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Battle-Training Accident (Soldier's Injury)

Volume 409: debated on Tuesday 10 April 1945

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8.51 p.m.

I desire to raise a question affecting one of my constituents. I have given to the Secretary of State for War due notice of my intention to do so. After our long discussion on air accidents, I intend to speak of an accident which concerns the War Office and which befell Private Rumsby, an 18½year-old soldier who was undergoing training in a battle course and who is a constituent of mine. I have done my best to obtain full and authoritative facts. The account I shall give has been compiled from information given by men who were actually at the training school, or supplied by the father of the young soldier concerned.

The story begins on 17th November, when a number of young men were undergoing realistic battle training. In the course of the training 10 of them ran into a hut; they were supposed to be the British forces in an engagement with the enemy. They sat on various seats in the hut. The constituent on whose behalf I am speaking was on a seat near the door. One man was heard to shout: "Here come the ferries," and then a sergeant, who I imagine was one of the instructors, threw a bomb, or some kind of explosive, into the hut. It rolled against the feet of this young soldier. The explosion seriously damaged the end of the hut and threw Pte. Rumsby on to the concrete, where he struck his head and was knocked out. That happened at 10.30 in the morning. He was carried to a medical hut nearby, where he lay unconscious until 4.30 in the afternoon, when he was taken to Cromer hospital, three miles away.

Not unnaturally, the father of this Suffolk soldier first asked why they had left the young man unconscious all that time before taking him to a hospital which was only three miles away, but from 17th November to the present day Mr. Rumsby, the father of the young man, has heard nothing from the military authorities about how the accident actually occurred. At 7.15 on the day in question, the father received a telegram stating that his son was seriously ill in Cromer Hospital. The father at once telephoned to the hospital and spoke to one of the nursing sisters. He gathered the impression that the hospital authorities did not want him to visit his son then. Next day, 18th November, the father visited his son in this hospital, but was unable to get details from any of the hospital staff. He took the course of asking other patients in the ward. They told him that his son had been brought there at 5 o'clock on the previous day on a stretcher and that his son wore overalls, tin hat and gas mask and that his boots were very muddy. The father was told that since that time his son had used neither bedpan nor bottle. The father wrote at once to the War Office and to his son's commanding officer at Sheringham. He received an answer one month later, saying that owing to extreme pressure of work they had been unable to give him an earlier reply.

This young man was in that hospital, in a state, I imagine, of shock and complete loss of memory, and suffering from delayed concussion. At the beginning of the fourth week, one of the sisters asked him to sign a paper. He said he could not do so as he could not see properly. The sister told him that it was about his accident at Sheringham, at which he seemed very surprised and told the sister that he could not remember an accident happening to him, although he was obviously still suffering from its effects. There was complete loss of memory about the accident. He was told to get ready to leave next morning at 8 o'clock with a sergeant and another private. Up to this time he had only been allowed to get up between 3 and 5 o'clock in the afternoon and to walk about the hospital ward, but the next morning, in bitter winter weather, he was allowed to carry his kit to the roadside and board a bus for Cromer station. The three men arrived at 5 o'clock in the evening in Bedford, to which they were apparently to be transferred, and they had to carry their kit for two miles from Bedford Station to the convalescent hospital.

Next morning, these three men saw the medical officer. Private Rumsby told the medical officer that he had an acute pain in his head and that his eyes were hurting. The officer told the three men that if they were entitled to leave they could make an application for it. Private Rumsby made an application. He was told to parade the next morning, on 1st January, to get his pass and his money. He did so, when he was told to wait for his warrant pass, which was given to him, I understand, at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. He left Bedford to go on his leave at 5 o'clock on 1st January, so this man had spent practically the whole of one day's leave waiting in a camp to get his pass and leave money. I want the Minister to envisage the climatic conditions in this country on 1st January, heavy snow and frost, and one of the coldest days we had for a large number of years. This young soldier left Bedford at 5 o'clock that day. Unfortunately, as a result of the bomb accident or whatever it turns out to be—I hope to hear from the Minister what it was—he remembers nothing at all of what happened that day and is unable to give us any information about it. All we know is that the father discovered him at 5.30 next morning lying in a ditch almost frozen to death, four miles from home, still suffering from complete loss of memory and unconscious. I have taken considerable trouble to talk to a railwayman on the station concerned. This railwayman saw the boy leave the station and spoke to him, but he never answered, and it was quite obvious that he was suffering from complete loss of memory and had not the faintest idea how to get home four or five miles away, or even where he was going. It must have been after 11 o'clock at night, on one of the worst winter days within memory, when he began to try to walk home. He was discovered lying in the snow in a ditch, absolutely stiff with cold, the father had not even been informed that the boy had been transferred from Cromer to Bedford, and he discovered the warrant in his pocket when he undressed him and put him to bed. Not only was this young man sent home alone in these tragic circumstances, but his parents were not even given the necessary information that he was coming home on leave.

