DOWN MEMORY LANE Battered autograph book reveals wartime horrors

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A small and rather battered autograph book was recently donated to West Sussex Record Office. It had been found on a houseboat in Littlehampton by Ken Smith. His wife removed the worst of the dirt and mould, and they looked through it with interest.

The contents had been written by soldiers in hospital during the first world war. There was a great enthusiasm for autograph books at that time.

I typed up the contents, and was surprised to find the autograph book had been used in two locations: Belgrave House in Littlehampton, and Graylingwell War Hospital in Chichester.

Belgrave House was an Auxiliary Military Hospital, run by the Red Cross. At least some of the beds were used for convalescent soldiers. It was a substantial three-floor house at the junction of Fitzalan Road and Irvine Road, and was demolished in 1980.

Graylingwell Hospital was built as the County Asylum, but it was used as a war hospital from April 1915 to 1919. Wounded soldiers from various battlefields in Western Europe were brought back to this and many other British hospitals.

Picture 1 shows two soldiers wearing ‘hospital blues’. The psychiatric patients were moved out to other hospitals across the south-east.

Some entries in the autograph book are dated, and the hospital named. These show the owner of the book was in Littlehampton from August to December 1915, and at Graylingwell from January to May 1916.

There is no clue in the book as to the identity of the owner, nor how it came to be abandoned on a houseboat.

What matters is the book survived and was rescued by people who recognised its importance. Through it we can catch a glimpse of the wounded and convalescent men of 95 years ago.

None of the men who signed the book was an officer. Their ranks ranged from private to company quarter master sergeant. There were officers in Graylingwell (a 2nd Lieutenant was buried in 1918), but they were probably in separate wards.

The men were from nearly 50 different regiments from across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. There were also men from one New Zealand and two Canadian regiments. Some men drew their regimental badge – for an example, see picture 2.

A few of the patients illustrated their entries. There were the sentimental (see picture 3), the humorous (pictures 4 and 5), and one self-portrait (picture 6).

Just two men from the Royal Sussex Regiment signed the book. Private John Veness, from the 2nd Battalion, left England in November 1914 and was wounded at Festubert in France on 9th May 1915. He later transferred to the 1 GB Bedfordshire Regiment. ‘GB’ meant ‘Garrison Battalion’, so John would have stayed in England as a result of being wounded.

Private A D Reed, from the 17th Battalion, went to Houplines in France, and was invalided home in September 1915. He has been harder to track down, but is probably Arthur Reed, who later transferred to the Labour Corps.

Most of the men were wounded between late April and early June 1915, particularly in the fighting at Ypres (Belgium) and the Dardanelles (Turkey). The general rule was to transfer to Great Britain any soldiers who were fit to travel, and who were still likely to be unfit for active service after three weeks.

Some of the men mention their injuries – lost my left leg, bullet wound through right ankle, shrapnel through right arm. Others name the diseases that caused them to be in hospital – dysentery contracted at Lemnos (Greece), nephritis contracted at Popperinghe (Belgium), typhoid contracted at Suvla (Turkey).

Private GH Bell of the 1st Wiltshire Regiment was wounded in November 1914. He then returned to fight, and was wounded again in May 1916, spending time in Graylingwell. He died in Belgium in April 1918, aged 24, with no known grave.

The Germans first used gas as an offensive weapon in 1915. Private James Killin of the Seaforth Highlanders was gassed twice at Ypres in May 1915. He was lucky not to have been killed by the chlorine gas, from which at that time there was no protection.

The first world war started on August 4, 1914. Sergeant T Ridge of the Kings Royal Rifles left England one week later.

He went through the following in just ten weeks – Mons, retirement from Mons (280 miles), Marne, Aisne to Belgium, Battle of St Quinton, St Julien, Ypres, and the first Battle for Calais in which he was wounded.

Trooper LB Hibben wrote he ‘left England Sept 27, 1914. Arrived back July 16, 1915. Under age. Not 18.’

Leonard Beauchamp Hibben was born in the Glasgow area in 1898, the son of a company sergeant major in the Royal Artillery. With his army background, Leonard must have decided the first world war was too good a chance to miss.

Ignoring the fact he wasn’t yet 18 (the minimum age), he signed up. Maybe he looked older than his 16 years, or perhaps the recruiting officer decided not to enquire too closely into his age.

Leonard returned to the Royal Garrison Artillery from Graylingwell, but sadly did not survive the war. He died in Italy on November 13, 1918, two days after the first world war ended. Despite his four years of service, he was still only 20 when he died.

Some of the men recorded both the date of their injury and their arrival in Graylingwell. The fastest was Private JM Brown of the 5th Scottish Rifles.

He was wounded at Bois Grenier in France on May 16, 1915, and was in Graylingwell just four days later.

Private JS Selbie of the Manchester Regiment, on the other hand, was wounded in the Dardanelles (Turkey) on June 4, 1915, and took just over a month to reach Graylingwell.

He presumably travelled by train and by sea.

* The Record Office would be pleased to hear from anyone who has first world war items relating to Graylingwell Hospital or Belgrave House.

These items could be donated, or loaned for copying. Please contact me by phone on 01243 753602, or by email at records.office@westsussex.gov.uk