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There and Back Again:
A Second Notebook

There and Back Again

A Second Notebook

Last Christmas (2001) we distributed a transcript of a First World War diary/notebook kept by my grandfather, Frank [Francis] Leonard Willmott of the Somerset Light Infantry and the 256th Machine Gun Company.  It covered his journey out to Bombay in 1916, and his return from Basra in 1919, following the close of the Mesopotamian campaign.

During the past year we have come across more documents and information that shed light on his activities when on service abroad.  These items include a few military certificates, a photograph, a couple of letters, and a further notebook.  With the aid of this additional information it is now possible to chart Grandfather’s military career with far greater certainty, and to account for his movements for virtually all of the period when he was abroad.

We learn that Grandfather, who was born in 1882, must have enrolled in the territorials many years before the start of the First World War.  In 1900, as a Private in the 3rd Volunteer Brigade of the Somerset Light Infantry, he was awarded his Army Ambulance Certificate.  A further certificate of proficiency was awarded in 1903, by which time he had been promoted to Sergeant.  Several photographs in family albums show pre-war territorial summer camps.  For a young man of limited means territorial service would have been an inexpensive and absorbing leisure and social activity.

With the advent of war he enlisted, on the 27th October 1914, as a Private in the 4th Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry.

The notebook measures just 10.5cm x 8cm.  It is in a worn cloth binding and, remarkably, still has the remnants of a metal tipped pencil in a sleeve attached to the spine.  

Many of the early entries seem to record calculations, payments and receipts, as well as a diary of parades and other military routine from the period before Grandfather went abroad.  These are occasionally enlivened by such remarks as “Went to Tring Museum” or “Drew extra blanket” and “Received prisoner  0047 Pte H. Hill from Sergt Bullingham at 12.45.  Released by order of Sergt Maj Leavey at 7.30am.”    There are many lists of men’s names, including one of “Men who have enamelled plates”.

Grandfather came from a large family.  It is not surprising that his brothers also joined up.  The notebook contains two military addresses, clearly relating to two of his younger brothers.  The first is that of 1172 Sapper L. Willmott, 2nd Wessex R.E. Field Coy., 27th Division, British Salonica Force.  This would be Leonard Willmott.  He is remembered as being a carpenter by trade, resident in Bath, and a keen amateur singer.  His wife was ‘Aunt Lily’.

A further address recorded in the notebook is that of 18810 2nd a.m. E. Willmott,  B Flight,  No.1. Reserve Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, Fort Grange,  Gosport.   This would have been Edwin Willmott (Uncle Ned) who served as a fitter, then as a flying instructor, in the recently established air force.  No.1. Reserve Squadron at Fort Grange was a training establishment, the RFC School of Special Flying.

Most usefully, Grandfather has jotted down an itinerary of his movements once he arrived in India.  It meshes with the travel diary distributed last year.  In that document the diary of the outward journey runs from Thursday July 20th to Sunday 13th August 1916.
The itinerary, which has been assembled from various parts of the notebook, follows:

Left Devonport            July    21st  1916
Arrived Bombay            Aug    13th
    "      Dinapore                15th
Posted 1st letter                    17th
Received 1st letter            Octr     13th
Went Anandpur            Nov     1st
Returned Dinapore             "    26
Went on Mobile Column        Dec    5th
Returned                    9th
Isolated                    9th
        till                30th
Left for Lucknow            Jan    1st      1917
Left for Sasaram            Feb    8th
Left for Dinapore             "    26
Left for Babugarh            Apr    28
    Returned            May     3rd

