Remembering Frank W. Hoskins – 4th Battalion Rifle Brigade 1911-1919
I never met my paternal grandfather, Frank William Hoskins, but his story is one of the biggest inspirations in my life.
He died aged 67 in 1961 after suffering a stroke and contracting pneumonia a few years before I was born.
He enlisted in the Rifle Brigade in 1911 at the age of 18 and was on active service in Africa and India prior to the outbreak of the First World War. In 1914 he was sent with the British Expeditionary Force to France and survived being posted for a year on the Western Front, including having to deal with the first use of poison gas and flamethrowers on the battlefields during the Second Battle of Ypres. In late 1915 he was sent to Salonika to fight on the Macedonian Front for the remainder of the war. He was discharged from the Southern Command malaria concentration centre in spring 1919 – marking the end of his military career.
Having contracted malaria twice during his time on the Macedonian Front I have no doubt that this contributed to his early death as it is well documented these days that the disease can lay dormant and recur for many years after early infections. Added to which were the after effects of the only known drug treatment for malaria at that time – quinine – a hateful substance that caused tinnitus, giddiness, blurred vision, nausea, tremors and depression.
So despite surviving at the vanguard of many battles as a sharpshooter, scout and skirmisher, the psychological and physical legacy of the ‘Great War’ stretched beyond those early 20th Century years to finally claim him as a victim later in life.
For something termed World War I, surprisingly little has been written about the campaigns that were being waged in other parts of Europe and further afield. The campaign on the Macedonian Front in particular has been called Britain’s forgotten army, as well described by the Solonika Campaign Society – an organisation that I am delighted to help promote via this post.
My grandfather very rarely spoke of the seven years he spent in the army but it was known that he had significant survivor guilt. During his time on the Western Front he and other members of his Brigade had to crawl out into no man’s land to fix the communication lines after the shelling. Many of his mates never returned.
In the diaries of soldiers on the Macedonian Front held by the Imperial War Museum it is documented that a section of the 4th Battalion Rifle Brigade got wiped out in an offensive to recapture Greek villages that took place in 1917 when they got caught out by Bulgarian artillery while crossing open ground and struggled to find cover.
Despite the main focus of activities being the Western Front and troops and equipment having to make a hazardous journey through U-boat invested Mediterranean waters, the Macedonian Front was the first to fall to the allied powers in 1918 and it is widely believed today that this was the catalyst for the armistice agreement a few weeks later – as described on global oracle wikipedia …
The disappearance of the Macedonian Front meant that the road to Budapest and Vienna was now opened to Allied forces. Hindenburg and Ludendorff concluded that the strategic and operational balance had now shifted decidedly against the Central Powers and, a day after the Bulgarian collapse, insisted on an immediate peace settlement.
My father knew very little about his father’s war experiences and after I first discovered the surprisingly detailed 20 page record of his time in the Rifle Brigade and subsequently spent time reading up about the early battles on the Western Front and the history of the Macedonian Front I recounted what I learned on a visit to my parents earlier this year.
The most moving outcome of these investigations was a comment from my mother who said that she saw my grandfather in a different light after she began to understand all of things he experienced during his young adult life. She remembered him as a hard and bitter man but after seeing how he lived for many years on the front lines, hearing about some of the fierce battles in France and Macedonia and realising how many comrades and friends he saw die during the course of the war she could understand why he had become the man she knew. Added of course to the memories from his young life were the hereditary deafness that forced him into a silent world when he reached his 40s and also the longer term impact of malaria infections and the after effects of treatment.
The other outcome from my research was inspiring my own father to create a painting that depicts the Rifle Brigade in action during the Macedonian campaign.
Although the Macedonian front stretched over quite a distance and involved forces from a number of allied countries we selected one particular area for the setting that featured at the start and end of the campaign.
Based on images of the defensive positions created originally by the Irish Guards in 1914 on the rocky Kosturino Ridge as they tried to prevent the Bulgarians moving deeper into the region it depicts what became known as the Pursuit to the Strumica Valley when in September 1918, after heavy fighting along the front line, the 27th Division headed up through the mountains and across the border into Bulgaria itself.
The painting is purposefully in contrast to the common Western Front images of deeply entrenched warfare and designed to reinforce the fact that British troops were facing other challenges elsewhere in the world in the battles with the Central Powers – fortified mountainous ridges, temperature extremes, mosquito infested valleys and the constant risk of malaria to name but a few.
Personally, whenever I face a challenge these days, I think about how my grandfather spent most of his young adult life and the horrors he experienced, alongside millions of other sons, husbands and brothers, on the front lines in Belgium, Macedonia and Greece many of which even the most gruesome images and accounts can’t truly capture.
We will remember them …