A blogpost by Dr Claire M. Hubbard-Hall, Bishop Grosseteste University.
Despite the centenary commemorative attention given to previously under-researched areas of the First World War, the work of the Royal Army Medical Corps (R.A.M.C) Sanitary Companies still remains a neglected area of scholarly enquiry. Public memory tends to focus on the formation of field ambulance teams, field dressing stations, the heroism of the stretcher-bearers and the R.A.M.C medical doctors, but very rarely do we hear about the work of those men tasked with the vital role of preventing, where possible, disease and death. The war diary of Corporal Alfred Cockburn provides an all-important stimulus for historians to incorporate narratives surrounding wartime military hygiene and sanitation, engaging the public with the story of army healthcare during the First World War.
Diaries of Alfred Cockburn – volumes one to four.
The diary first came to light when a student studying history at Bishop Grosseteste University (BGU) in Lincoln, decided to explore the first volume as the subject of their undergraduate dissertation. This signalled the start of a five-year journey that saw the four-volume diary digitised and transcribed in full by BGU staff and student volunteers. The owner of the diary, the diarist’s grand-daughter, generously shared the diary and gave her permission for the next phase of the project, which saw the diary researched in full. This was made possible by an award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through the Gateways to the First World War Research Fund.
Working in partnership with Jason Semmens, the Director of the Museum for Military Medicine (currently located at Keogh Barracks in Ash Vale), BGU history lecturers’ Dr Claire Hubbard-Hall and Dr William Hunt oversaw an enthusiastic team of volunteers, who were based both at the university and at the museum. Over the course of the project, which ran from September 2016 to its completion in May 2017, the volunteers were trained as historical researchers, and then set about tirelessly researching various aspects of the diarist’s wartime experiences. The project’s findings took the form of an exhibition hosted by the Museum of Military Medicine from May to August 2017.
The diarist, Alfred Cockburn, served with the 2nd London Sanitary Company (R.A.M.C) in Egypt and France throughout the war. He spent six months in Egypt (February to June 1916) and the remainder of the war in France. He returned home in early March 1919. A 32-year-old corporal, his personal experience of war was captured in the diaries that he kept at the time, which took the form of small field notebooks. Interestingly, he also collected an assortment of war-related ephemera and trench art. These ranged from photographs, tickets, army paperwork, Christmas cards produced by soldiers, pencil drawings illustrating events recorded in the diary, hand-drawn maps of terrain (his training as a geography teacher probably came in handy here), poetry and the list goes on. Twenty years later, at the age of 52, looking back on his wartime experiences, he rewrote his diaries, also incorporating wartime letters sent to his wife. This process of post-war remembering effectively memorialised the Great War at a time when other soldiers also chose to put pen to paper.
In an effort to corroborate and understand the content of the diary, the project team worked on a range of documents gathered from the National Archives, the Imperial War Museum, and the archive of the Museum of Military Medicine. They carried out research on a range of sanitary practices and technological devices relating to personal soldier hygiene, disease control and prevention, protection of water supply and its purification and distribution, to name just a few areas of interest.
Over the course of the project, the team came to know Alfred as if he were a family member. They re-lived his experiences – the bad and the good. One volunteer, Rachel Maxey, reflected on her time during the project that:
“I gained a sense of Alfred as a person; to the extent, that I could ‘hear’ his voice. The voice of a soldier whose prime responsibility was not battling with the enemy but battling with sanitation challenges, which in war was antithetic to the norm. To consider the First World War from a different perspective proved a powerful motivating factor. It was also compelling to discover what happened next”.
This was a sentiment shared by all who had worked on the project. However, many of the discoveries understandably involved suffering and death. This made it extremely hard when it came to decide on the museum exhibition’s narrative and what would be selected. One of the items that did not make the cut, revolved around an event at the end of September 1916, when Alfred describes how he comforted a dying soldier who lay sobbing on a stretcher in an ambulance. During the Somme offensive, Alfred wrote:
As he pressed my cheek to his, as the tears asserted themselves, he fumbled in his breast pocket. Taking out a fifty franc note, he says, take this chummy – “It’s all I’ve got and it’ll be no use to me – I’ll never need it”. This was more than I could bear – a dying man paying a stranger out of his gratitude. Take it as a souvenir, but I could only nod to say, “No”, but he was not to be said “No” to. He fumbled again saying in broken tones, “Here take this souvenir in remembrance of me – I took it off a dead German before I was hit”, and he handed me this five mark note. I was glad the ambulance was dimly lit. He was driven off to Warloy – not forgotten, no, never. I sometimes feel his kindness, his thought was greater, deeper than my own, for in his last moments at Aveluy he remembered me.
And there on the following page of the diary, was the actual five-mark note.
A great number of the findings made their way into the exhibition, which launched at the Museum of Military Medicine on 17 May 2017. The diarist’s grand-daughter and great-grandson were in attendance, along with Colonel Ashleigh Boreham, of the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Left to right: Dr William Hunt (BGU), diarist’s great-grandson, diarist’s granddaughter, Dr Claire Hubbard-Hall (BGU), Jason Semmens (Director of the Museum of Military Medicine) and Colonel Ashleigh Boreham, Royal Army Medical Corps.
The exhibition will travel to Lincoln in November this year, and plans are being made to prepare the diaries for future publication. This will provide a powerful and positive legacy, as not only will we remember the shells of the Western Front, but also one man’s experience and memory of a relatively unknown aspect of the war.
To learn more about Alfred’s experiences and the work of the Sanitary Companies, please download the attached exhibition booklet.
For further information about the Museum of Military Medicine click here.
This project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.