Friday, 6 April 2012

2nd Lt Clifford G Rust, RAF

I snapped the photo above when I met Clifford Goldsworthy Rust at his home in Chelmsford on the 11th September 1981.  As I now remark, twenty years later, to the day, two planes would smash into the twin towers in New York.  Back in 1981 though, I was keen to meet as many WW1 men as I could, and Mr Rust was one of four veterans who lived in the Keene Memorial Homes in Broomfield Road. He was immensely proud of the fact that he was one of Kitchener's first hundred thousand and, asked if I could take his photo, hurriedly found his trio and pinned them to his cardigan, standing to attention for me.  I'm afraid I chopped the top of his head off.

Clifford was born on the 16th October 1895.  He told me his place of birth was Hylands Park, Writtle and indeed, the 1901 census shows him as the five year old son of Uzziel Rust, estate bailiff of Southwoods Farm, Hylands, although his place of birth is recorded on the census as Margaretting, Essex.  Hylands was and still is a large estate, its boundaries touching Writtle and Widford and edging Margaretting and Highwoods.

The 1911 census shows Clifford living with his brother Uzziel, his sister Alice and her husband Joseph Corin Cohen at 183 Moulsham Street, Chelmsford.  Clifford is noted as a 15-year-old schoolboy, his place of birth recorded as "Hylands Widford Essex" although Hylands is scored through.

My notes from our meeting are very brief. He told me that he took part in the Second Battle of Ypres in the spring of 1915 and also went "over the top" on 1st July 1916.  Asked how he felt about that he stated, "We didn't know anything about it; you just didn't care."

Clifford's medal index card (above) fills in some gaps and also shows that he arrived in France too late for Second Ypres.  Of more interest though is a copy of his record of service which he gave me when I met him and which I reproduce below.  This shows his progression from a sapper with the Royal Engineers, appointment as lance-corporal,  promotion to corporal and then transfer to the Royal Flying Corps.  He was graded as flight cadet exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice and was commissioned in February 1919.  His service record presumably still survives at the National Archives or at the RAF museum in Hendon.

I only met Clifford Rust on that one occasion and see from a handwritten note that he died on the 18th June 1987 aged 91.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

370713 Cpl Bill Howell, 8th London Regiment

I see from my notes that I interviewed Bill Howell at his home in Hanwell, West London, in November 1986 when he was then aged 92.  Back in 1914 he was working as a telegraph boy for the Post Office and here he describes the situation in August 1914.

"The balloon went up on 4th August 1914 and ninety per cent of postmen were reservists.  The only way you could get in as a postman in those days was through being a reservist or being a telegraph boy.  No civvies could get in.  Well the order came for all reservists to rejoin the colours immediately and out they went leaving the office empty bar eight of us telegraph boys.  So the old man said, "Well go on then, you've got to take all this stuff out.  Go and get wheelbarrows, stay out all night delivering it if you have to.  These men are going out to fight for you and your country."

"The eight of us got in a corner and we said, "well what about it?" We'd heard that the Post Office Rifles wanted two hundred to make up their full strength so we all marched out of the office and left him there swearing at us.  We marched up to Bunhill Row and the place was absolutely packed tight.  Everybody was on the streets and there was a corporal trying to make this two hundred up.  I thought I'd never get in.  He counted off twenty and he was marching them in when he saw me with a telegraph uniform on and my hand on my pouch and he thought I'd got a telegram in there.  He beckoned me over and I said, "tell them I want to join the 1st Battalion."  I didn't want no 2nd Battalion."

[Bill Howell refers to the 1/8th and the 2/8th Battalions here.  When Britain went to war in August 1914 the battalion was designated the 8th (City of London) Battalion, The London Regiment (Post Office Rifles).  It only became the 1/8th Battalion in September 1914 when a second-line Territorial Force battalion, the 2/8th London Regiment, was formed.  Bill's original number, recorded on his medal index card, was 2518 and this number certainly dates to around the 8th or 9th September 1914 rather than the early days of August 1914 as might be implied from his narrative.  In Bill's defence, he was recalling events that had happened over seventy years earlier.]

"I goes in there, peels off my uniform and bungs it in the kit bag that was there and never sees it again. I goes over to the doctor and he said, "You're a very fit man, you are, but you want to put on a bit of weight and height.  Go and get measured." So I went over to the scales and got measured and the corporal said, "sorry son, you're half an inch under.  It's five foot two and you're only five foot one and a half." Well, he could see the tears in my eyes.  "Well", he said, "perhaps I made a mistake.  Get on again.  Now" he said, whispering because they were all watching you, "stand on tip-toe you bloody little fool." So I stood on tip-toe and got the extra half inch.  He said, "Now you're in" and that's how I got in.

"After two days a uniform came.  I went home in a shocking affair: a hat two sizes too big and an old coat.  I goes upstairs and there's my mother with the old corrugated washing tub.  She saw me and she said, "What are you doing here?  Who told you to come here?  Get out, I'll call the police."  I took my hat off and said, "it's me, your Willy."  She fainted.  After we got her round she said, " you go and get that shilling back."  I said, "I never had it, just this bit of paper.  It's no good, nothing can take me out."

