Sick Berth Reserve men were the first to march off to
newspapers provide rich pickings for medal researchers, especially from
the last hundred years or so. Papers from the Boer War period teem with
brief reports about the enthusiastic send-offs given to individual
volunteers as they were despatched to board the transports that would take
them to South Africa. Numbers of them were, of course, later to write
detailing at least some of their experiences.
When war broke out in 1914, local editors inevitably
devoted columns of type to the growing lists of casualties. They were
often generous, too, with the space they gave to letters from men who were
the sons, husbands and sweethearts of their readers. Sometimes letters
came from the front line; sometimes they were from less obvious sources,
as my research into the story of Royal Naval Sick Berth Reservist Jimmy
James W Leather came from the West Yorkshire town of
Dewsbury where the first men to march off to war in 1914 were not
khaki-clad recruits destined for the muddy wastes of Flanders, or young
seamen bound for the chill waters of the North Sea. The uniforms those
earliest volunteers wore were black - from the St John Ambulance Brigade.
was one of the initial group of Dewsbury SJAB men to answer their
country's call on Sunday, August 2, as Germany was about to send her
ultimatum to Belgium, demanding passage for her troops. But the Belgians,
as history has recorded, stood their ground and on the morning of August 4
the Kaiser's regiments began their sweep westward.
Twenty-five Dewsbury ambulance men, all members of the
Royal Naval Auxiliary Sick Berth Reserve, received their orders on the
Saturday night and paraded the following day when 18 of them were
mobilised, 'willingly accepting the call to duty', according to their
local paper, the Dewsbury Reporter.
The earliest of Jimmy's medals - the British War Medal -
reflects his duty with the Royal Navy during that period, while his RNASBR
Long Service and Good Conduct Medal, with its plain green ribbon,
acknowledges his time with the Reserve. His third award is the Service
Medal of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, issued in 1927 and named to
him as a corporal in the SJAB's Dewsbury division. This medal was given
for 15 years' voluntary service and an additional bar shows he served for
at least another five years beyond that.
But on Monday, August 3, 1914, these awards were all in
the future. That morning, according to the Dewsbury Reporter, SJAB Corps
secretary C Thornes received a wire instructing him to send his sick berth
reservists to the Royal Naval Hospital at Chatham, where they would be
used to release regular naval personnel for duty elsewhere. At 9pm that
night n with the clock ticking away to Britain's declaration of war n
Jimmy and the rest of the men paraded in full uniform at the ambulance
rooms under their divisional superintendent H Fowler.
The Reporter takes up the story: "Accompanied by Dewsbury
Borough Band, who had offered their services to play to the station, the
ambulance men marched to the Dewsbury G N Station, where a big crowd had
assembled in expectation of the arrival home of the Territorials, and
difficulty was experienced in making a way down to the platform. Here the
men were addressed by Major P B Walker (corps superintendent) and Colonel
E Lee (corps surgeon)."
played on the platform and there was a "scene of tremendous enthusiasm"
when the train pulled out of the station at 9.55pm.
The influx of sick berth reservists in 1914 was welcomed
by the naval medical authorities who had many vacancies to fill. There
were new naval hospitals at Portland and Deal and the many naval hospitals
at home and overseas, warships and the dozen or so newly commissioned
hospital ships. When war broke out there were 5,000 men in the RNASBR, a
figure which increased to some 15,000 over the next four years.
Jimmy lived on Webster Hill, Dewsbury, where one of his
neighbours was fellow sick berth reservist Rupert White, who soon wrote
home describing events at Chatham: "Thousands of reservists are coming in
here from all parts of the country, getting their kits dished out to them.
We got our kits just after dinner. I have got in my bag five different
sorts of brushes, two new towels, two shirts, two pairs of stockings, six
white collars, two blue collars, two black ties, one pair of boots, one
navy blue serge suit, and two white duck suits.
"Our working rigs are to come in the morning, and hospital
badges for the same. We are doing away with the ambulance uniforms on
active service. There are also twenty ambulance buses mobilised here in
the square to run between here and Sheerness for the wounded."
In another letter he added: "I am in the officers' wards.
I am just now waiting for the wounded officers coming in. If they don't
bring them I have nothing to do before I leave the naval barracks."
