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
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