This week has seen many events commemorating the 100th anniversary of Britain joining World War One. My great-granddad John Dodds served during the war, as did my husband’s great-granddad Edwin Dawe. I thought I’d blog about John’s army service 100 years almost to the day after he enlisted.
This is just one man’s story, obviously of interest to his descendants, but it may not seem important in the wider scale of things. But I think it’s important that we remember what happened to people like John, including those who made it back from the war alive. Those who returned were fortunate, yes, but they would be forever changed, though often unable to speak, bottling it up inside.
John was born at Abbey Gate in Melrose in 1877, the son of a brewery worker who was also colour-sergeant in the local volunteer detachment. So there was a strong army tradition in his family. John married Margaret Hall in 1905, and soon the couple had three young sons, including my grandfather. The family moved around a little, but by 1914 were settled at St Cuthberts Cottage down near the Abbey, and John worked as a plumber. He was also church officer, or beadle, for Melrose parish church.
Britain declared war against Germany on 4th August. John enlisted just four days later, long before universal conscription. Like many people he probably hoped the war would be over soon. He enlisted at Galashiels on 8th August 1914, joining the 4th Battalion of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers. His regimental number was 23314 and he was just under 36 years old. His enlistment papers reveal that he, like his father, had been active in the Volunteer Border Rifles. And it records his physical description: 5 feet 7 inches tall, weight 166 lbs, chest girth 38 inches fully expanded, of fair complexion, with blue eyes, and dark hair. He also had to give details on enlisting of his wife, including when and where they married, and the names and birth dates of his children.
Military histories of the 4th Battalion KOSB reveal that they sailed for Gallipoli in May 1915. On 12th July 1915 they sustained their heaviest losses, with over 500 casualties, over half their original number, and over half of the 500 casualties killed. For more about the scale of the losses, and the action leading to them, see W. Sorley Brown’s War Record of 4th Bn. King’s Own Scottish Borderers and Lothians and Border Horse which was published in 1920 and contains a vivid account of the KOSB experiences. I’ve been told that John Dodds had a commemorative plaque in his house in Melrose remembering the KOSB losses on this day. I don’t know if it is still in the family anywhere.
KOSB survivors would be redeployed in later years on the Western Front, where more of them would die. John was lucky to avoid this, being invalided back to the UK because of severe dysentery – a common condition for soldiers to pick up in Gallipoli. In December 1916 he was transferred to the 7th Royal Scots at Chelmsford, and then transferred again on 17th February 1918 to the Royal Army Medical Corps at Blackpool. He was granted leave to return home to Melrose twice, in summer 1917, the second time just after his mother had died. He would never return to active fighting duty.
As an invalided soldier John ran the risk of being perceived as a man avoiding fighting. So he was awarded the Silver War Badge, given to invalided soldiers to wear to show what had happened to them. He was also awarded the 1914-15 Star Medal, the British War Medal, and the Victory Medal. I don’t know if anyone in the family still has these.
Sadly John’s return was marked with sadness. His mother had died in summer 1917, and in November 1919 his wife died too, just seven months after John was finally discharged from the army, leaving three young children, who John’s sister May helped to raise. John only saw active service for a relatively short term, but he saw his fellow soldiers from the Borders be massacred in vast numbers. It must have traumatised him for life.