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739  P Mitchell

6th Devons (Territorials)

      Percy Mitchell was born on 9th March 1909, the second son of Grace and John Mitchell, a blacksmith and shoeing smith, living on the Exeter Road, Winkleigh. There were five sons, four of whom served: William, Percy, Richard George and Henry, a proud record indeed. The Mitchell name was the most widespread in Winkleigh, and none were more patriotic. No less than 11 Mitchells are included in the records, two on the Memorial Roll on the Cross and nine on the Roll of Honour in the church. The five branches of the Mitchell families are listed in related topics on this site.

      The Territorial Force had come into existence on 1st April 1908, and was initially very successful in attracting recruits for home defence, responding both to the national mood regarding German expansion of their fleet following the launching of British super-battleships, the ‘Dreadnoughts’ , and the subsequent fears that an increasingly powerful Germany would in the near future launch a war and invade Britain. Percy joined up in the 6th Devons Territorials very early, attesting in Barnstaple on 9th March 1909, We are very fortunate that although Percy's military records as a whole were destroyed together with so many others in the London blitz, his military pension records have been preserved, giving us a clear picture of his service, before and during the war. These documents are recorded in the related topics on this site

      Percy joined the 6th Devons when he was only 17 years old, at the time working as a gardener at the Rectory for the Rev. Bremridge. The documents show that he attested on 9th March 1909. Two factors were very encouraging for the young farm workers in the village to enlist: a week's summer camp gave them a paid holiday break which their employers could not refuse, however much they might grumble, and the recruits were paid again by the army for their territorial service. Camp itself was hugely enjoyable with plenty of sport and good food and the fun of a camping holiday, often by the sea. His camps were:

1909  Whitworth, Tavistock.  26.07.09 - 01.08.09
1910  Westdown, South Salisbury.  27.07.09 - 02.08.10
1911  Minehead.  20.07.11 - 05.08.11
1912  Wilsworthy.  27.07.12 - 03.08.12
1913  Bulford.  20.06.13 - 02.08.13

      When war broke out on 4th August 1914, the 6th Devons were in camp on Woodbury Down. They were immediately embodied for war service and moved to Salisbury Plain on 9th August. It very soon became apparent that in spite of the fact that the Battalion could be classed as no more than only very partially trained, they were going to be asked to volunteer for overseas service. This was certainly not what the Territorials had been enlisted for, having been repeatedly assured they would only be required for home-service. In fact, the vast majority were eager to go and if they had not been given the opportunity many would undoubtedly transferred to the regular of New Army battalions, thus ruining a fine and established Territorial battalion. By mid-August the change had been made, and the vast majority of the 6th stepped forward to volunteer to a man, though quite a number failed to pass the required medical tests. Those who did not, or could not volunteer,, returned to Barnstaple to form a second line nucleus, the 2nd/6th Devons.

      On September 15th the 6th were told they were going to France, but to their huge disappointment the order was cancelled: together with the 4th and 5th Territorial Battalions they were instead destined for India, to ‘replace’ the 2nd regular Battalion, on their way back to land in France. They were ‘consoled’ by a special telegram from the King which stated that in taking on this duty the 6th Battalion was ‘helping him and the kingdom as much as if they had gone straight to the front’. The King himself inspected the Wessex Division on 28th September, following an earlier inspection by Lord Kitchener. Percy was promoted to paid Lance/Corporal. on 4th October 1914 in view of his long-service with the battalion. The whole Division then was sent on embarkation leave before embarking at Southampton on 9th October, the 6th Battalion on the troop-ship ‘Galeka’, one of ten transports in the convoy, escorted by two British cruisers as far as Gibraltar. The French navy then took over for the next stage of the journey to Suez where the Division was detained for some days owing to the outbreak of war with Turkey. Passing Aden, and learning of the sinking of the German cruiser ‘Emden’, the ‘Galeka’ and the ‘Nevasav (transporting the 4th and 5th Devons) then made their way unescorted to Karachi. On disembarking, the 6th Devons made their way to Lahore, where they stayed until December 7th 1915 when orders were received to mobilize for Mesopotamia.

      The whole journey out must have been a hugely exciting adventure for the battalion, some compensation in fact for their change of posting A series of exciting adventures and experiences, albeit in exhausting conditions now awaited these Winkleigh men whose lives hitherto had been confined to a tiny area around the Winkleigh district and for whom, in the old days, a visit even to Exeter or a summer day’s outing to Ilfracome or Woollacombe would have seemed a real treat. Many indeed had joined the Territorials in order to secure a paid week's summer ‘holiday’ with plenty of sport but here was the astonishing world of India with its colour, heat, smells and sights suddenly in their grasp. All this was to change, of course, when the reality of service in an Indian summer and an exhausting training schedule became apparent, but at the start at least many would have found their war hugely enjoyable.

