Unexamined Lives

The story of the 20th century as lived by residents in the Derbyshire village of Borrowash


In The Shadow of Saint-Quentin – Jack Slater

The 1918 Battle of Mont Saint-Quentin resulted in a famous victory for the Allied forces; characterised as much by its strategic importance as the acknowledged gallantry and daring of the troops.

General Henry Rawlinson who commanded the British Fourth Army spoke about the battle in grandiose terms, describing the Australian advances in the five day window of August 31st – September 4th as the outstanding military achievement of the First World War.

That view, like all theories then and now about the events that shaped the course of World War 1, is open to question.

What cannot be disputed is the sheer derring-do of the Saint-Quentin venture when at 5am on 31st August, 1918, two depleted Australian battalions charged up Mont St Quentin, screaming like bushrangers at the express command of General John Monash.

The German troops capitulated and the Australians forged ahead to the main enemy trench line, as back-up battalions crossed the Somme by a bridge.

Fortunes fluctuated but after a German resurgence, Allied forces re-captured Mont Saint-Quentin, stormed the town of Peronne and effected a whole scale German retreat to the Hindenburg Line.

The cost to the Germans, including damage to the elite 2nd Guards Division, was pivotal and the end was in sight.

At 11 am on 11th November 1918, the war to end all wars was over.

The Allies sustained 3000 casualties at the Battle of Mont Saint-Quentin and a young man called Frank Slater from Borrowash narrowly avoided adding to their number, thanks to his uniform, the precipitate action of the ambulance drivers – and perhaps, something else…

Ockbrook choir 1911-1913. Jack Slater is on the back row, fifth from the left.

Frank was wounded as he held his position on the bridge and, many years later, his daughter, Mary Dickin, describes the shock of inadvertently chancing upon the place of her father’s near death as she leafed through photographs in a 1914-18 war book.

I turned the page over; last page in the book and there it was! The very bridge the Germans were trying to take back and that was the bridge he was wounded on. It was right in front of my eyes what had happened to him.

At the time, the odds on Frank surviving must have been slight. According to Mary:

His arm shattered to bits and he crawled back into the trenches and put his hat under his head to die. What saved him was a big strap from his armpit to his belt.

The last ambulance through Quentin took him away, got him to the hospital ship and off to Newcastle. Many of his friends didn’t survive; he lost them in the trenches.

He went to the operating theatre to see if they could do anything with his arm and when he came out in the afternoon, the war was over — and so was his sort of life, you know?

He was in hospital for a year and when he came home, he walked from Derby at night because of the trains being off and he threw some pebbles at his mum’s window and said ‘I’m home, Mum.’

Home was Riverside House in Station Road, Borrowash, rented by the Slater family from the Earl of Harrington at Elvaston Castle.

The Slaters were extremely proud of their own lineage as Mary is today:

Grandma was a very elegant lady and her name was Louise Taylor, but her mother’s name was Mary Argyle from Heage Hall and she was very aware of it.

Louise Slater – Mary Dickin’s grandmother and her family.

I can trace my family history right back, really way back. Mary Argyle came down with Prince Charlie and they stopped at Chaddesden! You know – that row in Scotland going on. One conflict after another, one clan against another. Our family name was really Hamilton – and they escaped. They escaped with Charles and came down with him to England. 

The row in Scotland was the Jacobite rebellion; led by the grandson of the deposed Catholic King, James 2nd of England.

Dubbed ‘The Young Pretender’, Charles Edward Stuart is more familiarly known as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’

Like his father and grandfather, he was a Catholic, but he was born neither in Englandnor Scotland. His birthplace was Rome in 1720 and it was perhaps inevitable that he would follow the destiny mapped out for him after the ambitions of his father (‘The Old Pretender’) had been thwarted.

The young man became the focal point of a plot to place a Catholic on the throne ofEngland.

His arrival in Scotland in 1745 sparked clan warfare as he raised his standard before the Cameron clan and declared war against George 2nd whom he denounced as ‘The Elector of Hanover’.

Within a month, Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, had surrendered without a fight to his 2,000 strong army and the impossible suddenly seemed within reach.

