Monday, 16 March 2015

112171 Private Frank Gearing RAMC - Part two

112171 Pte Frank Gearing, RAMC, continues his narrative.  Read part 1 here.

We had cases of shell-shock but only during that period of transit from the CCS to the base but we didn't have anything to do with after treatments. Once they were off the train we got the train ready and if there was-a lot of action going on we were back up the line right away. All we did was just shake the blankets out of all the lice and back up the line again for another load.

We were operating all on the Somme. Albert I remember well, we passed that many times with the fallen Virgin. Mostly in my mind are such places as Rouen, Le Havre and then a place a few miles outside Rouen: Sotteville (?) That's where we used to lay in between voyages, a big marshalling yard there. 

In the quiet times, if we were lucky, we might have two or three days there and we were able then to come into Rouen for a bit of fun and a drink. As regards further afield: Amiens was one of our favourite spots. Course, you remember in the Somme there was two or three times when we were right up as far as Mons, Bapaume, Peronne, places like that. But then we'd be driven right back and we'd be lucky if we could get as far as Rheims and places like that. I would say the places I saw most would be Rouen, Abbeville, Calais and Boulogne; all fairly big places. 

Then there was a couple of occasions when the Indian Cavalry had been in action up at Bapaume and Peronne, — that was well up the line, up the front — and of course, it was our first attempt at using cavalry. They were massacred, assassinated, cut to pieces. It was no place for cavalry at all that war. We brought down trainloads of these poor devils from the Bengal Lancers, Jacobs Horse... Great big fellas, so tall and big that their heads were hanging over one end of the stretcher and their feet the other; fine big chaps. Well we had to take those down to the base and then some months later when there was a lull in the fighting, (just the occasional shell popping over), we were chosen to take the whole trainload of these Indians and Mongolians (who'd been acting as labourers and become sick) down to

Marseilles for transport home. Well on the way down we had the devil's own job. Lots of these chaps were put on the train in a more or less comatose condition, some still smelling of ether — not long out of the operating theatre. When they became conscious of their surroundings they found there was one, two of the occupants of their compartment who were not the same religion. We had to keep stopping the train, taking two out of here and putting them in there, one from here into there... all the way down this went on but eventually we got done with them and that was that.

Grape pilfering 

Then we came on the way back for another load and on the way down this second time we went a different route. On the way down the first time we'd done, like all soldiers did, a bit of looting. We'd stopped for signals and there was fields and fields of lovely grapes and I'm afraid everybody on the train had gone out and helped themselves to grapes. Well on the way back the second time we were halted at this place which I hadn't known the name of before because it was in the very early hours of the morning when we did this looting and there was nobody about and we moved on. I found out it was a little village called Entressin and we were halted on the way back that second time by the police who were demanding money for these grapes for the farmers.
Well we sorted that out and our commanding officer said, "Well I'm afraid we're going to have to deduct a few francs from each of you next pay day. Meantime we'll pay the farmer for what he wants for his grapes." (Oh, and some tomatoes I remember). Anyway, that was all sorted out but they didn't release us right away for some reason or other and we were still there that evening. The police allowed us all to go into this village in the evening for a drink — there was only one chappie as far as I remember. They uncovered the piano which had been covered up ever since the beginning of the war and we had a bit of an impromptu dance and all that.  

Down there in the First World War, in the south of France near Marseilles, they practically didn't know there was a war on. It was a very self—sufficient area as regards agricultural produce and they seemed to have pretty well everything except men. The men were all gone, it was only girls and women there, a few older men but we had a very pleasant evening there I remember. 

Talking about looting there was another occasion when we were held up and one or two of the more criminally intent lads on our train found we were alongside a goods train. So what did they do but open the locks on a couple of these waggons and help themselves into a case. By this time I was on a British made train — this is number 43. From number 12 (I should think),up to 43 was practically all rolling stock from England. A complete train would come out, as you would see it running in England: postal waggon, guard's waggon, the whole lot would be shifted out as one unit. In the middle, so that we could get stretchers in and out, was a pair of doors ‑ not just one like on my other train which was an awful business loading stretchers with only one door. Anyway, they were able to drag a great big case from that goods wagon into ours and when we got underway they opened it. Sighs of disgust and the two or three chaps that had done it were ostracized: it was bars of soap! Nothing of any value at all. 