Left for Dum Dum            May     5th
 "     "   Lahore                21st
 "     "   Dalhousie            July     8th
Returned                           15
Left Lahore                           18th
Arrived Meerut                        19th
Left           do [ditto]            Aug    8th
Arrived Mhow                    11th
Left           do                Octr    15th
Left Bombay                  "    17th
Arrived Basra                    23
Admitted Hospital Maghil            27th
Left              do      for Mohammerah        24th
Left Mohammerah            Dec    7th
Left Depot Magil             "    10th
Left     do   Amara             "    12th
Left                 do        (1918)    Feb    2nd
Arrived Baghdad              "    8th
Left Baghdad                Feb    13th
Arrived Feluja                    14th
Left          do                    15
Arrd Diban                    15
  L      "                    16
ArrdMadhij                    16
Left     do                    20th
Arrd Uqbah                    24th
Left     do                Mar    8
Arrd Hit                    9th
Left   do                    11th
Arrd Sahaliyah                11th
Left Sahaliyah for attack on
     Khan Baghdadi            Mar    25th
Arrd Wadi Haraun             "    27th
Left      "                    30th
Returned to Sahaliyah            Apr     1st
Left Sahaliyah for Feluja        Sept    16
Returned                Sept    24
Left Sahaliyah for Hit

The travel diary that we distributed last year resumes on January 16th 1919.

The itinerary shows that Grandfather spent a little over a year in India before being shipped to Mesopotamia, where he arrived on 23rd October 1917.  Several references will be noted to spells in hospital and to periods of isolation.  Tropical conditions greatly contributed to the spread of infectious disease among the troops.  Grandfather contracted malaria, a condition which was to trouble him intermittently for the rest of his life.

With the notebook I discovered a Christmas greetings card, dated 1916-1917, published by the 2/4 Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry in Dinapore.  The printed text reads “To wish you Jolly Good Luck this Christmas and during the New Year” to which Grandfather has added “To my Darling Bess & dear little boy with all my love.”

By the time Grandfather arrived in Mesopotamia, the campaign against the Turks, which had initially gone very badly for the British, was moving towards its climax.  British forces were greatly reinforced during the latter part of 1917.  Many troops were brought from India.

The additional information gleaned about Grandfather’s experience means that his activities can be linked with the official  accounts of the campaign.  The main source is Brig.-Gen. F.J. Moberly’s  four volume “The Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1914-1918”, HMSO, 1927.  This provides a sequence of ‘Orders of Battle’ which list in detail the composition and whereabouts of the British forces at a particular date.

Thus on 18th November 1917, a few weeks after Grandfather’s arrival in Mesopotamia, No. 256 Machine Gun Company is shown as being part of the 50th Infantry Brigade under Brig.-Gen. A. W. Andrews.  This brigade, formed in August 1917, was based at Falluja, but Grandfather’s unit is shown as being at nearby Baghdad.  The other elements of the brigade were the 1st Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, the 6th Jats, the 24th Punjabis, the 1/97th Infantry, and the 50th Brigade Supply and Transport Company.

As No. 256 Machine Gun Company was to serve alongside the 1st Ox. and Bucks. over the ensuing few months, the latter unit’s “Regimental Chronicle” also becomes a useful source of information.

During the early part of 1918 powerful British forces advanced steadily up the course of the River Euphrates.  In the face of this pressure the Turks abandoned the town of Hit and prepared a strong defensive position at Khan Baghdadi, further up the river.  The Turks took full advantage of the rough terrain and constructed three substantial trench systems (known to the British as “P”, “Q” and “R”).  

General Brooking, in overall command, ordered an attack.  He had the advantage of good air reconnaissance from locally based RFC units.  His plan was to combine an assault on the defended positions with a wide-swinging out-flanking manoeuvre to cut off the Turk’s line of retreat up the road to Aleppo.  To this end he despatched the 11th Cavalry Brigade who were able to work themselves around to a position cutting the Khan Baghdadi/Aleppo road in the region of Wadi Hauran.

Meanwhile Andrews’ 50th Brigade, with supporting mobile artillery, marched from Sahaliya along the main road towards Khan Baghdadi.  They were followed by General Lucas’s 42nd Brigade in support.  The advance started at 9.00pm on 25th March, a brightly moonlit night.  

By 1.00am the next morning the soldiers had covered ten miles and halted while the Turks’ “P” trenches, blocking the road, were reconnoitred.  The three companies detached for this purpose came under heavy fire at 2.30am.  At this Andrews’ column rapidly deployed south of the road, under shell-fire, and awaited daybreak.

