The following text was written by Ted Rawes about the life of his father and is based on a few surviving family documents, the official histories, the war diaries in the Public Records Office and his own recollections from his father's lifetime. It has been edited and reproduced here with the premission of the author to whom grateful thanks are extended. The editor's grandfather, Major H. J. D. Smythe was a Medical Officer attached to 3rd/48th alongside Richard Irving Dacre whose memoirs are also published on this site. This account is a fascinating and invaluable additional primary source - both for students and for the descendant families of those who also served in this theatre of war.
An Ordinary Life
'For almost everyone, the war came out of a clear blue sky. Barely a month went by between the assassination of the Austrian Archduke at Sarajevo and the outbreak. The British public were outraged by the German invasion of Belgium and when there was an appeal for volunteers for the Army, hundreds of thousands of young men responded. The TA had been organised in 1906 from the various part time militias to provide for home defence when the Regular Army went overseas. Known mildly derisively by the profoundly unmilitary population as Saturday Afternoon Soldiers, the TA had on paper about 330,000 men but actually only 250,000. Like the Regular Army, the basic unit was the division, each with three brigades of four infantry battalions with all the usual support troops such as artillery, engineers and medical services, a total of around 15,000 men.
There was a field ambulance of 230 men for each brigade. Surprisingly, the TA medical units were pretty well up to strength. TA men were all volunteers and were liable for home service only but in 1914, when asked to volunteer for overseas, about two thirds did so. The 48th South Midland Division went to France in early 1915.
My fathers service record was amongst the many lost or damaged by bombing in 1941. The Public Records Office has attempted to recover some of these records and when they had completed the letter R, I looked into them hopefully. I did find an Edward Rawes but he was 25 years old in 1915, when my father was 17, and came from Morecambe, quite possibly a distant relative. One thing is certain. I shall never know any more ...'
Birmingham was a boom town. It almost always was. A wide range of mechanical and electrical engineering, with a few large firms and thousand of small ones, it was never badly hit by trade depressions. So it drew in ambitious and energetic people, amongst them in the early 1890s my grandfather, Edward Rawes. A highly skilled cabinet maker from Lancaster, he had recently married a young widow, Mary Jane Huntington, née Angus, whose husband, John. had died just before the birth of their first and only child, a boy, also John Huntington but always known as Jack. The Rawes all came from Cumbria and Westmorland but Mary Jane, although born in Manchester, was an Angus with connections in Scotland.
They settled well in Birmingham and my father, also Edward, was born in May 1898. He went to the usual local elementary school and succeeded in passing for the grammar school. However, like my mother, his family needed what he could earn and so aged 14, he left school and went to work for the Co-operative Wholesale Society as a clerk. My mother did the same and it was at work that they met. His father and mother were keen trade unionists and supporters of the Co-operative Movement which in those days was a power in the land. That they were aspiring is shown by them buying a house in 1906, with a Co-op mortgage of course, a most unusual thing for working people to do in those days. No 181 Somerville Road was a comfortable terrace house in the then very respectable suburb of Small Heath.
In the summer of 1914, all must have seemed set fair for the Rawes family. Father and both sons were in regular employment, Jack, then 27, being busy building what would be a very successful career in the electrical engineering industry. They were even well enough off to begin to afford occasional holidays, staying with relatives in Lancaster. They sent postcards and there is a sense of life becoming more ample.
Edward seems to have thought the whole situation over because it was only on 21 October 1914, almost three months later, that he signed on in the Army. When he told his parents, his mother begged his father to go and get him out which he could easily have done since the boy was only 16½ years old. But he refused, saying the boy has put his name to it and must go. With so many volunteers, the only unit which would accept someone who was not only young but was also small for his age was the Royal Army Medical Corps. He therefore enlisted in the 1st/2nd Field Ambulance of the 48th (South Midland) Division of the Territorial Army.
The RAMC also had to find staff for the military hospitals and so he worked as a ward orderly, first at a hospital in Northampton. He was there when a photograph was taken showing a slight young fellow carrying a rather dashing and totally illegal swagger stick. He must have been billeted with a civilian family, as commonly happened in both wars, because the reverse gives his address of 61 Ivy Road, Northampton. In October 1915, he can be seen, having gained something in size and strength, in a postcard view of Ward 6, Colchester Military Hospital.