Buoyed up and triumphant, Bonnie Prince Charlie marched to England with its king, George 2nd as his quarry. He was backed by a force that had swelled to 6,500 including Mary Dickin’s Hamilton ancestors.

At a tumultuous rally in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, he proclaimed his father James 3rdKing of England; but this was his last hurrah.

Two days later, thwarted by a counter–offensive at Swarkestone Bridge, he beat a retreat to Scotland, only to be finally routed at The Battle of Culloden Moor on 16thApril 1746 at the hands of the Duke of Cumberland.

The Jacobite rebellion was over and with his tail between his legs, Bonnie Prince Charlie fled to France and thence Rome; his fate not the splendour of the English throne, but death in the city of his birth as an ignominious alcoholic in 1788.

Mary Dickin’s Hamilton ancestors by contrast, did not scuttle back to Scotland but decided to take their chance in Derbyshire as Mary describes:

They changed their name from Hamilton to Argyle so they wouldn’t be chased. They stayed at Heage Hall – for a very long time; that’s why my name is Mary Argyle Slater after Great Great Grandma from Heage Hall.

It was an aristocracy of sorts, which might be a key to the friendly rapport between the Derbyshire Harringtons and Slaters.

Another reason could be that World War 1 was a great leveller.

The Slaters had sons at the Front and the 9th Earl of Harrington, Dudley Stanhope was no stranger to the horrors of warfare.

His son, Talbot Fitzroy Eden of the 2nd Rifle Brigade was killed in action on 9th May, 1915 and is commemorated on the Belgian memorial at Ploegsteert, two miles fromArmentieres and eight miles from Ypres.

All of Louise Slater’s sons; Jack, Frank, Philip and Eric were to fight for their country inFrance.

At Riverside House, she turned her kitchen into a makeshift hospital ward:

Grandma used to look after the poorly soldiers in the kitchen and she told the officers to mind their own business; she was going to do that.

It was something positive – and perhaps a way of at least quelling the interminable feelings of helplessness and impotence that overwhelmed many a war time family waiting anxiously back at home.

In the early decades of the 20th century, foreign travel was unheard of for the majority of people who lived in the small towns and villages of England.

‘France’ would have seemed as distant and unreal as ‘China’ or ‘America’ and certainly a world away from Borrowash where tremulous women queued outside the local post office, desperate for news:

In those days there were no phones. Uncle Eric said that he used to be there when the women were queuing outside Borrowash Post Office and the Post Master General stuck his head out of the door , looked down the road and said ‘No rush – there’s a telegram for you all’.

From the husbands or sons, you know? That was so sad, wasn’t it? A lot of them had got children and loads of them were killed.

Jack Slater was the first of Louise’s four boys to take his chance in France and he acquitted himself with distinction. His niece Mary speaks with pride about his achievements and retains his medal in tribute:

Uncle Jack was wounded. He won the Victoria Cross, but there was nobody there of a higher rank to witness what he did, so they presented him with the George Cross.

Jack was a sergeant in the ambulance division and Mary, who would later work as a Red Cross nurse in the Second World War, is only too au fait with the difficulties faced by those who worked to save lives without the benefit of modern medicine:

Nobody ever gives those ambulance men any credit. It was the most tragic war, more tragic than the Second World War really because they had all the facilities by the Second World War; penicillin, drips – but in the First World War, they’d got nothing. They had to manage with whatever they’d got, whatever that was….

Jack’s younger brother, Eric, joined the flying corps and like innumerable patriotic young bloods was doubtless inspired by a Government poster of the day, depicting Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, towering above the inscription:

Your Country Needs You

Eric, like so many others, thought it needed him and lied about his age, owning to 17 rather than 16 in a well-intentioned eagerness to do his bit.

His niece Mary, who was born 10 years after the end of World War 1, talks about the recruitment of idealistic lads the length and breadth of the land, with the benefit of hindsight:

Those poor soldiers. Uncle Herbert said that a lot of the soldiers who went out never even had beef until they joined the army! It was pigeon, or whatever their father could get out of the woods – and they’d never had a garden, so they never had a spade! They’d never handled a spade until they went out there to dig trenches.

