Arthur Savage

Arthur Savage : First World War

Arthur Savage was born in 1899. Unemployed, he joined the British Army in 1916.

Soon after arriving on the Western Front Savage was ordered to go on a firing squad where he had to execute one of his own men.

After the Armistice he had difficulty finding work but eventually became a coffin-maker.

At the age of ninety-two, Savage was interviewed about his experiences during the First World War.

Primary Sources

(1) At the age of 92, Arthur Savage was asked about his memories of life on the Western Front.

My memories are of sheer terror and the horror of seeing men sobbing because they had trench foot that had turned gangrenous. They knew they were going to lose a leg. Memories of lice in your clothing driving you crazy. Filth and lack of privacy. Of huge rats that showed no fear of you as they stole your food rations. And cold deep wet mud everywhere. And of course, corpses. I'd never seen a dead body before I went to war. But in the trenches the dead are lying all around you. You could be talking to the fellow next to you when suddenly he'd be hit by a sniper and fall dead beside you. And there he's stay for days.

(2) Arthur Savage was ordered to execute one of his own men in 1917.

I was ordered to go on a firing squad in 1917. The man was lead out by a military policeman and a priest. Then he was tied to this post. He only looked about twenty and wasn't very tall. An officer went up to put a blindfold over his eyes. I can hear his voice now, as clear as me and you talking in this room. He said "I need no blindfold over my eyes. Curse you and your blindfold and may the judges who will surely sentence you one day show you more mercy than you've shown me."

Then we had to take aim. My hands were shaking so much. So I aimed about a foot to his left. Then we fired. There were nine of us and only one shot caught him in the side. He slumped forward wounded. So I was not the only one firing wide deliberately. The captain walked up to him and put a bullet into his head. Some of the men were sick, others were crying.

Most of the poor sods were mainly convicted on the evidence of doctors. They would not accept that men could reach a point of utter exhaustion when as a result of trench warfare their nerves and brains would snap. These so-called 'doctors' would not have it that there was such an illness as shell-shock. They insisted that men were cowards and deserters.

(3) While on the Western Front Arthur Savage met the Rev. Studdert Kennedy.

A man I recall with great affection was Woodbine Willie. His proper name was Reverend Studdert Kennedy, an army chaplin he was and he'd come down into the trenches and say prayers with the men, have a cuppa out of a dirty tin mug and tell a joke as good as any of us. He was a chain smoker and always carried a packet of Woodbine cigarettes that he would give out in handfuls to us lads. That's how he got his nickname. At Mesines Ridge he ran out into no man's land under murderous machine-gun fire to tend the wounded and dying. Every man was carrying a gun except him. He carried a wooden cross. He gave comfort to dying Germans as well. He was awarded the Military Cross and he deserved it.

He came down the trench one day to cheer us up. Had his bible with him as usual. Well, I'd been there for weeks, unable to write home, of course, we were going over the top later that day. I asked him if he would write to my sweetheart at home, tell her I was still alive and, so far, in one piece. He said he would, so I gave him the address. Well, years later, after the war, she showed me the letter he'd sent, very nice it was. A lovely letter. My wife kept it until she died.

He worked in the slums of London after the war among the homeless and the unemployed. The name Woodbine Willie was known to everyone in the land in those days. Died very young, he did, and at his funeral people placed packets of Woodbine cigarettes on his coffin and his grave as a mark of respect and love.

(4) Arthur Savage, interviewed by Terry Cunningham in 1993.

Of course, what really died in that war was youth, a generation of young men. In my street where I grew up one family lost six sons, all killed in France. The population was out of balance. All through the twenties and thirties a massive surplus of women because so many men had been killed. There were simply thousands of lonely women who grew old alone and never married because they lost their men in the war and the children grew up fatherless. The effects were far reaching. So many people were broken and lost for the rest of their lives. Mind you, all the war leaders lived to a ripe old age.

(5) After the war, Arthur Savage read The Realities of War by Philip Gibbs.

Philip Gibbs went through the entire war as a war correspondent. Wonderful man. He told the truth about the real horror of it all. The dreadful slaughter, the appalling disregard and waste of human life by those in command. But before his reports reached the newspapers back home they were drastically censored. So the folks back home knew next to nothing about the hell that the men were going through.

He was alongside the man in the trenches and saw it all at first hand, and he met and got to know all the commanders. He wrote all about them as well. But as you can imagine, no British publisher would dare touch it. It was unofficially banned. So you know what the man did? He went to America and got it published over there. A few copies found there way back here. I had a copy years ago, must have read it ten times.