Among the small, sometimes faded, photos in my Granny’s photo album are some taken at the Royal Victoria Hospital at Netley, near Southampton, towards the end of the First World War. One of the photos shows her brother, Bert Mitchell “in theatre”. Further research this year has unveiled more of what happened to Bert in WW1.
Albert Henry Mitchell (Bert) was born on 1 Aug 1892 to William and Mary Mitchell at Buck Barn, Shipley, West Sussex. Family tradition has it that his parents were so pleased to have a son after 3 girls that they hired a carriage to take them to Shipley church for his baptism, on 4 September 1892!
When he was four the family moved to Steyning Lodge in West Grinstead, his father William working as a ‘Houseman’ at West Grinstead Park House (now, sadly, no longer standing). The family banner photo at the top of this blog shows Bert aged 15 with his parents and sisters.
Before WW1 he worked for a wheelwright and coachbuilder on the old Worthing Road. It would seem that at the outbreak of war he was a volunteer with the Red Cross, and used to cycle off to meetings for medical instruction. Among his medals, still held within the family, is a badge that states ‘On War Service 1915’, which was presumably issued for his Red Cross work during this period.
However, later that same year Bert enlisted as a Private in the Machine Gun Corps, on 2 December 1915. No WW1 service record for Bert appears to survive, but, having found Bert’s regiment and service number on his medals, I was able to find the matching Medal Index Card which helped to piece together his movements to a certain extent. We unfortunately do not know where exactly Bert served with the British Expeditionary Force, and it is apparently notoriously difficult to trace the movements of someone in the Machine Gun Corps. What we do know is that he was overseas when he sustained a head injury and was evacuated back to England to the Royal Victoria Hospital for treatment and recovery. Bert was discharged on 4 April 1918 due to wounds rendering him unfit for further war service.
I was most grateful to the photo experts at Forces War Records who were finally able to identify from the uniform in the “Bert in theatre” photo, that he was then working for the Red Cross.
I found on the Red Cross website that it was possible to make enquiries about relatives’ war service. I did this, and received a very prompt response. The Red Cross personnel records reveal that Bert started work as a Red Cross orderly at the Royal Victoria Hospital on 11 June 1918. He made and fitted artificial limbs. Bert’s son recalls that his father was asked to make an artificial limb for the Imperial War Museum – I sent an enquiry to the Museum some time ago to attempt to verify whether they still have this limb, but I have yet to receive a reply. The photos of Netley that we have from this period suggest that his family visited him there. It was while he was working there that he met his future wife, who was also working at the hospital. Bert worked there until 5 June 1919 and subsequently went on to work for Pedestros Limbs Department in Southampton.
Bert was awarded the Victory and British War medals and the Silver War Badge and his British Red Cross Medal for War Service also survives. As a member of the Machine Gun Corps he was lucky to have survived the war at all, and I’m sure that his skill in making artificial limbs helped to make life slightly better for those whose injuries were, as they say nowadays “life changing”.