Our WWI prisoners of war veterans

13 July 2017 10:00

Our Brighton centre has recently held one of their regular week long get togethers for some of our ex-prisoners of war. Quite a number of our blind veterans were POWs, going back to those who joined us in our early years.

Black and white photo of 5 unidentified POWs
David Ironside was born in Glasgow in March 1880. He worked as an engineer before joining the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders in early 1907, serving as a Corporal. David is on the far left of the photograph above, taken at our then headquarters in Regent’s Park, London.

During World War I he saw action in France and towards the end of September 1918 was wounded by an enemy hand grenade which left him blind in both eyes. It was during this battle that he was captured by the Germans. However, like Private Frederick Aubrey, about whom we have previously written, he became an exchanged prisoner of war as the war was drawing to a close and the Germans did not want to take on the responsibility of extra mouths to feed and men to accommodate.

David joined us in March 1919 and learnt Braille, typewriting, netting and carpentry. He stayed with us until June 1921, after which we were able to help him set up his own workshop business in Glasgow, making trays, picture frames and cabinets. Very sadly David died, at a relatively young age, in tragic circumstances. In 1931 he went on holiday to Canada and the USA visiting his brother who had emigrated there. He went swimming in Lake Washington, got into difficulties, and drowned.

Alfred Adams, shown far right in the photo below, enlisted in 1917 with the West Yorkshire Regiment and lost his sight in France in April 1918. He was captured and spent several months as a prisoner of war in Germany. Alfred joined us towards the end of 1918. He learnt Braille, typewriting, boot-repairing and to make woollen rugs. He proved so adept at boot-repairing that we asked him to help teach other veterans this popular skill.

Black and white photo of 3 blind veterans prisoners of war with nurse standing outside
After leaving our hostel in 1920 Alfred worked as a boot repairer and rug maker in Doncaster and enjoyed family life with his wife and their son. His interests included gardening. Alfred died in 1964.

Another of our blind veterans, Gilbert Nobbs, wrote dramatic accounts of his experiences as a prisoner of war. Serving in the London Rifle Brigade during the war, he was shot through the head at the Somme and left lying, blinded, in a shell hole for two days. He was officially reported as killed, and for four weeks his family thought he was dead. Gilbert was actually transferred to a German hospital and then spent three months in a POW camp in Hanover. After his release he came to us and learnt Braille and typewriting. 

Gilbert wrote three books, including one specifically about his experiences as a POW Englishman, Kamerad! Right of the British Line (recently re-published as In Battle & Captivity : A British Officer’s Memoirs of the Trenches and a German Prison Camp).

Gilbert later emigrated to Australia with his wife and family and went on to have a highly successful business career there, becoming managing director of the Australasian division of a company, Holbrooks, at what was then the largest Worcestershire sauce factory in the British Empire. Gilbert’s remarkable account of his time as a POW is now freely available online.

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