He was put to bed, and there he was for five days. The father inquired at the nearest hospital at Eye, and was told that he could bring the boy there, but as he was in bed at home he thought it better to see one of the local doctors. The doctor was completely shocked at the boy's condition, and said that he ought not to be moved, and in due time the doctor wrote to the Bedford Convalescent Home and made his complaint about the boy being sent in that condition. On 18th January the parents received a telegram asking them to send their son back to Bedford Hospital immediately, just like that.

On 13th February I asked the Secretary of State for War a Question about this in the House of Commons, and the right hon. Gentleman, after saying that inquiries were being made, ventured to say as regards the medical condition of this soldier that his information did not agree with my own, and that on the last occasion they had been told that the mother had said the boy was out shooting rabbits. When I pressed the right hon. Gentleman to repeat this he said attempts had been made by an officer to see the mother, and on each occasion it was said the boy was out shooting rabbits. I made the fullest inquiry not only of the boy's father but elsewhere, and my information was that the young man had never had a sporting gun in his hand in his life. I imagine that what had happened was that when the military officer called, he was probably told by the boy's mother that he had gone out for a walk rabbiting. There is a very big difference between going out shooting rabbits and going out rabbiting. In the boy's condition it was a very good thing that he should go out and get some fresh air and exercise.

This case has created a great deal of resentment in a fairly large area, and I am afraid that the Minister does give the impression that in dealing with these matters in this perfunctory way he is dealing with mere numbers and not with human beings. This was a young man of eighteen and a half. Such men are not used to being treated in this way. They are citizen soldiers and should be treated as such. I want to make a complaint here about the visiting officers. I suggested to the right hon. Gentleman that instead of senior officers using petrol to keep calling on this young man at his home a military ambulance should be sent for him, but this was not done, and I believe that finally he had to make his own way oback to the hospital escorted by his father. All kinds of notes were left on the boy's parents. One read:
"You win report immediately to the officer commanding 101 military convalescent depot."
This was signed by Major somebody or other. On another occasion, there was an altercation between the young man's mother and a visiting officer who, by inference, accused her of hiding the boy from the military. I want to say emphatically that you may conscript soldiers but you cannot send military officers to issue orders to their parents, and I take this opportunity of protesting vigorously against this practice.

The young man was finally discharged, but before that he did go back to the con- valescent home. Why was it the War Office did not send a welfare officer? Why was it that the military authorities responsible did not send an ambulance to fetch the young man? They could send two or three officers to make these calls and have these differences with the boys' parents in what was a very difficult, unfortunate, almost a tragic, case. I understand that a court of inquiry was set up to find out how this young man received such serious injury, and I would like to ask if that court has been held, what were the findings, and whether Mills bombs were issued either to the N.C.O.s. taking part in this battle training or to the young men who received the training two days before the accident.

I would also like to know whether anyone was to blame. Of course I would also like to know why he was sent on leave alone on 1st January, on the worst day for many years, in bitter cold, and why he was allowed to leave at five o'clock when they knew he was going somewhere he could not possibly reach that same night, when they must also have known that he was suffering from loss of memory. I would also like to ask why the staff at the hospital were not told in the first case the cause of the boy's injury. When the father went there the next day it was only with the greatest difficulty that he could obain from other soldiers in the ward any information as to what had happened. Nurses, sisters and others of the staff gave the impression that they were trying to cover something up. Were they told the cause of his accident and why he was put into hospital? I should very much like to know also whether as he is discharged, or is to be discharged, he will receive a pension because of the injury he received. That is all-important.

