The story of Fred Preston.

This blog post was written by Andrew Cannon, a research volunteer for GM1914 at Archives+.

Fred Preston was born in Westhoughton on 3 June 1895. He was one of five children that Moses and and Rachel Preston had towards the end of the 19th century. His father, Moses Preston, worked as so many others did in a cotton mill. Records suggest he worked there as a weaver. Records surrounding Moses are disappointingly few, however they do suggest he passed away sometime between 1901 – 1911. The death of his father meant that he and his fellow siblings had to step up and support the family. Moses and Rachel had a total of five children. Mary and Henry were the oldest of the Preston siblings working as a cotton weaver and in a coal mine respectively. The three youngest children were Moses (presumably named after his father), Albert and Fred.

Fred worked in Westhoughton colliery in the run up to the outbreak of the First World War where he signed up when he was about 19.

Once signed up, Fred would go on to meet up with his fellow soldiers. Fred and the rest of his regiment were not told about where they were being taken. It took three days travel to make it to their destination. Once they arrived into the Western Front, they were told to march, in the baking heat, twenty-five miles fully equipped. The average British soldier during the First World War would have been made to carry any number of items that would often include: a mess tin, spare clothes, food rations, weapons and ammunition. There has been evidence to suggest that men would of have to leave items from home, such as letters, due to their load being too heavy to carry.

After marching the twenty-five miles, Fred recalls the time when he and his comrades saw the British tank in action for the very first time. Due to the tactics and nature of artillery warfare, barbed wire was in abundance and sometimes made roads highly dangerous and impassable. Initially, the role of the tank before being developed to be a highly destructive weapon of modern warfare, was to break and clear barbed wire for onrushing soldiers. It would have been an incredible sight for the men to see his instrument of war being used for the first time.

When Fred arrived at his position, he along with the other men were told to dig trenches in preparation for the offensive. It has been widely wrote about and discussed in much of the literature surrounding the First World War, conditions in the trenches were horrific. Disease was rife due to a high number of trenches being invaded by rats and poor sanitation. Lice were also another constant nuisance to the men in trenches and would add to the horror of trench life.  In Fred’s case, it was the weather that had an impact on his initial brush with trench warfare. Trenches often flooded, in and around the Somme area, meaning that building and living in them would prove to be difficult. Whilst building his trench, heavy rain flooded Fred’s trench up to waist height.

Fred and the men would continue to build trenches for three months, before given leave to rest and recuperate. Soldiers were often given leave and allowed to return home for a brief period of time. It was an important psychological weapon that would be vital to maintain morale and keep the men fighting on the frontline. Being allowed to go home to see loved ones and take a break away from the traumatic images of war was a highly important to their wellbeing. Fred recalls that reinforcements were always there to support and fill in for them when they were sent home. Additionally, he says that a high number of these new soldiers had never been to war before and the frontline was brand new to them. It is an interesting thought to think about what was going through the mind of the men going into the trenches for the first time.

After a few weeks back home in England, Fred was brought back to the Somme and was ordered, along with the rest of the men to march in platoon formation to an area of the frontline that was being heavily attacked by German forces. After marching, for about a mile, they were greeted with little gunfire and explosions. It would not be long, however, until the shelling began. Fred was hospitalised by a shrapnel blow to the face.

As a result of being wounded, he was sent to Bristol Southern General hospital to get his wounds treated. He was visited there by his mother, which made a real difference to Fred to see her. After his two month stay in Bristol, he had to report back for duty. He and along with other previously wounded men were rounded up and were told an urgent order and been received. They were driven to Liverpool where they would set sail, again, for France. According to Fred’s account of events, he arrived at Albert which is located in Northern France, just a few miles away from the Somme front. The day after Fred arrived in the trenches, British shelling inflicted a major defeat on the Germans. He recalls that they were “around 150 yards away”, which brings to life how terrifying it must have been to live in those trenches. As mentioned, heavy shelling and gunfire killed many German soldiers opposite to Fred’s position at the Somme. Remarkably, he tells the story of how cavalry were sent out to kill remaining soldiers in no mans land.

He witnessed thousands of German prisoners get taken by the British and recalls how it was a big defeat for them. Once the dust had settled on this British victory, Fred says how he and the men were told, unusually, about what would be happening next.

The Battle that Fred was told about would obviously become known to us as the Battle of Passchendaele. The major offensive would last from July 1917 – November 1917 in order to hold the strategic city of Ypres. Images like this would have been commonly witnessed by Fred and his fellow soldiers.

The nature of the battle was intense and destructive. Many thousands of men were either killed or injured, including most of the men Fred fought beside. It was only him and one other soldier, who could not walk, from his regiment who survived. Fred was also wounded but not the extent of the other man who needed stretcher bearers to leave the battlefield. Fred was sent to an American hospital somewhere in France for around three weeks.

It would have been the last action of the First World War for Fred. He was told in August 1918, much to his surprise, that he was being demobilised due to his knowledge and skills as a miner. One presumes that the coal shortage that hit Britain towards the end of 1917 played a role in his return. Furthermore, the simple fact that thousands upon thousands of miners went to war and did not return home meant that there was a shortage of people like Fred.

The First World War came to an end in November 1918, with victory for the Allies. For Fred, he did not go back to the mines from where he had been pre-war. Instead, on his mother’s orders, he went to become a railwayman. It was then seen as a secure job and paid him nineteen shillings a week. Some years after the war, in January 1924, he would get married.

The records surrounding where Fred lived and to what year he lived to are not clear. However, from what we do have, it seems to me that he lived in the Bolton area until his death in the mid 1970s.

 

References: 

http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205193417

 

 

 

 

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