Great War

From Chapter 20  Wear and Tears


My maternal grandfather and the father of bomb disposer Frank was called Robert Francis Smith. He was the son of another Robert Francis Smith who, in 1903, was a Committee member of the evocatively named `Monkwearmouth Poor Bairns` Fund`. Young Frank joined the 2/2nd Northumberland Field Ambulance of the Royal Army Medical Corps Territorials in Gateshead in January 1915. After training, they embarked for France in April attached to the Durham Light Infantry. Frank worked as a medic in the trenches at Ypres, the Somme, Arras and Passchendaele.

He never talked about what he went through. He was taken prisoner on 27th May 1918 (six months before the war ended) at a place called Corbeny, south east of Laon in northern France. The Germans were launching what proved to be their last attack towards Paris and got within 40 miles of the French capital. Frank and five colleagues got separated from other British troops and, not long after 1am, were staring down the barrels of ten German machine guns.

More than a month later, news got through to his parents that he was a prisoner. The card from the Red Cross said his name had come through on a list of prisoners of war at a `Camp Unknown`. Someone had hand-written above his name `He is well` but there was no more information.

The Germans got him to move ammunition around at their railhead at Amifontaine. He was held captive in a pigsty and fed on potato peelings and cabbage leaves. When British aircraft bombed the railhead, the British prisoners suffered further casualties. His best friend was badly injured and subsequently died. Despite being a Medical Corps orderly, my grandfather was not allowed to treat his best mate. Years later, he returned to see if his friend had been given a proper burial in a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery. He had.

Corporal Robert Smith`s fiancée Emma Florence Craig did not recognise him when she went to collect him from Sunderland railway station after the de-mob in 1919. Having been gassed, taken prisoner and fed badly, he was given six months to live. Emma said she would marry him immediately and look after him. Having survived the Somme and witnessed indescribable deaths and injuries, he lived until he was 87 and fathered Frank and my mother Sheila. He was a commercial traveller working for the Spillers Milling Group for 46 years before retiring in 1959.

Robert Smith was taken prisoner just two months after the Royal Air Force was formed. He was born at the dawn of aviation, just before the Wright Brothers made the first powered flight in 1903. A generation before, flight meant little more than falconry. By the time he died, it was F-16 Fighting Falcons.

In his lifetime, he saw global air travel for the masses become unremarkable and watched men walking on the Moon. He lived through two World Wars and the Cold War. He tried to keep up and then gave up with the pace of change in culture, science, and technology. He benefitted from the huge leap in provision of healthcare and medicine. He continued to suffer terrible nightmares from his times in the trenches but never ever talked about his war experiences to anyone except his wife.

Emma died in 1984 aged 88 but never passed on the horrors that she heard from him. She succumbed to dementia in her later years, and moved into a nursing home in Sunderland where, one night, the ceiling of her room fell in on her. She `escaped` once with her little brown suitcase which contained a bottle of brandy. When she was found, she ended up swearing at the police and trying to fight them. One constable told my parents that she had created more mayhem than a bunch of football supporters after a Tyne-Wear derby.

Sunderland Echo – Corporal Robert Francis Smith