Private Richard Mitchell
Royal Army Service Corps

Died 12.12.19  aged 35

      Richard Mitchell is the second of our Winkleigh heroes whose name was omitted from the Memorial Cross.  He died in Winkleigh, the son of the Sexton, described also as a road-contractor and farmer, who might well have been responsible for digging his son’s grave in the churchyard which is situated as near as possible to our memorial.  This branch of the Mitchells in Winkleigh was long established in the village, traced back to a John Mitchell born in 1827, a labourer, and his wife Mary born in 1821.  They had three children, the eldest of whom, William was born about the year 1853.  In 1876 William married Elizabeth Ellen Jones, born in 1849 in Coldridge.  By 1881 the family was living with William’s younger brother Samuel (a Thatcher) at Herdwick, Winkleigh.  Ten years later the census records William and Elizabeth in Lower Town, and in 1901 in Mount Pleasant (Dial Street).  They had five children: John, born 1878, William, born 1880, Mary Ann, born 1883, Richard born 1884 and Emily, born 1887.

      Richard was therefore 30 years old when the war began.  He had married Ethel Mary Alford (born 1886 in Winkleigh) on 9th August 1909: there were two children, Frank William born on 30th November 1909 and John H. born on 29th December 1912.  Richard originally worked as a gardener, but just before the war the 1911 census describes him both as a gardener working for Mr. R. Lane at Oakley House, Winkleigh, and an Insurance Agent, probably with the Britannic Insurance Company, of which he himself was a member.  The family, together with Ethel’s half-brother Albert Stapleton, a boarder, was living at Pound House, Winkleigh, on the corner of Vine Street on the Exeter Road.  The house belonged to a member of the Luxton family, the head of a machinery and brass foundery business.  Albert is described as a ‘boots’ which indicates he was a household or farm boots servant.  Incidentally, Albert’s history is also recorded on this web-site and his name recorded on the Memorial Cross, since he, too, is also buried in the churchyard, having died of enteric fever on 31st October 1914, the first war casualty in the village.  Our churchyard, therefore, contains both the first and the last of our Winkleigh casualties, and both are linked to the life story and personal tragedy of Ethel Mary Alford - the deaths of both her half-brother Albert Stapleton and her husband Richard Mitchell.

      We are fortunate that prior to his death in 1919 Richard Mitchell’s discharge documents and pension claim were sent to the Ministry of Pensions, where they survived the blitz that destroyed the bulk of the Other Ranks’ documents, the remains of which are the so-called ‘burnt documents’ kept at the public record office.  We are thus able to trace Richard’s war history in considerable detail, even though he never actually left England.  Describing himself as an Insurance Agent, Richard’s medical history shows that he first enlisted into the regular army on 13th July 1916 at Exeter, and was posted to the 5th Devons with the army number 4605.  Three of the Devons’ Territorial Battalions, the 1st/4th, 1st/5th and 1st/6th Devons had already been posted to India in October 1914 as part of the Wessex Division, eventually sending drafts from there to serve in Mesopotamia, but of course Richard Mitchell was in the second line battalion training in Exeter.  When the 2nd/4th and the 2nd/6th Battalions had in turn been posted out to India in 1915, the remains of the 5th Battalion received the title ‘The Devon and Cornwall Brigade Provisional Battalion’ and early in 1917 were re-designated the 15th Battalion Devonshire Regiment.  Richard Mitchell had been training in this battalion, but his medical condition prevented any possibility of a posting to an active service battalion of the Devons.  On 11th August 1917 he was transferred instead from Exeter to the Army Service Corps Home Labour Centre, and at the same time given a new army number, 311819.

      The six sets of documents available to us which trace the story of Richard Mitchell’s enlistment, service record, illnesses and disability, and his final demobilization have been placed on this site.  Together they allow us to discover in considerable detail his life during the war.  There are 5 sections of documents:

1. The cover sheet for his discharge documents. (Page 1)
2. The record of his service and casualty form. (Pages 2-3)
3. The medical history record. (Pages 4-5)
4. Richard’s statement of his disability, November 1919. (Pages6-7)
5. The Medical report at the time of his demobilization. Pages 8-11)
6. The pension award sheet with the final decision of the Board. (Page 12)

      Richard Mitchell’s papers show that having registered, he was attested under the Derby scheme at the last possible moment, 30th May 1916, a mere five days after the conscription act became law.  Registration under the Derby scheme, secured him (as was promised) the regiment or arm of his choice.  By contrast, other Winkleigh men who avoided the Derby scheme and waited until conscripted, found themselves serving in regiments stationed far from home.  For Richard, service in the Devons, based in Exeter, was obviously the most attractive proposition (Section 2).

