6 December 2012

The Hammers Stretcher Bearers

Some of the bravest among the brave in the first world war were the stretcher bearers.

By the time the West Ham Battalion arrived in France (December, 1915), Norman William Bellinger was regarded by everyone as a very good soldier and had been appointed Lance Corporal. He was also placed in charge of the medics under the direct command of Dr Alan Holthusen, the Medical Officer.

Holthusen was a locally born GP surgeon with a practise in Wanstead and his younger brother Len was also in the Hammers, living in Forest Gate and serving as the Signals Officer (and the current battalion snooker champion).

Norman Bellinger was 28 when he enlisted at the Hammers recruiting office in East Ham early in January 1915. He was one of those listed on the front page appeal for volunteers in the Stratford Express. Married on Christmas Day in 1909 to Lillian, and living with their young daughter at 33 Howard Road in Barking, Norman worked in a local india rubber factory as a labourer. He was short, yet very strong.

By April 27th 1916, the Hammers were in and around the modern-day town of Grenay in northern France. The German's launched one of the everyday hazards of trench life - mortar bombs, silent in flight and deadly on impact. During the attack, 38 year old Pte Joe Cooper was gravely injured. First on the scene was Norman Bellinger, who began wrapping Joe up in bandages. The two men then came under further mortar fire, which hit Norman himself in three places and no doubt made Joe's situation a whole lot worse.

Gilbert Rogers, 1919

With further brave assistance from the other stretcher bearers, the two wounded men were brought in. Norman had made every effort to save the badly injured Cooper despite bleeding heavily from his own wounds. Sadly, Joe didn't survive and wouldn't return to his native Limehouse. Today he's buried in the Loos British cemetery.

Norman recovered enough to continue exhibiting incredible bravery. Less than a fortnight later he dashed out, still patched up, to assist L/Cpl Jimmy Dutton from Plaistow who had been hit in a very similar attack. Norman picked him up and carried him back but he was already dead. For this action, he was one of the earliest men in the war to be awarded the Military Medal.

On June 1st, when the Germans blew three huge mines right on the Hammers front, Norman was one of the stretcher bearers picking up shattered men from the moonscape battlefield while under artillery fire. The wounded were all taken to Dr Holthusen's aid tent which that night practically became the Advanced dressing Station for the whole Brigade during the German attack.

Holthusen treated over 90 men from three different Regiments that night but they couldn't be moved out to the proper care they urgently required as the shelling on their positions was "intense". By the morning, as the shelling lessened, Norman Bellinger was transferring them on to lorries and off to hospital.

At the end of July, the West Ham Battalion were on the Somme and engaged in blocking the almost suicidal counter-attacks being made by the Germans against Deville Wood. 'The Devil's Wood', as it was known by the Tommys, was a desperately hellish place to be. Many Hammers were killed over their few days in the frontline, not many have known graves. Those that do were brought in by Norman and his stretcher bearers. Norman was seen to be tireless. He didn't care about sleeping, he didn't care about eating. He simply cared about getting those men off that horrendous battlefield. We'll never know how many men he saved or who today have a known grave thanks to him and others, but Norman's actions were enough for him to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Gilbert Rogers

When Colonel Papillon had his breakdown from shell shock at the end of the Somme Summer of 1916, it was Bellinger who personally led him home and back to his wife at Catsfield Place in Sussex. Norman then had an extended leave to recover himself before he transferred over to the Labour Corps. By Armistace Day, Norman Bellinger was classed as 50% disabled from his wounds and went home to Barking, in a new house at 28 Shaftesbury Road. He died in early 1963 having lived to be 76 years old.

Another of the Hammers stretcher bearers was Charlie Gladding. He was one of a number of men who lived in Tidal Basin, under the shadows of the world renowned Thames Ironworks. A large group of men from these streets joined the West Ham Battalion and among them was 22 year old Charlie who lived with his new teenage wife in Alice Street.

He worked closely with Norman Bellinger in rescuing those lads mown down on the battlefield, but by the end of Summer 1916 after their tour on the Somme, Charlie Gladding's spirit broke. Like so many men, he suffered a nervous breakdown. Sent home to his wife, he eventually recovered, and was then posted to the Labour Corps, serving overseas in Salonika. Sadly, it was here that he caught pneumonia in September 1918, just a few months before the end of the war, and died.

Sadly, I've not yet found a photo of these brave men. But I cant help admiring Norman Bellinger's bravery, as Joe Cooper was my Gt-Grandfather...

4 December 2012

Dinner Up West

Frank Keeble was an original Officer in the West Ham Battalion. Although he came from the countryside of Essex his mum had been born in the Borough and his grandad was an Alderman.

He won the Military Cross on the Hammers first trench raid in July 1916 where he not only broke his leg but was wounded by shrapnel in three places. He was sent to hospital in Reading for three weeks and then moved into the Atherton Road home of another volunteer in the Hammers, Lt Reg Norman. Reg was a fruit and veg salesman in Stratford market and his dad ran a very large and successful produce distribution.

By September, Frank Keeble was ready to return to the West Ham Battalion but before he did he met up on the 17th with an old pal and fellow Hammer from the early days in Stratford, Reggie Howell. They went 'up West' together and headed for the Trocadero restaurant in Piccadilly. Reggie would have told Frank just what had been happening over the Somme Summer and how the Hammers had been hit with high casualties. Hopefully the news didn't ruin the meal too much.

Here's what they had - Frank and Reggie both signed the menu for posterity

menu courtesy of the Keeble Family

German Heritage Volunteers

One of the West Ham Battalion officers, Ernest Sherman (who came from Whitechapel and won his Military Cross at Oppy, April 1917) was German heritage, but he wasn't the only one.

There are a distinct number of German surnames in the Hammers, but this shouldn't be surprising - the 1911 Census records that about 2% of the Borough of West Ham was 'foreign born'.

Most of the lads were British born but of German parents or grand parents and they included the Medical Officer, Dr Alan Holthusen. He had his GP surgery in Sebert Road, Forest Gate and another in Wanstead. His younger brother Len was also serving in the Hammers, as the Signals Officer.

Alan Holthusen

The West Ham Battalion tailor was Ernie Kurtz, born in Bow but living in Forest Gate, son of a tailor and married to a seamstress.

Ernie Kurtz

Other German surnames on the Muster Roll of 'Originals' include Lang, Luck, Giess (two brothers who enlisted together), Vogt, Teitjen (who knocked a few years off his age and was severely shattered mentally by the Somme Summer of 1916), Tettmar, Hauser, Izzat, Francker, Englefield, Vaus, Zimmer, Schuler, Therin (two more brothers who enlisted together) and Kunkel (who was wounded by a sniper).

Cyril Blattman is interesting as he was living just a few doors down from Mr Flatan's photography shop in Ley Street, Ilford when he enlisted. Although Cyril's surname sounds German, it was actually from his grandfather Jean Blattman - who was born in Matherne in the Alsace region of France and first appears in London on the 1851 Census!

3 December 2012

The Weekly Shopping

Here's a Mess Bill belonging to 2/Lt Frank Keeble, from a snowy February 1916 when the West Ham Battalion were billeted behind the freezing lines at Les Choquaux.

It gives a small insight into the requirements of the B Company Officers in the trenches of the Western Front.

 (courtesy Keeble Family)

What Became of UC-5?

As the West Ham Battalion sailed to France on November 17th, 1915, their ship SS Princess Victoria was soon delayed in her journey to allow the hospital ship (HS) Anglia to enter port.

Commanded by Captain Lionel J Manning, the HS Anglia was returning from France full of evacuated wounded. In a sudden flash she struck a mine, laid earlier that morning by the German submarine UC-5. Captain Manning was blown from the bridge to the deck below in the explosion but regained his senses long enough to order the lowering of lifeboats. The Anglia began to sink, bow first, and extremely quickly taking one hundred and twenty-nine lives with her. Ships and boats made frantic efforts to assist in the rescue. One ship was sunk by yet another mine, although without any further loss of life.

With this unsettling welcome to the war for the Hammers, SS Princess Victoria resumed steaming her slow passage as a sea fog began to obscure the English coastline.

SS Princess Victoria

But what became of the submarine UC-5, which had laid the mine?

Incredibly, she was captured a year later and sent to be displayed on the Thames. The noise was incredible as she entered the Pool of London with every ship blowing it's horns in triumphant celebration. Moored at Temple Pier she was visited by many thousands of Londoners.

Finally, by October, she was hoisted up on-board another ship and sailed off to the USA, arriving in New York and ending up in Central Park to become a fund raising display.