The previous post in this series examined the Army medical training infrastructure that had to be expanded during the early stages of the war. This piece will give an idea of the range of men who either volunteered or were conscripted to serve as orderlies in a variety of general and specialist technical roles. Some had already been members of the territorial army before the war, whilst others had a general interest in medicine and first aid. Others were merely assigned randomly to the corps. A further group, the conscientious objectors, were posted to the RAMC on the basis that they would not have to bear arms against a fellow human.
David Jones, a cost clerk with a gas company, was already a member of a Territorial RAMC unit and therefore on the Monday following Chamberlain’s announcement on the wireless that Britain was at war he reported to Finsbury Barracks in north London. After a morning of some confusion as to how to organise the influx of what was now a regular army, Jones soon became one of many men who took a dislike to army drills and the way in which they were conducted:
When I arrived at the barracks there was chaos and we just sat around in groups waiting for something to happen. At midday they told us to “fall in” on the parade ground and then they marched us through the streets to the local ABC restaurant. We all sat down and had steak and kidney pie with vegetables and some sort of fruit pie with custard.
The next day was a little different and they were more organised. We were taken out onto the parade ground and a little squint-eyed Sergeant called Stanton put us through two hours of marching up and down. He soon got to know me and every so often shouted out “Jones, take that smile off your face”. Then he would have a go at someone else and it was not long before we all hated him.
Ronald Ritson had left school aged fourteen to begin work as a coal miner at Walkmill Colliery in Cumberland. The colliery maintained a branch of the St. John’s Ambulance which Ritson joined, competing with other local mines to win a shield for the most efficient unit. Ritson also availed himself of the option to join the unit’s Military Hospital Reserve, which afforded him additional opportunities for medical training, but also meant that in the event of war breaking out, he would be liable to an immediate call-up.
On Monday 4th September, on completion of his shift in the darkness of the pit, Ritson arrived home at 3p.m. to be greeted with the equally dark news that his call-up papers had arrived, and he was to catch a train at Bransty Station, Whitehaven at 7p.m. Ritson did not have the opportunity to formally give his notice at work, and had to say a hurried farewell to his parents and siblings.
Paul Watts, a resident assistant golf professional, had joined the local ARP and became a Gas instructor for his home village of Mundesley. He was also the local Scout Master and when interviewed for call up was told that unfortunately he would not qualify for the infantry as he had flat feet. As someone who earned his living from sport, this amazed him. However, he was not too sorry to miss out on the infantry and pointed out that he had been trained in first aid for his scout work, suggesting his skills could be used in the RAMC.
Jim Whitaker had worked in a shoe factory in Lancashire before the war. His employer wanted a qualified first-aider on the staff of the factory and had offered to pay the course fees of anyone who applied. Whitaker leapt at the opportunity and was able to gain experience of ambulance driving and treating patients in this additional role. However, as he was thus considered a key worker for Civil Defence, he was not permitted to volunteer from the RAMC, as was his wish, and had to wait for his age group to be called up before being assigned to the corps.
Walter Hart, a printer and bookbinder from the Jewish East End of London was another territorial, like David Jones, who found his initiation into army food provisions a pleasant experience. Hart was part of the 1st Militia, the first batch of troops to be conscripted, and had been a member of the St John’s Ambulance before the war as well as serving as a sergeant in the Jewish Lads’ Brigade. Having signed on at a Labour Exchange in May 1939, he was passed as A1 at a medical and posted to the training depot at Crookham:
On arrival we were told to form a queue, so that we could be checked in. Just then a red tabbed colonel came by and said a few words of welcome. After being booked in we were led by a sergeant to a big mess hall, there meeting our view, were tables placed in pairs end to end. Each table was covered by a white sheet, serving as a tablecloth, and on each was a small vase with flowers. The kindly sergeant told us to sit down and we were served with tea and sandwiches by corporals who were present. The sergeant declared, “This is only a snack, you will get a proper lunch later.”
However, this kindness was merely for the benefit of the attendant members of the press, out in full force to cover the story of the first batch of conscripts. After they had left, the tablecloths and flowers were removed and a sergeant barked, “Right twelve to a table”. The final two men to sit down were appointed mess orderlies for the week, assigned the task of dishing out the food and removing and wash the empty pots afterwards. During the meal an officer came round and asked if there were any complaints. Having been previously warned that if anyone complained, they would be `in for it, no-one raised any objection despite the awfulness of the food.’
Charles Quant had lost the use of an eye in a boyhood accident, and when he went for an initial medical examination to join the army, he was told by the doctor that he was unfit for military service due to only having one working eye:
I said I was a very good shot with rifle or shotgun, but he said that King’s Regulation said that nobody with only one eye could shoot. I was cheeky and asked him if he could shoot, he said he did. I asked him which eye he closed and he said the left. I said that my left eye was permanently closed, but he stuck to the point about King’s Regulations and sent me home.
Nevertheless, Quant was called for interview a few months later and told that there was an opening in the RAMC to train as a radiographer. Keenly, he accepted this offer and was sent to the training depot at Church Crookham, and thence to the training college at Millbank, coinciding with the during start of the blitz.
John Broom was a twenty-three year old furniture salesman from Colchester at the time of his call-up and appeared before the medical board on 24th February 1940, being classed as Grade `A1’. He was deemed to have enlisted on 15th March 1940, on which date his devoutly Christian parents gave him a pocket bible with the following inscription:
To my darling John
With fondest love
From Mum and Dad
March 15th 1940
And when He putteth forth
His own sheep
He goeth before them…
Kept by the Power of God
In all thy ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct thy paths
This bible was to remain with him throughout the war, and indeed throughout the rest of his life. His mother Florence, like many women of her generation, had to send her son off to war just twenty-five years after seeing her husband depart for the horrors of the First World War trenches. On his arrival in Leeds, John wrote `Regarding my departure, you were very brave and the circumstances were the best possible. I realise how very much you must have been dreading it. Truly you all bore yourselves with conspicuous courage. I am glad you didn’t break down, though I should have understood it if you had’.
The stories of dozens of individuals who served across all theatres of the Second World War are told in my critically acclaimed book Faithful in Adversity: The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Second World War published by Pen & Sword.