Officers of the Third South Midland Field Ambulance (Imperial Service) Royal Army Medical Corps Chelmsford 1914 prior to going to France.
By early 1916, he was on the move. In late February at a depot in Weston Super Mare, that strange military ceremonial took place of a kit inspection, unknown to those of a gentler upbringing. Soldiers were always notoriously feckless characters and many were quite capable, when as usual short of cash, of selling their kit hoping to buy it back before they were found out. In March, he signed the usual army will form, leaving everything to my mother. But he would very soon really be 18 and so off he was sent, to a military hospital at Harfleur, near Rouen in France, again to work as a ward orderly - and there he collided with authority. Using his clasp knife, which I still have, to open a tin, he cut his thumb quite badly. He used his First Field Dressing, the bandage package every soldier was required to carry at all times, was caught without it and was charged under military law.
The Orderly Room was a hut with a veranda and so the usual little group formed up, the accused between two regimental policemen. The rule was, and for all I know still is, that the accused should have his cap and belt taken away so that he could not throw them at the officer and make matters worse. This time, Edwards cap had been overlooked and the Provost Sergeant knocked it off his head as they went in. A polite youth, he bent over to pick it up. The escort behind could not stop in time, rolled over Edwards shoulder, landed broadside on the officers desk, swept everything off it and ended up on top of the unfortunate officer. When order was restored, the officer, a Birmingham doctor, recognized my fathers Brummie accent and let him off with admonished.
Since he was by then a few months over 18 and a good deal bigger and stronger, he must have been thought fit to join his parent unit and so in early August 1916, he was posted to the 1st/2nd Field Ambulance of the 48th Division then on the Somme.
Charles Carrington was a young officer in that division. He published two books, one in 1929 A Subalterns War under the name Charles Edmonds and the other, Soldier from the Wars Returning under his own name in 1965. Both are worth reading.
The 48th South Midland Division was one of the four divisions then forming X Corps and so part of 4th Army. Composed entirely of Territorials, its battalions were often known by the firms from which they had been recruited, such as - in Birmingham, for example, where Edward Rawes came from, the BSA (Birmingham Small Arms) and the brewery, Mitchell and Butlers.
The Regiment itself had been in France since early 1915 and so was an experienced and competent unit. It was lucky in that it had not taken part in the disastrous opening of the offensive on 1 July. It was heavily involved in the very intense fighting around Pozières and on the ominously named Skyline Trench towards Thiepval. Otherwise it took its full part in the usual rotation of divisions in and out of the line.
German policy at the time was to counter attack to regain any lost ground and 48th Division had frequently to deal with these attacks. There was, besides, the usual trench raiding, both ways.
As well as the care of sick and wounded, the RAMC was also responsible for hygiene in general and men were detached to check water supplies. Scabies, a highly contagious skin complaint was common then and there were a few outbreaks of typhoid and paratyphoid in the division.
The field ambulances moved frequently and it is worth considering what this meant for the men employed in them. When, for example, the 1st/2nd moved about nine miles, from Beauval to Raincheval, on 9 September 1917, it set out at 5.30am and arrived at 9.15am. To start so early would have meant clearing all the patients, taking down the marquees and packing everything on the horsed transport. With luck, some of this would have been done the night before. The 230 men would then have marched to the destination and few would have been lucky enough to dump their kits on one of the General Service wagons. Clearly reveille would have had to have been about 4.00am. On arrival, all must be set up again.
'Although the number of stretcher bearers had been increased from 16 to 32 per infantry battalion, it was often necessary for the bearer divisions of the field ambulances to go forward to assist them. At one period, for six weeks, the bearers of the 1st/2nd were in German dugouts near Martinpuich - the one place my father recognized when we took him there in 1962. Although very well built and over 30 deep, their position was known to an inch by the former owners and the exits faced the wrong way so that there was an ever present risk of being buried alive. The records show that a light railway line was built there which was useful for evacuating casualties, the autumn mud being very hard going for both men and horses and impossible for the rare motor ambulances. Although often damaged by shellfire, they managed to keep it working. He also remembered how the Butte de Warlencourt used to look with all the soil blown off and the underlying chalk glowing in cold moonlight. It seemed to be looking over your shoulder he said ...'
