Joe Garvey - An Ordinary Soldier

In featuring Joseph Garvey’s memoirs ‘Fresh in my Memory Always’ so prominently on this website the intention is to single out just one soldier as representative of all the many ordinary soldiers, whichever army they fought in.

Therefore, in reading parts of, or indeed, the whole of his memoirs, the invitation is made to the reader to think of all those who never had the opportunity to recall their experiences or to contrast what happened to Joe Garvey with what happened to others. Some will remember relatives or stories about relatives who fought. They are all dead now but many might still be ‘fresh in their memories’. Many people who visit this site will have only distant links with those who fought and perhaps no knowledge of them but it is hoped they will gain some insights here and see that it was not faceless people who fought but real men with homes and families.

Pre WW1

Joe Garvey was born in 1888 to an Irish father who had probably been brought to Halifax, England, as a small boy to escape the ravages of the Great Famine (1845-52). His father died in an accident when Joe was a small boy and his hard-working mother brought him up (he was a seventh son) before her health failed and she died, too.

He left school in his early teens to find work but was never particularly attracted to factory employment, one of the staple jobs in industrial England at the time. Wanting to gain wider experience of life, he enlisted in the Scots Guards in 1907 and left for London. He very much enjoyed his time in the Guards and the London life in the early years of the twentieth century. He was able to regularly visit the theatres and music halls as well as such football grounds as Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea play and Arsenal’s then home of Highbury.

Although returning to his native Halifax in 1911 to join the Post Office, he remained in the army reserve ready to be called up in an emergency. The British Empire’s strength was mainly based on its navy. It had a relatively small army, particularly compared to the large land armies of Germany, Russia and France. Therefore, when war became likely, the army reserve of which he was a part essentially became the British Expeditionary Force.


That emergency arrived in August 1914 with the outbreak of war and Joe Garvey hurried to London to become part of the BEF. Whilst in the Scots Guards he saw intense action in the late summer and autumn of 1914; participating in the Retreat from Mons, the Battles of the Marne, the Aisne and the First Battle of Ypres, where he was captured at Gheluvelt (modern name Geluveld), on 29th October 1914. It is useful to remember that the Guards were not infantry but were a highly trained force capable of firing 15 aimed rounds per minute. Although the large part of the Great War was static, involving trench warfare, the engagements He was involved in were part of the mobile phase. For instance, in the Retreat from Mons, the BEF covered around 177 miles (285k) in 14 days, with soldiers carrying packs weighing 110 lbs (50 kilos).

He spent four years as a Prisoner of War first at Schneidemuhl and then near Stralsund, on Danholm Island. Although suffering from many privations and almost dying from typhus, the years in captivity also enabled him to meet people from other countries and cultures. He was able to experience first-hand the kindness of many people who had been his former enemies. This time largely coincided with the static phase of the war on the Western Front. Large groups of Russian prisoners captured at the Battle of Tannenberg and French prisoners captured at Verdun were held at Schneidemuhl and gave Joe Garvey the chance to become acquainted with these languages.

Near the end of his time at Schneidemuhl he miraculously survived being shot in the chest by an angry guard. Such stories become urban myths but it is absolutely true that he was saved by a cigarette case in his breast pocket. He was a non-smoker but kept letters and photographs in the case. On the way to the mortuary, much to the surprise of the stretcher bearers, he recovered consciousness and sat up. His German had become proficient enough for him, along with a friend, to defend himself at a Court-martial.

There is no doubt how important sport became to the Allied POWs, particularly soccer and, in general, the prisoners with the notable exception of the Russians, were treated well and received regular parcels via the Red Cross, based in Switzerland.

Post War

In 1919, after briefly returning to peacetime duties with the Guards, doing sentry duty at Buckingham Palace and St James Palace, he returned to Halifax and spent his working life until retirement as a postman. He married Louie to whom he had become engaged before the War and they had three children: Bernard, Marie and Dennis.

Throughout the rest of his life he maintained the ramrod-straight back of the guardsman. Somebody was once overheard saying, ‘They wear corsets, though.’ Like most others with experience of war, he seldom talked about it and always downplayed his own involvement in it. When you become aware of the intense battlefield activity at Gheluvelt, with the British and Germans firing almost point-blank at each other, it is a powerful reminder of how much of these experiences the ordinary soldier carried inside him.

He would probably have taken these memories with him to the grave but when he was in his late sixties his son, a journalist, asked to him to write his memoirs for possible use in features. He did so but his lack of ego, again so typical of the ordinary soldier, is reflected in the title he gave them; Memoirs of a Nonentity.

He died of cancer in 1962.

Types of Soldier

There were three main types of soldier among the rank and file of the armies involved in WW1. There were the regular soldiers who were well-trained professionals. These were men who had spent months or even years training before being seen as ready, if called upon, for action. Many trained soldiers joined an army reserve that could be called up at short notice.

At the start of the Great War, few thought it would last into 1915. Once the fluid or mobile phase had given way to the static war and death tolls had risen alarmingly, it became obvious that many more men would be needed. Volunteers and, increasingly, conscripts were called upon. There has been much debate about the changing nature of warfare and the expectations that could be placed on these soldiers and the amount of training necessary to be involved in trench warfare.

What is for certain is that a huge number of soldiers on both sides suffered tremendous privations and their involvement had a massive impact not only on European society but throughout the world.

Fresh in my Memory Always

As an example of the ordinary soldier’s voice, these are the memoirs of Joseph Garvey, enlisted to the Scots Guards in 1907 and recalled at the outbreak of World War One. A veteran of the Battle of Marne, the Battle of the Aisne and the First Battle of Ypres, he was captured by the Germans and spent four years as a prisoner of war in modern day Poland.

Read a chapter

The Western Front