Turtle Road

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The Alan Bleasdale production of The Monocled Mutineer hit the BBC TV screens in the autumn of 1986 and caused outrage and much furrowing of brows in certain circles. The young Paul McGann was a brilliant Pery Topliss, a loveable rogue cocking a snook at the establishment and showing a healthy unwillingness to toe the line. The real Percy was by all accounts much less of a charmer but it made a big impression on me and ten years later I spent a rainy afternoon in Penrith trying to find his unmarked grave. Whether Percy had much to do with the 1917 mutiny at Etaples is debatable but its clear something went on and it was largely unreported and shrouded in mystery. Working as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse in France, Vera Brittain mentions it in her ‘Testament of Youth’ and whatever the case, it is clear that Etaples was a rough tough place where big men with bushy moustaches and loud voices turned raw recruits into killing machines in the notorious ‘Bull Ring’. It was somewhere that nearly every soldier in the British Amy would have passed through. In 1917, 100,000 troops were camped among the sand dunes and apart from the training, Etaples was home to a plethora of hospitals who could deal with 22,000 wounded or sick. Hence Vera’s presence. One person who may have passed through her hands but never made it any further was George Henry Worth from 6 Turtle Road. He is one of the eleven thousand men buried in the dramatic and very beautiful Etaples Military Cemetery. Just north of the town, set in a bowl amongst a conifer wood it is a huge sweeping amphitheatre of crosses that takes the breath away. It is as if the graves are seats in a theatre awaiting a performance. Unfortunately trying to find George’s grave proved a task too far for me –  maybe I just got a bit confused in the hot sun but a bit like Turtle Road itself, he seemed to have disappeared without trace. He’s in the register book all right so he must be there. Turtle Road is one of the lost roads of Summerstown, submerged by high waters in 1968 and shortly afterwards the Burtop Road Estate. Maskell Road, survives on one side and there are still four original houses on Siward Road on the other. These streets adjoining Garratt Park were home to 26 of the Summerstown182 and possibly three hundred men from them served in the First World War. Fifty years later, the families of some of them were still resident. There are a number of photos at that time of people moving around in rowing boats making the area seem more like Venice than Earlsfield. We are hoping to see cine-film footage of one such vessel floating down Garratt Lane. George Henry Worth was one of these 26 and served in the 19th Battalion of the London Regiment. Born in Battersea, in the 1911 census he was living with his family at Turtle Road. His father worked as a stoker for an infirmary on St John’s Hill and at fourteen, George was already in employment and working as a shop boy in a drug store. The eldest of three sons, his brothers, Arthur and Frederick were probably fortunately just young enough to have avoided service. According to the census, four of George’s other siblings had died. His service record states that George Henry Worth ‘died of wounds (gas)’. Aged 20, the date of his death on 3rd December 1917 suggests that this probably happened in the great attack at Cambrai in November 1917. Famously this action saw the first appearance of the tank on a wide scale and resulted in a ‘victory’ that caused the celebratory ringing of church bells across England for the first time during the war. As so often seemed to happen, the Germans recovered the ground a few weeks later. George Worth died of his injuries most likely on a table or stretcher in one of the hospitals in Etaples. Up to her neck in blood and pus, Vera Brittain was there as the casualties poured in from the battlefields at Cambrai and on 5th December wrote to her mother about the effect – ‘The hospital is very heavy now – as heavy as when I came; the fighting is continuing very long this year and the convoys keep coming down, two or three a night. Sometimes in the middle of the night we have to turn people out of bed and make them sleep on the floor to make room for more seriously ill ones that have come down from the line. We have heaps of gassed cases at present who came in a day or two ago. I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war could see a case of mustard gas in its early stages – could see the poor things  burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-coloured supparating blisters, with blind eyes sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently, all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke. They only thing one can say is that such severe cases don’t last long; either they die soon or else improve, usually the former’. In her book she also recalled from this period  ‘At least a third of the men were dying; their daily dressings were not a mere matter of changing huge wads of stained guaze and wool, but of stopping haemorrhages, replacing intestines and draining and re-inserting innumerable rubber tubes. Nearly all the prisoners bore their dreadful dressings with stoical fortitude, and one or two waited phlegmatically for death. A doomed twenty year old boy, beautiful as the young Hyacinth in spite of the flush on his concave cheeks and the restless, agonised biting of his lips, asked me one evening in a courteous whisper how long he had to wait before he died. It was not very long, the screens were around his bed by the next afternoon’. With thanks to Alan Gardener for the photograph of Turtle Road taken in 1968.

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