With the Canteens: the story of Private Antonio Dellafera
In 1917 Turin became a location for the medical treatment of British soldiers in Italy during the First World War. In May of that year Sir Walter F Becker, an English resident of Turin offered an auxiliary hospital which he was maintaining there for use by British casualties. In April 1918 that hospital was acquired by the British Army and became the ‘B’ section of the 29th Stationary Hospital, which had relocated from Salonika. Hundreds of troops would have been treated there, either in transit to Salonika and other campaign areas, or on return journeys to the UK having been taken off at Turin when they became too ill to complete the journey. Those who died in the hospital are buried in the Turin Town cemetery and their stories formed the focus of the ‘Turin Men’ project. Little is known of the many who recovered, but this is the story of one man, Private Antonio Dellafera, a soldier of Italian descent who found himself in the British Army and being treated in a hospital in Turin.
Antonio was one of the lucky ones. He survived the war, and the influenza pandemic, and returned to England to continue with his life. No written records have survived of his time in Italy, and he never spoke of it, so nothing would be known about it were it not for a series of photographs that lay unsorted in an old biscuit tin, handed down through his family. These will come into the account shortly. First, some background on how he came to be in the British Army.
In 1881 the census records Antonio’s father, Francesco Dellafera as a 15 year old, living in a lodging house with 13 other Italian boys in Eyre Court, Holborn, close to Clerkenwell Road, the heart of London’s Little Italy. He was a ‘street musician’. He would have been apprenticed to a padrone in his home village of Calabritto, in the mountains to the east of Naples, under some kind of contract drawn up with his parents. The padrone would have taken charge of him for a number of years, furnishing him with board and lodgings and an instrument – perhaps a barrel organ, or perhaps just a tin whistle – and pocketing his daily earnings in return for a fee paid to the family.
By 1888, with his contract presumably expired, Francesco had moved out of the centre of London to a lodging house in Croydon, where again there was a large community of Italians. There he met and married Teresa Trimarco, herself a street musician, and an immigrant from Senerchia, a village in Campania a few kilometres from his own (another immigrant from Senerchia ran the lodging house). By 1891 Francesco and Teresa had one son, Filippo and as the census shows they were living as a family in another lodging house in Croydon, along with Teresa’s widowed mother Rachela, and Teresa’s four siblings. All of them right down to the youngest, who was just 10, were all working as street musicians.
Around 1894 the family, now with three sons, moved to Basingstoke in Hampshire. Initially again they were lodgers in a lodging house, but then somehow things turned around, and by 1897 Francesco was the manager. The Edwardian period saw a remarkable improvement in their fortunes. By 1911 they had over 30 lodgers in the main lodging house, and another dozen in the house next door. Teresa had started to trade in almost anything that could be bought and sold, and they invested in property throughout the town. Francesco had acquired British citizenship in 1908.
Antonio’s early life
It was into this world that Antonio was born in 1898, the youngest of the family’s four surviving sons (two others died in infancy). This studio portrait from 1900 presents a well-dressed family, Francesco in a check three piece suit, the boys in tweed jackets and knickerbockers. Only Teresa’s dress, and the earrings on Filippo, the eldest son, would mark them as Italian.
Antonio followed his brothers to the local council school, Fairfields. This photograph shows him in the classroom aged 12 (second row, far right), in what was probably his last year. The blackboard at the back of the class gives the date, “21st October 1910” (105th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar); below that the quotation for the day is from Nelson: “England expects that every man this day will do his duty”. Although the home language was Italian, the brothers received a very English education, and they all anglicised their names: Filippo became Phillip; Agostino became Gus; Fortunato became Frank; and Antonio became Tony.
The Dellafera family’s war
After leaving school Antonio worked in the family business. He was fifteen when the First World War broke out. Leading up to the First World War, Italy was allied with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary in the Triple Alliance. However, in August 1914 Italy declared its neutrality and in 1915, Italy signed the secret Treaty of London and joined the war on the side of the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia). Despite the uncertainty over Italy’s allegiance at the outbreak of war the Dellafera family showed the range of reactions of a typically British family. Francesco, the father, signed up as a Special Constable. One son, Frank, joined the 1/4th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment just two days after the declaration of war. He was deployed to India and then in early 1915 to Basra, where he transferred to the Royal Engineers, and served with the Inland Water Transport Corps – the waterways provided the best means of military transport in the harsh conditions of Mesopotamia. Phillip, married with two children and working as a tailor in London, joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1916. He became a rigger with the Kite balloon units on the Western Front. Gus, also recently married, somehow managed to spend the war in Reading running a confectionary shop.