New wine in old buckets 

Then on another occasion we came alongside a huge tanker which we knew was full of wine. Each of these carriages had two three gallon galvanised buckets which were used for food because there was no solid food meals on the trains bringing them down. One would be for the milk pudding and another one for the soup and then you'd wash that out and get tea and cocoa in it. But, everybody rushed for these buckets to get wine and it turned out to be red wine and it turned the insides of these buckets black. Every morning there was an inspection to see that the coach was clean and they spotted these buckets. "What's happened to these buckets they're all black? What sort of a food is this then?" So of course, eventually it got out that it was red wine. They just closed their eyes and said, well if there's any left bring some along to E coach which was the officers' coach. Yes, I'm afraid there was looting went on just the same as it does today. 

One coach on the train was equipped for operations. That would be one of these sleeping coaches or very nice coaches that was more comfortable than the rest. On my first train I could never understand until a long while afterwards why two of the coaches were so comfortable and quiet. They had hard rubber tyres on the wheels. I've often wondered whether that's so today on the French trains. You had no clickety-click or anything like that and the movement was so gentle, just like sitting in a limousine car. We were lucky to have such comfortable coaches, I don't think we had them on English trains at that time. 

One coach was for head wounds and the one next to it the operating bay which had just a few instruments and a qualified man. He was a pharmacist as a matter of fact but he'd learned operating theatre techniques: what tools they wanted and all that. But of course it was very rare and it would be an emergency operation carried out; not a full time job, just to tide him over and when we got to the base he would be the first man rushed off in ambulance to a hospital to finish the job.

"Hommes 40, Chevaux 8" were goods waggons which were used for the transport of troops and also equipment of course. That business of "40 men" was because they were carrying troops. There wasn't much rolling stock available for civilian travel or for the soldiers in comfort, not those days. There'd be the odd train running between cities perhaps maybe once a week. I know when I was transferred I left the train at Courtrai and I had to come down to Boulogne to get on the boat. I was lucky enough to be on an old French train and I remember at the same time there was one chap in civilian clothes ‑ I don't know who he was - and there was four WAAC girls, (Women's Army Auxiliary Corps) - also coming an leave.

An innocent abroad 

Of course, I should never have been in that compartment but in my ignorance some of the things I did in those days being just a lad still! At nineteen years of age even in those days you weren't as sophisticated as they are today I can assure you. I was a very innocent lad. As I walked along the train looking for a place to get in, these girls called me, "Come on in here Tommy" and of course I realized afterwards that if an MP had come aboard I'd have been in real trouble. They'd been playing cards on the way down and this civilian man sat there and never said a word all the journey although he was quite interested in what they were all talking about. One girl had fallen asleep on my shoulder I remember. As they were about to get out of the train, (they were collecting their bits and pieces) they were a card missing from their pack and he reached down and saw it in the upholstery. He said, "Is this what you're looking for?" in perfect English so who he was I don't know.
I didn't play Crown and Anchor. It was forbidden of course really and I'm afraid I was a bit of a stickler for discipline and I didn't engage in that sort of thing. Two things stick in my memory that I could have been in serious trouble for. While still on the first train - Number 1 - I was chosen to assist the corporal in his clerical work because as soon as all our patients were aboard we used to have to go round and copy the details off their identification cards: the nature of their injuries, when and what operations they'd had. We had to copy that all off onto slips and those slips were handed in to the office and he had to transcribe from those onto some other papers and then those slips were landed with the patients. So, in between duties I had to go down and assist him a little bit. Well, one of my duties then was when we got to the base, to scoot immediately to the post office in the town where part of it would be commandeered by the British Forces Postal Service, and I was sent down to get our mail. I used to nip into a cafe for a drink before I returned to the train, always in a side street where it was quiet. Well I went into this cafe one day and sat down quietly and had my drink, nobody else about, only a young girl serving who couldn't have been more than seventeen or eighteen. Presently she called and said, "Will you come up Tommy, help me put this flag out." So I went upstairs and I said, "Where do you want me to put it?"
"Oh, out of the window and fix it here." 

