Our WW1 writing competition judge, author Susan Burnett, tells us about her grandfather, Leeds born Norman Woodcock and the book she came to write using his memoirs, On That Day I Left My Boyhood Behind.
My grandfather, Norman Woodcock, was born in 1897 and grew up in Leeds, living above his mother’s bakery in Little Woodhouse Street. He was a pupil at the Leeds Boys Modern, now Lawnswood High School. When he died aged 90, in 1987, he left three large files of handwritten memoirs which I have compiled into a book called On That Day I Left My Boyhood Behind. In the book I have interspersed Norman’s memoirs of the First World War with the history of the war in the regions he served. His stories are powerful, combining horror with humour and social commentary. The title comes from his description of taking part in the landings on Gallipoli in April 1915.
As a youngster he loved horses and, before the war, when he could afford to, he would borrow a horse from the stables of the Leeds Cab Company and ride around the parks. ‘Don’t gallop’ the cabmen would shout as he left. On his 17th birthday, in January 1914, he joined the Northern Signals Unit of the Royal Engineers, a mounted unit of the Territorial Army – the posters said he would be able to ride every weekend. He was mobilised on the day war broke out in August 1914 and was away for five years. In the days following call up he and his pals went to the surrounding areas of Leeds and Harrogate collecting horses for the war effort, visiting riding schools, livery stables, businesses and private homes. Soon he was given a horse called Timbuc, a black beauty that would be his best friend throughout the war.
Having never left Yorkshire before, he then went on quite a journey, sailing to Egypt then taking part in the landings on Gallipoli. After Gallipoli, in January 1916, he went to Greece, Libya, Mesopotamia (now Iraq), spent time with Lawrence of Arabia, took part in the capture of Jerusalem, and was on the Somme when the Armistice was declared.
He describes in his memoirs when they were told they were to take part in the landings on Gallipoli: “we conjured up some vivid images of what it would be like to land on a foreign shore and fight the Turks on the way to Constantinople – we had all read adventure stories and seen pictures of the Orient in books.” He praised Leeds City Council for the huge public library: “I liked reading, and went as often as I could. I had about five books a week.” From all this reading he knew the history of many of the countries he visited.
After they set sail for Egypt, in early 1915, his pals entered him in a swimming competition, betting that he would beat ‘the breast stroke champion of Yorkshire’ in a race across the next harbour. That was Alexandria. Norman was a strong swimmer. He describes how he was taught: “Leeds City Council employed two designated ‘Professors of Swimming’. Both were big, strong fellows; one had swum across the Channel.” He won the swimming competition which delighted his pals! Later in the war he was posted to the Suez Canal and used to swim across regularly.
Norman survived the war but came back to Yorkshire to find many of his pals were gone. He talks about how he should have visited their families but says the pain was too great and he duffed it. I would love to hear from the families of his pals, especially from the relatives of Norman ‘Wilkie’ Wilkinson, a pupil architect before the war but who was killed; and Albert Jones, an apprentice engineer who ended his days in a mental hospital in Wakefield. There are others too, but I only have surnames, for example Baxter and Dennison, all Signallers in the Royal Engineers.
You can buy copies of On That Day I Left My Boyhood Behind here.
Susan will be in speaking at several free events in Leeds in November if you would like to come along and hear more about Norman and Timbuc.
Friday 13th November, 1-2pm at Leeds Central Library, more details here; then 3-4pm at Leeds City Museum.
Saturday 14th November, 11-3pm at The Royal Armouries as part of the Big Bookend’s Children’s Festival Day, Earth, Fire and Ink. Susan will be available to chat to you there and she will be telling some of Norman’s stories as well (time TBC).
Win a copy of On That Day I Left My Boyhood Behind by entering our competition here. Closes 8th November.