Monday, 30 January 2017

533 Sgt Charles Robert Quinnell MM, 9th Royal Fusiliers

I interviewed Charles Quinnell at The Royal Hospital, Chelsea on the 25th January 1982. He was oft quoted and appeared in a number of TV documentaries. The photograph above shows Charles and Alf Worrell in their Chelsea Pensioner uniforms along with other WW1 veterans at the Menin Gate, Ypres. This photograph was published in Rose Coombs' Before Endeavours Fade.

This is what Charles Quinnell told me.

"Sixty men were taken out of our battalion in December 1915 and we acted as labourers to professional miners who were sapping and mining under the German lines to counter the German mining. All you saw as you walked along the trench was a square opening which was four feet high and two feet wide: a doorway. That was the top of a staircase. Each stair was one foot deep and that went down thirty feet into the ground. When you were down at the bottom there it opened out into a room ten feet square which was propped up with tree trunks, and in the centre of that room was the shaft. That went down fifteen or sixteen feet and then they used to start tunneling. As this professional miner tunneled so his one and only tool was an ordinary bayonet, an ordinary soldier’s bayonet. And he used to stick that in and he’d go like that, whip it round and out would come like a big cheese. Those cheeses were loaded into sandbags and each sandbag took three or four of these cheeses. Then the man next to the miner, an infantryman – he was an RE, Royal Engineer, the miner was – then the chain of men along the tunnel and then at the bottom of the shaft a windlass and they were hauled up into the room and then up the staircase into the trench and you used to have a man up the top of the trench and he used to sling ‘em over the top. 

"Now the job was alright but it was very very wet. In the tunnel, right at the bottom of the mine it was drip, drip, drip all the time and being only four foot high you was crouched down all the time and so in consequence the back of your back got sopping wet. 

"Well that was the job and the theory of it was eight hours on and sixteen hours off. Well in that sixteen hours we were billeted in the town of Bethune in French barracks and there was no comfort there at all, just plain barracks and not a stick of furniture: no tables, no chairs. The traveling back to Bethune and also traveling back to the mine was all taken out of your sixteen hours. And sometimes, if you were held up with the shellfire that would take three or four hours out of your sixteen. 

"Well, on one occasion when we arrived at the mine, the three mines – this is at Givenchy – were known as Duckbill One, Duckbill Two and Duckbill Three. When we arrived at this Ducksbill were told that there was no mining going on because they expected the Germans to blow. See the theory of it was, the Germans mined and our people mined and we used to try and catch the Germans and blow their shaft in, and they used to do the same to us you see. Well when we got there on this particular day, we got the news that the Germans were going to blow – or they were expected to blow – and there was only a man, one of these miners, right at the end of the shaft, right at the end of the tunnel, and he had a stethoscope – like a doctor’s stethoscope – and he held it up against the wall of the tunnel. And you could hear if the Germans were working, well you could hear them talking. 

"At any rate, on this particular day when I got there I went down into the mine and right up the end of the tunnel there was this RE man on a sandbag and he was sitting there and he’d got this stethoscope right against the wall. Well you spoke in whispers in case the Germans were listening. And I said, [whispering] “Are they going to blow?” And he didn’t know, he said, [whispering] “you get out of it.” 

"So I was coming back away from him and I’m damned if the Germans didn’t blow. Now you’ve heard of brave men who have never been afraid. Boy, I was absolutely scared stiff. This tunnel we were in, the framework went up like that and then like that and you were thrown from one side to the other. But the timber held and the Germans didn’t blow our tunnel in. Boy, I was scared stiff. He spoke in a normal voice now, he said, “it’s alright, they’ve blown, it’s quite safe now.” At any rate, we carried on with the work and that was that. 

"We went over the top on the Somme on the 7th July and we got absolutely cut to pieces. We had two machine guns on us and I was a platoon sergeant. I went in with 43 men, I came out with one private, one lance corporal and myself. It was a heartbreaking job because we didn’t get what we went after at the village of Ovillers. Incidentally, we were the third lot to have a go at it. The 3rd Division had had a go at it, another lot had had a go at it but it was a wonderful position and the trouble was our artillery gave four hours bombardment before we went over but there were two machine guns placed about six or seven hundred yards behind the German lines and they were the boys who did the killing. 

"They smashed up the German front line – there was little or no infantry rifle shot against us but these two machine guns they had the range right to an inch and they just mowed our boys down when they went over. 

