The 21st November 1914 is a bitterly cold day in Northern France. The ground is freezing hard and it has been snowing in the last few days. The British have turned the coastal port of Boulogne-sur-mer into a complex of hospitals, with the supporting, barracks, offices and depots. By October 1914, five hospitals had been set up: No.13 General, No.13 Stationary, No.11 General, No.7 Stationary and No. 7 B.R.C.S. Staffed by a mixture of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, V.A.D and Red Cross nurses aided by RA.M.C personnel, RE and others.
All, and any, suitable buildings were pressed into use. The 13th General Hospital was based in the Casino, overlooking the sea.
Working in the hospital laboratories under celebrated bacteriologist Sir Almouth Wright, is Alexander Fleming who would not discover life saving penicillin until 1929.
The 13th Stationary Hospital was housed in sugar sheds on the Gare Maritime. Staff – nurses like Ruby Cockburn BRCS – worked extremely hard to turn these unpromising surroundings into a functioning hospital.
Nurse Walker recalls in EXPERIENCES AT A BASE HOSPITAL IN FRANCE, 1914-1915 by A. L. WALKER
“We arrived at Boulogne on October 30, 1914. The place gave us the impression of being a seething mass of ambulances, wounded men, doctors and nurses: there seemed to be an unending stream of each of them … The sugar sheds on the Gare Maritime were to be converted into a hospital, No.13 Stationary hospital. What an indescribably scene! In the first huge shed there were hundreds of wounded walking cases (as long as a man could crawl he had to be a walking case). All were caked with mud, in torn clothes, hardly any caps, and with blood-stained bandages arms, hands, and legs; many were lying asleep on the straw that had been left in the hastily cleaned sheds, looking weary to death …. The beds were for stretcher cases, and were soon filled with terribly wounded men, who had just to be put into the beds as they were, clothes and all. As fast as one could get to them the clothes were cut off, the patient washed and his wounds dressed. Some had both legs off, some their side blown away – all were wounded in several places. Doctors and nurses were hopelessly outnumbered, distractedly endeavouring to meet the demands made upon them.”
Somewhere in the crowded, and often chaotic, conditions of the hospital complex lay Private 8702 Percy Ernest Young 1st Bn. Royal Berkshire Regiment. Percy was close to his 24th birthday, unmarried, and had been a soldier since late 1907. He was now dangerously ill.
Percival Ernest Young was born in Mitcham in late 1891, the youngest of William and Mary’s five children. He had two brothers, and two sisters. Percy’s father was from Farnham Surrey, and his mother Mary from Midhurst Sussex. Percy’s two older brothers, William and Archibald were both born in Farnham, before the family moved to Mitcham some time around 1887 where his sisters, Elizabeth and Georgina, were born. Percy’s father worked as a “gas stoker”, possibly at the Mitcham Gas Works, or the Gas Works of the Holborn Union Workhouse and Industrial School.
Percy is fourteen when his father William dies and his mother is dependent on her older children to keep the family together.
Just two years later, Percy leaves home to join the Army. There are no service records for Percival Ernest Young, but his army number corresponds to men joining the Royal Berkshire Regiment towards the end of 1907.
Percy would have been just sixteen when he enlisted in London, so either joined as a boy, or adjusted his age. He becomes private 8702 of the Royal Berkshire Regiment – a “Biscuit Boy”. So named, as the regimental depot, Brock Barracks, was located at Reading, not far from the well known biscuit factory of Huntley and Palmers who were suppliers to the British Army for many years. One of the world’s first global brands, their Reading works was once the world’s largest biscuit factory and a landmark anyone travelling by train could not fail to see on arriving at, or departing from, Reading station.
Percy’s pre-war Army career is a matter of speculation, he may have spent the entire time in “Home Service”. In 1911 Percy Young is on the roll of the 1st Royal Berkshire at Dover Castle.
In the previous year, Percy’s sister Elizabeth Emily Young married Gilbert Cull on boxing day, 1910 at Christ Church. Gilbert Cull was a stoker in the Royal Navy. ( He joins the RFR in 1912, and serves on the Minerva for part of the war). As war looms, there is a happy distraction from the European crisis, when Percy’s older brother William marries local girl Annie Eliza Muncey at Christ Church on the 2nd of August 1914.
Percy is with the 1st Royal Berkshires at Aldershot when war was declared, he was just a few months away from being placed on reserve. Instead, orders for mobilization were received at 5.30 p.m.on that day. Southampton was reached the same afternoon, and the battalion, embarking on the SS Ardmore and the SS Mellifont, was at Rouen and marched to the camp de Bruyères three miles off on the 13th. Percy Young landed in France on the 13th August. A soldier on the SS Ardmore wrote:
“Wednesday August 12th. Arrived at Southampton about 11 am and embarked upon cattle boat Ardmoref or unknown destination, France probably. Packed upon her like herrings have got a job to stand up let alone lie down haven’t the chance of a wash. Thursday morning 13th. Still on the boat don’t think we shall land until dinner time. Landed at Rouen at 7.30 pm had a pleasant trip up the river. I think we all cheered ourselves hoarse. At present waiting on the square at Rouen. Thursday evening 13th. Marched away from the square about 8 o’clock and proceeded right through main street up to La Bre which is about 5 miles from Rouen. I shall never forget the reception we received. People rich and poor all went mad. Well, there’s only one complaint so far, the food. Its all bully beef and biscuits and now and again the vilest jam that was ever tasted through the contractor.”
