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Fire-Step to Fokker Fodder

Fire-Step to Fokker Fodder

Andrew White
ARRSE Rating
4.5 Mushroom Heads
Fire-step to Fokker Fodder is an account of the First World War experiences of William ‘Jack’ Lidsey from when he volunteered as a private soldier in the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry in August 1914, to his death at the hands of the Red Baron as an observer in the Royal Flying Corps on 21st March 1917. The book is based on Lidsey’s diaries, although the book contains relatively few extracts from them. It is very much a low-key book, eschewing dramatic accounts and imagined conversations for a carefully factual, almost day to day account of Lidsey’s life during the Great War.

Lidsey was born of a prosperous farming family in 1895 and was educated at a prestigious local grammar school, becoming captain of his house and a prominent sportsman – although his academic accomplishments were more modest. Leaving school at 17, much later than many boys of the time (who could leave at 12), Lidsey became a trainee auctioneer, shunning the family trade of farming. Less than a year later, the Great War broke out and Jack Lidsey, like so many of his generation, rushed to volunteer.

By the end of August 1914, he had enlisted as a private in the Oxford and Buckinghamshire light infantry. We know little of the training he received, for his diaries of that period have been lost, but on 29th March 1915, his battalion received orders to move to France. There, they were sent to the Ypres Salient, where Lidsey’s detailed diaries start. Such extracts from the diaries as are printed are carefully chosen to illustrate Lidsey’s experiences. Thus, for the 31st August 1915:

A part of our trench is part of what was a German trench before the French captured it on July 3rd… Am glad we are not in that part of it as there is a most beastly smell of dead bodies all through it.

Lidsey saw few set-piece battles. Most of his diaries concern day to day life in the trenches or in support behind the front lines. It is a tale largely of hardship – of rain and mud and cold and the struggle to slog through thigh deep mud in the worst of the trenches. It is also a tale of fear as his battalion took a steady stream of casualties; a couple of men killed one day, a few wounded the next.

By February 1916, Jack Lidsey was an experienced front-line soldier and, with his grammar school education, applied for and was granted a commission. He returned to England for the relevant training between February to May 1916, before returning to his battalion. Again, there are no dairies for this period, so we know little of the details of his training.

He would return to France in late May, where his unit was training intensively for its part of the Battle of the Somme. Now a platoon commander, Lidsey took part in several attacks and was fortunate to come out unscathed; from his diaries, (for example) we learn of the intensive use made of hand grenades.

We then attacked and took a Hun trench a little further to the north; we were immediately counter attacked three times. The men fought and used bombs admirably. By this time, we were very much cut up; I had only one sergeant and three men in my platoon. We ran short of bombs – the situation was fast setting serious when we were reinforced by the Berkshires who brought plenty of bombs.

The Somme ran its sombre course until it bogged down in stalemate in November 1916. It was then, for reasons not explained in his diaries, Lidsey applied to join the Royal Flying Corps as an Observer. He was accepted and joined 16 Squadron in the Lille region. There for the next four months he flew artillery observation flights in the B.E.8, an aircraft outclassed by the German aircraft.

Again, from Lidsey’s diaries we learn something of the problems and risks of early air fighting. The cold at altitude was intense, the risk of attack from German aircraft ever present and B.E.8’s were vulnerable to anti-aircraft and ground fire. Nevertheless, Lidsey did his duty, steadily becoming a respected member of the squadron.

His time as an observer was to end on 21st Match 1917 at the hands of the Red Baron – Manfred von Richthofen; his 29th victory. Lidsey and his pilot Sid Quicke had spotted the German pilot and fought off several attacks – it appears the Red Baron then stalked the aircraft using broken cloud for cover and poured a burst of fire into the underside of the B.E.8 from close range. Quicke died in the crash; Lidsey lingered on for a day in hospital. He was just 21.

The value of this book is in the detail of Lidsey’s everyday life in France – a matter of fact story of hardships accepted and overcome; of dangers faced and duties done. Add in the detail of Lidsey’s daily life – the routine of the trenches or his time as an observer in an RFC squadron - and this is a useful addition to the literature of the First World War.

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