The Armistice and Afterwards: Extracts from the Diaries of QMS Edgar Wignall RAMC by Clive R Harrison
(This article first appeared in Stand To! No.61 April 2001 pp25-30 - including a two page Appendix giving details of the medical and ambulance equipment carried by his unit).
On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 the guns fell silent. This is the popular image of the ending of the Great War but for many the war still carried on. For QMS Edgar Wignall of the 51st Field Ambulance, RAMC there were the very sick and injured soldiers, the returning prisoners of war and the continuing problems and visible horrors of the destruction of war. His war did not end until July 1919.
Edgard Wignall was born in 1878 in Wigston, near Leicester, the youngest son in a family of fourteen. He left school at the age of thirteen and worked as a sheohand. He became a member of the Leicester Corps of the St John Ambulance and volunteered for service at the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899. He returned to England in 1900 having served a six month contract; he married in 1901 and had six children. After joining the Territorial Army he was immediately called up at the outbreak of the Great War when he was thirty-five years old. It is not clear when he actually joined the RAMC - initially he may have been in a local infantry or yeomanry regiment. He rose from private to the rank of QMS and spent much of his war service in France and subsequently in Belgium.
Edgar kept diaries and notes during both the Boer War and the Great War.* In the latter they cover only parts of the war - other notebooks may have been lost. The most continuous period covered is from the beginning of the German offensive on 20 March 1918 through to the Allied advance from about August/ September to the Armistice and on to July 1919. There are extensive notes on equipment and lists of soldiers, and also notes related to his peacetime activities.
Edgar Wignall was an uncomplicated, gentle, sensitive and perceptive person. His diaries are not just a record of events but are about his feelings and reactions to them. This article draws upon Edgar's account from the Armistice to its immediate aftermath and beyond - a neglected period of the war. It describes the experiences of a RAMC QMS coping with the problems of obtaining medical and other supplies during the final advance, the post-war operation of the medical services, the devastation of the countryside and the plight of the local people.
Bohain (Premont), October - December 1918
By late October the Allied armies were advancing rapidly and had crossed the Hindenburg Line. On 21 October Edgar Wignall's Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) was moved from Tincourt towards the front to Premont Wood, 26 km SE of Cambrai on the D 960 between Premont and the town of Bohain. The unit was accommodated in tents and marquees.
Today it is the site of the Premont British Cemetery. Conditions were very bad with heavy rain and increasing difficulties in obtaining supplies mainly due to the devastation which included German mines on the railways:
The distance to Vermand is about 20 miles and passes through many devastated villages and crosses the Hindenburg Line. After all this time I have got used to the sights of the battlefield, but this run through country not yet cleaned up would cause people in Blighty to stand aghast at the sight. Hundreds of German helmets can be counted as one rides along the roads, rifles and shells everywhere, trenches, barbed wire and dugouts, derelict tanks, dead horses, here and there a cross denoting a lonely grave ... Tables, chairs stand in the open on deserted campsites, many of the most costly kinds and even a piano and sewing machines can be found in a like situation...The devastation in the villages must be seen to be realised, fragments of house walls can be seen yet standing with pictures and framed photos still hanging. Troops weary and wet plod along the roads subjected to the mud splashes of countless vehicles of every kind. Convoys of shell lorries meet convoys of ration lorries, ambulance convoys, single lorries lumber along, cheeky little Fords dodging in and out like a London newsboy amongst the traffic…
At almost every cross roads, and also the entrance to a village is marked by a Calvary Cross. I saw one today on which the effigy of Christ had been shattered, and the result was startling in as much as the nails through the hands were still on the cross, and from one nail hung the hand and forearm whilst from the other hung the head and neck and the complete arm and hand, the position of this was such that the face was looking skywards with arm upraised and the fingers point heavenwards. I looked at my lorry driver's face when I pointed it out to him. I would not call him a religious man but the look on his face seemed to me to be one of astonishment mingled with sorrow and disgust. I don't know what his thoughts were, nor did I know my own. I have seen so many desecrated graveyards with their shattered headstones and rifled tombs that my susceptibilities have perhaps become somewhat dulled.