I was busy doing that and I did it and I turned round. There she was laying on the bed half naked and I was down those stairs like hell. That called me to book, I thought, "My godfathers, if an MP had come in I'd have been court-martialled." I was already on duty and should never have gone for a drink never mind being found upstairs like that. 

Bonjour Tommy

That reminds me of a similar situation but not nearly so serious. As I've just explained: coming down from wherever I was to Boulogne to get on the boat we would sometimes arrive in the afternoon or evening and we would have to report to the RAMC DDMS headquarters which was just a private house. We'd report in there and then get our papers and things to go on the boat the next morning. Nine times out of ten apparently they used to say, "You can either sleep in the basement with your own blanket on the floor or you can go out and find yourself a bed in a cafe but report back here at a certain time in the morning." Well I chose to go out and get a bed in a cafe and have a drink. I went by myself, I was a loner always in those days, and eventually the patron of the cafe took me upstairs to a bedroom and asked me what time I wanted to get up. I told him and said, "Don't forget, it must be so and so." Next morning when I awakened there was a girl or woman, in her twenties, standing there having her toilet, fully dressed.
"Ah, bonjour Tommy. Vous dormez bien?" (You sleep well?). So I said "Yes" and I looked and it was obvious that she'd been in that bed with me all night. She'd come upstairs when the cafe closed at one or two in the morning, got into bed and me being dog-tired due to travelling down miles from somewhere and having a couple of drinks, I'd slept the sleep of the dead and didn't know that woman was there. Course, when I tell this to my friends they don't believe me but that's true. I must admit that sex didn't enter my head because there was so much venereal disease and that frightened the life out of me, being in the Medical Corps as well. I never indulged in sex in all the opportunities that I had. Eventually it got so had there that all the base places where the soldiers might come on leave had blue lamps alongside the red light districts.  

Very often the troops were given leave but didn't choose to come over to Blighty - perhaps single chaps - and spent it in France or Belgium or wherever they happened to be. They had the red light district of course but then alongside nearly every brothel would be the blue lamp where they could immediately go for prophylactic treatment it got so bad. That was where you go to get syringed and wiped and cleaned.

One time, some of the lads coming off leave onto my unit said, "You know that nasty captain in the ADMS headquarters at Boulogne? He's walking round on crutches. He was in bed with his mistress when her husband – an army officer in the French Army — returned and beat him up." You see, I think the officers had opportunity to go and seek their own enjoyment with some tart they'd picked up in a hotel or somehting like that. They didn't need to go into the brothels which were so cheap for the soldiers. 

“…if you could see an elderly Mongolian man or woman there's damned little difference in their features…” 

Talking of venereal disease I mentioned earlier that we were taking down to Marseilles for export back to their countries, some Mongolians. They were massive fellas. They could carry two or three sacks of flour weighing eighty pounds each whereas our lads could only carry the one. They were massive chaps but they were having a terrific outbreak of venereal disease. We couldn't make this out because they were never allowed out of camp in the evenings; they were more or less confined to camp the whole time except when they came out to work. Then they went back in at certain times in the evening (according to how busy they'd been) and they weren't out any more in the evenings.
They had continual "short arm" inspections and they never found where the devil these chaps were getting it until they discovered an old Chinese woman amongst them, rotten with disease. She'd always managed to elude these "short arm" inspections and if you could see an elderly Mongolian man or woman there's damned little difference in their features, (there would be in other things of course but I suppose this woman was dressed as a man and probably behaved as one and probably was hidden and fed by some of these Mongolians so that the authorities knew nothing about it). Now, I've got no first hand proof of this but it was a fairly general story told in France while I was there and this was a huge camp where these chaps were, what they called the Indian Labour Corps. I don't remember that we had them at the end of the war, I think they eventually did away with them when there was so many troops released for that sort of duty. I think they were all sent back home then. 

I was so innocent about sexual matters. I was only in Marseilles on two occasions and when we were there on one of those two occasions I went out, as usual by myself, a thing I should never have done in Marseilles, especially those days during the war. Nearly every morning soldiers were being fished out of the water; robbed and thrown in there. But I used to go in what I realize now were some of the dingiest, dirtiest cafes. I remember going in one where a woman was performing the most indecent acts I'd ever seen for the benefit of the old man sitting there. One very smart piece of stuff come and attached herself to me and said, "Come on, you come home with me." In my innocence I didn't realize she was a prostitute and wanted money. About half way home she said, "How much can you pay me?" I said, "Pay you? What for?" "Oh" She said, "You silly Tommy you." She called me every name under the sun and buggered off back to the cafe.