"Anyway, we came out, we got made up with a draft and we went over the top again on the 4th August, the second anniversary of the war, on a night attack. Now this will emphasize the luck of the game. These boys had only had three months’ training and when I heard that we were going over my first reaction was, “Oh Christ, not with this lot.” But give credit where it’s due, these boys went over like veterans and we took two lines. We only lost eleven men and we took lines. We had 128 prisoners. That just shows the luck of the game; we caught the Jerries on the hop. We went over behind curtain fire and that was one of the first times that the curtain fire had been used. Now curtain fire is shrapnel fire: one bursts here, another bursts there, another bursts there you see. And then they travel; you’re attacking the trench over there, you start from here and as we advanced so they altered their guns. Creeping barrage. It was a wonderful experience and when we got to the German lines they were all kneeling on the bottom of the trench with their hands up. We took more prisoners than what our strength was. It was just the luck of the game. You see on the 7th July we went over and we got cut to pieces and took nothing, only three men left out of forty three and that was pretty general right throughout the battalion. And yet on the 4th August we went over with a lot of rookies and we took all those prisoners. It was just the luck."

Charles Quinnell died in 1984. 

Sunday, 18 December 2016

L/16761 Pte Charles Edwin Painter, Middlesex Regiment

I met Charles Painter in January 1982. Then aged 81, he was an in-patient at The Royal Hospital, Chelsea. Born on the 13th July 1900 he had enlisted, under age in December 1916, signing up not just for the duration of the war but as a regukar, career soldier for a period of seven years with the colours and five years on the reserve. Although he lied about his age, he was soon found out and served as a boy until July 1918. By the time he was ready to sail for France, the Armistice had been signed and he and others set sail for Russia where they would spend the next eighteen months. His British War and Victory Medal roll entry notes that he was attached to the North Russia Expeditionary Force.

Charles was still serving in 1920 and was issued with a new regimental number: 6189311. His service reocrd presumably still survives with the MoD.

My transcription of the notes from that meeting in Chelsea are very brief and read as follows:

Well we were a soldiering family.  My father was an RSM and my brother, he’d enlisted and I didn’t like to be the odd man left out so I run away.  I was apprenticed at the time and I run away from that and I enlisted, told them I was 17 and I was accepted. And my father heard about it and he said, “Oi, you stop there now.  You’ll have to go on boy service.” And I had to go on boy service until early in 1918.  And from then on I was soldiering and I had a life of it.

I was already to go to France and the Armistice was signed but that didn’t stop us from going, we went to north Russia instead and spent about eighteen months up in north Russia.  The going was easy as far as fighting was concerned, there were only skirmishes and we lost very few casualties – we inflicted more.  It was all marching, going through the forest, down a railway line, down towards Petrograd as it was, now Leningrad.  And we used to be living on hard tack or bully.  We didn’t have any fresh bread or fresh meat for about six months and one of our fellas found a bakery and he got some flour from the quartermaster and he decided to make some bread. We used them for cannon balls.

Well there as a big dump of article of war and rations etc that the British Government had given to the Russian Army, worth about a million pounds, this was at Murmansk.  And they wanted to evacuate this but eventually they couldn’t, they had to evacuate themselves. Once we got moving backwards we had to slip out fairly quickly and left all that stuff there but not before we’d had a dig in. I know I brought home half a kit bag full of tobacco for my father.

We were there until 1919 and we came home from there.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Reginald Llewellyn Crane, 4th Royal Berkshire Regiment

Reg Crane was one of four Great War veterans I met who lived in the Keene Memorial Homes in Broomfield Road, Chelmsford. I see from my notes that I interviewed Reg, and took the photo above, on the 9th September 1981. Reg, born on the 14th October 1896 would have been just short of his 85th birthday. I subsequently visited him many times until his death in January 1986 at the age of 89.

Despite my interest in the First World War it was not old soldier stories that drew me back to Mr and Mrs Crane. Of his First World War service with the 4th Royal Berkshire Regiment, Reg said nothing; his only words on the subject, "we were glad to forget it". He didn't tell me what his regimental number was - and may not have remembered it anyway - and I have been unable to find any reference to him whatsoever in medal index cards, medal rolls or service records.

Born in Newbury, Berkshire, Reg Crane had joined the 4th Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment in 1913. The regimental museum in the shadow of Salisbury Cathedral has a single note that he was served Christmas dinner in 1913 and that he belonged to E Company which was the Newbury Company of this battalion; something Reg had told me. He was at Marlow Heights for the annual Territorial Force camp in August 1914 when war was declared and, volunteering for service overseas, after some weeks ended up in Fyfield in Essex and latterly in Chelmsford, Broomfield and Little Waltham where he met his future wife, Agnes. They would marry on the 19th April 1919; Primrose Day as it was known, the day which commemorated Disraeli's death. The photograph below, published in the  Essex Chronicle on the 19th April 1985, celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary which, sadly, would also be their last anniversary.

