“Uncle Will Sayers wore a leather splint on his left arm. His elbow was injured in the WW1. He always said that the German doctors had been very good to him.”
It’s amazing what extra information comes out of Granny’s diaries. It was an entry at the end of January 1940 which raised the topic of Will’s elbow: “Will in bed again very bad arm”. Mum and her sister lived with Uncle Will and Aunty Pat in Cowfold for about 18 months during WW2 when the Croydon children had been evacuated. The reference to Will’s arm playing up led to this extra information about him.
So…I thought: German doctors? Did that mean he had been a POW? I contacted William Sayer’s granddaughter to see if she knew anything of his war service. She was able to provide the information that he had enlisted in the 5th Royal Fusiliers in November 1915 and had left for France in November 1916. The following March he went missing. While out on patrol he sustained his elbow injury and was subsequently taken prisoner. The information from the family is that a German patrol came across him and put him down a well until they could return and get him to their doctors! He got back to England in June 1918.
Well! He was a lucky man indeed. But I drew a total blank searching on Ancestry for his service record. As for the Medal Index cards, well William Sayers is a common name so I couldn’t be sure of finding the right man.
My breakthrough came when I turned to The Genealogist. There I found a list from The Times 9 June 1917: “May 17 Wounded and Missing R.W. Kent R – Sayers 18663 W. E. (West Grinstead).” Wrong regiment, but right village and the right sort of date. It sounded promising. And then I found an entry from the Daily Casualty list of 12 June 1918: “Private W E Sayers 18683 Royal West Kent Regiment, Prisoner in Germany, now arrived in England”. The regimental number differed by one digit, but that could be a transcription error. Again the date tied in with the information I’d previously received.
So it was rather looking as though at some point William was transferred to the Royal West Kent Regiment, perhaps at a time when they needed more men.
At this point I turned to the International Red Cross records at https://grandeguerre.icrc.org/ to see if there was a card for him as a POW; now that I had a service number to match up I found him easily.
The cards vary enormously in how much extra information is available, but in Will’s case there were a number of other reference numbers on the card which led to other scanned entries, much of which is in German. The information giving his next of kin as Mrs Alice Mary Sayers of 135 Worthing Road, West Grinstead, was the final confirmation I needed that I had found the right man. William was in the 10th battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment at the time of his capture.
With some welcome help with the language from my sister in law (thank you!), we were able to conclude that he was captured on the Ypres Salient on 20 March 1917. It looks as though he was then taken to the Casualty Clearing Station at Linselles, south east of Ypres. The records show that he had a gunshot fracture of his left elbow. Perhaps it was while here that he received the careful attention of the German doctors that he remembered years later. It looks as though he was subsequently moved nearly 300 miles to a POW camp at Limburg on the Lahn, north west of Frankfurt.
The fact that he was released back to England before the end of the war is interesting. Sarah Paterson in her book ‘Tracing Your Prisoner of War Ancestors’ indicates that exchanges did take place of seriously wounded soldiers. Two more documents on the Red Cross site gave additional information about his repatriation: there was a ‘list of repatriated British prisoners of war arrived in England from Germany 2 June 1918’. This again gave the information about his fractured left arm. The second document titled ‘repatriated prisoners of war from Germany’ states that William was admitted to the King George Hospital Stamford St SE1 on 2 June 18 “wounded sev”. I wonder if this means ‘wounded severely’?
Even with the service number I have not found a service record on Ancestry, but I did track down the medal index card which indicates that in addition to the normal medals he also received the Silver War Badge due to those who were invalided out of the army.
From having been a foreman brickmaker before the war, Will went on to become a postman in Cowfold by the time my Mum knew him in the 1930s. The diary indicates that there had been ice and then a heavy snowfall at the end of January 1940. Perhaps Uncle Will had fallen over and that was why his arm was so bad. But on balance he was indeed a lucky man to have survived his serious injury, been able to return to England to his wife and young son and to have been fit enough to resume paid employment.