Sunday, 1 January 2012
I interviewed Francis Seddon in November 1986 when he was then aged 89. Born on the 11th June 1897, Francis - always known as Frank - had joined the 8th (City of London) Battalion, The London Regiment (Post Office Rifles) one week before his 17th birthday on the 4th June 1914. He was given the number 1959. Frank had left school at the age of 14 and taken a job as telegraph messenger for the Post Office. Born and bred in London's East End and still living in London, The Post Office Rifles was a logical choice. As Frank told me, "I was young and active and full of adventure and I fancied the territorials. There was no sign of war." I'll let him take up the story in August 1914.
"We were on our way to camp, Eastbourne I think it was, and the train got as far as Three Bridges and stopped. Then the rumours started going around. The train shot us back to London Bridge where we detrained and marched to our barracks in Bunhill Row with a band playing. When we got there we were paraded and lined up and our colonel addressed us. His words were, "the ultimatum to Germany expired at midnight. The Post Office Rifles will be mobilised." And a big cheer went up, I remember that.
"I was with several friends, all boy messengers, about half a dozen of us I suppose: Harfleet, Johnny Harris, Greig Haynes and some others I can't recall now. We were all about the same age and we all came from the same office: West Central London. [1780 William A J Harfleet must have joined up in late January or early February 1914. 1816 John F Harris must have joined up in February 1914. I have been unable to identify Greig Haynes].
"My parents were terribly worried about me going to fight. In fact when I was at camp they came down to see me to see if I was alright. I wasn't a bit worried though, I was enjoying it. We were addressed by the Bishop of London and in his sermon he said, "I would not like to see England a German province." Because at that stage it was a critical time and the Old Contemptibles were fighting for their existence in France. They really wanted the territorials to volunteer and we got around the contract about home service by volunteering [to serve overseas].
First of all we occupied the basement of King Edward Building in the City of London and we occupied that for two weeks. We was having kit inspections and getting our equipment ready and eventually we marched all the way down to East Grinstead and we set up a camp there. That was our first stop. After that we went to Abbots Langley and that's where the 1st Battalion went to France from. I was too young though, even though I'd volunteered, and so I and a few others went to Cuckfield near Haywards Heath in Sussex. I was there four or five months and a nice billet it was. I spent Christmas there and blow me, my mother and sister came down to see me, all that way. They was more worried than I was.
"We eventually went out to France about May 1916 and all of us pre-war telegraph boys was together. I spent my nineteenth birthday in the trenches and I got my bullet on the 7th October at the Battle of the Somme. We had what they called a creeping barrage when we went over and in between the bursts there were German snipers picking us off one at a time. That's how I got caught. I crawled to our trenches, inch by inch, and a bloke who was in the trench helped me down. I was taken to the nearest field hospital and was sent from there to another little town, Dijon I think. I was there for about a week and then crossed the Channel in a hospital ship. From there up to Bradford and we was heroes then; top VIPs. Everything was laid on for us: travel, theatre, music halls, cigarettes; everything was laid on for us because they knew we'd given our lives in the trenches to save England.
"I was nearly twelve months recovering from that wound and I had electric treatment and all kinds of things. Of course, the nerves had been severed in my leg which never really got well."
Frank eventually rejoined his battalion but never served overseas again. Instead, he became a sergeant instructor, passing out at Aldershot and then helping to train up young eighteen-year old soldiers. At 21 years old, Frank was now a seasoned veteran and he would later receive the Territorial Force War Medal along with the British War and Victory medals; a collectable trio by dint of being underage and having volunteered to serve overseas.
Writing to me in February 1987 after I had sent him a typescript of our interview, Frank wrote:
"Very interesting, however I want you to know that my main concern is what happens today. I am half blind and half deaf caused by hospital treatment. Furthermore, during my treatment, I was evicted from my house and home by and Act of Parliament. I had paid rent for 18 years but along with many ex-servicemen, evicted at the end of our war. You probably do not remember that famous Lloyd George speech [where he said] we will make England a land fit for heroes to live in. Being evicted was a deep down body blow. I am now in the last few days of my life but my record still remains: Post Office Territorials 1914."
When he died in November 1990 at the age of 93, Frank Seddon was one of the last Post Office Rifles veterans of the First World War.
POR cap badge cut into chalk at Fovant courtesy of Panoramio.