WHEN James Goulty’s great uncle Bill received his call-up papers, he could easily have counted on his job at an aircraft factory being a reserved occupation and never gone to war.

But in common with so many ordinary men, who had never tasted conflict, he volunteered and went on to serve in the 2/6th Queen’s Royal Regiment (West Surrey).

As a small child, James loved to listen to his great uncle’s tales of derring do and he concedes that perhaps it was this early influence that got him so hooked on Second World Warhistory.

The author and military historian, who lives in Hencotes Mews, Hexham, went on to do a degree in heritage studies at the University of Lincoln, followed by a masters and doctorate in military history at Leeds.

But what particularly interests James is not battlefield tactics and weaponry, but the human experience of war and he has just written a book focusing on what it was really like for one-time civilians to be caught up in combat.

James said, “When you look at all those TV programmes about the Second World War, there’s a lot on weapons, but war is also about the human aspect, and my book is about what it was really like to go through basic training, what happened if you got wounded or if you were taken as a prisoner of war.

“I have tried to cover things thematically, very much from the ordinary soldier’s perspective.”

James felt it was important to record as many first-hand memories from men and women who fought in the Second World War as possible before their generation, like that of the First World War, disappears.

“In five to 10 years’ time it would have been increasingly unlikely that I would have been able to get that kind of direct oral history,” said James.

Uncle Bill, who became a ‘Chelsea pensioner’ in 2007 sadly died three years ago, and his grandpa, Basil Levi, a bombardier who was involved in the liberation of Norway, passed away 10 years ago.

Both appear in James’ book however, alongside accounts from other veterans he tracked down through the Royal British Legion.

Bill Ness from Byker, Newcastle, who was in the Parachute regiment and Royal Navy man George Henderson, from Gosforth, who are both in their nineties, were just two of James’ willing conscripts.

“To still have that contact with that generation is really nice as a historian – it’s really interesting to talk to people about their experiences,” James said.

James spent 18 months researching his book, The Second World War Through Soldiers’ Eyes: British Army Life 1939-1945, spending a lot of time in the Tyne and Wear Archives, Durham County Record Office, Northumberland Record Office and Wylam and Newcastle libraries.

Memories from those in the Northumberland Fusiliers, the Northumberland Hussars and the Durham Light Infantry therefore loom large.

One of the most fascinating aspects of soldiers’ lives that James examined was the stress that active service placed upon them.

“We hear about Afghanistan and Iraq, but there’s a divide in a way today between the Army, which is much smaller, and civil society and I think it’s hard sometimes to imagine the pressure people were under.”

Initial training aimed to inoculate soldiers against the horrors of war. For example, James tells us how ‘hate training’ was routinely used to begin with which was aimed at inculcating a sense of loathing for the enemy.

“Battle school trainees were taken on visits to slaughterhouses and sometimes animal blood was liberally splashed around during exercises.

“The idea was that this would help to condition men to the horrors of battle.”

However this was in time abandoned as an approach as “many troops found that rather than toughening them for the rigours of the battlefield, the use of blood was extremely upsetting.”

Nothing, after all, can prepare a person for seeing somebody blown to bits.

“For anyone on foot, the prospect of encountering the dreaded German ‘Schrapnell-Mine’ or S-Mine was terrifying,” James writes. “These mines could maim and kill, often with little warning, when an unwary soldier stepped on one.

“Only the prongs of the igniter were visible at ground level and, once triggered, a shrapnel canister was fired approximately four feet into the air before exploding, sending steel balls in all directions.

Private Stanley Whitehouse witnessed a sergeant receiving the full blast from one of these: “His face was destroyed and his throat torn apart by the ball-bearings. Mercifully it was too dark to see the full scale of the horror as we dragged him back.”

Little wonder then that some soldiers tried to beat the enemy to the trigger and maim themselves in a bid to be sent home to the safe bosom of their families.

SIWs (self-inflicted wounds) were common, with people shooting themselves deliberately in the hand or foot. Others, in a more desperate state, would wave their arms in the air while sheltering from artillery fire in a lit trench in the hope that a shell splinter might hit them.

“They hoped this would give them a ‘Blighty one’, a wound serious enough to be evacuated homewards, but not so serious as to be life-threatening,” James writes.

The book doesn’t just dwell on the misery of war however – soldiers had to find ways of coping with the stress and it’s clear from this book that in any conflict, it’s the little things that mean a lot.

Food – and the good old British cuppa – could not be underestimated in boosting morale. Fighting in Normandy in July 1944, Sgt. Charles Murrell commented that ‘next to mail from home, tea and food and our issue of seven cigarettes, are the only events, the only things to look foward to.”

Women’s experiences of war are touched upon in the book too, and Monica Jackson reported that when they sent home for party dresses and shoes “we found to our horror that army rations had put pounds on our hips and waistlines.”

James’ great uncle Bill tells how as an infantryman during the Italian campaign in 1944, he visited a NAAFI at Faenza.

“I had a sack and I got the lot, pipe tobacco, cakes, toffees, sweets, writing materials. The lads were thrilled when I arrived and showed them what I had managed to get our company. You should have seen the joy on their faces after we’d been in the thick of it.”

No doubt great uncle Bill, who always had an affinity with Tynedale as his mother had come from a farm called The Flothers at Slaley and is buried at Whittonstall, would have been proud of James’ achievement, recording all these memories for posterity.

“I do know Bill was pleased to feature in my first book, Second World War Lives, and it was lovely to be able to give him a copy at Royal Hospital Chelsea.”

And of course, James remains very proud of his grandpa and his great uncle Bill, whose medals he still cherishes.

l James’ new book can be ordered through Cogito or Waterstones in Hexham and is published by Pen & Sword, priced £19.99.