Monday 28 December 2015

55182 Pte Ernest W Springett, 1st North Staffordshire Regiment

I never met Ernest Springett, but we corresponded in 1986 and he sent me a typed manuscript detailing his service during the First World War.

Ernest was born in Hatfield Peverel, Essex on the 4th January 1899 and was at camp in Danbury with the Hatfield Peverel Scouts when war broke out. He remembered, "I carried on with the Scouts for quite a while at a boxing and gymnasium club which I ran at that time because I used to do a lot of boxing. Then [in December 1916] I enlisted in the [53rd (Young Soldiers) Battalion], Bedfordshire Regiment. We were sent to Dovercourt the following February. Snow was falling and it was bitterly cold and we got put in a hut at the back of the Cliff Hotel on Dovercourt sea-front. There had been soldiers there before and they had smashed all the windows and there wasn't a pane of glass left in the place. There were about forty of us there and they just threw us three blankets. That was our bed and our kit bag was a pillow.

"That night when I went to lie down, I had always been brought up very strictly and my Mother had always liked me to say my prayers before I went to bed, so I knelt down and said my prayers. There was hooting and hissing so when I had finished I got up and went to my kitbag and took out a set of boxing gloves and then I walked into the middle of the room and said, "All of you who have got so much to say, come out one at a time." And there wasn't one of them who had guts to come out, and they never said anything to me again."

Ernest also recalled a boxing match with a Sergeant Major Mobbs, (probably 8692 WO Cl I A J Mobbs) of the Essex Regiment who was "a big, thick-set bloke and a bit of a dirty scrapper too". Mobbs was back in England after having lost a thumb in the Dardanelles. After a bruising bout of three rounds, Ernest was told that Mobbs had been a middleweight champion in India.

From Dovercourt, the recruits were moved to Hyderabad Barracks in Colchester and from there to billets in Norwich. In April 1918 Ernest was sent to France:

"When we went from England, we were transferred to the 1st Herts but as soon as we got abroad and landed at Calais we were split up into three different lots and I was put in the regular battalion of the 1st North Staffordshires which comprised half North Staffordshire miners and Lancashire mill lads. The only ones I knew from Essex were my pal and another lad from Ilford. My pal was killed the first night he was in the trenches."

Ernest was eventually wounded himself, probably in October or November 1918. A glance at Soldiers Died in The Great War reveals that 14 of his contemporaries with regimental numbers beginning 551** lost their lives in 1918, the vast majority of these within a week of the Armistice being signed. Writing to me later, Ernest recalled,

"I wouldn't say I was a religious man but I never lost faith, and the worse conditions, the more I seemed to be told that I would survive, and you could not help but feel there was a God. No doubt I did not feel as older men with families and homes, but when you see blackguards go down on their knees in a tight corner, surely they must have thought of someone above, and I am sure those of us who were lucky enough to get home out of that Hell had stronger faith than ever."

Ernest Springett died in 1996 at the great age of 97.

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Sunday 11 October 2015

98305 Lance-Bombardier James Page, Royal Field Artillery

"I was born in a Ducal slum in Kennington, London on the 15th December 1895."

So began the narrative of 98305 Gunner Jimmy Page of the Royal Field Artillery. He was 92 years old when I interviewed him at the Royal Star and Garter home in Richmond, Surrey on Guy Fawkes day, 1988 and he died one month short of his 100th birthday in November 1995. This is some of what he told me:

"I was working for Siemens Brothers' dynamo works in Upper Thames Street in the City of London. I joined the army on August 19th 1914 because Lord Kitchener asked me to. I went to St Martins-in-the-Field in Trafalgar Square and I enlisted with the Royal Field Artillery. When I got home and told my parents, my father was drinking a glass of water. He always drank a glass of tepid water in the evening to clear away the ravages of rum, and he threw the glass and the water at me and asked me who was going to look after my mother if anything happened to him. There was nothing I could do about that though. I was already in the army and that was that.

"I joined up with a couple of pals. We'd cycled to Fulham first of all to get into the [25th London]Cyclist battalion, but there were so many applicants there that they shooed us away and we cycled back to Trafalgar Square where a recruiting sergeant picked up three shilling for singing us in. My number was 98305. Bill [William E] Hanks, who was five or six years older than me, was 98304 and Charlie Jefferys was 98306. I signed up for three years or duration and the duration, according to the Whitehall concept, proved to be five years because I didn't get out until nearly August 1919. I was retained in Egypt with the Army of Occupation."

[James Page has a few surviving documents in WO 364 which note that he worked as a storekeeper and joined the army on the 1st September 1914 and was discharged on the 16th June 1919. His medal index card notes that he disembarked in the Balkans on the 9th August 1915, whilst 9th July 1915 is the date recorded on his service record. Whichever is the correct date, James Page recalled being aboard ship on Anzac Day.]