They were only young, only 16, 17, 18, a lot of them – it was tragic.

Eric Slater was one of the lucky ones, returning from France uninjured. All of Louise Slater’s boys survived the war.

But it was a near miss with Frank.

According to Mary:

My father was born with a caul over his face which I’ve still got, and also, anyone born with a caul over their face never drowned.

Babies who are born ‘in caul’ enter this world still shrouded by the amniotic sac or membranes. The sac contains amniotic fluid and if a baby is born ‘in caul’, the sac balloons out at delivery. The baby is in no danger of drowning, because it will not take a breath until its face has emerged from the fluid contained in the caul.

Births of this type are rare, occurring roughly at a rate of one in a thousand, and a considerable body of mythology has developed around ‘caul babies’ like Frank.

In medieval times, a baby born with a caul was regarded as a child of good fortune. For this reason, the midwife officiating at the delivery would perform a birthing ritual; rubbing a sheet of paper over the newborn’s face and head and then pressing the caul tissues onto the paper. She would then present the caul to the mother as a treasured family heirloom.

As the legend developed and probably because of the fluid in the amniotic sac, it was believed that ‘caul babies’ would be protected from death by drowning. Cauls were therefore in great demand by sailors who would pay large sums of money for the chance to get their hands on one!  Other positive interpretations suggested that such children would have heightened psychic awareness; act as talismans of fertility for a strong harvest and would travel far and wide. The one negative theory – that such children may become vampires, was predictably less popular!

At Riverside House in the Borrowash of 1918, Frank’s caul had been carefully preserved since his birth. It was treasured by the worried mother as a link between herself and a son facing unknown dangers on the battle fields of France. Its other-worldly qualities are enshrined in Slater family history and recounted by Mary today:

During the war, Grandma used to go  upstairs every day to feel it when Frank had gone to war and she came down one day crying ‘Frank’s been wounded – the caul is wet!’

They got the telegram the next day to say he had been severely wounded at Saint-Quentin.

When Dad died, I looked after it.

Mary intends to hand the caul down to her children and grandchildren who will perhaps, always have a sneaking suspicion that their ancestor was somehow safeguarded and protected by a fortuitous accident of birth.

Frank had survived to tell the tale, but a land fit for heroes was distinctly unwelcoming for men who returned to take up the threads of work and family.

Jack Slater prospered in the aftermath of war:

He left home, went to college in London, went to be an engineer and the engineering lasted him until he was a good age.

For Frank, the future was less certain.

Home again after a year. What was he going to do? Nobody wanted him with one arm you see. It was his right hand.

So he started life again and bought seven pullets for seven pounds and he produced eggs. He bought a horse named Dick as a dray and he got a dog named Rover and they set off doing things around the village; moving furniture for people, taking thing to Derby market and things like that.

It was initially a shifting, precarious way of making a living, and the use of only one arm made ordinary tasks unduly difficult:

Then the horse wouldn’t be caught, so he threw a rope round its neck and said to Rover every morning, ‘fetch Dick up,’ and Rover used to fetch Dick up and brought the horse into the yard. All over the countryside he went with his horse, Dick away all day.

Peace time in any case, brought its own perils, but the Slaters again could thank their good fortune – and the skill of the local doctor. Mary remains grateful for the medical diligence  of the time – and the fact that the Slater family, having survived the FirstWorld War were not prey to  the devastating ‘flu epidemic that laid immediate post warEurope to waste.

They survived the ‘flu epidemic in Borrowash. It came in 1919. They all escaped the ‘flu – not one of them got the ‘flu. That was an escape, wasn’t it? Quite a lot of people in Borrowash got the ‘flu but my family didn’t! How they managed to escape it I don’t know.

My father, Frank – he had a terrible pain in his arm. Dr Donald gave him this stuff and said ‘You’ll never have it again,’ and he didn’t.  He was a wonderful doctor.’

Meanwhile, picking up the pieces in the aftermath of war was difficult and every day life was stressful – even for a resolute descendant of the Argyle family.

