Scars of War reading 7

As promised here as some of the readings/research made in West Norfolk for the Scars of War project in the autumn of 2018: The research for this piece was undertaken by Lindsey Bavin, manager at the True’s Yard Fisherfolk Museum

The Wounded Soldier

In World War One it is estimated that 2,272,998 British soldiers were wounded. Not including the 16,682 Navy and RFC/RAF. Of that number 64% returned to duty to fight on the front lines.

In King’s Lynn places like the Hanse House were converted into hospitals to cope with the sheer amount of walking wounded returning from the Front.

A group of recovering soldiers at Thorpe St Andrew, Norfolk War Hospital.

One of that vast number of wounded was John Smith Sampher – Private 2nd Battalion Middlesex Regiment – 203325.

John Smith Sampher was the son of the late Mr Thomas Taylor Sampher and Angelina Sampher (nee Smith), who were fishing smack owners, fish merchants and farmers. Like so many others from the North End at this time, John Smith Sampher was the first man for several generations not to work in the fishing industry.  He had firstly taken a small farm at Middleton and later moved to Ivy House, Rectory Lane, West Winch, where he lived with his wife, Rosa and three children.

He joined the colours in 1917 and had been on the western front only six weeks when he was wounded in the shoulder by shrapnel at Ypres.

He was taken to a hospital at Rouen, where, wrote a sister

“in spite of great suffering, he was on his way to recovery when after two operations, he took a turn for the worse. We are told that doctors and nurses all thought he might have pulled through, for not only had he a strong constitution but he was determined for the sake of his wife and three children to live if at all possible.” 

Sadly, John caught pneumonia and died on 23rd August 1917, a day before his 38th birthday. He was interred in St Severs Cemetery, Rouen.

St. Sever Cemetery extension, Rouen where Pte Sampher is buried

The damage inflicted during the war left psychological as well as physical scars. A condition barely understood in the early days of the war was Shell Shock and yet as early as December 1914 10% of British Officers and 4% enlisted men were believed to be suffering from this condition. Symptoms included tinnitus, headaches, amnesia, tremors, dizziness and a hypersensitivity to noise. Also what was described as a “thousand-yard stare”.

Patients and staff at Hunstanton War Hospital 1917 – image from Picture Norfolk

The term ‘shell shock’ was not actually coined until 1915. The name coming from a theory that shock waves from the artillery shells caused brain damage. Early in the war soldiers suffering from shell shock were evacuated from the front line. Their erratic and often unnerving behaviour was thought to be detrimental to morale.

At the Battle of the Somme 40% of men were reported to be suffering from shell shock. This proved a turning point, as the army needed more soldiers than ever they could ill afford to send men home. A decision had to be made. An order was given to the medical officers- soldiers suffering from the effects of Shell Shock who were found near to where shells had exploded would be given a wound stripe and treated as wounded.

However, those who were not given the W were given a S (for Sickness) and not counted as wounded. They were returned to their positions and could be denied their pension.  Any soldier found deserting their post, even with a medical note, could be shot for cowardice. The best that could be hoped for was a few days of rest at the medical officer’s discretion.

Postcard from the RAMC in WW1

The psychological and physical strain on soldiers in the trenches would have been immense. We have a letter of Private Edward George Earl who described the horror:

“We have just been on the right of Hill 60, It has been a rough time, we are alive at present, but we do not know how long we shall be. We have not been relieved in the trenches for 24 days. Talk about Hell on earth! It was and is the worst battle that has been fought in this war. We lost 2,000 men in 24hrs and a great many more besides since then.”

3rd May 1915 Edward George Earl- Private 8145- 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment

By 1917 shell shock was entirely banned as a diagnosis and medical journals were censored from including it. By World War 2 it had been rebranded as Combat Fatigue.


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