In early 1915 he volunteered to serve in the First World War. He wasn’t a very tall man, only about 5’2”. In fact he wasn’t considered tall enough to serve in the infantry division, which would have fought in the trenches. However, before the war he’d been a coalminer from the age of 12 and had experience of working with horses, pulling the coal wagons out of the coal pit. So when he signed up and they tried to assign him to a regiment they thought, well, perhaps this man could control the horses for us. He was sent to join what was called the Royal Army Service Corps. It was their job to get supplies to the front, using normally six, sometimes eight horses, to pull the supply wagons.
The essential supply was of course food, but second to that were cigarettes. Almost all of the men smoked. A lot of people forget that for much of the time soldiers did no fighting. They were in their trenches, they got terribly bored, and those men who didn’t smoke before soon learned how to. Then there were the everyday things my grandfather had to ensure were delivered: cutlery, plates, bedding, new bits of uniforms like belts and boots. The RASC was not responsible for taking munitions – shells, bullets – on these wagons. This was the preserve of the Royal Artillery. They had their own drivers, who were very experienced at dealing with bullets and shells.
My grandfather survived the war and I have his discharge papers for 1919. He, along with many others, had to wait a good while after 11 November 1918 before they were sent home. Although they were brought back to England, they couldn’t just go home straight away. My grandfather served in quite a few different parts of Europe, including Egypt, where he fought the Turks, and Salonika, which is in Northern Greece. In 1916 he was at the Battle of the Somme. Interestingly his brothers Edward, Henry and Wesley also served and it wasn’t until after the war that he discovered they too had been fighting in the Somme. He never met them there, but they all survived.
One thing that surprised me when I researched his army career was that he ended up as a corporal. He never mentioned that to me or to the rest of the family. We all assumed he was a private, an ordinary soldier. I have his service medal, the Mons Star, given to every soldier who enlisted from 1915 onwards. It’s amazing to think that two million, three hundred thousand men got this medal. They weren’t all from Britain, of course, but from the British Empire, including the West Indies, Africa and India as well as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Each country issued its own version of the medal. On the back of my grandfather’s medal is written his service number, his occupation as a driver – of horses, obviously – and his name: Driver T. E. Thomas. Army Service Corps. (ASC)