The WWI Diary of John Oliver Watkins

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I was given exemption from military service but as a member of the Friends Ambulance Unit was given the chance of joining one of three motor ambulance units for service with the French Army. I gladly accepted and my convoy of about thirty men known as Section Sanitaire Anglais No. 19 comprising 22 ambulances, mobile work shop, kitchen and dispatch rider carried the sick and wounded of infantry division from the field dressing stations behind the firing line to the evacuation hospitals.

Sunday 2nd July 1916 Up 6:20 At 4 o clock “Cow” went. A Taube was easily seen over Rosendael seem to be motionless but guns could not hit it. Was called to Alexandria Hospital to take 4 recovered men back to their quarters.

Thursday 6th July 1916 On reaching Calais we found the Red Cross men had fetched cars at 2am. No doubt they were needed badly. The previous nights the streets of Boulogne were full of ambulances and charabangs crawling along at less than walking pace with their freight of wounded.

Friday 14th July 1916 Took two Canadians from Hospital to their camp at Bergues. While there boarded an engine on one of the many temporary lines in the War zone. Found a Pontypridd-Canadian was the driver. The coal came from Merthyr Grwagola Works.

Friday 8th September 1916 At 10pm could see gun flashes which lighted up the heavens. The explosions followed 55 seconds later. The whole building vibrated. Five monitor search lights were sweeping the sea for submarines. The blinding flash was on us several times. One could see all details of ships caught in the shafts of light.

Sunday 24th September 1916 During afternoon anti aircraft guns went off and it seemed afterwards that a monitor in dock had received two bombs one penetrated upper deck and killed 5 injuring 8. The other burst in an airtight compartment. The raiding German was supposed to have been in French marking and so able to descend quite low.

Tuesday 11th December 1917 6pm Drove Ambulance to pick up wounded from field dressing station. On return trip got stuck between shell hole and communication trench. Under heavy fire got wounded out and off the road to safety. Went back to see if I could get the ambulance moving. I had to remove my gas mask to dig with a trenching tool. We were being bombarded heavily. After about 9 hours got the car on the road and managed to get wounded to hospital.

Wednesday 12th December 1917. Ambulance had been hit about the body 6 times. Found I had been burned with mustard gas on my legs and body. I was admitted to hospital for treatment. My superiors gave praise for my actions.

Monday 11th November 1918. Our convoy arrived over night at the village of Vendresse. I sat with three colleagues around a large tin bath peeling spuds. Rumours of a signed armistice had been current for a few days spasmodic gun fire indicated there was no truth to the rumour. A soldier was seen to fix a white paper on the church door. I broke the news to my friends that War was over and we went on with our job.   About 3 o’clock the village came to life. From across the bridge streamed hundreds of men. They crowded up to our hut and for hours we made porridge and gallons of cocoa which provided little for so many and we nearly ran out of rations. There was no wild excitement but just a feeling of release from War to Peace.

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