      The Derby Scheme, first announced to the country on 15th October 1915, comprised a personal canvass of every man between the ages of eighteen and forty-one on the basis of the National Register.  Each man was asked either to join at once or attest, and committees were set up in every locality.  In Winkleigh, Col. Alexander was in the forefront of the organisation.  Single men and married men formed two groups: each were sub-divided into a further twenty-three groups according to age, to be called up in strict order, starting with the single men aged 19, and the married men to be called only after the single me had all been enlisted.  Tribunals were set up for those seeking exemption from attestation or postponement on grounds of special hardship or essential war-work.  Those who attested could still, in theory, choose their branch of the army in which to serve although pressure was brought on as many as possible to serve in the infantry.  The scheme was no more than a partial success, as many argued that since three million men had already come forward, 75% over and above the numbers Kitchener had called for, there was no need for further recruitment.  Fewer than half those available had attested, the Tribunals had been too liberal in granting exemptions, and more men were indeed needed when the Derby scheme was finally closed on 15th December 1915.  As a result, the conscription bill affecting single men was introduced into the House of Commons on 5th January 1916, becoming law on 27th and in March 1916 the youngest group of married men who had attested were of necessity also called up.  A second military service bill, introduced on 3th May 1916, became law on 25th May, and extended the liability for military service to all men between eighteen and forty-one.

      The report of Richard’s final transfer to the Reserve (Section 4) states that the date of the origin of his disability was as early as the 31st August 1916, just under two months after joining the 5th Devons in Exeter.  After only eight weeks basic training his fellow recruits would have been considered available for drafts to a line battalion, and prior to being shipped overseas either to France or Mesopotamia they would have received their various inoculations and vaccinations.  It was at this time and as a result of this that Richard became very ill indeed.

      Of course, once in the army, he was as liable as anyone else to be transferred to another unit as the situation demanded.  In Richard Mitchell’s case it seems that overseas service was now out of the question on medical grounds, with the result that following his apparent recovery after a year in various hospitals he was transferred on 10th August 1917 to the Army Service Corps Labour Centre.  This was followed on 27th October 1917 by a transfer to the 448 Army Service Corps Agricultural Home Service Labour Company, in which he served until the end of the war.  Richard was awaiting demobilisation when on 30th May 1919, and still in the Agricultural Labour Company that was presumably now being disbanded, he was posted back to the Service Corps Labour Centre.  After a further three months he was posted again on 11th August 1919 to the agricultural Remounts depot at Romsey, again being issued with a new army number, R458957, the R standing for Remounts.  Men were still being demobilized more than a year after the war had ended, and on 29th November 1919 Richard’s turn finally arrived.  Demobilized in the normal way, by being transferred to the ‘Z’ Reservists (an army list technically available to be recalled in an emergency), he reported to the No.1 Dispersal Unit at Woolwich Dockyard.  At this point Richard claimed a pension based on the disability he had suffered as a result of his service.

      The hospital record (Section 3), describes his condition as bronchial pneumonia, and states that he ‘has been very ill’.

      The ‘essential facts’ on the record sheet (Section 5) reads:
‘States that he took ill 6 days after vaccination and inoculation.  Arm weak, septic, and he had Pneumonia (double).  In Stursley Park hospital, Hants, (2 months), Sutton Veney Hospital, Wells, and Exeter hospital.  No documentary evidence.  M.H.S. not available but referred to the Z22.’

      The documents concerning his application in 1919 (Section 5) acknowledge the bronchial pneumonia in 1916, and record Richard’s statement that he still has pain in his left side, still feels out of breath with difficult respiration, and that he was coughing white flam in the mornings.  The examination recorded that his general condition was ‘soft and obese’.  The heart showed no enlargement and no murmur.  His pulse was 72 and blood pressure 104 over 96.  His teeth were ‘deficient and defective’ but this was not attributable to army service.  Lungs showed no obvious adverse signs, though there was vibration in the left base.  His reflexes were normal but with a slight tremor in the hands.  His mental attitude was described as ‘sluggish mentally and physically’.

      Section 6 records the statement taken on October 26th 1919 regarding the claim for disability.  The claim was based on the statement ‘Septic poisoning, Bronchitis, Double pneumonia caused through vaccination and inoculation on 31st August 1916’.  The opinion of the medical officer is difficult to read but it has been deciphered.
‘Please see notes on Med.Hist. sheet.  Bronchitis and pneumonia in Sept. 1916.  States he contracted coughs and gets short of breath on slight exertion.  I can find no physical signs of any kind at present moment.  Heart normal.  General health seems good.’

