First World War: The medical corps ambualnce driver who adopted a battle weary dog in France
10:32 22 April 2014
‘Old Contemptible’ William Nicholas must have had an angel at his shoulder. He saw Great War action at Mons, Ypres and the Somme, but survived to help Britain during the Second World War. Steven Russell met his son.
William Nicholas had a clutch of medals to remember his time on the Western Front, but his dearest souvenir was a dog.The troops who took it under their wing called him Tiny.
“From what I can gather, it was found in a derelict, burnt-out, farmhouse in France,” says William’s son, Keith, who lives near Bury St Edmunds. “They adopted it and kept it with them on their ambulance.” His dad was with the Royal Army Medical Corps.
“When the war finished, my father brought it back to this country. It went through quarantine and he brought it home and kept it as a pet.
“I believe it got run over in the 1920s – by a doctor’s car – and broke its back. After it died he had it mounted and put into a glass case.
“When I was a kiddie, it used to frighten the living daylights out of me! It used to be in our living room. There was a fireplace in the centre of the wall, and in the right-hand corner was a table and him in a glass case.
“You can imagine me walking in, only so big. It stares at you, straight in the face! Odd thing to keep in your house, admittedly.”
There’s also a picture of the dog, looking lively and pert, with Will and four of his medical corps colleagues taken in about 1916.
For the past 30 or so years, Tiny has been on show at the History On Wheels Museum, near Windsor. The man who used to run the place was Tony Oliver – Keith’s best man and a friend since the 1960s, who died last summer. Hence Tiny going out on long-term loan, where he has pride of place in a display cabinet. Around his neck hangs William’s military identity tags.
Will (he was usually known as that, or Bill) was born in late December, 1891, the son of a farm labourer who had served in the Boer War and was at one point reputed to be the last surviving soldier from the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879.
Will worked for a builder’s merchant making deliveries in a horse-drawn cart. But in 1911, at the age of 19, he signed up for a 12-year stint with the military and joined the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Keith has a copy of a 1911 training manual. It would have been the “bible” for soldiers practising first aid and contains some lovely advice, including how to make a stretcher, pulled by mules!
When war broke out in 1914, Will was serving at a military hospital in Devonport, Plymouth. As part of the British Expeditionary Force sent to France that summer, he was one of the Old Contemptibles.
The soldiers took their nickname, a badge of honour, from a disparaging remark allegedly said by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. He is reported to have given orders to “exterminate... the treacherous English and walk over General French’s contemptible little army”.
Will was part of 6th Field Ambulance, attached to the 6th Infantry Brigade, and kept a brief log of his movements from August 4 when Britain declared war on Germany until the following spring.
On August 5 he was in Aldershot, and on the 19th set off for Rouen in France. On the 25th, at Marseilles, “We got 4 ambulance wagons captured here.”
The following day began a series of long marches, including 27 miles in one day, to Servais, France. On September 3 they arrived at Meaux, had four hours’ rest, then marched on to “Pierre-Levée, where for the first time we are not called up in the middle of the night”.
The brevity of Will’s chronicle masks the fact that life for the men would have been very hazardous.
On September 8 they’d reached Rebais, “the place where the Guards were surprised. Bring in wounded, including German officer.” Three days later they march 20 miles in the pouring rain. At the end “for the first time we get a billet to sleep in”.
On September 13 they are close to the enemy – “go in caves, out of the way”. The next day: “Go from here carrying stretchers...shells bursting all over the place.”
September 15: “Cannot go any further.” The 16th: “Go to trenches around here and collect wounded.” By October 21 they’re in Ypres, Belgium, “go back to a field to sleep; up at 4.30am”.
Over the coming days Will travels nine miles and sets up a dressing station in the firing line, and later he and colleagues go to trenches at Zonnebeke to care for the wounded.
“Work on our own...till shelled out on the 11th Nov.”
On the 18th the men of the Royal Army Medical Corps pass through Ypres – “the place was in ruins; the fine old cloth hall was all alight”.
By March he is helping open a hospital for the injured, working day and night.
Apart from a bout of trench fever, Will comes through The Great War unscathed, despite his proximity to the major battles at Mons, Ypres, Neuve Chapelle and the Somme.
Brother Francis wasn’t so lucky. He died from his wounds in 1917 and was buried in Belgium. Brother Ernie had joined the navy and was at the Battle of Jutland.
Will got married during a period of leave to Violet, a nurse who worked at Ashford Hospital, near what’s now Heathrow Airport.
He came back to England in 1919. After leaving the army in 1922, Will was a first-aid specialist during the building of the Queen Mary Reservoir, west of Kempton Park racecourse. He had three years at a linoleum factory in Staines, and in the 1930s was a storekeeper and first aid man for a construction firm when the King George VI Reservoir, near Heathrow, was created.
First aid was a cornerstone of Will’s life. In 1934 he and another man formed a division of the St John Ambulance Brigade at Staines. Will was superintendent and received a citation for resuscitating someone who had fallen in the river at a local pleasure ground.
Violet was also a member. Their son, Keith, remembers having to go to lots of fetes as a lad, where his parents were on duty. During the 1939-45 war, Will joined the Civil Defence and trained hundreds of soldiers in first aid. He also worked for Staines council, in charge of the ambulance service. Keith says his father retired in 1956 – though went on to work at a department store in Staines! He carried on teaching first aid into his 70s.
Will died in the mid-1970s.
Did he talk much about his Great War experiences? “Yes and no. By the time I came along, the Second World War had superseded it. Nobody was really interested in hearing about the first war. The only thing he ever did say, really, was that casualties often asked for a cigarette, and they’d often taken three or four puffs and die. Things like that cropped up.
“He didn’t say much else. I think he would have done, if I’d asked. It’s just that people didn’t really talk much about it then.”
Keith does remember his father having quite graphic wallcharts, featuring different wounds. “Some of them were quite… interesting,” he laughs. “Bits of hand blown off. The wounds were horrendous.”
Keith has been in Suffolk for 20 years. Wife Joan is sub-postmistress at Higham, between Bury St Edmunds and Newmarket. While Tiny and his father’s helmet are on loan to the museum, Keith has his dad’s medals and a brass tins sent by Princess Mary to the armed forces that first Christmas at war. It included confectionery and a card.
He says his father “loved football and was really patient, easy-going, talk to anybody”. He used to dispense first aid if anybody needed it. “I remember once we were going somewhere and a car several in front of us, the door flew open and a woman fell out. He was straight out with his kit, trying to sort it all out, before the ambulance. He was never shy in going forward; he’d always jump in the deep end.”