Sunday, 3 May 2015

112171 Private Frank Gearing, RAMC - Part three

This is the third and final part of my 1987 interview with Frank Gearing of the RAMC. Read part 1 HERE and part 2 HERE.

For the rest of my life after the war I continued medical, right up to my retirement. I eventually became so interested through my experiences of the war and being young I was able to take an interest and pick up and I learned as I went on, I learned a lot from talking to the nurses and doctors and all that. I was batman to a doctor for a little while while a chap went on leave, and he was a lovely chap from Ladbroke Grove in London. He taught me a lot and we used to sit there in the evenings if I was off duty.

When I came out of the army I immediately started looking for jobs and it was very difficult after the First World War. Unemployment was shocking - we talk about it now - you walked the streets for days and days. I think we got four shillings a week at the Labour Exchange as unemployment pay. Eventually I met a pal of mine and he said, "Have you been to the ex-soldiers place in Victoria Street, London?" I said that I hadn’t. "Well" he said, "Go along there, they place quite a lot of chaps. I got a job from there." So I went along and of course, as soon as he saw my discharge: "Oh, Royal Army Medical Corps. Can't get enough of you chaps." I said, "Are you serious?" "Yes," he said, "I want a complete staff for a new place opening in Kent. Are you willing?" I said, "What job?" "Well" he said, "It will be a full staff: orderlies, cooks, nursing orderlies, nurses, everything. Be here tomorrow morning at ten o'clock for an interview with the medical superintendent."

So I did and got a job as nursing orderly and after being there a little while I was made supervisor of the day shift (which would be three months) and then automatically changed with another man (who was night shift) to night shift. And I had a very pleasant time down there for nearly two years.

The only time I had with VADs was a little time I was in Winchester, Bourne Hill camp. There was a little hospital there which had been, before the war, the infectious hospital for that area and that was turned into what they called a camp hospital. Any cases which weren't serious enough to go into Winchester hospital were put into us. That would be sickness — of various descriptions — boils, skin diseases, minor accidents, all that sort of thing, anything not very serious. All the nurses there were VADs, local girls; the doctor's daughter, the vicar's daughter, that sort of thing. Yes, that was the only time and that was only a few weeks. I've told you already that I had no training up in Blackpool where we'd just come from. We were brought down from Blackpool, shot to Cosham near Portsmouth, only there two nights, shot back to Winchester to this Bourne Hill camp hospital where we remained until we were sent to France. Well during that time at that little hospital in Winchester with the VADs, the matron sorted me out to teach the other RAMC boys various duties: how to make fermentations. That's hot cloth wrung out to apply to boils to draw them up. That would have to be done every four hours day and night and some of these poor devils had boils all over them. Then I had to make beds and. I thought to myself even then, "I'm sure I'm not going to have to do this when I get abroad, we'll be far too busy." But I had to show these boys how to make a bed just like it would be in hospital: all the places tucked in neatly and turned down so much (which isn't even done in hospitals today. They don't bother about tidy beds anymore in hospitals now). I said to the matron, "I can do this because I've learnt it myself even while I've been here but I've had no training about this. I've never even been taught how to use a thermometer or take a man's pulse, we've never even been told that." She couldn't believe it. I said, "We've had no training at all."

On one occasion when there had been an influx they'd got some new gas. It wasn't the phosphorous stuff or the mustard gas it was neither of those two it was some other little thing. A freak cloud had come across and some of our chaps on the train were even infected, who happened to have their windows open. There were one or two cases outside; odd corps like Signals and Royal Army Service Corps were suddenly calling to us for help because we had two doctors aboard. That was my only experience so we immediately had to don our own gas masks which in those days were only a flannel head covering which you tucked in. Even then I got a touch of it. I didn't get it on my lungs or throat but I got it on my skin and it's there to this day. It must have been a kind of mustard gas and it brought me up in blisters.

