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Archives reveal history of Herne Bay Voluntary Aid Detachment during WWI

By Peter Cook

Like ghosts of a lost army, the faces of soldiers from the First World War gaze out of a battered album still holding together, just, more than 100 years after it was begun.

The men, many of them startlingly young, are from a wide range of differing backgrounds. They answered “the call” from every part of the United Kingdom. Some are from Belgium, others from Canada.

What they have in common is that all have been injured. They have known the burning pain of a bullet, the searing tear of shrapnel fragments or the terrifying asphyxiation brought on by a lung full of mustard gas.

Pt Taplin served at Gallipoli, in Egypt, France and Belgium
Pt Taplin served at Gallipoli, in Egypt, France and Belgium

By the time their photographs had been placed in the album or their cheerful verses and inscriptions were written, however, all had found sanctuary and comfort at the VAD Hospital, Downs Park, in Herne Bay, far from the terror of the trenches.

What they also had in common was a deep affection for the volunteer nursing staff at Downs Park, particularly Ethel Lloyd, who put together this remarkable record, and who, with Edith Grey, had responsibility for providing wholesome, nourishing meals for the soldiers.

One of them, Private H.A. Watson of the 10th Battalion Canadians, wrote: “May your shadow never grow less, Cook.” Pt Watson was wounded at Ypres on April 23 1915.

The Herne Bay Voluntary Aid Detachment – VAD – came into being in 1913. It was mobilised in October 1914, by which time it had been offered Downs Park College, run by an organisation known as the Dence Trust, as its hospital.

Just a week after it opened, wounded Belgian soldiers began to arrive. One of them, Pt Y.W.P.S. Hibert, of the Third Queen’s Ontario Rifles, wrote part of his story in Nurse Lloyd’s book.

He says he was born in Bruges to a “high” family in 1888, but at the age of 15 left with his family for Canada “to make a new living and fortune”. But he went back to Belgium for three years’ military service, before returning to Canada.

On the outbreak of war he enlisted with the Canadian army, crossed to England for further training, and after four months “went over to France for my first experience of war”.

He tells us he was wounded for the first time on March 1, 1915 with a bullet in the chin, and sent to a hospital in Le Touquet.

Within a month he was back in action, but was wounded and gassed at Ypres on April 22.

Pt Offiss's depiction of a wounded Tommy
Pt Offiss's depiction of a wounded Tommy
Many of the wounded tried their hands at poetry, with varying degrees of success
Many of the wounded tried their hands at poetry, with varying degrees of success

“I was wounded for the third time at Festubert on the 29th of June with a bullet in the left hand and rheumatism, and I am in hospital ever since,” he adds. “But I am going on well.” He speaks of the “good care and kindness of the nurses and sisters of the VAD at Herne Bay”, and thanks them for the treatment he has received there.

He ends defiantly: “Vive England, Canada and Belgium forever!”

But what do we know of Ethel Lloyd, who compiled the book? Very little seems to have been recorded about her.

The book came to me via Australia where my sister was a parish priest near Brisbane. A member of her congregation, Jan Frewin, is Nurse Lloyd’s great niece and the book had come down to her, probably from her father, when they lived in southern Africa.

“The only time I met her was when I went to the UK from Rhodesia to do my nursing training,” said Jan. “This was in 1951. By this time she was bedridden and living in Ramsgate.”

She was just in time. Ethel Lloyd died in 1951. More of her story has been revealed by Linda Bowditch, from a group of volunteers called the Cemeterians, who research people buried in Herne Bay.

Linda has found the family grave and an obituary for Ethel Lloyd’s husband, Captain Lewis Lloyd, who died in 1941. He had been a surveyor, working for the Government, who was commissioned into the Buffs – the Royal East Kent Regiment – on the outbreak of the First World War.

Some of the wounded VAD nurses with wounded Belgian soldiers. Nurse Lloyd is probably among them
Some of the wounded VAD nurses with wounded Belgian soldiers. Nurse Lloyd is probably among them

He had also been a keen supporter of the Boy Scout movement and became chairman of the Herne Bay and District Boy Scout Association. The couple lived at The Grange, Beltinge.

Back to the album. Among the contributions are several watercolour emblems and cartoons, mostly patriotic in their tone. One is even by a Pt Blackadder, clearly a Scotsman, who tells us he served at the 12th Ammunition Park in France.

A brown and white terrier wearing a military cap and with a red, white and blue scarf binding an imaginary head wound, peers boss-eyed from one of the pages. Drawn by G.G. Badcock of the 15th Devon Regiment, it bears the inscription “Home to Blighty”. The dog looks pretty relieved.

Perhaps more poignant is the image of a bandaged soldier, cigarette in mouth, his helmet askew, entitled “A Blighty”. There is fear in the one eye that gazes out. This rather dark subject was painted by a soldier of the 20th London Regiment who signs himself Pt O. Orriss, wounded at Monchy on April 25. This was probably in 1917 when Commonwealth forces captured the village of Monchy in the Pas de Calaise.

There are few stories to go with the photographs, though the places where they served and were wounded tell their own story.

Possibly a local man since he served with the Buffs (2812559)
Possibly a local man since he served with the Buffs (2812559)
Private King of the Royal Field Artillery
Private King of the Royal Field Artillery

Thus we learn that W. Sippetts – there are no Christian names – of the Royal Sussex Regiment was injured first at Festubert on July 30, 1916 and again at Ypres on April 20, 1917.

William Jordan of the 13th Royal Welsh Fusiliers tells us he was wounded in September 1917 at Cow and Gate Avenue – presumably a nickname for one of the trenches.

We learn in a scrawled hand from what looks like Pt W.A. Simpson of the 53rd Machine Gun Company that he was wounded at Poelcappelle in Flanders when he was awarded the Military Medal for good work in the field. The Battle of Poelcappelle on October 9 1917 was part of the Passchendaele offensive. British Empire forces suffered 12,000 casualties of men killed, wounded or lost.

Driver C.R. James of No. 3 Auxiliary Tank Battalion was certainly busy in 1917. He tells us he served in the Battle of the Somme, at Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Messines, Nieuport and again at Ypres.

Another soldier, Sgt H. Freeman of the 17th Battery Royal Field Artillery, lists 22 places at which he served, from Mons in 1914 to Lens at the end of 1917. “And still alive and never touched” is his chirpy message.

VAD nurses take a break in the garden at Downs Park
VAD nurses take a break in the garden at Downs Park

The youth of some soldiers depicted is touching. Some, little more than boys, stare out with fixed expressions. Who knows what horrors they conceal, what terrors these faces have witnessed?

Certainly they belong to men who are irrevocably changed from the enthusiastic youngsters who signed up to “do their bit” for King and Country.

Now the entire book has been digitised by photographer Roger Smoothy, who grew up in Herne Bay and lived just down the road from Downs Park. You can find the images at the Kent photo archive Facebook page.

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