Horace Letheren was born in 1891, the only child of Annie and James Letheren, the Winkleigh bank manager, living in Bank House in the Square. In the 1911 census Horace is recorded as a student, implying that he was presumably studying for the qualifications required to follow in his father’s footsteps. The Letheren name was the most widespread in Winkleigh: the 1901 census, for example, records 6 heads of Letheren family units: James the bank manager, John the baker in Cross Street, Lucina a baker in the High Street, Thomas a labourer in Star Barn, Annie a draper in the High Street, and Frederick a saddler and harness maker in the High Street. Together with this combined influence on village life came a huge interest in and influence on the educational provision of the schools in Winkleigh and Hollocombe. The establishment of the Board School in 1874 saw James Letheren the elder elected as Clerk to the Board, a post he filled until his death in 1898, while his daughter Elizabeth became a monitor in 1875. James Letheren, the son of John the saddler and baker also became a monitor in 1876, then a pupil teacher and finally an assistant teacher by 1887. Annie Letheren, the draper in the High Street, supplied the school with all its sewing needs for the girls. With this background Horace Letheren obviously made the best possible use of the education available to him.
We are very fortunate that two sets of military documents have survived to give us the story of Horace’s service. With rare luck the so-called ‘burnt document series’ (the great majority of which were destroyed in the London blitz) were in his case preserved, and because in 1917 he was invalided with trench-fever, his records are also found in the pension documents series. There is some duplication so that for our purposes the two sets have been merged and put into order, providing us with a reasonably clear account of Horace’s war. The documents are numbered and can be referred to in the text.
It is astonishing to realise that the huge casualties of 1914, together with the battles of 1915, the catastrophe of Gallipoli and the dreadful losses in Mesopotamia were all fought by British and Empire volunteers. But by late 1915 the old pre-war army had gone, the Territorials were all in action and the first Divisions of the New Army had already been devastated. Conscription was a very unwelcome and political nightmare for the Asquith government, since compulsory service had always been largely regarded as a ‘continental’ and not a ‘British’ way of organising the military, so that there was huge opposition in the country to its introduction. A compromise had to be found and the answer was the ‘Derby Scheme’.
The Derby Scheme, first announced to the country on 15th October 1915, comprised a personal canvass of every man between the ages of eighteen and forty-one on the basis of the National Register. Each man was asked either to join at once or attest, and committees were set up in every locality. In Winkleigh, Col. Alexander was in the forefront. Single men and married men formed two groups: each were sub-divided into a further twenty-three groups according to age, to be called up in strict order, starting with the single men aged 19, and the married men to be called only after the single men had all been enlisted. Tribunals were set up for those seeking exemption from attestation or postponement on grounds of special hardship or essential war-work. Those who attested could still, in theory, choose their branch of the army in which to serve although pressure was brought on as many as possible to serve in the infantry. The scheme was no more than a partial success, as many argued that since three million men had already come forward, 75% over and above the numbers Kitchener had called for, there was no need for further recruitment. Fewer than half those available had attested, the tribunals had been too liberal in granting exemptions, and more men were indeed needed when the Derby scheme was finally closed on 15th December. As a result, the conscription bill affecting single men was introduced into the House of Commons on 5th January 1916, becoming law on 27th. In March 1916 the youngest group of married men who had attested were of necessity also called up. A second military service bill, introduced on 3rd May 1916, became law on 25th May, and extended the liability for military service to all men between eighteen and forty-one.
Horace left his attestation until the very last moment, 30th November 1915, with enlistment at Exeter on 6th December, choosing to serve in the 43rd (Wessex) Division Cyclists Company (Document 1). Many young men (and women too) were taking up the new sport of cycling at the turn of the century and it seems that Horace decided to turn this interest into a cheerful way of opting to join the army. Though passed for fit as a cyclist Horace was later reclassified a grade lower as B1 so it may be that pre-war he had originally turned to cycling as a way of keeping fit.
The Wessex Division was a formation of the Territorial Force. It was formed as a result of the reforms of the army carried out in 1908 under the Secretary of State for War, Richard Burdon Haldane, and was one of 14 Divisions of the peacetime TF. All units were mobilised for full time war service on 5 August 1914. Five days later the Division re-concentrated at Salisbury Plain and HQ moved to Tidworth. On 22nd September 1914 the Government of India agreed to send 32 British and 20 Indian regular army battalions to Europe in exchange for 43 TF battalions. Lord Kitchener proposed instead to send the Wessex Division. All units assembled at Southampton on 9th October. Sailing via Malta and Suez, the main body of the Division went to Bombay, landing on 9th November, with three units (4th, 5th and 6th Devons) landing at Karachi two days later. There were, however, many in the Division who (in those early days having the right as Territorials to refuse overseas service) remained behind, so that a second line Wessex Division (the 45th Division) was formed to utilize them, only released to go to a theatre of war by the Military Service Act of 1916. Horace therefore joined the Cyclists Company of the 45th Division, named as the 2/1 Wessex Division on his medical record, Document 2. He was inoculated and vaccinated (Document 3).
