In service of humanity
Says his name is sumner and that life is sacred
but tell that to the fishes and the higher-ups
since this husk is a tatter of nerves and a glister of scars
Creating the Centena
Like many family stories, that of my paternal great-grandfather Horace Reginald Sumner’s service during the First World War is clouded by time and fading memory. This is what we know: he was a religious man who served on three separate hospital ships, the Asturias, the Plassy and the Karapara. After the war was over, he named his house after this third vessel. I can only speculate what it had meant to him to do so.
We are in possession of a few other tantalising snippets: we think he was a member of the St John’s Ambulance before the war (the title of my centena is taken from their motto) and may well have been a pacifist, since my Dad’s father and other grandfather were both conscientious objectors. We’re almost certain – thanks to a precious copy of his service record – that he attended the wounded at the Battle of Jutland. And according to my Gran he once stopped a patient from throwing himself into the sea.
It is this sliver of a story that I wanted to explore in my centena. I never met Horace and the gaps in my knowledge are so large that to write as him felt wrong. Here, then, was a way of thinking about him, through the eyes of another; someone presumably in a desperate mental state who made a connection at a most-needed moment.
Over the past couple of years, Horace has started to take on a more solid form, thanks in part to the Facebook page Hospital Ships Of The Grand Fleet 1914-18. Run by Andrew Wingrove – whose grandfather may well have served with Horace – this is an excellent resource for anyone looking to learn more about hospital ships, and Andrew has helped my family discover previously unknown photos of Horace on board the Plassy.
As part of the 26 Armistice project, I shared Horace’s service record with the Museum of the Royal Navy, who identified that he was part of the Royal Naval Auxiliary Sick Berth Reserve (RNASBR). This would make sense – many RNASBR recruits were originally St John’s Ambulance members.
Sometimes, though, the best discoveries are all in the timing. While working on my centena I went back to the Facebook page, scrolling through photos to get a sense of Horace’s life, when out of nowhere a pair of eyes I would now know anywhere stared back at me. I wrote a post, asking my stepmum Jill if she agreed. She did, but then my cousin Chris popped up, out of the blue, and asked: “Is that the chap on the photo on Gran’s mantelpiece?” We had no idea what photo he meant. Minutes later my phone pinged – a message from Jill with what looks like a professional portrait (the photo you’re looking at now) of young man with very serious eyes dressed in his RNASBR uniform. Somehow, unexpectedly a photo had surfaced amongst my Gran’s things, one we’d never seen before. It was Horace Reginald Sumner.
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