Finding Frank Frail (4)

(continued from yesterday)

There’s no getting away from it: there’s a buzz, a big one, when you find someone you’ve been looking for, for a bit. That’s why there are so many family historians out there, all shooting up with adrenalin, even if I admit my real pleasures are meeting the living cousins, and hearing their stories.

Once you’ve come across something like Frank Frail’s army records, and you see that there are fifty pages of them, you know you are in for an odd ride. To remind you: he was my grandfather’s first cousin, a little younger. Under the rather odd rules governing these things, it makes him my first cousin twice removed.

However, the moment I saw that he’d joined up in 1905, when he was 20, it was impossible not to dread the worst. He’d have been 29 in 1914. My family – in its really broadest sense – has a sensationally lucky record in The Great War. A few were injured, and one was torpedoed three times but survived. Only one, an Australian, had been killed – see the last chapter of ‘A Fish In A Tree’ here. It looked to me very much as if my new-found Frail would be amongst the lost.

What happened to Frank (he never filled in any form, as requested, with his full Francis Robert Bernardi Frail) was this. He enlisted on October 9th, 1905, for a period of 49 days drill, at the end of which, it would be decided if he was (literally) fit enough. His complexion was fresh, his eyes were hazel, and his hair was brown. He had a small scar outside his left elbow. He weighed in at just over nine stones, despite being just over 5ft 8, and his chest size was 34 inches. By the end of December, according to the records, he had put on 2 stones, and gained 2 inches in height: which suggests at the least that he had been living a lean existence. Quite what one makes of the fact that, in those seven weeks, his eyes had turned from hazel to grey, I do not know. He was fit; he was in.

There appears, for what reason I can’t quite fathom, to have been some switching of his post between the Durham Light Infantry and the Oxon & Bucks Light Infantry. The terms of his engagement fox me a little – he appears to sign up for 3 years in the Colours and 9 years in the Reserves, with a mandatory extra year at least if (a big ‘if’) there is a war on at the end of his twelve years: which there will be. In the event, however, Frank is not transferred to the Reserve for 7 years, at which point, he agrees, in 1912, to be transferred for the remaining five. To India. It transpires at this point that he is being transferred to serve the army as a locomotive engineer, or a railway fireman (in which he has passed a course). From the vantage-point of the present, it is impossible not to sigh with heavy relief. When trench warfare breaks out, he is going to be working on the Indian railway. It turns out that he is actually in India when he agrees to the transfer to the Reserve, and has probably been there almost from the outset in 1906, but the transfer is specifically from the start of 1913 to the end of December 1917. Not only that, he has opted to reside in India. He has no interest in returning to Sunderland.

At the time of his transfer to the reserve, Frank is described as steady and sober. He will get 3 rupees a day. There are formal notes of his hard-working and reliable nature. Bizarrely, one of the signatories is a 2nd Lieut. Greenwell. However, Frank  tests the system just a little when he enters the Reserve (where he is stationed in Nowshera, in the north). In December 1915, he is found to be drunk in his barracks; in February 1916, found to be slack at his post, and in March he is “careless of arms”, while in June he fails to “enter up his score-book when at musketry”. On each of the occasions in 1916, he is confined to barracks for three days. In 1917 and 1919, he is given five days for each offence – “falling out without permission while on running drill”, and (vaguely) “conduct to the prejudice of good order”. You sense that Frank is gradually getting sick of the army.

But he has survived the war.


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