Tuesday 30 March 2004

A Slice of History

1914-1915 StarRecently, I became aware that the UK Public Record Office was publishing their Medal Records from World War I on the web. The Great War. The War to End All Wars.

The medals concerned events of nearly a century ago now. But I still remember vividly my Grandad talking to me about his experiences during World War I, at a time when I was just a little older than my son, Andrew is today. I was fascinated by his right hand - the thumb was just a stub, and he only had two fingers, quite different from my own.

He told me of his time in Egypt, when the 9th Battalion, Notts and Derbyshire Regiment (Sherwood Foresters) was training up after being formed. Seeing the Sphinx, and the Pyramids. Stories of the Camel Corps ( he wasn't impressed by Camels - riding them without a saddle was incredibly difficult. He mastered the art, but was never comfortable on them.)

As a sniper, he spent most of his time between the lines of trenches, in "No Man's Land", hunting other snipers. Though he told me that his main duty in the Dardenelles was shooting the pottery insulators of the main telegraph line that ran along a ridge nearly a mile behind enemy lines. Every day, the British snipers would take "pot-shots" at it, and every night the Turks would repair it.

When I was a little older, and made an Airfix plastic model of an Albatross DV, he told me the one thing that really terrified him was when he was caught in No Man's Land by a group of exactly these aircraft, all painted with red noses, who used him for target practice. He had nowhere to hide, couldn't run, and had great difficulty shooting back at such fast-moving targets. From later researches, it's quite probable that the one with the red fuselage (who was a particularly good shot) was the infamous Baron Von Richthofen, though Grandad didn't know that when he told me about it. (The Red Baron was all of 25 when he was killed in 1918). His fire was probably more effective than he realised - he must have gotten uncomfortably close to some of them, as they soon went after easier and more worthwhile prey.

That brings me to the Medal Records. So far, only the A-B section is available. There are few advantages to having a surname like "Brain", but this is one case where it was useful. I used the (free) Search Form, then got out my Credit card and paid my three pounds for a download of Grandad's records.

I've made them available free of charge here as a 186k PDF file. Grandad's records are in the bottom-right of the second page.

Grandad must have enlisted as soon as he was old enough, on 9th November, 1914. His first taste of action was at a place called Gallipoli. As a sniper, he went in in the first wave of every landing, to cover the disembarkation of the main force. Then off again, and onto the next one. Naturally, the snipers were also the last out, covering the evacuation.

The 9th battalion (after replacement and reorganisation) was sent to the Western Front, and in August 1916 took part in the Battle of the Somme, and later, Passchendaele.

The medal records show that Grandad was eventually discharged due to grave wounds on 14th December, 1918 (Hence the award of the Silver War Badge). Much of his right arm and hand had been blown off, his lungs had been damaged by Mustard Gas and Chlorine over the years (and had lost a pir of boots, burnt by a shell that fell between his feet...but didn't detonate), and his torso was full of shrapnel. He'd still sometimes find one or two bits in his bed as late as the 60's, and a piece eventually worked its way into his heart and killed him shortly after I last saw him.

The odds of anyone enlisting in 1914, seeing action on the front line, and surviving nearly intact were slim. The odds of anyone on the front line surviving the entire war from 1914 through to 1918 mostly whole were astronomical. The odds of surviving Gallipoli, and the Somme, and Passchendaele, and being shot at by the Red Baron... beggar the imagination. Yet had he not, my Father wouldn't have been born, and thus neither would I, nor my son Andrew.

Which gives me pause.

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