Sunday, 13 November 2016

Reginald Llewellyn Crane, 4th Royal Berkshire Regiment

Reg Crane was one of four Great War veterans I met who lived in the Keene Memorial Homes in Broomfield Road, Chelmsford. I see from my notes that I interviewed Reg, and took the photo above, on the 9th September 1981. Reg, born on the 14th October 1896 would have been just short of his 85th birthday. I subsequently visited him many times until his death in January 1986 at the age of 89.

Despite my interest in the First World War it was not old soldier stories that drew me back to Mr and Mrs Crane. Of his First World War service with the 4th Royal Berkshire Regiment, Reg said nothing; his only words on the subject, "we were glad to forget it". He didn't tell me what his regimental number was - and may not have remembered it anyway - and I have been unable to find any reference to him whatsoever in medal index cards, medal rolls or service records.

Born in Newbury, Berkshire, Reg Crane had joined the 4th Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment in 1913. The regimental museum in the shadow of Salisbury Cathedral has a single note that he was served Christmas dinner in 1913 and that he belonged to E Company which was the Newbury Company of this battalion; something Reg had told me. He was at Marlow Heights for the annual Territorial Force camp in August 1914 when war was declared and, volunteering for service overseas, after some weeks ended up in Fyfield in Essex and latterly in Chelmsford, Broomfield and Little Waltham where he met his future wife, Agnes. They would marry on the 19th April 1919; Primrose Day as it was known, the day which commemorated Disraeli's death. The photograph below, published in the  Essex Chronicle on the 19th April 1985, celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary which, sadly, would also be their last anniversary.

Reg had two tattoos on his arms, a Royal Berkshire regiment cap badge and hands across the ocean, both of these inked in 1914 and artwork which he would regret in later life. He also showed me a photograph of himself in khaki and with some of his chums. I believe the photosw was taken at camp and I regret never taking a copy of it.

As I say, I know little about Reg's First World War service but I remember with fondness his company, times spent with Reg in The Ship and later The Compasses public houses in Chelmsford. I visited him in hospital when he was poorly in January 1986 but he seemed to be getting better and it was a great shock to me when I was told - I forget who told me, now - that he had died. I was in Dunmow and it was a miserable, dank, cold day and I just went out for a walk and remembered our times together.

Agnes Crane, Reg's wife of 66 years died some years later in 1992 at the age of 95. She and her husband had been inseperable and it was certainly a surprise to my parents and me that she lived for as long afterwards as she did. Reg always referred to her as "mum" and she referred to him as "daddy" and I have letters from Mrs Crane which are signed off with a kiss from mum and Reg. I continued to visit Mrs Crane after Reg's death, and my parents also visited her. Indeed, they still have a photo on display at home of Mr and Mrs Crane.

It seems fitting that today, on Remembrance Sunday 2016, that I should remember Reg and Agnes Crane - Mr and Mrs Crane as I always knew them - and remember Reg not just because, due to an accident of being born at the wrong time in history he took part in a truly awful war, but remember him as a kind man whose company I enjoyed very much.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

L/16490 Pte Henry Tomkins, 2nd Royal Fusiliers

I never met Henry Tomkins but I did write to him in July 1987 and received a long and interesting reply from him many months later in January 1988.

Henry joined the Royal Fusiliers as a career soldier in late 1914. Born in September 1899, he would only have been 15-years-old but nevertheless found himself in Gallipoli by September 1915, surrounded by hardened veterans not only in his own battalion, the 2nd Royal Fusiliers, but also men from other regular battalions who had been shipped from their overseas' stations and who now formed the regular 29th Division. I will let Henry take up the story:

My first experience of trench warfare was at Gallipoli, which I survived, and after a rest on the Arabian War Front to prevent Johnny Turk obtaining possession of the Suez Canal and preventing reinforcements getting easy passage through the canal to the Western Front, the 'Incomparable 29th Division' was sent to build up for the Battle of the Somme.

Exact dates I cannot remember. We evacuated Gallipoli about Christmas 1915 without any casualties and went, as I have said, to the Arabian Front. In approximately March 1916 we embarked from Port Said and disembarked at Marseilles and from there, onward by goods wagon train to Beaumont Hamel where we detrained for a week's forced march 'padding the hoof' to Pont Remy on the Somme, arriving in trenches on a Sunday night, approximately 10th March 1916. That same night we heard some heavy firing on our right where we heard on the grapevine that the King's Royal Rifle Corps, my twin brother's regiment, was having a ding-dong with Jerry, and where he received severe wounds and was sent back to Cheltenham hospital where he died for his King and Country aged sixteen years old. Like a lot of us youngsters he volunteered and gave a false age and was accepted. If we had been made to produce our birth certificates this country would not have had the contemptible little army of 1914. We would not have been able to join the army for the adventure of war.

My twin brother's death prompted my mother to claim me out of the army because I was under age. She told my brothers and sisters, all under 15 years of age, that she had lost one son and she was not going to lose the other (me). I was hoping to meet my brother when my regiment, 2nd Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, was relieved from the Somme trenches. I was a fully promoted lance-jack (ie, nickname for lance-corporal) and during the relieving of my regiment from the trenches for a rest period I was in charge of three privates keeping watch on Jerry trenches while the main relief was taking place by another regiment. 

When I and my party was relieved, we left our post and rejoined our regiment by going over the top back to the support trench in the rear instead of through the communication trenches which were zig-zagged for safety [and to prevent] enfilade fire. On reporting to my company sergeant on joining up with my regiment I was told that I was to be up before the Company officer in the morning, which nearly always meant trouble, because I had broken trench rules. Instead of trouble, however, when I was brought before my company officer in his office (part of a French farm barn), I was told my mother had claimed me out and he couldn't hold me. I was under age and I would have to go back to base. I was to get my identity [papers] next morning and proceed back to base by divisional train which was comprised in those days of horse-drawn wagons supplying us with food and ammunition.

I eventually arrived at regimental headquarters in Hounslow with a number of us under-age [boys] and was promptly demoted to private although [I had been] promoted on the battlefield. A week later I was dismissed from the Royal Fusiliers and became a fully fledged civilian until September 1917 when I would be of age to be conscripted and recalled back to my regiment. I beat them to it by volunteering for boy-service in the Royal Navy just before reaching 18 years of age. I carried on serving ion the Royal Navy in the engine room department as a stoker and finally finished my twelve years' service as a stoker petty officer.

On the occasions when I went over the top in my army time I had no fear of getting wounded, however sever the engagement, although Tommies were dropping all around me either dead or severely wounded, but I did have consideration for those who did lose strength and collapsed and passed out and were branded as cowards. I swore that I would shoot anyone I saw shoot at them, be he either officer or army police because they had no idea of the mental strain that that supposed coward had collapsed under. 

I heard similar remarks several times when in the trenches and so I was not surprised that there was a mutiny by conscripts objecting to the treatment meted out to them at the Bull Ring [in Etaples] by bullying NCOs. Discipline was necessary but ridicule was not.

Henry Tomkins died in November 1991 having outlived his twin brother, William, by close to seventy-five years. His partial British army service record survives in WO 364, and his naval service record has also been digitised and can be viewed on the National Archives' site or on Findmypast

Henry's military record is fascinating and as well as containing his attestation paper, also has correspondence from his mother requesting his release from the army. The letter below is one of several in his file (image Crown Copyright the National Archives):