Bill Howell died in July 1991 aged 96.  His account of the Battle of Loos is here.  I'll continue with some of his other recollections in future posts.

The photo above dates to 1977 and appears in Charles Messenger's book Terriers in the trenches: The Post Office Rifles at War 1914-1918. Bill Howell is seated third from left.  Chelsea Pensioner, ex sergeant Jim Nunn, seated to Bill's left, wears the MM & Bar.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

370395 Pte Francis George Seddon, 8th London Regt

I interviewed Francis Seddon in November 1986 when he was then aged 89.  Born on the 11th June 1897, Francis - always known as Frank - had joined the 8th (City of London) Battalion, The London Regiment (Post Office Rifles) one week before his 17th birthday on the 4th June 1914.  He was given the number 1959. Frank had left school at the age of 14 and taken a job as telegraph messenger for the Post Office. Born and bred in London's East End and still living in London, The Post Office Rifles was a logical choice.  As Frank told me, "I was young and active and full of adventure and I fancied the territorials.  There was no sign of war."  I'll let him take up the story in August 1914.

"We were on our way to camp, Eastbourne I think it was, and the train got as far as Three Bridges and stopped.  Then the rumours started going around.  The train shot us back to London Bridge where we detrained and marched to our barracks in Bunhill Row with a band playing.  When we got there we were paraded and lined up and our colonel addressed us.  His words were, "the ultimatum to Germany expired at midnight.  The Post Office Rifles will be mobilised." And a big cheer went up, I remember that.

"I was with several friends, all boy messengers, about half a dozen of us I suppose: Harfleet, Johnny Harris, Greig Haynes and some others I can't recall now.  We were all about the same age and we all came from the same office: West Central London. [1780 William A J Harfleet must have joined up in late January or early February 1914.  1816 John F Harris must have joined up in February 1914.  I have been unable to identify Greig Haynes].

"My parents were terribly worried about me going to fight.  In fact when I was at camp they came down to see me to see if I was alright.  I wasn't a bit worried though, I was enjoying it.  We were addressed by the Bishop of London and in his sermon he said, "I would not like to see England a German province."  Because at that stage it was a critical time and the Old Contemptibles were fighting for their existence in France.  They really wanted the territorials to volunteer and we got around the contract about home service by volunteering [to serve overseas].

First of all we occupied the basement of King Edward Building in the City of London and we occupied that for two weeks.  We was having kit inspections and getting our equipment ready and eventually we marched all the way down to East Grinstead and we set up a camp there.  That was our first stop.  After that we went to Abbots Langley and that's where the 1st Battalion went to France from.  I was too young though, even though I'd volunteered, and so I and a few others went to Cuckfield near Haywards Heath in Sussex. I was there four or five months and a nice billet it was.  I spent Christmas there and blow me, my mother and sister came down to see me, all that way.  They was more worried than I was.

"We eventually went out to France about May 1916 and all of us pre-war telegraph boys was together.  I spent my nineteenth birthday in the trenches and I got my bullet on the 7th October at the Battle of the Somme.  We had what they called a creeping barrage when we went over and in between the bursts there were German snipers picking us off one at a time.  That's how I got caught.  I crawled to our trenches, inch by inch, and a bloke who was in the trench helped me down.  I was taken to the nearest field hospital and was sent from there to another little town, Dijon I think.  I was there for about a week and then crossed the Channel in a hospital ship.  From there up to Bradford and we was heroes then; top VIPs.  Everything was laid on for us: travel, theatre, music halls, cigarettes; everything was laid on for us because they knew we'd given our lives in the trenches to save England.

"I was nearly twelve months recovering from that wound and I had electric treatment and all kinds of things.  Of course, the nerves had been severed in my leg which never really got well."

Frank eventually rejoined his battalion but never served overseas again.  Instead, he became a sergeant instructor, passing out at Aldershot and then helping to train up young eighteen-year old soldiers.  At 21 years old, Frank was now a seasoned veteran and he would later receive the Territorial Force War Medal along with the British War and Victory medals; a collectable trio by dint of being underage and having volunteered to serve overseas.

Writing to me in February 1987 after I had sent him a typescript of our interview, Frank wrote:

"Very interesting, however I want you to know that my main concern is what happens today.  I am half blind and half deaf caused by hospital treatment. Furthermore, during my treatment, I was evicted from my house and home by and Act of Parliament.  I had paid rent for 18 years but along with many ex-servicemen, evicted at the end of our war.  You probably do not remember that famous Lloyd George speech [where he said] we will make England a land fit for heroes to live in.  Being evicted was a deep down body blow.  I am now in the last few days of my life but my record still remains: Post Office Territorials 1914."

When he died in November 1990 at the age of 93, Frank Seddon was one of the last Post Office Rifles veterans of the First World War.

POR cap badge cut into chalk at Fovant courtesy of Panoramio.