On 25 November 1914 it was decided to send further Territorial units to India, and 10 battalions of infantry and the artillery from the 2nd Wessex were selected. The other units (Royal Engineers, Royal Army Medical Corps, Army Service Corps, etc) of the Division would not go and many were eventually posted to fill gaps in other Divisions. The transport and horses of all units going to India were left behind. Thus the Cyclists Company remained at Tidworth, presumably the place where Horace served his early training. However with the static trench warfare that followed the failure of ‘break-trough’ in the battles of 1915, far fewer mobile units (cavalry and cyclists) were needed, and no doubt to his great regret Horace was destined for transfer to the infantry. On 11th December 1916 he was transferred via the depot of the Army Cyclists Corps, to the Northumberland Fusiliers, with a new number 45393, (Document 4). However, at the subsequent medical, (Document 2A) his grade was reduced to B1 which in theory meant that he was not entirely fit for front-line duties, and he was posted instead to the 18th (Pioneer) Battalion of the regiment, Divisional Troops of the 34th Division.
‘Divisional Troops’ were those attached to a divisional headquarters rather than to the brigades. Divisional units were therefore able to be moved rapidly from one brigade sector to another, as the need arose. Pioneer battalions, though commanded by their own officers, were also often attached to other units, for example field-companies of the Royal Engineers for the purposes of supplying extra labour for any number of tasks. Often working behind the lines, pioneer battalions were also called upon to work at night under fire from shelling, machine-gun or rifle fire which brought frequent casualties. There was a constant shortage of the stores and materials required for the work, and of course there was also considerable wastage. A recently arrived pioneer battalion in France was often virtually untrained, including the newly-commissioned young officers with very little knowledge of manual or construction work. This was the case for the 18th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers when they first arrived in France in February 1916, often baffled by the complexity of building secure dug-outs, revetting trenches, building parapets, laying duckboards, digging emplacements and so on. The war-diary for February 1916 contains an early comment on the situation:
‘Pioneer work on the trenches is not a simple job and requires learning and I am sure it would be advantageous to let a company of the new battalion work with a company in the line for a few days before taking on the work entirely.’
During a major attack the pioneers were often employed digging new communication trenches to a new front line, clearing old British or German trenches, wiring at night and so-on, all dangerous work, often in the open. Complicated battalion planning orders for July 1st 1916 (the opening day of the battle of the Somme) which included many of these tasks make mournful reading considering how little progress was made.
The 18th Battalion had suffered very large casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1st 1916, having been attached to 8th Division for their attack towards Contalmaison and Poziers. A very small advance was made by the Division, a fortified strongpoint called Scots Redoubt and the village of La Boiselle were captured but no more could be done. The 18th had been ordered to dig communication trenches and carry stores forward, including trench bridging materials for the mobile field artillery. Counter attacks on Scots Redoubt were repulsed largely as a result of the work of the 18th Battalion. Despite a later commendation by the Brigadier of 181st Infantry Brigade which praised the ‘gallant conduct of a magnificent battalion’, and the praise of the Divisional Commander Major-General Ingouville Williams who wrote ‘no better pioneer battalion exists in the army’, the 18th were shattered and needed months of ‘rest’, reinforcements and training of the new recruits. Well behind the lines they were employed on salvage schemes, laying tramways, building huts, strengthening support lines, laying water-pipes and so on, interspersed with normal infantry training including musketry.
It was during this lengthy period that Horace Letheren was posted to the Battalion on 11th December 1916. February and March 1917 saw the 18th now in the Arras sector, laying water-pipes near Roclincourt, north of Arras, in preparation for the coming Battle of Arras, that opened on April 9th 1917. On the same day a parallel attack was launched, known as the First Battle of the Scarpe, 9th – 14thth April, involving the 34th Division. The 18th were for this engagement attached to 207 Field Company of the Royal Engineers (34th Division, XVII Corps) east and north of Arras, an area covered by the 3rd. Army, at the southern end of Vimy Ridge. The Battalion’s task in the battle was an easier one: keeping the Bailleul road in good repair, repairing communication trenches and constructing tracks for pack transport. The war-diary gives no account of these activities, nor whether casualties occurred.
On 28th – 29th April, 34th Division were involved in the next phase, the Battle of Arieux. The 18th Battalion was engaged again in digging communication trenches and the new support line covering the ground that had been gained. As always, extremely detailed orders are recorded in the battalion war-diary. There is no record of any casualties.
In May 1917 the 18th Battalion moved into rest at Beaudricourt and then to Candas, an area north of Amiens and south-west of Doullens, where some further intensive training took place on the role of the battalion in support of an attack. On 28th May they were attached to XVII Corps of 34th Division, and moved by bus to Agnes-les-Duissans, due west of Arras. In this area a minor attack by the 34th Division was ordered on the western slope of a feature known as ‘Greenland Hill’ to consolidate a useful observation position in the line. The action took place near Oppy, north-east of Arras. The 18th Battalion was ordered to dig communication trenches prior to the attack, followed by further communication trenches from the original front line to the new line of captured German trenches. The war-diary reports:
‘Work was at times considerably interfered with enemy shelling heavily during the period 1st – 18th. The casualties in the Battalion were heavier than for some time past, 8 being killed, 4 died of wounds, 30 wounded, 12 wounded at duty, but taking into consideration the nature of the tasks to be done, the casualties were remarkably light.’
It was during this period that Horace Letheren became sick with trench fever and began his journey back to England. Documents 4, 4a, 4b and 4c record the story. He was removed from the battalion on 11th June 1917, to be passed down the line. He would have been quickly passed through one of the three Field Ambulances attached to the 34th Division (102, 103 or 104 Field Ambulance) to the 2nd/1st Northumbrian Casualty clearing Station at Agnez-les-Duisans. From there (Document 4) he was taken by ambulance train to the 26th General Hospital at Etaples, one of the many base hospitals on the coast. Arriving back in England he was treated at the war hospital in Huddersfield, which he reached on 15th June. The speed of his evacuation is astonishing. Horace’s treatment lasted just over 4 months until his hospital discharge on 25th October 1917.
Trench Fever attacked all armies and until the final year of the war baffled doctors and researchers, who recorded it as ‘BEF PUO’ (British Expeditionary Force Pyrexia [fever] of Unknown Origin). First seen in the early days of 1915, the characteristics of this condition were unlike anything that had been previously encountered: a typical report read ‘the patient's condition on admission was marked by frontal headache, dizziness, inflamed eyes and leg pains, severe lumbago, a feeling of stiffness down the front of the thighs, and severe pains in the legs referred chiefly to the shins.’ One of the most curious qualities was the relapsing fever. Despite such wide-ranging symptoms (which resembled typhoid and influenza) the condition was not itself particularly serious, with patients recovering after some five or six days although prolonged hospitalisation amounting to several weeks was common. In military terms however it proved one of the most significant causes of sickness and the military authorities were therefore keen to determine the root of the problem. In 1917 a renewed and more virulent incidence of the disease was recorded with effects much as before although the average duration of sickness was much longer, with victims reported suffering frequent relapses after intervals of several days. This must have been the case for Horace Letheren, whose records classify the disease in his case as ‘severe’. By this time in the war, between one-fifth and one-third of all British troops reported ill had trench fever.
Lice remained a serious problem in the trenches, as men were huddled together in large numbers in unsanitary conditions. It was only in 1918 that the cause was finally identified: two different bacteria can cause trench fever: one is carried by body lice, the other by ticks. Infection occurs when an infected louse defecates while feeding on a human. When the person scratches, the feces (which are full of bacteria) are rubbed into the tiny wound. Alternatively infection occurs when an infected tick bites a human, passing the bacteria along through the tiny bite wound. Symptoms of trench fever begin about 2 weeks to a month after exposure to the bacteria. Because pain is particularly severe in the shins, it was often nicknamed "shin bone fever." The fever can reach 105°F (40.5°C) and stays high for five to six days at a time. The temperature then drops, and stays down for several days, usually recurring in five- to six-day cycles. An individual may experience as many as eight cycles of fever with the illness. Many different drug therapies were tried, and even a vaccine of louse excreta, sterilized by heat or phenol, but all to no effect.
Prevention was a matter of cleanliness. However, the Official History of the War—Medical Services records that ‘adequate routine medical inspection of healthy troops was an impossibility.’ Very early on the Army had established divisional baths to turn lice-ridden men into clean soldiers, with the aim being to wash every man at least once every 2 weeks, but in many if not most instances this proved difficult to maintain, and in any case was only available in ‘rest’ areas. At the beginning of the conflict, there was no large-scale method of disinfestation available, other than a small number of horse-drawn ‘thresh steam disinfectors’, originally designed for the sterilization of clothes that had been exposed to infectious disease. The usual course was the steam cleaning of clothes at the Divisional baths, but this was not always effective in total delousing as the eggs lodged in the seams of clothing remained resilient to the heat.
The disease continued to be a severe drain on army manpower throughout much of the conflict, and even the numbers of those who had to be evacuated do not reveal the full extent of trench fever's debilitating effect on soldiers, many of whom became chronic sufferers. In 1920, 6000 men in Britain still attributed their war disability to trench fever and were a continuing financial burden to the State, which had to pay their pensions. This was indeed the case for Horace Letheren, whose medical category was reduced to B2 (Document 12) on release from hospital.
Huddersfield war hospital was located at Royds Hall which is located on Luck Lane. The building is still standing and has functioned as a school since its conversion in 1921. As the war progressed the influx of patients continued to increase. Royds Hall became more than just a war hospital. The tranquil settings were ideal for rehabilitation and accounts describe the surrounding allotments as being alive with ‘army blues’. An entire community prevailed and despite not much in terms of first-hand accounts having survived, it only takes a small amount of thought to imagine what it may have been like. Huddersfield war hospital treated 22,000 soldiers during the war and can boast the lowest death rate of any war hospital in the country. The hospital closed in 1919.
One such account that has survived is a record of life in the hospital found by chance on a rubbish tip in 2009. The diary was created by injured troops recuperating in Huddersfield, featuring drawings, poems and messages expressing soldiers’ deepest and often humorous thoughts about the war, compiled during 1915 and 1916. Here is an extract, written by another man suffering from trench fever.
“Discomfort in the trenches”, By Fred J Wright 25/08/1916
When you take King George’s shilling
And express yourself as willing
To come out and fight the Hun
Then your troubles have begun
For you’ll always have to fight
Against the pilgrims of the night
There are many things out here
That you will mistake I fear
Hardships that you must contend
While your country you defend
But the thing to make you grouse
Is that aggravating louse
When you’re going off to sleep
They’re forming up two deep
When you’re in the land of nod
They’re forming up in a squad
And you’ll find it most annoying
When the section starts deploying
Royd’s Hall, Kirklee, Huddersfield
On 25th October 1917, Horace Letheren was discharged from hospital, but was not graded fit enough to return to France. Instead he was given a Home Posting, transferred from the Northumberland Fusiliers to the Royal Army Medical Corps (as he is recorded on the Winkleigh Roll of Honour). Passing through the depot in Newcastle where he stayed officially until 28th December 1917 he was posted three days later to the Sanitary depot of the RAMC in Blackpool (Documents 4a and 7), having no doubt enjoyed a substantial Christmas leave in Winkleigh. His official attachment was to the 1st Northumbrian Field Ambulance, thus retaining his link with the regiment.
In the field a Sanitary Section (consisting of a Lieutenant or Second-Lieutenant, 2 Sergeants, 2 Corporals, 20 Privates and 1 batman) was added to each Division in early 1915. Its job was to maintain as far as possible clean water supplies, cooking facilities and billets, de-lousing stations and similar facilities. The Depot was of course a recruiting and training establishment, and we can assume that in any case much of 1918 was in fact a time for his extended convalescence, possibly with periods of relapse. Here he remained (in ‘D’ Company) until demobilisation on 12th March 1919.
Horace Letheren, however, applied to remain in the army, rather than return at once to his previous life in Winkleigh. The war-time army now became an army of occupation in the Rhineland, one reason at least why demobilisation proceeded slowly, and those who wished to remain in service for another year or more had a ready-made job rather than to try and compete with the discharged men flooding the labour market. Document 4a shows that he was demobilized officially on 12th March 1919 and rejoined on 13th March for one year, with a future demobilisation date of 31st March 1920. Horace’s decision might have been made easier by being transferred from Blackpool to London, rather nearer home. Document 7 shows that he was sent on a course on 7th February 1919, and posted to a London Sanitation Company.
Document 8 shows that he had applied for a pension during this extended period of service, on 3rd July 1919, and document 10 that he was summoned to the travelling medical board on 11th December 1919. Document 9 records that on 20th March he proceeded to his final demobilisation. Because he had volunteered for further service he was debarred from receiving the Silver War Badge or King’s Certificate (Document 11) and 11a refers to Horace’s agreement to the disembodiment. On this document it is worth noting his excellent handwriting: the product of Winkleigh School and his father’s influence.
The remaining documents all relate to Horace’s demobilisation and arrangements for his pension. Document 12 is the original Protection Certificate dated 13th February 1919 that was needed if he were to apply for soldiers’ unemployment benefit, superseded by Document 12a which he received for similar purpose on 21st March 1920. Prospective employers would want to know a man’s war service record: Document 13 gives this summary up to Horace’s first demobilisation. It was a record of which he could be justifiably proud. Finally, (Document 14) recording his present unit as ‘RAMC London Sanitary Company’ the army granted him his pension as compensation for trench fever which had brought about a 20% disablement of a mere 5/6d per week for only 26 weeks, from 13th March 1919, a final settlement. Lloyd George had promised at the ‘Coupon Election’ to bring about ‘a land fit for heroes’. Horace Letheren’s pension, along with thousands of others, shows how badly this promise could be fulfilled. Winkleigh was very rightly proud of him: we remain so still and honour his memory to the present day.