The war was coming to an end but there are few references to this. Was there little news or disbelief and a preoccupation with the immediate demands of the sick and injured?:
When I arrived back to hospital there was great excitement as it was reported that Germany had sent representatives to Paris under the white flag to negotiate peace. They are reported to have passed through Guise today. Anyway we have had a rum issue on the strength of it. Tres Bon. [Guise is 18 km south-east of Bohain].
Edgar's diary entry for the ending of the war is extremely brief :
ARMISTICE DAY [written in later] Nov 11th:
News received that the fighting is over. We are scarcely able to realise it yet. Trip to Busigny for coal. Rum issue for the boys tonight to celebrate the occasion.
The end of hostilities did not bring much relief to Edgar's unit with continuing sickness and deaths and the problem s of supplies. This continued until his unit departed for Huy in December:
The S.M has now been away home on leave a week and truly it does seem a month to me. It is very trying as I am doing my best to carry on the dual duties of Q.M.S and S.M. My Sergt. Assistant in the Stores is sick and to crown it all, my right hand storeman poor Mat Blair has passed away tonight after a short illness. This is the first casualty this unit has suffered. The two MOs (one the 2nd in command) are lying seriously ill. Truly a black week for us, for in addition to sickness there has been an epidemic of fires, first a bell tent with four sleeping men inside (luckily all escaped) and then a ward fire pluckily extinguished by the orderly in charge, this was followed by the fire alarm being sounded later owing to an ambulance car blazing merrily away on the road side. To add to my troubles rations and medical comforts are very difficult to get, entailing endless worry. Of two lorries one is out of action and the other is not safe running on borrowed chains. Influenza, Pneumonia are playing havoc, and we are having large numbers of returned prisoners o f war to deal with, and here again great difficulty is experienced to getting them evacuated by train. The whole camp is one vast mud bank. We must carry on.
S.M. has returned and I have had a quiet day, incoming patients have been less than usual, this is gratifying if only for the reason that there is still a good number of the staff still sick. Later - 7.40 p.m. News just received that Capt Cotterill has passed away. This is the second casualty in the unit.
[Private M Blair died of influenza, aged 30, and Captain Cotterill MB, CM, FRCS, cause of death not known, aged 37 were both buried in the Premont British Cemetery where there are graves of three other RAMC men.]
The weather is very wet and the camp is in an awful condition, but there is reason to suppose that we shall soon be moving again as I understand that orders have been received to close down. I have nearly recovered from the effect of a little breeze with the QM which occurred a few days ago, and I am looking forward to the time when I can take my final farewell from such an uncongenial and prejudice personality. At present everyone is talking of Christmas and their chances of getting home for the festivities, for myself the fortunes of war seem to be against me as having only returned last June from leave (which was 3 months overdue) places me far back on the unit roster for leave …
Edgar continued to be appalled by the devastation around him:
Journey to Cambrai to Medical Stores. As this is my first visit to this historical town on a front where I have spent so much of my time, I was curious to see what it was like. I found that the centre of the town had been completely razed and on a stroll round this part one had to pass between walls of debris 6 ft high composed of bricks, stones, burnt wood and twisted iron. The 3 churches in the immediate neighbourhood were all irretrievably damaged as was also the Hotel de Ville the most beautiful building of its kind I have ever seen. The outskirts on the eastern side which I saw, altho showing signs of wreckage, were still in a fairly good condition. The Medical Store to which I went had been a monastery in times of peace and had a complete network of underground chambers and passages. The Boches had used it as a munition dump and the ground as a training ground for troops.
He was also disturbed by the plight of refugees, an issue seldom touched upon in many military diaries:
Another trip to Cambrai with surplus stores. A very pathetic feature of these journeys is the number of refugees one meets imploring assistance along the roads. Yesterday we brought a load to Caudry and again today we picked up two elderly men who had walked from Bellenglise that morning. This was close to Maretz and we dropped them at Caudry. They were bound for Maubeuge, a distance of 40 kilometres. Later we picked up two females and dropped them at Cambrai. These were making for Lens and had travelled from Charleroi. Returning we got another batch which we dropped at Caudry...
