Saturday 5 November 2016

L/16490 Pte Henry Tomkins, 2nd Royal Fusiliers

I never met Henry Tomkins but I did write to him in July 1987 and received a long and interesting reply from him many months later in January 1988.

Henry joined the Royal Fusiliers as a career soldier in late 1914. Born in September 1899, he would only have been 15-years-old but nevertheless found himself in Gallipoli by September 1915, surrounded by hardened veterans not only in his own battalion, the 2nd Royal Fusiliers, but also men from other regular battalions who had been shipped from their overseas' stations and who now formed the regular 29th Division. I will let Henry take up the story:

My first experience of trench warfare was at Gallipoli, which I survived, and after a rest on the Arabian War Front to prevent Johnny Turk obtaining possession of the Suez Canal and preventing reinforcements getting easy passage through the canal to the Western Front, the 'Incomparable 29th Division' was sent to build up for the Battle of the Somme.

Exact dates I cannot remember. We evacuated Gallipoli about Christmas 1915 without any casualties and went, as I have said, to the Arabian Front. In approximately March 1916 we embarked from Port Said and disembarked at Marseilles and from there, onward by goods wagon train to Beaumont Hamel where we detrained for a week's forced march 'padding the hoof' to Pont Remy on the Somme, arriving in trenches on a Sunday night, approximately 10th March 1916. That same night we heard some heavy firing on our right where we heard on the grapevine that the King's Royal Rifle Corps, my twin brother's regiment, was having a ding-dong with Jerry, and where he received severe wounds and was sent back to Cheltenham hospital where he died for his King and Country aged sixteen years old. Like a lot of us youngsters he volunteered and gave a false age and was accepted. If we had been made to produce our birth certificates this country would not have had the contemptible little army of 1914. We would not have been able to join the army for the adventure of war.

My twin brother's death prompted my mother to claim me out of the army because I was under age. She told my brothers and sisters, all under 15 years of age, that she had lost one son and she was not going to lose the other (me). I was hoping to meet my brother when my regiment, 2nd Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, was relieved from the Somme trenches. I was a fully promoted lance-jack (ie, nickname for lance-corporal) and during the relieving of my regiment from the trenches for a rest period I was in charge of three privates keeping watch on Jerry trenches while the main relief was taking place by another regiment. 

When I and my party was relieved, we left our post and rejoined our regiment by going over the top back to the support trench in the rear instead of through the communication trenches which were zig-zagged for safety [and to prevent] enfilade fire. On reporting to my company sergeant on joining up with my regiment I was told that I was to be up before the Company officer in the morning, which nearly always meant trouble, because I had broken trench rules. Instead of trouble, however, when I was brought before my company officer in his office (part of a French farm barn), I was told my mother had claimed me out and he couldn't hold me. I was under age and I would have to go back to base. I was to get my identity [papers] next morning and proceed back to base by divisional train which was comprised in those days of horse-drawn wagons supplying us with food and ammunition.

I eventually arrived at regimental headquarters in Hounslow with a number of us under-age [boys] and was promptly demoted to private although [I had been] promoted on the battlefield. A week later I was dismissed from the Royal Fusiliers and became a fully fledged civilian until September 1917 when I would be of age to be conscripted and recalled back to my regiment. I beat them to it by volunteering for boy-service in the Royal Navy just before reaching 18 years of age. I carried on serving ion the Royal Navy in the engine room department as a stoker and finally finished my twelve years' service as a stoker petty officer.

On the occasions when I went over the top in my army time I had no fear of getting wounded, however sever the engagement, although Tommies were dropping all around me either dead or severely wounded, but I did have consideration for those who did lose strength and collapsed and passed out and were branded as cowards. I swore that I would shoot anyone I saw shoot at them, be he either officer or army police because they had no idea of the mental strain that that supposed coward had collapsed under. 

I heard similar remarks several times when in the trenches and so I was not surprised that there was a mutiny by conscripts objecting to the treatment meted out to them at the Bull Ring [in Etaples] by bullying NCOs. Discipline was necessary but ridicule was not.

Henry Tomkins died in November 1991 having outlived his twin brother, William, by close to seventy-five years. His partial British army service record survives in WO 364, and his naval service record has also been digitised and can be viewed on the National Archives' site or on Findmypast

Henry's military record is fascinating and as well as containing his attestation paper, also has correspondence from his mother requesting his release from the army. The letter below is one of several in his file (image Crown Copyright the National Archives):

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