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From farm work to the first mass tank battle

John Turner from Mildenhall with his grandfather Ernest's WW1 medals and picture ANL-140820-200751009

John Turner from Mildenhall with his grandfather Ernest's WW1 medals and picture ANL-140820-200751009

John Turner was brought up by his grandfather so he had plenty of time to quiz him on his World War One service.

The story he was told may have been sparing on the horrors of war, but it was a fascinating insight from a man who went from country life in Mildenhall to Buckingham Palace before the trenches for the first massed tank attack then life as a prisoner of war.

John, who still lives in Mildenhall where he and his grandfather Ernest William Turner, son of the church sexton, were born and brought up. He remembers him as a quiet, kindly giant of a man.

Ernest had been in a reserved occupation as a farmworker but was called up in 1916 at the age of 29 or 30.

John said: “He was quite happy to go because he had seen all his friends go.”

Ernest wanted to join the Royal Artillery but before they took him they said he needed dental work.

“They took a couple of teeth out then he said ‘you may as well pull them all out’ because he knew that if he needed anything done when he returned, the blacksmith would do it,” John said.

But the RA then said he was too tall, at 6ft 2in, so he went to the Coldstream Guards.

“He did guard duty at Buckingham Palace,” John recalled. “He had to ask the king for his pass on one occasion. He said he knew it was the king but if he hadn’t asked for it his sergeant would have had a go.”

Ernest went to France in early 1917. John recalled: “He said the conditions in the trenches were pretty bad. A lot of men complained of the mud but he had worked in the fields so he said it was no worse than he was used to.”

He was captured during the Battle of Cambrai, where tanks were used en masse for the first time. John has contacted the regiment to piece together Ernest’s story. He knows Ernest was captured on November 27 after the Guards advanced on Fontaine and came under heavy fire.

John Said: “He said it was pretty horrendous. He was lucky enough to find shelter behind a wall then a captain held up a white rag and the Germans let them come out.

“He told my father that if the captain hadn’t done that they would all have been finished because it was just slaughter.”

They marched to a prison camp at Essen, where he became a cook, eking out rations by catching rabbits. Ernest was not impressed with how the Germans treated their own soldiers but John doesn’t think he disliked his captors.

He spoke German well enough to understand when German prisoners on the farm in World War Two were threatening retribution ‘when they won’ and to warn them a pitchfork worked as well as a bayonet.

Ernest died in his 70s.

 

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