David Gordon has kindly shared the fascinating story of how his father, Huntly Gordon, injured by shrapnel during the First World War, was helped back to recovery, and had his faith in humankind restored thanks to the kindness of a young girl from Tavistock:
David Gordon has recently published a new edition of his father’s delightful and moving WW1 memoir, ‘The Unreturning Army’. In the course of researching his archive he came across a letter in childish copperplate writing, which initially made no sense – until he discovered the background story, as follows:
“In summer 1918 he was in hospital in Boulogne, only slowly recovering from near-fatal shrapnel injuries and septicaemia. After one of several harrowing operations to try and find the cause of the infection in his chest cavity, he was so sickened by the chloroform anaesthetic that he couldn’t keep any food down. Eventually (after two days) he tried a boiled egg, and his appetite began to return. The egg had the address of a schoolgirl on it, and he wrote to thank her. She wrote back, and he noted that this simple act of kindness had restored his faith in human nature; it seems to have been a significant moment in his recovery.
Dorothy Bailey of Tavistock cannot still be alive, (she would be 104); but we have her address from the letter, and I’d be interested to see if any of her relatives are still alive. It isn’t mentioned in the book, but if you’re looking for a really good, personal account of ‘what it was like’ to be there, I do recommend a read!
My father was a Scot, whose connection with Devon is that he spent the last five years of his life at Hawkchurch, near Axminster. In a way that is what makes the story extra poignant: the ‘kindness of strangers’ not even someone with whom he might feel some geographical tie, made Dorothy’s gesture even more powerful.
He came within an ace of dying in April 1918 – his mother was summoned from Edinburgh to Boulogne Hospital, and arrived just in time: “they had struggled to keep him going through the night”; and there can be no doubt that her iron will and
strong maternal presence gave him the support that he needed to battle on. Apart from two smashed ribs he was ‘structurally’ intact: but the septicaemia so nearly killed him that it was over two months before he could stand up for the first time. That egg seems to have been one of the significant turning points in his recovery.
My father’s memoir, which I spent much of last year editing, now includes a ‘Postscript’ chapter describing this recovery from his injuries – mental and physical.”
‘The Unreturning Army’ by Huntly Gordon is published by Doubleday (part of Random House) and coming out in paperback in November. Reviewing it in The Times, Alan Mallinson said “one of the best… Honest, intelligent and vivid, as fresh as if written yesterday”. The book doesn’t seem to have had the same coverage as the blockbusters by other authors such as Max Hastings, Jeremy Paxman and Co. But none of them were written by someone who was actually there!
David Gordon, email@example.com
Click here to see a related article on the BBC World War One website.