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Harry Hickson’s War Diaries – Happy Ending

November 15, 2018

Harry Hickson and Dorothea Newton Hudson, June 12 1917

Over the past four years, I’ve been publishing extracts from my grandfather’s diary in which he described his experiences as an artillery officer on the Western Front. He served at the battles of Passchendaele and Amiens, and had numerous escapes from death by shelling, gassing and aerial bombing along the way.

His life as a battery commander entailed frequent moving of guns from one position to another, periods of inactivity and moments of terror. Gun batteries were prized targets, so he witnessed regular shelling and saw many comrades killed. Some nights he spent in extreme discomfort, often in little more than holes in the ground. Luxuries like a decent bath and a meal in a local town were rare enough to be worthy of mention.

When he wasn’t recalibrating his guns and taking part in frequent barrages, he was charged with keeping his men’s morale high by organising frequent concert parties and football matches. For much of his time at the front he served as the regimental gas officer, which meant that he had to educate the troops on procedures for surviving gas attacks.

The previous episode ends with Harry celebrating the Armistice on the night of November 11th with the only means available: rum, which had fortified hundreds of thousands of soldiers as they went over the top to attack the enemy throughout the war, often to immediate death.

What then? After the shooting ceased, it must have been difficult to maintain discipline among thousands of soldiers waiting to be demobilised. For a while it seemed that Harry’s time on the continent was to be extended. He heard rumours that his regiment was to go into Germany, presumably as part of the occupation force in the Rhineland.

Whether or not the regiment went, Harry didn’t. He’d suffered from frequent bouts of illness during the last year of the war, and things seemed to come to a head in December, when he was hospitalised with a life-threatening fever. After a partial recovery he was shipped back to England and continued his recovery in Birmingham.

The diary makes no mention of the flu epidemic that ravaged the troops on both sides of the conflict. Was the illness he suffered after the armistice, which left him delirious and with a temperature of 106F, the flu? We’ll never know, but it’s surprising that he didn’t once mention the epidemic.

As he describes in the diary, he eventually recovered, to enjoy the happiest year of his life on the south coast, still in the army and hoping for a regular commission.

Though these extracts are relatively anticlimactic compared with the dramas of conflict, they complete the story of Harry’s war. For him at least, it had a happy ending.

November 12th A lovely sunny day.  Curtis, Jones, Mears and Webster together with 5 N.C.O’s, left with me in a lorry at 9 AM to go to Amiens.  We had a good run down for such a long distance and arrived at 2 pm.  A band was playing in the streets and the whole town was in fete.  Got a room at the Hotel de Commerce and had a topping dinner and lovely bed, we spent a really jolly evening. Jones and Mears caused great fun, but that must not enter into this diary!

November 13th Another lovely day.  We left Amiens with a full party at 11 AM, but it was a very cold ride back, and we arrived at Wassigny about 6.30 pm.  We had trouble with the springs, and had to travel slowly.  We hear we are to go on up into Germany, very good news!

November 14th Another lovely frosty sunny day.  This morning we had a thanksgiving service in a large barn.  General Mackenzie and my old Colonel – Colonel Dowell – were there.  I quite enjoyed it.  The batteries present were 50, 135, 145, 174 and 185.  We have now been transferred to 71st Brigade.  I wonder whether that means that we shall still go on to Germany.  I do hope so.

Sunday November 17th A fine frosty morning.  I borrowed a side car from 185 battery and went down to Boheim to see the Canteens officer about Xmas fare.  It was a very cold ride.  I called at Busiguy on the return journey and got some kit from the Officers Clothing Dept.  The Signallers played the Left Section and it was a drawn game 2-2.  Noakes returned from Flenicourt. The Major went forward to see 284 Battery.

November 19th This thaw has made things rather uncomfortable, the road are very muddy.  The Dr gave me another very bad time this morning.  He also said I badly needed a change, and gave me a note to that effect to send on to the Brigade.  The Major and I started off for Amiens in the car at 11 AM to buy some pigs for Xmas!!  We had tea at the Hotel de la Pain and a topping dinner at the Cafe Cathedral.  We stayed the night at the Hotel de Commerce and had a very nice sleep.

November 20th A dull foggy morning.  We met Du Berne after Breakfast and he came with us to buy the pigs.  We went to Laleuse and made arrangements with a farmer there.  We went back to the Hotel Paris for lunch and started our return journey at 2.45pm.  We made good time as far as Brie, but it came on very foggy later and we did not arrive back till 7pm.  I sang at a concert later, but it was not very successful as the piano was too low a pitch.

November 21st A fine frosty morning again.  We had a busy morning getting lorries to go to Le Cateau for a footie match.  The Major drove 4 of us in the car!!!  We had a very exciting journey as he is not by my any means an experienced driver!  We played 17 Siege and they beat us 2-0, but it was a very unsatisfactory game.

