Wounded Heroes Return from the Somme

This blog post was written by Lois Dean, a volunteer at Bolton History Centre.

Bolton medic Dr Johnston had spent July 1, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, at home with family and friends, but had returned to duty at St Mary’s Military Hospital in Whalley, near Blackburn, in time to record in his diary the first convoy of wounded men arriving on July 4th.

“Yesterday the ‘hooter’, signalled the coming of a Convoy, which however, did not arrive till tonight, when 112 men straight from the Battle of the Somme, along with 42 medical cases, were brought in a Great Eastern medical train and came into our wards.

A pathetic sight was it to see, the crowd of blue costumed Tommies marking a lane through which the procession of wheeled and hand ambulances passed with their burdens of wounded and suffering men – all young stalwarts – all in mud-stained khaki, many bandaged and splinted, but all in good spirits, one man waving his hand and shouting ‘Now we sharn’t be long with the Germans!’.”

Other convoys were to arrive regularly throughout July and into August, patients and hospital staff alike turning out to form a ‘guard of honour’ along the route taken by the wounded soldiers from the hospital train to the wards.

Dr Johnston described one such scene:
“Round the corner and up the slope climbed the Great Train and into the station it slowly drew and halted; the big Red Cross on each of the ambulance carriages, from the windows of which the khaki-clad men were peering and smiling, as these wounded Tommies always do smile – bless ‘em!

To my enquiries, they said they had come from Rouen, to which they had been taken from the trenches of the Somme, and soon were they streaming out of the carriages and along the platform and down the causeways into the wards.

And such a procession of mud-stained, unkempt, bedraggled, tired and worn out men I never saw past. As they marched in – or were carried – each with his little ‘kit’ of personal belongings the thought occurred to me ‘Why is this? Why are these men – the pick of Britain’s youth – in this condition and why have they to be brought all this way to get restored to their normal condition? Is there any real justification for all this horror of suffering?’

And I failed to find a satisfactory answer.”

Inevitably, Bolton soldiers were amongst the hundreds of wounded men who arrived at St Mary’s and two who were allocated to Dr Johnston’s ward were delighted to meet a fellow Boltonian.

One was overheard telling a nurse that his address was Victor Street, Brownlow Fold and during the ensuing conversation with Dr Johnston he revealed that he worked at local engineering company Dobson & Barlow.

Another arrived in a convoy on July 26th. Dr Johnston recalled:
“It so happened that two extra cases were sent to us to admit when we had to send two medical cases into F1 and curiously enough, one of the two extra cases was Frank Whittingham, the son of Mr Whittingham, a solicitor in Bolton. While I was taking his particulars, he looked curiously at me and said, ‘Are you from Bolton?’

‘Yes’ I replied, ‘I’m Dr Johnston.’

‘One of the orderlies has just told me, I thought I recognised you. You know my people.’

‘Why, you are young Whittingham, of course I know your people. I saw your brother in khaki lately in Bolton. How strange that you should be brought here, but I’m very glad.’

‘And so am I, Doctor. Our father and mother will be glad too when they know.’

His injury proved to be a gunshot wound of the knee, which while severe, was not dangerous. His story is that he was digging himself in after taking part in the capture of a wood, when a piece of shell wounded him. He tells the usual tale of the men engaged in the Big Push and says he has seen many men killed – some blown to pieces, many of his company killed, his Colonel and many officers wounded, the majority of the company left wounded or dead.”

Frank Whittingham survived the war and moved to Gloucestershire following his marriage, He died in Cheltenham in 1971.

One scene that Dr Johnston found particularly moving was seeing the wounded men being brought together for a cinema show in the hospital.

“Here are some of the elements in the scene: orderlies and convalescent patients wheeling in Patients on their beds from the wards and lining them up in serried rows and packing them close together on the available floor space. Pretty girls wandering about the floor and distributing cigarettes or flowers to the bedridden soldiers and officers going about talking to them…the whole one half of the floor space was filled by wheelchairs, occupied by wounded men who were not quite bedridden – the entire theatre filled by crippled, helpless patients.
“When all were assembled, the photographer took a picture of the scene from the stage. I obtained permission to take a photograph with my camera from the same position and never shall I forget the sight of those 200 ward cots of white and 200 wheelchairs, each occupied by a poor lad who had risked his life and perhaps given a limb. It was a moving and heart-touching spectacle.”

Dr Johnston
Dr Johnston

Reference:
ZJO 1/40 to 1/41: Dr Johnston’s Diaries – Somme, July-September 1916, held by Bolton Archives.

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