On 18 December the unit received orders to begin moving the next day to Huy in Belgium. It took them over five days to get there - a distance of about 180 km by train - due to a combination of a chaotic transport system, abominable weather and the problems of declining morale:
... Have heard today that our next place is to be in Belgium at the town of Huy about midway between Liege and Namur. We are striking canvas and hope to get better billets at the new place.
We are still stuck in the mud after a day spent in striking canvas and preparing for the move. It is now about 10pm and the wind is blowing a half gale and the rain is beating a devil's tattoo on the roof of the marquee. We are looking forward to an uncomfortable journey to our destination owing to previous knowledge of railway travelling in France. The men are becoming more difficult to control now that the hostilities have ceased and everyone's thoughts are on getting home again. Everyone seems to be totally devoid of interest in the work in hand. Must wait and see what the morrow brings forth.
The day breaks beautifully fine. Reveille 5.30 am early breakfast and wait for the lorries. With our usual luck the lorries do not arrive until after midday. With only about 3 hours remaining daylight we set to work. The weather now has changed and it is raining very hard. Finish loading the train about 9pm and then settle down for our journey.
Early morning finds us at Valenciennes [only 58 km] and a little later at the now celebrated town of Mons and am much surprised to find the place in such an excellent state of preservation. Travelling at the average rate of 3 miles an hour we meander through Belgium and through another night.
Huy (Belgium) December 1918 - July 1919 Despite the transport and weather problems, the unit reached Huy, in time to settle down for Christmas. After many weeks in a tented camp in terrible weather and in a sea of mud they were in habitable buildings.
Morning finds us at our destination, the Belgian town of Huy. Our experiences unloading are very similar to our loading in so far as the weather on this Sunday morning is beautifully fine and again we are disappointed with the non arrival of the lorries, and they turn up in the afternoon and the weather is again very wet. We proceed to get our material to the hospital which in peacetime is used as a School (Ecole Normale) in the centre of the town. The town of Huy is situated on both banks of the River Meuse and is a very clean & bright town full of interesting medieval buildings.
Dec 23rd :
Weather again as bad as possible for the unloading of the remainder of our equipment. This however is now finished and we are looking forward to our Christmas festivities in comfort and warmth The Sergts have each a bed and some of us have a dormitory, semi-private and very convenient. I am spending a quiet night whilst my boots get dry after wading knee deep along the cellar in order to get in the coals.
Christmas was mixed for Edgar in term s of the festive activities that were available and his enjoyment of them. Hew was by character able to find quiet enjoyment through reading and also had an interest in exploring his new environment. He showed remarkable energy given the exhausting physical work he had undertaken during the days prior to Christmas:
Christmas Eve. Busy day fitting up the Hospital. After tea with some friends take a walk in the town. Listen to a group of Tommies singing carols in the square. Then visit a dancehall, find about 3 couples dancing in a small room 1 ½ d charged to enter and ½ d charged for each dance. Stay only a few minutes then try another one. This was a larger hall and was too packed for comfort. Whilst we were there they only had round dances and each was repeated before changing. Soon tire of this and go to a Picture House. Here again was disappointed as the pictures were very poor. When we came out it is raining very hard so decide to go back to mess where a few whiskies soon got us all in good spirits.
Weather very cold but fine. The men have half holiday as it is Christmas Day and nothing like a Blighty Xmas. Things went very cool and I spent a quiet evening all on my own in the mess with Charles Dickens Sketches by Boz for company and right enjoyable it was. Things warmed up a little later and I finally found my couch somewhere near 2am.
