Henry Alfred Hillman – RFC-RAF Cook & Aircraft Mechanic with the North Russia Expeditionary Force in 1919
Henry Alfred Hillman survived World War One. Those who died gave their lives.
Many of those who lived through it all gave the rest of their lives as the result of their horrific experiences!
My Great Uncle – Henry Alfred Hillman – was to me as a child, a mysterious person whom I never met – he died two years before I was born. I learned about him from my father, who described how his war service had unsettled him, and he was never “quite right” afterwards. My father could only tell me that he had fought in the First World War, that he had been gassed, and that he had served in Russia, and had never really recovered from his experiences.
Many years later I began to do research on Great Uncle Henry – fondly known to my father as “Uncle Alfie” from his second name. I quickly came up against a brick wall with the attempt to acquire his service record from the Historical Disclosures Section of the Army Personnel Centre. I even had his Service Number, or so I thought, from a photo card of which I have copies, that he sent to a number of relatives. The response came back that there was no trace found for the name or number, and thus his record must be one of those lost to fire during the Second World War. I also learned later that Service Numbers were not necessarily with a man throughout the War, but could be changed on transfers.
So there he remained – a mystery – until I happened to mention him to a person we met in Australia. She put the query out over the wires, and by the next morning he had been found – in the Royal Flying Corps – not in the Army at all. His Service Record was quickly found and provided the basis for further research.
Henry’s Service Record indicates that he was with the North Russia Expeditionary Force between the dates of 4th July 1919 and 14th September 1919. This is a period of a little over two months – or 73 days to be exact. It is not clear from the record whether the dates are inclusive of the period in Russia, or include periods during which he was travelling there and back – most likely by sea. There is a gap of six weeks between his record at RAF Halton (19th May 1919) and his transfer to the North Russian Expeditionary Force (4th July 1919). He was “dispersed” from RAF Blandford to RAF Halton only a month after his time with the NREF ended on 13th October 1919 where his Service Record ends.
No information has been found as to where he was based while in Russia, nor how he was involved, other than that he was a “cook”. His promotion record indicates that by January 1918 he was an Air Mechanic, 3rd Class with the RFC, and shortly afterwards on 1st April 1918 a Private, 2nd Class.
Henry joined up late in the War in mid 1917. He recorded his Will, and wrote a letter to his parents and siblings the day before he joined up on 18th June 1917. He was just 23 years old. We do not know why he waited so long before enlisting. It is evident he saw his duty as being to England, and not any King nor Government. His thoughts prior to departing are recorded in the letter to his parents, reproduced as an annex below. In 1918 he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, which evolved into the Royal Air Force by April of the same year.
Apart from the dates on his Service Record of his time in Russia, it has not been possible to obtain any further information on what he actually did or where he travelled in North Russia. However, reading between the lines in his letters to his brother (my Grandfather) later in life, and background reading on the later stages of the War in Russia, a likely scenario emerges.
He clearly suffered from his experiences, and this remained with him for the rest of his life, to his death from emphysema and heart degeneration in 1946, aged only 52. This is further borne out by the letters he sent to his brother, while he – Henry – travelled to Australia for a year in 1933 “to get away from it all”. The letters contain the phrases –
- “Giving his nerves a rest”
- “get rested a bit more”
- “get over my trouble”
- “can’t break that mental connection off here”
- “They know about it here and it comes from all over Western Australia and still comes from England”
- “I cannot break off that telepathic connection”
This was 13 years after the events of the Great War, giving some indication of its longterm effects upon him. He died in 1946, another 13 years after his Australian trip, and 26 years after his experiences in Russia. While he makes no actual mention of his time in the Great War, all the information we have from this man’s life points to traumatic experiences at that time.
So what on earth happened that he felt like this, and how did he come to suffer from a gas attack, sometime after gas had last been used, and then on the Western Front where he did not serve?
We have found no direct evidence, but there are a number of events during the very brief North Russia Expeditionary Force existence that may well indicate what these experiences were.
Ira Jones in his 1938 book “An Air Fighter’s Scrapbook” recounts how they travelled by ship from Leith in Scotland, arriving at Archangel (Archangelsk) in Russia in June and leaving again in September 1919. This was a volunteer RAF unit, known locally as No.3 Squadron under Geoffrey “Beery” Bowman. This period almost exactly coincides with Henry’s Service Record NREF period (4th July – 14th September 1919). Ira Jones reports are all from the Archangel and Bereznik airfield area with no mention of the use of gas, apart from one brief aside. He mentions a colleague (Roddy Waugh) involved in August with gas bombing from the air at Pinega – east of Archangel and Beresnik.
Simon Jones (1999) however, records the use of “M bombs” delivered from the air by the Archangel and presumably Beresnik based RAF between 27th August and 4th September 1919 on the villages of Emtsa Station, Chunova, Plesetskaya Station, Vikhtova and Pocha. Soon afterwards (12-22 September 1919) they were dropped from the air by Murmansk based RAF aircraft on the villages of Kavgora, the Chorga line, Lijma, Mikheeba Selga, Tavoigor(a), Zapolki and Koikori on the Shunga Peninsula of Lake Onega. Following this, all M devices were in theory dumped in the White Sea as the British withdrew, although some evidence suggests the Russians were provided with a number (Jones 1999).
A map showing those locations bombed with M gas bombs has been compiled. The airline distance from Murmansk to the Shunga Peninsula in Lake Onega is 700 km. This seems an unlikely distance for a WWI aircraft – 1,400 km return flight? Bereznik was 800 km return from Shunga, and only 480 km to Pocha for example. Archangel to Pinega was only 300 km return.
Did Henry become mixed up with these gas experiments and attacks – was he an Air Mechanic working on one of the airfields involved – Murmansk, Archangel or Beresnik?
Ira Jones also makes mention of the military executions carried out on soldiers that mutinied in the local area – both British and Russian – and clearly found it a harrowing experience himself. These mutinies are apparent from other accounts from this period –
- John Kelly, an Australian, recalled the campaign as one of “failures, treachery, hardship, mutiny and dangerous experiments” (Millar 2015).
- Millar (2015) also mentions a number of mutinies amongst the forces involved.
Mention is made in the Great War Forum of No.1, 2 and 3 Slavo-British Squadrons, or Slavo-British Air Corps (SBAC) serving in North Russia.
Peter Cooksley in his 2013 book “RFC Handbook 1914-1918” mentions the NREF assisting two White Russian forces – “Eklope” (or Elope?) at Archangel and “Syren” further north at Murmansk.
The picture becomes much grimmer reading through Simon Jones 2015 account of the experimentation with a new gas warfare system in North Russia – the “M Device”. This was a means of delivering “diphenylaminechloroarsine” as a fine dust. Its effects seem not to have been fatal, instead causing great discomfort that prevented normal activities for a time. The M bombs were dropped from the air on a number of villages in order to halt the advance of the Bolshevik forces. Some British personnel exposed to the gas suffered from longterm debilitation – pains in the legs, head and back, extreme debility, anaemia and diarrhoea, lassitude, fatigue, some paralysis, giddiness and breaking out in cold sweats some months later. One Australian sufferer who appeared five months later in front of a medical board in England was found to be “pale, nervous, and suffering from various phobias”, too afraid to return to Australia by ship.
The use of the weapon ended once it was found to require very specific conditions of wind and rain, and with the sudden retreat from North Russia in October 1919. The 47,000 unused devices were dumped in the sea (Jones 1999).
While only circumstantial, it would seem very likely that Henry too, somehow in his humble occupation as a cook and/or aircraft mechanic, was also exposed to the gas, and possibly the horrors of mutiny and subsequent public executions. We have no hard evidence, but these would certainly have been attenuating circumstances for what we would probably today call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – a syndrome that even today military personnel can suffer from for years after being involved in warfare of any kind.
The villages mentioned as having been subjected to these gas attacks in North Russia have been mapped and may give some idea of where Henry was located during his North Russia service. Archangel or Murmansk areas would seem the most likely, given the lack of any mention of using gas bombs by Ira Jones, based at Beresnik. However, many of the sites where M gas was used must have been reached most efficiently by air from Bereznik? Perhaps the lack of mention in Jones account relates to an attempt to keep this use of gas as little advertised as possible.
Australians were clearly very involved in the NREF, so it is of interest that this is where Henry went some years later to try to “get over his troubles”. He also may have come across other Australians when in training in Britain before going to Russia since there were many Australians in training at RAF Blandford. It is evident from his photo albums of his Australia trip that he knew people already there.
We may never find further details of my Great Uncle’s service in and after World War One. While he served for only a short period, and never on the front line in mainland Europe in the famous theatres of war, but in the little-known aftermath – the ill-timed attempt to intervene in Russia ended with an ignominious withdrawal, with the loss of much equipment and armament.
Cooksley, Peter. 2013. RFC Handbook 1914-1918. History Press.
Jones, Ira. 1938. An Air Fighters Scrapbook. Casemate Books, USA.
Jones, Simon. 1999. When Chemical Weapons were first dropped from the air, North Russia 1919. Imperial War Museum Review No.12: 78-87
Kinvig, Clifford. 2007. Churchill’s Crusade: The British Invasion of Russia 1918-1920. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Millar, Patric. 2015. From Glen Innes to Archangel : the story of John Robert Cowan Kelly. Digger 50:13-17
Milton, Giles. 2013. Winston Churchill’s shocking use of Chemical Weapons. Guardian, 1 Sep 2013.
Annex – Henry Alfred Hillman’s letter to his parents on departing for the War
Dear Father, Mother, Brother, Sisters
If I die on Service or while in the Service, do not mourn for me.
I consider that the sacrifice of my life in this war, is not a life thrown away, but a life given for England, which my citizenship demands I should give in the time of England’s peril.
I shall do my best to get in a combatant corps, that I may share the fullest dangers with the best of England’s manhood.
I go to fight for no King, no Emperor, no Government; no one Denomination, no Sect, no extension of Empire, no subjection of Foreign People’s, but just that every Englishman and every Englishwoman may live his or her life, according to their own ideals and thoughts, which differ in different people, in a perfect state of security.
When this war is over, I beg you all to work and live for peace, when consistent with honour and to try to keep the military caste and sensational press in a position from whence they can no longer teach and demand war.
Remember however that there is no true peace and security in dishonour and if the time should come again, as it came in 1914, when you should have to choose between peace and dishonour, do not hesitate, let it be war.
With sincerest good wishes for everyone and fondest love
P.S. If you cannot understand my frame of mind, do not worry, as we all do things from different motives.
I go to war with a serene and contented mind, content and determined to do all in my power to use my body and strength to their fullest extent in countering the Germans’ evil and material ambitions of conquest and to leave the judgment of my actions and the cause for which I fight, to the Powers above.