Reg had two tattoos on his arms, a Royal Berkshire regiment cap badge and hands across the ocean, both of these inked in 1914 and artwork which he would regret in later life. He also showed me a photograph of himself in khaki and with some of his chums. I believe the photosw was taken at camp and I regret never taking a copy of it.

As I say, I know little about Reg's First World War service but I remember with fondness his company, times spent with Reg in The Ship and later The Compasses public houses in Chelmsford. I visited him in hospital when he was poorly in January 1986 but he seemed to be getting better and it was a great shock to me when I was told - I forget who told me, now - that he had died. I was in Dunmow and it was a miserable, dank, cold day and I just went out for a walk and remembered our times together.

Agnes Crane, Reg's wife of 66 years died some years later in 1992 at the age of 95. She and her husband had been inseperable and it was certainly a surprise to my parents and me that she lived for as long afterwards as she did. Reg always referred to her as "mum" and she referred to him as "daddy" and I have letters from Mrs Crane which are signed off with a kiss from mum and Reg. I continued to visit Mrs Crane after Reg's death, and my parents also visited her. Indeed, they still have a photo on display at home of Mr and Mrs Crane.

It seems fitting that today, on Remembrance Sunday 2016, that I should remember Reg and Agnes Crane - Mr and Mrs Crane as I always knew them - and remember Reg not just because, due to an accident of being born at the wrong time in history he took part in a truly awful war, but remember him as a kind man whose company I enjoyed very much.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

L/16490 Pte Henry Tomkins, 2nd Royal Fusiliers

I never met Henry Tomkins but I did write to him in July 1987 and received a long and interesting reply from him many months later in January 1988.

Henry joined the Royal Fusiliers as a career soldier in late 1914. Born in September 1899, he would only have been 15-years-old but nevertheless found himself in Gallipoli by September 1915, surrounded by hardened veterans not only in his own battalion, the 2nd Royal Fusiliers, but also men from other regular battalions who had been shipped from their overseas' stations and who now formed the regular 29th Division. I will let Henry take up the story:

My first experience of trench warfare was at Gallipoli, which I survived, and after a rest on the Arabian War Front to prevent Johnny Turk obtaining possession of the Suez Canal and preventing reinforcements getting easy passage through the canal to the Western Front, the 'Incomparable 29th Division' was sent to build up for the Battle of the Somme.

Exact dates I cannot remember. We evacuated Gallipoli about Christmas 1915 without any casualties and went, as I have said, to the Arabian Front. In approximately March 1916 we embarked from Port Said and disembarked at Marseilles and from there, onward by goods wagon train to Beaumont Hamel where we detrained for a week's forced march 'padding the hoof' to Pont Remy on the Somme, arriving in trenches on a Sunday night, approximately 10th March 1916. That same night we heard some heavy firing on our right where we heard on the grapevine that the King's Royal Rifle Corps, my twin brother's regiment, was having a ding-dong with Jerry, and where he received severe wounds and was sent back to Cheltenham hospital where he died for his King and Country aged sixteen years old. Like a lot of us youngsters he volunteered and gave a false age and was accepted. If we had been made to produce our birth certificates this country would not have had the contemptible little army of 1914. We would not have been able to join the army for the adventure of war.

My twin brother's death prompted my mother to claim me out of the army because I was under age. She told my brothers and sisters, all under 15 years of age, that she had lost one son and she was not going to lose the other (me). I was hoping to meet my brother when my regiment, 2nd Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, was relieved from the Somme trenches. I was a fully promoted lance-jack (ie, nickname for lance-corporal) and during the relieving of my regiment from the trenches for a rest period I was in charge of three privates keeping watch on Jerry trenches while the main relief was taking place by another regiment. 

When I and my party was relieved, we left our post and rejoined our regiment by going over the top back to the support trench in the rear instead of through the communication trenches which were zig-zagged for safety [and to prevent] enfilade fire. On reporting to my company sergeant on joining up with my regiment I was told that I was to be up before the Company officer in the morning, which nearly always meant trouble, because I had broken trench rules. Instead of trouble, however, when I was brought before my company officer in his office (part of a French farm barn), I was told my mother had claimed me out and he couldn't hold me. I was under age and I would have to go back to base. I was to get my identity [papers] next morning and proceed back to base by divisional train which was comprised in those days of horse-drawn wagons supplying us with food and ammunition.

