The War Diary of Percy Micklewright
Percy William Micklewright was born in Myddle on 25 September 1890. He joined up, along with his younger brother Dick, and both men left for the Western Front in December 1915* as members of the Royal Army Medical Corps. The brothers were able to be together throughout the war, which must have been a great comfort to them.
Percy kept a diary of his time in France, which is now in Shropshire Archives [ref. MI9386/1]. It is a small closely written notebook full of marches, nights spent in barns, in hospitals, on trains, at the front and occasionally in comfortable Belgian homes. As a private, Percy’s duties were varied. They included helping to set up new field hospitals and dressing stations, treating minor wounds, cleaning, filling sandbags, digging drains – even a spot of office work, interspersed with some terrifying spells as stretcher bearer at the front.
The tone of the diary is upbeat. The men moved around a huge amount and Percy enthuses over some of the places they saw. At Bethune, where there were two concert halls, a theatre and five picture palaces all run for the troops, the men watched Charlie Chaplin films. Percy says, ‘We were able to get some fine suppers. It was a beautiful town, some nice walks and some awfully smart shops’
Later the ‘boys’ moved to a town called La Gorgue where they were billeted at an estaminet. ‘There were four jolly nice girls (daughters of the landlord) and as they had a piano in one of the rooms downstairs and were all jolly good dancers, we spent some very happy hours in their company.’
It wasn’t all fun and games of course. In July 1916 Percy was near Mametz on the Somme waiting to collect the wounded as the battle commenced. He watched as the advance began ‘it was a sight I shall never forget, the cool way those gallant fellows went forward through terrific machine gun fire and also heavy artillery fire from the German guns. They never faltered although a large number of them were being hit.’ He himself had to venture out under fire to pick up a wounded officer. The man had died by the time they reached him, but they collected another casualty and returned through the bombardment, resting in shell holes for safety. Fetching the wounded continued for some days. ‘I will pass over these days for they were not pleasant to look back on.’ Maybe having a record of the good times helped Percy get through the bad ones.
More good times were to come – at Christmas (1916) ‘we had a splendid time, ripping food, a football match in the morning and a concert at night.’ They stayed in a ‘fine billet’ in a private house, where he records the kindness of the Belgian people.
Later at Esquerdes near St Omer the men were in a hospital in a converted chateau, where there were gardens full of fruit and free time was spent swimming, playing cricket and reading. The lull before the storm. They were sent to Canada Farm near Elverdinghe and then back to the front and on duty as Gas Guards. This is likely to have been in summer 1917. Canada Farm was used as a dressing station during the Allied offensive and there is now a British cemetery there.
Percy and Dick were sent to collect a wounded man while under fire from gas shells. ‘Unfortunately a German shell had hit a tree bringing it right down across the trench. I was leading so I fell over the tree and in trying to save the patient both Dick’s and my own gas mask came off and we got two mouthfuls of the beastly stuff before we could get them on again.’
This incident ends the diary. It seems that the brothers returned home. Percy was sent to a military hospital near Nottingham to recover from the gas attack. He appeared to be on the way to recovery, but he fell victim to influenza during the epidemic and sadly died on 10 February 1919. He is buried in St Peter’ churchyard in Myddle. Dick survived, married and went on to have a son called Percy.
*There are no dates in the diary, but Percy definitely entered France on 2 December 1915, as attested by medal records. He describes two Christmases, so the diary appears to cover 1916 and part of 1917
By Maggie Hudson