Monday 2 March 2015

112171 Pte Frank Gearing, Royal Army Medical Corps

I see from my notes that I interviewed Frank Gearing at his home in Hatfield Broad Oak, Essex in June 1987. My aunt, who knew of my First World War interest and was a volunteer for Meals on Wheels, put me in touch with Frank. A meeting was arranged, I took my tape recorder along, and started listening.

What followed turned into fifteen pages of typescript which I'm going to publish in its entirety over three separate posts.

Frank Gearing was both lucid and interesting but, with the passage of seventy years, can be forgiven for getting some of the dates muddled. I've not corrected his narrative but his service papers do survive and from these we can see that  he attested (as he said) at Southwark on 13th October 1916 when he was still 17 years old, and was called up in April 1917. He subsequently served overseas between December 1917 and 14th December 1919. It was not until January 1920 that he was demobbed.  I'll leave the rest to Mr Gearing:


I was apprenticed as a leather cutter to a firm in South London near Waterloo Station and they were very annoyed that I joined up because they said they could have exempted me. I said that was the last thing I wanted as a lad of seventeen or eighteen and felt that I would be more wanted for the war. But the manager was so annoyed he wouldn't give me my job back after the war, like so many more who didn't get their jobs back.

Attesting under the Derby Scheme

There was such a thing called the Derby Scheme which came in just before they introduced conscription. The volunteers dried up practically so they had a loophole where chaps could join up before their age - say seventeen, eighteen - which I did, and they called this the Derby Scheme and we were able to wear a band, (I just forget what was on it) to show that we had joined. We had a very rough medical exam just to make sure you hadn't got anything very serious, and we were given the King's Shilling and took the oath and then went back to our jobs until we were called up at eighteen years of age. I enlisted at the Southwark town hall in September and was summoned in October.

Prior to joining this Derby Scheme I had tried to join the Royal Naval Air Service where the recruiting office was Crystal Palace, and they were so nasty to me - some old chief petty officers - because I was nicely dressed in bowler hat and kid gloves; "Oh, we'll soon knock them off you" and so and so, they were really horrible. So I said, "Thank you very much, goodbye. You've made a mistake. I haven't come because you've called me up, I've come as a volunteer to join so bye-bye:" Then I went to the Navy recruiting office to try and join and the recruiting man there was very good and he helped me but I was an inch too small on my chest. Even though the war was on they were so fussy about half an inch and said I couldn't join the Navy. So then of course I went along to the Army and tried to join the Transport Corps as a driver. My father had paid for me to be taught to drive a car or lorry or an ambulance so I went along specially and they said, "We've got far too many drivers." You see, all those that had been called up and volunteers, they nearly all could drive even though there wasn't many cars those days. So they said, "We're sorry, come back some other time." So then it was of course I joined the Derby Scheme, I had no other outlet.

Blackpool and the RAMC

Then, just about my eighteenth birthday I was called up to report to the Horse Guards Parade. There we were given sixpence for our day's ration ­food - and marched off to a train to Blackpool. Well Blackpool then, at the Squire's Gate, was a holiday centre; kind of a Butlin's Camp affair. We went into billets - as they called them - in different parts of the town but eventually they took us out of the billets and put us under canvas. By this time, without any knowledge of what I was going to go into when I reported to Horse Guards Parade, lo and behold I found myself in the Royal Army Medical Corps. I didn't know a thing until we got to Blackpool, we kept asking the sergeants and all that and they said, "Well we don't know till we get to Blackpool." I found myself in the RAMC because I'd been classed as B2 (which was a medical category) on account of this bad eye and the half inch shortening of one leg; they could afford to be so fussy over that. This, of course, wasn't serious but I suppose it did affect my using a rifle and other means of sights. I was a bit disappointed but strangely enough I got very well settled in, I was quite happy and I was satisfied. A lot of the chaps I was with said, "Oh, you're lucky. You could easily have been put in the infantry. You shouldn't grumble, make the best of it."