      The Medical Officer seemed to consider that Richard was exaggerating his condition.  After this verdict there was very little hope of a pension for Richard, and his claim was rejected (Section 6) in spite of his medical condition that had resulted from the vaccination and inoculation, his army medical grade that made him unfit for overseas service, and the apparent contradiction when the answer to the question asking ‘State whether each disability is attributable to service during the present war’ was answered ‘Yes’, and the question ‘Is each disability in a final stationary condition?’ was answered ‘No’.  The degree of disablement was however estimated at ‘less than 20’ on a scale 0 to 100.  He was not discharged as physically unfit for further war service, being transferred instead to the Z Reserve, that is liable to be recalled at a time of national emergency, (Section 7).  In other words, it was decided that although Richard had been seriously ill as a result of the inoculations, in the Army’s view he had recovered sufficiently to serve at home during the war and was now only mildly disabled.  The army considered he could return to his outdoor work as a gardener.

      It seems that the army had seriously miscalculated the seriousness of Richard’s condition.  How then would a modern doctor regard the case of a man in the same condition as it showed in 1919?  The problem seems to be that Richard’s symptoms were regarded by the medical officer as individual items - heart, lungs, lethargy, blood pressure etc. rather than taken together to build up a comprehensive diagnosis, which today would run something like this.  In 1916 vaccination and inoculation was often administered using live organisms, and in any case in the haste to prepare men for overseas service at the end of their basic training, too many injections were given at the same time, putting severe pressure on the immune system.  Richard probably also suffered an allergic reaction to the needles which were possibly not properly sterilised by the orderlies, thus causing septicaemia, for which no antibiotics were at that time available.  He became very ill, and during a long period of hospitalisation his body was fighting to recover with nothing but its own immune system to enable him to survive.  As a result, during the long recovery time in a weakened state, he was very liable to pick up other infections such as bronchitis and double pneumonia during the bad winter of 1916-1917.  The diagnosis in December 1919 showed his pulse was satisfactory but his blood pressure was extremely high at 96 and too low at 104.  His heart was therefore working extremely hard to keep going and with the addition of a defective left lung (revealed by pain in his left side) causing shortness of breath, his difficulty in walking or exercising would have caused a measure of obesity, swollen ankles and sluggishness.  Certainly the description of flam as white indicated that his cough was now non-infectious, but the damage to heart and lungs had been done.  In his weakened condition it seems therefore that Richard finally succumbed to a renewed bout of pneumonia and heart failure, brought about by the very bad winter and the probable damp in Pound House after a very tiring and cold journey from Woolwich to London and down to Winkleigh via Eggesford.

      On 15th November the claim for a pension was rejected (section 6).  On the 12th December, he was suddenly taken much worse and died, the death certified the following day by Dr. Clements.  Richard was described as a ‘general labourer’, the cause of death ‘acute pleura-pneumonia and exhaustion’.

      The informant was not his wife Ethel but Alfred H. Stapleton, Richard’s half brother-in-law.  The link between the Mitchell and the Stapleton families was complex.  Ethel’s mother Elizabeth was originally a Cockram, born in 1859 in Brushford.  She had first married Robert Alford who died in 1887, when their only child Ethel was about six months old.  Three years later, Elizabeth then re-married, to Alfred Stapleton, born in 1866.  They had four children: Alfred H. born in 1891, Albert Ernest born in 1894 followed by Charles born in 1898 and Florence born 1899.  Alfred H. Stapleton served in the Devons and Charles in the Army Service Corps, both survived and are remembered on the Roll of Honour.  Alfred was obviously already demobilised at the time of his half brother-in-law Richard’s death, and took charge of the necessary arrangements.

      The Commonwealth War Graves record of Richard Mitchell carries the information that Ethel re-married soon after Richard’s death as she was recorded as Ethel Mary Dickins, formerly Mitchell, of Vine Cottage, Winkleigh.  Richard was buried in a Commonwealth war-grave in the Winkleigh churchyard, which meant that either his father, William, who as Sexton would have probably dug the original grave for his son, or perhaps Ethel or even one of the half brothers, had applied to the War-graves Commission for a headstone at some time before applications for post-war burials were closed down about 1920.  Unlike the war casualties, these post war grave head-stones had to be paid for, but clearly the family were determined that Richard should be remembered.  Although his name was omitted from the Memorial Cross, he was recorded on the Roll of Honour compiled by Col. Alexander in April 1919 before Richard’s death.  The Cross itself was finally dedicated on January 13th 1921, just over a year after Richard’s death, but presumably the names had already been passed to the mason and there is no record of any attempt to alter what had been planned.  The grave was placed as near as possible to the place where the cross was to be built so that Richard would lie next to the memory of his friends and comrades who had perished with him in the service of his country.

29 April 2010


Click on an image for a larger picture

R Mitchell's Grave

Cover Page

Page 2

Page 3

Page 4

Page 5

Page 6

Page 7

Page 8

Page 9

Page 10

Page 11

Page 12