From Devon to Bombay: F.A.E. Crew’s war

F.A.E. Crew, 1918

F.A.E. Crew, 1918

Francis Albert Eley Crew (1886-1973) had a distinguished career at the University of Edinburgh as director of the Institute of Animal Genetics and Buchanan Professor of Animal Genetics, and later as Professor of Public Health and Social Medicine. But at the time of the First World War he was a newly qualified medic with a small rural practice in Devon and a young family. His war experience profoundly affected his future career, spurring him to leave medicine behind to follow his real passion: genetics. Crew provided a vivid account of his war years both in oral history form and in a written memoir, both of which are held here in EUL Special Collections.

When war broke out in August 1914, Crew was at summer camp in East Devon with the Devonshire Regiment 6th Battalion of the Territorial Army, with whom he had been enthusiastically involved in his local village. What began as a summer holiday ended in a flurry of intense activity as men rushed forward to be recruited into the army. Crew and thirteen of his fellow men from his village, became the 2nd 6th Devons, bound for India. Although Crew was medically qualified, and therefore eligible to join the Royal Army Medical Corps, he wanted to see ‘active service’ and so kept his qualifications a secret.

Crew quickly formed the opinion that the organisation and training were a ‘ragbag of inefficiency’ and ‘complete chaos’. Many of his senior officers were ‘of the Boer War vintage’ with outmoded ideas; at the age of 28, Crew found himself rapidly promoted to the rank of Major and in command of a company. His battalion sailed for Bombay on 12 December 1914, leaving his wife Helen heavily pregnant with their second child. Conditions on board were somewhat chaotic: ‘The overcrowding was such that no kind of training could be undertaken and the voyage was so long that by the time we reached the Ballard Pier, Bombay, the troops were in a sorry state and found the march to the barracks at Colaba far beyond their powers.’

Once in India, the batallion came under the orders of the 6th (Poona) Divisional Area at Bombay, and Crew was sent to Deolali, where he was made responsible for field training and for the maintenance of law and order in the area. After the elderly Commanding Officer was sent home on medical grounds, Crew duly became second-in-command of a wing of the battalion, ‘with somewhat vague duties.’ Crew had enough on his hands playing ‘mother’ and ‘father’ to the young men who had come along with him, and all of whom (except one ) had never left Devon before and were totally lost in this foreign land. He spoke of his feelings of loneliness and isolation which came with promotion: ‘if you’re in command of a couple of companies of troops or a battalion or of a field ambulance, then you are isolated from all your colleagues, I mean you’re responsible for them and they can share very little with you.’

Crew in India, 1915

Crew in India, 1915

Crew was then sent to Muttra, south of Delhi, with two companies, and then up the Khyber Pass, where they commanded a fort. By this time, Crew was growing frustrated that his duties were confined to training men to fight while not seeing active service himself. But change was on the horizon. Crew developed amoebic dystentry – ‘quite deliberately’ he later wryly remarked – and became seriously ill. He was sent to Bombay to the embarkation authorities, for return to the UK. At this point, his medically qualified status was discovered, and, after a short period of rest and recuperation, Crew was posted to France, where he took over control of the stretcher-bearers in the No. 3 Field Ambulance at Arras. It was intensely dangerous work, Crew received his first wound on his second day, at Bern-Villiers, south-east of Arras:

I was sent up into the line to take over from a Major Anderson, who was running the forward work of the ambulance doing all the clearing, and he took me round all the eight-posts in front and we came back and I was marking them on my map in a small Armstrong hut, I think they called them – little cardboard thing, struck up against the face of a hill. And he was sitting down on a table and I was bending toward him as we made the marks on the map, and all of a sudden there was a terrific flare, glare, crash, noise and everything disappeared in smoke and fume and I found myself – when I came to – jammed under the seat. I’d been blown under the seat for some reason or another. I got out with great difficulty – I was wounded rather badly – and there was poor Anderson sitting on the seat…and he’d got a sliver of shell casing that long and that wide sticking out of his chest. I got that out and tried to do something for him but it was hopeless, hopeless, hopeless. So he died there promptly in my arms, and that’s not a good introduction to a war by any means.

Crew was to receive two more wounds during his time in France. These harrowing experiences naturally affected him profoundly, and he became convinced that he would not survive: ‘I didn’t bother about tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, I didn’t think there was going to be one.’ It was not until the war was reaching its end and victory seemed likely that Crew was suddenly assailed by the realisation that he might indeed have a life to return to – what was he going to do when he returned to normality?

