Henry Williamson at Trefusis House, 1917
On the night of 7/8 June 1917, Henry Williamson, transport officer for the 208th Machine Gun Company, led his drivers and their mules, laden with rations, ammunition and replacement machine guns, six long miles in darkness and mud up to the front line. They walked into a bombardment of high explosive and gas shells, Driver Frith and his mule being killed very close to HW. This was to be Henry’s final, traumatic memory of the Somme. His short diary entry for Friday, 8 June reads:
Went sick this morning. Medicine & duty. Raining in evening [. . .] Gassed at B[ullecourt].
He was admitted to a Field Ambulance Hospital the next day, and was moved on to 44 Casualty Clearing Station at Colincamps the day after that, Sunday, 10 June. On that day he wrote to his mother, 'It [the CCS] is a nice place – in a big marquee of course but the patient is very feeble as I have that cursed milk (nestles tinned) only to live on [. . .] there are two other gas cases here besides me – one, poor devil, will die soon I expect.'
On 15 June he was moved to No. 8 General Hospital at Rouen, and wrote to his mother with more details of that horrific night: 'Mother, I thank God I am out of that inferno. [. . .] the last night at Bullecourt the Bosche put a hell of a lot of salvoes and crumps over – blew our ration wagon up and killed a driver and blew my tin hat off and destroyed my gas respirator. Then he suddenly changed to gas shell – we ran right into the barrage on the track you see, and I got a fair dose of phosgene – which has a deadly action on the heart and system – next morning I was down and out and the ambulance came for me.'
HW was evacuated back to 'Blighty' on the hospital ship West Australian late afternoon on Sunday, 17 June, arriving in Southampton at 8.00 a.m. the following morning; he was sent initially to Sussex Lodge Hospital in London. Anne Williamson's Henry Williamson and the First World War describes HW's further progress:
At a Medical Board on 22 June he was considered unfit for General Service for three months, unfit for Home Service for two months, and unfit for Light Duties for one month. [. . . ] A week later, on 29 June, he travelled down to Cornwall to an Auxiliary Hospital for Officers, Trefusis, at Falmouth, one of many houses turned into convalescent homes for sick and wounded soldiers. The next few days were spent yachting and 'fooling around generally'. The contrast could hardly have been more extreme. On 7 June he was at the Front in the middle of a most fearful battle but within three weeks he was sailing in the gentle waters of Falmouth estuary. This was a harbour haven in every sense of the word. Photographs of Henry Williamson during this period of convalescence at Trefusis show him very relaxed, playing tennis, boating, and friendly with the nurses.
(Trefusis House is now a Grade II Listed Building.)
HW left Trefusis on 30 August for Devonport Military Hospital at Plymouth; at a Medical Board on 24 September he was passed fit for light duties and granted three weeks' leave as he was still fifty per cent. He joined the 3rd Bedfordshires at Landguard Fort, Felixstowe on 15 October 1917, after his leave.
HW's photographs of his time at Trefusis are of varying quality, but are nonetheless fascinating for their portrayal of these young men, reprieved – temporarily at least – from the stress of life at the Front and the ever-present threat of imminent death.
The first three are of Trefusis; the first being from a postcard (?):
HW has captioned this: GROUP OF CONVALESCENT OFFICERS AT
TREFUSIS, Aug. 1917. + denotes since killed in action.
2 Lt. Griffin, M.C.; Capt. Johnson, M.C. Cheshires; Lt H. W. Williamson,
1st. Bedf. R.; Maj. Burns, R.G.A.; 2 Lt. Catlin, A.S.C.; Major Traill, M.C.,
East Yorks +; ——; Lt. H. Martyn, D.L.I.; Lt. Goodall, A.S.C.; Lt. Percy
Worral, R.F.C. +
|Major Colin Traill – photograph captioned by HW, 'my friend'|
|HW in his bathing gown, ready for a swim|
|Miss Wilson and some early bathers|
|A group of officers with two nurses – HW is far left, seated slightly apart|
HW and Edie Sithney, probably photographed by Edie's twin sister Beth
(HW used their real names in A Test to Destruction)
|'B.T.' is identified elswhere as 'Bridgitte'|
HMS Implacable, a French prize from the Napoleonic wars – a 74-gun third rate,
originally the French Navy's Téméraire-class ship of the line Duguay-Trouin, launched
in 1800. She became a training ship, and at the time she was scuttled in 1949 was
the second oldest ship in the Royal Navy, after HMS Victory.
|A page from HW's photograph album – enlargements are shown below|
|HW is second from left|
|HW on the right|
Further pages from the album:
|Top left is labelled 'St. Just'|
Top left: HW and Edie; top right: 'Tea brewing up the Fal'
Bottom left: 'Hilda'; bottom right: 'Irene at Swanpool'