"[I arrived at Gallipoli] on the landing day, April 25th, which the Australians have claimed as their day. They landed at Anzac Cove but I was on the SS Minnetonka which was the base ordnance ship, loaded with ammunition and a very big ship indeed: 18,000 tons and could carry a thousand head of cattle. I didn't land. I was employed as a docker. I went up on a little North Sea trawler loaded down with ammunition comprised of 18-pounder shells and small arms. The trip from Mudros to Gallipoli took probably seven hours at the speed these boats could go at.

"I eventually landed at Suvla Bay and lasted there until I was taken off with sand-fly fever and dysentery and taken off to a little island called Imros. My last recollection of Imros was of a doctor who said that I had to get on the hospital ship, SS Quebo, and I was fortunate to get back to Alexandria, and I imagine it was probably quite some time after that that I picked up the three stones in weight that I'd lost."

James Page's service history image above is Crown Copyright, The National Archives.

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Friday 7 August 2015

371690 Pte Harold Keyser, 8th London Regiment

I never met Harold Keyser but I did correspond with him in 1986 when I was seeking information about my great-uncle, Jack Nixon. Jack had been attached to the Post Office Rifles when he was killed in action in October 1918 and, sixty-eight years later, I contacted all surviving members of the Post Office Rifles Old Comrades Association to see if there was anyone who remembered him.  Not surprisingly, given the passage of time, no-one did.

Writing to me in November 1986 from his home in Alton, Hampshire, Mr Keyser wrote, "I have no recollection of your relation in the Post Office Rifles. I had suffered an operation in a long period of convalescence prior to the dates you give and subsequently found myself transferred to the 17th London Regiment, much to my disgust but perhaps to my advantage."

Harold Richard Stratton Keyser was born in London on the 5th October 1898, his birth registered in Camberwell in the fourth quarter of that year. He was baptised at St Philip's, Camberwell on the 11th December 1898 and appears on the 1901 census return as a two-year-old living with his parents, Richard (a boot-maker) and Harriet, at their home at 5 Astley Street, Camberwell. Ten years later, the family had grown and moved. Harold is recorded on the 1911 census as a 12-year-old schoolboy and elder brother to Gladys (six) and Sidney (two). The family was now living at 17 Upper Grange Road, Bermondsey.
Harold's medal index card, above, indicates that he joined the 8th London Regiment in January 1918 while the medal roll entry indicates that he served in France between the 2nd and 14th February 1918 with the 8th London Regiment, and then from 15th February until the end of the war with the 17th London Regiment. His medal index card suggests that he was posted back to the 8th London Regiment prior to discharge.
Harold Keyser died in Alton on the 4th July 1989 aged 90.
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Wednesday 13 May 2015

Remembering Thirlby Hack MM 1892-1986

It could all have ended for Thirlby Hack on 13th May 1915 and it was a day he remembered for the rest of his long life.

It was on the 13th May 1915, holding the line at Frezenberg near Ypres, that the Leicestershire Yeomanry as part of the 7th Cavalry Brigade in the 3rd Cavalry Division, felt the full force of the German artillery opposite. The bombardment commenced at 4am and was followed up by an unsuccessful advance at 7am which nevertheless forced the regiment to retire, both flanks being threatened. A counter-attack by the 10th Hussars in the afternoon saved the day but not without cost, the war diary reporting that during this "very trying day" the "enemy's guns fired on the position for 16 consecutive hours".

Thirlby Hack was wounded that day and when I interviewed him at his home in Sutton Bonington in 1985 he recalled his part in the action:

" I was shot in the left thigh.  I was corporal then and the sergeant was laying a little way in front of me.  He was shot through the knee and the wrist and he couldn’t move and I crawled up to him and he says, “Go on, don’t bother about me, you look after yourself.”  But I said, “I’m not going without you,” and I lay down beside him.  I says, “Get on my back, I’ll see if we can’t get you back somehow or the other.”  He did, he got on my back and I managed to crawl for some little while until I could move a bit better.  Then I stood up and I carried him nearly all the way.  Then we came across an infantry patrol and the officer in charge told off two men to take him from me.  We were near to a dressing station then and we both went to it.  From there we gradually got back down the line, got an ambulance through Ypres and eventually came back home to England."
The Quornian magazine reported the same incident in its September 1915 issue. Under the headline, "Our Yeomanry and the Second Battle of Ypres" it states,
" We must not conclude this article, however, without some notice of the two Quorn Grammar School heroes, Sergt W Moore and Cpl H T Hack, of whom we have hitherto made no mention.
Cpl Thirlby Hack was wounded in the left thigh, but the bullet fortunately damaged no bone, and by the merest fraction of an inch missed the femoral artery.  Near him, as he fell, lay Sergt Robert Perkins of Barrow-on-Soar, wounded in the knee and unable to rise.  But, in spite of his own wound, and of the repeated protests of Sergt Perkins, who begged Thirlby to leave him and look after himself, the brave lad got his comrade on his back, and attempted to carry him to shelter.  Time after time he was forced to put him down; but, though under a storm of high explosive shells, shrapnel and rifle fire, he took him up again, and by slow and painful stages he succeeded in reaching the cover of a ditch beside the railway embankment.  There the two remained till nightfall, when Hack again took up his burden, and after a slow and agonising journey he at last reached a field hospital about a mile I the rear of the advanced line.  Both reached England and their wounds are fortunately healed.  To the infinite credit of both these heroes, Sergt Perkins is no less loud in praise of his preserver than Thirlby is silent about a deed, which, in any ordinary war, would have undoubtedly earned him the Victoria Cross. 
“He that has light within his own clear breast
May sit I’ the centre and enjoy bright day.”
"and Thirlby is quite contented to have earned the gratitude of his companion, and to feel within him the happy consciousness of a trial bravely borne and a worthy end accomplished.  We, however, his old masters and schoolfellows, still hope that if these lines should come under the notice of anyone having interest in high military quarters, we may some day see on our hero’s breast some tangible mark of distinction to remind us of his devotion.  May he soon get it, and may he live long to wear it.”
He did receive an award, the Military Medal, and he did live long to wear it. He died in June 1986.  You can read the full article from the Quornian Magazine on a separate post I have created about the Leicestershire Yeomanry and  Frezenberg Ridge.

