December 13th 1917

Capt. Frank Spurling (Rifle Brigade)

Another dear friend and Old Boy has been taken from us. Frank Spurling has been killed.

He received gunshot wounds to the abdomen and lung during a tour of duty near Poperinghe on December 5th and died the following day at no. 44 Casualty Clearing Station.

The Spurlings are not only a long-standing OPS family, but one that knew before this war had started what it was to lose a son. In the South African War Alfred, the eldest brother, was besieged in Mafeking with Baden-Powell (and, as I recall, managed nonetheless to get a letter out by way of a native runner for the ‘Draconian’!)  Although he survived the siege, he was killed in action not long afterwards.

Another of his brothers, Rev. Henry Spurling, was one of the first editors of the ‘Draconian.’ He left our staff in December 1915 to act as chaplain and interpreter with the Hampshires.

Frank was the youngest and had emigrated to South Africa to be an ostrich farmer in 1903. He returned in 1915 to join the Rifle Brigade. Dangerously wounded twice earlier in the war, Frank visited us earlier this term, before going out for the third time.

We loved Frank as dearly as we know he loved his old school, but the love of family comes above all else. What tragedy has beset them – Frank’s wife died last year, whilst he himself lay seriously wounded in France, and he now leaves a three year old daughter as an orphan.

 

December 11th 1917

This is the final instalment from Capt. Treffry Thompson‘s diary, covering the retreat after the Battle of Caporetto. The train eventually was able to speed up to take them across the River Piave to safety.

His final entry tells the story of how the Lieut.- Quartermaster had tried to rescue as much of their kit from the advancing enemy:

2/11/17 “At this point the Lieut.-Quartermaster turned up…

He said that he tried in vain to save our kits and ordnance, which he could easily have done if he could only have got lorries – he was promised lorries by Italian officers but none arrived – finally he bagged an old farm cart and an older horse and made a harness of belts and slings and straps. He opened all our kits and got out all valuable stuff and packed it on the cart.

He had with him an RAMC corporal with D’s motor-bike and one or two ASC men – they set fire to all the rest of the kit and stores… and they started off for the west – when they left the whole place was in flames and being shelled and bombed.

They got about six miles when the horse died – they harnessed themselves into it and the cart broke down – finally they had to leave everything as they were being sniped and came on as they were, riding a borrowed push-bike and harnessed up to the motor-bike.”

A gallant effort!

 

December 6th 1917

Lieut. Locke Kendall (Norfolks & MGC)

The Kendall family have written to inform us that Locke has been killed on active service in Palestine. As might be expected, news takes a little longer to reach us from the more distant theatres of war and the details too are few.

He went out to Palestine in February this year, and was serving with the 21st Cavalry Machine Gun Squadron, 8th Mounted Brigade, Yeomanry Division.

As to the manner of his death, all we are able to ascertain is that he was wounded in an engagement on November 21st and died the following day of his wounds, at a place called Tartah.

Looking back at the Daily Telegraph of November 26th, it seems likely that Locke lost his life storming the Nebi Sanwil Ridge.

At the OPS we shall always remember his cheery optimism and willingness to tackle any unpleasant or difficult job that had to be dealt with.

Locke will also be remembered for his great ability at hockey. He represented Suffolk in 1908 and played with his brother Jack for Norfolk the following year. He was awarded his Blue when up at Cambridge in 1913 and won an international cap against France in April 1914 –  a resounding 6-0 victory.

December 3rd 1917

With the Italian army struggling to hold the line at the River Tagliamento, crossed the previous day by Capt. Treffry Thompson (RAMC) and his men, Treffry needed to get them still further back if they were not to be caught up in the fighting.

This, the fourth day of the retreat, was to prove to be the most difficult for men tired from the march and extremely hungry.

30/10/17 “A roll call proved that we had got all the men across the river.

The Italian RTO’s Corporal Major decided, as the train that did come in was packed, that we had better try to secure some wagons which were a long way out of the station, but would eventually go on to a train. So we walked out to about 2 kilometres and found part of a train with five horse trucks already pretty well filled with Italian soldiers.

The Corporal Major opened the door of each and shouted, “This train goes to Udine,” (The Germans were in Udine by that time) and those trucks were empty in a moment, so we all got in. We had 6 officers and 28 men in ours, 20 patients and 8 men in another, and so on, and then we went to sleep just as it commenced to pour with rain once more.

A drawing by Treffry Thompson

We woke about 8 or 9 to find the train had gone about three miles and that now there was a solid line of trains buffer to buffer at least 5-6 miles long, actual movements being limited to spurts of 100-400 yards, perhaps once an hour….

The railway track was this hurrying mass of soldiery, without equipment and fighting mad for food, and refugees clinging desperately to their little all – little kiddy girls struggling along barefooted, often bleeding from broken glass, carrying some treasured possession – old women staggering under bundles of clothing – and mothers clutching a babe, or leading a couple of kids or crying wildly up and down the trains for some child which had got lost in the crush, while along the embankments of the railway and roads were the gleaming skeletons of mules and horses, in places three deep.

If a mule or a horse died, within half-an-hour it would be nothing but clean picked bones, so wild was everyone for food. The rain poured over everything.