I was fortunate enough to go under the wing of an old soldier living in London. He'd done his army time when they called him up and he taught me how to carry on, how to stand on parade without fainting and all that sort of thing, so that made me very comfortable. But, we had an awful time under canvas as regards the army. It was a bad time - we had bad weather - and Squire's Gate is the Northern end of Blackpool and it's all sand. We had sand in our blankets, sand in our hair, sand in our food; it was a terrible thing. And we didn't have very nice non-commissioned officers either; one fella in particular was really nasty. Things got so bad in the food line that we were all having food parcels sent in. That got so bad - mountains of parcels were coming - that the Army stopped it because it was beginning to get known all round Blackpool and Lancashire that the troops in Squire's Gate were starving, (not starving but very poorly fed). So they stopped the parcels coming in and there was a different arrangement altogether. Instead of having army cooks where we were living under the tents they commandeered three of the biggest restaurants and we used to have to report there for our meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Then of course things were much different and organized much better.
Squire's Gate

Squire's Gate was a camp just for the RAMC. What used to happen in Aldershot became too big and they transferred it all to Blackpool as far as I remember. There were other headquarters about the country of course, but not on the scale of Blackpool. All the RAMC had to go through Blackpool at that time. There was all categories there: some fit men of course, to be drafted into what they called the Field Ambulances. That was right in the front line; the same tough conditions as the infantryman so they had to be fit. There would be the A1 men - as they called them - the very fit, then there'd be the B1, the B2 and the B3. The B3 men well they were terrible, cripples absolutely. I never saw such a poor bunch in all my life, shocking state and not the least bit interested in the army at all. They'd been forcibly called up by this time you see - conscription - and some of them were over their forties, not interested at all in anything.


Anyway, we stayed there till April 1917, I did anyway. Then I was drafted and didn't know where I was going, just told we were on draft. First we were going to Salonika then we were going to some other place. So as to obtain utmost secrecy as to where you were going they even used to issue us with the appropriate equipment and kit. Now for instance, before I left Blackpool the last thing I was issued with was a tropical outfit and we were going to Salonika. But of course, we never saw Salonika. Instead of that we went down south: we were a few days in Cosham at Portsmouth, a few days in Winchester and then all of a sudden woke up early one morning and were told we were on draft and to go on ten days leave - final leave ­and still we didn't know where we were going. We were taken up to Waterloo station and there we stood outside the Union Jack Club for: I don't know how many hours so I managed to persuade one of the NCOs- to allow me to telephone my parents who lived just not far away from there. My father came up and saw me off to wherever we were going. Then we got down to the early hours of the morning and were put on a boat and then we knew from the crew where we were going: France. We arrived there at five o'clock in the morning.

I still didn't know what was happening but I had put in my pay book by this time, "Nursing Orderly". Now, the training given to the RAMC – from my experience - was disgraceful. All I'd had in those months in the RAMC in the way of any training at all was one lecture by a doctor telling us the main bones of our body; anatomy. Couldn't have cared less: I never had any more lectures or anything. We were given a book, (every RAMC man had what we called a green book, a manual) which was a very good First Aid book, or a little bit more than First Aid, a bit more advanced. But if you didn't have any brain at all it didn't mean a thing to you because you hadn't been told what these terms and names of parts of the body and the circulation and all that was all about, you just had to teach yourself.

Calais and Boulogne

When we got to Calais we were sent through to Boulogne and there we were met by the ADMS - Assistant Director of Medical Services - and the more he went down the line looking at our pay books the more he became annoyed. He said to me, "What training have you had? At your age how do you become a nursing orderly?"

I said, "I've had no training sir."

"No." He said, "This is what is happening with every batch that comes out. You're all put down as operating technicians or laboratory technicians and you've had no training. This is disgusting." Oh he was furious this colonel or whatever he was.

All our training had been was drill. Drill: morning, noon and night on the sands of Blackpool. In all that bad weather you hadn't been out there ten minutes and your buttons went green. I don't know how many of us lost our caps away over the ocean. It was disgusting conditions up there in that few months, nothing could have been worse even if they'd put us in the trenches of France. But medical training no.  I thought to myself, wow what happens? We were laying around there all day and I said, "Where are we now, what is this outfit?"

"This is the headquarters of the ambulance train section of the RAMC."

Number 1 Ambulance Train

So I was drafted then to Rouen to join in the marshalling yards there at Rouen an ambulance train which was made up of French rolling stock. That was the first one which the French had handed over to the British: Number 1 Ambulance Train. I hardly had any duties at all to perform in the way of medical. It was feeding the troops, keeping an eye on them that there was no secondary haemorrhages, doing a rough dressing over and above the existing dressing if necessary. But then occasionally they put on two nurses from the base hospitals as a kind of a rest. If they saw two who were becoming really exhausted through the hard, heavy work in the base hospitals – especially when there was a big push on and lots of casualties coming down - they took over any of that sort of work from us so that we became just ordinary duty orderlies.