At 6.00am the Turks’ “P” position was subjected to an artillery attack.  At 10.30am the 50th and 42nd Brigades attacked, out-flanking the trench system and capturing it within an hour.  The Turks retreated to their “Q” and “R” trenches.  These were particularly well-sited, being constructed at the top of cliff-like slopes rising from deep ravines.  

Andrews’ group continued its advance, but was checked by fire from these positions at 1.00pm.  Intelligence gleaned that the Turks’ plan was to hold off the British until nightfall (sunset was due at 6.15pm), then seek to escape towards Aleppo.

To prevent this General Brooking ordered a further attack for 5.30pm.  Artillery was brought up to the opposite side of the ravine to fire at the Turkish positions at ranges between 1800 and 2200 yards.  No. 256 Machine Gun Company was ordered to a position further forward down the slope and instructed to provide intense overhead fire while the infantry attack went in.

The effect of this covering barrage, enhanced by the clouds of dust raised thereby, was that the infantry was able to advance with few casualties.  The Turks’ main positions, as well as 800 prisoners, were in British hands by 6.00pm.

The 50th Brigade regrouped at 8.00pm and, although they had now been in action for some 24 hours, were ordered to pursue the fleeing enemy through the night, which was again brightly moonlit.  By 2.30am on the 27th March the main road the far side of Khan Baghdadi had been reached.  By 6.00am there was a move forward towards Wadi Haraun where the road had previously been blocked by the 11th Cavalry Brigade.

The result was that 27th March saw the wholesale surrender of Turkish forces downriver of that point.  Grandfather’s notebook records the following:

Captures at Khan-Baghdadi
Prisoners        5269  Germans (18)
Guns            12
Machine Guns    50
Rifles     over        3000
Cattle            600

This corresponds closely with the figures in Brig.-Gen. F.J. Moberly’s official account:

5254 prisoners (including 18 Germans)
12 guns
47 machine guns

Also in Grandfather’s notebook is the following table:

Feluja [Falluja] - Diban [Dhibban]        10
Diban - Mahdij [Madhij]            10
Mahdij - Ramadi                14
Ramadi - Khan-a-Ryat                18
Ryat - Uqbah                    8
Uqbah - Hit                    10
Hit - Sahaliyah                    12
Sahaliyah - Baghdadi                18
Baghdadi - Wadi Ha? [Hauran]        6
                            (Total)            106

This would seem to represent the distances marched during the campaign.  It is sobering to note that the day and a half duration of the Khan Baghdadi action involved a march of 24 miles over difficult terrain in an inhospitable climate.  It is also apparent from the document transcribed below that little water and no food was available during that period.

Tucked into the notebook is what appears to be a signal form with arabic printed text.  On the blank sections Grandfather has copied out Brigadier Andrews’ ‘Order of the Day’ following the action.

Headquarters 50th Infantry Brigade, 28th March 1918, Khan Bhagdadi.

The Divisional General desires to convey his warmest thanks to all ranks of the 50th Brigade for their splendid response to his call for a vigorous and sustained effort during the recent operations.  I take the opportunity of writing [adding?] my thanks to those of the Divisional Commander and to these I add my profound admiration for the splendid qualities of endurance and fortitude under most trying conditions.  To be continuously under arms, marching and attacking for 35 hours without food and very little water and to have during this period carried out 3 attacks, the last of which was against a position with many machine guns is a feat of which we may be justly proud.  To the troops who co-operated with us, 10th Lancers, 215th Bde. R.F.A., 222nd Bde. R.F.A., 48th Pioneers, and certain units of the 42nd Infty. Bde. our thanks are also due for their generous and splendid co-operation which contributed so largely to our success.  A generous opponent, Col. Serivet Bey, Commandant Turkish 169th Regiment, said in the course of conversation with myself “Your troops fought splendidly today, they are daring and brave fellows”.

A.W. Andrews, Brigadier General Commanding 50th Infty Bde.

