From records held at the Norfolk Record Office.
Fairham Rackham Mann, known as Rack, was a fleet surgeon with the Navy during the First World War. He was the son of Mary Elizabeth Mann whose family records are also held at the Norfolk Record Office. Rack’s frequent letters to his mother reveal a very frank and personal perspective of the war. (NRO, MC 2716 A1/30)
Rack was 44 when war broke out and, with the benefit of hindsight, he confessed that he wished he had retired before war had been declared so that he could have joined the Territorials instead. It is having to be a doctor doing a job I loathe, running all the risks getting none of the glory that sticks in my gizzard.
In 1914 Rack was on HMS Pactolus at the submarine depot in Ardrossan, Scotland. He was not enamoured with his posting. I am fed up with Scotland and long to be away. I think I would rather go to sea than stay on here much longer.
Rack’s first letter was written before war had been declared. He seemed resigned to the inevitable but tried to reassure his mother. It seems absolute madness for us to think of fighting over this Balkan business. . . . I have heard news that I think war is practically certain . . . I want you to realise that while I remain here I am perfectly safe. . . . . You must try not to worry. If the newspapers worry you don’t read them.
HMS Pactolus’ role was to protect the Nobel dynamite works at Ardrossan. Life there seemed to consist of drunken soldiers falling in the Basin and drowning and of the frequent explosions at the very dynamite factory they had been sent to protect.
At first, Rack was quite dismissive of the Zeppelins. I think the Zeppelins won’t do very much. They may drop a bomb or two in London which would be no bad thing in my opinion. It’d certainly buck up recruiting. Doubtless this would not have been a view shared by Londoners!
However his views changed over time. He attempted to explain to his mother why the Navy was not in a position to stop the raids. They do this (Zeppelin raids) for purely political reasons. The Hun has got the idea into his thick head that we are a race of cowards & that a little frightfulness of this sort will help his side; and besides it bucks up the German masses at home who are in a pretty bad way.
He later described the bombardment of Scarborough and how the Navy was thwarted from preventing it due to the fog. The whole navy has been weeping about it ever since . . . I think you and your pals in Ormesby will now modify your views about the navy habitually being too drunk or too taken up with dances to attend to their job.
In the early days, Rack was not keen on the Americans getting involved. Following the sinking of the Lusitania he wrote: Suppose the U.S. will have to stomach it. They can do nothing & we don’t particularly want them in.
However by 1917 he felt that their involvement would shorten the war. Not because the Yanks are in a position to do much fighting – but because they can lend us money, patrol a bit by the sea, & more than anything else, the Huns can now say they can’t fight the whole world.
Rack also wrote of the trials of life both for himself and for his mother. He was not one for officialdom and directed his anger towards the little creatures who live at Tooting in £30 a year houses. They sit in a little office at the Admiralty all day and write insulting letters to the men who are helping to keep them safe.
He was also concerned for his mother’s welfare. The prices of things at home seem to be terrible. I hope you are feeding yourselves properly. Remember I have tons of money which is quite useless to me under present conditions and you can have as much as you like whenever you want it.
In 1916 Rack became the staff surgeon on HMS Agamemnon in the Aegean, based mainly at Mudros and Salonika. He was there for two years.
His frequent letters did not equate to his news. On one occasion he told her I simply have nothing to write to you about. I was ashore about 8 days ago was bored stiff in ten minutes but had to wait 3 hours there for a boat to take me back to the ship.
Various entertainments were provided for the crew. He described a fancy dress ball on the ship. All men of course but many were dressed as females & a few looked quite fetching. . . . . The men take their dancing very seriously & do it very well . . . . They lead a deadly existence & the making of the dresses kept them interested for weeks.
In April 1918 Rack moved to Bedenham Camp at Fareham. This prompted a visit to Brighton to see a similar camp. His comments were unusual in that he had rarely written about his work before. The medical arrangements in utter chaos owing to lack of staff & accommodation – so yesterday I went to London to see the Director General & told him about it – He was very enraged . . .Anyway I think I so shook them up at the admiralty that I think I may get some stores . . . We are to have 2000 men here with another 2000 to follow . . They are under canvas in a rain sodden field – no bottom boards available for tents & no mattresses.
In October 1918 Rack was promoted to Surgeon Commander. Why they made this change nobody knows as very few people wanted it. I suppose I shall have to get a new coat & buy a new hat.
Rack’s final letters commented on the political situation and his prospects of returning home. He was pessimistic about the outcome of a forthcoming election. The ignorant masses have these votes. It will be mob rule. . . . In my opinion Winston Churchill, the most unmitigated scoundrel that this country has ever produced, will be first president of the republic.
Rack finally returned home. For his mother his letters were undoubtedly precious and reassuring. They are also an important record, giving a frank account of daily life during the war years as it affected one particular individual. Fairham Rackham Mann died in 1943.
Daryl Long – NRO Blogger