Day cold and fine. A football match takes place in the afternoon so I decide to go for a long walk. Starting about 1.30pm I leave the town striking off along the valley of the Meuse. I pass through the quaint village of Tihange and then on to Neuville situated on the south bank of the river. The scenery the whole way was one of great beauty with the river running parallel with road on my left and the right steep hills here and there with chateaux and chalets amongst the brushwood, little streams trickling down the hillside on to the road itself. A noticeable feature was the large number of German vehicles along the road close to the village of Ombret. There was one traction engine completely overturned on the steep side of an orchard bank. This latter village is about 8 kilometres north of Huy and there I found a bridge to cross over to the north side of the river. Taking the rivers as a guide I start on my return journey and pass through a village of unknown name. Still with the river on my left and hills on my right I go plodding steadily through the village of Amay and when about 3 kilomteres from the town of Huy I rest for two cups of coffee and chat to mademoiselle who is very proud of her ability to speak a little English. After resting a little I start off again and being requested to jump I take seat in a cart driven by a Camden Town RE journeying to Huy. I reach the mess shortly after 5.0 pm tired ready for my tea.
At the beginning of the New Year there were still many patients. A number of officers, nurses and other staff had already departed, some to other medical units or branches of the army and some, by now, demobilised. The major event early in the year for Edgar was three weeks' leave, but with another appalling railway journey - it would seem that little had been done to repair the railway system:
Have just returned from a trip to Namur, stayed to dinner with the 48 CCS and got back about 4 pm and am informed that my leave has been granted and leave Huy tomorrow at 5.37pm.
Leave hospital for station about 4.30pm in Amb car hoping to be in an hour. Alas for human hopes, after hanging around the platform about 3 hrs politely informed that the train had not then reached Liege this would take fully 2 hrs to reach Huy. I invited a Canadian Amb. S/M to return with me to the Mess where we are successful in getting gassed, [some sort of party?] We eventually return to the Rest Billet and getting down on a couple of forms get to sleep and awakened at 5am when a messenger reports the arrival of train. Then begins a journey which will remain a hideous nightmare. The train very much overcrowded, in my compartment 8 are crushed into accommodation for 6. The average of travel being about a kilometre an hour this continues throughout the 20th and through the night. As I write this we are just leaving Armentieres where we halted for an hour whilst bread and jam and tea are served out. I take advantage of this wait to get a wash in one of the innumerable shell holes. The time now is 10.30am morning of 21st Jan. I do not hope to get over today altho we seem to be making a little more speed. We have only been on this cursed journey 53 ½ hours from Huy and most of the others in this train have come from Cologne and have been on the road 63 ½ hours. Reach St. Omer at 2.15am. [NB. there is a confusion in the diary between 'am ' and 'p m ' and this should read 'p m '] and eventually reach Calais about 4.30 pm. We are then marched to rest camp No 4 Beauvois a distance of about 7 kilometres. After a night's rest we fall in at 11.15am to march to the boat and after a struggle we get settled down for the journey over, which proved a delightful crossing and arrived Folkestone at 4pm. Everyone is impatient to get away and I have had my pass stamped for the 22 Jan. Eventually arrive in Victoria Station at 7.10pm and after refreshing at the Buffet make for the Pay Office, this was so crowded that I decide not to wait, but proceed to St. Pancras arriving just too late for the 8pm train I learn that a train leaves Marylebone at 10pm and decide to go by that train.
The short notice of his leave meant that it was unlikely that his wife and family knew he was on his way - there was no telephone at home, so the only possibility was to send a telegram. His wife and six children would have been most surprised at his arrival in Leicester at about 2 or 3am ! His return journey was nearly as protracted as the outward one:
After having had my 14 days leave with the addition of 7 days I get aboard the 2.15am at Leicester to return, arriving at St. Pancras in due course. I along with many others am immediately directed to Euston Station where a train was waiting. After the usual delays we started on our journey to Folkestone - arriving at this place we were soon on board the Queen Alexandria and after a very nice passage arrived at Calais at 4 pm proceeded to No 6 Rest Camp. Eventually I succeed in getting on a train to return to my unit on Sunday morning Feb 16th. Travelling was very good until we arrived at the outskirts of Lille about 9 pm which place we did not leave until the morning.
As I write this we are again at rest at Tournai and the time is 8.45am. Just had a good breakfast owing to the fact that there is a good Canadian Stove in this truck, and some men of the AOC generously giving bacon of which they have abundance...It is now 7 pm and we are only just beyond Charleroi, I wonder if it means another night on the train. Arrive at Huy just before midnight and soon settle down in a comfortable bed once more.
