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    Hacksaw Ridge and an article about the RAMC and conscientious objectors in WWI from Blind Veterans UK Review.

     

    Watching trailers for Hacksaw Ridge I was reminded of two men whom I have met through my work as editor of Blind Veterans UK Review magazine. The first was a man, recently deceased, who came to the charity in his 90s suffering from age related sight loss. He was veteran of the Second World War, and like Desmond Doss he refused to carry weapons. He chose bomb disposal. The second is someone that I did not meet, as he was the father of Albert Southerden, a blind veteran who came to the charity with age related sight loss. As I interviewed Albert about his experiences fighting in France in WWII he told me of his father Harold, who had served in the RAMC during the First World War.

    Speaking of his late father Albert said: “He was a conscientious objector, which could be taken as an admission of cowardice, but he simply didn’t want to take a life. He wanted to serve his country, but not to take the life of a fellow man. That’s why he joined the RAMC and he would go unarmed into No Man’s Land to treat the wounded. I think he showed extreme courage in his conviction and in his actions.”

    Not to piggyback on Hacksaw Ridge I have placed an article below that was written by GJ Haines about the RAMC and conscientious objectors during WWI for a past edition of the Review.

    The cloud of poison gas was advancing silently but relentlessly towards Harold Southerden of the Royal Army Medical Corps as he tended to the wounded soldier laying on the mud of Ypres as the fighting raged around them. Harold had been trained for moments like this, the whistles and shouts to put on the gas masks were all around him, mixed with the scream of his patient. He had heard and seen what gas could do, the blinding, the choking. He had even heard of one man who had lost all his skin due to the corrosive effects of the vapour. He knew that he had one choice though as the cloud rolled closer. He took the mask off his face and placed it on his patient. He was here to save lives, not to take them. The cloud embraced Harold.

    Harold Southerden was a man of conviction and principle. He had not joined the army through the normal channels but as a conscientious objector.

    Harold was one of over 16,000 (the exact figure varies from 16,000 — 16,600) conscientious objectors who refused to take up arms although the government ordered them to do so. The Military Service Act had been given Royal Assent on the 27th January 1916 and it came into effect from the 2nd March 1916.

    Men aged between 18 – 41 were expected to enlist when called and join the army. The Act when first enacted did not apply to married men, those widowed with children to look after, the clergy, those working in a reserved occupation and those serving in the Royal Navy. Within three months the act had been altered and now extended to apply to those men who were married. By 1918 the Military Service Act now applied to men aged 18 – 51.

    Before the Military Service Act came into law there had been demands from pacifist organisations, such as the No-Conscription Fellowship which was founded in 1914 and campaigned that there should be an exemption clause to enable those whose beliefs on moral or religious grounds to be exempted from military service. A clause was put into place and posters were displayed that advertised that you could apply by 2nd March 1916 to have your case heard by a Military Service tribunal.

    The government recognised three categories of men who conscientiously objected, ‘Absolutists’ men who were opposed to war and did not wish to take

    part in any activity that may in some regard aid the war effort. ‘Alternativists,’ men who were willing to work but not under military control and ‘Non-Combatants,’ men who were willing to join the army but would not bear arms against another. It was this category to which Harold Southerden belonged.

    Three thousand and four hundred men accepted a call up into the Non-Combatant Corps or the Royal Army Medical Corps. The Non-Combatant Corps was set up in March 1916 and was part of the army. The C.O.s were ranked as army privates, wore army uniforms and were subject to army discipline. They did not carry weapons. Their duties mostly focused on labouring work, including building, loading and unloading but not handling munitions. The press called the Corps the ‘No Courage Corps’ or the Royal Army Medical Corps. Those who were sent by tribunal to the Non-Combatant Corps and refused to wear the army uniform were subject to army court-martial. Some 5,970 C. O.s were court-martialled and sent to prison, usually sentenced to hard labour. The last C.O. was released from prison in 1919.

    Those, like Harold, who joined the RAMC, agreed to face the dangers of war, but were vehemently opposed to carrying a weapon. They were in the frontline as the opening of this poem ‘The RAMC,’ by Cpl W. Atkins of the A. Coy, 1/8th Worcs published in ‘The Southern Cross’ in 1917 testifies to:

    We carry no rifle, bayonet nor bomb,

    But follow behind in the rear

    Of the steel fringed line that surges along

    With a ringing British cheer.

    Through the tangled wire of the blown-in trench,

    Spite of shrapnel or bursting shell,

    We make for the spots-Khaki-clad helpless blots-

    That mark where our front rank fell.

    We are the men who carry them back,

    The wounded, the dying and dead.

    It’s “Halt!” “Dressing here” – “Come, buck-up, old dear.”

    You’re all right for “Blighty” so be good of good cheer -

    Turn him gently, now bandage his head.”

    The “stretcher-bearers” doing their bit,

    Of V. C.s not many they score,

    Yet are earned every day in a quiet sort of way

    By the “Royal Army Medical Corps.”

    The RAMC lost 470 Officers and 3,669 other ranks were killed in action or died of wounds in the First World War. During the war their men were awarded many medals for valour including 3,002 Military Medals, 395 Distinguished Conduct Medals, 1,484 Military Crosses, 499 Distinguished Conduct Medals and seven Victoria Crosses.

    The popular press dubbed the C.O.s as cowardly. Pressure was placed on men to join up and those who did not were seen as being outside of society. This pressure was not just enforced by the eyes and pointing finger of Lord Kitchener on the recruiting posters. The Order of the White Feather was established in the United Kingdom to present men in the street with white feathers as a symbol of cowardice. Baroness Orczy (who wrote the Scarlet Pimpernel) took this act a step further and established a Women of England’s Active Service League. The membership of this league gave a solemn pledge never to be seen in public with a man who had refused to fight. The Government were eventually forced to issue men who were working on war work on the home front a badge to show that they were indeed doing their bit.

    Those who chose not to take up arms but agreed to join the RAMC were anything but cowardly. Conscientious Objectors featured in the RAMC roll of honour. Like Harold Southerden they saw their role as saving lives and thought nothing of putting their own lives at risk to achieve this. Ernest Gregory of the 1/3 West Riding Field Ambulance was one of the recipients of the 3,002 Military medals won by the RAMC during the war. He served as a stretcher bearer and won his medal at Passchendaele. This was for bravery in the field for bringing in the wounded while under fire and wading up to his armpits in shell holes full of mud. A photo of Gregory shows him posing in his uniform, his belt is of an unusual military design, it has no ammunition pouches. His Conscience would not allow him to carry any. Like Harold Southerden he was a conscientious objector.

    Gary Haines is an archivist by profession, and has worked with a diverse range of organisations from The Mercers’ Company to the Whitechapel Gallery. He is also a researcher and writer, both fiction and non-fiction. He has had two books published on the history of the East End, the place of his birth, Images of London: Bethnal Green, The History Press, 2002 and Bow & Bromley-By-Bow, The History Press, 2008 and is a regular contributor to the East London History Society newsletter and has also been published in Stand To! The Journal of the Western Front Association. Gary has a great passion for learning and for telling the stories of those whose history is never told. He is now into the second year of his PhD with the History of Art and Screen Media Department at Birkbeck College. The subject of his research is ‘The Visual and Cultural Representation of the Sightless British Soldier, 1915 -1939’. He has a long association with Blind Veterans UK and worked in 2008 as a Collections & Archives Assistant. Gary recently gave a paper at the ‘Commemorating the Disabled Soldier’ at an international conference held in Ypres and a journal article based on this talk will be published by the Journal of Great War Studies in 2014.

    Hacksaw Ridge is released in the UK on January 27, 2017.

     

     

     

    Blind veteran Tom Clough speaks out to other veterans this World Diabetes Day

    I have lived with Type II diabetes for six years, and have had to learn to be careful and watch my diet. I go for check-ups every 6 months with a diabetes nurse. On my first check up my sugar levels were far too high and the nurse asked me about my diet. I confessed my love for evaporated milk and she told me I had to cut that out straight away! Since then my sugar levels have normalised and I have managed my diabetes well. I try not to let it impact my life too much.

    tom-clough

    I found it much more difficult to cope with my sight loss. I first started having problems with my sight in 2010 when I noticed that my driving skills were worsening and I kept scraping the car, so eventually I booked an appointment with an ophthalmologist. They diagnosed me with macular degeneration, and explained that my eyesight would only get worse. I had previously enjoyed reading, and driving helped me to maintain my independence so I found the news extremely distressing.

    Fortunately, a member of staff at Insight, a local sight loss charity in Cheltenham, referred me to Blind Veterans UK and I became a beneficiary in 2012. I visited one of the charity’s rehabilitation and training centres in Brighton for an induction week which improved how I felt about my sight loss. Blind Veterans UK instilled confidence in me. That did more for me than any practical help could.

    Blind Veterans UK has also provided me with free equipment such as a CCTV magnifying screen and a hand held magnifier to assist with reading. The equipment, especially the magnifiers, is marvellous and is a great help to me on a day-to-day basis.

    I would encourage any other blind or vision impaired people who have previously Served in the Armed Forces to get in touch with Blind Veterans UK. It is a fantastic charity which has made such a difference to my life.

    If you, or someone you know, served in the Armed Forces or did National Service and are now battling severe sight loss, find out how Blind Veterans UK could help by calling 0800 389 7979 or visiting noonealone.org.uk.

    Postcard from France. By Catherine Goodier.

    1st July 1916. ‘I’m well. Things are going ok and I’ll write as soon as I can’.

    Those are the last words that 20431 Pte Arthur G Sillence, 11th Battalion The Suffolk Regiment wrote to his beloved wife, their son and two daughters. In the precious final hours of his life, hours before the piercing call from the whistle announced zero hour and men poured from their trenches and the Battle of the Somme commenced, he thought not of himself, but to reassure his family. He found a place to write a postcard home, a postcard from the trenches — a postcard that arrived after his death.

