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LETTERS FROM THE GREAT WAR
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The First World War, the Great War, was declared by Great Britain against the German Empire on 4th August, 1914. Like many, many thousands of young British men, my grandfather, Frank William Gent, enrolled to fight for his country. He went to the Territorial Army Drill Hall at Old Trafford, Manchester, with a group of friends, on Wednesday, 18th November, 1914, and enlisted in the British Expeditionary Force to fight against Germany. He had in fact joined the RAMC, the Royal Army Medical Corps, and did not bear arms throughout the war, being trained instead to care for the vast numbers of injured soldiers in the battlefields of northern France, and Belgium.
My grandfather left his family at 69, Lloyd Street South, Moss Side, Manchester, a then modern terraced house in a middle class area, with bay windows and net curtains. The household, at that date, consisted of his father, then a widower aged fifty-five (his wife had died eighteen months before), Mabel, aged twenty, Dora, aged fifteen, Randle, aged thirteen, and Harry, aged only six. In letters they are often addressed as "Dear FMDH", Randle being omitted as he died soon after my grandfather enlisted.
My grandfather was posted firstly to Southport, where his unit, the Second/Third East Lancashire Field Ambulance, was based. The unit moved to Lindfield, in Hampshire, on May 21st, 1915, a journey my grandfather mentions in his correspondence. The unit removed in June to Peas Pottage, in September to Burnham, and on October 31st, 1915 to Crowborough, the very day on which his brother Randle died, having been knocked down by a taxi in Cross Street, Manchester, that was taking officers to Victoria Station to travel to Southport.
The following March the unit moved to Colchester, and after two more moves, finally sailed from Southampton on Thursday, 1st March, 1917 for active service on the battlefields, arriving the following day at Le Havre.
My grandfather did a full year of service on the battlefields, carrying stretchers, bearing the wounded, dying and the dead, working in dressing stations, providing initial treatment for the thousands of wounded, struggling through the heavy mud, exhausted with tiredness, horrified by the suffering he saw, and the colossal loss of life. When I was a teenager I did try to talk to him a little about his experiences, but they always remained locked away in his memory, like most men of his generation. There were some memories he did share with me though. I remember vividly how he recounted his wonderment when he paused on the battlefield to gaze at a soldier who had been sliced perfectly in half from head to toe, and was left, still standing and leaning with cigarette in mouth. And I remember too how he had never forgotten the fear on the face of a young soldier clutching at his own intestines and trying to force them back in. He must have witnessed so much suffering and pain, but that particular image stayed with him.
The turning point in my grandfather's war career came on the 21st March, 1918, when in the course of a massive German offensive against the British lines he was taken prisoner. He spent the rest of the war in Germany, and the bulk of the correspondence that survives dates from that period.
Before he went abroad my grandfather had agreed with his family a method of communicating secret information, to evade the military censorship of letters. This was to address the letter or post card to his sister Mabel, and then the code was very simple: a letter was separated from the following letter, instead of being joined by a ligature, as was normal in copperplate writing.
I presume and hope my grandfather arrived home at 69, Lloyd Street in time for Christmas, 1918. He was not discharged from the army until 29th March, 1919, however. His sisters' best friend was Eva Neild of Sharston Farm, Northenden, she is often mentioned in the letters. On his return to England they met and fell in love, marrying two years later on 12th January, 1921. I asked them many years afterwards about this. My grandmother said that she had liked my grandfather when she met him, and thought him a good future husband. When she married him, she said, she learned to love him very much. My grandfather was surprised by this; he had always loved her.
The 'History of the 2/3rd East Lancashire Field Ambulance' lived in the bookcase in the attic at Manley Road. My grandfather showed it to me when I was a young boy, pointing out ruefully that they had cut his contribution. It would be wonderful to trace that original version in the archives of the RAMC. The book is still useful for giving the outline of events experienced by the unit throughout the war.
Many years ago my grandmother gave me the bundle of war letters when she was clearing out&emdash;she didn't want to leave that job to someone else after she died&emdash;and thought they might be of interest to me. I am so glad that she did.
I also have my grandfather's medals from the Great War. They live where he always kept them, in one of the small drawers of the bureau. There is also a photograph of him with the unit, I remember it rolled up in one of the drawers of the family chest. Ralph fortunately has it now, I have reproduced it here with other photographs that I have.
I remember my grandfather as a quiet, patient, calm and sensitive man. I would have loved to have shared this booklet with him, perhaps it would have prompted more memories and recollections. Because of him the Great War has always felt close and real for me, not a distant and forgotten event in history. I hope that for his family and descendants this booklet will help keep that memory alive, both of him, and of the many young lives lost in that war.
Frank J. Gent
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