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Jasper  Cecil  Fullarton  Hankinson 

16th June 1896 --5th January 2004

 

Jasper  on  his 107 th Birthday  16  th   June 2003

with his daughter-in-law  Margaret  and  son  Duncan

 

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.Jasper  on  his 106  th Birthday  16  th   June 2002

with his daughter-in-law  Margaret  and  son  Duncan

From the         

BIRMINGHAM POST       

                                    SATURDAY December 7 2002                                        

 To  his  comrades  in  arms,  he  was  the  Little  Swede Jasper Hankinson,  now  aged 106,  is  one of  the last  Survivors  of  the  First World  War.

He  tells  Richard McComb  of  the  battles  in  France,  his  desert  campaign  and  the last ever cavalry charge by the British Army.

Jasper Hankinson (right) pictured with his brother Bert during the Great War

It was private Jasper Hankinson’s job to go to the Front and bring back the bodies of the dead. “First of all it was a bit of a shock but you got hardened to it” he recalls.

Then it all changed. The intensity of the fighting increased and the casualties rose rapidly. The task of collecting the bodies became too dangerous and in any case there were too many of them.

Pte Hankinson’s  battalion  was told to march to the  Somme, the scene of one of the most ferocious battles in military history. But the life of the young  recruit, then  aged 20, may well of have been saved by  an unexpected  order  issued in November 1916.

  His  battalion  was  diverted from  northern  France  to  a  secret  destination. They never  reached  the trench’s  of  the  Somme,  where  the  total  number  of  casualties was  1 . 3 million.  Other  horrors  would   lie ahead for  Pte Hankinson but  on  this  day, as  with  many  others  luck was shining  on  him.

  Jasper Hankinson  is  the   second  oldest  of  only  41  surviving  British  veterans  of the  1914-18 war.  President Chirac  in  1997  awarded  him  the Legion d’Honneur,  the  highest  military  honour  in  France.

  He  is  106 years  old.  Put  another  way,  he  was  born  two  centuries  ago, in  1896. Conservative Prime Minister  Lord Salisbury  was  running  his  third  government,  a coalition  with  the  Liberals  and  Unionists.  It  was the  year  before Queen Victoria’s diamond  jubilee  and  three  years  before  the  start  of  the  Boer  War.

  Jasper  is  a  character  from  a  lost  world,  whose  experiences  are  embedded  in history  and  myth.  When  his  battalion  triumphantly  entered  Jerusalem  on Christmas  Day  1917,  it  was  as  Lawrence  of  Arabia,  the  maverick  British liaison officer,  spearheaded  the  Arab  revolt.

     Jasper  moved  into  sheltered  housing  in  Temple Balsall,  near   Knowle  earlier  this  year,  up to  then  he  had  lived  independently  in  his own  home  alone.  There  is a  congratulatory   birthday   card  from  the   Queen  on  a  table in  his  room. “The  Queen looks  particularly   nice  in  that  picture,” he  says  warmly.

  His  manners are  impeccable  and  as  he  recounts  his   exploits  he  repeats  almost apologetically: “I  hope this  is  of  some  use  to  you, Richard.”  He uses my  name  like an  old  friend.

  He  avoids  describing  the  most  horrific  aspects  of  the  conflict.   There  is  an unspoken bond  of   silence  that  masks  the  details  and  the  emotions.  It is  only  in the  eyes  that  he  hints  at  private  thoughts.

  His  war  took  him  thousands  of  miles  from  home  in rural  Herefordshire  to  France, Macedonia  and  Palestine. With  rudimentary  training,  he  lived  through  the slaughter  of  the  war  to  end  all  wars  and miraculously  is  alive  to recall  his adventures.  This  is  the  story  of  a  true  survivor.

Jasper  Cecil  Fullarton  Hankinson  was  born  on  June 16,  1896  in  Markyate, Hertfordshire,  where  his  father  Herbert  Gladstone Hankinson,  was the  headmaster of  the village  school.  The family  moved  to  Leominster,  Herefordshire,  when  his father  took  up  a  new  teaching  post  and  Jasper  later  became  captain  of Leominster  Grammar  School.

   He  was  appointed  a  junior  clerk  at  the  town’s  Board  of  Trade  Labour  Exchange in  1914. In his  spare  time,  he  was  opening  batsman  of  Leominster  Cricket  Club,  he  is  still  an  honorary  member – and  recalls  travelling  by  horse-drawn wagonette to  match’s. He  sat up front  with  the local parson  and  waited  outside  while  his older  team-mates  quenched  their  thirst  after  games.

   Jasper  enlisted  under  the  conscription  scheme  in  December 1915  but  became frustrated  at  the delay  in  being  called  up ”I  got  tired  of  waiting  to  serve  my country,  as  most  young  men  did  in  those  days,”  he  says.

   Jasper  was  posted with  the  King’s  Shropshire  Light  Infantry  at Shrewsbury  and Whitchurch  until  his  father  intervened  with  the local  MP  and  got him  into  the London Scottish Regiment,  in which his  brother  Bert  served. He  was  ordered  to Warminster,  near  Salisbury Plain,  and  quickly  picked  up  his  nickname.

    “My brother  was  with  the  same  squad  and  was  called  the  Big Swede  because he  was  very  tall  and  fair. When  I  joined  him  later  him  afterwards  they  called  me  the  Little  Swede,” he  says  with  a  chuckle.

   The  young  recruit  was  confined  to  hospital  when  he  contracted  pleurisy  but  it was  not  without  its  advantages.  “When  in  hospital  the  young  nurses  seemed  to take  a  delight  in  painting  my  tummy  with  iodine. Needless  to  say,  I  didn’t object,” he  recalls.

   He returned to training duties  a fortnight  later.  “We  had  rifle shooting.  I  was pretty  good. Then  we  used  to  have  charge. There  were sacks  that were hanging  as if  they  were bodies  and  we  had  to  charge them  with  bayonets.”

   The  training  was  limited   and  when  Jasper later  found  himself  in  Bethlehem he did  not know  to  carry  out guard duties: “I  was  worried about this as I  had never done it before during  my  training  and didn’t know  the  proper  drill. A  friend  of mine,  the  batman  of  the  company  commander arranged to do it  for me. I often regret I  didn’t have  a  go.

   Jasper and his brother sailed for France in the  troop ship Dover Castle  in June 1916. they landed at Le Havre  and  were  sent  to  the Arras  area,  where  there was  severe fighting  at  Mont St Elois  and  Vimy  Ridge.

   Jasper,  then  aged  20, had the  task  of  going  forward  to  the  battlefields  to  bring back  the dead. He drove  a  horse-drawn limber,  which  usually  carried  supplies  and munitions. The bodies  were  placed  on  the  limber  and  taken  back for  burial.

   “That was only at the beginning of the war because there weren’t many casualties. It could be done you see. But afterwards it was too big a job,  there were a lot of casualties and you could not do that sort of thing.”

   And though it was a harrowing job, it was something he took in his stride. “It wasn’t nice. You got used to it,” he says, detached from the memory.

   “I used to  sit  eating  my  sandwiches  against dead  horses. You  get  hardened. You take it in your stride  eventually.”

   “I  wasn’t frightened, but always nervous. Everybody must have been nervous. First of all it was a bit of a shock but you get hardened you see.”

   “He adds: “Things you would find disturbing you got used to.” So did the attitude of the British troops to the enemy change as casualties mounted?  “I don’t think we thought much about that.”  There was no sense of hatred or animosity, he says.

   On July 1, 1916, British troops went over the top at the start of the Battle of the Somme and Jaspers battalion was ordered to the Front at the start of November. (The battle ended on November 19.)

   “My luck was in because we were only a few miles from the Somme when we were diverted and entrained for an unknown destination,” says Jasper.

   The secret mission was to Salonika in Greece and the London and Scottish set sail from Marseille in the White Star liner Megantic.  Several years later, the notorious poisoner  Dr Crippen and his mistress Ethel Le Neve were bought back to England from Canada on the same ship.

   Heading for Salonika, Jasper was on deck as the captain of the Megantic had to weave the ship past German U-boats. “A ship in one of the convoys had recently been sunk and the survivors landed in Sicily,” recalls Jasper.

   “It was November  1916  and  snow was  on the  ground. We marched to the hills  of Macedonia,  the  Greece/Bulgarian border,  the  Dorian Front. We  spent about nine months in Greece  and  after France  it  was  a picnic.”

   Jasper  contracted  trench foot  and his  brother  was  laid  low  with  malaria. They  did not see  each  other  again until  after  the  war.

  In July 1917, the regiment was posted to Palestine. Jasper was in the company transport  section  and was  sent to  Alexandria to collect horses  and  mules  for  the advance  across the  Sinai Desert  towards  Beersheeba.

   He still  insists  there  were “no great hardships”  although  in  reality  British troops suffered  heavily from malaria, heatstroke,  cholera  and  dysentery. The conditions were  akin  to  those  of the  Crimea  War  and the  men’s rations were more limited than the meagre  supplies  given to  soldiers  on  the Western Front.

