Blinded, contracted typhoid, torpedoed

24 August 2017 09:00

Any one of these would change a person’s life and present numerous challenges, but for someone to be affected by all three is hard to imagine.

That is what happened to a young South African soldier who became one of our blind veterans in the First World War.

Blind Veteran Corporal Albert James Mason
Corporal Albert James Mason pictured above on the left

Corporal Albert James Mason enlisted in September 1914 and came to Britain to join the 15th London regiment. He was blinded in the Battle of the Somme on 7 October 1916 and eventually arrived at our hostel in Regent’s Park in January 1917.

As part of his recovery and rehabilitation he learnt many skills and eventually became proficient in poultry farming - something he wanted to pursue when he returned home to South Africa, as well as basket making and netting.

On learning of her son’s fate, his mother traveled to England to be close to him and stayed with relatives in London.

In March 1917 Albert temporarily left our hostel and went to stay with his uncle for a weekend in Edmonton North London. It was during this visit that he contracted typhoid. This resulted in him being admitted to The Edmonton Military Hospital, where he stayed for two months recovering from this serious disease.

Blind Veteran Corporal Albert James Mason

Two months before the end of the war on 12 September 1918, after completing his training and leaving the hostel, he and his mother set sail from Devonport with hundreds of other South African wounded servicemen, their families and other companions on the HMHS (His Majesty’s Hospital Ship) Galway Castle heading for the Port of Natal.

Three days later in the North Atlantic, the liner was attacked by the German U boat U82 the Heinrich Middendorff. It fired its torpedoes, seriously damaging the ship and resulting in around 150 casualties.

The Masons were very fortunate and after being rescued were taken back to England, with Albert returning to Regent’s Park to await another ship to repatriate him and his mother.

Scarred by her experiences during the attack at sea, his mother refused to leave England until the war was over, but on 31 December 1918 nearly two months after Armistice Day, they set sail again arriving safely in South Africa a few weeks later.

Albert soon found a plot of land (of some 600 acres) and started his post war life as a poultry farmer putting to good use everything that he had learnt with us.

Within a short time he had planted sugar cane and had acquired a number of cattle which enabled him to sell considerable amounts of butter from the farm. To further add to his income he managed to set up a contract with a company in Durban who would buy all his netting products at a good price.

In late 1921 Albert returned to England to take a joinery course with us and it was during this time that he met his future wife, Miss Margaret Sanderson. They were married at North Berwick near Edinburgh on 29 December 1922.

On returning to South Africa, Albert and Margaret continued to make a success of their businesses and had three children – two daughters and a son.

Life treated the family well until Albert died on 11 April 1976.

To see more stories from our Historical Photography Project click here or check our Facebook page for our #ThrowbackThursdays.