There was no doubt at all that we were winning, and winning fast, and consequently I began to think that possibly there was a future. And so, when once that question asked itself, the second question followed: what do I do? You see, I’d been five years away from anything. Complete waste, complete waste – from my point of view. There was hardly a book, there was hardly a thing you could get hold of. And I was sitting, I was living in a hole in the ground, hanging my accoutrements upon the skeleton hand of somebody who’d been buried there years before, and under those completely gruesome conditions, one began to wonder what one was, what one wanted, what one wanted to be and so on and so forth. And it was very interesting, the speed and the clarity with which I reached my decision. I was going to be a geneticist.

Crew, Frank (1919(B)
Crew received his demobilisation in early 1919, after a demoralising experience overseeing anti-venereal work in Cologne. The war had filled him with a sense of urgency: an awareness of wasted years, a lack of intellectual stimulation and the constant threat of annihilation. Now it was all over, he was filled with a new sense of purpose:

I had discovered much about myself under the stresses of great fear, of intense boredom, of much disillusionment. I came to know that I could find satisfaction only in the academic world and in activities connected with the genetics and reproductive physiology of animals.

Crew returned eagerly to Edinburgh with the intention of studying genetics at the University under Arthur Darbishire. Unexpectedly however, Crew discovered that Darbishire had died during the war. Even more unexpectedly, Crew was suddenly offered the post intended for Darbishire: that of director of a new Animal Breeding Research Station in Edinburgh. Despite his own concerns that he was scarcely qualified in genetics, Crew went on to develop the Station into the internationally renowned Institute of Animal Genetics.

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Second General Military Hospital, Craigleith

In this edition of Untold Stories, Louise (Archivist at Lothian Health Services Archive) looks at the history of one of the many military hospitals in our region:

During the current centenary of the First World War, LHSA has received a number of requests for records of patients in the many military hospitals in and around Edinburgh: from Red Cross auxiliary hospitals to specialist units and existing medical facilities that were requisitioned by the authorities. Due to the fact that medical records of service patients were returned to the custody of the Public Record Office in London (many of which were subsequently destroyed in a Second World War bombing raid), we are unable to help with these enquiries, even if we have custody of patient records generated by requisitioned local hospitals in peacetime. If you are researching the individual records of a forces’ patient or member of military medical staff, there are some resources that may help you at the end of the blog. However, LHSA holds a number of privately donated resources that uncover the realities of hospital life for First World War patients and medical staff alike, supplementing the ‘official’ military record.

One of Edinburgh’s military hospitals was the Second General Military Hospital, Craigleith. The hospital was run by a Territorial Unit, who requisitioned the hospital wing of the Craigleith Hospital and Poorhouse. The first patient was received as early as August 1914, and the hospital was handed back to Edinburgh Town Council in Spring 1919. When the Local Government (Scotland) Act (1929) came into force, control of poorhouses and poorlaw hospitals transferred to the municipal authorities. The poorhouse at Craigleith became an institution that is still very much alive today – the Western General Hospital (WGH).

Craigleith c1914

Exterior of the Second General Military Hospital, Craigleith (GD28)

LHSA is lucky enough to hold a number of items that bring the days of the Second General Military Hospital more sharply into focus for researchers. In addition to his specialism of gastroenterology, WGH Consultant Dr Martin Eastwood was also a hospital historian – in 1995, a book on the development of the WGH was published, written by Eastwood and his secretary, Anne Jenkinson. The sources used by Dr Eastwood were donated to us in 2009, and form a largely visual collection on the history of the hospital, starting from its opening as a poorhouse in 1867.

Among Dr Eastwood’s donation was a photograph album from the Second General Military Hospital. We do not know who gave the album to Dr Eastwood, but its images give a unique insight into hospital life.

