11 November 2012





On Sunday 25th November, 1917, Lance Corporal Thomas Henry Gibbs (241730), then on active service with the ‘Gloster’ Regiment in India, recorded in his diary, “Date of wound, 1916.”

On Wednesday 5th December 1917, he wrote at the top of the page in his diary, “Left France for England 1916.”

In the heat and dust of India, the memory of those eleven days in France the year before must have been extraordinarily vivid for him to have so headed these two pages.

It is not certain where in France the injury occurred.  The 1917 diary is the only evidence now, but the Gloucester Regiment, which he had joined on March 4th 1916 (although it seems that he may have enlisted as 4909 Private Gibbs on December 10th 1915, under the Derby Scheme), was at the Battle of the Somme, which ran from July 1st until November 18th, and he had been transported from Southampton to France on August 13th 1916, so possibly he was one of the last, and perhaps one of the luckiest, soldiers to be wounded there, even though the battle was “officially” over?

According to the surviving records provided by the Soldiers of Gloucester Museum (T H Gibbs’s service record was destroyed in the Blitz during WWII) “H” Company, 4th Reserve Battalion, The Gloucester Regiment, were behind the lines in bivouac at Bouzincourt and received a draft of Other Ranks on 21st August 1916, which probably included Tom.  The battalion was then moved into front line trenches at Donnet Post on August 25th. 

Later entries record November being very wet with  snow.  Private William Woods recorded in his diary for November 21st, “The sodden troops cooled their heels in Middle Wood Camp.  The campo consisted of dozens of tumble-down shacks with perforated roofs, scattered over the face of a mud swamp on a bit of a hill.”  The Battalion War Diary records 23rd November 1916, for Middle Wood Camp, “In camp.  Working party.  Casualties Other Ranks: 1 died of wounds and 5 wounded.”  For 24th November: “Rain.  Working parties.”  And for November 25th: “In camp.  Rain.”  Perhaps Tom misremembered the date and he was one of the five wounded on November 23rd? 

It is impossible to recreate what happened, but, almost 100 years later, I can imagine something of what it might have been like.  T H Gibbs (who was my paternal grandfather) was born on the 26th September 1885, and so he would have been 30 years old in 1916.  His diary tells us that he was 5 feet 10½ inches tall and weighed 10 stone 11½ pounds.  His glove size was 8; his collar size 15; he wore size 7 hats and size 7.4 boots (that’s what it says!).  He was married to Dora Emily Snelling on June 5th, 1916, and died on July 1st, 1972.  At his death he still had a piece of shrapnel in his left humerus – I saw the dimpled scar which covered it.


I imagine it like this:  November would have been cold, and wet.  Records tell us it was raining.  There was standing water and mud in the trenches; the rats and rots were torrid.  The continued noise of barrages, from both sides, would have been intolerable up until the end of the Battle of the Somme, and the friction of being under fire and surrounded by death and injury would have been very very hard.  Although the Battle then ended, men were scurrying about, transporting supplies, and I imagine that at some sudden point, and we do not know exactly when (he may even have got the date wrong himself), but at some sudden point an explosive device landed near him.  The blast wave would have been like opening the door to a thousand ovens all at once, blistering gases from a blast furnace.  Then the suction of the airlessness, a vacuum pulling urgently at the lungs as the oxygen was sucked back to feed the greedy fireball.  Then, though then is the wrong word as all this would have happened instantly, the cutting through the flesh, the shapeless molten metal knifing shard embedding itself in the bone, cutting flesh and blood and nerve and forcing the body down in a splatter of mud and heat and cold and smoke and noise.

And then the lying there, ripped sleeve soaking up blood, nausea and blindness and a rushing cantering heat in the ears, the mud seeping cold through the clothes, the blood seeping warm into the rank pool of muddy sewage he was lying in.

Then, a seeming age later, a stretcher party, and shouting and lifting and bumping and jolting and running to the dressing station, where all manner of wounds were uncovered and covered and splashed with disinfectant and staunched and tourniqueted and bound and wrapped and blessed and cut and probed and bandaged and tied.

Then, perhaps a juddering cart ride to behind the lines, an age of waiting in some hallway or room with others groaning, crying, screaming.

Then, eleven days later eleven days, cold infection prone, uncomfortable, miserable days later…. the eventual transport back across the heaving channel to some kind of quiet.

My grandfather was a lucky one.  Despite the pain and anxiety, he had bought a Blighty one, and, he was soon able to return to the home of his father, Lieutenant J R Gibbs RN, of Dunsmoor, Knowsley Road, Cosham, to recuperate in peace.  Luck?  Many died in the lottery of the Blighty ones.  Millions could legitimately say it was not fair.  Their loved ones died, mangled, blasted, withered, disgorged in the mud and gore of the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge, and many more.  But it was not fair.  And Thomas Henry Gibbs did not choose his Blighty one.  He was near thirty when he enlisted.  In the 1901 census he was an apprentice cobbler (and one of his possessions at his death was a cobbler’s last) but by 1914 he was a schoolmaster, trained in Southampton and practising in Copthorne, Sussex.  Conscription was introduced on January 27th 1916, but he would have been older than the average, and may have volunteered to take his place in the rank and file of men prepared to die. 

Our contact now with him is limited, but we have his diary for the Year 1917, with an entry for every day of that year.  On the afternoon of January 1st 1917 he bought a prayer book for Dora, his wife, then played cards in the evening when his sister visited.  The next day, he took the 2.00pm train from Cosham to Three Bridges (arrived 4.12pm) drove to Akehurst Farm, Copthorne, where Dora lived with her parents, played whist and went to bed at 9.30pm.

The next day he received a warrant for his return to Cheltenham and on Monday 8th January he returned to H Company.  He faced medical inspections over the next two days and then after breakfast at 5.30am on Thursday January 11th he travelled north to Catterick Bridge.

The next few weeks were filled with parades and training – musketry, bayonet fighting, bombing, gas helmet drill, fatigues, lectures, platoon drill, escort duties, filling sand bags, and so on.  For relief there were concerts, and walks to Richmond (several miles each way) where there was a cinema, church on Sundays, books, and letters, letters, letters. 

On March 8th there was great excitement in the camp as the men were given embarkation leave, so on the 9th Tom travelled to Horley via Darlington and London to be reunited with his wife.  He then visited his parents before returning to Catterick on the overnight train from King’s Cross on March 14th.  It was bitterly cold, and they paraded in snowstorms over the next week, filling in time cleaning equipment and practising bayonet fighting and musketry.  On March 29th he “went bombing in the afternoon and threw live bombs.  Had been told that we were to leave for Mesopotamia on Saturday, therefore wrote to Dora, Mom, Ce, Auntie C, Mrs Harker and the Vicar…..”  They didn’t leave on Saturday.  On Sunday, after, “Church parade at 7.30am in blinding snowstorm,” the first part of the Mesopotamia draft left. 

Then on Monday April 2nd Tom’s company, “left Hipswell Camp at 6.30pm, marched to Catterick Bridge,” which they left at 8.45pm en route for Andover.  “Snow nearly all day so wore overcoats on the march and were quite fagged out.”  They arrived at Southampton at 8.30am and then had to wait until 3.30pm before embarking for Havre.  “Left at 6pm and had an awful passage across – frequent snow storms.  Majority of fellows on board were ill.  Felt jolly rotten and was not able to leave the upper deck.”

They arrived at Havre at 2.30am but were not allowed to land until 7am (French time).  They then, “had an awful march to the rest camp – wearing full pack and carrying rifles and kit bags.”  The next day they went by train from Havre to Marseilles, passing the snow covered Cevennes on Friday 6th and moving slowly down the Rhone.  They arrived at Marseilles at 2.30am on Sunday 8th April, but were not allowed out of the train until 5.30am.  They then marched to the docks and at about 8.00am they boarded the Cameronia, and Tom was detailed to B floor mess No.6.  They ship did not leave immediately, however, and on Tuesday 10th the men had to make route march through the streets of Marseilles.  Tom records that there were hundreds of folk about, “apparently quite interested in the 2000 odd men marching with rifles!”  On Thursday 12th their escort ships arrived during the evening and hopes were raised as to their departure; at 5.45am on Friday 13th he woke to find they were well on their way from Marseilles. 

Saturday 14th was, “a miserable morning and nothing but Sea – Sea – Sea (sick)….. “  On Sunday 15th they passed through the Straits of Messina.  Then, at about 5.30pm, Tom went to draw blankets for the mess when he, “heard a tremendous thud and was given to understand that [they] had been struck.”  Tom, “hunted around for a lifebelt as mine had been taken then went up on deck to find everything in confusion.  Everybody dashing for boats or jumping into the sea.  Fortunately I felt very calm and returned to mess to get my tunic then returned to promenade deck to wait arrival of escort alongside.  When she came I jumped into the same and felt safe.  A large percentage of men were taken on board then we patrolled round picking up others….. Submarine sighted, fired at and apparently sunk.  Arrived on scene of wreckage until help arrived from Malta – two other destroyers and a Japanese boat.  About 1.00am started on our way for Malta, hoping to arrive at about 8am.  Wind began to blow and at 6am we were on a very heavy sea…..Reached Malta soon after 11am and truly thankful for the same after our experience.”

6pm April 15th 1917, taken from the Escort Ship

They stayed in Valetta for ten days, with little to do and some excellent weather.  On Thursday 26th April they boarded HMS Saxon at 5.30pm, and left twenty-four hours later, with good weather and an escort of two Japanese destroyers.  They arrived at Alexandria at 11am on Monday 30th and were transferred by train to the Mesopotamia Details Base at 4.45pm.  It was very hot, “and the sand very trying.”  On Thursday 3rd May, with it still being exceptionally hot, Tom drew a pith helmet..  The next day he drew khaki drills etc in the morning. 

Over the next few days there were parades and route marches, but little to report until on Sunday 13th when he was knocked down by the French Consul’s car.  He had a badly bruised arm, hip and leg, and had to go to hospital to have the wounds dressed. With his arm still painful he visited the Consul’s house on the 17th and left a note to say he had called. 

On the 18th he was delighted to receive a letter from the Consul himself, but by then they were on their way to Port Suez, where they embarked at 6am, departing twenty-four hours later.

They reached Aden just before midday on Sunday 27th.  After coaling was completed they put out from the harbour at 3pm on Monday 28th, with various rumours about their destination.  On Tuesday 29th his entry reads: “Spent a very strenuous day lying about on hatchway, reading and playing cards. Almost cool today.  Bound for Bombay.”

And on June 5th, his wedding anniversary, they anchored off Bombay, after an uncomfortable and slow voyage across the swelling Arabian Gulf.  The next day they disembarked at noon and left by train to cross the Western Ghats to Belgaum, five hundred kilometres away and 750 metres above sea level. 

Gibbs, Bishop, Brees, Sims

The weather was bad, as the monsoon rains seemed to have poured down almost every day, forcing the cancellation of parades and marches.  Tom reported sick on June 10th and was unwell, with dysentery, for some weeks.  When fit enough, he was trained in the use of the Lewis gun, and occasionally there were inspections, fatigues, physical drills and lectures.  Life seems to have been slow, with many days being, “Parades etc as usual, otherwise nothing to note….” Or, “Another very wet day.  Parades curtailed in conclusion….” but a high point was reached on Saturday August 18th when he spoke for the opposition in a debate on the subject, “Are Cinemas an influence for moral evil?”  The opposition won by an overwhelming majority, and by 9.00pm at that!

On his 32nd birthday, September 26th, all he recorded was, “Church History Class at Chaplain’s Bungalow at 6.30pm,” although his entry for October 3rd, “Morning spent digging drains around tents for C Coy’s draft,” is subscribed, “Transfer to Wed 26th ult.” so it seems that the emptiness of days may have been confusing him.

On October 27th they left Belgaum for Poona, which was an overnight journey away.  The style of entry changes, and life seems a little jauntier, with instruction and examinations, then visits to the bazaar, pictures at the Empire, and tea at the Italian Café, even returning to camp at 12.15 am on November 10th.  But then they returned to Belgaum on November 20th, which was where he was on Sunday 25th when he wrote, “Date of wound 1916,” and where he still was on December 3rd when he recorded that he, “Left France for England 1916.”  On that particular day he also recorded “Field operations today.  Parade at 5.30a.m.  No further parades.”  What was he thinking?  Was it relief to be in the heat and rain of India, far from the firing line?  Or was it guilt that he had escaped worse injury or death when so many of his comrades had fallen? 

Intermittently throughout the diary there are entries about snippets of news, such as June 1st, “Message came through of the sinking of hospital ship in the Mediterranean (Dover Castle?)” and June 7th, “Heard of torpedoing of HMS Transylvania.” What did they know of France?  What were they doing in Belgaum?  The British Raj had had a base there for very many years, and it was known in some circles as the Cradle of the Infantry, but it was perhaps ironic that while 15,000 British Troops were stationed in India during the First World War, about 800,000 Indian men took part in the battles in Europe, where they were particularly badly prepared for trench warfare in winter.

Tom's Shadow - Beautifully Preserved

It is probable that the declaration of post-war policy presented to the House of Commons on August 20th 1917 by the Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu, lay behind the deployment of troops in the sub-continent (though it is also a fact that the Mesopotamian Campaign was run from India).  This speech referred to the, “gradual development of self-governing institutions, with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the Empire.”   With problems in Ireland after the Easter Rising, difficulties in the Middle East with the British taking control of Baghdad on March 11th, and the capture of Jerusalem on December 11th (after the Balfour Declaration in November which proposed the settlement of Jews within Palestine), the British administration in India had a sense that without a significant presence all could have gone awry.  There had been Home Rule agitation in 1916, and the Lucknow Pact between Hindus and Muslims the same year warned that political unrest was not far below the surface.  General Dyer’s spectacular blunder at Jallianwala Bagh was still some way off, but Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was, quite literally, girding his loins, having left his suit in South Africa in 1915.

It is a platitude that the world was changing beyond recognition.  But it was, despite the truism, a point of no return.  The Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, had abdicated on March 8th of that year, and the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian provisional government on November 7th. The Americans had declared war on Germany on April 6th and their first troops had arrived in France on June 25th.  On July 17th the British Royal Family had changed its name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, to Windsor. On July 31st the Third Battle of Ypres (or Passchendaele) had begun.  The Battle of the Somme had seen the first use of tanks in warfare, zeppelin raids had become commonplace over London, and on January 31st 1917 Germany had announced unrestricted submarine warfare, as witnessed by my grandfather in the Mediterranean. 

Anyway, Thomas Henry Gibbs, then acting Corporal in the Gloucester Regiment, stationed in Belgaum, was doing his duty.  On Christmas Day 1917 he attended Holy Communion at 7.00am, then went for a walk with three friends.  He “Slept during afternoon – feeling very poorly,” and “went to bed soon after 6.00pm.”  On Monday 31st 1917 they had Parade at 6.00am, then “Marched to Race Course where we practised for Review which takes place on Jan 1st 1918.”  He received letters from Dora and others in the afternoon, then his last entry for 1917 reads, “Evening parade after which went to Gardens.” 

And there the diary ends, apart from a list of ‘books read’ on two pages with the printed heading “Notes for 1918.”  The last book listed was “Whirligigs” (O’Henry) and he has noted that it was “v.poor.”  The first sentence of that book is: “A favourite dodge to get your story read by the public is to assert that it is true, and then add that Truth is stranger than Fiction.”  We have had my grandfather’s diary in the family since it was written in 1917, and do not question its authenticity, but so much is unsaid that the picture is indeed in some ways stranger than fiction. 

However, Thomas Henry Gibbs was real, and lived to die a grand old man at the age of 86 on July 1st 1972, survived then by his wife of over fifty years, a son, a daughter and six grandchildren.  After Belgaum he moved to Bangalore and though we have no further written diary, he has left us a photo album with affectionate snaps of his mates (Dobbs and Smudger, Bish, “Floss,” Steve and Freddie et al), churches and temples, transport workers, Dhobies, Christian Girls at Drill, and Armistice Reminiscences, Nov 11th 1918.

He stayed on there until 1919, then came home, returning to be organist and choirmaster at the Parish Church of St James, West End, Southampton, which post he had held since 1907.  He remained there until 1923, when he was appointed Head Master of the Church of England Schools at Northchurch, Hertfordshire, where he was also organist and choirmaster of St Mary’s, until his retirement in 1945.

Thomas Henry Gibbs’s service in the First World War was unremarkable, perhaps, and, perhaps, he had good fortune in comparison with the millions who suffered terrible injuries and death, but his records in his diary for 1917 and photographs of 1918 bring that distant world to life and stand as a tribute to the way so many lived through those years.  The repetition, the dullness, the separation from loved ones, the sensation of being moved about the face of the earth like a piece on a game board, all come across very clearly, but at no time did my grandfather complain.  He did what he had to do, and despite the boredom, the illness and the discomfort he shows the sense of humour I knew well.  The Personal Memoranda on the cover of the diary bear this out:  Season Ticket No. χ; Stores Ticket No. π; Bicycle No. β; Bank Pass Book No. θ; Telephone No. Δ.

In his life, Tom remembered those who died, and now, in remembering him, and through him those who gave their lives, I hope it is not inappropriate to quote from the inscription on the marble slab covering the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, composed by Herbert Ryle, Dean of Westminster:


The boys in Bangalore recovering
November 12th 1918

Thomas Henry Gibbs
Headmaster of Northchurch C of E School

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