One of 79 ‘Blue Caps’: the story of Sergeant Benjamin Hurt
The Royal Dublin Fusiliers (RDF) was an infantry regiment of the British Army. Created in 1881 by the amalgamation of two former East India Company regiments, it was disbanded in 1922 on the establishment of the Irish Free State. Its motto was Spectamur Agendo (We are known by our deeds) and it was nicknamed the ‘Blue Caps’. Commanding Officer James Neill had supplied blue coverings for their caps during the 1857 Indian mutiny. Although mainly an Irish regiment, during the First World War approximately 17 percent of the men were English and Private Benjamin Hurt was one of them. He served with the RDF from 1909 until 1922. Benjamin then continued his military career with the Northumberland Fusiliers until 1933 and his story is told here.
Benjamin was the eldest child of William Thomas Hurt and Mary Ann Hurt (née Bates). He was born on 8 August 1884 in Milford, Derbyshire. His birth was registered at Little Eaton, where he was baptised on 26 August 1884. William Thomas and Mary Ann had 2 other children, but they both died in infancy. Charles William was born in 1888 and died in 1892 and Thomas was born in 1889 and died in 1890.
In 1891 the family lived in the village of Makeney, close to Milford. William Thomas worked as a Labourer at a Paper Mill and Benjamin was at school. By 1901, Benjamin had left home, and his parents had moved to nearby Duffield. William’s occupation was recorded as a ‘Cowman on a Farm’. Benjamin had moved to Chaddesden, which was then a village near Derby, and he too worked for a farmer, being employed as a Waggoner. Benjamin’s father died on 9 November 1907, aged 54. Little else is known about Benjamin at that time other than he was a footballer, which continued as a feature of his later life. He played in the local Belper and District League and in 1908 he transferred from playing for Milford to Ripley (Ripley and Heanor News and Ilkeston Division Free Press 27 March 1908, p.4).
By 1909, Benjamin had decided to leave Derbyshire and he enlisted in the Regular Army, which became his life and career for many years. His reasons for joining the Army are unknown, but probably like many young men he wanted regular pay, to learn new skills and widen his life experience. He enlisted in Birmingham on 7 June 1909 and became Private Benjamin Hurt (10678) in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers (also known as the Dubs). On his attestation papers his age was given as 22 years 9 months, whereas he was 24 years 9 months. His occupation was recorded as Collier, so it seems that he worked in the Derbyshire mines after being a Waggoner. He soon found himself at the RDF barracks in Naas, near Dublin. His service records show that he was awarded a ‘Third Class Certificate of Education’ at the end of his first period of training, which was considered acceptable, but would have restricted his chances of promotion at that time. On 29 September 1909, he was transferred to the 2nd Battalion in England at Aldershot barracks, where he remained for almost a year.
Service in India
In September 1910, Benjamin was posted to join the 1st Battalion which was stationed in India. He was part of a draft of about 30 men who were sent as reinforcements. We are very fortunate to have details of that journey thanks to research undertaken by Philip Lecane, author of Beneath a Turkish Sky (The History Press Ireland, 2015). Philip located the memoirs of Private (Pte) James Burke who amazingly was sent out to India the same day as Benjamin and wrote about his life in From the earth to a star, by Seamus Burke (Company Wicklow, 1959). The men docked in Bombay on 8 September and then travelled by train to Ahmednagar. The barracks was approximately a mile from the station, and they were accompanied on foot by a small group of bandsmen, who had volunteered to play the draft back to the barracks. However, the weather was so hot that most of the men collapsed on the journey and had to be transported on bullock carts.
Pte Burke recalled that the whole of the Battalion turned out to greet the draft at the barracks and after the men had bathed, they were given a meal of curried stew, of which they were initially cautious, but soon enjoyed. The newly arrived men found that discipline was not as strict as in England; they had fewer parades and route marches. If they were not on guard duty they could rest in the afternoon, as sleep at night was very difficult; lizards and mosquitoes came out at night.
Soldiers in India had a much higher economic and social status among the local population than they had in England, so many could afford to have a servant, and most did. Pte Burke’s servant cleaned his boots and buttons, made his bed, ran messages, brought him tea in bed and was always on hand. It is not known if Benjamin had a servant, but it is not hard to imagine how much his life had already changed since he left Derbyshire. The only family story that survived about his time in India was regarding a mongoose, which apparently used to steal toothpaste from the soldiers and one day the unfortunate mongoose found it had been replaced with mustard!