The primary duty of a field ambulance was to care for the sick and wounded of the brigade to which it was attached but it was also responsible for various aspects of field hygiene, an important duty in view of the heavy losses from sickness in the South African War 15 years earlier. In action, it took station a mile or two behind its brigade. Each infantry battalion had its own stretcher bearers, often bandsmen in peacetime, and a medical officer. They collected their sick and wounded and brought them to the Regimental Aid Post where they received some emergency attention before the RAMC bearers took them on to the Field Ambulance. There they were again attended to. Most were sent on to a Casualty Clearing Station for further treatment but many not so serious cases were kept at the Field Ambulance before being returned to their units when recovered.
There were then no antibiotics, a serious lack when fighting over farmland which had been heavily manured and blood transfusion was in its infancy. It is all the more astonishing that of the wounded admitted to medical units in France and Belgium in the whole war only 8% died and over half were returned to duty. Of the sick, 1% died and two in three returned to duty. But then they almost all had youth on their side.
All RAMC stretcher bearers were given basic medical training and they did most of the routine work in caring for the patients. There were very few women nurses and then only at base hospitals. But there was still plenty of heavy labour. The transport was mostly horse drawn and field ambulances moved frequently so that the big marquees and dressing tents had to be taken down, loaded up and then re-erected on the new site. Like the rest of the army, the RAMC men themselves usually marched from one site to another.
The battle of the Somme faded into a bitterly cold winter which went on and on, adding frostbite and pneumonia to the usual problems such as trench foot. The division, with its field ambulances, was lucky to be out at rest near Albert for Christmas but then, as usual, in and out of the line until, in mid March 1917, the German withdrawal to the new line, called by the British the Hindenburg Line and by the Germans the Siegfried Stellung, began. A brief period of open warfare followed and the field ambulances followed only when the line stabilized again. German demolitions were extensive and many buildings were mined so that orders were given that, in spite of the bitter cold, no surviving buildings or dugouts were to be occupied.
At the end of June, 48th Division went north, to the area of the Ypres Salient, and began training for the next battle. In due course, it took part in two episodes of the battle known as Third Ypres or Passchendaele, the battles of Poelcapelle and Broodseinde, taking its turn in the line between times. Every effort was made to prepare evacuation routes for the wounded but, apart from a light railway which worked fairly well for a while, there was no alternative to a very long carry from the battalion Regimental Aid Posts to the Field Ambulances, often up to 8000 yards in very bad conditions. There are several references to the extreme exhaustion, an expression not often used in armies of those days, of the bearer divisions and there was a steady drain of casualties.
' ... my father remembered one of them (Regimental Aid Posts) being in a knocked out tank near St Julien. Once, it was rolled over in the night by shellfire and one can only imagine the conditions inside. He always claimed that his hair went white that night. And so it went on. And on. In the course of these battles, my father suffered his second injury. With three other stretcher bearers, he was carrying a wounded man when a shell burst slick upon the man, who was of course killed together with the other three bearers. My father was knocked sideways, his steel helmet was blown off and he bit his tongue very badly causing excruciating pain. He remained on duty.'
For example, the 1st/2nd had 5 ORs - other ranks - i.e. not officers - wounded on 6 August, 3 more on 7.8, 2 more on 8.8 and 1 killed and 5 wounded on 9.8. The horses also suffered. On 8 August, 2 HD (heavy draught) and 1 LD (light draught) horses were killed and 1 HD and 2 LD wounded and evacuated. Whole infantry companies had to be detached to help. Relays of bearer posts were established.
As the battle wound down in late October, 48th Division took over a stretch of the line on Vimy Ridge, then a fairly quiet sector, and they were there when the order came to move to Italy. The Italians had suffered a major defeat at Caporetto and needed help so it was agreed on 5 November to send them four British and four French divisions. Two of the British divisions began their move on 11 November and 48th Division followed on 17 November. The 1st/2nd Field Ambulance set out on 24 November and arrived 30 November.
' ... The train journey made a great impression on my father and even the Official History speaks of the tonic effect it had on tired men. The war diary shows where they were each night, Troyes, Lyon, Marseille, Ventimiglia, Tortona, Ferrara and Poiana where they unloaded in conditions of some chaos. So my fathers memory of trains that went so slowly that one could get off the train, go into a village, buy a bottle of wine and run after the train and get back on again was right. But some over did it. The diary records laconically on 7 December 1917, a week later, that Privates Parker and Wheatley rejoined after missing unit on train journey and one can only wonder at how those two Birmingham lads managed to find their unit again. Most of the military trains followed the Corniche route along the Cote dAzur into Italy at the Italian Riviera. Like many others, the beauty of that coastline deeply impressed my father. I had never seen anything so lovely in all my life he said. ...'
It took 715 trains, 442 for troops, 102 for supplies, 102 for ammunition, 32 for Ordnance stores and 9 miscellaneous, to move four British divisions over a period of about three weeks. Considering that four French divisions moved at about the same time, the rail transport organization must have been very efficient.
The Altipiano di Asiago is the last bastion of the Alps before the plain of the river Po. Its main summits are about 1700 metres (about 5600 feet) but it is mostly a high plateau with deeply incised small valleys. The small town of Asiago is in the middle and was, before the war, a favourite summer excursion for the people from the towns of Verona and Vicenza to escape the heat of the plains.
' ... Amongst my fathers postcards, there is one from those more innocent times. It shows people getting off the little rack and pinion mountain train, the men in straw hats and the ladies elegantly dressed, with leg of mutton sleeves and sun shades. The whole area had been fought over repeatedly since 1915 and by late 1917; the line ran roughly across the middle. ...'
By the end of November, it was clear that the Austrian offensive had run its course, especially with the departure of most of the German divisions then on temporary loan, one of which included a young infantry officer by the name of Erwin Rommel. Little territory had been lost on the Asiago and the Italians consolidated their line down in the plains along the Piave river, a fairly effective obstacle. But their confidence had been badly shaken so that the British and French divisions were at first placed so as to back up the Italians in case the Austrians tried again.
' ... My father recalled, but I can find no proof of it, that as units arrived, they marched out of Vicenza with their GS (General Service) wagons with trees tied on behind to raise as much dust as possible. They then marched round the town and repeated the exercise, trying to convince the Austrians on the Asiago that they were five times as many troops as they really were. The winter both on Asiago and on the plains was bitterly cold and fuel was very hard to come by. Edward remembered the kindness of the Italian peasant families, taking the young men into their homes which were at least rather warmer than tents.
As usual, 48th Division moved around, being down by the Piave river in February before another stint on the Asiago. There must have been some local leave granted during this mostly quiet time. When I described to my father the magnificent galerias of Milan, he remembered being there with some comrades. Being broke as usual, one of them stole a bottle of wine from a stall and they were all chased through the galeria by the irate shopkeeper and the Carabinieri. The latter were hampered by their high boots and sabres and so never caught the erring soldiers.
They also had leisure to buy and send postcards. One I have shows a young lady in a slinky red dress reclining languorously on a chaise longue while a young man in tails and with a Ronald Colman moustache kisses his way up her arm. The text reads Te amo appassionamente and my oh so sophisticated 20 year old father to be had written on it, to his 19 year old girlfriend in Birmingham This will shake them in Saltley. One smiles for them but not at them. ...'
All units were required to keep a War Diary and to make an entry every day. It is interesting to note that the Transport Officers seem to have been busy trading heavy and light draught horses, riding horses and mules with one another. Finding something to say in quiet times was often difficult. Inspected iron rations has a note of desperation about it and Work as usual one of resignation. However, in May 1918, the Spanish Flu, that devastating disease which went round the world and is little understood even today, arrived in Italy and the RAMC was again busy.
From early Spring, Austria-Hungary planned a last desperate offensive in Italy to support the great German offensive in France, the Kaiserschlacht. Nothing happened for some time while the Austrian generals argued about the options, another attempt to break the Piave line or another try to clear the Asiago and descend into the plains. In the end, they decided to back both horses. In mid June they attacked. In both places their attack was quickly stopped and the lost ground regained. The 48th was in the front line for the Asiago battle and for a day or two had an alarming time, not least because the southern edge of the plateau was not far behind them and being attacked by three Austrian divisions, it did not help that some companies were well below normal strength because of Spanish Flu'.
