Frank Albert Mitchell was born in May 1894, to Charles and Ellen Mitchell. Charles was one of the various carpenters living in Winkleigh. The Mitchells were the largest of the village family groups, and is interesting that all the various sons had inherited the distinctive ‘Mitchell chin’ which marked them out in a special way. Photographs remaining show a clear indication of this. So numerous were the families and their children, often with similar names, that special research on our web-site was needed to distinguish those who are listed on the Roll of Honour. Additional information on the Mitchell families in Winkleigh is added to the right of this account.
The family of Charles and his wife Ellen Mitchell were living at the time of the 1881 census in Red Lane, with three children, Charles aged 3, Ellen, 2, and Arthur aged 8 months. By 1901 they were at Hilliers with Ellen and two sons, George J, 13, and Frank Albert, 6. By 1911 they are described as living in a private house just below Court Barton. George had left home, Frank was 17 and a new child, Arthur W. was 5. Frank Albert was working with his father as a carpenter. Four years later, in 1915, he had left both home and his carpentry trade, and was living at 10 Domehayes in Okehampton earning his living as a Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist in the Post Office. On 10th April 1916 he enlisted in the Royal Engineers, a decision that might well have been the result of attestation under 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, and indeed, as a local magistrate, Col. Alexander witnessed Frank’s oath of loyalty. 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 originally 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. Having attested, Frank Albert’s choice of the Royal Engineers was clearly based on his trade, and with the advantage of avoiding being conscripted into the infantry, which was continuing to suffer horrendous casualties. We are very fortunate that Frank’s military documents survived the London blitz which destroyed so many of these records. They are referred to by number in this account and can be found by clicking on the appropriate link.
Telegraphists were in constant demand as the huge increases in headquarters throughout the war areas expanded, and the lines of communication became ever more complicated. Post office workers were greatly encouraged to volunteer, and indeed were spared the rigors of basic training because of their proficiency communications skills in Morse code. Doc.11 is a memorandum from Lt.Col. Alexander, the recruiting officer for North Devon, to the 16th Recruiting Area, Exeter, explaining that Frank was desirous of joining the Royal Engineers as an office Telegraphist. The Director of Army Signals was calling for telephonists to serve and it was a great opportunity for Frank to volunteer in a way that would be immensely useful to him in a future career in the Post Office. Doc.1, shows that’ Frank was 20 years and 11months old at his Attestation, the document being forwarded to the R.E. Depot at Chatham. Doc.2, page 2 of the attestation, gives the family address as Kingsford House, Winkleigh. An outline statement of Frank’s services was then added to this document as time went on. A very short initial training was carried out at Chatham where he was at once graded as Proficient as a Telegraphist in the 40th Signals Company. Doc.8 shows his trade skills at the time he was tested: he could both send and receive in Morse code at the rate of 33 words a minute. When posted later to the 39th Signals Company in France, it was as a skilled telegraph operator (Doc.9). Doc.3 is Frank’s clean conduct sheet throughout his service. Docs.4. and 5, his Medical History, give his height as 5ft. 9 and half inches, with good health and physical development.
Doc.2. gives the information that Frank was lucky enough to remain at Chatham until 3rd March 1916 when he embarked for France, posted to the 39th Signal Company (Doc.6.) Sadly, the war diary did not survive so do not know the location, but since he did not appear to have moved it is probable that he served in a headquarters. Doc.6, the active service record, also tells us that he was given leave to the UK on 6th November 1917, presumably for the usual 10 days. Then, on 12th May 1918 Frank was selected to be part of a military tattoo - where we do not know - rejoining the 39th Company a week later on 18th. On 1st September 1918 he was promoted to the status of skilled operator, grade B., with a rise in pay. On 5th October 1918 he was awarded 14 days’ leave in the U.K.
Demobilisation came with dispatch to No.2 Dispersal Unit, Fovant, on 23rd January 1919 (Doc.7), and his final day in the army on 26th January. His qualification certificate, Doc.10, confirms his skilled rate as a Telegraph Operator ‘B’ as from 1st September 1918, and that he was employed in a telegraph office. Doc.12 confirms his record to the Controller and Accountant General at the G.P.O. London. With every chance of a substantial career in later life, and with a medal record card showing that he was awarded the Victory and British medals, Frank could return to Winkleigh, proud of his service.
16 July 2011