    As his young widow read it she ran her finger over every letter as she called him to mind, as she hoped that it was all a mistake and that he was not dead. That one day he would come home to her and to their children. That he’d walk through the door and put his kitbag down. Her hopes were fruitless; he did not return. He was with the majority in the great beyond, one of the 19,240 men who were killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, men who on memorials are proclaimed as the Glorious Dead. Pte Sillence, soldier, husband, father. A man who was loved. A man who was mourned. A man who is remembered.

    That postcard is a physical reminder of the men, who like Pte Sillence, were in France to fight in the war to end all wars, the Great War for Civilisation. That postcard, now faded by age, as he was not allowed to fade, has been passed down through generations of his family. On 1st July 2016, one hundred years to the day that Pte Sillence died in action, 24454595 Sgt Stephen Richards, late of The Queen’s Regiment brought the postcard to those former battlefields as he attended the Centenary Ceremony of Remembrance at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. As he stood where his great grandfather once stood it was in a landscape unrecognisable from that which Pte Sillence would have known. Today it is a place where people find great solace as they trace their relative’s name on the memorial and walk in the surrounding rich green countryside. It is a place of peace, a place for reflection.

    Many of you will know Stephen Richards who has worked as a driver at the Brighton centre for more than two years. Or you may have attended the Intro Week dinners that he runs at the centre. On 1st July 2016 he was in France to represent his great grandfather Pte Sillence, Blind Veterans UK and the soldiers who were blinded on the Somme, the First World War blinded veterans.

    Recalling the moving historic occasion Stephen said: “The atmosphere was charged and as I stood there on the anniversary of a centenary since the balloon went up and the first day of the Battle of the Somme began, I thought of my great grandfather. I was with blind veteran Richard Haynes and beside us was a French lady whose grandfather had been killed on the Somme. Everyone there shared a common link, we had all lost relatives during the First World War. I’ve been to the Somme battlefields before and to the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, but it was a special honour to be there one hundred years to the day that the Somme Offensive began, and young men like my great grandfather went over the top and into battle.

    “It was awe inspiring as there were thousands of people, but there was a great stillness as family members stood and read letters that had been written at the Somme. Letters just like the one I carried with me. I was very proud to be there to represent my great grandfather as his name is on the Thiepval Memorial. That’s what moved me. That I was his great grandson and I was in the area where he last saw the world. God Bless Him. It bought a tear to the eye to be honest. I’m very proud of my great grandfather and he follows me everywhere I go. It was a great honour to be there in a place that is special to me, and is special to our charity as it welcomed the soldiers who were blinded on its bloody battlefields. It was one of many honours in my work with Blind Veterans UK, a very special charity, and a very special place to work.”

    Pte Arthur G Sillence, 11th Battalion The Suffolk Regiment  with his wife and their children.

    Pte Arthur G Sillence, 11th Battalion The Suffolk Regiment with his wife and their children.

    1st July 2016 Thiepval. Stephen Richards, left, with blind veteran Richard Haines on the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

    1st July 2016 Thiepval. Stephen Richards, left, with blind veteran Richard Haines on the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

    95 year old blind veteran Peter learns how to adapt to his sight loss at our Brighton centre.

    Last week blind veteran Peter attended an induction week at our Brighton centre where he learnt new skills, revived old hobbies and made friends.

    peter-appleby

    Peter, who will turn 95 on Christmas day, has been supported by our charity since May. Peter suffers from aged related macular degeneration which has taken a significant amount of his sight.

    During the induction week Peter was invited to lots of different sessions. These ranged from an archery class to an IT beginners course. There was also a tour of the Brighton centre, a ‘living with sight loss’ talk and a formal dinner to celebrate the week.

    Peter also attended an art and craft session where he was introduced to woodturning, soapstone sculpting and clay modelling. He then went on to a ceramic sitting where he made his own ceramic coaster which he was able to take home. Peter has now decided to book on to a carpentry course at our Brighton centre next year which he is looking forward to.

    “I couldn’t believe how kind everybody is at the centre. All of the staff have so much patience and I couldn’t find a single thing to fault them on.

    “I enjoyed everything about the week, everything about it was absolutely fantastic!”

    Peter was joined by seven other blind veterans during the introduction week. Peter struck up a great friendship with fellow blind veteran David. They swapped numbers and plan to keep in touch. They now hope to visit the Brighton centre together in the near future.

    Richard Davies’ Dunkirk.

    Richard Davies died on 24th November 2015 before we were able to publish this account of his time serving with the British Expeditionary Force in France. This is published for Richard and with the agreement of his daughter Glynnis. A kind and caring man this story reflects the brutality of war as Richard became hardened to death, even the death of his close friends as they swam from the beaches of Dunkirk. He never forgot them and would often speak of his friends and the senseless loss of life. Richard served in the Royal Army Service Corps from 1939 to 1946 in France and North Africa leaving as a Quartermaster Sergeant.

