George Rice

Veteran of the First World War
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The Independent Online

George Rice saw intense action in the last months of the First World War and was one of the last British veterans of that conflict, seeing action in France in 1918. He died last week at the age of 108.

Rice was born in Stockton-on-Tees in 1897 and left school at 14. He went to work for W.H. Smith selling books at the railway station. Although he enjoyed the work, he wanted a more secure job and started an apprenticeship as a coppersmith and later became a sheet-metal worker and model-metal maker. He showed a great pride in his work and at the age of 17 joined the Territorial Army.

While on annual camp in August 1914 he climbed up a steep hill over Llandudno and when he got to the top heard a bugle sound and saw people below scurrying around. War had started. He was to recall last year: "We were all shocked when they ordered us back to Stockton on August 3 - we were all silent as we marched back to the station."

Although most of his battalion was shipped to France he was sent to Wallsend, east of Newcastle, to help in the manufacture of pipes for the Royal Navy. He worked alongside civilians and, in order that he not be given a white feather (by women of the White Feather League, who thought all men should be out at the Front), he continued to wear his uniform.

Late in 1917 he was called up and transferred to the Duke of Wellington's Regiment. Having trained on the Lewis gun he arrived at Havrincourt in France at the beginning of 1918. He was quickly into action:

On one occasion, my section had fought intensely all day to capture a commanding ridge. We secured it and started to dig in. The old sweats said, "Be careful because Jerry will counter-attack almost immediately before we can dig in." Minutes later, the enemy came at us from nowhere. They charged with bayonets raised, screaming wildly; they killed the lieutenant who was standing next to me by shooting over their sights. That's how close they were.

I was the Lewis gunner but I had no time to react and I could not wedge the front legs of my gun into the ground. Those around me desperately tried to help to secure the legs as the Germans ran nearer. When the gun was finally stabilised and the Germans were almost on top of us, I pulled the trigger and eight Germans fell dead. I didn't have to aim, they were so near. They ran into my bullets. That was just my job as a soldier. You were there to fight the enemy, feelings didn't come into it.

On another occasion his battalion was spread out down a lane alongside a railway embankment when in the moonlight a lone German sentry came into view, patrolling the railway line. Rice recalled:

Although we were under orders to hold fire, someone in our sector couldn't resist taking a shot at this lone man. At once this triggered a massive discharge of arms along the line. The German soldier, in the face of certain death, went into a panic. He zigzagged, ducked and dived to avoid the hail of bullets. Suddenly, one of the more sensitive among us called out in a very loud voice: "Give him a chance, chaps!" The firing ceased and the sentry ran off. We all felt very emotional and strangely moved.

After the Armistice he was in Namur in Belgium for several days of celebrations. Because of the severe overcrowding at his base he had to sleep in a water-filled shell-hole. As a result he was taken seriously ill with trench fever. While the rest of his battalion returned to England he recuperated in France and was later taken by ship and train to a hospital in Newcastle from where he was demobbed. This ended a period of his life of which he was deeply reluctant to talk.

At the age of 22 he left Stockton to take a position with the Austin Motor Company at Longbridge. He moved into "digs" where his landlord was a regular churchgoer and it was largely due to long conversations with him that Rice also became a devout Christian. During this time he met his wife Elsie who, along with his newfound religion, helped to restore his faith in himself. "Elsie made me feel very proud," he said towards the end of his life. He became a lay preacher and his four sons were raised in the Christian faith, which was centred on the Gospel Hall in Northfield, Birmingham.

During the Second World War he journeyed daily to Coventry to the factory of Lea Francis, the car manufacturers, who were making the Halifax bomber. His eldest son, David, recalled his father's tear-stained face after the devastating bombing raid on Coventry on the night of 15 November 1940. He worked until he was 71 in order to support his youngest son through college. He then moved to the Isle of Wight and 13 years later returned to Birmingham to a residential home.

After 60 happy years of marriage Elsie died in 1997 and this left him bereft. He was cared for by the staff of Tandy Court in Birmingham, and his consolation was the mouth organ which he learned to play at the age of 10 and with which he entertained the troops in the trenches - little thinking that 90 years later he would be entertaining the residents of a home in the Midlands. A resourceful man all his life, Rice taught himself to play the piano and the electronic keyboard, which he did with some skill.

When I interviewed him for my book The Last Post, which records the final words of the last British veterans and is to be published this November, Rice told me:

Even though I still enjoy life, I sometimes feel as though I've had enough. I know that one day Jesus will come and take me to Elsie.

His death leaves only eight British survivors of the First World War.

Max Arthur