Having spent most of the war working in the lodging house, Antonio was called up on 2 November 1917. He was then 19, and hence eligible for service overseas. His entry in the Surrey Recruitment Registers, 1908-1933 describes him as a Lodging House Assistant, 5’ 3” tall and weighing 131 pounds. Rated B2 in his medical at the recruitment office in Whitehall (‘Able to walk five miles to and from work, see and hear sufficiently for ordinary purposes’), he was classed as a ‘category man’, not fit enough to fight, but good enough for Labour Service Abroad. In his case he was assigned to the Expeditionary Force Canteens (EFC), the section of the Army Service Corps that sold food and other goods to troops serving overseas (it was a precursor to the NAAFI). His Medal Index Card gives his regimental number as a/382222, where the prefix ‘a’ indicates the EFC.
Despite the lack of any more information in the form of military records, Antonio’s photographs which survived in the old biscuit tin illustrate some of his journey throughout the war. They show that Antonio was sent to Italy, where British and French troops were being deployed to support the Italian army on the Austrian front (perhaps, knowing that he spoke Italian at home, the Army thought that they could use his skills there). One picture shows him with Army Service Corps colleagues, holding a mandolin, an instrument that had been enjoying a craze in Italy.
Another photograph shows one of the five Fiat lorries that the EFC used in Italy to provide supplies to troops who could not get to a depot; a sergeant displays Oxo Cubes, Gibb’s Carbotar Soap, MacFarlane, Lang and Co. Biscuits, and tins of Black Prince Salmon. Home produce was popular with the troops, and the authorities were keen not to disrupt local markets. Plausibly Antonio was working with the lorries.
After his enlistment in England in November 1917, Antonio would have undertaken some basic training and then journeyed to Italy. It is not known when he arrived, but it would appear that he was taken ill in early 1918 as he left a series of photographs showing that he was a patient in Turin at the hospital there. They are dated from 11 May 1918 to 28 June1918 and he appears to be convalescing during that period. The first photo is dated 11 May 1918 and shows him with a group of men dressed in Army Blues, the uniform given to convalescing soldiers. The setting is a courtyard – the courtyard of the B Section, No. 29 Stationary Hospital in Turin, which had been taken over by the British Army just four weeks before.
It is not obvious why he was there, since the hospital did not typically treat men from the Italian front- they were treated at the main 29th Stationary Hospital in Cremona, or in other hospitals in the North East. Instead Turin was used primarily for those who were in transit through Italy, travelling along the Lines of Communication, to or from Salonika or the Middle East. Perhaps, if Antonio was working on the lorries, he was far from the front when he fell ill. Whatever it was that was wrong with him, he showed no sign of it in the photographs.
The set of photographs give a sense of what daily life was like in the hospital. The men amused themselves by playing card games or chess. In addition to wearing their ‘hospital blues’ they sat outside in dressing gowns and could wear their service headgear. As can be seen in the photograph, the distinctions of rank were still recognised on the sleeve of the corporal’s jacket.
More surprising are photographs that show Antonio and other patients sightseeing in Turin. One, taken in mid-June, shows a group at the Vittorio Emanuele monument in the centre of Turin. Others, taken in the heat of late June, show them at the Superga Basilica in the hills to the east of the city. Quite how they got there is unclear. It is 15 kilometres from the hospital to the Superga Basilica, and while a tram would have got them to the bottom of the hill, the cog railway that ran the final four kilometres up to the top was closed down for the war.
Unfortunately that is all that is known of Antonio’s wartime experiences. The last photographs, those at the Basilica, are dated 28 June 1918; whatever had put him in hospital was serious enough to have kept him there for at least seven weeks. At some point after that he was discharged from the hospital, and at some point from the army.
After the war
After the war, Antonio returned home to Basingstoke. The family had been very lucky. All four sons had survived, with no serious injuries. Phillip, who had spent the last months of the war at the RAF Balloon Training Wing in Kent, returned to tailoring in London; he went on be Principal of the Tailor and Cutter Academy, and to author several classic works on fine tailoring. Frank came back from Basra, got married, and, seemed to make the best of the knowledge he had gained on the Mesopotamian waterways, established a marine engineering business in Basingstoke, servicing the boats on the Basingstoke canal. Gus took over the running of the lodging house from his parents.
Antonio established a second-hand furniture shop, and then, in 1929, married a local girl, Florence Frude, one of the family’s tenants, and bought a large Queen Anne house in New Street in the centre of town to establish an antique business. Patricia, their only child, was born in 1930. By the time of the Second World War the sons were too old for active service. Antonio became an air-raid warden. Italy, of course, was now on the other side, but the Italian connections ran deep. The parental household, now moved from the lodging house to a rather more substantial house down the road, became a source of support to a new generation of involuntary immigrants: Italian prisoners of war, billeted with the local farmers, would come for Sunday lunch.
About the researcher
Richard Holton is a professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Peterhouse. He was born and brought up in Basingstoke and is the grandson of Antonio.