Just a little post-edit remark – I’ve noticed that this particular blog post seems to be getting hits every day and I’m not sure why. Is it from people doing a google search for Bramshott, or has my post been linked some place? I’d love to know why. So if you have just happened upon this post, would you mind letting me know how you came upon it, either in the comments section, or by emailing me at kelownagurl at gmail dot com. Even if the post was not what you were looking for! Thanks!
We had a great nine hour flight via Westjet, direct from Calgary, and were lucky to be able to book the bulkhead seats on this trip so Erik had plenty of leg room. The only downside to our flight was was arriving at 10am (body time 2am), but our hosts at the Gatwick House B&B in Horley, which is only a 5 minute bus ride from Gatwick, graciously allowed us a very early check in and we went straight to bed around noon, for a 3 hour nap. We dragged our butts out of bed, had an early dinner and forced ourselves to stay awake until 8pm. We had a fitful 11 hour sleep but awoke feeling fairly refreshed, albeit a bit buzzed. Ah jet lag, I do not love you.
And so, after a “Full English Breakfast” for Erik and yogurt and toast for me, our hosts drove us back to the airport where we picked up our rental car and hit the road. We had a 4 hour drive to Plymouth, on the outskirts of Cornwall, with one planned stop in Bramshott, Hampshire, along the way.
Bramshott is a small village about an hour’s drive southwest of London and was the site of two military camps in WW1 and WW2 – Bramshott Camp and Bordon Camp. It was here that many Canadian soldiers trained during the war before being sent to the front. I decided to visit the village because my Dad’s father, Robert Fleming Park, had been stationed here near the end of WW1 and I really wanted to see where he had lived for the 15 months he was in England. And when I looked at the map and saw that the village was practically along the route for our drive, I couldn’t resist.
As we first neared the village, we drove along the Canadian Memorial Drive which is lined with Maple trees. We stopped to see if we could find the memorial stone, but it didn’t seem to be evident, so we drove a little further on to the church. The sites of the camps themselves are nothing more than old roads and overgrown grass and bushes now, with all signs of buildings having been long removed. However, there is a memorial stone and quite a bit of info both inside St Mary’s church and outside in the cemetery.
The No 12 Canada General Hospital served the area, and 318 Canadian soldiers are buried in the St Mary churchyard. Some of them died from wounds received in battle, but most had survived the war, only to succumb to the 1918-1920 Spanish Flu pandemic that infected over 500 million people worldwide, killing 50-100 million people (3-5% of the world’s population). 187 Canadian soldiers were buried at St Mary’s in 1918 alone and most of those young men died of the flu.
As I looked through my Grandfather’s military records (available online at the Canadian Archives) , I could see a number of things had occurred that would enable my grandfather to return home to marry my grandmother, and ensure my father was born. If things had gone differently, I may never have been born!
The Canadian government brought in the Military Service Act in August of 1917, after much debate, which required that all able bodied men from 20-45 serve in the military if called. My grandfather, born in 1897, turned 20 that very month, and so I’m sure he expected to be called up soon. I only knew him as an older man, and he always seemed very quiet, peaceful, and devout, and I had a hard time imagining that he would have wanted to go to war. However, after he finished school, he served six months in the 6th Regiment D.C.O.R. (Duke of Connaught’s Own Rifles) in Vancouver (January-June of 1917) while working as a telegrapher, followed by 5 months in the Railway Service Guard in Vancouver. On December of 1917, he had his military medical exam and was called up on January 3, 1918 to the 1st depot Battalion for training at the Drill Hall in Vancouver.
His personnel records are really interesting to read, as they include many details on his physical stature, weight, and medical and dental health. He was healthy and categorized as A2 “fit for despatching overseas”, although it was noted that he had enlarged tonsils, a fact which would come in play later.
In April he was transferred to the 68th Battery and in June 1918, he set sail on the troop ship, SS Waimana, for England. Luckily, this was only about four months before the end of the war, so he would never be sent to the front.
I’m not sure where the ship landed but Robert spent the next few months training as a gunner at Witley Camp, SE of London. After the war ended five months later on November 11, 1918, he was transferred to Camp Bordon and Camp Bramshott, where he work as a driver for the records office. During his short term in the military, I suspect he likely used his skills as a telegrapher.
It was during this time that so many young soldiers were becoming ill and dying of a virulent form of influenza that seemed to prefer healthy young people. The bug got into their lungs and most died of pneumonia within a few days.
Although the war was now officially over, there was still work to be done and my Grandfather wouldn’t be demobilized until the following year. However, in March of 1919, he was admitted to the Canada General Hospital in Bramshott with bronchitis and tonsillitis. His medical records indicate his fever was as high as 103* at time.
He remained in hospital for ten days before being transferred to a larger hospital in Orpington, southeast of London, where he had a tonsillectomy and spent another month recovering. He was finally discharged in June 1919 and sent back to Bramshott where he served out the rest of his tour. On August 9, 1919, he embarked on the SS Cassandra back to Canada (train to Vancouver), and he was discharged from the army on Aug 25, 1919.
And so now I found myself walking through St Mary’s church cemetery in Bramshott, looking at all of the young soldier’s gravestones, each marked with a Maple Leaf. The cemetery is kept pristine, with the grave markers lined up perfectly, and the lawn around them carefully mowed. I wondered how many of these men were friends or colleagues of my grandfather and what it must have been like to attend a burial almost every day.
As we walked through the cemetery, a woman approached us on her way through. We explained why we were there and she told us how important the Canadian soldiers were, and still are, to the people of the area. She explained how even now, on the Wednesday closest to Canada Day (July 1), the local school has each student adopt a soldier’s grave, tidy it, and place a Canadian flag on each grave. Then the community members have a ceremony and sing O Canada. It was really touching to hear the reverence in her voice as she talked and I’ll admit I was choked up, with tears in my eyes. And as I looked at the ages on the markers, so many just around 20, I tried to imagine having to send my now-19 year old son to war. I couldn’t fathom it.
The woman encouraged us to look at the memorial items inside the church as well, and we saw that many of the pew cushions were embroidered with Canadian flags and other symbols such as moose and beaver and provincial flowers. There were Canadian flags all over, and at least one stained glass window with pane for each province. It was incredibly moving to think of the importance the local people still place on our soldiers, even 100 years later.
Next summer, it will be 100 years since my Grandpa arrived for his short stay in the military camps in the area. I am so thankful that the war ended so soon after he arrived, and that he did not succumb to the Spanish Flu while he was ill. With only a few changes to his life’s plan, he may never have returned to Canada to marry my Grandmother 10 years later, and my father may never have been born.
And so we took one last look around at the churchyard, drove slowly past the now empty fields where the camps and hospital had been located, and set off for our next stop – Plymouth, England, where the Mayflower stopped before her voyage to the new world in 1620.
Next up: Cornwall