    In 1939 at the age of 17 Richard joined the Territorial Army with a friend and went to camp for what he thought would only be a fortnight. However, on the last day their route march was cut short and they were taken back to the camp where they stood to attention as an Officer informed them that war had been declared and they were no longer Territorial’s, but full Army men and they wouldn’t be going home that day. Richard’s first thought was that he’d lost his place in the Royal Navy and that he was in the Army and couldn’t get out of it.

    Speaking about that time Richard recalled: “We did some training, but not a lot, and by November 1939 we sailed for France. We were untrained territorial’s, teenagers with no idea of the reality of war. We landed in France where we spent our first night sleeping on a dirt floor in one of the dockside buildings.

    “One afternoon the Sergeant asked if anyone could ride a motorbike and I put my hand up before he’d finished talking. He told me to get on the bike. I’d never ridden one before, but I thought if I kept in the same gear he wouldn’t know. He said I’d do and that’s when I became a dispatch rider. It was an awful winter in France with snow and ice everywhere and we were to move some 300 miles to Northern France. It took three days as we travelled by day and slept on route in sheds at night. We eventually moved up to the Belgium border and started carrying troops further into Belgium to meet the Germans. We were stationed about 1½ miles from the forest next to the Maginot line. The Government that sent us to war decided that the Germans had no chance of coming through that forest, but of course they did. They came through the forest and they smashed the French and Belgium Armies. We were isolated with no cover at all.

    “My first encounter with the war was travelling along a B Road when I thought there was something wrong ahead of us. I stopped the convoy and travelled ahead where I found five blood soaked bodies, three women and two children, lying in the road. I avoided looking at their faces as I gently dragged the bodies of the women on to the grass verge. I picked the children up and put them in the arms of the women. I got back on my motorbike to return to my convoy and cried until I reached my destination. That was my first encounter with the war.

    “When the war started in earnest we were faced with 300 or 400 tanks coming at us and dive bombers. Within a couple of days we realised that the British Army in France faced the finest military force the world had ever seen. We were sent there with a rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition. We didn’t have one tank, plane or artillery. How can you stop a few hundred tanks with a rifle? This is where we started our retreat. I don’t think anyone in the country knew why we retreated. It’s impossible for any Army to face the Germans with just a rifle. We were sent to our deaths, not to war. All we could do was go back, back and back.

    “On another occasion as I took the troops back and forth I was instructed to go back a quarter of a mile. It was approaching dusk as I turned into a field to stand the lorries down. The field was flat before going into a sharp incline and you couldn’t see the top of the field. When I got off my bike I went for a walk as I would be fairly sore from the knees up. Half way up the incline I heard voices and wondered who could be in the field at this time. I carried on up until I reached the flat part where I could see the hedge and the outline against the sky and saw that the field was full of tanks, and knew that as we didn’t have any they were German tanks.

    “I ran down the field as fast as I could to stop our lads lighting a fire to mash up. They had lit a fire but we soon extinguished it when I told them of the German tanks. I instructed the first driver to go down the road for half a mile and stay on the main road and wait until my return. I turned and went back to the front line to tell the Captain there was a Squadron of German tanks behind him. I left it at that and carried on down to the convoy and waited there for further instructions.

    “That is what we were doing all the time. There were tanks everywhere. You could hardly move a mile before you ran into them. It wasn’t very pleasant I suppose, but we did what we could to get by and it was very difficult with the tanks and the planes. We didn’t stand a cat in hells chance as we were battered day in and day out. It was a case of trying to live and save our lives rather than attack an enemy, which would have been impossible as we didn’t have the equipment.

    “One afternoon as we sat on a grass verge the Sergeant came to us and said ‘I’m going to tell you something which you may not understand but I’ll explain it clearly. If any man here wants to leave this unit and go wherever he wants to go, he’s at liberty to do so. There will be no punishment. You can go where you want and do what you want.’ He went on to say that a Welsh company a quarter of a mile away were fighting a retreat and if we weren’t around when they reached us they would be very disappointed, but we were at liberty to leave.

    “There were 35 or 40 of us and no-one moved, we all stayed where we were. He left and came back 10 minutes later and said ‘I’m going to tell you something else which you’ll understand. It’s every man for himself. You are no longer in the British Army. You are now civilians and you can go where you want, do what you want and say what you want. If you go to the main road it will take you to Dunkirk where there will be ships to take you back to England’.

    “We didn’t know what to say or what to do. We were in a foreign country that the Army had taken us to and if we were no longer in the Army where the hell should we go and what should we do? So we all ambled off in groups of two and three towards where we thought the main road could be. We found it, and we also found that the road was completely blocked with traffic. Apparently anyone who took a vehicle on to the Dunkirk road was to smash it so that the Germans couldn’t use it. The signpost told us Dunkirk was seven miles away and all we could see was smashed vehicles all the way to Dunkirk.