Mary’s grandmother was a wonderful hard-working lady and she had a horse and float, a pony named Jack and she used to go every month to her brother’s shop in Somercotes and fetch flour. She used to do all the cooking herself and all the cleaning.

There were no ‘mod cons’ – and even maintaining a regular water supply was a wearying daily ritual:

The water to Riverside House was pumped up from a machine and they had to pump all the water into the house from a big machine at the back.  They had to do all the garden and it was very, very, hard.

All the cooking was done on the fire. When my Grandma died, they said her heart had moved right over through hard work.

Despite Riverside House being a terrific great house it was not in good condition.

Robin King, a later occupant, says with feeling:

It must have been quite an experience for the Slater family, living in that ruin, until, I believe, the end of the 1914–18 war at least.

In fact, the Slater tenure of Riverside House was of considerably longer duration than the four years of wartime and problems of maintenance could only increase.

The house was without electricity until the late 1920s and the poor state of repair that greeted Robertson King’s stewardship was of many years’ standing:

The house had a very leaky roof at the East End (which was finally repaired by the current owners in around 2001!) and was close to dereliction. The floors upstairs were all made of wattle and daub (lime, straw, manure and clay) which was like cement as long as it was kept dry. The leaky roof meant that the first job that had to be done when Dad moved in, in September 1932, was to replace all the upstairs floors, with the exception of the attic rooms, which were not used.

The physical condition of Riverside made it an obvious fire risk and pre 1914, an unwitting Frank had returned home from school in Long Eaton to find that his home was on fire and Lord Harrington had stepped in to help:

He sent horses and some engines at the back and they got water from the river. Lord Harrington was a good man.

In 1919 with Mont Saint-Quentin behind him, Frank’s urgent priority was to establish a regular income and in 1927, he married the woman who would help him to re-build his life.

His future wife, Hilda, was one of the five daughters of Jim Loftus, an Irishman and a builder from Ockbrook.

Two weeks after Hilda’s birth, Jim’s wife died and the thought of bringing up five small daughters was too much for the young widower so he gave them all away in the village.

Re-marrying at haste was not the answer to the problem either.

Hilda bore the brunt of her stepmother’s resentment towards the children of the first marriage and her daughter Mary tells of perilous times:

The marriage wasn’t very good and they found my mother wandering about in the streets; she’d got nowhere to go and her stepmother was cruel to her.

If Hilda had been cast out of doors to roam the streets in a vast and impersonal city, she would have doubtless been sent to an orphanage, but in a small village, people pulled together to find  better and more humane solutions:

A Christian family on Kimberley Road took her in. They were called Wallry and my mother was never called Hilda Loftus – always Wallry after them. They’d got two children of their own, May and Jack and they took her in for nothing. They kept her until she got married.

Understandably, Hilda chose not to visit her original home when her stepmother was there, but maintained lifetime contact with her father.

Mary remembers Jim Loftus (who had two children from his second marriage) as a rather awkward figure that would appear at church and acknowledge a relationship with his granddaughter in a convenient and obvious way:

I’d see him in a big hat and a big coat. He used to put his hand in his pocket and give me a bright new penny.

She does not say whether or not Jim assuaged feelings of guilt towards Hilda in the same manner, but fortunately, his discarded daughter had happier times to come:

She married Frank Slater: he’d suffered and so had she, so they were very happy together.

Wedding of Mary Dickin’s parents: Frank Slater and Hilda Loftus (Riverside House, 1927).

A son would have been useful to help with the physical work and Frank, a man of his era, carrying the added burden of a  disability, regretted the lack of a male heir. The daughter, who cared for him devotedly in his later years, readily admits:

He wanted a boy. He wanted a boy to go farming with, you see. I was a girl and he said girls were no good.

But in Hilda, Frank had married a woman who more than compensated for the lack of a son:

My mother used to work very hard for my father; she helped with the poultry and the eggs; she used to wash thousands of eggs a week. She took the placeof a boy. She worked hard on the farm; eggs and all the rest of it – she worked hard on the place and helped him to make a success.