I wasn't really-a religious man, not really. When I was at school it was a church school so naturally we had to go to church and I joined the Church Lads Brigade. Then after we left school and were away from that church I joined the Boy Scouts for a little while but that was so far away that I didn't go to that any more. And then I got mixed up with the Methodist Church which I found was much to my liking; a little bit more free and a bit more fun, a bit more of a jovial atmosphere and I joined the Boy's Brigade and there I stayed until I joined the army. In the army it was voluntary whether you went to church or not but if you didn't go to church you got some horrible dirty job to do so we did all go to church I'm afraid. (You got put on the coal fatigue and things like that). I've said prayers on occasions but not continuous, not as a matter of habit. I've never said my prayers every night like some people but if ever there was a sticky situation I'm afraid I have which is hypocritical of course.

[Re two army photos of Mr Gearing, one taken in France and one in England]

That first one was taken in Blackpool when I first joined; I was just a kid. The other one was taken in France, I think I'd had a couple of vermouths or something when I went in there. We all took the wire out of our caps abroad because of the difficulty of packing the other one in your kit bag; it took up so much room and we were allowed to take the wire out. The stripes on my sleeve are for the time in France: two years, two blue. The red one which they wore over the blue was if you were there in 1914. Vertical silver bars were wound stripes. Then you also had on the other arm a chevron, that's for every two years of service. The first one two years the second one five years, but I've only got the one.

The ADDIS who questioned me in Boulogne about what qualifications I'd got as a nursing orderly was very solicitous. He kept looking at me as much as to say, "You shouldn't be here at all, never mind a nursing orderly." He said, "I see by your pay book you've been prescribed glasses. You're a naughty boy, you're improperly dressed. The M.P.s could have you if they look at your pay book. You should always have what's been issued to you." In those days they were such horrible things too, we never wore them.

I don't think we went to Belgium during the war funnily enough. I can remember now walking about Mons but that was when hostilities had just about ceased.

I came off the train - the engine had been taken off and taken away ¬and we were in the most desolate place. There wasn't a thing going on, there was no trucks or lorries, there was no men about, it was all so quiet. We didn't know then that hostilities had ceased. I was walking about and there I stood, looking at everything so desolate and I thought, "What the devil's happening?" I continued to walk around and this was the first time I'd seen so many cottages and houses that were not totally destroyed. On looking back of course I should have been more careful and been thinking about booby traps but I'm afraid I didn't. I went into one house and it was just as the people had cleared out except there was obviously a bit of damage from vibrations from shells exploding and all that. The dresser was there with the crockery and everything disarranged: some had fallen down and broken, there was cutlery laying there... even our own troops couldn't have had time to go in and use anything. It didn't look as though it had been occupied since the original occupants had gone out and it's quite possible that they may have stayed there during some of the early stages. You see, once the fighting came away from Mons there was no fighting until we went back there at the end of the war. We never got back that far although we made some very good advances on the Somme, we were nearly always further back.

Then it was that some of the lads came tearing out of the train and said that a despatch rider had been up and told us to get back because we'd been brought up in advance of the first troops even. Not for long though, they started coming in in the evening in convoys. The line was very confused all the way along, German troops didn't know that it had finished in some areas. They were still fighting in some places and they were dancing together in another: Germans and British.

A land fit for heroes

I volunteered for three months after I could have come home. They said, "So many men want to get home and you're not married and we're asking the single chaps to volunteer to stay on." At the end of the three months they offered me a stripe to stay on further, but of course, the stripe would be "acting lance—corporal without pay" so that was no incentive to stay. But when I got home and found the unemployment situation so bad I was sorry I hadn't stayed. We were clothed and fed and looked after reasonably well and I should have stayed, (although I don't know that it should have made much difference because this nemployment situation remained for a good while afterwards). There were so many who didn't get their old jobs back. My immediate boss in that leather cutting firm said, "I'm sorry Frank, but a chap like you will soon find a job. I've had to give your job to my own son who Gammages can't take back."