I eventually arrived at regimental headquarters in Hounslow with a number of us under-age [boys] and was promptly demoted to private although [I had been] promoted on the battlefield. A week later I was dismissed from the Royal Fusiliers and became a fully fledged civilian until September 1917 when I would be of age to be conscripted and recalled back to my regiment. I beat them to it by volunteering for boy-service in the Royal Navy just before reaching 18 years of age. I carried on serving ion the Royal Navy in the engine room department as a stoker and finally finished my twelve years' service as a stoker petty officer.

On the occasions when I went over the top in my army time I had no fear of getting wounded, however sever the engagement, although Tommies were dropping all around me either dead or severely wounded, but I did have consideration for those who did lose strength and collapsed and passed out and were branded as cowards. I swore that I would shoot anyone I saw shoot at them, be he either officer or army police because they had no idea of the mental strain that that supposed coward had collapsed under. 

I heard similar remarks several times when in the trenches and so I was not surprised that there was a mutiny by conscripts objecting to the treatment meted out to them at the Bull Ring [in Etaples] by bullying NCOs. Discipline was necessary but ridicule was not.

Henry Tomkins died in November 1991 having outlived his twin brother, William, by close to seventy-five years. His partial British army service record survives in WO 364, and his naval service record has also been digitised and can be viewed on the National Archives' site or on Findmypast

Henry's military record is fascinating and as well as containing his attestation paper, also has correspondence from his mother requesting his release from the army. The letter below is one of several in his file (image Crown Copyright the National Archives):

Saturday, 7 May 2016

376664 Pte Robert J B Nosworthy - 8th London Regt

I wrote to Robert James Branscombe Nosworthy in 1986, when I was trying - much too late in the day - to find men who might have served with my great uncle, Jack Nixon.  Mr Nosworthy replied as follows:

"The name doesn't strike a bell at all with me, but then again I didn't experience any of the horrors of the front. I was called up as a telegraph messenger on July 2nd 1918 and on August 14th I was put on a draft for France but withdrawn with six others when it was discovered we hadn't even fired a rifle.

"I was again put on a draft on September 29th but having developed rheumatic fever in the meantime, I again escaped being sent out and slaughtered. I learned eventually that that draft was wiped out to a man by a heavy bombardment soon after its arrival in early October, which should coincide with your great uncle's death.  I later went on the Army of Occupation at Bonn, and it took me nearly a year to get out of the army."

There is of course, no medal index for Robert Nosworthy but there are, fortuitously, papers which survive in WO 363 and which I only discovered this morning whilst contemplating subject matter for this post. The papers include a letter from Mr Nosworthy, writing to the Army Records Office from his home in Elsenham Street, South West London in 1927, and seeking evidence of his service. He wrote:

"I was eighteen on the 23rd June 1918 and presented myself at the Bunhill Row Headquarters [of the 8th (City of London) Battalion, (Post Office Rifles), The London Regiment] the next day, one day after, in an attempt to join them. There I was informed that they could not accept me then owing to the suspension of recruiting in favour of the Military Service Act, but all my particulars were taken and a card given me stating that I was a Post Office servant and wished to join the P.O.R. [Post Office Rifles]. This I was informed, I was to show when I received calling up papers and it would signify that I had attested and would be treated as such.

"I received my calling up papers on July 11th 1918 and was posted to the 8th London on the 12th. Would it be possible for that card [to be forwarded to me?] I must apologise for putting you to any undue inconvenience but it is essential that I have proof of some description."

The letter is signed as "late Rifleman, A Coy, 2nd Battalion, 8th London Regt; transferred to G Company, 3rd Battalion, Rifle Brigade and demobbed from same 26th October 1919."

Surviving papers show that Robert was posted to the 35th Territorial Force Depot on the 12th July 1918 and compulsorily transferred to the 5th Rifle Brigade at Codford on the 20th March 1919. He was issued with a new regimental number at this point: 62818.