The next weeks and months will be stiffest test the men of the 1st Royal Berkshire ever faced. They March north, on the 22nd of August cross the Belgian border, but without any serious engagement with the enemy at Mons on the 23rd, the long retreat begins in blazing summer heat within 24 hours. Their first serious action, with several casualties, is on Sambre river bridge on the 25th of August. The retreat continues before the 1st Royal Berkshires fight on the Marne and Aisne in September 1914 and October 1914. On October 12th, the battalion begins to move north. A long train journey via Amiens, Abbeville, Boulogne, Calais and St.Omer brings them to Strazelle on the 15th. By 20th they are billeted in a diamond factory in Ypres.
As part of the 6th Brigade, 2nd Division, the 1st Royal Berkshire join the First Battle of Ypres on 22nd October 1914 in trenches at Zonnebeke.
Their movements over the next days and weeks can be summarised as:
24/10/14 moved to attack north of Frezenburg
25/10/14 under heavy shell fire
27/10/14 supported attack
28/10/14 relieved to brigade reserve
31/10/14 Battalion split A&B in action at Gheluvelt
2/11/14 C&D in reserve at Polygon Wood
15/11/14 to divisional reserve at Hooge
17/11/14 move to Ypres
18/11/14 billets at Caestre
This bland list belies the ferocity of shelling, sniping, attacks and counter-attacks that Percy Young faced. There is an ever mounting list of casualties of Officers and other ranks, as recalled in various ancedotes:
25th October – “I was about two yards away from Captain Steele when he was blown to pieces by a shell.”
“I remember seeing two of my chums dragging a wounded man who had both his legs blown off, to a ditch. They had no sooner arrived there than both were killed on the spot ... “
October 26th.- “Poor Steele blown to a jelly in the evening [of the 25th] by a black Maria, while trying to reorganise his company behind his trenches. Gross hit in the knee by a bit of shrapnel next morning (26th), leaving me the only officer left out of the two companies.”
28th October – “Later on at Zonnebeck poor Jones ( 7715 Cpl Jones) was so badly wounded that he died two days later on the same train which brought your humble down from Poperinghe after being wounded the same night .. “
31st October 1914, Gheluvel -Sgt Taylor received the wound from which he later died.:
“At 5pm we moved from our trenches round to the right to support the 2nd Brigade. Whilst following up the attack I was shot in the shoulder and neck”. He lay on the field for four hours and was afterwards conveyed on an ambulance wagon to Ypres being subsequently removed to the Woolwich Hospital where he died on December 6th. “
2nd November 1914 – “The 1st Battalion had suffered appalling casualties in the fighting and lost so many officers that a number of NCOs had to be commissioned in the field to replace them.”
And so it continues, until 13th Novmeber – “We all withdrew to the new line just east of the main road (Zonnebecke-Beclaere) at 3 a.m. without a shot from the Germans.”
November 14th.- “Ellis arrived with a draft of 250. A, B and half C in trenches; shelled unmercifully. H.L.I. shelled out of their trenches in the morning and lost several Officers. We turned out half C Company to reoccupy them, but the General sent us back.”
November 15th – “It was a really miserable day, cold, raining and incessant shellfire. At 21:00 they were relieved by the 169th Regiment of the French 9th Division and marched off to Divisional Reserve at Hooge. Before they were relieved Acting Corporal H Day  left his trench under fire to get water for an injured comrade. Although wounded himself he brought back the water. He was later awarded the DCM.”
It’s not known where or when Percy Young was wounded, nor the chance of his survival when he is evacuated to a base hospital at Boulogne, a gruelling ordeal in itself. Ambulances taking men to Poperinghe station, and elsewhere, had to run the gauntlet of German shelling. It was journey of several miles over rough ground. It’s not known if Percy had lain wounded in the open for many hours before anyone came to his aid, or if he was first evacuated to the nearest Clearing Hospital before being put on one of the hospital trains to Boulogne.
By the 21st November, Private 6702 Percy Young is dangerously ill. At home in Mitcham his mother Mary may have already received a telegram to this effect, with no possibility or time to visit her son, she can only pray he pulls through and does not suffer. The next communication Mary receives will be the impersonal letter informing of her son’s death.
As the war drags on, it is unlikely that Percy’s older brother William will not have either volunteered or been conscripted. His brother Archibald George Young, volunteered on 26th August 1914. He served in the 4th Dragoon Guards. was promoted to the rank of sergeant by the end of 1915, was mentioned in dispatches, and awarded the Military Medal in 1916. Tragically Archibald died of double pneumonia in 1917 and was buried in Church Road Cemetery (Merton) on 7th May 1917.
There are happier times when Percy’s sister Georgina marries her brother’s namesake Percy Reeve at Christ Church on May 13th 1916. Percy Reeve is a ship’s carpenter serving in the Royal navy. Percy and Georgina will live with Mary Young for several years after the War ends.
The family ensure both Archibald’s and Percy’s name appear on both the Mitcham Memorial and the Christ Church “Roll of Honour”. Percy’s family remain in Mitcham for many years after the war.
Footnote 1: Throughout the war, those who died within the base hospitals at Boulogne were buried in the Cimetiere de L’Est, one of the town cemeteries, the Commonwealth graves forming a long, narrow strip along the right hand edge of the cemetery. Then the IWGC was created in the 1920s, soil conditions dictated that the headstone should be laid flat.
Footnote 2: John Chapman’s Website contains a wealth of detail about the Royal Berskshire Regiment in the Great war with many vivid first hand accounts. The battalion war diaries can be found online, here.
Footnote 3: Relevant accounts of nurses who worked at Boulogne can be found here, and here. The private war diary of Lady Algernon Gordon-Lennox who ran the 13th Stationary Hospital
during World War One, can be found here. An account of Private George Robert Powell RAMC, serviced in Ypres in October and November 1914 can be found here