There were 159 British casualties sustained during the battle, of which 36 were killed or missing.

After a couple of days at Wadi Hauran the 50th Division was withdrawn, for reasons of supply, to Hit.  No. 256 Machine Gun Company continued to exercise and train, as indicated by the following notebook entry:

History-sheet of Barrel C.2670

Date        Rounds
Septr 24th    750
 "     27-8    800
Octr 14    460

On the inside back cover of the notebook, apart from a number of deleted calculations, the lyrics of a popular song are faintly written.  I have been unable to establish any further details about the song.

M B R [My Baby Rose]    
M B R                
Nobody knows            
How I am taking it        

Each breeze that blows
Tells me of Rose
There’s not a thing I won’t do
If she asks me to
For my Baby Rose

Two letters Grandfather wrote to Grandmother turned up along with the notebook.  They were written shortly after the engagement described above.  The “same address” would have been at Hit.  A few explanatory notes follow.

Sunday Octr 6th [1918]        Same Address

My Darling Bess1
    Just the usual few lines to let you know that I am still getting on alright.  I am pleased to tell you that I had another letter come this week.  We get them singly now instead of 2 & 3 at the time.  There is one week missing (July 25th) but I expect we shall get it soon if we stay here long enough.  I am glad to hear that you are all still keeping well & I know just how you feel about not getting any letters, but no doubt you will get a lot all at once.  I was very pleased to hear about my dear little boy2 getting the prize at the Fete & as you say our Dear Dad3 would have been pleased had he been spared, but of course he is at rest & knows all about it.  We do not get it quite so hot now & we have had several cloudy days but the rain does not come.  I shall be glad when this month is over.  What do you think of the war news lately?  Isn’t it alright what with the Bulgarians chucking in & Turkey likely to follow suit & the Allies doing so well on the western front.  I should not be at all surprised if the war ended all of a sudden but I am afraid it will last over next spring.  I am glad to hear that Fred is getting on alright in Bristol, it will be nice if  Les & Andy & Will can get work there as well, but no doubt your Mother will miss [?]et.  I am glad she is staying with you & that Carl is such company for you.  You can guess how I feel sometimes when I think about you & him & wonder how long it will be before I shall see you again.  I hope you will get the photos that I sent last week.  I was a bit doubtful about sending them all at once but decided that I would risk it as you seem to have got all that I have sent before.  You will be pleased to know that I got both the parcels alright & was very pleased with them.  Jim Knight was supposed to have one sent at the same time as my first one, but if it was sent he has not received it yet.  I don’t think I have any more to say this week.  Hoping it will find you all well.  Give my love to all & kiss my little Son for me.
    Your loving husband
    Frank xxxxxxxx

PS Is it right that they have increased your separation allowance.  I saw something about it in the ‘People’.