Only one case of gangrene came to my mind and of course, had we had better training I would have spotted that although it wouldn't have made much difference because as I say, we only had them for a few hours. The poor devil must have had this when he came on the train. Now it wasn't gas gangrene which was the one you got from the soil, this was due to constriction of the blood so his arm became dead. Of course, that is a form of gangrene because the flesh would ultimately putrify. It was one of these occasions when we had two nurses and she said, "Orderly, run down to the operating theatre, get a scalpel and a kidney tray and come back as fast as you can." So I came back and by this time one of the doctors was there because we had two doctors on the train, one for each end. I saw what he was doing; he sliced him here, sliced him there but of course nothing happened, no blood. This was because of a splint which they were using, to my knowledge, up to a few years ago: legs and arms, a Thomas' splint. That would be a circular leather covered iron rim with two rods down, fixed further down, and that would keep the limb straight and immobile. (That's contrary to wooden splints). Well, this chap being wounded, naturally the limb was swollen a bit and this constricted the blood.
That was the only case I saw funnily enough, mind you there must have been plenty. There were so many horses in use then and the army had thousands of horses out there so the soil would be highly vulnerable to the spores of blood. I suppose these poor devils either died in these base hospitals or they were transported over to Blighty, perhaps partly cured. I don't know whether they had a vaccine or anything against it in those days but even today with gas gangrene nine times out of ten it means amputation. Had I had more training I would have noticed that as I was feeding them, going from one to the other with a urine bottle, cigarettes or something because that was one of our duties. I was definitely taught to look out for haemorrhages because a secondary haemorrhage was a common thing. You would arrest the primary haemorrhage but very often a secondary haemorrhage would set up and a man could bleed to death if you didn't spot it because he would become unconscious. In any case, most of them were far too badly wounded or in a comatose state or, as I've said, some of them still not out of the anaesthetic and they couldn't point out their troubles to me. 

Shell-shock and self-inflicted wounds 

There would be two of us to a coach and if it was going to be a fairly long, slow journey one of course would have to take some rest, sleep, and the other one carry on duty. It was all according to the state of the battlefield. If there were lots of casualties coming down my coach would be full of badly wounded men. Another time when it was quiet they'd just be getting rid of some cases out of the casualty clearing station or the base so as to let them get home to Blighty; not very badly wounded men, chaps that they'd been able to keep there because they weren't expecting any fresh casualties. They didn't evacuate those so quickly as they might have done had there been some big battles raging. I would then perhaps have mostly sitting cases: chaps sitting up, able to look after themselves more or less: leg injuries, hand injuries, fingers shot off, things like that. If it was a self-inflicted wound that would be on the cards. I often mention to doctors I've worked with since about all those terms we used on those cards, you never hear them today: gunshot wound, shrapnel wound, self-inflicted injury. That would be on their records card by the time we got them.
I'm afraid there was quite a bit of that went on. There was a couple in this village [Hatfield Broad Oak] until recently and it was the talk of everybody that they were self-inflicted; they'd had their fingers shot off. It was always the right hand of course if he was a right handed man or they used to shoot their big toe off. Mind you, in this last war they took a vastly different view of shell-shock. In the First World War there was many a poor devil shot for cowardice who should never have been shot, never. You imagine a young chap like myself thrown into some of those conditions. It's enough to make any lad turn round and run away or refuse to advance perhaps. He may not run away but he would hang back instead of moving up with his troops, or he might feign some illness. But many a man was found in such a state of intense shock and stupor that he was automatically accused of cowardice because he wasn't with his unit. I feel sure that there must have been scores of men were shot for cowardice who should never have been. The hostels and places are full of shell-shocked men today from this last war.
Interview concluded here.

The image on this post is oil on canvas by Haydn Reynolds Mackey, copyright The Wellcome Library.

Need help with your own First World War research? I have been studying the First World War for the past 30-odd years and now offer a fast and cost effective research service.

No comments: