NOSTALGIA: The Army sergeant who greeted the wounded at Eastbourne station in First World War
Our recent coverage in Looking Back of Summerdown Camp prompted a letter from George Millan about his grandfather Michael, a sergeant who met the thousands of wounded soldiers who arrived at Eastbourne Railway Station during First World War.
George writes, “In 1914 on the day war was declared my grandfather Michael Millan was living with his wife and seven children in Love Lane cottages opposite Tottenham Hotspur football ground in London. On his return from work he announced, much to my grandmother’s dismay, that he had rejoined the Army.
“Much to his wife’s relief however, he was considered too old for active service and would not be able to go and fight with his old regiment as he wanted. He had already served his country in South Africa in the Boer Wars, winning the Queen and the King’s Medals and so – because he was a trained and experienced soldier – he was promoted immediately to sergeant and posted to Eastbourne.
Summerdown Camp was being established near the South Downs to care for the thousands of wounded soldiers returning from the trenches in France. In all more than 150,000 solders were cared for and nursed back to health during the five years the camp was established.
“My grandfather was posted to Eastbourne Station to be in charge of the hundreds of wounded men who arrived daily at the station. Prior to his posting there, the reception of the trains and wounded was in the hands of the station master – in those days he was a formidable figure. He wore a black silk top hat, a waistcoat with a gold railway watch and chain frock coat and tails and sported a white carnation in his button hole. His commanding figure ensured instance obedience from his Station staff
“However, there had been concern and complaints from some gentry and their ladies that many soldiers completely ignored the station master in his attempt to organise their arrival. They had been too long in the trenches facing death every day to take notice of a man in a top hat and tails. Many pushed past the railway staff and local war time Special Constabulary, and made their way to the nearest pub for a longed for glass of British beer. Some publicans were not happy with the filthy muddy ragged uniformed men with the bloody bandages filling their premises.
“Hence the installation of a time served Army sergeant with three white chevrons on his arms and and medals on his chest. Much to the dismay of the station master the emergency war ruling made the sergeant superior in rank and he was forced to give up his office to my grandfather. That office is still there adjacent to platform 1 ,
“With the assistance of three Army corporals my grandad quickly ensured a safe and orderly arrival of the men who took notice of a regular sergeant. The returning men had always been given a tot of Navy rum daily to keep up their spirits when in the trenches so grandad quickly organised that the large earthenware jars of rum were sent down from the camp. They were stored in his office and on the arrival of the hospital trains each man was who wished it were given their tot of rum on the platform. In addition grandad also arranged for a barrel of beer in Army tin mugs to be there for the men to drink.
“From the onset of the new arrangements the men paraded and made their way in an orderly manner to the lines of army lorries and sometimes buses to take them to Summerdown Camp. The town soon got used to seeing the many ‘Blue Boys’ as they were called as they wore their light blue uniforms when able to visit the town. At that time any man not in uniform would be liable to be accosted by ladies who would stick a white feather in their lapel denoting that they were a coward for not joining up to fight for ‘King and country’.
“The ‘Blue Boys’ were greeted with smiles and pats on the back from the townsfolk and many a solder was invited into peoples’ homes for teas or dinners as thanks for their service My grandfather, in between station duties, spent time at the camp helping the boys who were far from their own home. It was said that Sergeant Michael Millan always addressed the men as ‘son’ and this I know he would have truly meant.
“For nearly five years my grandfather worked at the station and the camp. As a boy I remember him as a kindly and gentle old man who would always give me a silver sixpence before going off on Sunday morning to ‘The Archery‘. I would tell my school friends that my grandad fires a bow and arrow at targets every Sunday. Years later my grandma told me that the The Archery he went to was the name of the pub on the corner of Churchdale Road where the Co-op store now stands. My grandfather rented a house at 12 Woodgate Road for the rest of his life and it became the family home for many years.
“Now seemingly lost was a photograph of Michael Millan, my grandmother and their children standing outside Eastbourne station on the day of their arrival from London. Apparently, on the wall behind was a poster saying London 60 minutes. Some things don’t improve with age.
“God bless and thank you to all those boys of long ago.”