Uncle Will Sayers

“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.

Information from the POW records

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.

William Sayers far right, possibly about 1922

Get plenty of grub in

Finally,  on 22 November 1918, Grandad was on his way home.

At 19 years old Jack Wakefield had been a Prisoner of War in Germany for 7 months, endured meagre food rations, illness and no letters or parcels from home.  At long last the Armistice had happened and the prisoners could go free.

Sarah Paterson, in her book ‘Tracing Your Prisoner of War Ancestors, the First World War’ is very informative on how repatriation happened.  She describes the situation in Germany following the Armistice as “extremely chaotic”.  With transportation in a dire situation and soldiers taking matters into their own hands to try to make their way home, the Red Cross no longer knew who was where. Furthermore, the men were weakened by lack of food which hampered their efforts to get to a channel port.

My understanding is that Grandad and those with him were pretty much left to their own devices to find their way home.  His postcard home postmarked ‘Dover 22 November 1918 5.30pm’ bears a picture of Balatre – La Place.  L’Ecole des Filles.  Grandad wrote at the top “this is my last internment camp” and he has pencilled a cross on the right hand side of the building.  This would seem to indicate that he had been there as a POW – whether he had been moved around frequently during his time in captivity we shall probably never know, but the fact that by this stage he was close to France would have aided his journey home.  Those who were stuck in the heart of Germany had a long wait.

Balatre is today in Belgium, very near the French border.  This spring, on our tour of the battlefields and memorials, we also had time to visit this tiny village.  I had wondered whether any evidence of the school building might remain.  Unfortunately not, but we sat in La Place with its church on one side and war memorial on the other, and took in the fact that Grandad had been there 100 years earlier.  I wished that someone might appear who I could talk to, but the village seemed shut up and asleep.  Then finally an elderly woman emerged from a house.  I rushed over to approach her in my best French.  She was lovely – and most interested in my story.  I showed her the picture of the school and she was able to indicate where the building had been.  She knew people who had been in the village longer than she had and promised to see if she could find out more, so we exchanged addresses.  Subsequently we have corresponded, though she has not been able to find any additional information as yet. But I was so thrilled to have made a personal connection.

Balatre, Belgium
Balatre – La Place

How did Grandad get a postcard of the school?  Did the locals give the soldiers postcards as they left?

Grandad wrote on the card  “Dear Mother, Just a few lines to let you know that I am in dover and shall be home Saturday do not no (sic) what time”.  The aforementioned book describes how POWs returning through Dover went to a Reception Camp at Waterfall Meadow.  They were given a packet containing a pipe and tobacco, cigarettes, toffee, chocolate and biscuits in addition to a hot meal on disembarkation.  Once at Dover, provided the men were medically well enough, they were given their ‘leave and duty’ ration books, a message from the King and a rail warrant to travel home for two months’ leave.

Richard Van Emden, in his book ‘Prisoners of the Kaiser’, says that “by the end of November, fewer than ten per cent of POWs had reached England”.   Grandad was, indeed, fortunate to be among them.  How did his family react when he got home?  There must have been such a feeling of relief to get their son back, but mingled with the grief for the elder son who would never come home.  And quite possibly Grandad did not know of his brother William’s death until his return to Woking.

Did he get the cake that he had been so desperate for in those last seven months?  I hope that, despite the food rationing, the family were able to feed him up.  His final words on the postcard are “Get plenty of grub in for I been starved.”

L'ecole des filles Balatre 1918
L’ecole des filles Balatre
POW postcard WW1
Grandad’s final postcard home
Letter from the King

 

 

It would be nice to get a line from dear old Woking

Grandad’s last full letter home from his prisoner of war camp is postmarked Gustrow 14.11.18.  The top of the letter, and therefore the date he wrote it, is missing and I strongly suspect that it was written a good bit before 14th November, especially since all the other letters have a postmark sometime after the date of the letter.

Grandad (Jack Wakefield) says “we are having some lovely weather out here now”, and that it is now 6 months since he was taken prisoner, so I’m guessing it was written in October.  Additionally, my understanding is that once the Armistice had been declared the Germans often just left the POW camps, leaving the prisoners to their own devices.

Grandad obviously had an inkling that the end might come soon as news of the war’s progress filtered through:  “the war seems as though it won’t be long before it is all over.”  Interestingly, he also says “I think I have got over the worst of my prisoners life now”.  We know from the previous letter that he had had a spell in hospital, but surely at this late stage of the war the food shortages would have been at their very worst?

We learn in this letter that he has received no letters or parcels at all from his family while he has been a prisoner.  His early letters were insistent about wanting cake and cigarettes.  I should think it highly likely that the family did send letters and parcels but that the chaos in Germany by this stage of the war meant that nothing got through to him.  He says “It would be nice to get a line from dear old Woking.  I have not had a word since I was taken prisoner 6 months now”.  Despite the cheery tone of the letter, Grandad must have wondered whether his letters had reached home and how his family were faring.  Presumably he still had no idea at this stage that his older brother William had been killed in Belgium back in April.

