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Smethwick tommy who wrote of the horrors of war

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: June 30, 2014

By Dan Shaw

  • Henry Russell served with the South Staffs before transferring to the Worcesters

  • First World War certificate awarded by Smethwick Borough Council to Henry Russell

  • Henry Russell's WWI medals, cap badge and dog tag

  • The original cover of Henry's 1928 book

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ALTHOUGH much was written about the First World War as it was raging and in its immediate aftermath, it was not until some years had passed, in the 1920s and early '30s that the great works we most readily associate with the war were written.

Probably the most famous book of the war is All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, first published in Germany in 1929. Other classics of the canon are Ford Madox Ford's four-part Parade's End (1924-27), The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning (1929), and Death of a Hero (1929) by Richard Aldington, while the female experience of the war found expression in Not So Quiet: Stepdaughters of War (1930) by Helen Zenna Smith (pseudonym of journalist Evadne Price), and We That Were Young (1932) by Irene Rathbone.

While these novels are fictionalised accounts of the authors' own experiences of the war, there were also a number of celebrated personal memoirs such as Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence (1922), A Subaltern's War (1929) by Charles Carrington, Good-Bye to All That (1929) by Robert Graves, and Testament of Youth (1933) by Vera Brittain.

A little-known personal account of the First World War is Slaves of the War Lords by Henry Russell. Like the West Bromwich-born Charles Carrington, its author was a Black Country man but unlike him, and practically all other writers on the war, he had no university education. Russell was very much an ordinary Black Country man, working in industry before the war and returning to his home town afterwards. But the war had a profound effect on him and in 1928 he wrote his book, a searing and embittered account of the life of an infantryman in the trenches.

Details of Henry Russell and his book have come to us from his relatives, Frank and Charles Gardner. Charles writes, "Henry Russell was born in 1893 and spent his entire life in Smethwick. His employment was with the non-ferrous company McKecknie Bros., initially at Icknield Port Road, Birmingham, and later when the company relocated to Aldridge.

"Denied the chance to enlist in 1914 due to his small stature and height, he was conscripted in 1916. By then Henry had no inclination to serve but was one of over a million men called to replace heavy losses. He was posted to the South Staffordshire Regiment, then serving in Dublin. Swiftly deployed to France, he found himself languishing around Calais and similar posts – typical army, he thought!

"Two years serving on the Western Front had a profound effect on Henry Russell and after the war, though he had no literary or journalistic training, he wrote and had published his book Slaves of the War Lords.

"One critic of the day prefaced the book: 'This is a vivid, moving and remarkable human document containing a sincere and candid account of trench life from the point of view of an infantry private. The characters are taken from life and the dialogue is that of the period. The author's quarrel is not with the regiments but with the curse of war. His story is outspoken and is bound to attract wide attention.'

"At first, Henry was excited to contemplate moving to the front but was petrified when he first came under shellfire. He was transferred to the 10th Worcestershire Regiment, finding them a decent bunch. They spent Christmas 1916 near Doulins, and while there he joined a the Lewis gun section.

"The battalion moved around quite a bit, taking part in the battle of the Menin Road. Eventually, he was granted two weeks leave, during which time he married. Returning to the regiment, he moved to the coast where sea bathing provided a welcome break.

"In early 1918 the battalion moved to the Hindenburg Line before finishing up at Baraste, near Bapaume, and moving to a small village called Velv, to await the expected German offensive before the Americans could bring significant numbers to Europe. The Germans had transferred one million men from the Russian Front following the revolution.

"By this time Henry Russell was promoted to lance-corporal and was number one on his Lewis gun. He was called forward by an officer to seek out an enemy gunner causing trouble to the advancing platoon. His colleague shouted a warning but too late and Henry felt a sickening crash in the top part of his body. He had been hit in the arm, later describing it like a 'kick from a mule'. He was catapulted down a bank and was advised to move to the rear. After crawling on hands and knees for some distance, he met up with remnants of a Black Watch battalion. Patched up by a stretcher bearer, he eventually found his way to an ambulance, which carried him to a railhead, his arm and shoulder congealed and numb. He was put on a train and transferred to Blighty.

"Henry Russell survived the war and lived the rest of his life with his wife at his home in Hales Lane, Smethwick, until his 89th year.

"During an air raid on April 9, 1941, a German aircraft crashed a few doors down from Henry's house. He ran towards it only to have a young policeman try to stop him. Henry answered, 'Don't worry, lad, I've seen worse in the last war.'

"Right up to the end of his life fragments of metal were still finding their way from his body, a constant reminder of his time in the trenches.

"Henry had two sons, Ronald an Frederick, one grandson and seven granddaughters. His grandson Brian holds his medals and memorabilia in Toronto, Canada, and copies of these with photographs are held at Smethwick Heritage Centre.

"My sister, Mary Russell, devoted 30 years of care and support to Henry and his wife throughout their life in Smethwick."

You get a flavour of Slaves of the War Lords from this extract in which Henry Russell explores his sentiments during his two weeks leave in England.

"Two glorious weeks of civilization and freedom from shell-fire. What a time it had been. How I had revelled in the wonderful comfort of home life. How I had marvelled at the placid demeanour of everyone.

"Kind elderly ladies had asked me if I had killed many Germans, and when I said I did not know, they were disappointed. They seemed to think the killing of Germans was something commonplace, like swatting flies.

"The trouble was that England had become reconciled to war and the casualty lists, and the mourning which was horribly fashionable. I left England firmly convinced that I should not return again unless on a stretcher. I should have made a will had my worldly goods been sufficient to warrant it, but they were not. I did not think it possible that an infantryman directly exposed to the perils of attack and defence could escape indefinitely, and my reasoning was sound. Multitudes had died with smaller war records than mine, and the hospitals were crowded with men who never knew the mud slopes of the Ancre. I calculated that I had three chances, and only three. Getting wounded, taken prisoner, or being killed. The possibility of carrying on throughout the war was too remote to contemplate. Previously I had lived and hoped for leave, and now that had come and gone I was without hope, excepting – down in my heart I nursed a secret feeling that I would welcome an enemy bullet, or a piece of shrapnel, but I wanted to have the choice. In the arm or leg would not matter so much if only it was moderate, but not the head, or anywhere which might produce after-effects.

"I was sick to the death with the agony of the life I was forced to lead. I wanted to get both legs out of the grave, to leave the horror behind and say never again. Never again would I become enthused over newspaper stunts and recruiting propaganda. To hell with war was my sentiment, and to hell with the war lords.

"I was not alone in my sentiment. I knew the Tommies of the trenches and the posts better than did the gushy writers in some weekly periodicals. 'No peace until Germany is crushed,' they cried, and Tommy in the outpost of the wilderness, with tortured mind and lice-infested body, with dead men lying within his vision, and death lurking ever near, would cry from the depth of his soul, 'Give us peace, lest I die also.'"

Sadly, Slaves to the War Lords is out of print. It was briefly revived in the early 2000s by Naval and Military Press but printing has been discontinued, although secondhand copies are to be found.

Share your family's stories of the Great War, contact dshaw@blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write to 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

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