November 1917 - The Road to Recovery

16th November 1917

Following the weekly visit of the MO, I was declared ready for a discharge from hospital with a medical grading of BIII.  I said goodbye to hospitable Lightwoods Hall, Smethwick.  It was certainly time I was on the move.  Three months enforced inactivity had increased my weight by three stone and a little exercise was essential.  A quick return visit to Lichfield Barracks where the hospital grey was exchanged for regulation khaki and I was on my way home to that little village in Essex for ten days leave.

During recovery in England (top row, third from right)

During recovery in England (top row, centre)

26th November 1917

The Third Battalion was now located in East Putney mostly billeted in empty houses.  After a brief visit to the MO I was regraded A1 and posted to C Company.  Back to the beginning with the rookies!  My immediate reaction was to look around for any familiar faces back from the swamps of Ypres.  There were none.

With my return to the Third Battalion commenced a period of misery and deep depression.  Torn between conflicting emotions I found myself completely alone in spirit with nothing in common with the younger members of C Company and, perhaps to my shame, I wished it that way.  On their part they looked upon the overseas man as a being apart, a stranger in their midst, someone to be regarded with awe.  I knew because I too had experienced the same inferiority complex not many months earlier when in the presence of those entitled to wear the soft hats and the red QWR on their shoulders.  Even my close companions of the days at Redhill, not yet of an age for active drafting, seemed different and in spite of the generous welcome back from E J Smith and many others the carefree and irresponsible associations of the past were elusive.  It was I not they who had changed.  With the best will in the world I found myself unable to join in the light-hearted quips and banter which took place in the YMCA and cafes of Putney High Street.  Ever conscious of the hell on earth that was to be their portion before many weeks had passed I had no desire to be the spectre at the feast and went to the length of inventing excuses to avoid the evening quest for food.  During the lonely hours my thoughts went out continuously to those others across the water, ever wondering how each in turn was faring.  As my former chief assessed my character I was not the ‘belligerent type’ and yet, at times, I felt that only the mind and blood of another Ypres could bring back the close human relationships which, in November 1917, I so greatly missed.

It was in this spell that ‘EJ’ (Smith) sought me out one evening with an invitation to supper at his home a short distance from Putney.  We arrived at a small, comfortable villa and were greeted excitedly by two elderly ladies, his mother and her sister.  I got the impression that EJ had no other relatives.  He was the apple of their eye, their sole remaining interest in life.  They entertained me in a gracious and generous manner but in spite of their kindly reception, perhaps even because of it, I regretted my intrusion into the family scene.  EJ was about 19, well over six feet in height, thin and sallow complexioned with large brown eyes.  He once told me that shortly before joining up he had achieved his first success in commercial art with a poster already to be seen on the hoardings.  As we said goodbye to the old ladies a cold chill run up my spine – premonition perhaps – or cold logic?  One day in the not too distant future a German sniper was to fire the bullet that was to find its target between those two large brown eyes.

During December the Third Battalion moved to huts erected on Wimbledon Common.  The quarters were comfortable but the night hops in Richmond Park were exciting.  As well as those official manoeuvres frequent air raid warnings roused us in the dead of night to scatter to distant parts of the common.

On the parade ground I knew the routine but after three months of complete idleness and overeating I was far from being the smartest soldier on parade.  During my absence the Boer War Martini rifle had been replaced by the Canadian Ross rifle.  This weapon was originally intended for general issue to the British Army but the war came too quickly and the smaller calibre Ross was not yet produced in sufficient quantity and so was used solely for arms drill.  Reputedly the Canadian weapon was more accurate than the old Lee Enfield but for handling on the square it was cumbersome.  ‘Trailing arms’ which involved throwing the rifle forward and catching it at the point of balance was my downfall.  With the whole company on parade I misjudged the throw and the extra high backsight on the new rifle caught my hand at the spot where Jerry had already operated!  I felt like the poor subject of the excellent cartoon by H M Bateman – “The Guardsman who dropped his rifle on parade”.  My weapon sailed through the air and landed at the sergeant’s feet.  They were reasonably understanding in the guardroom but suggested that a medical report was advisable.  The regimental MO barely waited for an explanation of my trouble but said with a grin “I did not expect you could complete with such a manoeuvre.”.

The Guardsman Who Dropped It, Tatler 1 December 1922 © H M Bateman Designs
I returned to quarters to await further orders.  The company was still on parade but in the hut one lone figure was lounging on his bed.  During my brief career coincidence was always around the corner.  Those distant yet personal connections with Forster and Bradley were happy ones but the situation which now confronted me was disturbing.  The lounger on the bed sat up, glad to find he had company.  “Hello chum, what are you here for?”  I explained briefly what had happened and held up my three fingers.  In turn he held up his right hand minus the little finger!  I shall never forget his exact words, “Blimey chum, what yer fink we’ll get for it?”.  I was too shocked and disgusted to reply and went outside for fresh air, conscious that for the rest of my life strangers would suspiciously eye the missing member on my right hand and naturally, perhaps, think in terms of SIW (self-inflicted wound).  My expectations were very soon to be confirmed.  Unfortunately SIWs were all too common in 1917 and I came across several in the convalescent hospital.  Toes appeared to be a favourite target and strangely enough the perpetrators boasted of their cleverness.

"In the British army during World War I, the maximum penalty for a self-inflicted wound ("Wilfully maiming himself with intent to render himself unfit for service" as it was described) under Section 18 of the Army Act 1881 was imprisonment, rather than capital punishment. In the British Army, some 3,894 men were found guilty, and were sent to prison for lengthy periods."
From the Wikipedia entry for Self-Inflicted Wound

What happened eventually to the lad in the hut on Wimbledon Common I know not but I never saw him in custody, as I might very well have expected, since on the following day I was appointed camp policeman.  My orders were to parade around the whole camp in light fatigues armed with a long cane during the hours from ‘Reveille’ to ‘Lights Out’ with no need to report to higher authority.  I interpreted this as an instruction to “get lost”.  I soon wearied of the constant perambulation of the camp with no tangible result to the responsibility thrust upon me and gladly accepted the freedom of the evenings to while away a few hours drinking tea in the YMCA.

15th December 1917

I attended a medical board somewhere in the Sloane Square district.  Seated at a large table with his back towards me was an elderly surgeon perusing my medical dossier.  Meantime his two very young assistants spotted my maimed hand and I noted a glint of interest in their faces.  The questions came thick and fast.  “Where was I when ‘it’ happened?”  “What caused it?”  “How far away did the shell burst?”  “At what angle?”  “Did anyone else see it?”  They plugged away unceasingly with their questions.  The less I said the more convinced they were that their victim himself pulled the trigger.  At last the old man at the desk turned round and spoke to the two young enthusiasts.  “Never mind that now you two, let’s have a look at the stomach wound.”  I was not sure who most enjoyed the discomfiture of my two red-faced inquisitors, the man at the desk or myself.

It was near midnight when I arrived back into camp by a devious route and crawled into bed.