Northumberland soldier's archive inspires theatre production

Northumberland soldier Guy Laing Bradley recorded his time on the First World War front line at Ypres

Guy Bradley (centre) in the trenches
Guy Bradley (centre) in the trenches

Many who endured trench warfare either would not, or could not, talk about their experiences.

Perhaps the memories were too harrowing, or the feeling was that if you hadn’t been there, you could not possibly know what it had been like.

But one Northumberland soldier, Guy Laing Bradley, did record his time on the First World War front line at Ypres.

He wrote letters home, kept journals, and as an amateur artist he produced a series of sketches of trench life.

For decades, his archive lay stored and forgotten in the attic of his home in Hexham.

Recently rediscovered by his grand daughter, Elizabeth, it is now the inspiration for a one-man show next month.

Titled Entrenchment, it will feature Aron de Casmaker, who set up Micreations Theatre in Hexham, with the production being directed by Rebecca Jameson.

Aron, who describes himself as performer, theatre producer and teacher, will be playing his role in the guise of the classical clown.

He will be using two helmets - one British and the other German - brought back from France by Guy, whose sketches will be projected on stage.

Aron says: “ The archive depicts not only the horrors of war, but also the humour and strength of a man who endured those horrors.”

Black humour was certainly present in the trenches as a means of coping with the extreme situations, as evidenced by the soldiers’ Wipers Times paper.

“The show is based on the comedy of the clown, who doesn’t know what is going on and it reflects a lot of people’s experiences of the war,” says Aron.

“That sensation is in Guy’s archive.

“Trench warfare was not a strategy. It was a reaction to new warfare technology like machine guns, so you couldn’t go backwards and you couldn’t go forwards. It was an absurd situation.

“Entrenched uses Guy’s journals as source material to explore the horrors of war, and the confusion, strength and humour of a generation of people who endured it but never spoke about it, bringing a fresh perspective, comedy and pathos to the subject.” Guy joined up in 1914 as a lieutenant in the Northumberland Fusiliers. He stayed on in the army for a period after the war and left as a major.

Aron De Casmaker, who has been inspired by Guy Bradley's First World War archive
Aron De Casmaker, who has been inspired by Guy Bradley's First World War archive
 

He is believed to have been one of the managers in a company which first brought electricity to Hexham and had links with the town’s County garage.

In his letters home and to his brother, he talks about life on the front line.

Elizabeth’s husband, photographer Jeremy Freeman-Wood, says: “ Some of the letters look on the lighter side of things, but others are pretty grim.”

Guy designed the First World War memorial plaque outside Hexham Abbey.

Performances of Entrenched, supported by Arts Council England, are on

* December 9 at 7 pm at Newcastle University’s Culture Lab. Free entry and pre-show supper. To book email melanie.birch@ncl.ac.uk

* December 12,6.30 pm at Queen’s Hall, Hexham Free entry.

* December 16, 7.30 pm at the Cumberland Arms, Newcastle.

In one of his journals, Guy writes: “The Germans broke through our line on the night of the 25th April by gassing the French trenches.

“We were ordered forward and a forced march to Ypres, about 8 miles, brought us into the thick of the shellfire. The Brigade halted in the town and our first casualties occurred. We moved out of the town about a mile into a field and lay down in artillery formation. Shrapnel came over us heavily and rain poured down.

“As dawn broke the Canadians attacked in a most brilliant manner and the (our) Brigade lined up in attacking formation just behind. A heavy battle ensued.

“ The Canadians losses were again very heavy. Hundreds of wounded men were making their way back up the slope towards us the best way they could.

A farm, or rather 3 or 4 farms, near us were turned into dressing stations but very soon resembled a shambles. I looked into a farm near where our Batt. were and found it full of wounded, dying and dead Canadians, it was also shelled now and again.

One of Guy Bradley's sketchs from the front line
One of Guy Bradley's sketchs from the front line
 

“Our men were quite calm and ready. They were cooking or trying to cook in the half demolished out houses of this farm, while men were dying around them. Of course they did all they could.

“Now our own time was at hand. At 1.45pm the Brigade received hurried orders to immediately advance and attack a village, St Julien,

“This village was full of machine guns and had been enfilading all the time the Canadians advance and so causing such tremendous losses. This had to be stopped and the Northumberland Brigade, the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th Northumberland Fusiliers were to do this.

“I pushed on with as many men on my right and left as I could yell to and began advancing by long rushes and lying down after each.

“After the second rush I found I had lost about half my men. I did not dare to look back as I knew we had already lost heavily.

“It was really absolutely Hell. The bullets were coming at us like hail, a lot thank goodness going over our heads but I could feel them whiz past my cheek, like being in a driven hailstorm.

“ I was glad to see a drain or small ditch for sewage, extended away and already Capt. Robb with some 30 men were crawling along.

“Three men I passed had been shot through the boot evidently by just letting his boot stick too far behind him.

“We got into old dug outs and felt just about done up.

“Here were many corpses lying about, one shell having evidently killed 4 or 5 and some of them in a most terrible state, arms and heads and legs blown right off. Two had crawled into dug outs next to me and when darkness came I went the round of my men to see who was there and how many, I found those two forms as I thought asleep but on trying to awaken them I found it was their long and last sleep.

“We had driven the enemy out of their position of advantage and back from St Julien. But the cost!!

“A General who had seen the advance said after the battle the ground up to the village looked like a Battalion in extended order lying down. These were our dead and wounded.

“It then began to dawn on me that I had been extremely lucky to get through untouched.

“The 6th Batt. Had lost heavier than we had our losses being over 500, so one can judge the severe fire we had come through.

“However we have received very high praise from Gen. Sir J. French himself, he personally having come down and spoke to the remains of the brigade. He said our deed would live forever.

“ The marvellous escapes some of us had are extraordinary. “

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