Is the boy going to be discharged on medical grounds?

That is what I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman. I understand that the boy has been a good soldier and that his record is good and so on. That is the reason why, if he is to be discharged, I want to know whether he will receive a pension. Then again it may be a small point, but it is something of great importance to his parents. Is the father to be compensated for the expenditure which he incurred in visiting the hospital on several occasions and taking the boy back to the Bedford Convalescent Home?

Finally, I think the parents are entitled to an apology for the way in which they have been treated by these various military officers. I am satisfied about that, I have investigated it very carefully. I was hoping that the Secretary of State for War would be here in view of the way in which he dealt with this matter at Question Time, the lone of his voice, his almost joking manner and his cynicism. These cases are happening all too often. I had a case early in the war, when a young man was killed as a result of his misadventure. We have had many of these cases brought up on the Adjournment and it is very rarely that the Secretary of State comes to deal with them. I know the Financial Secretary will do so with his usual courtesy and efficiency, but I think that if the Secretary of State gives these answers he should come here and "take the rap" on the Adjournment. We have had so many of these cases that in my view it is time we had a new Secretary of State for War.

9.12 p.m.

I can assure my hon. Friend that the fact of the Secretary of State for War not being here should not be taken as evidence of his indifference to the raising on the Floor of the House of such matters as my hon. Friend has raised to-night. I am afraid it has been a long established tradition in our Parliamentary system that one of the privileges of an Under-Secretary is, I do not say to "take the rap"—he certainly gets a few—but to speak on behalf of the Department with which he is associated. As regards this particular case, I should like at the outset to express my personal sympathy with Private Rumsby and his family in the unfortunate accident which he suffered. I do not wish in any way to minimise its seriousness, but I hope to show that the facts are, in certain important respects, different from those suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Eye (Mr. Granville). He informed the House that this accident occurred during an exercise in which Private Rumsby took part on 17th November of last year. In the course of the exercise fireworks used for training purposes, and known as thunder-flashes, were thrown to represent bombs. No Mills bombs were used. A thunder-flash is composed of a cardboard box with a small amount of explosive in it, and a fuse. The fuse is lit at the appropriate moment and the cardboard box is thrown to represent a bomb.

Is my hon. and learned Friend telling us the finding of the Court of Inquiry? Does the court say that no Mills bombs were used?

I am not in a position to quote from the report of the Court of Inquiry, because that is a privileged document, but I have had reports apart from that of the Court of Inquiry, and I am informed that, in fact, during this particular exercise thunder-flashes were being used, and a thunder-flash was thrown against the shelter in which the trainees were taking cover. This shelter had a corrugated iron roof. According to my information, none of the thunder-flashes was thrown into the hut, but one exploded on the roof directly above where Private Rumsby was sitting, and against which his head may have been resting. He was later found—

It being a Quarter past Nine o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Mathers.]

He was found in a very dazed condition after the explosion, and was immediately taken to the unit's medical inspection room, where he received first-aid. My hon. Friend has been informed that Private Rumsby was not admitted to hospital until about six hours after the explosion, I think he said at 4.30. My information is that he was in hospital by 1 o'clock, which is 2½ hours after the explosion, and he was found to be suffering from concussion. He received every care, and on 26th December was passed fit to be transferred to a military convalescent depot, to which he was sent on 28th December.

If I may draw on my personal experience, I have seen thunder-flashes used in exercises, and I should not like to have one near my head. If the man's head was resting, as it may well have been, against a corrugated iron roof, an explosion on the other side might well cause this concussion. I am advised that on arrival at the military convalescent depot at Bedford, Private Rumsby was medically examined, and was considered by the doctor to be fit to go on leave. I am also medically advised that there is always a possibility of a man who has suffered a head injury being subject to headaches, or attacks of dizziness, afterwards.