' ... As my father said Yes, and they bloody near pushed us off it. Again, I can find no documentary proof but he remembered the attackers being led by an officer on a white horse, a sight so bizarre on a First World War battlefield that he can hardly have invented it. ... '
Click on image for further image detail.
The intensity of the two day battle, much of it fought in fog, is indicated by the 1st/2nd Field Ambulance treating 32 British officers and 547 British other ranks wounded besides 6 Austrian officers and 177 Austrian other ranks, 762 in all.
The battle died down and the old positions were regained. As the Austro-Hungarian army slowly disintegrated, the front remained quiet except for one occasion when the 48th Division, to their annoyance, suffered an unusually successful trench raid. Then, one morning towards the end of October, they found that Jerry had gone. For several days, a pursuit went on, brushing aside enemy rearguards. The weather had turned cold by then and the mountains on the north side of Asiago were formidable. The transport could not keep up and most men went without their greatcoats. The field ambulances followed as best they could. After some muddle and uncertainty, an armistice was proclaimed on 3 November.
The division was reunited in the valley town of Trent and the 48th were proud of being the only British unit which finished the war on enemy territory.
My father recalled, and the records bear him out, that they found in Trent a trainload of abandoned Austrian sick and wounded which the British RAMC naturally had to care for. There is no confirmation in the records of his recollection that the train also had one wagon loaded with Zeiss binoculars and another with Luger pistols, all of which were promptly liberated.
It was all over and the British Army wanted to go home as soon as possible. The first men, seven other ranks, left the 1st/2nd Field Ambulance on 17 January 1919. Unfortunately for him, my fathers employers, the Birmingham Co-operative Wholesale Society made a mistake, however well meant, when they wrote certifying that his job would be kept open for him. An officer endorsed the letter with I intend to keep this man until the cadre is demobilized. In spite of his length of service, he was young, unmarried and with a job to go to. As usual, they tried to keep the men amused with sports and there is a photo of the 48th Divisions cross country team with my father there in a white coat as their trainer. Two other unit photographs were taken, with curious Italian peasants looking on, one of the whole and the other of a section, my father identifiable in both.
In March 1919, he was posted to a British Military Hospital in Bordighera, as a clerk. The hospital was caring for British prisoners of war brought out of Austria, (see "Dearest Blue Eyes" ) many suffering severely from malnutrition. It occupied the curiously named Hotel Angst and an Italian colleague from that town assured me a few years ago that it still existed. At long last, release came. Marching down to the docks at Leghorn (Livorno) they heard that military police were searching mens kits. No one wanted any delay so pistols, binoculars and other hard to account for souvenirs went into the waters of the dock.
On 6 May 1919, he was demobilized from the depot at Fovant in Wiltshire, having served four years and six months. He was still a private although he boasted that he had been a lance corporal five times but always lost his one stripe when he and his comrades went out to wet it. He returned home with a War Gratuity of £26 and a Certificate of Employment during the War which described him as a good, willing clerk, hardly adequate but, being one of the last to go, all the officers who had known him had gone earlier.
He went back to his old job, went to one reunion only and never bothered to put his campaign medals on their ribbons so that they could be worn but he had the name and address of his Commanding Officer, a Birmingham doctor, in his address book which also contains the addresses of a surprising number of unmarried ladies mostly called Doris or Nellie. He also recalled how one comrade came home, knocked on the door, having no key, but could not reach his wife when she died of a heart attack on the other side. He described himself and his returned comrades as being so san fairy ann (cela ne fait rien = it doesnt matter) that we did not even look to see which way the traffic was coming. Nothing could touch us. Perhaps such attitudes might explain much of the malaise of the 1920s and 1930s.
He married in 1923 the Saltley girlfriend to whom he had sent postcards. My brother Alan was born in 1925 and I, yet another Edward, came along in 1929. My mother once told me that in the early years, he often woke her by screaming in nightmares. Thinking it was for the best, she burnt his diaries.