The RAMC Field Ambulance was up with the troops: doctor, so many men. They probably had had a better training, I don't know, I never was sure about that but they were mostly regular RAMC men who probably were much better trained. And amongst those field ambulances they also had what they called surgical teams. Now those four men were definitely trained men and they could deal with any emergency. From there they came down to a casualty clearing station which was made up of RAMC of all sorts; in the beginning, I've no doubt, perfectly fit men, but as the war went on and there was a manpower shortage, so many troops being killed, any of those men in the RAMC who were rated A1, (perfectly fit men), were drafted to the infantry, artillery or any other combat regiment.
They took all the really fit men away so. then we were upgraded. Any B3 men were made B2 - without any examination. It was just automatically put in your pay book that you'd suddenly become a fit man. I was made from B2 to B1 and there I stayed, B1.

Now, from the casualty clearing station that was our job on the ambulance train. We were
taken as far up the line - in some cases as far as the railway existed, in other cases the railway lines would still be there but it wasn't safe to go any further. Trains were being shelled the same as everything else, despite having red crosses on the roof and on the sides you were still liable to be bombed or attacked. But we went up as far as we possibly could and that's where the casualty clearing stations were too. They were mobile, they were on the move up and down according to where the troops were. Sometimes you were within shelling distance, other times you weren't, it was all according to what had been happening on the Front. There'd be months when there wasn't much activity and there wouldn't be many casualties and there'd be no movement in the location of these stations. You might stay in one place for six or eight months and then all of a sudden move down and move back again. Anyway, we carried wounded men down on these trains to the base — either to Rouen, Calais, Le Havre; places like that.

Number 43 Ambulance Train

The ambulance trains were numbered and funnily enough I was on the first and the last. For some unknown reason I came home on leave and when I came back I was transferred to number 43 which was the very last train. From number 1 to 12 were French rolling stock made up of mostly second class carriages and some first class. The first class carriages were the most sumptuous, luxurious things I'd seen (other than a Pullman) and one of those was assigned to officers in each train. I think the one for very serious head injuries had been a postal wagon so it was suitable to have beds arranged down each side in two tiers: low and medium. That was for the very bad brain cases or very bad cases that we had to leave on the stretcher. Others we could get off the stretcher and put them on the seats which were used as beds. Over each seat would be put a stretcher with the handles sawn off so we were able to get four "laying down" cases in each compartment of the train. Or, if you didn't have many stretcher cases we'd have the stretchers in the top and the sitting men in the bottom. Each of those trains was numbered and each coach was called a letter: ie, B,C,D, and so on. Ourselves, by this time we were just part of that unit. When I first joined I was V Company, then when I was transferred to come abroad we were C Company. I remained in C Company attached to the ambulance train.

It did appear at times that we did come under the jurisdiction of a certain division. I remember one in particular: 29th. I remember all the standing orders came under the heading of the 29th Division. I don't know whether it was official or for the need to have us recognised as attached to somebody or the other, it may have been that. Otherwise I can't remember. We were companies, only companies. Letters to me would be addressed: Number 1 Ambulance Train, British Forces Overseas. and my regimental number of course: 112171. I never can forget that and yet other numbers I do forget. My pension number which I've had for forty four years, I still have to look at my paper for that number. But 112171, I'll never forget it. I did keep my discs but somehow or other they’ve disappeared. Every man overseas was issued with two discs made from some sort of plastic. There was a red one and a darkish green one and if you were killed one was buried with you and the other one sent to records. When I was demobilised they took the one away which would have been buried with me and left me with the green one.

Rob All My Comrades

As regards RAMC stealing we had very little to do with dead bodies, even in the infantry regiments. Any of the dead which they were able to recover from the battlefield — maybe while the fighting was still going on or even after they'd advanced or retreated — was done by the Pioneer Corps and if there was any stealing or looting I'm afraid I would blame mostly the Pioneer Corps. Originally, of course, it would be the Regimental stretcher bearers, they would have first choice naturally. But I don't think that would enter their heads up there, they would be far too busy looking after their own lives because they'd be in just the same dangers as the infantryman, they'd have to be with them in the trenches.
Read Part 2 Here.

Read Part 3 Here.

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