I am advised that there is always a possibility that a man who has suffered a head injury may have headaches or attacks of dizziness, up to two, three, four, five or six weeks after the accident, but it would be rather drastic to forbid normal activities, such as leave, simply on the chance of such an occurrence. In any event it was considered by the doctors that this soldier was fit to travel, and he was allowed to go. As he was considered fit to travel his parents were not informed that he was proceeding home on leave. It is not the practice in any of the Services to inform parents when, in the normal course of events, a soldier is proceeding home on leave. Rightly or wrongly, the doctor considered he was fit to travel, and no information was sent to the parents.

Do I understand the hon. and learned Gentleman to say that a doctor considered this man fit to travel, although he was liable to attacks of dizziness?

If I may digress into another sphere, I think that my hon. and learned Friend, like myself, knows of many cases where a person might be fit to resume his occupation, though liable to have recurrent attacks of headaches or anything else. I do not think there is anything inconsistent in that attitude. My hon. Friend can speak for himself.

In face of the fact that when this young man was asked to sign a form relating to his accident, and that when he discussed the matter with his own father and mother when they visited him he could not remember the accident and could not remember that he had been in hospital, and the whole impression was that he was suffering from complete loss of memory, did the medical officer consider that he was fit to travel?

As regards the signing of the document, I have no information; and I can only undertake to inquire whether or not he was asked to sign a particular document. Rightly or wrongly, the doctor who examined him at the hospital on 30th November considered him fit to travel. I am not disputing my hon. Friend's account of the condition in which the soldier arrived home. I can only state the facts as they were known to the authorities. The doctors did not see the young roan when he arrived home, and I can only accept my hon. Friend's statement as to the condition he was in. On 1st January, six weeks after the accident, he was allowed to go home. My hon. Friend has referred to his kit. I am informed that he was carrying his kit in the normal way. It was very light, probably not weighing more than five or six pounds, and containing only the necessaries for his leave. According to his own statement, he left his steel helmet and his respirator at the hospital, which would account for the lightness of his kit. I want to be quite frank. It is extremely unfortunate. This young soldier may well have developed—

—a temporary loss of memory, and be found in the condition in which his father did find him. I would emphasise that this was six weeks after the accident. I have informed the House that he was sent home on leave on 1st January.

I hope my hon. Friend will let me develop my case. This young man was due to return to the convalescent hospital on 10th January. A letter arrived from his father saying that he was not fit to return. He was placed on the "Sick at home list," and steps were taken to see that he was visited by a military doctor. My reply to the suggestion that it would have been preferable that he should have been visited by a welfare officer was that he was visited by an Army doctor, who would have expected to examine him if he had been available. On 18th January, the medical officer called at Private Rumsby's home, and learned from his mother that he was out with his father. In view of this the doctor left the appropriate form, with instructions—not to the parents, but to the soldier—that lie should return to his unit. The father wrote to the military convalescent depot on 19th January, saying that he was prepared for his son to go into a local hospital, but a reply was sent from the military convalescent depot that he would be given any necessary treatment at the military convalescent depot, which had a special department for cases of this description. Eventually, on 30th January, the father wrote again saying that he would bring Private Rumsby back, probably on 5th February, provided that the depot would send him a free railway warrant, so that he could accompany his son. He was told that his return rail fare would be paid on arrival. That was on 2nd February. Private Rumsby did not return on 5th February. The military convalescent depot wrote again, on 6th February, to Mr. Rumsby, with a request that he should bring his son back, and offering to send the money for his fare, if he would indicate the amount.

On 8th February another medical officer visited the home, and again found him out. The officer was informed by Mrs. Rumsby that he was out rabbiting, and the officer said that if he was fit to do that he was fit to travel. The weather was rather cold with a heavy drizzle. The officer said that every effort should be made to get him back to the depot, and he left written orders for him to return immediately. [An HON. MEMBER: "Where is the depot?"] In Bedford, and he lived in Suffolk. The unit to which he was ordered to return was a military convalescent depot, specially qualified to round off the treatment that he had had in the two military hospitals. It was not an infantry unit, or anything like that. The second interview to which I have referred was only two days before my hon. Friend addressed his Question to the Secretary of State, when my right hon. Friend admitted that his information was not fully established. Five or six days after the Question was addressed, further information was received, and it transpired that over the telephone the words "out rabbiting" had been unintentionally converted into "shooting rabbits" the expression used by my right hon. Friend, and I should like to express his regret for any erroneous impression that may have been caused. The next day, 9th February, Mr. Rumsby wrote saying that the fare was 16s. 6d., and on 12th February the money was sent, with a letter from the commanding officer of the military convalescent depot at Bedford, expressing the hope that Mr. Rumsby would either bring his son back or let him report for treatment at a hospital. All this happened before my hon. Friend asked his Question on 13th February, and I hope it disposes of the request that he then made, that this young soldier should be given proper attention and attendance to enable him to get back to his military depot.

