Jack Davis

First World War veteran with a 'charmed life'
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The Independent Online

Jack Davis, soldier: born London 1 March 1895; married 1918 Vera Wilkins (deceased; one son, and one son deceased); died Stoke Hammond, Buckinghamshire 20 July 2003.

At 108 years old, Jack Davis was the oldest surviving veteran of the First World War. When asked during a recent conversation with the Prince of Wales at the National Archives at Kew how he managed to survive the war, Davis replied, "I lived a charmed life".

Early in 1915, Davis was working as a steward in London at the National Liberal Club and, like all young men at the time, wanted to get into action. One lunchtime, along with 32 other members of the staff, he went to the Recruiting Office and signed on, leaving the club bereft of its workforce.

An astute officer spotted the potential of this group of men and they were drafted en masse to Falmouth in Cornwall to staff the officers' mess of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. However, Davis and his friends soon became restless and volunteered for overseas service. He saw action with the Sixth Battalion at Loos and at Ypres in 1915, where he had to dig with his hands with others, in an effort to recover those who were buried beneath the devastated Cloth Hall.

On the eve of the Battle of the Somme, Davis went down with trench fever. "I wasn't able to stand, let alone fight. I had a high temperature and was delirious," he recalled. On the following day, 1 July 1916, 19,240 British men were killed, including many from his own battalion. Thousands more were injured so Davis had to crawl back to the aid post where he witnessed a sight that was to stay with him forever.

After a period of recuperation in England, he returned to the Western Front to see action in the appalling conditions of Passchendaele. Here he recalled seeing one of his officers going completely mad: "He was utterly deranged, worn out."

With the unrest in Ireland, he was part of the contingent sent there in 1918. He learnt of the Armistice when he undid a small message attached to a pigeon, which had arrived back to its croft.

Jack Davis was born in Kentish Town in north London in 1895. He was one of eight children left without a mother when Jack was just four. He was educated at a local fee-paying school until he joined the National Liberal Club. After the war he joined the Langham Hotel in London as a commissionaire and during the Second World War served with the ARP on fire duty. He later joined the company that made Meltonian shoe polish, coping with their exports until his retirement at the age of 65. He was to draw a pension for the next 43 years.

It was not until the last few years of his life that he ever spoke of his experiences of the Western Front. "The conditions in which we fought that war were disgusting and distressing and I never thought after that experience that this country would ever go to war again."

In recent years he attended a number of reunions with the World War One Veterans' Association where he would enjoy the company of fellow survivors. Last November at the Menin Gate, which straddles the road out of Ypres along which tens of thousands of men had marched to the front line, Jack Davis, in a firm voice, read the exhortation, "They shall not grow old as those that are left grow old. . ."

Max Arthur