Monday, 27 June 2011

Roots 2: Soldier of the queen - Fred & Florence

Another installment in my on-going project to  research my  family history: This is one of  my maternal Great Grandfathers - Frederick Albert.

He was born in 1871 in Richmond in Surrey - his father Albert was a former soldier and  bricklayer who died before his son's eighth birthday leaving his widow Caroline with six children. She supported the family as a needlewoman so it is fair to assume that life was pretty tough for them.  Fred worked initially as a milkman but at the age of 18 followed his father into the army. He opted to join the Royal Artillery as a driver - presumably his experience in working with  horses helped equip him to drive a gun carriage. In fact shortly afterwards he transferred to the more glamorous Royal Horse Artillery as a gunner - all artillery being horse-drawn at the time but in the horse artillery the gun crews rode into battle rather than marched. And being equipped with lighter guns they provided close fire  support to the cavalry. Like most soldiers at the time Fred signed on for twelve years - the first seven of these to be served in the regulars and a further five in the reserves subject to recall in the event of war. 

His father had served in the army in the Crimea era when soldiers were generally held in pretty low esteem as the dregs of society. By the time of Fred's service it was the golden age of Kippling's 'soldiers of the queen' and some sentimental regard had developed for the common soldier. Reforms in the army had abolished some of the abuses of an earlier age - flogging and the purchase of officers' commissions  - but life in the ranks still tended to be harsh and brutal. Four of Fred's seven years were served in India on the North West Frontier and this posting would have produced mixed feelings. Unlike home postings, there were numerous possibilities of action in policing operations even when there weren't full-on hostilities ,and there was the constant attrition of disease. On the other hand, pay went much further in India than at home,  and even the rank and file would enjoy the benefits of being part of the race that ruled the empire - with native servants and a more relaxed barrack regime than the spit and polish of Woolwich or Colchester. Fred appears to have made it unscathed through these years - although when he transferred to the reserves in 1896 it is recorded that he had severely sprained his left knee 'in action'.

Other than marrying Florence and starting a family, we don't have any record of what Fred did back in Richmond for the next three years but in 1899 with the outbreak of the war in South Africa he had the misfortune of being recalled to active service. War with the Boer settlers had broken out after a shameless adventure of land-grabbing by the British to secure the gold and diamond fields of the region. It was arguably the British army's first 'modern' war - fought against an opponent who combined guerrilla tactics with the use of European weapons and so embarrassed an army used to colonial victories against  indigenous peoples with inferior arms. As a foretaste of the First World War  the fighting  was fully in the public gaze;  the civilan population was galvanised with a call for volunteers to supplement the regular forces, and comfort parcels from home were sent to the troops.

Fred landed in South Africa in 1899 and was posted to 'G' Battery - his medal record shows that he served at the battles of Paardeburg, Dreifontein, Johannesburg, Diamond Hill and Kimberley. There's little doubt that he would have been in the thick of it - one of the frequent British tactical errors was to deploy their artilery too far forward in the open where the gun crews made an easy target for the skilled Boer marksmen. 

Happily my Great Gandfather survived all this and was finally discharged in 1902. His record shows that he was never an exemplary soldier - throughout his service he never managed to rise above the rank of Gunner and he seems to have regularly forfeited and regained his good conduct pay. On his discharge his character merited only a 'good' - but this was obvious sufficient for him to secure a saught-after position on his return to civilian life in Richmond as the town's resident fireman. In an age when the public sector was almost none existent fire brigades were generally formed of volunteer part-timers with only the resident fireman as a fulltime paid position - much like the coxswains of the RNLI today he was also the caretaker of the fire station and responsible for the maintenance of the equipment. Again his experience with horses would have stood him in good stead for this. The position would also have secured a certain status and security - reinforced when his wife Flo  became the caretaker of the new municipal public conveniences. Not too glamourous perhaps but aslo a position of trust and relative  status - and with the added scope of earning tips from the customers.  

Largely because of Fred's military service, in the course of twenty odd years he had risen  from poverty to working class respectability.  The family memories of Fred in his old age are of a fairly stern and forebooding patriach. But poignantly there is no one left to remember the impact it must have had when his own son, following the family's military tradition, was killed in action at the age of 18 in 1917.

NB: Although the photogarph above has been kept by the family we have no idea which one of the men is Fred although we can be sure that he isn't one of the NCO's. His medical record at the time of his enlistment descibes him as short and stocky with a ruddy complexion and scars to his cheek and forehead, he also had tattoos on both forearms. It looks like his genes have run strong ...

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