I didnít say much earlier about Dadís service in two World Wars. This was partly because Iíd written quite a lot about it in another family document recently but I really ought to cover it here as well. He joined up at the start of WW1 in 1914 and served as an infantryman. His unit went first to the island of Malta and then moved on to France in 1915. Here they performed the usual stints in the trenches. I think it was 1916 when he came back to England to go on an officerís training course at Oxford (which is why he always supported that university in the annual boat race on the Thames.) During that course he was punished for having a dirty rifle although it wasnít really dirty it was fouled through having been fired so much against Germans. At the end of the course he was commissioned into The Middlesex Regiment and posted to the 19th Battalion. Les pointed out that that random decision by some posting clerk probably saved his life.
The 19th Bn was the regimentís pioneer unit. They did have quite a lot of casualties but nothing like those of the frontline battalions. Their mission was to lay down roads and tram tracks for bringing up supplies and ammunition etc to the trenches. They also dug trenches and dugouts, put up barbed wire entanglements in No Mans Land and so on. In between offensive raiding parties and suicidal frontal assaults (during which most of the casualties happened) the men in the trenches were actually in underground dugouts a lot of the time and unless unlucky enough to get a direct hit relatively safe from shellfire.
Meanwhile the Pioneers were working out in the open and were heavily shelled. When near the front, of course, they worked by night. If the Germans were able to guess their position in front of the British trenches they were liable to come under fire from machine guns. This must have been particularly nervewracking for the young officer in charge. The men could take their minds off the dangers by working but he could only stand around and supervise. When a British attack was due it was his job to go out on his own into No Manís Land (the area between the British and German trenches) and work out positions for new trenches following the advance.
In July of 1917 the Germans introduced mustard gas, a deadly new weapon for which the original gas masks provided no protection and which might have turned the balance of the war. On the 29th of that month Dad was gassed. His own account was that he took cover in a shellhole but encountered a pocket of gas in the bottom of it. He said he was reported missing and he was proud of the fact that all the men in his platoon volunteered to go out to look for him. I was hoping to get more detail or at least corroboration from the unitís war diary. But it was very sparse and no help at all.
That was particularly disappointing because it took a fair amount of trouble to get a copy of the relevant pages. I would have thought that having an officer sufficiently badly wounded to need evacuating to England was worthy of comment but apparently not. For the next year he was in and out of hospitals and had a number of medical boards but was never judged to be fit enough to return to active service. Sometime in 1917 he was in an officers convalescent home at Eaton Hall near Chester and thatís where he met and impregnated Mum. They were married in March 1918. By 1918 he was at the regimentís depot at Mill Hill in Middlesex and later at Chatham performing light duties.
In August of that year he went into hospital again in Chatham and was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia (the medical term for what was known popularly as shellshock.) These days weíd probably call it battle fatigue or post traumatic stress syndrome. He was sent to a mental hospital for officers suffering shellshock at Craiglockhart in Edinburgh. This seems to have been an enlightened place where they encouraged a large range of social activities by their patients. This was the scene of Pat Barkerís novel Regeneration which became a British/Canadian coproduction film. I donít think that film ever made it to Australia although Iíve been able to read the book. She picked the time when two famous poets were there. I used to think that Dad had been there at the same time but it was a year earlier.
Siegfried Sassoon was quite a well-known poet and writer. He served in France but then wrote a piece for a London newspaper criticising the conduct of the war. Anybody else would have been at least court martialled and probably imprisoned but he was something of a public figure and had many friends in high places. The authorities finally solved the problem of what to do by announcing that anybody who expressed those views must have become mentally unbalanced by his experiences and they sent him to Craiglockhart. Here he met the man who has since been thought of as the greatest of the World War I poets, Wilfred Owen. Sassoon was homosexual. I donít know whether Owen was as well but they became friends. Owen showed some poems to Sassoon who encouraged him. Eventually they both went back to the trenches. Siegfried Sassoon survived but Wilfred Owen was killed when the war was almost over on November 4, 1918, just a week before the Armistice. Sassoon published Owenís poems after the war and they have become synonymous with that terrible conflict. Benjamin Britten used many of them as the text for his War Requiem. next