    “In the fields beside the Dunkirk road there were no walking paths so most of the time we had to clamber over the traffic as best we could. It took us a long, long, long time and most had trouble getting through that road, but we did eventually reach Dunkirk, and when we did, it was on fire. There were flames everywhere. We managed to get through at least half of the city and onto a big square where there were no raging fires as there were no buildings on the square. I was with two of my mates when I spotted a jeep further down the square that had tin cans on the floor and as we had no food I went to investigate. They were small tins of mixed fruit and I loaded myself with as many as I could carry and took them back to my two mates and we divided the tins between us. We stayed in the square for some time before we eventually managed to get through Dunkirk and on to the beach.

    “The sight that met us was shocking. The beach was stacked with hundreds of soldiers, soldiers stacked under a soldier, under a soldier, under a soldier, all along the length of the beach and hundreds more soldiers standing.

    “My first thought was, I’m not going up there, it’s right in the middle, it’s wide open and there’s no defence of any sort. The Captain called us and said ‘Fall in here lads.’ I said ‘No thanks we’ll find our own place’. We went further up the sand towards the road. On the sand side of the road there were no houses. The other side of the road was lined with hotels and they were all on fire. We settled down in the sand and we built three short trenches to give us some cover and we buried our tins of fruit in the sand and we stayed there. The Pier at Dunkirk was very long and by the bridge was an ambulance and a Destroyer. We heard an Officer shout ‘The next man to stand on this boat I will shoot!’ They eventually pulled off the pier around mid afternoon and as they started to move out to sea the Germans decided to blow them to pieces.

    “All we could see was two ships going down, 500 or 600 men going down with the ships. All we thought was — why didn’t the silly buggers wait until it was dark. Nothing to do with the 600 soldiers who had gone, that’s how hardened we had become. Day after day we lay in our trenches and listened to the screams of soldiers as they were hit by bullets, and the screams of the soldiers as they were blown to pieces. The Luftwaffe was over those beaches every minute of the day firing and bombing. There were no ships to take us to England. After a period of seven or eight days I decided quite coolly, quite calmly, that I would commit suicide. I could no longer stay in this awful space and listen to the screams. We would be blown to pieces, shot to pieces or taken prisoner of war. I didn’t want any of that.

    “I decided quite calmly to take my own life. I was only 18½ years old. I told my two mates my intention and that I was quite serious about it as I could no longer stand to be there and listen to the screams. The following morning as I sat and smoked a fag I saw a small sail boat come round the end of the pier. It pulled away from the pier for a distance and it stopped. I watched it for a quarter of an hour and as I knew a little about ships from my home town of Swansea decided he was shell fishing and that he’d be there for a couple of hours. I decided to swim out to that boat, and if I didn’t reach it I would sink, and that was my way out. I said to my two mates ‘I’m going to swim for that ship. I don’t want you to come with me as it’s too dangerous. If I don’t reach it I’ll drown, but I’d rather accept that than what I’m facing here’.

    “The reason I decided to commit suicide was not because I was afraid of the Germans. What shattered me was sitting on the beach for eight days listening to the thud of bullets as they entered bodies and then the screams after the thuds from the bullets and there was nothing we could do about it. That’s what got to me and why I decided to swim out.

    “I removed my boots, put them around my neck, entered the water and started to swim. I swam for a while and then floated and looked back for my two mates who were both in the water as they swam behind me. I had a bit of a smile to myself. I was a strong swimmer as I lived only 10 minutes from the beaches in Swansea and swam a lot, but never for any distance, it was always just mucking about in the sea. I turned back and started to swim again and each time I looked back they seemed to get further and further away, and at one point I was floating and watching them. There were no waves as the sea was calm apart from small ripples. As I watched them swim a dive bomber came over and blew them to pieces with machine gun fire and that was the end of my two mates.

    “I had become so brutalised by then that at the time it didn’t bother me, tough luck. I just turned and resumed swimming. And eventually I did get to that little boat and I grabbed it with all my strength. There were two Frenchmen on it, that was all, and they pulled me into the boat and dragged me on to the deck. I lay there gasping for breath. I heard them shouting and lifted my head as a Destroyer came towards us and they shouted at it to stop. I got the two Frenchmen to understand that I wanted to stand up to let the personnel in the Destroyer see my uniform. It stopped, dropped a rope ladder over the side that I climbed up and was given a cup of tea as we sailed home to England.

    “In my opinion the Government of the time should have been declared war criminals as they sent men to their deaths, not to war. Men who had no means to defend themselves. How can you stop hundreds of tanks with rifles? And that’s how we retreated in France. We had to. We had no option but to keep going back, going back and struggling to keep alive. The Government sent untrained Territorial’s with a rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition. The films you see with actors portraying the soldiers as they return from Dunkirk and show them waving to everyone are pure fiction not fact. We were exhausted. No one waved. Not one single man.

    “When I got back to England we went on to the North East coast to cover the potential invasion. Nothing did happen, but on the way back into town I met a nurse who worked at Rampton State Institution and I saw her every night for about a month. She didn’t like working there as it was a bad place to be so she joined the WAAF and was posted to Cardiff, but we kept seeing each other.

