I was introduced to Alan Castle in Chelmsford on 16th September 1981. I see by the date that I had just turned 19 and Alan Castle was 89. He lived in a bungalow in a quiet road close to the town centre. Just behind his home, in a sheltered housing complex, lived four other Great War veterans who I would also meet and interview: Harry Leeks (Essex Regt), Reginald Crane and Bill Minchin (4th Royal Berks) and Clifford Rust (Royal Engineers).
I only ever addressed the men as Mr Castle, Mr Crane etc, and it feels a little odd now, using their first names. I didn't have my tape recorder with me when I met Alan Castle and so our meeting is recorded in notes that I took at the time. I have augmented these with details from his service record which survives at the National Archives.We got as far as Gallipoli before Mrs Castle felt that her husband had done enough talking, and I took my leave with a promise to return and hear the rest of his story. That second meeting though, never happened. On a subsequent visit a few days later, Mrs Castle explained that her husband had felt distressed recalling the events of 1914-1918 and that he would prefer not to continue with his reminiscences. I never met him again, although I was pleased to see, several years later, that he had celebrated his 100th birthday at home. He died in June 1994 aged 102.
Alan McCartney Castle was born in Leyton, east London on 18th March 1892 and when Britain went to war with Germany he was working as a tailor for the Paris branch of Thomas and Sons. He decided to join the British Volunteer Corps (at least, that's what I have written down), but as the situation worsened, he returned to England. That was in September 1914 and he resumed employment at Thomas and Sons' Brook Street branch in London. He joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on 3rd May 1915.
Alan Castle told me that it was the sinking of the Lusitania that prompted him to join up, but in fact the Lusitania was sunk four days after he enlisted. His service record notes that at the time of his enlistment he was living at 47 Effingham Road in Lee, south London. He was five feet five inches tall, had a fresh complexion, black hair and hazel eyes. Two scars were noted: one on his right elbow and one on his right ankle.
Alan Castle was posted to Hawke Battalion on 8th September 1915 and soon qualified as a trained bomb-thrower. He sailed for Gallipoli shortly afterwards aboard the Royal George, a converted Canadian Pacific liner. He would remain there until January 1916.
Of his time on Gallipoli, Alan Castle recalled:
"The trenches were not very deep and went down about five or six feet until they reached the sandstone. We were under fire the whole time and were as lousy as cuckoos. One day however, we were very much relieved to find that they came round with gas crystals from the South Metropolitan Gas Company to rub in our clothes and get rid of the lice. They didn't half burn and they didn't kill the lice either. Gradually we discarded our helmets and wore cap comforters instead. By the time we left Gallipoli we were in rags.
"During our time there we were relieved by another of our battalions and went out of the line for about ten days. We took the opportunity to go down to W Beach for a spot of bathing and took our clothes off with the idea that we'd wash them at the same time. We went out for a swim in what had been the landing area and no sooner were we out there than the Turkish guns opened fire on us. Well it was the quickest swim I ever made - and the last one. Fortunately there were no casualties.
"We were told in late December 1915 that we were going to be relieved. I remember having dates and a little piece of Queen Mary's Christmas pudding. I went down the line with the others and was told to pack up. Two or three days before we were actually evacuated though, a shell fell in the next traverse and killed the fellows there. The blast affected my hearing and one of may mates took me on his back down to the casualty clearing station."
History books tell us that Hawke Battalion was evacuated from Gallipoli on or around 8th January 1916. From there, the men were sent to Lemnos where they remained for three weeks before being sent to the island of Imbros on 26th January for garrison duty. Here they remained until May when, with Anson Battalion, they sailed for Marseilles and then headed north.
On 7th November 1916, Hawke Battalion took over trenches near Mesnil. Joseph Murray, who also served with the Royal Naval Division and later wrote about his experiences in A Call to Arms, describes the conditions:
"In several places there was no sign of a trench, only shell-holes filled with mud and slime which caused us to scramble about in the open... it was no easy matter getting out of the quagmire only to slide into an adjacent morass."
At 5.45am on Monday 13th November 1916, the Royal Naval Division, supported by a creeping barrage, advanced towards the German lines. Alan Murray again:
"Unfortunately the Hawke Battalion on our left had been held up by the devastating machine-gun fire from a redoubt which seemed to have been completely missed by our barrage and in turn, their supporting battalion Nelson went blindly on to the same fate. Both battalions suffered exceptionally heavy fates."
Alan Castle had told me that he was wounded at Beaumont Hamel and had then lain in no-man's land for two days before being rescued. His service record confirms this:
15.11.16 To 9th Casualty Clearing Station, France
16.11.16 Admitted to 5th General Hosp Rouen. "W" Frac. Knee. R.
21.11.16 Dangerously ill. GW Knee and Hand. NOK informed.
4.12.16 Dangerously ill.
9.12.16 Dangerously ill. Not doing well. NOK informed.
Week ending 10.12.16. Dangerously wounded in 5th Gen Hosp Rouen
Week ending 17.12.16. Dang ill. Not doing well. 5th GH Rouen.
Week ending 24.12.16. Dang ill. Not doing well. 5th GH Rouen.
Week ending 31.12.16. Dang ill. Not doing well. 5th GH Rouen.
7.01.1917. Dangerously ill in 5 GH Rouen
Then some hope:
11.1.17. Off dangerous list. NOK informed.
It is not explicitly stated in his service record, but it looks as though Alan Castle's right leg was amputated at the thigh whilst he was in the 5th General Hospital at Rouen. He returned to England aboard the Hospital Ship St Andrew and was admitted to the Lord Derby War Hospital in Warrington on the 13th January. He was granted furlough in July 1917 pending admission to Roehampton which finally took place in November 1917. His service record reads:
"Shrapnel wound right thigh and knee. Amputation of thigh in upper third. Wound of palm of left hand."
He was discharged from the army on 7th December 1917 and went back to his old employers, Thomas and Son, in Brook Street. It was to be a short-lived return. As Mr Castle told me, still getting used to his artificial leg, he had difficulty escorting customers to the door as quickly as he used to and this was not the kind of service that Thomas and Sons deemed to be acceptable. He was dismissed from their service. It sounds incredible now, but that was what he told me and I have no reason to doubt him.
Newspaper clipping courtesy of The Chelmsford & Essex Chronicle.
A Call to Arms by Joseph Murray published 1980, William Kimber.