The July 1st centenary of the First Battle of the Somme in WWI prompted me to re-visit the research I’ve done on my husband’s uncle, Victor Robert QUESNELL, who died in France shortly before the end of the war. My first post in early 2012 was about Victor, but I had failed to order his service record so, all this time later, I still didn’t know how and where he had died. A request for his record may take weeks to process, and I was anxious to find out what I could before that.
Since I last looked, Ancestry.com had added two databases that included Victor. Both of them indicated that, rather than dying in action, he had died on 23 Oct 1918 of wounds received in battle. According to the excellent site “The Long Long Trail,” the South African Brigade by this time had been folded into the 66th (2nd East Lancashire) Division. As part of the Fourth Army, this division fought from 17-20 Oct 1918 in the Battle of the Selle.
Victor was buried in the Roisel Communal Cemetery Extension, which according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, ” …was developed in October and November, 1918, by the 41st, 48th, 53rd and 58th Casualty Clearing Stations…” As a wounded soldier, he would likely have passed through one of those clearing stations.
A search on <world war one 41st casualty clearing station> took me directly to the painting shown below by war artist J. Hodgson Lobley which is held by the Imperial War Museums. I realized that any of the men depicted could have been Victor as a wounded soldier waiting to be moved to a hospital. Or he might already have died sometime between being tended to first at a Regimental Aid Post and then at an Advanced Dressing Station, both closer to the front line.
A follow-up search on the town of <roisel> gave a most surprising result: a watercolor of a hospital tent by John Singer Sargent, an artist better known for his portraits of wealthy society people. The label on the painting, also at the Imperial War Museums site, explains his presence at Roisel. “Late in September 1918, while gathering material for [his oil painting] ‘Gassed’ near Peronne, Sargent was struck down with influenza and taken to a hospital near Roisel. Here, he spent a week in a hospital bed next to the war-wounded, which inspired this work.”
I would like to think that Victor spent his last hours in such clean and comfortable surroundings, but paintings by Lobley and others lead me to believe that this is a tent for wounded officers, not enlisted men. Showing red rather than olive drab blankets on some beds would appear to be artistic license on the part of Sargent. However, a quick online search shows that red blankets are used in some modern hospitals, either for patients in critical condition who should be rushed directly to emergency surgery or for those who qualify for VIP treatment. One can imagine one or both of these criteria at play in the British Army of the time.
When writing about deceased family members, a family historian tries to convey the atmosphere of their lives, usually by detailed descriptions based on research into the period. In the absence of a photo of Victor, these paintings may come as close as possible to picturing this young man who died too soon.
Two recently added databases at Ancestry.com include more information about Victor’s death. In “South Africa, Military Index, 1853-2004,” his cause of death is listed as “DW.” In “UK, Army Registers of Soldiers’ Effects,” the column headed “Place and Date of Death” contains the entry “23-10-18 France Wounds.”
The Royal Army Medical Corps commissioned artist J. Hodgson Lobley to create the painting shown above and more than one hundred other paintings, thirty-three of which appear online at the Imperial War Museums site.
Many artists were given commissions to depict the war. The first official war artist was appointed in May 1916 by the British War Propaganda Bureau; later artists included Augustus John, Wyndham Lewis, and Stanley Spencer.
According to back ground material on the Imperial War Museums site, “Sargent was approached to carry out work for the Ministry of Information’s planned Memorial Hall.…and arrangements were made for him to travel to France in early July, with Henry Tonks…[The commission was] originally planned as a subject showing cooperative activities between British and American troops, but changed to ‘Gassed’.” This painting was later acquired by the IWM.