Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Robert Strickland and the First World War

I never knew my paternal grandfather Robert Strickland, he died when my Dad was 12 years old at the young age of 52. He died in the early morning of the 15th January 1940 at the beginning of the Second World War. His eldest son Fred had come downstairs early in the morning but couldn't open the parlour door because something was blocking it, he pushed hard against the door and then realised that it was his father who had collapsed on the other side. He eventually managed to get in and got his father onto a chair and held a mirror to his mouth to see if he was still breathing and my Dad was sent to fetch a doctor. Unfortunately there was nothing he could do, on Robert's death certificate the cause of death given was myocardial degeneration and chronic bronchitis.
Robert's death at such a relatively young age was probably due to injuries which he sustained during the First World War which had left him unable to hold a full time job.
Robert was born on the 4th March 1888 and he married his school sweetheart, Charlotte Blakey in 1909. By the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914 they had two young daughters, four year old Annie and two and a half year old Alice and two more daughters were born in the early years of the war, Grace in 1915 and Lily in 1916.
 I am not sure when Robert enlisted but after enlisting he became a Gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery. I don’t know where Robert did his training, but he was trained as a Gunner and eventually was ready to see active service. This was to be in Flanders by the Ypres Salient, in the four great and terrible battles which raged around the ruined town of Ypres between 1914 and 1918 more than 250,000 servicemen of the then British Empire lost their lives, when Robert arrived in Ypres it would have been like a Hell on earth. As a gunner Robert would have been spared the miseries of trench life but the horrors of war all around him was something which Robert was never able to talk about.
The main road out of Ypres in the direction of the salient and
trenches was the Menin Road, the first significant junction on this road after leaving Ypres was known as Hellfire Corner, every night wagons carrying supplies to the forward positions in the Salient had to cross this point, and it was generally accepted that this was the most dangerous spot on the face of the earth in the second half of 1917. Because the road junction and railway crossings were marked on all the maps, the German artillery officers could calculate their ranges most accurately, and drop shells on it to within a metre or two, direct observation was not necessary. To cross Hellfire corner by day, when the German observers on the Passchendael Ridge could see the junction, was tantamount to suicide. By night, the crossing of Hellfire Corner became a nerve-tightening game of hide-and-seek in the dark. Frank Holmes, a driver with the Royal Horse Artillery recounted the following account:
“From Ypres, a long traffic-jam of wagons headed out towards the Line waited its turn at the junction. Beyond the junction, in trenches at either side of the road, sat traffic-controllers. They had red and green lamps, their lenses shielded against observation from the German side, and their job was to let each wagon across, one at a time. When the wagon reached the junction and was next to cross, the driver of the lead pair watched the lights. When the shielded red lights were covered and the green ones exposed, the whole team spurred on their horses and raced headlong into the darkness, aiming for the dark, invisible space between the green lights as fast as they could go, at full gallop. Once over the crossing, the drivers pulled the horses up to a trot, then to a walk and continued on their way, unless they were hit by a random shell. All night long there were random shells, and there were teams of men stationed nearby to drag away the debris, human, animal and material, and mend the road ready for the next passage...”
It was at this deadly junction, Hellfire Corner, that Robert Strickland was wounded and almost killed.
Back at home Charlotte received notification that her husband was missing and presumed killed, this must have come as a terrible shock for Charlotte but it was news which wives and mothers throughout the country were hearing daily. Charlotte went into mourning and had started to apply for a widow’s pension when she received what they call a field card informing her that her husband was still alive and was a patient at New  Castle Infirmary. He had been wounded by shrapnel and had a gaping wound across his back close to his spine, he was lucky to be still alive, for Robert at least the war was over.
On November 11th 1918 Armistice was declared, during those four dreadful years of war a whole generation of young men were lost, every family was affected in one way or another and those that were lucky to survive had to learn to live with the nightmares of the horrors which they had lived through



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