My favourite section of Ancestry’s collection is its World War 1 records, so I was thrilled to find my great-grandfather John Rimmer’s amongst them. Firstly, a bit about my great-grandfather John Rimmer – or Jack, as my family’s long line of Johns have always been known.
Despite his family being rooted in Blackburn, Jack was actually born in Ballyclare, Co Antrim, in 1887 and spent his infancy there before returning to Blackburn around 1890. His father, Robert (1855-1911), was a Millwright by profession and I presume he took his family over to Ireland while working on a temporary contract. All of Jack’s brothers and sisters were born in Blackburn. When Jack left school he followed his grandfather John Rimmer (1832-1891) and great-grandfather William Rimmer (1804-1882) into the iron founding industry. He trained as an Iron Moulder and by family accounts he was a very good one, “the best Moulder in Blackburn” in fact. He apparently came up with a design for a ‘bar-less grate’ which, given our family fortunes, didn’t catch on and make any money. It showed nonetheless that he cared about his trade – a dedication which may well have saved his bacon. He married Clara Worthington in July 1908 and my Grandad, John Edward, was born in the following November. A daughter, Amy, followed in 1911. At that time they were living at 10 Portsmouth St, Blackburn. Towards the end of 1914 they were living at 14 William Hopwood St when two major events changed their lives. The outbreak of the First World War in Aug 1914 led to Jack volunteering to join the Army on 20 October 1914. Then disaster struck on 18 November when their daughter Amy died at the age of 3. She died at home from pneumonia and Jack, who was present at the death, informed the registrar on the same day which suggests it was not sudden. Amy’s death must have had a devastating effect on them, although they didn’t really talk about it in later years. However, my mum remembers that when she was pregnant in 1965, Clara (then in her late 70s) asked her to name her baby Amy if it was a girl, because she said sadly, “I once had a daughter called Amy”. (Mum went on to have a boy, by the way – my older brother).
Into the Infantry
In the midst of this domestic trauma, Jack found himself as an infantryman in the 2/4 Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment. Below is a snippet from the front page of his service record:
In November 1914, his battalion moved to Southport (funny how that place pops up in our family history) where they trained for the first half of 1915. The photograph was taken at the Kings Gardens on the Promenade (Jack is at the centre of the front row).
While at Southport, his disciplinary record notes that he went absent without leave from Saturday 6 – Wednesday 10 March 1915. Given that Blackburn is less than 30 miles from Southport, he probably reckoned that his family needed him more than the Army for that particular ‘long weekend’. However, Army discipline was quite harsh back then – it had to be – and the kind of welfare support that the modern military takes for granted was just not around, so he lost 5 days’ pay as punishment.
On 23 July 1915 Jack joined the 1/4 Battalion, forming part of the42nd (East Lancashire) Division,in Gallipoli. To find out more, I turned to The Long, Long Trail which lives up to its promise to be helpful for anyone wishing to find out about the ill-fated campaign at Gallipoli.
The Gallipoli peninsula lies in Turkey and fighting took place there between allied British, Australian, New Zealand and French troops against Turkish troops from Apr 1915 to Jan 1916. When Turkey had closed the Dardanelles Straits at that start of the war, Russia found itself cut off from its allies while attempting to fight on two fronts, so had appealed to Britain for help. Winston Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty at this time, believed that an attack on the Dardanelles could provide an opportunity to strike at Constantinople, the heart of the Ottoman Empire. This, might force Turkey to surrender and open the way for an Allied advance through the Balkans.
Churchill’s planning for the Gallipoli campaign was poor and he rode over the concerns of his senior military advisers about the difficulty of the task in his haste to get it underway. There were insufficient troops, guns, munitions and supplies, out of date maps and a lack of secrecy about the whole operation which meant that the Turks soon dug in with trenches and barbed wire.
The terrain was inhospitable: a rocky, scrub-covered area with little water, steep-sided hills and deep gulleys and ravines. By the time Jack arrived, 14,224 men of the 42nd East Lancashire Division had already landed at Cape Helles at the southern-most tip in May 1915. The Division was involved in three attempts to break out of the Helles bridgehead to capture the heights around the village of Krithia. Jack would have been involved in the last and largest of these attacks over 6-13 August, known as the Battle of Krithia Vineyard.
Wikepedia describes how the Battle of Krithia Vineyard was intended as a minor British action to divert attention from the imminent August Offensive at Suvla Bay. Instead, the British commander launched a series of futile and bloody of attacks that in the end gained a small patch of ground known as The Vineyard. On the morning of 7 August the 42nd Division attacked and managed to break through the line held by the Turks but were forced back by a counter-attack. The Turks counter-attacked repeatedly from 7-9 August and the fighting in the area continued until 13 August when it finally subsided. I will probably never know Jack’s precise role in the battle, but British casualties in the first 24 hours of fighting at Krithia Vineyard were 3,469 and two Victoria Crosses were awarded to men of the 42nd Division.
image source – army.mod.uk
By mid August 1915 the 42nd East Lancashire Division was down to around a third of its normal strength through battle casualties and sickness. By now conditions on Gallipoli were horrendous. The dead could not be buried due to the terrain and close fighting. Flies and vermin thrived in the heat. The men were worn down by the fierce fighting, poor diet, dehydration and unsanitary conditions. They fell prey to epidemic levels of disease and sickness. In October 1915, winter storms added to the damage and misery. Military historian Peter Hart notes that of the total of 252,000 Allied casualties during the Gallipoli campaign, 110,000 were due to sickness. The Turks sustained similar casualty rates. The chief causes were diarrhoea, dysentery and enteric fever. John’s medical records note that on 26 September 1915 he reported sick with diarrhoea and was sent to a casualty clearing station the next day. His condition worsened to the degree that he was medically evacuated from Gallipoli on 6 October.
The Imperial War Museum website is particularly good at describing the conditions that the average Tommy faced on the ground and covers the particular difficulties in Gallipoli with the treatment and evacuation of wounded and sick troops. The main problem was distance and the difficulty of getting patients from the front line to base hospitals. The relatively nearby island of Lemnos was still four hours sailing time away. There was a great deal of manhandling involved in transferring patients through the evacuation chain, especially in getting them on and off boats. Rough seas could also cause much misery and considerable delays. It was important to get the men off the peninsula as quickly as possible, because even in the relatively sheltered parts where casualty clearing stations were established there was no spot immune from shellfire and stray bullets.
image source – iwm.org.uk
Jack was evacuated to hospital at Moudros on the island of Lemnos, where he was diagnosed as suffering from enteric fever. It was a killer. He was on Moudros for over 6 weeks before he was strong enough to be evacuated back to England on board the hospital ship ‘Aquitania’. They set sail 25 November and arrived in England on 4 December 1915.
image source – titanicandco.com
Back to Blighty
The records don’t tell me where Jack was initially sent to convalesce on reaching England. Soldiers convalescing in hospital usually wore a blue uniform (Hospital Blues) then, when deemed fit enough, would return to a Command Depot for rehabilitative training. In Jack’s case he was sent to the Western Command Depot, Heaton Park, Manchester on 21 January 1916. Just prior to this he had sufficiently recovered to return to Blackburn for his first home leave in many months. His record shows that he spent 11-20 January 1916 at home with Clara and John Edward, who were by now living at 27 Maudsley St.
The following months that Jack spent at Heaton Park were obviously tedious for him, because he started getting into ‘a bit of bother’, usually for getting away from the place. He was charged with being absent from hospital without leave on 25 February 1916. These minor misdemeanours make me smile. I checked out timeanddate.com calendar for 1916 and found that 25 February 1916 was a Friday. He probably got on a train at Manchester and popped up to Blackburn for a long weekend. He was back in front of a Major Polding at Heaton Park on the Tuesday morning, who confined him to barracks (CB) for 3 days and fined him 3 days pay. A bit of a pattern emerged as he overstayed a pass on 8 May 1916 (a Monday) – 4 days CB, forfeit 2 days pay and was absent from 10pm to 9.45am on 29 July 1916 (a Saturday) – 5 days CB, forfeit 3 days pay. That must have been quite a night. On 7 July 1916, as the first week of the Battle of the Somme raged on the Western Front, he was charged with “gambling in hut at 2.55 pm” – its strange how fate twisted in those days.
Jack’s civilian skills as an Iron Moulder ultimately saved him from the Western Front. On 15 November 1916 he was transferred from the East Lancashire Regiment to the Royal Engineers – from infantryman to sapper – and posted to Chatham, Kent. In May 1917 he was transferred to the Army Reserve and seconded to Messrs Steel & Co, Trimdon St Ironworks, Sunderland, where he safely saw out the rest of the war on munitions work.
He was finally discharged from the Army on 14 December 1918 and returned home to Clara, John Edward and new son Robert (born in November 1917), who were now living at 35 Maudsley St, Blackburn. Jack and Clara were still living at this address at the outbreak of the Second World War, which he saw his two sons go off and have quite different experiences of war.
Jack died on 10 January 1952, at Queen’s Park Hospital, Blackburn, at the age of 64. Clara died 4 August 1975 in Barnsley, Yorks, aged 88.
Verdict on Churchill
Researching Jack’s time in World War One did clear up a bit of a family quirk for me. Winston Churchill’s place in history as the Greatest Ever Briton seems secure. However, my Grandad Rimmer was not a fan. During a very rare recollection, I remember him saying that during World War 2 when he was in the RAF, he was on parade for a visit by Churchill to his airfield. Grandad and some of his mates were hesitant to pay the great war leader the required compliments as his car was rolling towards them and they were exhorted by their Flight Sergeant (out of the corner of his mouth) to, “Salute, you bastards!”
I don’t know if this story is true or not, but Grandad enjoyed telling it. I had put this down to the fact that Grandad was a life-long Labour man and Churchill was a Tory, who in the public perception at the time, had ordered the troops to fire on striking miners in Tonypandy in 1910 and had faced down the General Strike of 1926. But, Churchill’s role as the Author of the Gallipoli Disaster made it more personal than that.
By the time of the withdrawal from Gallipoli in January 1916 Churchill had resigned from the Admiralty and the Cabinet in disgrace. His ‘amateur strategy’ for the capture of the Dardanelles Straits and his over-ruling of the advice of naval and military experts had cost him both high office and his political reputation. Although Churchill’s much later success at the forefront of D-Day planning in World War 2 owed much to the lessons learned from Gallipoli landings, it had come, in my Grandad’s mind at least, at a cost of the lives and health of over a quarter of a million men like his dad.