Salute to the Somme

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Philip Rhodes in uniform.
Philip Rhodes in uniform.

He was a farm boy from Rata who was a crack shot machine gunner during WWI.
Philip Godfrey Rhodes served on the battlefields of the Somme and the Lewis machine gun operator had gone in with the very first tanks to battle.

He'd crouched in trenches swimming in mud, cringed under hundreds of prowling rats, flicked off lice and fleas and was surrounded by the pervasive smell of death. The stench of the bodies was often just metres away and being German they were unable to be buried, Philip had told his family.

He'd left for the Somme in France a clever, fit lad of 19 and returned sick, worn down from serious injuries.

Next month his son will take 12 of Philip's descendants to France to commemorate his service during WWI.

His memories and thoughts from those tough years have been carefully noted by members of his family and written down.

His son, retired farmer Graeme Rhodes, said his dad never really spoke at length about those years, like most ex-servicemen, once they had come home and were safe at last.
"But every now and again he would talk and we hung on every word and made sure we recorded every little bit for our family history."

And they have other records. Pieces of his kit even included of a German soldier's hat and tin mug. The soldier had fired at Philip from point blank range, Graeme said.

He told the family that while he had been crossing an open field with his crew, a German soldier had leapt up from behind a small shrub a few feet away, firing his Mauser rifle.

"Unbelievably he missed. Philip being a machine gun captain wore a revolver; with no time to even draw, he fired through the bottom of his holster killing the German. Dad souvenired his hat and mug, which I still have in my possession," Graeme said.

He also has a piece of webbing with belt buckles and buttons stuck in it, swapped with British and Scottish soldiers, his dad's pay book, and scraps of notes made by Philip during those years that are treasured by the family.

This year marks the centenary of the Battle of Somme.

And a promise Graeme made to a loved grandson about five years ago is about to be honoured.

If he got his law degree, Graeme had told his grandson, he would take him and the rest of the family to France to commemorate the centenary of his great-grandfather's military service.

"Well he missed his degree by one mark, but it really didn't matter because he never really wanted to be a lawyer."

On April 13 the 12 members of Philip Rhode's family head off to France with Graeme and his wife Madeline.

"But the grandson who started it all can't come because he can't get the time off work," Graeme says, laughing.

The writtten family history of Philip notes that the life expectancy of a gunner was two weeks but, in battle, it was about 10 minutes.

"The machine gun was most feared by the enemy and it's elimination was essential for a battle to progress," Philip had said.

Which meant there were many hair-raising escapes for the boy from Rata.
A German plane had caught him in the open and opened fire with its machine gun. Philip had hunkered behind a tombstone and though the plane circled him several times the tombstone had protected him.

Directing the fire of a machine gun was always difficult in battle, he had said.
A friend in the airforce supplied him with some tracer bullets which he could direct fire accurately so when hundreds of enemy soldiers were bearing down on his position he was pretty certain his bullets would reach their target.

"It was like scything wheat firing backwards and forwards."
Though he loathed the slaughter, it was "kill or be killed", he'd said.

Dad was a survivor, but he never felt good about it, Graeme said.

"His outrage and hatred of the army never dimmed with time, it never changed."
And he remembered clearly his father trying to discourage his brother John from enlisting in the Korean War.

"John wasn't really listening. But I was I was hanging on every word so I never forgot it.'' However, Philip put an end to it by contacting the authorities and told them he needed John home on the farm.

"So that was that John never went to Korea and my father was happy.''

Early on in the war Philip was caught in a chlorine gas attack and presumed dead.
"Then someone saw his foot move and he was pulled out and recovered. He told a nephew years later that the taste of chlorine had soured his mouth from that day to this."

He hated the army and the war for the misery it had caused for so many young men, Graeme said.

An incident that had remained a vivid memory for Philip was a German reconnaissance plane that flew over their trenches every morning at the same time.

He told the family that he'd had to get permission by the high command to set up his machine-gun for a shot and was told he could only have one go at it.

But chance would have it on the day heavy fog was rolling in. Right on time he could hear the plane approaching but he couldn't see a thing.

By pure chance a small patch of blue sky burst through and the plane was in it. Philip pulled the trigger and shot the wing off.

"He was called before the high command again and offered the Military Medal, or a fortnight's leave in Paris. He opted for the leave, but ended up missing out on both because a big battle came on and all leave was cancelled."

Graeme feels he should apply officially all these years later and claim that medal for his dad.

"He deserved it and it would be another special treasure to have as part of our memoirs.''
Before enlisting Philip's plan was to be a doctor, but the call of Rata drew him back to farming.

"Back to peace, the open countryside and family," Graeme said.
The war would have an impact on the rest of his life, in different ways.

Even though he was a man who was not superstitious and thought it anti-Christian, Philip had broken a mirror before leaving for war.

"Which supposedly signifies seven years' bad luck and the bad luck certainly kept its end of the bargain,''Graeme said.

During the war a huge superstition was that lighting three cigarettes with one match, that third light would give a sniper time to aim and fire.

"Dad was paranoid about it and even years later would always run across the room to prevent someone from lighting that third cigarette.''

It more severely impacted his health. An entry from the official war records about Philip Rhodes reads "That PG Rhodes was subject to exceptional experience".

"He was standing by for a working party on June 28, 1917. The enemy were shelling mostly with 8-inch (20cm) and 11-inch (28cm)

One fell within 20ft (7 metres) of Rhodes and the concussion made him unconscious.''
His medical records showed:
¦1917: wounded in action
¦1918: admitted to Military Hospital with shell shock then seriously ill with hospital influenza then dangerously ill with bronchial pneumonia.

He was discharged from the army on March 21, 1918 and was finally shipped home in February the following year. Graeme said his dad never really recovered from the war.

"In the 1930s he developed a duodenal ulcer and had to have half of his stomach removed which meant physical work was out of the question, especially with his serious ongoing lung problems as a result of the gas attack and his time in the trenches.''
Philip died aged 79 in 1976 after a life time of ill health.

Though September 15 is the official date of the the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, Graeme's own failing health has meant the date of the commemorative trip to France had to be changed to April.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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