    “After a while I was issued with overseas kit, shorts, pith helmet, puttees and it looked as though I was going to a hot place which meant I wouldn’t be home for a while. I phoned my girlfriend in Cardiff and asked her to go to my aunt’s in Swansea. She arrived there on the Wednesday and I arrived the following day. By then I was a Sergeant as I’d been promoted for my work in France. I told my girlfriend that if we married she would have another week’s allowance, which was the equivalent of her pay, and that if I went overseas it would be a bigger allowance. I asked her what she thought and she said — let’s get married then.

    “I went to get a wedding license as we intended to marry on the Saturday morning, but found that we were too young and would need our parents with us. I managed to get over the need for our parents’ consent by changing the dates of our births on our identity cards to make us over 21. We married on Saturday morning and she went back to Cardiff and I went to Glasgow. That was in 1941.

    “I was posted to North Africa for five years. We were married for one day and I came home in 1946. She died on what would have been our 65th wedding anniversary. So we didn’t do bad considering we’d only been married for one day before we parted for five years.

    “I want to say about our lads retreat in France — don’t take any notice of what you see in the films or on television. The true story of our retreat is that we were unarmed soldiers fighting the finest military force the world had ever seen. I’ve never had the courage to go back to Dunkirk and have often wondered with all the horrors one went through in France and on the beaches of Dunkirk, and in North Africa and in Burma, why we should be given medals to remind us of such horrors. I did six and a half years in the Forces and don’t have a medal and don’t want any medals. I don’t want to be reminded of that hell.

    “Life can be cruel and so many have their horrific experiences of war. The ones I feel for are the Far East Prisoners of War as they went through absolute hell.

    “I am grateful for my family and to Blind Veterans UK. I enjoy the Llandudno centre, and it was something so different to do the zip wire when my daughter Glynnis and I stayed there. Everyone is so kind and it’s a very special place.”

    Happy 101st Birthday to blind veteran Ron Freer.

    Blind veteran Ron joined the Army in 1931 and, on the outbreak of the Second World War, was posted to Hong Kong to defend the then British colony. In late 1941, the Japanese attacked Hong Kong including Fort Stanley, where Ron was based. After 18 days of fighting, his garrison surrendered against overwhelming odds.

    capture

    He became a Japanese prisoner of war (POW) and remained so until the end of the Second World War. It was this four year ordeal that led to Ron losing his sight because of the malnutrition he suffered in the camp.

    Ron says: “The camp was situated on the edge of the harbour with high fences all around. The Japanese brought in a bag of rice for each unit but only enough for one meal a day per man. We cut an oil drum in half and used the bottom as a boiling pot for the rice.

    “Each man was given a scoop of rice but many were unable to eat it and looking at the portion of rice, one could see mice droppings and insects. Disease soon broke out resulting in many deaths.”

    In 1943 the group of POWs were transported on a ship called The Lisbon to Japan. It was on this journey that Diphtheria broke out amongst the two thousand men aboard. Ron caught the infectious disease and his life was only saved by the actions of two doctors.

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    He says: “Lying in the hut with all the others suffering, I heard a voice say ‘turn over Sergeant’, I was then injected with something and the voice said, ‘you are very lucky’. I knew then that it was our medical officer. He later told me that a Japanese civilian doctor had managed to smuggle in six phials of anti-diphtheria toxin so the two of them had saved my life.”

    A month later, Ron had completely lost his sight and most of his hearing and spent the remainder of the war in the camp medical hut. At the end of the war he returned to the UK via the Philippines and New Zealand. It was then that his journey with Blind Veterans UK, then known as St Dunstan’s, began.

    He says: “I returned to the UK after being a POW for nearly four years. Having lost my sight as well as my hearing my future seemed very dismal and I didn’t want to think about what lay ahead. This was until I was taken to Blind Veterans UK.

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    “I was given my confidence back bit by bit through training such as learning Braille. My main objective, as man in his early thirties, was to find employment. After I married, I had the opportunity of opening a new post office and my wife and I continued to operate it for 25 years. This was all thanks to Blind Veterans UK, who helped me to purchase the property.

    Blind veteran Bill is first to use our brand new pottery wheel.

    Bill was visiting our Llandudno centre for an IT training week where he was getting to grips with his new smartphone.

    Although Bill was focusing on his new IT skills he couldn’t resist a go on the pottery wheel which had been installed a couple of days earlier.

    Bill Laidlaw pottery wheel

    Bill was the first veteran to use the wheel and was shown how to use the wheel by our Activity Team Instructor Gail. It took a couple of attempts but Bill was able to create a wonderful cereal bowl which is now being baked.

    Bill says: “I have been to the art and craft department before and tried ceramics but it was rather fiddly. When Gail asked if I would like to try the pottery wheel I said yes! I would now like to take on pottery as a new hobby.”

    Our Llandudno art and craft team now hope to introduce the pottery wheel to other veterans. They hope to create a system in which several veterans work together to create a final piece of pottery. It will begin with one veteran sculpting the piece on the pottery wheel, then after it has been baked the next veteran will glaze. The final step will involve another veteran painting and decorating the piece.

