An Unlucky Soldier

Private Harry Eastwick, MS/1520
18th Anti-Aircraft Section, Army Service Corps


I came across Harry Eastwick whilst I was researching names on my local war memorial. Trawling through the archives at the local history library, I soon found Harry had been quite a letter writer and that several had been re-printed in the local newspapers of the time.

[Image] Harry joined the new army on 6 August 1914 - the first man from his village to do so. He was 20 and had just finished his apprenticeship as a mechanic and plumber working with his uncle. He was a keen motor cyclist and an amateur dramatics stage manager.

He was originally based in the North West of England assisting with the supervision of stores and testing motor cycles. By November, he was in Belgium acting as an ambulance driver in the Ostend area.

Early in that month, there had been rumours at home that he had been captured but he wrote to his father confirming that he was OK. "Did I tell you that I had been convoying wounded Belgians to hospital", he wrote. "It was not a very pleasant job; some of them were almost gone, so you may guess it was a case of going slowly. There was a German plane over us yesterday, but it was brought down a bit further on. One tried to drop a bomb on us, but it dropped on some waste land and no damage was done."

The winter of 1914/1915 was a quiet time for Harry, now stationed in France, although there was an "epidemic" of fires being set around his barracks. "They provide us with a bit of excitement, at last", he wrote in February, "though the fire engine here would look well in a comedy. I think it is about three centuries old, being one of the old hand pumps and having to be filled by buckets."

In another letter, also in February, He describes his bed mostly consisting of tins "covered with several old bags to take the edges off a bit, my overcoat as bedclothes. It's quite luxurious compared with some I have had since I have been out. Several times I have slept on the ground under the wagon which is not so bad if it is decent weather and the oil does not run out of the engine and wake you up by trickling on your face."

He tells his father that, in the town where he is stationed, there are no places of amusement open. "All music in the cafes is forbidden until "apres la guerre". The town is in darkness by 8.15 and most of the people are in bed. There was a bit of a disturbance in the town the other day, caused by the capture of two spies who had been trying to obtain information about troop movements. They will very likely be shot if proved guilty."

Back to the Front

This period of quiet is soon over and, by the spring of 1915, Harry is back in action, still with the motor transport section, near Ypres. It would seem that, around this time, Harry was promoted although this would also be short-lived. During April, he was very close to the action at Hill 60. He suffered from a nervous breakdown and was hospitalised with "overstrain". The details of what happened are not described, but Harry appears to have been demoted back to private. Cryptically, he wrote to his father "I was better off without stripes as I had most of the privileges and none of the responsibilities. I think they knew me too well, although they had nothing against me. I am not anxious for promotion if I can get a job like I had before, but not quite so heavy."

Unlucky Incident 1

When he was released from hospital, Harry got his wish to transfer and was fortunate in being assigned to a job where he could ride motor cycles. This was a passion of his and he always looked forward to receiving copies of "Motor Cycle" in the post from home.

Triumph Model H - 550 cc (1915) in civilian trim
In its Army version, this machine would have been very familiar to Harry

His unit is described as being the Anti-Aircraft Machine Gun Section, Lahore Artillery, Indian Army Corps. In another letter to his father, during the early summer of 1915, he says "I think it is a very decent job; the only fault about it is that we have to turn out at the most unearthly hour of three o'clock in the morning to prepare for action, which means that we square up and get things ready (about an hour's work) after which we turn in again "all standing", that is, fully dressed, till six o'clock."

"We witnessed a very interesting little "scrap", the other day between one of ours and a German, who was dodging about looking for batteries. We started shelling him. But without success, as he managed to dodge past us and get over the rear of our lines. One of our planes went up after him and got fairly close before he was recognised. The German, thinking discretion the better part of valour, made off to his own lines at top speed but soon found he was being overhauled. It was only by twisting and turning that he was able to reach his own lines in safety."

"I do not consider that this is at all a dangerous job. About the most risk we run is from stray German shells. One of these dropped about forty yards behind me the other day when taking a message. Then the officers tell you not to exceed ten miles an hour on account of raising a dust!!"

Harry had spoken too soon. Within a short space of time, his father received another letter.

"I am getting on alright, although I have a few yards of bandages round my head and bruises all over my legs and body, the result of an accident I had the other day, caused by a Frenchman attempting to run across the road without looking where he was going, bumping my front wheel and sending me down under a horse which was passing. The horse was scared by the crash of my machine and started treading on my legs and kicking me on the head and face. There was an officer standing by who bandaged me up temporarily and then sent me on to hospital, where I was overhauled, rebandaged and given an injection to prevent lockjaw. I looked a fine specimen - only an eye, nose and mouth visible. It was a rotten piece of luck."

Unlucky Incident 2

Perhaps not surprisingly, Harry had had enough of transport duties and, by September, had asked for a change as he was still not feeling very well. He was assigned to aerial observation duties which he found to be lighter work but tiring on his eyes. He had tried, without success, to acquire field glasses. During the month, there was a revolver shooting competition between the men of the Army Service Corps and the Royal Field Artillery unit. Harry won fifth prize - the "magnificent sum of one franc", he joked.

At this time, he is sharing a billet, in a cartshed, with ASC & RFA soldiers. He mentions that one of the RFA men comes from Hazel Grove. There is, clearly, light-hearted rivalry between the two villages (now both suburbs of Stockport) and Harry mentions heated discussion between the two - principally on the subject of "Who put the pig on't wall" (author's note: if anyone knows the origin of this remark, please let me know). The "Grover" apparently takes all this in good part.

During October, Harry seems to be back riding motor bikes. Yet again, he has an accident. This time, the bike engine fails and he crashes, breaking both hips.

Unlucky Incident 3

In mid November, Harry was recovering from his accident at the Australian Base Hospital, Boulogne. On 17th November, Harry wrote to his mother saying that he was still in bed and would be for some time, but hoped to home for Christmas. He said "Yesterday, I saw England, the first time for many months. It was from the ward room window and there was about thirty miles of water between, but the cliffs of Dover showed up plainly. I hope to make a closer inspection of them shortly."

Later that day, Harry got his wish. He was loaded onto a hospital ship to cross the Channel. But Harry was not to see England.

In Harry's last piece of ill luck the "Anglia" struck a mine off Dover and sank, with the loss of many lives.

It is not known if his body was ever recovered. He is commemorated on the Hollybrook Memorial, Southampton which lists some 1900 servicemen and women who were lost at sea in "home waters" and have no known grave. He is also commemorated on the village war memorial in Cheadle, Cheshire.

To contact the author of this article, email John Hartley

Copyright John Hartley, December, 2002

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