Thurs Octr 17th  [1918]        Same Address

My Darling Bess
    I am beginning to write this a bit earlier this week as we have had another mail in quite unexpected.  I had 2 of your letters, 1 from Min4 & 1 from Charlie Holloway5.  I was pleased to get them & to hear that you had received some of mine.  I was afraid that perhaps I had been putting in too much & that the censor had destroyed them as they are getting so particular just lately.  It was a great relief to me to know that you know now how I feel about our dear Dad.  I hope my Mother has had the letters I have sent to her.  I have written twice, the second one directly I received the parcel with the socks in.  I am pleased to tell you I am still keeping well, although there are rather a lot of cases of flue [sic] in this camp, mostly amongst the native drivers.  It is quite cold at night now & early mornings but we are getting back our winter appetites again & as the bread we get here is much better than at the other camp, there is not so much left over as there used to be when it was so very hot.  I am putting in three more photos & hope that you will get them alright.  I forgot to tell you last week that our section officer took two photos of us on parade, one with the mules loaded up & the other with the four guns mounted in line & he afterwards got me to snap him on his horse.  I don’t suppose there is any chance of me getting a copy of them, but I should very much like to so as to be able to send them home.  We also had a group taken while mutti-making yesterday, but I think that was for the C.O.  I don’t suppose I shall ever see one of those, worse luck.  I am also sending a money order this week for £5 & hope that you will get it alright.  I want you to let Min have 3£ which I owe her (£2 when I left home & £1 which she sent to me since I have been  out here) & no doubt you will know what to do with the  rest.  I hope I shall be able to send some more by the time you receive this.  It’s much better for me to send it like this as I can send 5£ for 67 rupees & 7 annas including commission, which is much cheaper than it used to be in India while we were there.  It would have been 75 rupees & 12 annas commission, but now £1 is only equal ro 13R. 5 annas (it used to be 15R.).  When I know that you have received this alright & I shall try & draw my credit (if I have any) & send that as well.  I am glad to know that my Mother got on alright at Rose’s, also that she is looking so much better & has heard from Leonard6.  Min tells me that they are getting leave from Salonica, but I expect he feels the same about it as me & would rather wait & come home for good.  I had a nice letter from C. Holloway & he was expecting to go on leave.  He tells me they had 160 casualties in France including 2 men killed who I knew quite well, they being in my platoon in India.  He says that Fenny Clarke was accidently  [sic] wounded & I am not surprised to hear that.  I’ll bet Fred Billington does not like having to work under Grant.  Shan’t I find a difference when I go back there?  I wonder what sort of work he & Adam are doing now.  I shall have to finish this later on.
    Sunday 20th
I see by the orders that this is the Xmas mail so I am wishing you a Merry Xmas & a Happy New Year.  I was going to send some cards but they have not come up from Baghdad yet so I shall have to send them later on.  I have not mentioned before but while I was away at the convalescent depot it came out in orders that I was to be unpaid L.Cpl7 so when I came back I had no option but to carry on, but I hope to drop it at the first opportunity.  I am at present acting as Choosa (or mule) Cpl to the section as we have so many men down with the flue & the transport Sergt. is on leave.  You need not make any alteration in my address as by the time you get this I may be a full private again.  I don’t think I have any more to say this time but I hope by the time you get this peace will be proclaimed.  Anyhow it cannot be far off now8.  Hoping this will find you all well.  Give my love to all.  Your loving husband.
    xxxxxx Frank
1.  Bessie Willmott.  Born 25th August 1881, neé Beauchamp.  Married May 13th 1909.
2.  Francis Carl Willmott.
3.  Leonard Willmott, my Great Grandfather, had died on March 29th 1918 at the age of 66.  He was a stonemason by trade.  He had been unwell following a tricycling accident some while previously.  However a more immediate cause of his death was frost-bite contracted while engaged in roof-top building work.
4.  This would be the son of another Charles Holloway, a Frome newsagent and friend of the family.  My father (Francis Carl Willmott) tells a story of his youth, linked with Holloway’s shop, that must have occurred around this time. My father had an arrangement by which he would collect his weekly comic, ‘Chips’, from Holloway’s Newsagents.  On one occasion, reading as he was walking home, he was so absorbed in the latest issue that he fell into the exposed gutter carrying the stream which runs down Cheap Street.  He was unable to extricate himself, not because he was stuck, but because he did not want his copy of ‘Chips’ to get wet.  Because he was acting as a human dam the water soon overflowed and started to threaten the adjacent shops with flooding.  Passers-by hauled him out and he was able to return home soaked, but with his reading matter unspoiled.
5.  “Aunt Min”, a sister of Grandfather.
6.  Leonard Willmott.  Grandfather’s younger brother.  Served in the Royal Engineers.
7  When Grandfather was eventually demobilised, on 27th March 1919, his rank was recorded as Lance-Corporal.
8.  Grandfather’s heartfelt wish for peace was happily soon gratified.  An armistice was signed with Turkey on 1st November 1918, the war as a whole ending on 11th November.

It is pleasant to close this account with two domestic letters so full of affection.

Especial thanks to Francis Carl Willmott for his help in editing these documents.  His detailed recollection of personalities and of events that took place over eighty years ago resolved many queries and mysteries.