   It was  in this  environment  that  the young private  struck up a  friendship he recalls  with fondness to this day.  His constant companion for his nine-month posting in Palestine was  a  white  mule  he  christened  Snowball.

   “I was in charge of a mule which carried medical supplies,” says Jasper laughing   at the recollection. “She was quite well behaved. I got attached to her.”

   Snowball came to his rescue when he found himself  stranded.  ‘It gets  dark  very quickly  out in the East and I was with this mule  with  medical supplies  and  it went dark  all  of  a  sudden.  I had not  got a  clue where I   was.

   “So  I  said to Snowball,  ‘You’d  better  take  me  home.’  I don’t know  whether  she  was  listening  but she  did  her  stuff,  she got me  back.”

   Jasper  was  worried  his  white mule  would  make  an  easy  target  in  the  desert  for the Turkish  artillery.  But with  Snowball at  his side, he was present  at the last ever cavalry  charge  of  the  British  army.

 

  The  Worcester  Yeomanry  Cavalry  mounted the charge  at  Huj  in  the  Sinia Desert  at 1 . 30pm  on  November 8, 1917.

   The raid  against apparently  insurmountable  odds  was  reminiscent  of  the  charge  of  the  Light  Brigade  at  Balaclava  in  1854.

  Soldiers  armed  with  sabres  and  mounted  on  181  horses  charged  into  20,000 Turks, 21 German field guns and three Austrian 5.9  Howitzers.  The  victorious  and  bloody  assault  helped  to  end  centuries of  Ottoman  occupation  in  Palestine.

   Jasper  recalls: “The Turks  were on  a  ridge  and  we  were  below  in  the desert.  The  Turks were  doing  great  damage  with  their  artillery  so  it  was  decided  then  to  make  the  charge.

  “The  cavalry  did  a  most  effective  job.  The enemy  were  cut  down  and  there were  few  survivors  on  both  sides.

   I  went  over  the  battlefield  later  with  the  battalion.  All  the  killed  and  wounded  had  been  cleared  but  the  site  of  the  wounded  and  dead  horses  was  pitiful.

   General  Sir  Edmund  Allenby  led  the  Egyptian  Expeditionary  Force  into  Jerusalem  in  December 1917  and  Jasper  entered  the  Holy  City  on  Christmas  Day.  “I remember  the  Jews  applauding  us  as  we  passed by.”

   His  regiment  was  sent  back  to  France  for  the  spring  offensive  and  Jasper  had  another  lucky  escape  near  Courtrai  in  Belgium.

   “In  October  1918,  towards  the  end  of  the  war,  I  was  driving  a  pair  of  horses,  pulling  a  limber  loaded  with  ammunition  to  the  Front,  when  a  shell  burst  nearby  and  the  horses  bolted,  throwing  me  underneath  the  convoy.

   “It  must  have  been  a  near  thing,  for  a  tin  of  dubbin,  which  I  had  in  my  greatcoat,  was  squashed  flat.  I  woke  up  two  days  later  in  a  barn.  All  I  had  really  was  a scratched  ear.”

  Jasper  was  one  of  the  first  in  his  company  to  be  demobilised  and  returned  to  the  labour  exchange  in  Hereford,  where  he  met  his  future  wife,  Betty.  There  was  no  big  celebration  when  peace  was  declared.  “I  don’t  think  there  was  a  great  deal  of  excitement  about  it.”

  He  worked  for  47  years  in  the  civil  service  then  went to  help  his  son,  Duncan, who  was  running  a  market  garden  business  near  Knowle.  He  finally  stopped  working at  the  age  of  84  when  his  son retired.  Betty  died  in  1987.

   Withdrawn  before  the  Somme,  run  over  by  a  wagon,  Jasper  was  also  hit  by  a  shell.  “I  must  say  I  was  lucky  in  the  Great  War,”  he  says.

   Jasper  Hankinson  was  barely  out  of  his  teens  when  he  sailed  to  war  in  France.  He  carried  the  bodies  of  slaughtered  soldiers  and  knew  people  who  died  in  battle.

  When  pressed  about  these  experiences,  he  will  only  say: “Its  a  bit  difficult  to  explain  really.”

   The  words  tell  you  nothing  and  everything.  The  bond  of  silence  is  unbroken.

Jasper in Egypt during the Great War with comrade Frankie Garbut.

Duncan & Jaspers Ancestors

To Duncan Hankinson Page