Jack Wakefield
Jack’s letter home Nov 1918

“Hoping to see you all soon”, he concludes.  And in fact, possibly around a month after writing this, he would, indeed finally be on his way home;  returning to a nation that was reeling from the loss of a generation of young men.  He was a 19 year old, returning home emaciated from months of starvation and having witnessed the most atrocious things.  No wonder he didn’t want to talk about it.

But tomorrow, on Remembrance Sunday, I will be going to “dear old Woking” and, as I lay a wreath in memory of Jack’s brother William, killed on 12 April 1918, I will be remembering too the ordeal Grandad endured as a POW.

We will remember them.

Jack Wakefield

Royal Victoria Military Hospital

It was almost exactly 3 years ago that I first wrote about my Great Uncle Bert Mitchell.  In an effort to submit a reasonable biography for him for the When West Grinstead Went To War publication, I had endeavoured to glean as much information as possible about his involvement in the WW1.

With no surviving service record it took me a little while to piece together, but I managed to discover that Bert enlisted as a Private in the Machine Gun Corps on 2 December 1915. His Medal Index Card helped to a certain extent but it is apparently notoriously difficult to trace the movements of someone in the Machine Gun Corps. Whilst we do not know where exactly Bert served with the British Expeditionary Force, we do know that he was overseas when he sustained a head injury and was evacuated back to England to the Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley, near Southampton, for treatment and recovery.

Begun in the 1850s, the hospital was in its day the longest building in Europe!  Seen from Southampton Water, the hospital’s architecture was most impressive, though Florence Nightingale was critical of the design and felt it had not been planned with the wellbeing of patients in mind.  At the start of WW1 the hospital’s capacity was increased through the building of many wooden huts by the Red Cross.

I have known of the Netley connection for many years due to a good number of photos in my Granny’s photo album taken at the Royal Victoria Hospital during the First World War.  One of the photos shows her brother, Bert Mitchell “in theatre”.  After Bert was discharged from the army on 4 April 1918 due to wounds rendering him unfit for further war service, he stayed on at the hospital as a Red Cross orderly making and fitting artificial limbs.  The Red Cross personnel records show that he worked there from June 1918 until June 1919.

Royal Victoria Hospital
Bert in theatre (at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley)

I’ve visited Netley a number of times over the years, aware of the family connection.  So it was with great pleasure a few weeks ago that I was able to visit the chapel again, newly reopened after the extensive conservation work which has benefitted from Heritage Lottery funding.  The chapel is basically all that now remains of the former military hospital and the newly restored chapel is absolutely stunning.  There is an extensive exhibition inside the chapel on the history of the hospital, with a number of interesting artefacts such as a huge ‘iron lung’.  Entry to the chapel and exhibition is free, but you can also pay a small fee to climb the tower for a magnificent view across the park and across Southampton Water.

I was particularly interested to read in the guide book about the Japanese Red Cross nurses who worked at Netley between 1915 and 1916.  Interested because they feature in two photos in Granny’s photo album.  Since the guide book says that they left in 1916, I’m wondering if this could indicate that Bert was a patient there from perhaps quite early on in 1916, meaning that he possibly spent very little time in France or Belgium before being wounded.  It could also mean that he was a patient at the hospital for as much as two years before being discharged in April 1918.

Japanese Red Cross nurses at the hospital

 

 

 

 

 

It’s strange to think that my Great Uncle Bert is likely to have attended services in that chapel both as a patient and as a member of staff.  His future wife, Lily Loosemore, also worked at the hospital as a VAD clerk from July 1916.  Separately or together they would have heard the organ played (which is again in good working order), looked up at the stained glass and admired the lofty ceiling.  I very much enjoyed rediscovering my family connection with the hospital and would recommend a visit if you get the chance. https://www.hants.gov.uk/rvchapel    

Work still in progress on the chapel this spring
Inside the newly restored chapel
The chapel organ

With love these few lines trusting they find you in the pink

“With love these few lines trusting they find you in the pink”.  So begins the third letter which we have which was written by my Grandad while a POW in Gustrow, Germany, in 1918.  The previous one was written on 11th June, although the postmark was a month later on 10th July.  This one was written on 29th Sept and again there was a month’s delay before the postmark of 30th October.

There may have been other letters written in July, but then a big gap, which Grandad explains:  “Well Mum, I have not been able to write for the last 2 months as I have been in hospital and am pleased to say that I am much better now”.  He gives no more details of the reason for his hospitalisation.  It is possible that it was due to dysentery or a condition related to the general starvation of prisoners and the poor sanitation arrangements in captivity.  Equally it could be that he contracted flu.

The so-called Spanish flu is widely known to have affected young adults more than the elderly or the young.  With no reporting restrictions in neutral Spain, the spread of the epidemic was known about in that country, but in fact it was widespread.  In Richard Van Emden’s book ‘Prisoners of the Kaiser’ he writes “the flu epidemic that was sweeping Europe was killing off prisoners at an alarming rate, as most were too weak or sick to put up any resistance”.  Whether it was flu or not, Grandad was fortunate to make such a good recovery.