Hilda’s strong and resilient nature must have been put to the test in the early years of her marriage, because Frank had to struggle to make a living. Mary depicts the sheer physical strain:

He worked night and day, going round Borrowash with Dick the dray. He used to take water to his fowls with a  bucket on the shoulders; two hooks and you hang the buckets on them, There was no water available except  from our garden and he used to fill the buckets up and take them to our fowls. He had hundreds of fowls in the end and when we got a water supply, he did it with the hose pipe.

Lucky breaks were in very short supply, but eventually, the County Council stepped in and Frank was allotted a small holding at Risley as part of a scheme to give start-up experience to would-be farmers.

This proved to be the incentive that Frank Slater needed. The first small-holding was succeeded by something bigger and better and egg production increased as a consequence.

Eventually, the hard work paid off:

He made a lot of money, father did, on his own; people begrudged it him yet he worked night and day – about twelve hours a day with only one hand. He learnt to drive; he steered with one arm on the wheel. Very brave man.

Mary, who was born on 1st March, 1928, had a happy childhood and she still thinks about the Borrowash of those days with pleasure:

I’ve always loved Borrowash; trudging up Station Road in my wellingtons in the rain – always loved it.  

Home life was not luxurious:

In those days we’d only got fires; we didn’t have electricity till 1940 – we managed with gas light. We couldn’t have a Hoover because we’d got no electricity.

Electricity had been installed at Riverside House in the late 1920s and to Mary, visiting her grandparents in the 1930s, the first sound of a Hoover was never to be forgotten:

It made a terrible noise! I remember screeching and standing on the table because of the noise.

Outings to Riverside were something of an adventure:

I remember the big kitchen from when I was little. I’ve got some photographs of the inside of the hall and another one of the wedding feast where my parents got married. When the house was sold again, we all had our photographs taken outside it!

The surrounds of the big house were well worth exploring and Mary was intrigued by the grave of an unknown soldier in Elvaston Church graveyard.

In later years, whilst tending the grave of her own husband she was assailed by an echo from the past:

A voice from the gods said. ‘Hello, is it you? I used to have tea at your house!

The stranger was the churchyard caretaker who solved the problem of the mystery grave. Mary considers his story to be a further testament to the benevolence of Earl Harrington:

An army truck was coming round the corner at Shacklecross; one of the soldiers collapsed and died and they took him straight back to Borrowash in the mortuary there till they could get a doctor. Lord Harrington heard about it and he paid for all the woman’s fee to come down to Borrowash for the funeral and he paid for the grave and the service and everything.

Mary commemorated the soldier by placing a poppy on the grave each November:

One day, there was a little note that said ‘thank you’ on it. That was nice, wasn’t it?

In the years after the First World War, representatives of the professions were much closer to the communities they served than today, and the family doctor was a highly respected presence in the local community.

There were no ‘health centres’ and the relationship between doctor and patient was as a consequence, highly personal, benefitting from continuity and family knowledge passed down through  the succeeding  generations.

Mary would later pursue a career in nursing and has vivid memories of health care in Borrowash during her childhood years.

In the early decades of the 20th century, some procedures that would now be carried out in hospital took place at home – and not necessarily in the bedroom.

There was a Dr Smith and a Dr Dow and they lived at the bottom of Station Road in one of the big houses. Dr Dow and Dr Smith were combined with Dr Donald at Draycott Surgery.

Dr Donald took one of my uncle’s tonsils out on the Riverside House kitchen table and the lads all stood outside and watched! It must have been a bit gruesome, but they survived all right!

Medical services were not free and one of Mary’s allotted childhood duties was to collect her family’s regular payment to the doctor: the sick nursing money.

She retains a high opinion of the health care on offer:

They had a little book and I signed it. You paid sixpence a week for a doctor, nurse or midwife and you had to walk to the doctor if you hadn’t got a bike.

Or the doctor came on a pony or a float. He always came. You always got a doctor – you can’t get one today!

I remember once, I was poorly. I was a little girl and they didn’t know what happened to me, but I must have been unconscious for a long time. I was sick at school and they sent me all the way home on my own. It’s a wonder I didn’t collapse then!

The care was personal and reassuring.

I woke up and there were all the doctors round my bed!

‘Hello little girl. Are you waking up?’

