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Sunday, 14 February 2016

Wartime Memories

The creation of Metal Harvest last year produced a lot of interesting responses - and has sent me in a couple of surprising directions.  This is one of them.
Alan Scott, who has performed with me for readings and the installation piece You Have Been Watching in 2014, mentioned to me in the bar one night that he had a tape recording of his grandfather talking about his experiences in the First World War.  Now, Metal Harvest was mostly written at this point and though there was more material to shape I didn't need anything new, but it seemed like too good an opportunity to pass.  If nothing else, it would be interesting and I could transfer the recording onto a CD for him.
I sat down to transfer the tape.  It wasn't good.  There was a phenomenal amount of hiss and little dynamic to the sound.  The recording was of a family gathering, after a meal or similar event, where everyone was trying to prompt this veteran into talking about the Great War.  The tape recorder was hidden, so that he didn't notice.  There's a lot of background noise of clearing plates and general chatter.  I struggled along and hoped for the best.
In the 55 minutes of recording the conversation, occasionally obscured, danced around making things with used shell casing and leather off cuts; surviving off the land (stealing the odd chicken); looking after the horses; taking the dead from the front line; joining up and being demobbed.  I did a quick de-hiss to see how much clarity could be got out of the recording and emailed Alan back with a suggestion - to release the material online.  People should hear this first hand account.
So, Alan came over and recorded some background, listened to the recording and commented on it.  We think that with some work we could get between twenty and thirty minutes of good audio that I plan to release in a couple of weeks.  The current plan is to release it in themed chunks, of five to ten minutes each, over a month or so, and then release the full recording for those who want to work out the less clear sections.

Wartime Memories - First Hand Recollections of the Great War by William Coleman
First Part has been released - you can support this work at

Alan Scott, with the recording on screen.
Alan Scott:  "The recording is of William Henry Coleman, born 14th August 1897 in Lambeth.
His father was a saddler working for the Southern Railway in the Battersea area.  It is difficult to piece together a full service history as his service records are not available – probably lost in the 1940 fire - but from the tape I believe he was in the Army Service Corps, which became the Royal Army Service Corps in 1918 and is now the Royal Logistics Corps.
The tape was recorded at my parents house in Colchester following a family lunch and was done without him being aware of the recording.  I think this was to celebrate the Diamond Wedding anniversary of William and his wife Elsie and would therefore have been in September 1981.
He mentions being at Arras when the victory parade for Cambrai was staged – this would be mid-December 1917.  He was at Mons at or immediately after the Armistice and relates how they had to march to Dieppe to return to the UK. This is approximately 150 miles so would probably have taken a week or so.  I believe he was demobbed at Purfleet in December 1918.
After the war he returned to London and worked as a vehicle trimmer, having his own business for a while which failed during the Depression, and latterly working for a firm in Colchester as a vehicle trimmer until the 1970’s.  He served in the Home Guard in Colchester in 1939-45 – after failing to convince the recruiters to let him join up as a regular at the outset of World War Two.
William died in Colchester on 22nd April 1982."
William and Elsie in 1981 on the day of the recording.

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