Frederick William Relf (Fred)

Birth Date:
Death Date:
Service Branch:
Army Service Corp
Service Number:

Frederick William Relf (Fred) is cente back with pipe in mouth in the above photo. Born 20 June 1888 in Wodden near Hawkhurst in Kent. He was married 01 January 1913 at the Parish Church in Benenden, Kent to Gertrude Bridgland.
Their first child, a son Frederick James Relf, was born 15th October 1913 followed by a brother, Harry Roland Relf born on 2nd June 1915.
It was shortly after this that Frederick William Relf joined the First World War effort. He enlisted, we think, in 1915, not long after the birth of his 2nd son.
The National Registration Act of July 1915 compelled everyone between 15 & 65 to register. By September of that year it was obvious to the government that large numbers of eligible men were still available. On 16th October 1915 Lord Derby introduced his so called ‘Derby Scheme’ which allowed men one last chance to enlist voluntarily. We think that it was around this time that he volunteered. He was then aged 27 and married with two children.
Unfortunately his military records were part of the batch destroyed during WWII so we cannot be sure but the Relf Family Bible states ‘Frederick William Relf, Groom & Gardener, volunteered for 1 year along with his brother Ernest James Relf, who volunteered for 3 years.
Conscription was introduced on 27th January 1916 for all British males. The Derby Scheme closed in the December of 1915.
Fred was a groom by profession when he joined the Army Service Corps (ASC). From his Service Number M2-138968 we know he was in the Mechanical Transport (the motorised branch of the transport section). The ASC consisted of less than 7,000 men of all ranks at the beginning of the war but by May 1915 they reached 130,000.
The rate of pay depended on skill level which, in general, was more than infantry men. Some new recruits were lucky to get higher pay rates than some of the old regulars, which caused much discontent as you would imagine. Later in the war new recruits were restricted to about 2s. 4d. per day but the lucky few remained on higher rates. No record exists to tell us what Fred was being paid.
Once in the ASC, training took place, we believe, in London where driving lessons were given in order that he could become a supply truck driver in service. There are alarming stories of how many civilians were run down by these learner drivers during their training period.
The next we know is that Fred is shipped out to Egypt before being put on another ship to Salonika in Greece. Fortunately he had a sympathetic employer who allowed his family to remain housed whilst he was away at war. In fact his family were re-housed by the same employer whilst he was away – more about that later.
Alan Wakefield and Simon Moody’s book ‘Under the Devil’s Eye: The British Military Experience in Macedonia 1915-1918’ tells the full story. I have made reference here to some of the recorded letters in the book that have been reproduced by military personnel at the time.
To give a taste of conditions an extract written by Captain A.G. Wade, who arrived in Salonica as a Loading Officer, in November 1915:
‘At Salonica the ships arriving carried two or three thousand men and four or five hundred animals, plus, say, a thousand tons of stores, which would be discharged in the hour or two from five or six ships at once, simultaneously with another dozen cargo ships anchored in the harbour outside and discharging into lighters’
This all sounds a logistical nightmare to me and, of course, there was also a risk to shipping from enemy naval action. Fred would have been in the middle of all this.
Another extract written by Private William Knott returning from Serbia, 18th December 1915:
‘My word, what a change in Salonica and its surroundings. Besides four new divisions landing, also thousands of French. The roads were lined with base hospitals, ammunition stores, supply stores of huge stacks some 40ft high of bully beef, biscuits, milk and jam and other necessaries, huge bakeries, long strings of motor lorries, ASC convoys, infantry limbers, while the harbour is packed with hospital ships, transport, warships and launches. In fact it is a revolution for Orientalism into military organisation’.
ASC company 598 was formed in October 1915 4th base depot in Salonika, and Kalamaria.
It was the ASC convoys that Fred would join, taking much needed supplies up to the front line. In amongst some of the surviving photographs that were discovered after Fred’s death in 1958, were pictures taken whilst he was in Greece. Unfortunately there were no details to describe who took them but at least we have some record as to the conditions in which he was serving.
I have tried to imagine what it was like to drive a chain driven solid tyre truck with just a canvas canopy for a cab and no windscreen, carrying loads of 3 tons, on dirt roads.
Although Fred volunteered for 1 year (according to the family bible) he did not have home leave back to the UK for over 2 years. Unfortunately no letters, which must have existed, between Fred and his wife, Gertrude, survive within the family.
When Fred finally returned home, after more than 2 years away, his family had been moved to a different house that he had never seen. So, there he is, probably still in his Private’s uniform with kitbag over his shoulder, walking down a street he has never seen before – stops to ask a small boy if he knows where the Relfs live? Yes, the boy replied, it’s where I live! It was his eldest son – neither recognised the other after 2 years separation. This story was told by my father, Frederick James Relf (Jim) 1913-2009, and of course Frederick William Relf was my Grandfather.
He was one of the lucky ones who came home as did his brother Ernest James Relf 1885-1974, having served in France during WWI. However my grandmother, Gertrude Relf, nee Bridgland, lost two brothers, one in France in 1916 and one in Gaza in the Middle East in 1917. Both were killed in action, but that is another chapter.
After the war Fred & Gertrude increased the family to three with the birth of Winifred Iris Relf (Iris) born in 1924. His driving skills, from his ASC days during WWI, came to the fore and in his time he taught others to drive.
His full narrative, together with sources and citations is available on the study website.

Author: Chris Relf, member #029 of The International Relf Society.