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The Craigleith photograph album (GD28/8/1)

For example, we can see the operating theatre that was built for the new military patients, and used by the WGH up to 1950 (though hopefully conditions had moved on a bit by then!):

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New operating theatre in action, c. 1914 (GD28/8/1)

The hospital was headed by Colonel Sir Joseph Fayrer and its clinical staff made up of Edinburgh doctors, many of whom had (or were to have) distinguished medical careers (such as neurologist Edwin Bramwell and pioneer of modern dentistry William Guy). Nurses were for the most part untrained – local women who were members of Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs):

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Nurses and male medical staff at Craigleith in the Eastwood album (GD28/8/1)

Recuperation was not always solely medical – the hospital laid on various activities in order to make the soldier patients’ time more pleasurable. We have evidence of this in surviving copies of the hospital magazine, the Craigleith Hospital Chronicle. You can see a complete edition on the LHSA website, here. The Chronicle was a monthly publication started in 1914 by Craigleith nurse Annie Paulin. The copies that LHSA hold show images of hospital life, patients and staff, publish informational pieces on Scottish regiments, tell of social occasions at the hospital, showcase story serials and commemorate major events in the war, such as the rail disaster at Quintinshill (Gretna), which claimed the lives of 216 Royal Scots soldiers and 12 civilians:

GD28_6_5_gretnaPoem to the victims at Gretna, June 1915 edition (GD28/6/1)

The Chronicle also had a regular feature (cue plug for my last blog!) titled A Nurse’s Notes from Serbia written by ‘M.T.F’ (one of the infuriating things about trying to trace authors in this magazine is that many contributions were only signed by initials!). M.T.F wrote about life at the front as a Scottish Women’s Hospital nurse:

Page 46Craigleith Hospital Chronicle, December 1915 (GD1/82/11)

If you’d like to guess the identity of M.T.F, the excellent nursing history website Scarlet Finders lists all Scottish Women’s Hospital nurses.

However, not all Chronicle articles took such a serious note. For example, comic poems and occasionally cartoons took a turn to supplement more ‘educative’ material:

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Lighter material from the same December 1915 edition (GD1/82/11)




Unless patients signed articles or poems in the Chronicle, we have little idea of who they actually were from the material that we hold at LHSA. Fortunately, we do hold another piece of evidence in an autograph book created by Craigleith nurse Sister Ethel Miller from 1916 to 1919.

Rather than the celebrity signatures that fill autograph books of the modern day, these small volumes were passed from nurses to soldier patients on the wards, who contributed sketches, cartoons, anecdotes and poetry. Keeping these books appears to have been common practice for nurses, and many survive in archive collections across the United Kingdom (including this one in the National Museum of Scotland).

Born in 1888 in Edinburgh, Ethel was a professional nurse before the war, qualifying from the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh School of Nursing and from the wartime Territorial Nursing Service in 1916. Along with photographs, printed material and nursing certificates, Ethel’s scrapbook was generously bequeathed to LHSA in 2012 by her son.

Ethel Sister Ethel Miller (Acc12/025)

Sister Miller issued instructions to her potential contributors: according to a poem in the volume, she wanted ‘not just a name’, but ‘something else besides’, a more personal contribution from her charges in the form of a verse, a joke or a drawing. The result of her instructions is a fascinating insight into the often battle-scarred and weary ordinary ‘Tommy’ – we know that most contributors in the book were from the rank of private by the signatures after each drawing, poem or anecdote

Although not all of the completed pages are signed, there were at least 43 different contributors. The soldiers (for the contributors were largely from the army) wrote poems, limericks, drew original cartoons, traced published images with blotting papers and sketched regimental badges and front-line experience. Some praised the bravery of their regiment, as did Private A. Lane of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers in October 1916, which was ‘a credit to his friends and a terror to his foes’. However, the main themes of the book do not concentrate on heroism on the field of battle, but on war’s drudgery and the after effects of conflict, whether that was the domestic regimes of hospital life, reaction from civilians at home to returning war wounded (as new technologies of battle left maimed soldiers as physical reminders of the effects of war) and the misery of life in the trenches.


Cartoons from Ethel’s autograph book (Acc12/025)

In 2013, LHSA Research Intern Kirstin Cunningham saw the potential of Ethel Miller’s book for use in education, as an object that could bring the war directly to students through ordinary soldiers’ experiences. As a photography and film graduate, Kirstin painstakingly re-created the scrapbook page by page through digital imaging, fixing each image into a modern, similar sized book that she distressed to resemble its original. Soldiers’ stories can now be literally taken out of the archive, even if we will never know all of their names.

GD28_8_1 006Craigleith soldier patients at a concert in the recreation room (GD28/8/1)




Further resources on tracing military records from the First World War: