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How shameful is this?

James, competent, reliable and a very good driver

James, competent, reliable and a very good driver

Remember I told you about my grandad, the one who went to New York and fell off the Mauretania? Now I want to tell you what happened to him when he joined the army in 1914. Partly because it’s interesting, and partly because there is no memorial to the regiment that he served with; which when you think of what they went through, is nothing short of shameful.

James had four brothers and two sisters. His brothers Bob, Alexander (Sandy) and Arthur all signed up. I’m not sure what the youngest son George did, but their parents must have found life hard with four sons on the Western Front. Bob was 30 and married. His wife Peg gave birth to their third child in November 1914, and he joined the Scots Guards in January 1915. At first everything went pretty well, the army kept him in England and trained him to shoe horses. But in 1917 he was posted to the Somme and in March 1918, when the Germans mounted a counter attack he was shot in the shoulder and died the next day. Here is the list of personal effects that were sent back to Peg, on August 3, 1918: photographs, cards, a poem, two discs, letters, religious book, a handkerchief, 11 buttons, a purse, scissors, a French dictionary, two badges, a wallet and a broken brooch.

Arthur, left, and Bob, standing, with Alex, centre.

Arthur, left, and Bob, standing, with Alex, centre.

Sandy, two years younger, was a driver in the Royal Artillery. This meant riding a horse in a team of six pulling a gun carriage, and making sure that they got to the front line without stampeding or turning the gun over. Bit like his farm job, I suppose, except that nobody shoots at you in Fife. Amazingly, he survived and went to Canada, where he had a rather extraordinary and ultimately tragic end (but more about that another time). Arthur was 21. He too was in the Scots Guards, and was shot in the knee and invalided out.

And now we come to James. He was 26, and, as I said, he joined the Army Service Corps. He might have been assigned to the regiment because he was one of the very few people at that time who could drive. This was probably because of his apprenticeship to a grocer, but I don’t know. He signed up on November 17, 1914 and was sent to France on December 23. When his daughter asked him what he did, he simply said he delivered stores to the front line. As was quite common in those days, he gave no descriptions at all.  We do know that he was promoted to corporal and based at No 2 GHQ Reserve Motor Company in Calais.

The Army Service Corps wasn’t a glamorous regiment. It didn’t get its Royal prefix until after the war was over, and the men in it called themselves Ally Sloper’s Cavalry (after a cartoon drunk and rent dodger). There were only a few hundred motor vehicles worldwide in the regiment in 1914, but there were 105,000 at the time of the Armistice. What I found strange was that there were also 650 former civilian buses on the Western Front, used to transport troops and stores. It must have seemed like the blackest of humour to be sent up to the front line at say, Ypres or Arras or Paschaendale, on a Number 32. (I think my granddad drove one of these; he was certainly a bus driver for a time after the war.)

Historians have paid so little attention to this regiment and the part that its men played in the war, that it is extremely difficult to get any details about specific units and what they did. But it doesn’t take much imagination to realise how terrifying his job must have been. You can’t drive and shoot at the same time. You just have to keep driving. When James was demobbed on May 27, 1919, his discharge papers noted that he was a ‘very good driver, thoroughly reliable’.

The German artillery definitely liked to target the supply trucks and depots. And when casualties mounted among front line troops, the soldiers of the ASC were routinely given a gun and sent to the front. According to the Western Front Association  it is rare to find a British War Memorial without the name of a soldier in the ASC. Two members of the regiment were awarded the Victoria Cross. Some of the bravest men in the war, those who drove the field ambulances, were in the ASC. This year marks the centennial of the start of the First War, and yet, according to Army history site The Long, Long Trail, the regiment, so vital to the army, merits just four mentions in the Official History of the war.  There is no memorial to it.

As I said. Shameful.

About elainecanham

I started blogging because I'm a writer, and I thought I ought to. Now I realise that I blog because I lwant to; even when I can't think of much to say. I do a lot of work for local businesses - get in touch if you like my style.


15 thoughts on “How shameful is this?

  1. This year starts many Centenary Events in Europe. It might be the right time to try to get all the untold stories out into the public eye. http://www.greatwar.co.uk/events/2014-2018-ww1-centenary-events.htm

    Posted by Albatz Gallery & Blog | April 21, 2014, 12:06 am
  2. Hmm… It doesn’t surprise me you heard nothing back. I’ll see what I can dig up. It might take quite awhile as most of my old mates were in the Artillery, but I’ll make a few inquiries too, I might be lucky and get a better response…

    I presume it’s information on the units/company’s specific to the time and places your grandfather served (have made a note of the relevant info in your post)? My email is listed on my about page if there’s anything I can help with…

    Posted by echoesofthepen | April 19, 2014, 3:13 pm
    • thank you. My brother was in the artillery; be odd if you knew each other. The other area of research that I am banging my head over is the fact that my father was in the Royal Engineers during the war, with a Sikh battalion. There is almost nothing about the fact that the Sikhs fought in Italy, despite the fact that they won quite a few VCs. Again, shameful.

      Posted by elainecanham | April 19, 2014, 4:19 pm
  3. Wholly agree with you. I’m sure you’re already familiar with all the more prominent sites regarding unit and personel records and information, but if I come across any that are more specific to the ASC I’ll be sure to drop you a line; I’ll mention it in some of the ex-servicemen Fb groups to see if anything comes up too…

    Posted by echoesofthepen | April 19, 2014, 2:30 pm
    • I found the museum website, and it is awful, really hard to use. Search engine is crap, and you have to pay to view search results, without having a clue whether they’re going to be relevant or not. Also, they don’t tell you that you can’t return to look at anything you’ve already paid for. I told the chap in charge of the website exactly what I thought of it and how it could be improved, and oddly, (hah!) I’ve heard nothing back.

      Posted by elainecanham | April 19, 2014, 2:34 pm
  4. Hello Elaine

    Thank you for posting this. Whilst I truly believe the British Army to be the best in the world, sadly it’s hierarchy and successive governments have been somewhat remiss in documenting and honouring many of its lesser known and unsung heroes. With so many regiments and battalions being either merged or disbanded altogether, much of the army’s great and varied past is being lost, or at best, consigned to ever more obscure corners of historical curiosity.

    I do sympathise with your sadness that your own grandfather’s contribution and that of his regiment hasn’t been more fully recognised. The service battalions, and in particular the ASC, are indeed high among the unsung heroes of the WW1, having displayed great courage and sacrifice, providing transport, supplies, and front-line support amid the bitterest fighting ever seen.

    Sadly again this not an uncommon story; my (step) dad served as a merchant seaman and was a veteran of the arctic convoys delivering aid to Russia in WW2, and yet it took until 2013 to officially recognise their contribution and sacrifices, with the Queen’s approval of the design of a full campaign medal, the ‘Arctic Star’, an irony really considering the Russian government had long since recognised their contribution, having offered to honour them with one of their own awards, an offer repeatedly rejected by the British government. Sadly he, my dad, didn’t live along enough to see this long overdue recognition by his own country, but there are still a significant number who will.

    Regardless of official recognition, there are still many who understand and pay tribute to the courageous actions of all those who often made the highest of sacrifices during those and subsequent times.


    Posted by echoesofthepen | April 19, 2014, 12:07 pm
    • Thanks, Paul. I do think that the men in these Cinderella units like your step dad and my granddad were made to feel as if they had done something of not much importance, and I think this was something that stayed with them all their lives. That’s what gets me so cross.

      Posted by elainecanham | April 19, 2014, 2:14 pm
  5. What a terrific essay regarding your family’s service history – and true, it seems terribly unfair that some efforts and participation are not widely recognized and should be.

    As an aside, I just finished a novel by Jessica Brockmole called ‘Letters from Skye.’ A beautiful story, but in particular, one of the main characters speaks about his work as a field ambulance driver and the enormous stress (and also in his case – thrills) it created. Perhaps you’d find it interesting. Cheers

    Posted by peakperspective | April 17, 2014, 11:25 pm
  6. It’s a shame all right – how quickly they forget!

    Posted by Eric Alagan | April 17, 2014, 12:57 am
  7. I agree, this is shameful. What avenues have you tried to find war records?

    Posted by Jools | April 17, 2014, 12:01 am
  8. (Despite the shamefulness) … It’s wonderful to read of soldiers as real people, not just “war fodder” numbered in their tens of thousands… We see how each death broke hearts for a life time. Thanks Elaine.

    Posted by Bruce Goodman | April 16, 2014, 10:08 pm

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