      The 6th Battalion of the Devons was one of the finest Territorial battalions in the British army, proven beyond doubt by their year of service in India. Together with the 4th and 5th Battalions, their role was to act as ‘Internal Security’ troops, at a time of unrest when the situation in India was becoming more dangerous for the occupying colonial power. At the same time, rigorous training programmes had to bring these as yet only half-trained troops up to the level of those serving in the regular army. Officers, N.C.O.s and men were sent on a variety of courses - signalling courses at Kasauli, machine-gun courses at Kota Gheri and musketry courses at Rawal Pindi. Everyone trained to take the so-called ‘Kitchener Test’ in March 1915 - devised originally for the New Army battalions, a thorough examination of fitness in all branches of field-service. In particular, the 6th Battalion had to find two companies to garrison Amritsar and a further detachment to garrison the Lahore Fort. The remainder of the Battalion were stationed in the so-called ‘Lahore Cantonment’, renamed from its original name ‘Milan Mir Barracks’ because of its reputation for malaria. On March 1st 1915 the Battalion was inspected by Sir John Nixon, G.O.C. Northern Army (later to take command of the British operations in Mesopotamia) who complimented the Battalion on its physique and discipline, after which, in very hot weather the Battalion proceeded to take the Kitchener Test. Among other things this included a forced march of 15 miles in full equipment, followed immediately by a mock-attack using live ammunition. Not a man fell out, and the 6th Battalion’s results headed the list of all the Territorial battalions in the Punjab.

      The Punjab was in a state of continuous unrest around Lahore. As a consequence up to 500 men had to be kept back at any one time from moving up into the hills, an otherwise normal procedure in India to avoid the summer heat, meaning a great trial for those that had to endure an exhausting and boring life in Lahore. The war-diary makes references not only to Lahore as a ‘hot-bed of sedition’ but also to the ever-present dangers of heat-stroke, malaria and dysentery. The 6th Battalion held together well, health remained good and only 12 cases of venereal disease were reported. The great hope was for active service, best of all for service in France. As a result, when 29 men were called for in May to volunteer to join the Dorsets (with the rumour that they were on their way back to Europe) practically the whole battalion stepped forward. Two Winkleigh men, in fact, were selected, Privates Frederick William Davey and Frank Turner, but it was not to France but to Mesopotamia that they were sent, destined to die in horrible circumstances as prisoners of the Turks after enduring the siege of Kut.

      At the end of a very trying year, in December 1915, the Viceroy himself visited Lahore for the celebration of the Indian Officers’ Durbar, the 6th Battalion providing a splendid Guard of Honour: Colonel Radcliffe was congratulated on the finest performance ever witnessed by the Viceroy, and with this commendation ringing in their ears, the Battalion was warned off on December 17th for transfer to Mesopotamia. With just time to celebrate an early Christmas, (the Battalion was actually relieved by the 1st/5th Devons on Christmas Day), the Battalion moved down to Karachi and embarked for Basra on 30th. Little did those eager, fit and well-trained men realise the hell that awaited them. It is a sad reflection on the attitude of Kitchener to service in India and Mesopotamia, regarded then as a ‘sideshow’, and in spite of the King’s encouraging telegram to the Battalion before their departure, that the 1915 Star Medal (for all those who had volunteered and saw service in France, Belgium and Gallipoli 1914-1915) was not awarded either to those who served in India or who had already seen action in Mesopotamia. The war-diary reports that when this decision was announced to the battalion, there was great disappointment and protests were made to re-consider the situation, but to no avail.

      Percy's brother Henry was also serving with the 1st/6th Battalion (see his account on the Roll of Honour), but now he and Percy were separated. Service in India had greatly damaged Percy's health and he developed acute attacks of rheumatism, a complaint that he had suffered from in more mild form for the past seven years, and since mobilisation he had spent increasing amounts of time on the sick list. On 19th November he embarked for the UK and was discharged as no longer fit for war service at Blyth, having been posted to the 86th Provisional Battalion. Here the document described him as 'walks with difficulty and suffers pain and sleep and sleeplessness, especially in a change of weather.' Percy was also described as only having one-quarter mobility to earn his livlihood.

      The documents relating to Percy's attestation and initial medical inspection report, statement of services, two pages of the descriptive return on discharge and the opinion of the medical board are all reproduced on this site.

5th December 2017

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