When I came back I think my parents must have thought I was never coming back (like so many), because there wasn't one thing of my possessions that I could put my finger on. When I used to ask about this that and the other there was complete silence and I've never known from that day to this; I never pursued it, there was no point in it. My nice Malacca cane with a silver top: couldn't find it. I had a diamond tie pin: couldn't find it. There was no boots, no suit, no tie, nothing: I hadn't got a thing. I had to start from scratch when I was demobilized and the more I asked questions the more I was met with silence. My young brother who was only a boy then, a baby, couldn't tell me anything and my eldest brother wouldn't. I do suspect that my eldest brother helped himself to anything that was worth helping himself to. He didn't join up because he was in a protected trade until almost the end of the war and then he was called up eventually and drafted into the Navy as a chief petty officer. He got married as soon as he was demobilized and I think he sold all my things to pay for his bloomin' wedding, anything of any value I had I think he sold.

At the end of '17, beginning of '18 when the Germans were beginning to get a bit desperate, they were indiscriminately bombing places and one of our biggest hospitals was at a place called Etaples. It was on the side of the railway line and on the other side was the biggest dump of cases of food I've ever seen in my life or likely to see, I never saw anything like it. How the men got as high up as they did with these cases of machonochie and bully—beef I don't know but the Germans eventually came over and dropped leaflets and said, "If you don't move that hospital away from that dump, we'll bomb both." We were just as guilty of doing that sort of thing as the Germans. Or, with the cavalry, they would put horse lines alongside the hospital, thinking that a horse was a valued animal all over the world and a man's friend and that they wouldn't bomb the horse lines. But I'm afraid at a place called Grayvillers (?) where we were at number 21 casualty clearing station we were at a concert given by some of the people who used to come out during the war. And they bombed, slaughtering those poor horses. I think that upset me more than seeing human casualties. That was a terrible thing.

I think in general food supplies were very good. Our lines of communication I never heard any complaints about. It was amazing how the food got through to the troops. There seemed to be a plentiful supply of tinned stuff and any packed stuff like that. As for theses machonochies that I refer to, if we were able to buy them today I would buy them. They were a complete dinner in a tin, a flat can, and you put it into boiling water or somehow warmed it up. It would be meat, potato, peas, vegetables; they were really nice and that was a dinner for one man. As for corned beef we say now we never want to see it any more but in those days it was very welcome. There was always plenty of bread too. Quarter of a loaf to a man was the ordinary ration but I think in general there was more than that. Of course, me and any of us in hospitals and on ambulance trains and even in the C.C.S. always had that little bit extra because you would have lots of patients who were not in a condition to eat much. It was the same with cigarettes. We would have enough cigarettes put aboard according to the number of patients we'd got.

Well often those lads didn't want to smoke or couldn't smoke, (heads all swathed in bandages perhaps), so I always had plenty of cigarettes to swap with the French people. I had two very good friends at our base which was Sotteville near Rouen. When I was on that French train they used to come along because they used to have to service that train. The other trains, the English ones, were done by the Royal Engineers; the R.O.D. (Railhead Operating Department) of the Royal Engineers. They used to even drive the trains, the Engineers came out from England to drive the English ones but the French ones, no. I used to swap with these two lads: he was too young for the army and his mate was too old for the army. They used to come out and scrub the upholstery in the carriages or do any minor repairs, fill the oil lamps, all that sort of thing. I used to swap their black bread, (almost black) with some of my white because I would draw from the cookhouse in the middle of the train so many slices of bread for the troops I'd got and I'd always have a lot left over. So when I got to the base it would all be too dry before I could eat it so I'd willingly give it to these lads to share between their friends and families and he'd give me a little bit of his black stuff which I liked funnily enough. I also used to think in those days that there was nothing like French chocolate but I've since found that Belgian chocolate i6 better, oh it's lovely stuff. Silk postcards were very popular, they were lovely, they used to love those over there. And pretty picture postcards they had too, very pretty; not indecent ones but very nice French girls, beautiful little pictures they used to have.

