The centenary of the start of the First World War evokes memories for Douglas resident Sylvia Stembridge of her father John Noble’s role fighting in both World Wars.
She said we should not celebrate the ‘glorious dead’ but remember more the terrible impact it had on the lives of those lost, those who survived and their relatives.
Her father was born in 1900 in Douglas and brought up in Castletown by his grandparents.
He first joined up at the age of 16, having lied about his age. ‘He was there in France when a Manx fellow said: “He is not 18, he is only 16”,’ said Sylvia. ‘That was a coincidence! Of all places, to meet a Manxman in France.’
When he turned 18, he joined up again and returned to fight in France.
Although he didn’t talk about his experiences in the Frist World War, he gave Sylvia a bone crucifix that he probably got during that war.
‘I’m not sure whether it was World War One or World War Two,’ said Sylvia. ‘He was face down in the mud and reached down, he had a full pack on his back, he could not move, he managed to move sideways, he looked for something solid and he pressed down, he heaved himself sideways and his mate pulled him out and around his epaulette there was something caught. They said: “Look at this” and that was that crucifix.
‘It bothered him, because he always thought when he pressed down in the mud he had pressed on a stone, it was a soldier’s head.
‘At the centre of the cross there is a little hole and it enlarges into a newspaper cutting about the bombing of Arras cathedral [in 1915]. He gave the crucifix to me when I was confirmed in 1948, I was 16. I have had it all these years.’
Between the wars while on a Manx boat, he met Emily Moore. The couple married and had seven children.
The stress of his war experience affected him physically and John had alopecia. One day a passer by spotted him in Castletown and recommended ground cork mixed with oil left on his scalp overnight would bring his hair back, and it did.
Work was hard to get, she said: ‘He looked for work, that’s all he ever did, they had winter work schemes. They went to Douglas town hall to demand work. It was dreadful for them, he felt responsible for his grandparents as well and he had a younger brother and sister. It was everybody, not just him.’
When the Second World War broke out, he joined up again and served as a driver in the Royal Army Service corps.
He was involved in the Battle of Dunkirk in 1940, and was one of the 338,226 troops evacuated off the beaches.
‘I remember him telling somebody the saddest thing was before wading out to the boats at Dunkirk they had to wait in a queue. For protection, they dug holes in the sand. He was with a friend and the Germans dropped bombs, his friend said: “That was close” and knelt up and there was a bomb blast and he was dead.’
He also remembered the Steam Packet vessel Mona’s Queen, which was involved in the evacuation, blowing up.
‘In the chaos and everything the most frightening thing he said was wading out to the boats because he could not swim, he did not fancy drowning. Someone said: “Take your boots off”,’ she said.
Shortly after Dunkirk he learned Emily had erroneously been sent a telegram saying he was ‘missing presumed dead’, and the army stopped his payment (to Emily). Unable to contact her any other way, he decided to physically travel to the island to reassure her.
‘When he came home from Dunkirk he was in full uniform with his gun and ammunition. I have a vague memory of him coming down the road and photographers from the newspaper following him. He was marching, and I told mum he was coming down the road. Not believing me, she shook me by the shoulders and said: “You are a very, very naughty girl.” Then she looked around the corner and, seeing it was him, ran in to take off her pinny and brush her hair. She said: “I can only give you chips and egg”.’
Her father then left with two men, perhaps for questioning. He was discharged from the army with a health pension and Sylvia suspects this was because of injuries sustained at Dunkirk: ‘When his friend got the blast my father might have got the blast as well.’
When not at war he worked as a taxi driver and had a series of intriguing assignments. He would drive in the middle of the night to the docks and pick up a mystery guest who was hidden from view behind a curtain in John’s taxi and deliver him to the house of a Dr Cannon in Douglas. The only clue to the passenger’s identity was the lingering smell of cigar. Was it Churchill, wonders Sylvia.
Her father was awarded five medals during the two conflicts and died in 1956.
Sylvia said: ‘There is nothing glorious about war at all, we should not be filling kids’ heads with stories about the “glorious dead”, if we are to truly remember them they would be making sure their families were provided for … What I find hard to accept in the Isle of Man is nobody had anything, there was a handful of people who ruled the roost, the rest were fishermen and farmers scratching a living, they were wounded physically and mentally, but no consideration was given to them. The priority should be the relatives, they are the ones that suffered.’