Sunderland soldier survived on cabbage leaves and potato peelings

Robert Smith pictured in 1915.
Robert Smith pictured in 1915.

A Sunderland soldier endured torturous days in the First World War when he lived off scraps just to survive.

Today, we’re starting our look at the family of Mike Curtis, from Loughborough, and in particular his grandfather Robert Smith ... a Great War soldier who lived to tell the tale of the horrors of captivity.

Villette Road in Sunderland - the birthplace of some of the family of Michael Curtis.

Villette Road in Sunderland - the birthplace of some of the family of Michael Curtis.

We are indebted to Mike, a former journalist who told us all about his mother`s side of the family who were Sunderland born and bred and from the Hastings Street and Villette Road area.

Their lives are passionately and informatively told in his book Deadlines. To find out more, visit his website at www.deadlines101.com.

In the meantime, here’s the first of our instalments from it.

“My mother`s father Robert Frank Smith was a medic at the Somme and Passchendaele,” said Mike.

Corporal Robert Smith`s fiancée Emma Florence Craig did not recognise him when she went to collect him from Sunderland railway station after the de-mob. Having been gassed, taken prisoner and fed badly, he was given six months to live

Michael Curtis

“Captured six months before the end of the war and given six months to live when he got home. He survived and had two children with his wife Emma, also from Sunderland.

“They were Frank and Mike’s mother Sheila.”

Mike added: “My maternal grandfather was called Robert Francis Smith. He was the son of another Robert Francis Smith who, in 1903, was a Committee member of the evocatively named `Monkwearmouth Poor Bairns` Fund`.

Young Frank joined the 2/2nd Northumberland Field Ambulance of the Royal Army Medical Corps Territorials in Gateshead in January 1915. After training, they embarked for France in April attached to the Durham Light Infantry.

The muddy battlefield of Passchendaele.

The muddy battlefield of Passchendaele.

Frank worked as a medic in the trenches at Ypres, the Somme, Arras and Passchendaele - and after the war, never talked about what he went through.

Even as war was coming to an end, his own fate took a turn for the worse. Frank was taken prisoner on May 27, 1918 - six months before the war ended.

Mike said: “The Germans were launching what proved to be their last attack towards Paris and got within 40 miles of the French capital. Frank and five colleagues got separated from other British troops and, not long after 1am, were staring down the barrels of ten German machine guns.

“More than a month later, news got through to his parents in Sunderland that he was a prisoner.”

A Red Cross card subsequently reached his parents. He was a prisoner of war at ‘Camp Unknown’ and someone had hand-written above his name ‘He is well’. There was no more information.

“The Germans got him to move ammunition around at their railhead at Amifontaine,” said Mike. “He was held captive in a pigsty and fed on potato peelings and cabbage leaves.

“When British aircraft bombed the railhead, the British prisoners suffered further casualties. His best friend was badly injured and subsequently died. Despite being a Medical Corps orderly, my grandfather was not allowed to treat his best mate. Years later, he returned to see if his friend had been given a proper burial in a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery. He had.”

He was demobbed in 1919 and still faced an uphill battle.

His fiancée Emma Florence Craig did not recognise him when she went to collect him from Sunderland railway station after the de-mob.

“Having been gassed, taken prisoner and fed badly, he was given six months to live,” Mike added.

“Emma said she would marry him immediately and look after him. Having survived the Somme and witnessed indescribable deaths and injuries, he lived until he was 87 and fathered Frank and my mother Sheila.

“He was a commercial traveller working for the Spillers Milling Group for 46 years before retiring in 1959.

“Robert Smith was taken prisoner just two months after the Royal Air Force was formed. He was born at the dawn of aviation, just before the Wright Brothers made the first powered flight in 1903.

“A generation before, flight meant little more than falconry. By the time he died, it was F-16 Fighting Falcons.

“In his lifetime, he saw global air travel for the masses become unremarkable and watched men walking on the Moon.”

We have more of Mike’s story next week. And those interested can find out more at www.deadlines101.com.