We decided it was better to stay on the train where we had shelter and warmth, as the trains were bound to move down slowly and it was easier to starve in the train without collapse, than on the march when it would mean men getting left behind.

Finally, towards evening things began to look desperate and we started to forage in various directions. D and B managed to pick up nearly a sandbag full of macaroni where it had been spilled under a truck about three trains up the line. I achieved about 3-4 pounds of meat off the remnants of a horse I found. One truck made a meal off defunct mule.”

A couple of them went foraging to a farm and came back with two chickens, two ducks, about 40 lbs of hot polenta pudding and a sack of maize.

“Meanwhile we had got fires going in each truck – on piles of stones in tin helmets or old buckets and we had all those birds plucked, cleaned and cooked in no time. It was great sport, all sitting round, plucking hens. The revival of spirit was extraordinary and Rici sang to us from Il Trovatore etc.”

 

December 1st 1917

THE FIRE AT SCHOOL HOUSE

As I understand from the School Doctor that the word in town earlier today was that ‘Lynam’s school is ablaze,’ I write to assure everyone that all is well, even if we have had a nasty scare.

The fire, which threatened School House, was happily confined to the bike sheds and tent shed, recently tenanted by cats.

At one moment it looked very dangerous and the adjacent wall of the Boys’ Room was very hot, but the wind luckily turned a little, and when the Brigade arrived and ‘thought they would manage that for us,’ we were able to enjoy the humour of the situation.

The moral is ‘Be prepared’ and next term we shall start regular Fire Drill.

November 30th 1917

Having walked 20-22 miles the previous day, Capt. Treffry Thompson (RAMC) and his men still had some way to go to reach safety, and they were not the only ones on the road:

29/10/17 “Masses of 2nd Army pouring past us and road filled for miles with guns, limbers and army wagons; lorries, cars, ambulances and wagons, hand-carts with a family’s entire possessions pushed by the women-folk, farm carts drawn by magnificent pairs of oxen laden with everything from copper water pails to canary cages, with the younger members of the family perched on top, and possibly a brace of geese or ducks with them; motor bikes with or without side-cars, and finally the humble push bike or the wheel-barrow, also laden with some treasured possession. The whole jumbled into a slowly, very slowly moving mass…”   

On reaching Codroipo, they were told to make for a bridge over the River Tagliamento – another 4 miles away.

“The river seemed miles away, but eventually we reached it about sunset, and then became wedged into a solid mass of soldiery frantic to get across the bridge and all jammed at the entrance.”

When Treffry finally arrived at the bridge, he had something of a fright:

“Between the rails it was open to the flooded Tagliamento forty feet below, since the bridge was an open one with the rails only being carried across on the sleepers, which merely rested on the open framework of the bridge. We moved on, foot by foot, to the entrance of the bridge, the crush becoming terrific…

I found myself suddenly shot forward and looking right down between the open rails. I grabbed the fellow behind me and, as he did not want to come too, he grabbed the fellow behind him, so we all swayed on to the gangway once more.”

After that they managed to drag themselves a further 3-4 km to the railway station at Carsarsa (just north of San Vito on the map) where the night was spent huddled together beside a siding. There was no food and the trains were all full. They can have got little sleep that night.

“Very cold, men huddled together with haversacks as pillows, but only for a few moments as it was too cold.”

November 28th 1917

This is the second entry from the diary of Capt. Treffry Thompson (RAMC) describing his experiences on the retreat, the start of which I shared with you on November 26th.

28/10/17  “The patients, who were lying in the ordnance sheds, well supplied with blankets, were now ordered to be evacuated through St. Georgia. Only eight ambulances available, but all worst cases sent under G. They eventually failed to get a train at St. Georgia and had to proceed to Postoguaro and were 13 hours in the ambulances.” 

With these patients off his hands, Treffry turned his thoughts to his group:

“Being allowed free run of ordnance stores, as it was going to be fired shortly, we picked what we wanted… While we were in this store a huge fire started on opposite side of town covering whole place with dense black smoke, and we were all ordered out at a minute’s notice from the store and town….

We found a seething conglomerate mass pouring through the Udine gate and up the westerly road to Codroipe.

Orders were then received to march from Palmanova to Codroipe in order to cross the River Tagliamento and find what they hoped would be safety.

“We reformed officers, personnel, Italian interpreter, Rici (an Italian opera singer attached to the hospital), 25 walking patients and a few others…” 

At this point an AOC officer, claiming to know the quickest way to the bridge over the Tagliamento, promptly marched them round Palmanova and a further six miles south before heading in the right direction.

“B and I brought up the rear, urging on the stragglers, which was a pretty heartrending job. The men began to shed their kits into the ditches and frequent halts were necessary. Rici the singer was very lame, but stuck to us and an enormous pack of kit…

We finally reached Gonas about 1 p.m., with the men very done, as they had then marched 16-17 miles and had had no rest since the day before and no food since the evening before…

We got the men some apples and pears and temporary shelter in an evacuated hospital. We shared a small bit of bully given by an Italian officer between the six of us. It was decided to push on to the next village at least, as there was no food in Gonas and the civilians were evacuating.”

At the next village there they found a larger evacuated hospital for the night.

“Got the men some food, first of the day – one tin of sardines between three, and half a loaf of bread per man…

Slept like logs, having done some 20-22 miles.”