They were truly wonderful, the doctors in those days. With the sixpence money, you had the doctor and the district nurse and the midwife.

The midwife used to come every day after a baby was born and she’d bath it for you.

Medicine continued to fascinate the young Mary; maybe she drew inspiration from by her father’s sister, Aunty Edna who had trained as a nurse in Manchester during the First World War.

After completing her studies at Risley Lower Grammar School, Mary began helping out as a Red Cross nurse at weekends, performing simple tasks such making sandwiches at the infirmary.

Aged 16, she underwent training at the fever hospital in Breadsall and describes the beginnings of a career that lasted for the rest of her working life:

I took my training at the isolation hospital and we even had soldiers coming in with chicken pox and things like that! When I finished there, I did my training at the infirmary for four years because you had to work an extra year before you could be a staff nurse and get your badge.

Nursing during the years of the Second World War was a baptism of fire:

I was in the Red Cross at sixteen. I didn’t like the fever work very much; it was horrible seeing children with diphtheria.

One had to have his throat opened and Matron came into theatre that day and held the child’s hand.

He had to have a tracheotomy to get him to breathe you see. With diphtheria, you just can’t breathe. It’s terrible – you had to open the throat and put a trachea in and you then have to pull the middle of the trachea out, clean it and put it back in quickly because that all gets full of phlegm.

Another disease that was rampant at the end of World War Two was tuberculosis and before the use of penicillin, this most relentless of diseases ravaged many of the men who had returned unscathed from battle:

We had no end of men with TB; they had the first bed, the second bed and the third bed. In the first bed, they weren’t allowed to touch the floor; the second bed men did a little bit more and the third bed ones were allowed to go out onto the balcony.

I didn’t like nursing TB at all. We’d got no injections for TB in 1944/45 and one of my Irish friends who came over here to work, died because we’d got no injections. It was a bit later that we got injections to give to the children who had TB.

Mary’s own mother, Hilda was sent to the isolation hospital at Draycott, suffering with the scarlet fever that would leave her with a weakened heart.

In 1952, Mary met her future husband, Tony Dickin at a dance in Derby’s Assembly Rooms.

They had three children and Mary continued working part time at the infirmary as a staff nurse.

I worked on G Ward; half of it was private patients and half of it not. I was a staff nurse on there for many years and I loved it. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it!

Possibly deriving inspiration from her father’s post-war livelihood, Mary and Tony embraced a farming career and started to raise a family:

We had Hollies Farm at Dale Abbey for a long time, at the back of the pub called ‘The Flourish’. My son was born there.

These were enjoyable and satisfying times, but economic circumstances in later years forced a change:

They wanted to double the rent – plus you had to do your own thing; mending the buildings and the rest of it and a lot of the land was clay and it went back to nature. There were only one or two good fields for potatoes and crops like that.

We gave it up because now you have to milk a hundred cows to make a living, so we thought we’d get out while we could. It was heart-breaking to sell all our cows but we had to do it.

At the beginning of the 1980s, Mary and Tony moved to a house in Breaston. It was a house with a long history and was calculated to endear itself to a child of Riverside House

I love old places and it was a wonderful old place. The smell when you went in was wonderful; part of the brick work in the hall was the original 16 hundreds. Originally, it was thatched. The name of the man who built it is carved into the wall.

But unlike Riverside, left to crumble in the First World War era, part of the charm of the Breaston house was a chance to return a property to its former glory.

Mary talks of the restoration work with affectionate pride:

When we moved in, we just had a brick floor – we ate fish and chips on a brick floor!

There was no proper kitchen and we made a kitchen out of the cellar. We filled it all up with concrete, levelled it off, and restored the fireplaces and everything.

We made it absolutely beautiful

The staircase was all worn, but we made a beautiful open staircase and people from abroad; visitors, came to see it. As you went up the stairs, we had wonderful paintings on the wall – everywhere was just fabulous.

Mary and Tony had made a good life, but Frank Slater, born with a caul, who had survived near death in the First World War, lived for the rest of his days in the shadow of Saint Quentin.

Mary’s memories of her father will strike a sad but familiar chord with many people who grew up with a World War One survivor at the heart of their family.