Today, one hundred years on from those momentous events at Frezenberg, I list below those men of the Leicestershire Yeomanry who were not so fortunate as Mr Hack and whose lives ended on the 13th May 1915.

2145 Private Charles Harold Adams
1644 Serjeant Harry Aspden
2511 Private George Harold Barker
1464 Serjeant John Albert Berry
1774 Private Percy Edgar Bowen
1904 Private Thomas Brooks
Lieutenant Thomas Edward Brooks
1874 Private Frank Purrant Brown
2559 Private Ernest Edwin Bucklar
1648 Corporal Frederick Burton
1643 Serjeant Lionel Sidney Burton
2062 Private Henry John Clapcott
1938 Private Percy Clifford
1995 Private George Clowes
2022 Private George Harry Conquest
1471 Private William Ernest Corah
1291 Corporal Robert George Cox
2323 Private Harry Wilfred Coy
1411 Private John Dalby
2658 Private Frederick Walter Daley
2560 Private Archibald Hugh De Ville
1760 Lance Corporal Bertie Diggle
Lieutenant Colonel The Hon. Percy Cecil Evans-Freke
1992 Lance Corporal John Robert Gamble
1754 Private Henry Archer Grudgings
2278 Private Harry Hanson
2591 Private Frank William Harris
1978 Private Gilbert Edwin Hawker
2368 Lance Corporal Arthur John Herrick
2589 Private Matthew Henry Hickling
2624 Private Leslie Hill
2120 Private Gurth Holland
2192 Lance Corporal Ernest Holmes
2108 Private Joseph Henry Hopkins
1827 Private John William Hoyes
2562 Private Ernest Edward Daniel Johnson
2146 Private Robert G. Johnson
1920 Private Percy Jones
1580 Serjeant Henry Percy Kealey
1589 Lance Corporal William Francis Kent
Major Bernard Robert Liebert
1843 Private John Jeeson Lucas
1822 Private Frederick Walter Mabbott
2016 Private Thomas Henry Maddock
1739 Private Frank Moir Martin
Major William Francis Martin
1765 Private Frank Herbert Matthews
1732 Private Leslie John Moir
1678 Private Daniel Moore
1845 Private William Moore
2601 Private George Morley
2509 Private John Joseph Morley
2317 Corporal George Morrison
1726 Private John Claud Morrison
1935 Private Cyril Wain Murphy
1660 Corporal John Cleaver Needham
2641 Private Frank Newton
3538 Regimental Serjeant Major George Charles Parker
1478 Lance Serjeant John Parker
Lieutenant Colin Peake
1939 Lance Corporal Arthur Thomas Powell
1844 Private Charles Edgar Pritchard
2661 Private Herbert Edward Ray
1927 Private John Roberts
1936 Private Maurice William Rowley
1983 Private Victor Walter Saunders
2106 Private Eustace William Leslie Shaw
1802 Lance Corporal Frank Sheffield
2646 Private Thomas Joseph Sherriff
1725 Private Frederick Arthur Simpkin
2131 Private Samuel Sleath
2160 Private Samuel Smalley
1967 Private Arthur Smith
1987 Private Francis Henry Smith
2027 Private William Smith
2203 Private George Harry Spence
2144 Private William John Steer
1261 Serjeant Clarence Stuchbury
2097 Private Charles Tatlow
1779 Lance Corporal Francis William Thompson
Lieutenant Samuel Pestell Donald Thomson
2708 Private Benjamin Stephen Tomlin
1863 Private Alfred James Tomlinson
1805 Lance Corporal Herbert Sydney Trotter
 Lieutenant Alan Fletcher Turner
2260 Private John Thomas Wagstaff
2337 Private Bert Ward
2129 Lance Corporal Herbert Joseph Ward
2343 Private Frank Branson Watts
2150 Private Ernest Weetman
2081 Private Frank Cuthbert White
1859 Private Horace Williams
1912 Private John Needham Williamson

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, WE WILL REMEMBER THEM.

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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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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.

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