In 1932, he fell out with his employers and we moved to Bournemouth, a seaside town about 30 miles west of Southampton, where he bought a small shop. They lived there until he was forced into early retirement by illness. In 1960, we brought them to London and they lived with us until he died in 1969, aged 70. My mother followed him in 1974. Although a devout churchwoman, I suspect she went willingly.
His experiences had consequences for us boys. He was proud of his skill in bandaging and a small cut on the end of the finger would result in one being swathed to the shoulder in beautifully criss crossing bandages, simply tucked in at the top, which would always stay in place. He believed firmly in the merits of horse iodine for any break in the skin, poured on generously straight from the bottle, to encouraging cries of Chins up, the Warwicks. Sprains and twists were treated with Sloans Horse Embrocation, from a bottle in a package showing The Hunter Lame and The Hunter Cured, the horse being treated by a groom with spiky moustaches and in breeches, belt and braces. Such treatments at least had the merit of making one reluctant to complain.
His piano lessons had been interrupted by the war and were never resumed but he enjoyed playing and would often bang out such ditties as We are the Birmingham boys, we make a really big noise. Boys of society, known for sobriety . Later, in his retirement, he worked his way through a piano score of Gounods Faust.
He had only one stroke of good fortune when he inherited his share of his mothers estate. He used the money to buy a 21 year lease on the shop and on the next door property. The two shops were made into one and the work was finished in August 1939. Unluckily, the tourist trade to Bournemouth did not exactly prosper for the next six years.
In 1938, he volunteered for the new Air Raids Precautions organization which later became known as Civil Defence and served as a warden. Not long before his death in 1969, he asked me if I knew why and explained that he couldnt have borne to have gone again. He was then 40 and in the first war, men were conscripted up to 45. When the war came and Bournemouth was regularly bombed, mostly in a desultory sort of way, he was sensible, steady, loyal and brave. Indeed, he roared with laughter when bombs about two hundred yards away blew my brother and I out of bed in the little back room we shared and left us jammed between the beds and said he had never seen us come down the stairs so fast.
His garage had had to be built out of asbestos sheet because it was so close to the house. For some weeks, a battalion of French Canadians of Le Régiment de la Chaudière was stationed nearby and the asbestos suffered from the amatory exploits of the soldiers with the local girls. He wrote to the no doubt young lieutenant colonel commanding saying that he sympathized because he knew where they were going but would they kindly find somewhere else. The colonel replied, politely.
I doubt if he ever had a clear, simple attitude towards his experience. He certainly disliked militarism and was fond of remarks like Next time, they can put King George and the Kaiser in a ring and they can fight it out with pigs bladders on sticks. Neither his own family nor that of his wife had suffered particularly. A cousin, James Angus, died in a prison camp in Germany and so my brother got James as a second name and I got Angus. My mothers half brother, Will, later a shunting driver for the Great Western Railway, did eighteen months inside for desertion but then he was in bantam battalion and could not see over the parapet.
He certainly blamed the Germans quite possibly because he had had to deal with the consequences of war but he gave me a German dictionary when I was posted there in 1948 and forgot all about his dislike when we brought pretty, 17 year old Ute, a daughter of the German family I had come to know, to visit Bournemouth in 1960.
Certainly, he grieved for his comrades and I never forgot my surprise at seeing his tears at an Armistice Day ceremony in 1938. It cannot be said too often that, unlike for instance France, 11th November was never a day of celebration but one of remembrance. He was again in tears when in 1962, we took him and my mother to the places in France and Belgium that he had known and we went to the Thiepval monument. But, when staying at the Hostellerie des Remparts in Péronne, he liked it when Madame who was pregnant and as healthy as a Flemish mare, flirted with him, to the amusement of my mother. He was also deeply affected when T. E. Lawrence was killed in 1935 at Wool, not so far from us. He visited Lawrences grave in Moreton churchyard several times and it was almost as if something of his life had gone.
But perhaps his was an attitude common amongst the former soldiers of his generation. They knew nothing of the writings of the self-proclaimed disenchanted former public schoolboys. All they knew was that there was a job to be done. It was messy and often frightening business but it had to be done just the same and they were proud at having played their part in it. Their grieving afterwards was for their lost comrades and their own lost youth. The high point of their lives came when they were still very young and everything afterwards was anti climax. ...'