A barber went to the barracks every morning and shaved the men before reveille, which cost each man one anna/one penny. Soldiers were paid five rupees per week. There were 16 annas to the rupee and 12 pies to one anna. A soldier could buy 36 cigarettes in the bazaar for one pie and food was very cheap. Four annas bought a large plate of curried stew, sago pudding, tea, bread and butter and a pint of beer cost one anna/one penny. Even accepting that they were written many years later, Pte Burke’s memoirs have been invaluable in shedding some light on life in India as Benjamin left no records of his time there. As he was known to have been a keen footballer before he enlisted, it is expected that Benjamin continued to play for the Battalion teams in India.
In 1913 the Battalion was relocated to Madras on the east coast of India, where it had started life as part of the East India Company Army. It was still based there at the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. There was no indication as to how the Battalion would be involved until orders were received in October indicating that a return to England was planned. Finally, in November orders were received for the Battalion to embark for England. Benjamin and his colleagues left Madras on 13 November, travelled by train to Bombay and then by sea to England.
Before the war Benjamin was included in the 1st Battalion Headquarters Strength as a member of one of its two machine gun sections as shown in Neill’s Blue Caps, Vol 3 1914-1922, Appendix Three p.158-9 by Colonel H C Wylly (Reprint by Naval & Military Press, 2005). In 1914 the Battalion companies had been realigned into double companies, A – D, from the original A – H. As shown, Benjamin was in ‘D’ company.
The ‘Blue Caps’ arrived in Plymouth on 21 December and travelled by train to Torquay, where they were billeted for several weeks with local families. All the troops were allowed a few days’ leave, so Benjamin may have returned to Derbyshire in time for Christmas 1914.
Although Benjamin did not write a diary or leave any detailed accounts of his life in the Army, he did have a photo postcard of Mary Catherine Bembridge on which he listed the places where he had served during 1915 and 1916. It is not known when he first met Mary, although she too was born in Derbyshire. In 1911 she was working as a General Domestic Servant for the Reverend Montford and his family at Milford Vicarage. It is possible that whilst living there, she may have met Benjamin, although he was in India in 1911. Nor is it known when she gave him her photo, but it has proved vital in telling his story. Benjamin and Mary married after the war.
29th Division Inspection by King George V
As part of the British Army’s expansion in response to the war, the 29th Division had been formed and was composed of 86th, 87th and 88th Brigades. The 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers was part of the 86th Brigade. The Battalion was ordered to move from Torquay to Nuneaton, Warwickshire in January 1915 to join the Brigade. The soldiers were again billeted with the local townsfolk. By mid-February it became clear that the 29th Division was to be sent to the Dardanelles and not to France as perhaps some initially expected.
On 6 March the Battalion marched to new billets in Kenilworth and on the 12 March, they were moved to Brandon station, where they joined the 29th Division for an inspection by King George V. Benjamin may not have left any written records of his army career, but it was always known in the family that ‘he had met the King’, which obviously referred to this event. Soon after the inspection the Battalion left the area for Avonmouth, where it embarked on SS Ausonia.
They stopped at Gibraltar on 20 March, left after a few days and arrived at Alexandria in Egypt on 29 March. After disembarking they stayed at Mex Camp, where they practised embarking and disembarking from small boats in preparation for the planned landing on the Gallipoli peninsula. After this period of training, they again boarded the SS Ausonia and on 11 April, anchored in Mudros harbour on the island of Lemnos. Training continued there until the decision was made to start the landings.
A merchant ship, the SS River Clyde played a key role having been specially modified in a ‘Trojan Horse’ style with large, covered holes cut in its sides and fitted with hinged gangways. The plan was to use these exits to get to get some of the troops ashore as a second wave once the ship itself had been run ashore on the beach.
The Battalion companies A – D were redesignated as W, X, Y and Z, so it is most likely that Benjamin would have been in Z company. Only W company was aboard the SS River Clyde for its landing on V Beach. The other 3 companies along with the Battalion headquarters approached on 2 minesweepers, the SS Newmarket and the SS Clacton. Those on the minesweepers transhipped into boats forming 6 tows, and they reached the beach at the same time as the SS River Clyde and not ahead of it as had been planned. Captain Moloney wrote, ‘The boats came in; they were met by a perfect tornado of fire, many men were killed and wounded in the boats ……survivors jumped into the water and got ashore; but the slaughter was terrific…….the machine gun detachment worked desperately to get their guns ashore, but they were nearly all killed or wounded..’.
