Rev Herbert William Bolitho

by Ann Bolitho-Jones, published here with her kind permission

This picture of a Victorian teenager taken in the mid 1890s is my paternal grandfather Herbert William Bolitho. He looks a little apprehensive at having his portrait taken but also hopeful and optimistic as he starts out in life.

The Christian Endeavour badge signifies quite an earnest young man. This successful youth organisation which started in the American mid-west had evidently reached Plymouth, Devon within 10 years of its inception. I particularly like the latest fashion in ocular correction equipment – his pince-nez! But I remember my granddad as a rather grumpy old man who thought children should be seen and not heard, particularly six year old little girls. When I asked my Dad where granddad had been stationed during WW1 he had no idea which was rather strange as they are/were both obsessional research types heavily into family history. Seemingly H.W.Bolitho, like a lot of other veterans, wouldn’t or couldn’t talk about his war time experiences – or we didn’t ask the right questions or weren’t interested enough………. So I went down to the National Archives at Kew to see what I could discover.

When Herbert Bolitho joined up in 1915 he was in his mid to late 30s, married and an ordained Methodist Minister. However his first commission was as an ordinary second lieutenant in the Bedfordshire regiment, becoming attached to the Machine Gun Corps the following year. Here he is looking rather pleased with himself. Note the officers’ sword and revolver and the obligatory twirly moustache! He still has his pince-nez. He reported for duty on the western front in May 1916. So we have this short-sighted Methodist Minister crouching with his machine gun team in a dugout behind their gun. Machine guns were a fairly new form of weaponry then and could have a devastating effect on the enemy with their rapid fire. However they could quickly run out of ammunition and the water needed to keep them cool enough to function.

Machine gun teams were heavily dependant on “runners”, often from other units, to keep them supplied from behind the lines. If they ran out they became prime targets for enemy fire themselves. A third of all machine gunners were killed or wounded – the alternative name for the machine gun corps was the Suicide Club. Herbert was probably around when one of his fellow officers was blown to pieces by a high explosive shell. He was waiting behind the lines with 110 MGC in July 1916 when he became unwell with pneumonia or something and was sent to hospital. This was how he survived the battle of the Somme.

While he was convalescing, 2Lt H.W.Bolitho was persuaded to recommission as an army chaplain. This involved a promotion to a rank equivalent to a captain and presumably an increase in salary. We don’t have a picture of him from this time which I think is significant as we usually only get our photos taken when we feel good about ourselves. We know that he was unhappy as a chaplain as, in his experience, chaplains were not allowed at the front and subsequently received little respect from the ordinary men.

Instead I have a map to show where he was stationed. He was sent by troop ship through a Mediterranean infested with German U-boats to Egypt where the Brits were guarding the Suez Canal. Sand, sun (excessively hot between 10am and 5pm) and camels. Then later in April 1917 by boat down to Dar-es-Salaam in German East Africa. Earlier in the war British troops had invaded this country from Kenya and chased the Germans down to the South-West corner. These British troops were mostly made up of native Kings African Rifles from Kenya and men sailed across from India. They were led by nice young gentlemen officers fresh out of Sandhurst who couldn’t speak a word of Swahili or Gujarati or whatever.

Herbert chugged along in a steam train along this railway line built by the Germans ten years before to Dodoma (meaning “where the elephant sank”). Here he was chaplain to a casualty clearing station. Only a few “casualties” resulted from wounds – two thirds were suffering from malaria or dysentery. The latter in particular had a high mortality. After clearing casualties were sent to the coast by train and then on to South Africa or home.

Rev Bolitho returned to England towards the end of 1917. At the beginning of 1918 The Germans were on the offensive on the Western Front pushing British lines back. The army needed all the help it could get. This included a short sighted Methodist minister of indifferent physical health in his late 30s. In April two train loads of replacement machine gunners left the machine gun school in Grantham for France each day. I am pretty sure 2Lt HWBolitho was on one of those trains. Here, he is looking fairly relaxed behind the lines. The two chevrons on his cuffs denote two years of service overseas. The ceremonial sword has gone, replaced by a swagger cane. The moustache is a little moth- eaten. The pince-nez survives. During this time he was promoted to Lieutenant. He didn’t return to civilian life until 1920 perhaps because he felt he hadn’t done his fair share earlier in the war.

I found this picture of my grandfather in the National Portrait Gallery, London in a catalogue of seaside silhouettes from Brighton – the 1920s equivalent of today’s photo booth. The reason I have included it is because Herbert met his first wife when he was a minister there before the war and she was church organist. Not long after he returned to England she became terminally ill. I like to imagine that he has taken her for one last visit to her family and has gone for a walk on the sea front by himself. On impulse he pops into the artist’s booth and has this portrait done to prove to himself that HE has survived.

Our last picture taken in 1928 shows Rev Bolitho looking very pleased with himself once again. He still exists in spite of everything, he has re-married and, in his fiftieth year he has become a father. From now on things can only get better. After all it is not long since he fought in the war to end all wars.

Ann Bolitho-Jones © 2007