    Gail adds: “It was great to introduce the pottery wheel to one of our veterans. I was really pleased that Bill managed to throw a pot. It made me so happy to see his smile when he was able to achieve this.

    “I think the pottery wheel is a very welcome addition to the department, the pottery wheel is a tactile craft and I think it will be a very relaxing pastime for our veterans.”

    It’s all ‘Sugio’ at our Brighton centre!

    Shin, a Japanese student currently training as a classical singer, recently attended our Brighton centre to find out more about our charity. Shin, who lives with sight loss, has embarked on a project which compares the facilities and services available to vision-impaired individuals in different countries.

    As part of his studies Shin attended the Royal College for the Blind, the RNIB, our Blind Veterans UK archives and finally our Brighton centre. Whilst at the centre Shin attended one of our Art & Craft workshops, here he was able to view our veteran’s paintings, sculptures and was also able to take part. Shin was bowled over by the range of activities and often exclaimed “Sugio!” meaning amazing!

    Shin then visited our Sports and Recreation department visiting the gym and swimming pool. He later attended IT training and kitchen training with our Rehabilitation Officers. Shin was amazed by our training facilities and now hopes to take his experiences back to Japan to help other vision-impaired individuals there.

    Shin finished his trip to Brighton with a visit to the beach and his first plate of fish and chips.

    Last weekend twelve blind veterans were invited to Brighton & Hove FC to try blind football.

    A blind football match entails two teams of five players. The objective is still to kick the ball into the net and the goalkeeper is usually sighted. Most importantly, ball bearings are placed inside the ball to create a noise which allows players to locate the ball.

    It was the first time the majority of our blind veterans had played blind football and at first the new ball proved difficult to navigate. Blind veteran Colin says: “The ball used for blind football is so much heavier than a regular football although this is necessary as it keeps the ball on the ground reducing potential injuries.

    “We are so thankful to Brighton & Hove FC and the American Express Organisation who arranged the blind football weekend. They arranged two vision-impaired football coaches to introduce us to the sport, offering warm-up sessions, training, penalty shoot outs and organised a match between our group.

    “Overall the weekend was great fun and we all had such a laugh. A couple of us enjoyed the sport so much that we have decided to create a Blind Veterans UK Blind Football Team. We hope to recruit a full team of blind veterans and hopefully enter the Blind Football League!”

    Blind veteran Kenneth tells his heartbreaking Prisoner of War story.

    ‘The Review’ Editor Catherine visited Kenneth at his home to talk about the three years he spent as a Prisoner of War.

    Kenneth begins: “On the day we were made PoWs we had to parade and line the main road while the Japanese marched in. We were then moved up to Changi Gaol. Some went into Barracks, and some like me were initially under canvas before they moved us into some old shops that we slept in; the shops were made of sheets of corrugated iron. My first working party at Changi Goal was to level the runway there. I was then sent back to Singapore with a different working party.

    Corporal Kenneth Hill

    “I remember that back in Singapore one canal was full of bodies of Chinese men and women and horses and pigs – all slain and thrown into the canal. The Australians were given the job to clean the canal and remove the bodies. The Japanese showed us a shelf with five severed heads on it – they told us that is what happened to looters. There was a severed head on a pole on every street corner to deter looters.

    “One of the first jobs we were given by the Japanese was to collect the cars, which took us up into Malaya. That was before working on the Railway. Everything was easier than working on the Railway. I would drive a lorry and tow five cars at a time. We would take them on to a field and the Japanese would have them done up. We would always search the cars and one day one of our chaps found a Bakelite hand grenade, I don’t think he realised what it was. At the time I was at the back of a lorry and he threw the grenade and it landed beside me and went off. It caught my eye and the Japanese took me to the Japanese doctor who treated my eye and told me it would be OK. We were in a working party of three with one Japanese guard. Our guard had fought in China for 10 years and he suffered from terrible rheumatism and would seize up. When that happened we would have to push his joints back into place. If the Japanese had seen us doing that to him, even though we were helping him, they would have shot us. Some of the Japanese were good to us though.

    “My next working party was on the Railway. I was a lucky man really as we had to march from Changi Goal to Kamburi, which was the base camp for the railway. When my friend, Vic Morrell, and I reached Kamburi we were taken sick. We were given a day to recover. We went back the next morning and they gave me a further day to recover, but not my friend. He had to walk for 250 miles to the Burma border. I stayed at Kamburi for another week as I had to wait for a working party. When I did get up to the railway it was to a little place called Nike. I asked about my friend and they told me that he had died after he contracted cholera. That was a terrible blow.

    “Our working party was responsible for keeping the road open. As it was the monsoon season the lorries would get stuck in the mud and we would use elephants to pull the lorries up. We would cut trees down and place them in the road for the lorries to drive over. That was when I lost the hearing in one ear as we had to carry the tree trunks and lay them in the road. I was holding one end of a tree trunk when the man holding the other end dropped it. The trunk bounced and whacked me in the ear, perforating my ear drum.