Robert was interviewed by the Imperial War Museum in later life and appears to have covered a lot of ground; this from the IWM:

Background in London, 1900-1914: family; education; memory of outbreak of war, 8/1914. Aspects of employment with Post Office in London, 1914-1918: duties as messenger boy; uniform; examinations; musketry drill at Chelsea Hospital; attitude to conscription and war; memory of delivering telegrams; uniform; attitude to female employees; question of shortages and rationing; transferred to Admiralty as messenger, 1918; union activity; story of call-up, 28/Jun/1918; medical examination; classified A4 and posted to Blackdown Camp. Aspects of training with 3rd Bn London Regt (Post Office Rifles) in GB, 1918: opinion of sergeant-major; description of camp; accommodation; washing and sanitary facilities; issued with kit and uniform; opinion of food. REEL 2 Continues: story of gaining and losing stripe; drill; musketry practice; obstacle course; route marches; bayonet drill; memory of accident with bomb; story of role in re-enactment of battle for film; night operation exercises; reaction to being placed on draft, 8/1918; marksmanship award; attitude to army life and discipline; opinion of NCOs and officers; relations with fellow recruits and composition of 3rd Bn; sporting and recreational activities; posted to Newport, South Wales to break miner's strike, 8/1918; relations with local community; posted to Codford Camp and description of conditions; problem of rioting Australian troops; opinion of Australians; story of contracting rheumatic fever; story of being drafted, 10/Nov/1918; arrival at Southampton transit camp; reaction to news of Armistice, 11/11/1918. REEL 3 Continues: treatment for rheumatic fever; disbandment of 3rd Bn and transferred to Rifle Bde, 12/1918. Aspect of period with 2nd and 4th Bns Rifle Brigade in GB and Germany, 12/1918-11/1919: posted to C Coy, 2nd Bn Rifle Brigade at Rugeley Camp, 12/1918; story of fighting Irish troops and death of soldier; NCO course; description of further strike-breaking duties in Coventry; drafted to 4th Bn Rifle Brigade, Bonn, Germany as part of Army of Occupation, 8/1919; promoted to corporal; billets; daily routine and duties; story of forming football club; relations with German civilians; demobilisation at Crystal Palace, 11/1919. Post-war life and employment with Post Office: question of pension; reflections on period of military service; effects of rheumatic fever. Aspects of period with Post Office Home Guard unit in GB, 1942-1945: role as officer and nature of duties in Surrey Docks; description of training recruits to throw live bombs; question of unexploded bombs.

The IWM catalogue number is 10658; also see here:

During the Second World War, Robert Nosworthy served in the Home Guard and he is quoted in "In search of the real Dad's Army". His death was registered at Wandsworth in January 1998 which would have made him 97 years old.

Monday, 7 March 2016

371858 Pte Francis P Ball, 8th (City of London) Battalion (Post Office Rifles), London Regiment

Replying to my quest for information about my great uncle, Jack Nixon, Frank Ball, writing to me in 1986 from his home in Polegate, wrote,

"I am afraid I cannot help you... I was hit in both legs by German shrapnel in High Wood on 15th September 1916 and as a result returned to Blighty and remained there marked category B2".

Francis Patrick Ball was born in Shoreditch on the 27th April 1896, the son of Charles and Amelia Ball. His birth was registered in the second quarter of that year but it was not until the 22nd March 1903 that he was baptised at St John's, Hoxton. By then, his father was dead. Frank appears on the 1911 census living with his widowed mother and two brothers - Alfred and Steven - at 31 Herbert Street, Hoxton. His trade is noted as a telegraph messenger for the Post Office and so it is hardly surprising that he would later join the Post Office Rifles. His entry on the silver war badge roll notes that he joined the 8th Londons on the 17th July 1915, whilst the British War and Victory Medal roll confirms that he served overseas in France from the 3rd February 1916 until the 25th September 1916. He also later served in Egypt between December 1918 and August 1919.

Frank Ball died in Sussex in 1992.

Monday, 15 February 2016

1606 Pte Reginald Gordon Prew, 1/8th London Regiment

I never met Reginald Prew but I did write to him in 1986 when I was attempting to contact men who'd served with the Post Office Rifles in the hope that one of them might have known my great uncle, John Frederick Nixon.  Mr Prew's daughter replied that her father's handwriting was now a little shaky and that he was unable to assist as he had been discharged in 1916 after being wounded in France. She added that he had helped to cut the Post Office Rifles badge in the chalk downs at Fovant and that until 1984 he had attended the annual drumhead service.

As can be seen from his medal index card (above), Reginald Prew landed in France on the 18th March 1915 and was discharged on the 12th August 1916. The silver war badge roll confirms that he had originally joined the 8th London Regiment on the 25th March 1913, (three weeks after his seventeenth birthday). Born in New Cross, south-east London, he was almost certainly working for the Post Office at the time of his enlistment as he appears on the 1911 census as a 15-year-old messenger.

Reginald Prew died in 1988 aged 92.