Finding Frank Frail (5)

(continued from yesterday)

It turns out that Frank Frail has not spent his entire career in India. During the period of the war itself , during which he is promoted from private to sapper, and by the end of which he is a skilled locomotive driver, he has spent a considerable period of time in Iraq – yes, Iraq. For most of that time, he has been stationed in Basra, as part of the army deployed against the Turkish allies of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In October 1918, he is in Baghdad. (It seems to be during this period of active service that he is transferred to the Oxon & Bucks Light Infantry, and also to the Royal Engineers.)

What is clear is that, minor infractions notwithstanding, he has found a vocation, and been recognised as a man with a talent for operating trains. It is not surprising that, having reached the end of his compulsory service (extended by the war) he is discharged ‘for the purpose of taking up employment in civil life’ – in India. He is about to be part of one of the busiest periods of railway expansion in India, a period which will last until almost the end of the twenties. He is 33 years of age. He has received no injuries whatever. He gives his next of kin as Tom Bernardi’s wife. Against this column he has also written ‘Father – Richard – Address Unknown.’ By a weird irony, and unknown to him, his father Dick Frail has in fact died in Liverpool only weeks before he has written the words. But an equally painful irony is that Tom Bernardi’s wife is also deceased: she died six years earlier, in 1913 (it is possible that he is naming a cousin, and not Tom’s wife, but it seems to me that, during his time in India, he has lost all contact with the Bernardis – why would he otherwise name a Mrs. Bernardi, when all his female Bernardi cousins were unmarried, or had changed their names because of marriage?)

Not that this would have made any difference. Did he, I wonder, maintain any contact with his brother? (He continued to live with his stepmother, known in my family as ‘Aunt Emma’. She survived until the end of the 1920s, and certainly visited Sunderland, where she appears in several photographs. When she died in 1930, someone – presumably her stepson – wrapped up a number of chess-pieces and sent them to my mother’s brother. They arrived, smashed.)

There is a small batch of later correspondence. Frank, settled at the Loco Dept of B.B. & C.J, Railway, Bandikui, Rajputana, has been irked in 1920 that he has never received what is rightfully his, a medal, the 1914-15 Star. The letter is shuffled about until 1923, at which point one imagines that Frank has written a further letter of complaint. (The switch between regiments looks to be the cause of the bureaucratic foul-up.) There is no record of whether 149047 Sapper Frail, F., received his medal. One assumes so.

And at this stage, just as my mother is born, and just as his cousin, my grandfather, moves from one house to another in Cleadon, Frank vanishes back into the darkness. Did he stay in India? Did he marry? Did he have children? Did he enjoy the freedom to have a drink or three in the evening without being confined to barracks? That will be hard to discover. But at least I have moved him on 22 years.

As for the Bernardis, it seems plain simply by scanning the birth records for Sunderland, that many of Tom’s descendants still live there. Perhaps they too represent an avenue to explore. I will need another rainy day.

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