rancis belonged to the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, and like hundreds of other young men, was given some military training, a khaki uniform and a rifle. Then they were sent over the channel to fight the Hun. Francis was put in charge of looking after the horses.
Now, Francis was just an uncomplicated, happy-go-lucky farmer’s boy. Born in a small Cornish village and brought up on the family farm. He was used to handling horses, coaxing them along with the plough, feeding and stabling them in the barn and taking them down to the horse-pool for a drink on hot summer days, occasionally walking them to the smithy to be shod.
But in the cold and unremitting rain of Flanders Francis was having to watch the horses flounder in the clinging mud, terrified and screaming at the constant gunfire. And, horribly injured by flying shrapnel, finally having to despatch them with a gun when they were beyond help.
By the time Francis was given home leave he just couldn’t take any more. “I ain’t going back,” he declared to his mother. “I can’t shoot one more horse – not one more!” So when the time came for him to report back to his regiment he hid himself away in the hay-loft. But the military came looking for him, dragged him out of the barn and ‘frog-marched’ him through the village to the great distress of his mother. However, Francis did not seem to have been punished for his lapse of discipline. He was just returned to his regiment and was sent back to France.
Sometime later in the War, his sister, who was ‘in-service’ as a nanny in the nursery of the ‘big-house’, received a letter from the War Office. It was addressed, simply, “Annie”, and the address of the house. The letter informed her that they had a soldier in Royal Netley Hospital, Southampton, who didn’t know who he was and couldn’t remember his name. The only means of identification was a letter in his pocket to ‘Frank’ from ‘Annie’. Could she help to identify him?
On the same day, Annie got a note from her mother saying they had received a telegram – the dreaded telegram- informing them that Francis was “missing in action – feared killed”. So, Annie had to fire off another telegram to her mother: “Francis not missing. In Netley Hospital.”
So Francis got what he wanted: Back home to England and out of the war! Home, yes, but damaged. Damaged by the horrors of a war he didn’t understand.
This story was told to me by his youngest sister, Annie, who was my Gran.
1: Netley Hospital, Southampton, was noted for treating shell-shock victims.
2: Francis’ military record entries show that he was married and that he died in 1920 at the age of 31.