I think the authorities were very conscious about the rations getting up and all that. On the French trains, (not the English ones because they had a corridor right through) you had no contact with the next coach and this was one of our most horrific bloomin' duties. If ever I wanted to get along to that coach where the dressings were, the bandages and the instruments, I used to have to get out of my thing and go along the footboards of the train, holding on all the way along. And I used to have to bring my food back that way: a bucket of soup in one hand. Fortunately on most of the runs you knew where the tunnels were or the bridges, otherwise we'd have been killed. It wasn't safe to go on that side in case a train was coming the other way, so we had to go on the nearside and luckily the driver would use his whistle when he got to a bridge and we'd nip in between the two coaches and stay there till we were through. (If we were within so many miles of the Front he wasn't allowed to use his whistle). But it was pretty tricky some nights coming back. We had a board with sides on it and all the bread would be stacked on that, and all the meat and we had to have that under one arm and then go back for the pail of milk pudding after that. Of a night time or in the winter when it got dark early that was a treacherous journey and luckily we never got any casualties, there was some on some of the other trains I remember but I never met up with one although I had some very frightening experiences.

The trains weren't fast moving because a lot of the tracks had been damaged and partly repaired. I don't think we ever did more than about forty miles an hour and that would be when we were down on the well preserved tracks down by the base more.

As we went along and passed various places where there'd been bases or hospitals previously and where we'd stopped for a few journies and got to know some of the people, it was common for the lads to throw out a parcel of jam or bully-beef or bread to his girlfriend. They seemed to be always on the look-out for food, it would be an event, an ambulance train coming through. They'd be always on the look-out and waving. I remember one chap called Lacey who was the troops' cook; he always seemed to manage to have a few jars of jam and tins of bully-beef and some bread to throw to his girlfriend.

The war made a man of me

The war definitely made a man of me, even 'the horrible training up at Blackpool. Yes, I feel sure I would have lived to any age if I hadn't had that younger training. I've got pernicious anaemia now and you can't expect to put on much weight with that, but in those photos I was ten stone. You see? Well then we had all that drill and fresh air up in Blackpool for those many months and subsequent fresh air in France.and drill. (Of course, we still had to do a certain amount of drill when we came down to the base. We had to parade and all that sort of thing). Yes, I feel sure that my army training has helped me in later life in health and in other ways too like discipline.

I've never been back to the areas I was in, I never seemed to want the urge to go back to those places funnily enough. I heard so many stories about it to bring back memories — some good, some bad — but no, I never bothered. Being a bit morbid I often thought I'd like to go and see some of those marvellously laid out cemeteries. I think when I was out in France there was nearly as many men buried here there and everywhere as there was in the cemetery of the local church. They were just wrapped in a blanket and buried by the roadside, many of them, and just a wooden stick stuck in. That was the job of course, (whenever possible) for the Pioneers to unearth them and take them into a local cemetery. They were very sad affairs down at the bases and there would be a little bit of a ceremony. Yes, even further up front (if at all possible) the chaplain would read some sort of a service over a poor devil before he put him in the hole. But down at the Base there was quite a do and a firing party and all that but even so you were still wrapped in your blanket and do you know, you were charged for that blanket. The cost of that blanket was deducted from any pay that had accumulated. That was just army regulations and they said they could do nothing about it, it had always been so, it was just accounting for that blanket that's all.

For kit we carried everything except a tin helmet. We had no rifle but the doctors on the train had revolvers. I only remember one occasion when they had to be used when Captain Sykes (a little fella) had to threaten one of the French drivers. There was a few odd shells coming over and this bloke was a bit windy and he wouldn't take the train any further. So Captain Sykes had to jump up in the cabin with him and his fireman and threatened to shoot him if he didn't take the train, and he did of course. That's the only time I ever remember a medical man using a firearm. When we were at Blackpool we never had rifle drill and were never actually taught how to fire a rifle or use one; I couldn't have done anyway according to what they said with this eye.

The image show stretcher bearers of the Royal Army Medical Corps lifting a wounded man out of a trench. Painting by Gilbert Rogers, courtesy of The Wellcome Library, London.

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