Food, foot­ball and a game of House

With much at­ten­tion on the cen­te­nary of the out­break of the First World War, we look back at the day-to-day life of a Bri­tish ser­vice­man. Com­mu­nity Ed­i­tor Mort Smith talks to a man whose grand­fa­ther kept a di­ary dur­ing a train and boat jour­ney from Englan

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UN­LIKE many peo­ple who had rel­a­tives in­volved in the First World War, Stephen Hathrill, of Ham­p­den Hill, Bea­cons­field, has a wealth of mem­o­ra­bilia to re­mind him of the role his grand­fa­ther, Fred Hathrill, played dur­ing the con­flict.

Among his prized pos­ses­sions are two di­aries kept by Fred dur­ing a lengthy trip from Eng­land to Egypt dur­ing March 1918 when his unit was trans­ported by troop train and ship.

Fred, who was in the ter­ri­to­ri­als be­fore the out­break of the war, vol­un­teered for the Royal Army Med­i­cal Corps (RAMC) and had been on the Western Front as a stretcher bearer from Septem­ber 1914.

He was badly wounded at the Bat­tle of Cam­brai in 1917, but after re­cu­per­at­ing from his in­juries in Eng­land, he and his com­rades were shipped out to the Mid­dle East.

Stephen said: “I re­mem­ber my grand­fa­ther well – he died in 1973 – but it shed new light on what be­ing in the First World War was like when I read th­ese di­aries.

“It was in­ter­est­ing to read about what life was like for the av­er­age sol­dier when they weren’t in­volved in the fight­ing.”

Fred’s jour­ney started in Black­pool when he was one of two de­tails of troops – each num­ber­ing be­tween 6,000 and 7,000 men – who were to be taken to Alexan­dria.

In­ter­est­ingly, his di­ary re­veals that the high­est-ranked sol­diers in ei­ther de­tail were full cor­po­rals and that the troops were largely left to or­gan­ise them­selves dur­ing the trip.

The di­ary com­mences: “Pa­raded in Have­lock St with full kit at 3.45am and marched down to Red­monds Café for break­fast. Had ba­con, beans, bread and tea. From here we went to the old Ar­tillery Drill Hall in York Street.

think it was where they gave us one thick meat sand­wich for din­ner. Marched to Tal­bot Road Sta­tion, mostly to the strains of ‘Good­byee’, and en­trained there, eight in a car­riage. Four of us, North from my bil­let and two of his pals, Hodges and Bux­ton, made up a solo school and played the best part of the jour­ney to Southamp­ton, which we reached about 3pm (we had left Black­pool at 6.45am).

“On ar­riv­ing at the docks we had a Roll Call and then went aboard the SS Prince George about 5pm. She was a two-fun­nelled Chan­nel boat, ter­ri­bly

Idirty and stuffy and al­to­gether un­com­fort­able be­low decks, where we were. We left Southamp­ton about 7pm. No tea or food of any de­scrip­tion was served out to us; so after writ­ing a let­ter to mother and Q (Quee­nie, his girl­friend) I turned in, and in spite of the dis­com­fort dropped off to sleep all right. “I no­ticed that the ex­cite­ment ex­pe­ri­enced when I first went to France was miss­ing and I was tak­ing ev­ery­thing as a mat­ter of course.”

The di­ary con­tin­ues to tell the story of a long and un­com­fort­able jour­ney through France and Italy, with the men hav­ing to sleep like sar­dines on the floors of wooden cat­tle trucks – but there were lighter mo­ments.

Stephen said: “He tells the story of a foot­ball match be­tween Ital­ian sol­diers and Bri­tish troops. He de­scribed the ar­rival of se­nior Ital­ian of­fi­cers, all done up in their fin­ery

Iwith feath­ers in their hats, wear­ing swords and cloaks and step­ping out of big cars, ob­vi­ously ex­pect­ing their men to show the Bri­tish how to play foot­ball. The Bri­tish won the match 7-0 so it didn’t quite go ac­cord­ing to plan!”

Find­ing ways to while away the time on the jour­ney was a chal­lenge, but Fred re­ported that play­ing House (lotto) was a popular pas­time.

He wrote: “There were umpteen fel­lows run­ning th­ese ‘House schools’ and all you could hear was, ‘Kelly’s Eye, Click­erty-Click, Legs Eleven, Top Of The Shop’ – which are re­spec­tively num­bers one, 66, 11 and 90!

“It’s a good business for the fel­lows that run it. At 10 o’clock we fell in and marched back to the train. It had been a pleas­ant change to be able walk about after the jolt­ing and jar­ring in the train; there aren’t many springs on a cat­tle truck!”

Even­tu­ally the de­tail reached Alexan­dria and Fred Hathrill sur­vived to the end of the war be­fore mar­ry­ing his sweet­heart, Quee­nie, oth­er­wise known as Emily Jenk­ins, a nurse whom he met in 1917 while re­cu­per­at­ing from his wounds at Vick­ers Hos­pi­tal, near Dart­ford.

But, in 1940, he vol­un­teered to join the RAF and served with a num­ber of units in an ad­min­is­tra­tive ca­pac­ity.

Fred Hathrill’s di­aries paint a fas­ci­nat­ing pic­ture of life as a sol­dier dur­ing the First World War, par­tic­u­larly un­der­lin­ing the ca­ma­raderie that ex­isted among the troops.

Stephen Hathrill, left, dis­cov­ered his grand­fa­ther’s di­aries fol­low­ing the death of his mother. They turn a spot­light on the lives of or­di­nary ser­vice­men when they were not in­volved in the fight­ing. Right, Cor­po­ral Fred Hathrill – be­low, post­cards from his trav­els

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