much suffering.
    Reading about rats reminded me what a cousin told us. It seems in the state of Rajasthan, in the north west of our country there is a temple dedicated to rats !!
    Karni Mata Temple – Wikipedia
    I really wonder at the beliefs of people.

    • In England, rats will live quietly in the countryside, usually near rivers, and they never affect anybody. It’s a different situation when they come close to Man and they can become a real pest. In big cities they are everywhere but remain unseen because they are in the sewers, or in their tunnels and you seldom see them. I suppose if the people of Rajasthan are honouring country rats that is understandable, but city rats are difficult to like!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.