To a young person like Mary, that war, fast retreating into history, was both troubling and perplexing.

The devastation that it wreaked in France was still very much a part of the landscape in Derbyshire:

When I was first nursing, I looked after quite a few of the old First World War soldiers.

They had limbs missing; like the trouser leg up – arms and legs missing. You used to see no end of it after the war and when I was a very young girl you used to see them hopping around.

Tragic wasn’t it?

They’d got no help, not like today when they’d fit them with a new limb.

Mary’s questions to her father were evaded – or simply left unanswered and the passage of the years made no difference:

My father in law, he won a medal. He was in the First World War. My father won a medal too, but he would never talk about it to my husband – or me. It was just too horrible.

Certain words kept recurring and the inquisitive child badgered her reluctant parent for information.

Their conversation, re –enacted by Mary, now aged 83, shows the unbridgeable chasm between those who experienced the First World War and their children who never knew it.

‘Dad, what does gassing mean?’

‘Oh – you’ll know one day…’

‘Why does Uncle so and so breathe funny like that?

What does he make that noise for?’

‘He was gassed.’

‘When he lost his eye?’

‘Yes, he lost his eye as well when he was gassed.’

‘Where’s No man’s land, Dad?

Does nobody live there anymore?’

In adulthood, Mary learned for herself that No man’s land; the area between trench lines in France,  was a terrifying expanse, filled by barbed wire, improvised landmines and the bodies of soldiers caught in the frenetic cross fire of battle.

When I went to France for the first time, there was No man’s land, and you could just imagine all the army walking over it then. Nobody there knew those poor soldiers.

The truth behind the word ‘gassing’ was equally grisly:

They went down with these heavy packs on their backs, down, down, down, they fell down. Not so long ago, all this stuff came up from the fields in France and they opened it up and found all these bodies where they’d gone down. The Germans had gassed them, you know. The Germans said they weren’t gassing them, but they were.

As the years went by, World War One survivors viewed themselves not as noble warriors – still less ‘heroes’ but rather as sources of lingering embarrassment to themselves and others.

Frank’s attitude toward his injury was typical. Mary describes a fairly routine visit to the doctor in 1982:

One day, it was about 1982, Dad had to go to hospital with his hand and the doctor looked at him and said ‘Oh my dear fellow! How long have you had this terrible arthritis in your hand?’

He said ‘I caught it’.

The doctor said ‘You can’t catch arthritis!’

He said, ‘I did. On the edge of a German bullet.’

Then they all came flocking round. They’d never seen a First World War injury so terrible.

The annual Remembrance commemorations in November were traumatic occasions for Frank Slater.

Every November, we had a lot of trouble with him at Armistice; he used to cry, thinking about his friends who were killed.

Understandably, in his daily life, Frank gravitated to those who understood the horrors of war from personal experience.

One such friend was Henry Boothway who had made a post war career from gardening:

He went into the army with my father. He was Head Gardener of Barron’s roses until he retired. He did all the roses and looked after the gardens and I think that Barron’s were the first people to introduce land raised pigs toDenmark. He’s buried in the churchyard in Borrowash.

Maybe, after the carnage of warfare, Henry, like Frank, wanted to work with living things.

Mary’s father looked to The British Legion for the recognition and understanding that he could only obtain from fellow survivors, despite the best efforts and love of his immediate family. The organisation was a comfort to him and First and Second World War veterans met on an equal footing.

They used to come and see him a lot. With his bungalow, he had a caravan site you see and there was one bloke – he was fifty per cent disabled after the (Second) war.

He used to come and see my father in a wheel chair; two old soldiers talking together.

You couldn’t believe it – the wife rang up one day and she said he’d died and he was down at Long Eaton – and bless my soul, my father had just died as well, and he was next door to him in the House of Rest in Long Eaton.

They took the flag from that boy’s body and put it on my father, the British flag.

When we went to Bramcote for the funeral, this elderly man saw the coffin going past with the Union Jack on it and he saluted. Wasn’t that nice?

But to think that those two, one in the First World War and one in the  Second World War should sit side by side in the House of Rest!

You wouldn’t believe it, would you?

