Through the generosity of family members, and also of a private local collector, Manx National Heritage is privileged to hold one of the most complete records of service on the battlefields in the First World War existing anywhere in the British Isles – the papers and memorabilia of two brothers from Douglas, named Roy and Cyril Corlett.
The boys were the sons of a commercial traveller, and came from a middle class household.
Upon the outbreak of war in 1914 they applied for commissions as officers, their mother using her contacts with Colonel Leigh Goldie Taubman of the Nunnery to facilitate this.
Roy was commissioned as an officer in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, whilst Cyril’s unit was the Tyneside Scottish.
Both were posted to France in 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, and Roy was badly wounded in an attack in November 1916.
Left behind in No Man’s Land, he was taken as a prisoner of war to Germany where he spent the next two years.
Roy’s life as a POW is well documented by postcards and photographs which he kept from that time, as well as objects such as his camp identity tag, and a haversack in which he kept his personal possessions.
Most remarkable however is an armband emblazoned in gothic script ‘KRIEGSGEFANGEN’ – meaning prisoner of war. In this era officers were expected to be men of their word, and if Corlett gave his word of honour that he would not try to escape he was allowed out of the camp to visit the nearby town – wearing the armband to identify him to local people as a British officer on parole.
Cyril, meanwhile, was to be involved in the Battle of Arras in the spring of 1917, and was also badly wounded. He was shot through the chest, and while awaiting evacuation the padre of his battalion wrote to his mother: ‘Your brave boy was wounded on the first day of our great advance … I happened to be with the doctors when he was brought in and so great was his enthusiasm and so loud his cheerful voice that it was hard to realise he was wounded. He was hit by shrapnel on the arm and side but his first words on seeing us were: “It’s worth it. This has been the most glorious day in my life. We laughed like to kill ourselves at the Boche. They ran like rabbits. My men went over like heroes. Topping fellows every one of them. Look here, you write my mother and tell her that I am as fit as a fiddle but can’t write on account of my arm”.’
Cyril spent nearly a year in a spinal carriage recovering from his wounds. These were severe enough that eventually he was medically discharged from the army.
By 1918, however, the British army was so short of officers that Cyril felt compelled to volunteer his services again, albeit for light duties.
He was commissioned a second time, this time into the Highland Light Infantry. Caught up once again in the maelstrom of war, this time he was posted to North Russia, where a British force sent to guard supplies was being dragged into the escalating Russian Civil War.
Cyril found himself as a British officer in a Russian battalion, fighting Bolshevik or Red forces.
By 1919 the British people were weary of war and had neither heart nor stomach for this new adventure; when the Russian soldiers under British command found that their officers were to pull out, and abandon them to the tender mercies of their brutal enemies, they rose in revolt, in what was known as the Onega Mutiny.
After murdering their Russian superiors, they took the British officers prisoner and handed them over to the Reds.
Cyril spent several months in a filthy cell in Moscow, before finally being repatriated. The Manx newspapers hailed his arrival on home soil as the last Manx POW to return.
In spite of his wounds, Cyril Corlett lived a long and happy life, and died in 1979 aged 83.
After the war Roy qualified as a doctor, and served as a ship’s surgeon. His war wounds, however, contributed to his early death in the 1930s.
Cyril’s personal items, as well as Roy’s leather jerkin worn in battle, and his POW armband, may be seen at the Manx Museum in the exhibition ‘This Terrible Ordeal’ running throughout 2014.
The brothers are also featured in the book of the same title published by Manx National Heritage.
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