    “It’s well documented that there was a lot of cholera in the camps and that we had to burn the bodies of those who had died as the Japanese were scared that if they buried the bodies the infection would seep into the water supply.”

    There was one time when Kenneth could have been shot for escaping from the camp, but his life was saved by a Japanese guard.

    “I had to drive the ration wagon to pick up supplies for the camp. There was a Japanese guard with me and when the truck wouldn’t start after we had loaded the supplies he told me to go and fetch a mechanic while he guarded the truck. As I walked in search of a mechanic an MP cycled by. He thought I had escaped from the camp and took me to the MP station where I was questioned for almost a day. I told them what had happened but they wouldn’t believe me. I really thought they were going to shoot me. Thankfully the Japanese guard found me and told them what had happened. They released me and I went back to the camp. That guard saved my life.

    “The brutality of the Japanese guards is well known and they would use the dreaded speedo, a bamboo stick that they would hit people with as they yelled speedo, speedo to make them work faster. I was lucky as I was young and fit and although I was quite skeletal at the end, I remained healthy and that kept me safe from the speedo.

    “I experienced Japanese brutality when we were wrongly accused of stealing sugar. A Japanese guard slapped my face a number of times with his wet hand. Later they took us out into a field at night and we were told we would have to stay there until we confessed. We didn’t as we hadn’t taken anything. The Malayan PoWs were also there and one of them said he’d seen one of the Chinese prisoners go into the caravan where the sugar was kept. They found him and they tied him to the back of a lorry and drove him around the field. Of course they got faster and faster and he was dragged around the field until long after his death.

    “Much has been said about the diet of those of us who worked on the Railway. We got up in the dark and came back in the dark. On Sunday morning when we didn’t go out we couldn’t eat our breakfast as we could see that it was full of maggots. We ate them in the dark as we couldn’t see what we were eating. They only gave rations for people who went to work, the sick were denied rations. We had to try to get everyone on parade in the morning and then get the sick back to bed before we went out on our working party. Occasionally on a working party in Singapore we had been given shark, it was usually given to us to impress a Japanese General when they came to inspect the camp.”

    Kenneth and his fellow PoWs found out an Atom bomb had been dropped on Japan when they were told one night by an Officer.

    “An officer came to our hut and told us the bomb had been dropped. We were told not to let on that we knew. He came back again to say that the Japanese had surrendered. That bomb saved our lives. We were saluting the Japanese one day and the next morning they were saluting us and the next day they had gone. We didn’t see them go, they just left. Although they did leave a few people behind on the aerodrome. On the day freedom was declared I was transferred to a headquarter company who had a hut outside the Gaol. At that time two Australian Officers landed by parachute on the runway, which is now Changi airport and they took over command of the camp. We received a message to put a white cross on the runway for planes to drop supplies for us. We searched to see what we could find to put down and were told by an Australian Officer to make the Japanese do it. It felt good to watch them work as they put a white cross on the runway.

    “As I’d somehow managed to keep myself fit, I put it down to the fact I was so young, I was given duties to carry out after our release from Changi Goal. It meant I was one of the last to leave, as I was driving a lorry to ferry people to Singapore to get on board their planes. I was at the airport at the same time as General Slim’s plane and his pilot came and asked if I’d sent word home. I hadn’t and he took me into General Slim’s plane, gave me a postcard, which I filled in, and he made sure that my mother got the notice that I was well.

    “At last it was time to return home and we boarded a boat for Southampton. Our first meal on board was rice, the doctors said as we’d eaten rice for three and a half years our stomachs wouldn’t initially be able to take rich foods. They gradually built us up to eat properly. On the journey home I sent a telegram at each stop. I sent one from Colombo in Sri Lanka. When we arrived at the bottom of the Suez Canal we were given new uniforms and our stripes and medals were put on them. My cousin was waiting for me when I got off the boat there as he was a Batman to an Officer and he showed me around. We stopped there for two or three days. The next stop was at Gibraltar and then on to Southampton and home and family. We thought once we got to Southampton we could go straight home, but they wouldn’t let us and we had to stop overnight. I was feeling a lot healthier by then, as they had really looked after us on the journey back to England, which took three weeks.

    “Leaving Southampton I took a train with a chap from Wolverhampton. I was undecided whether to get off at Birmingham or go on to Dudley Port. In the end I decided to get off at Birmingham and he went on to Wolverhampton. There was a ‘get you home service’ for Servicemen and I thought I would use that, but as I was going up the steps at New Street station who should come down the steps but my dad and my sister Dorothy who was in the WAAF. They didn’t know I would be there, they thought I might get off the train there. They had a car to take me home. It was great to see them. We got home and it was great to see my mum after three and a half long years.

    “When I’d settled back at home my mum arranged a birthday party for me in a Church Hall, as we didn’t get to celebrate my 21st birthday together. By then I was 25. I’d spent my 21st birthday as a PoW. We were captured in February and my birthday was on 6th March. One of my mates, a Staff Sergeant from Liverpool, had given me a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate for my 21st. We kept in touch after we were released and he came to our wedding when Brenda and I married on 7th June 1947.”