I am looking at one of the only family documents to have come down to us from the Great War. It is my grandfather’s discharge documents.
He served from 1916 to 1922, which makes him unusual in the family. The rest including my great grandfather, two great uncles and two uncles all left the army when the war ended, but he stayed on.
I have no reason of knowing why he signed on for four more years. It is perfectly possible that army life suited him. He had after all grown up in institutions from the age of four, spending his teens on a training ship for wayward boys and then as a cabin boy. Or perhaps he had already met the German girl he was to marry in 1920 and so had a motive for staying in Germany.
Either way it is a most powerful link with a period in his life of which I knew nothing and with customary efficiency almost all you might have wanted to know about him is here on two sides of an A5 piece of paper. Service number, date of enlistment and discharge, the regiments he was assigned to, along with physical characteristics and military records, including medals and years of combat service. It is all here.
There must be many of these tucked away in old books, photograph albums or filing cabinets, long forgotten now that all those who fought have passed on. It is of course a wonderful piece of personal family history but it is also an entry point into the military world of the Great War.
So amongst all the detail is the record that he had been awarded three blue chevrons. These indicated the number of years a soldier had served abroad from 1915 and were worn on the right tunic sleeve.
Equally revealing is that he belonged to the Labour Corps. Formed in January 1917, it was the direct successor of the units which had been established to perform all the labouring tasks needed by the army. “They were given the name of Pioneers and differed from normal infantry in that they would be composed of a mixture of men who were experienced with picks and shovels (i.e. miners, road men, etc) and some who had skilled trades (smiths, carpenters, joiners, bricklayers, masons, tinsmiths, engine drivers and fitters). A Pioneer battalion would also carry a range of technical stores that infantry would not. This type of battalion came into being with an Army Order in December 1914. In early 1916, a number of infantry battalions composed of men who were medically graded unfit for the fighting were formed for labouring work. They had only 2 officers per battalion. Twelve such battalions existed in June 1916.
The Labour Corps grew to some 389,900 men (more than 10% of the total size of the Army) by the Armistice. Of this total, around 175,000 were working in the United Kingdom and the rest in the theatres of war. The Corps was manned by officers and other ranks who had been medically rated below the "A1" condition needed for front line service. Many were returned wounded. Labour Corps units were often deployed for work within range of the enemy guns, sometimes for lengthy periods. In April 1917, a number of infantry battalions were transferred to the Corps.”*
So there you have it. It is a fascinating document which puts my grandfather into the big picture, but it has still one last clue to that world or at least to the new world after 1918, and it is contained at the end. He was “discharged in consequence of Para 392(XXV) KR (Kings Army Regulations 1912) His services being no longer required after having served Six Years 142 days with the Colours.”
We were at peace and he was just little later than the rest of our family to join that peace.
Picture; from the collection of Andrew Simpson
* Chris Baker The Long, Long Trail http://www.1914-1918.net/labour.htm