Another of the Dewsbury RNASBR group, W Tong, of Thornton
Street, also wrote home saying they had plenty of work and were busy "from
morning until late at night", a fact confirmed by A Guest, of Queen
Street, Ravensthorpe, who told his wife (as recorded in the Reporter): "We
are very hard worked. In fact, if it were not for the grub they receive,
some of them would be wanting to pack up and come home."
But when Supt Fowler, of the Dewsbury Division SJAB,
visited Chatham in September, he reported that he found the men "quite
contented and cheerful". The hospital, he told the Reporter, was on the
top of a hill with grounds as large as Dewsbury Park and is "supposed to
be the finest hospital in the world". The main building was 440 yards long
and had no fewer than 32 wings.
Jimmy and the Dewsbury ambulance men were now wearing neat
blue uniforms with a white collar and black bow, while on the hospital
wards they were clad in a white jacket and slippers, said Supt Fowler.
"Most of the sailors wounded in the engagement in the
Heligoland Bight are being treated in the hospital. Many of them are
serious cases, but the men maintain their spirits wonderfully." Jimmy and
his colleagues in the first SJAB contingent of Dewsbury reservists had
been led by Sgt George Marshall, of Upper Road, Batley Carr, a Boer War
veteran who had been secretary of Dewsbury Ambulance Association for nine
years. He was back in Dewsbury in October 1914 for his father's funeral,
when he was interviewed by the Reporter, who told readers: "He has seen
sights the like of which he had never previously witnessed."
Victims from the cruiser HMS Amphion, which struck a mine
and went down in August, were the first to arrive at the Chatham hospital.
Then, after the Battle of the Heligoland Bight, came casualties from the
destroyers Liberty and Laurel and the cruiser Arethusa, mostly suffering
from shrapnel wounds. After the surgeons had done their work, said Sgt
Marshall, "it is really wonderful to see how well and how quickly the most
terrible wounds have healed up and the men have become convalescent.
"If ever men deserved the Victoria Cross, these men at
Chatham do. They are jolly tars and make no mistake. Notwithstanding the
pain and suffering they undergo, they are as fond of a good joke as ever
they were. Moreover, they can laugh and sing among it all. It is really
wonderful the spirit of the men and I have no words to adequately express
my admiration for these brave fellows..."
Other admissions included the men from the
HM Cruisers Cressy,
Aboukir and Hogue, most of whom were suffering from exposure after their
ships had been torpedoed by Lieut Otto Weddigen's U9 in the North Sea on
22 September 1914.
Jimmy and his colleagues were probably on duty when King
George V and Queen Mary visited the wards. The royal visitors talked to
every patient and the king asked them which ships they had served in and
how they had been wounded. Visitors at other times included Princess
Louise and Lady Jellicoe, who brought flowers and fruit.
Overall, the number of patients at Chatham at this time
was relatively small, but the staff was maintained at full strength to
deal with any eventuality. The Reporter added: "Sgt Marshall is stationed
in a ward where he has had much to do, but many of the other Dewsbury
ambulance men are in wards where no patients have yet been accommodated.
They must, nevertheless, remain at their posts until 9pm."
Jimmy carried on doing his duty at Chatham until he was
demobbed in May 1919. For a time he worked at Dewsbury Infirmary, later
becoming a bath attendant at one of the local collieries. To the sporting
community of Dewsbury he was, however, best known as the long serving
physio and assistant trainer for the town's rugby league club, seeing them
through some of their finest moments at the height of their fame in the
1920s and 1930s when they reached Wembley.
The report of his death in 1950 at the age of 61 warranted
a top-of-the-page position in the Reporter, the paper which had charted so
much of his career over the previous 35 years.
NOTE: Your local studies library will tell you if
they have indexes to the newspapers in their collection. Where indexes
exist, they often relate to subjects and places with, if you are lucky, a
selection of individual names. Occasionally you may find a comprehensive
nominal index for a limited range of dates. One such example is the
Bridgwater & Somerset Advertiser for January 1831 to December 1832. You
can access the complete index through the Somerset pages on the genealogy
site at www.genuki.org.uk. The site
as a whole contains an astonishing amount of information with many useful
addresses and links to other websites.