One of the tows had taken half a company of the Dubs and landed on Camber Beach, an area just east of the main landing area. There were conflicting accounts of the company most likely to have landed at the Camber, but it is thought to have been half of Z company. The attack on the village by those men failed and many of them were killed. According to Nevinson, H W The Dardenelles Campaign (Nisbet & Co. Ltd, 1918 p.98), some 25 survived – perhaps Benjamin was one of them or perhaps he was in another tow that landed on the main beach. Some RDF survivors of the main landing had sheltered under a sandbank until the next day – perhaps Benjamin was one of them. We will never know exactly how and where Benjamin landed on the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April, but we do know from every account, that he experienced the unimaginable carnage of that landing on V Beach. The casualties were very heavy and for a while the Battalion was merged with the remnants of the Royal Munster Fusiliers as a composite unit known as the ‘Dubsters’. Out of 25 officers and 987 men of the RDF, the Battalion had only 1 officer and 344 men fit for service on 29 April.
Benjamin’s story during the rest of the Gallipoli campaign followed that of the 1st Battalion, which is recorded in detail in Neill’s Blue Caps. On 22 May 1915 Benjamin suffered a gunshot wound to his leg. Unfortunately, the Battalion war diary is missing for that period, but Neill’s Blue Caps refers to operations being ‘minor raids and trench construction’ at that time. On his photo postcard Benjamin noted that he was taken to an Egyptian Hospital in Alexandria (No 15 and No 17 had opened there in March) and later recuperated at the convalescent Camp in Mustapha, before he returned to the peninsula.
The Battalion was in the Suvla Bay area by August, where it remained until mid-December, with a short rest period on the island of Imbros in September. Benjamin and the others would have experienced the great storms and blizzards of November. War diaries recorded that water entered trenches like ‘tidal waves’. Many soldiers drowned or died of exposure. At the end of November, the Battalion had 12 officers and 332 other ranks.
Benjamin was promoted to Lance Corporal on 9 December. The Battalion relocated to Helles via Mudros on 15 December and spent Christmas Day 1915 resting in the Royal Naval Division dugouts on Y Beach. The New Year saw the successful evacuation of the peninsula and the Battalion left V Beach using the abandoned SS River Clyde as a jetty on 2 January 1916. They transferred to the SS Ausonia and headed to Mudros and camped at Mudros East – another place Benjamin recorded. Of the Dubs who had landed on V beach at the start of the campaign, no officer and only 11 men remained, who had served continuously and not left the peninsula because of wounds or illness. Of those who had been invalided for a time, but who had returned to duty until the evacuation, only 1 officer and 78 other ranks remained. Benjamin was one of those 79.
After a few days on Mudros, Benjamin and the rest of his Battalion travelled to Egypt and arrived at Alexandria on 10 January. They went by train to the Suez Canal and were on garrison duty at El Kubri in February. The RDF war diary for that period mentions Z company as holding the front line at Darb El Hajj. March 1916 saw a period of further training in readiness for another move. On 3 March Benjamin was promoted to Corporal and to Lance Sergeant that same day. They left Suez on 11 March for Alexandria and there embarked on HMT Menominee on 13 March for their journey to France.
Marseille was reached on 19 March. Benjamin’s postcard recorded places where he served with his Battalion as it made its way through France. Benjamin received his promotion to Sergeant on 3 May. Ahead of their involvement in the Battle of the Somme on 1 July the men were in the front line in Auchonvillers and in reserve in Louvencourt. They remained in the Beaumont Hamel area for 3 weeks, left on 27 July and marched from Beauval to Doullens. They spent time in Poperinghe and Ypres during August, taking a short ‘rest’ at Camp ‘O’ in Poperinghe and then back to the canal bank at Ypres until October, when orders were received to move south again. The Dublin Fusiliers found themselves at Mametz Wood by mid-October, another place named on Benjamin’s postcard. Benjamin’s service in France ended on 14 December 1916.
As a professional soldier of the Regular Army, Benjamin had completed his 7 years’ service with the Colours and returned home to serve his remaining 5 years of service in Reserve. According to his service records he arrived at the depot in Naas on 15 December. He may have seen Christmas 1916 at home in Derbyshire, if he had been granted some leave.
There are no detailed records of his life in 1917 and for much of 1918, other than a couple of entries on his service record. He was posted to the 3rd Battalion on 6 February 1917 at Aghada in County Cork, possibly to train new recruits. He is known to have played football with the Battalion during the 1916 – 1917 season. Whilst with the 3rd Battalion he qualified on a Lewis Gun Instructors’ Course in Dollymount, Dublin on 28 August 1917.