Now that he has the opportunity to write home again, Grandad wishes to remind his Mum to send the parcels of which he wrote in such great detail in his first letters, and he sends his love to all at home.  His optimism at soon being home again (“cheer up, shall soon see you all again”) possibly indicates that he was aware of the regular rumours reaching the POW camps at around this time of the Allied advances.  The knowledge that the Germans were definitely retreating by this stage must have given many of the prisoners the mental strength to hold out for an eventual release.  Those last weeks must have been some of the toughest, though, with provisions at an all-time low and many food parcels never reaching their destinations.  “It was just a matter of hanging on until peace was declared” writes Richard Van Emden.

POW letter
Jack Wakefield’s letter home 29 Sept 1918

 

I don’t think it will keep on much longer

Writing home on 11 June 1918, just 3 weeks after his first letter, Jack Wakefield is putting on a brave face.  He expresses optimism that the war will soon be over (“I don’t think it will keep on much longer”) and looks forward to getting home (“well Mother, let us hope for the best, then what for a good time in Blighty, it will be grand”).

He repeats some of the information from his first letter, including details of his capture:  “I had the misfortune to be taken prisoner….I had the letter with that paper in it that you said went to Frank and Will on the Tuesday.  I was captured on the Wednesday.  It seemed funny I was the 3rd one”.  Maybe the ‘paper’ was a newspaper cutting – I wonder whether it told of other local lads who had been captured?  That would appear to make sense of the reference to the “3rd one”.  Frank Bookham was soon to be married to Jack’s eldest sister Annie.  He was serving with the 631 Motor Transport Company of the Army Service Corps, and earlier in the war had been out in East Africa.

Having now been a Prisoner of War in Gustrow, Germany, for seven weeks, Grandad is understandably anxious for some provisions from home to supplement what must have been extremely basic provisions in the camp.  “Well dear Mother, do your best to send me a parcel as soon as you can.  The Post Office will let you know what to put in it.  You know, a good big cake, some fags, tobacco, pipe and fag papers.  Send plenty of them for I can make it up with you all when I get back.  See if you can let me have one or two books.”  In order to emphasise the point, at the bottom of the letter Jack adds “send a parcel each week – get Nell to help”.  His next eldest sister Nell was obviously the sister to be relied on – it was she that his brother Will had turned to the previous Christmas when he was short of money.

I recently came across the journal of the Central Prisoners of War Committee of the Red Cross and Order of St John for January 1918.  This edition of the ‘British Prisoner of War’ carries an advert for suitable cigarettes and tobacco to send in parcels.  Whether or not Jack’s family attempted to send any of these we will never know.  The journal also contains useful information on how to send parcels and what could be included.  Unfortunately for my Grandad that did not appear to include “a good big cake”!

Although written on 11 June, the postmark on this letter was a month later – 10 July.  What an anxious time for his family back in Woking.

“Let those who come after see to it that his name be not forgotten”

“Let those who come after see to it that his name be not forgotten”

Those are the closing words on the scroll which accompanied the famous ‘Dead Man’s Penny’, sent to the families of soldiers killed in WW1.  In some small way I have been trying to do my bit in keeping that memory alive.

We have just returned from our planned trip to France and Belgium and I am happy to say that we were on the Messines Ridge on 12th April, exactly 100 years after my Great Uncle William Neighbour Wakefield was killed there in 1918.

It was a very special day.  To start with I was sad that it was so misty, meaning that the views from the ridge were not great.  But then I thought that this could have been quite typical of the weather 100 years ago.  We headed initially to the British Cemetery and, finding a number of graves of unknown soldiers of the North Staffordshire Regiment, decided to ‘adopt’ one.  I placed a cross there for William, with his details written on it and his photo attached.

We then drove down the road towards Wulverghem and then up towards Kemmel, pretty much parallel with where the front line would have been on 12th April.  Reading the war diary of the 8th Battalion North Staffordshires, the overall picture is one of confusion, with withdrawls being stopped and lines restored and difficulties getting information.  The previous day the Germans had made good progress towards Hill 63 and the Battalion had beenforced to start withdrawing from the ridge, eventually moving back to Kemmel by the 13th.  Heavy losses had been sustained.  Somewhere in all this confusion William lost his life.  A letter from the Regiment to his family states  “He was buried by his friends after the action near the scene of his death”.  Was he one of those soldiers subsequently moved to the British Cemetery at Messines or another local cemetery after the war?  It is possible.

Later that afternoon we arrived at Tyne Cot and for the first time I was able to see William’s name inscribed there.  It was satisfying to know that he is now commemorated in the country where he died.  I placed another cross there for him.

During the course of that day and subsequent days we came across a number of others following a similar personal pilgrimage.  The sheer scale of the slaughter is so hard to comprehend.  Which is why it is so important to remember those who “left all that was dear to them…and finally passed out of the sight of men by the path of duty and self sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others might live in freedom”.

Grave of unknown soldier of the North Staffordshire Regiment
View towards the Messines Ridge
William’s name at Tyne Cot
A cross for William