The next entry is dated 14 March. Edgar was uncharacteristically depressed and lacking his usual optimism. Given his desire to be rid of the army and his age (he was now nearly 41) his entries for 24th and 25th of April are therefore quite remarkable:
Have to-day been medically examined and certified Fit to proceed to Siberia for which I a few days previously volunteered. ...I am daily expecting orders to proceed on leave prior to embarking on this new adventure. News in the paper received today [25 April]: gives detail of victory for our troops, so after all my services may not be required ..
This is a reference to the British contingent which was sent to Murmansk during the Russian Civil War and which was not as 'victorious' as he thought. Entries for the same days show that the unit was being round town with an increasing number of departures of officers and others and orders to dispose of equipment.
By 18 June Edgar was the only remaining N C O and his duties had so diminished that he was able to accept an invitation to visit the site of the Battle of Waterloo.
On 28 June he received his demobilisation orders. His personal reactions to this and his thoughts about his future are amongst the most poignant in the entire diaries:
At Last after nearly 5 years of active service my demob order has arrived today at dinner time with orders to proceed forth with 48 CCS Namur. Expect to leave Charleroi on Thursday for England. I hope to leave Tihange to-morrow morning, experience much pleasure, some regrets. Sunday June 29th: Leave hospital at 9am for station and proceed on the 9.20 train for Namur. It is now 6 pm and for some reason I am feeling depressed. I hope this will soon disappear... It is difficult to analyse my feelings I have seen feelings o f regret at leaving behind the military environment in the midst o f which I have lived for the past 5 years. I am leaving behind a beautiful country in which I have enjoyed many hours, and last but not least, some good friends. Looking forward my prospects do not seem alluring owing to my industrial position on the outbreak o f war. As there is a Fete in progress at Namur I will take a walk and try to recover my spirits....
The remaining diary entries describe his journey back to Britain. Having reached Charleroi he learnt that he was not to leave there until Thursday 3 July and he was left mainly to his own devices. He looked around the town, went to the cinema, had a good meal, stayed in private rather than army accommodation. H e even returned to H u y for a night hoping to stay with his hosts in his former billet. (At some point he seems to have taken a billet in a private house rather than one in the hospital). Even when he eventually got to Boulogne on Friday the 4th there were further delays with inspections and long waits for movement orders and m arches to and from Demob C am ps. He left Boulogne on the Sunday morning for Dover, arrived in London at 4pm and after a scramble got a train as far as Peterborough and eventually caught a connection to Leicester.
Edgar Wignall's war was now over. It had lasted five years and he had been through many disturbing experiences and seen many terrible scenes. Yet as we have seen, when his demobilisation orders arrived he had some misgivings, most of them with reason. He had entered the war as a private, in fact as a batman, yet he had risen to QMS in the RAMC - no mean achievement. This had given him self respect and some sense of vocation which he had not had in his peacetime work. He had gained the respect of both his peers and his superiors. His future in the footwear industry in Leicester was poor and he was unlikely to return to it. From notes in his diary he tried to make a living doing minor house repairs and also some dealing in second-hand goods There is an undated note of an interview with the City Surveyor at Leicester City Council. This was almost certainly for a job as a baths attendant. He got this job and remained in it until he retired in 1943, contented but possibly unfilled. He died in December 1970 at the age of 92.
*References Harrison, D r C.R. (Editor): Edgar Wignall of the Leicester Corps, St John Ambulance Brigade; Diary and notes from the South African War (with additional notes circa 1910), 1999; and QMS Edgar Wignall o f the 51st Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps; Diary and notes from the Great War, 1914 - 18, 1999. Both are available from the editor (37 Station Road, Glenfield, Leicester, LE3 8BU )
Appendix : Gruesome necessities. The list on pages 29 and 30 is taken from QMS Wignall's notes and diaries. It gives details of the medical and ambulance equipment carried by his unit. (See these pages in Stand To ! No.61 April 2001 pp 29-30)