‘70 per cent disabled’ aged 24
My grandad, Bert Smith was born in April 1894, so that would make him 121 if he were alive today. Or, more importantly, he was ‘celebrating’ reaching the age of majority – 21 – eight months into the First World War. Twenty-one’s a strange age to get the vote, in an era when the school leaving age was 12, life expectancy just under 50 and, at 16 you could well be out there on the front line serving ‘King and country’.
Obviously 1915 wasn’t a good year to celebrate a 21st birthday, especially with two of his older brothers away fighting on the Western Front. As 1915 unfolded, it would rank among the worst years of grandad’s life: his eldest brother, Ernest (Wiltshire Regiment) shot in the head by a sniper at Ypres and died within the hour; the other brother, Robert (London Regiment) badly injured in the Battle of Loos, having a leg amputated. [See blog post Bob’s your uncle, 28 October 2015]. As for my grandad, the war, injury and disability were to shape the rest of his life.
Born in a South Wiltshire village, Bert Smith was one of a family of 11 brothers and sisters, although not all of them survived infancy. His father, John was a journeyman leather tanner who did several other jobs in an attempt to make ends meet. Rural poverty was rife but John Smith had a plan to lift his sons out of the struggle he’d endured.
Unfortunately that plan involved them joining the armed forces as professional servicemen and working their way up through the ranks. He was of course, thinking this as a young man himself, long before the First World War or even the Boer War.
Bert’s eldest brother Ernest had been a professional soldier from the early 1900s until 1912, serving the Coldstream Guards. Bert himself had briefly joined the Royal Marines at Eastney in 1912.
‘Some officers cared more about their horses than they did for their men.’
Bert enlisted at Salisbury on 9 December 1915. He had wanted to join the infantry, but was unable to do so because his hammer toes meant he could not march long distances. The recruiting sergeant asked him if he knew anything about horses. Smith wasn’t keen, but as he preferred the Army Veterinary Corps (AVC) over the other ‘choice’ he was given (the artillery), so he said he’d worked with horses on local farms.
After joining the AVC (now the Royal Army Veterinary Corps) and completing his training, he was sent to France and was posted immediately to No. 12 Veterinary Hospital at Neufchatel, Étaples. Here he assisted vets as well as looking after horses and mules. Horses were taken for exercise along the beach. He recalled with shock and disgust that the officers would often come to the hospital to visit their horses, but would very rarely visit their injured men.
The hospital was part of the notorious British Expeditionary Force’s depot and transit camp which was often bombed and machine-gunned by the Germans.
Although Bert talked little about what he did in the hospital, or about his war experiences in general, he did, however, mention horsemeat being prepared and fed to the troops on the frontline. Apparently it tastes like very strong oxtail.
Injury and disability
Private Smith was injured on 19 February 1919 (after Armistice but before Treaty of Versailles 28 June 1919). The pensions records stored at the National Archives give details about his accident and subsequent treatment. The 31 pages of records include his brief description: ‘When bringing one horse out of the stable another kicked at it and kicked me instead.’ Or, as he would later explain, in his own words: ‘While leading horses through stables, the front horse was “nipped” [by the horse he was leading], it kicked out, knocking my elbow through my arm.’ Clrearly his right arm had been severely injured.
Over the next 20 months, Smith was to receive treatment at various hospitals:
- 22 General Hospital, Camieres, France – admitted 19 February 1919
- Queen Mary’s Military Hospital, Whalley, Blackburn – 26 February 1919
- Heavy Woollen District War Hospital, Dewsbury – 20 March 1919
- Special Military Hospital, Shepherd’s Bush – dates of admission and discharge unclear
- South African Military Hospital, Richmond, Surrey – 21 June 1920 to 21 July 1920 (and 15 October 1920 for Medial Board appointment 18 October 1920)
It was at the Special Military Hospital, Shepherd’s Bush (now Hammersmith Hospital) that Smith underwent pioneering bone grafting operations. (It was to be at Hammersmith Hospital coincidentally, years later, where I was to spend the first weeks of my life, separated from my twin sister who was at Perivale Hospital). The pioneering procedures on grandad’s arm were carried out by Mr Laming Worthington-Evans (the brother of the Minister for Pensions in the Coalition Government). On 15 January 1920, a bone graft operation removed part of Smith’s left shinbone and attempted to graft it to the ulna of his right arm. This failed, resulting in a double fracture. Later in 1920 a boiled ox bone was tried as another unsuccessful graft. Previous operations had included (on 14 May 1919) surgery on the head of the radius, but this had also gone wrong, (according to the rather vague official pension record notes) caused a dislocation of the radius.
Rare WW1 X-ray plates
All injured soldiers wore loose, blue uniforms. It was not uncommon for the ‘walking wounded’ soldiers to be expected to carry their own x-ray plates to the consultants after they had been x-rayed. As the plates were fragile, soldiers would often drop a couple of the glass plates and hide the remaining x-rays in their loose jackets. They would go back to have their x-rays taken again and keep the saved plates as souvenirs. Smith must have done this on more than one occasion.
Sets of glass-mounted x-rays of the forearm remained in the family, and showed the ulnar fracture before and after treatment. After many years in a cardboard box at my grandma’s, then my parents’ home, then mine, these x-rays were taken into the Imperial War Museum’s collection – I was thrilled.
Smith was classified as ‘70 per cent disabled’ and demobilised on 22 October 1920. On returning to civilian life, he was fortunate in that his old employer, the Southern Tanning Company, recruited disabled servicemen, so he could resume work. He worked there until his retirement in 1964 aged 70. During the Second World War, grandad was an ARP (Air Raid Precaution) Warden. Fading family pictures show him wearing a strange leather brace to steady his weak arm.
Bert Smith died on 22 October 1969 aged 75 – exactly 49 years after his demobilisation from the army, and ten days before Jenny and I had our first birthday.