On 19 September 1918 he was attached to the North Russia Expeditionary Force that was sent to Russia to support the White Russians in their Civil War against the Bolsheviks. Benjamin embarked at Dundee on 20 September and disembarked in Archangel on 1 October. He served there with a company of Royal Dublin Fusiliers. However, it is not known to which larger unit they were attached. Like many others there he had fought in other theatres of war, but in Russia they also battled the very harsh winter and bleak environment. He served in Russia until 27 September 1919. He returned home on 28 September, was demobilised on 8 October, and transferred to Section ‘B’ Army Reserve.
‘Black Friday’ 1921
Benjamin was recalled to the RDF on 9 April 1921 (Army number 7075213) and posted to serve with the 1st Battalion again, a detachment of which had been sent to London. There was a miners’ strike at the time and the military was mobilised by the Government as a National Emergency was declared. As a member of the Section ‘B’ Army Reserve, Benjamin was required to rejoin his unit. The strike was called off on 15 April, which became known as ‘Black Friday’, when the leaders of transport and rail unions decided not to strike in support of the miners, so the military stood down. Benjamin was discharged on 13 June 1921 and again transferred to the Reserve.
‘Black Friday’ caused the 1921 United Kingdom census, which had been planned for 24 April, to be delayed until June and by then Benjamin was living with Mary Catherine Bembridge and her family in Alvaston, Derby. His occupation was given as a ‘Fitter’ at Rolls Royce Motor Engineers, but he was ‘out of work’. That may explain why he re-enlisted as a Private in the RDF in Derby on 15 July 1921. His trade was given as Labourer and his age as 29 years 11 months, whereas he was 36 years 11 months old. He was promoted to Corporal on 19 July. He was awarded a 2nd Class Certificate of Education, 14 December 1921, at Bordon Camp in Hampshire. He was a member of the ‘Blue Caps’ Battalion team that won the Aldershot Command Senior League for the 1921 – 1922 season.
Benjamin and Mary Catherine Bembridge were married on 3 January 1922 in Alvaston Parish Church, Derby. On their marriage certificate he was described as a Soldier based in Aldershot. In the run up to the disbandment of the RDF he transferred to the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers (NF) on 18 May 1922. He was immediately promoted to Lance Sergeant, backdated to 15 May.
In July 1922 Benjamin, with his wife Mary, was posted abroad to the British Army Garrison in Cologne, Germany as part of the Army of Occupation. Their daughter, Joan Mary was born there on 11 February 1923. Her birth was announced in the Regiment’s ‘St George’s Gazette’. Their 2nd daughter, Mary Catherine was also born in Cologne on 14 September 1925, but tragically her mother died that same day after giving birth. Mary Catherine’s body was returned to England, and she was buried in Boulton St Mary’s Church, Alvaston, Derby. Benjamin’s service in Germany ended in January 1926, but he remained in the Army in the UK. He was promoted to Sergeant on 11 February 1926.
In January 1928 he was transferred from the 1st Battalion NF and took over command of the Drill Hall in Gosforth, which was one of the Drill Halls where the 5th Territorials were based. In August 1928 Benjamin married his sister-in-law Margaret Thyrza Bembridge, who had had a child whilst unmarried. According to the family, their marriage was suggested by Catherine Bembridge, Mary and Margaret’s mother. They married at the Register Office in Newcastle and Margaret joined Benjamin in Gosforth. In 1930 he was Permanent Instructor of the Gosforth Detachment and was awarded the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. By 1931 he was a Company Sergeant Major with the 5th Northumberland Territorials. He served in the Army until July 1933.
Benjamin and Margaret returned to Derby and lived in Allenton. Benjamin played an active role in local football and was known to have been a coach for Shelton United.
He died in 1958. His death certificate recorded that he had been a Steel Worker (Engineering). He too was buried in Boulton St Mary’s Church, where his first wife, Mary Catherine had been buried.
About the researcher
Benjamin’s story has been researched by his granddaughter, Lyn Edmonds. Lyn knew very little about his life before her mother, Joan was born in Germany, so it was a surprise to find out about Gallipoli and indeed how fortunate Benjamin had been to survive that campaign. Lyn and her husband, Keith visited Gallipoli to follow in Benjamin’s footsteps, and this became something of a habit – they visited 14 times in total! They have both played active roles with the Gallipoli Association, including the organisation of many events during the centenary, in the UK and in Turkey. Highlights included wreath laying at the Helles Memorial in 2015, the Gallipoli Centenary Education Project, which was followed by Away from the Western Front – and Benjamin’s story was the initial inspiration.