Private Rumsby's father did not take him to the local hospital, as he had expressed his willingness to do, nor was Private Rumsby present on the two occasions when medical officers called to see him. Eventually he was brought back by his father, on 16th February, and the next day he was sent for further examination to a military hospital, from which he was discharged on 28th February. As my hon. Friend has indicated, he is now to be discharged on medical grounds. I am not in a position to give further details at this juncture. As regards pension, my hon. Friend knows that that is a matter for the Ministry of Pensions. There is no dispute by the War Department that he received some sort of injury on 17th November, and that, no doubt, will be a relevant factor when the matter is considered. Although I regret very much this unfortunate accident. I think I have made it clear that everything was done which could be expected towards facilitating this young soldier's recovery.

9.29 p.m.

I have listened to this case with a certain amount of dismay at the treatment given to this young man and his parents. From the facts, which are not disputed, it seems that the Department are lucky that they are not dealing with a tragedy very much deeper. This young man might have been found frozen to death. One does not deny that the Financial Secretary is efficient, courteous, and considerate in dealing with all cases, but the Financial Secretary starts off with the assumption that the individual who corn-plains is in the wrong and the hon. and learned Gentleman is determined to defend the line he has taken up, no matter what reason may be applied. A certain amount of cynicism has been used in this case where a very deserving young man has been shamefully treated. One of the facts which have been disclosed is that when he was taken to hospital and examined he had a complete loss of memory. There is nothing to account for why the young man was discharged from hospital if he had that concussion in the head, or for the fact that no note was ever sent requesting the parents to take him to his home or stating that he would be given some form of conveyance to take him home. Then we discover this casual method of going to the home when the young man could not be found there. He might be perfectly fit to go out and yet not to undertake a long journey. Therefore, if the medical man found that the boy was not at home, he should have been prepared to make an appointment and return to carry out some sort of examination in the home of the boy.

It must not be assumed that every soldier who complains is necessarily trying to evade service. There are many who make complaints which are not genuine, but that must not be taken as the general rule. I am worried about this. I remember a young man who was found dead one morning at an armament works in Glasgow with his gun discharged. Neither the wife nor any representative of the family was allowed at the inquiry. It was decided on no evidence that the boy loaded the gun himself and killed himself. His wife was ruled out from receiving a pension. The wife has seen no evidence to this day as to what took place at that inquiry. The decision at an inquiry may have an effect on whether a pension is payable or not, and therefore the evidence at an inquiry should be disclosed. When the young man was sent for to return to the hospital and it was found that he could not travel by himself, if the father required to bring him back to the hospital surely there is first-class evidence that there was something wrong with the boy, and a medical examination should have taken place at the boy's home to ascertain in what condition he was and whether he was capable of travelling.

We can only hope that we profit by these mistakes so that other persons will not suffer in the same way. I make no complaint in this case about the pension. I submit that there is need for an inquiry into these cases. There are cases in the Air Force and the Navy where men have' been regarded as scheming to evade service when there has been something seriously wrong with them, and they have been to hospital and have had operations. The medical people in the services should be warned to give the greatest care in these cases. In my estimation there was the gravest cause for suspicion that the boy in this case was not given the proper treatment. Such cases cause bitterness in the home. It causes bitterness that after a man has given his services when the country is in danger, he should be treated in this shocking manner. I hope the parents will get a very handsome apology for such treatment of their boy. We can compliment ourselves that he was discovered before he was a corpse.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-Four Minutes to Ten o' Clock.