Gallery: Portrait of soldier’s life in First World War captured in photo album of Kirton woman
- Credit: Archant
A Suffolk woman has revealed a remarkable pictorial record of her father’s experiences during the First World War. Matthew Symington reports.
In her home in the village of Kirton, Jenny Paul has unearthed a treasure trove of images.
Two leather-bound albums are packed with black and white photos which are snapshots of the family throughout the 20th Century, and among the catalogues are pictures of her father during his service in the First World War.
The catalogue is rich in breadth and variety, but much of the pictures’ power is derived from the intimacy with which they document the unique wartime experience of a remarkable man.
Alexander Cecil Rankin was born in Glasgow in 1890, the son of James Rankin of Glasgow. He was educated at Clifton College and Glasgow University before qualifying as a civil and mining engineer.
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The family business was cork, and Alexander’s father owned a forest in Portugal from which cork was imported to make bottle tops. But Alexander’s aspirations lay elsewhere, and by the age of 24 he had established himself in his engineering career. It was also in his 24th year that the Great War, as it would be known, began to sweep the first of a generation of young men to the battlefields of Europe.
Alexander signed up to the Royal Engineers, and also served in the Lanarkshire Yeomanry. He fought on the Western Front in France, receiving a Military Cross in 1916 for conduct which resulted in a leg wound. A citation in a supplement to the London Gazette in September 22, 1916 reads: “For conspicuous gallantry during prolonged operations until he was wounded.
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“On one occasion he worked for many hours under heavy shell fire strengthening and extending a trench, thereby enabling the position to be held against a violent counter attack.”
His leg wound did not, however, result in the end of Alexander’s war. Instead he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, an embryonic form of the Royal Air Force.
In the RFC Alexander was an observer, responsible for reconnoitring and taking photographs of enemy positions.
Equipped with rudimentary technology, the job was a precarious one. Jenny told me: “Of course the aeroplanes were open cockpit… he just half stood up and leant over the edge of the open cockpit. And the same with the bombs, they had I don’t suppose more than four bombs at the most in clips either side of the cockpit. And when he and the pilot agreed now was the time to drop the bombs he just unclipped them and leant over the cockpit and dropped them and hoped for the best.
“They never knew for certain that the aeroplane they were flying would take off or get airborne, I mean it was a dicey thing every time they went up whether they actually would get right up in the air or whether they would crash.”
For his work in the RFC Alexander received a Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation described Alexander as “a most successful and gallant observer who carried out numerous contact patrols during recent operations, frequently at very low altitudes, his reports being most careful and accurate”.
The cessation of war did not spell the end of Alexander’s military career. In 1939 he immediately contacted the War Office to volunteer his engineering skills, which had been used between the wars to build ports and railways in West Africa.
After volunteering, Jenny, now 85, says, he would return home from work every day and ask, “Is there anything from the War Office?” He would be called up to the Royal Engineers again just before Christmas of 1939.
“First of all he was in a chemical warfare division of the Royal Engineers, which makes you think. Nowadays we’ve been so horrified by the chemical warfare in Syria and other places but we were already doing it, my father was in that for about two years I suppose and then he transferred to airfield construction. They had a method of laying very quick airstrips and his job was providing the airstrips for Gen. Montgomery from Normandy right the way through.”
Alexander helped to build airstrips between Normandy and Berlin as the Allied armies advanced through Europe. His regiment came upon the Nazi concentration camp in Belsen just a day after it was liberated by US forces.
It was only when referring to Belsen that Alexander would go into any detail about his experiences in the trenches during the First World War to Jenny and her sister. “He said that it took him straight back to the trenches because he said the smell was so awful he could have been back in 1915-16 in the trenches,” she said.
Other than that he did not talk about the Western Front. “He never spoke about it, you couldn’t get him to speak about the war experiences. I mean he’d tell you funny stories, but you couldn’t get him to describe what life was like in the trenches, I think it was too awful to talk about.”
Jenny married and moved to Suffolk in 1952.
Among the images she has collected in her home are photographs of Alexander in the trenches, smoking a cigarette as he leaves Buckingham Palace after receiving the Military Cross, and laughing with friends by a military aeroplane, showing that laughter and joy endured even during the horror of war.