November 22nd A fine sunny morning again.  Nothing exciting happened today, we were to have played 185 Siege (my old battery) officers at footie, but the game was scratched.  I had a topping bath this afternoon.

November 23rd Another lovely day.  We are getting a reading and recreation room for the men and I hope it will be a success.  A slack day.  We played 83 Labour Coy this afternoon, but the game had to be abandoned when we were leading 2-0 as the ball burst!  Bad luck.

December 4th I was up at 8AM this morning, but the car didn’t turn up as arranged.  However, I found one of our old lorries and made the journey to Boheim on that, on the way up I called at the Cemetery at Corbie to look for Clinton Laslett’s grave as I had promised his father I would.  After a long search I could not find it and was very disappointed.  It was a long tiring journey up, and I felt very fed up.  A Boheim I had dinner with Howell, Beavan and Mason, and they arranged transport for me to Wassigny, which I eventually reached about 10 pm.

December 5th

I got up at 8 AM, and found a very dull day.  Curtis, Gill and I walked out to an old Bosche dump to see whether we could collect some souvenirs! Spent a slack afternoon, and after tea attended a committee meeting of the men.

Later Here ended my personal diary of the Great War as recorded day by day in France and Belgium, and I must chronicle from memory what happened afterwards:-

The next day December 6th 1918 I was in command of the battery as the Major was still away, and I took a parade at 9 AM.  I didn’t feel very fit, but at 10 o’clock I took another parade.  I then felt desperately cold and went along to our Officers Mess and set before the fire, still in my British Warm.  I must have dozed off, but at 12.30 pm I was in a raging delirium with a temperature of 106!!! A doctor was hurriedly called, and he sent for an ambulance, I was taken off to the nearest Casualty Clearing Station, which I remember was a large tent.

When I came to my senses I was very much ragged by the Sister as to whether I had forgiven the “Black Lady”, as I kept shouting that it was her fault I was there!!! We had been playing “Slippery Ann at cards (the Queen of Spades) the previous night, hence my reference to the black lady!

When my temperature had been reduced, in a few days I was moved by train to Rouen.  I remember all my face and neck broke out into herpes and I looked a sorry spectacle I’m afraid.  After a few days in Rouen I was shipped over to Southampton.  I landed there without a penny piece and couldn’t even send a telegram to D informing her of my arrival.  However, a kind Australian whom I met on the ship insisted on giving me £1, which I accepted on condition that he gave me his name and address to return it.  This he reluctantly did and I returned it later with many expressions of thanks.  I was then able to telegraph D.

The nearest available hospital to Liverpool was Birmingham University and I was sent there.  Afterwards I was transferred to Highbury and had a much better time there.  D got rooms in the vicinity, I spent Xmas there we had quite a happy time. I left hospital about the middle of January and we went down to Ventnor for me to recuperate. After about a month there I reported fit to the War Office and was posted to Golden Hill, Freshwater, Isle of Wight.

Then ensued one of the happiest times of my life.  Colonel Norman Bellairs was O.C., and he sent me as 2nd in command to Major Woods at Cliff End Battery and Hurst Castle on the mainland.  D followed me in a few days and we got rooms with Mrs Hill at a very nice cottage on the cliffs not far from the battery.  We met all the military officers and local people socially and had a very enjoyable time.  Major Woods retired and I was in command of the two batteries for some months until relieved by a regular officer – Major Hattersby Smith R.A.

Through the good offices of General Massie R.A, the C.R.A. at Portsmouth, I applied for a regular commission, (I had served under General Massie the latter part of the war in France and knew him well).  My papers had all gone through with little trouble and I had been to the War Office for an interview, in fact everything pointed to the Commission going through, when the Geddes Economy Act came in and stopped it.  In the meantime I was the only non-regular officer who had not been demobilised, and I was Acting Adjutant to Colonel Bellairs for some time at headquarters.  We had a wonderfully happy summer, but eventually I was demobilised on November 11th 1919 and returned to the White Star Line in the New Year.

Harry Hickson was only to live another fourteen years. He died in 1933 of stomach cancer. Family tradition had it that his final illness was the result of years as an engineer officer in the White Star Line (of Titanic fame), during which he would have spent much time in the noxious environment of the engine room.

I think it’s also quite possible that the rigours of combat, and especially his exposure to gas, might have been to blame. Again, we’ll never know. My mother, who was thirteen when he died, remembered him vividly as a kind father, even though she saw him infrequently because he was often at sea. That kindness also shines through the diary. which brings him to life for his living descendants, none of whom had the chance to meet him.

Harry with children Dorothea and John

In the age of the social media, will photos, tweets and Facebook posts one day be judged to have illuminated the past more effectively than the humble diary? I doubt it.

To access more extracts from Harry Hickson’s diary, enter on his name in the search field on the right hand side of this post.

From → France, History, Social, UK

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