Of course Frank had made a good life for himself after 1919; with a strong marriage and colourful local friends, like the financier and fraudster, Terah Hooley of Risley Hall.

Mary remembers her father’s banter with Hooley (1859 – 1947) once one of the richest men in Europe, who was to die a penniless bankrupt at his Long Eaton home:

I knew Terah very well – he used to come to our house a lot. He wanted to sell my Dad some land and he said ‘Frank – have you got any money?’

My Dad said to him, ‘I’ve got more than you! You’re nearly bankrupt!’

Another person he renewed a childhood acquaintance with in later life was Dorothy Latimore, latterly, Lady Dorothy King of Riverside House.

When Robertson King died, my father said to me, ‘Mary, would you escort me please, down to see Lady King? A gentleman doesn’t go to see a widow on his own.’

Lady King used to keep wonderful dogs, blind people’s dogs, retrievers.’

Robin King, Dorothy’s son, who knew Riverside House as his cherished childhood home, also speaks of the meeting:

The Slaters were the last occupants of Riverside before we lived there. In the late 1970s, after my father had died, my mother lived alone at Riverside with her three dogs and two cats and any stray or injured animals that she managed to rescue.

She told me one day that she had been visited by ‘two old men. They were absolutely charming.’

‘Who were they?’ I asked.

‘The Slater brothers’, she replied. ‘They used to live here once. So I showed them round and gave them tea, and introduced them to all the animals. They were quite wonderful.’

Yet the final years of Frank Slater’s life were sad; blighted by Hilda’s descent into dementia and his own desperate attempts to keep her at home with him. Mary’s account is harrowing:

He had to try and do the cooking and everything for her – she just couldn’t do anything. She didn’t know where the toilet was and couldn’t even have a bath. She didn’t know me and she used to scream for Frank.

I had to ring the doctor up and we had to get her into Kingsway and they said

‘Good God – how on earth has your father managed her all this time?’

Hilda’s death when it came was sudden:

The phone rang and I had to go up and tell my father that my mother had died you see, and he cried and cried and cried. They got her ready for viewing and he couldn’t believe it was her, after all those happy married years.’

On his own, and now blind, Frank’s destination might have been a residential care home, but instead, he accepted Mary’s offer and spent the last two years of his life in the  home of his daughter and her family.

He had wanted a son to help with his business, but in the end, his daughter was his greatest helpmeet – as her mother had been beforehand.

He said to my friend, I wonder what we’d have done without her?’

Then I went to the phone; I heard a crash, yelled for my husband to come across the garden and he just died in my husband’s arms.

He always said that my husband was like a son to him – then son he’d never had…

Looking back upon her father’s life, Mary acknowledges that:

He had a good life didn’t he, in spite of the war?

Some of them didn’t survive; many of his friends didn’t survive. He lost them in the trenches.

Yet despite cheating death, making a devoted marriage and establishing, in the teeth of tremendous adversity, a thriving and fulfilling career, Frank Slater, born with a caul, who fought for his country in the Great War, lived in the shadow of Saint Quentin until the day he died.

Mary’s words on her father’s death speak to the living about what that meant;

At my father’s funeral, a lot of people said they didn’t realise that he’d been in the war. They didn’t realise he was wounded in the war. The just didn’t know.

He managed to hide it all the time.

Frank Slater survived the war.

During the course of a long life, he must often have thought of those whose fate was not to end their days surrounded by loving families – and wondered, in the words of the poet Wilfred Owen:

What passing bells for these who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Twentieth century society did not really know how to cope with those who returned scarred, but alive from World War One.

Sympathy too often mingled with embarrassment; there was no such thing as ‘rehabilitation’ and old soldiers like Frank could not and would not share their experiences, because they wanted acceptance – not pity.

In 2014, distance and the experience of other wars have brought the understanding, respect and gratitude from society that eluded Frank Slater and his comrades.

His daughter Mary describes how her father felt about his injured hand:

If anyone wanted to shake his hand, he’d got his hand in his pocket. He was so ashamed of it.

But she speaks for us all today, when she continues:

And he shouldn’t have been, should he?

Not really.

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