Happy Birthday, Captain Tetley

RC Sheriff’s friend, Gerald Tetley, Captain and officer commanding ‘D’ Company, would have celebrated his 30th birthday, 100 years ago today. But he would likely not have been in any mood to celebrate, since he had lost his foot at Messines a couple of weeks earlier, and was still being stabilised in France, prior to being sent home to England for further treatment.

Tetley was born in Halifax, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, on 5 July 1887. He was the eldest son of Thomas Spence Tetley (around 30 when Gerald was born), described in the census of 1901 as a worsted spinner, although he was actually an employer, and therefore much more wealthy than that description makes him sound. His mother’s maiden name was Bateman, and she appears to have come from well-off stock herself. Gerald had one sister, Audrey, who was born in 1891 (and lived until 1982), and a younger brother, Walter, who was born in 1897, but died when he was just 50 years old.

Captain Gerald Spence Tetley M.C., as drawn by Private Edward Cole of the 9th East Surreys. By permission of the Surrey History Centre (Ref: ESR/19/2/7/1-15)

The wealth in the family is clear from Tetley’s educational background: he went first to Bilton Grange Prep school, and then on to Uppingham School, which he left around 1906 – much too early to have known two of its most famous students, Edward Brittain and Roland Leighton, respectively Vera Brittain’s brother and fiancé. [Brittain wrote many years later that she had been inspired to write Testament of Youth by watching Journey’s End.] After Uppingham he went on to Christ Church in Oxford where he took his BA in Greats (Classics) in 1910, four years later receiving his BCL (Bachelor of Civil Law) and beginning work as a Barrister, shortly before the war broke out.

He joined up straight away, enlisting in the Royal Fusiliers as a private on 2 September 1914; he was then commissioned in November 1914, and in October 1915 he joined the 9th East Surreys. He had been with them just six months before being wounded and sent back home to England for treatment (ironically, at Messines), but he came back to the Battalion just three months later.

On 16 June 1917 he was wounded once more, but this time more seriously. The diary of his Battalion medic, Captain George Pirie, RAMC, records on 18 June that:

‘Here we are back in a tent camp by Dickebusch Lake. It’s absolute heaven back here. We had a most trying time up these last four days. D Company suffered badly, including their O.C., Captain Tetley, who has had to have his right foot off. It was an awful job getting the wounded out as the whole country was shell-swept.’

In fact Tetley was one of over 100 wounded in the Battalion in the first two weeks of the Messines offensive, and was luckier than the many who had lost their lives. He remained in France until 13 July, when he was transferred back to England by the hospital ship St Denis. Thereafter he had a difficult time of it, remaining in hospital for several months, eventually having the leg amputated above the knee.

Sheriff may not have heard of his good friend Tetley’s wounding until some time later, because he was at Sniping School when it occurred, and returned to London on leave immediately afterwards. But Tetley kept him appraised of his progress, which seems to have been slow. By mid-September he was writing from the Sir John Ellerman Hospital in Regent’s Park in London turning down Sherriff’s invitation to join him on the river as ‘my wee leg hasn’t healed up completely yet.’ Nevertheless, he assured Sheriff that ‘I really am progressing these days – I toddle around a bit on crutches and spend the apres-midi in a wheelchair.’

Almost a year later, at the end of August 1918, Tetley relinquished his commission ‘on account of ill-health caused by wounds’. He was granted the honorary rank of Captain, and returned to practice as a Barrister-at-law in Chambers at Lincoln’s Inn in London. But he was also interested in politics, and stood as a Liberal candidate in Peckham in 1922, only to lose quite heavily to the three other candidates (Unionist, National Liberal and Labour). Nothing daunted, he continued in his political aspirations, being selected as the candidate for Stoke Newington after the 1924 election.

Unfortunately, Tetley did not live to see the 1929 election, dying in May 1928 from consumption. His death was considered sufficiently important to the battalion that there was a line in the report of the 1929 reunion of the 9th East Surreys  lamenting his passing:

‘[The Chairman] regretted to have to report the death since the last reunion of four of the members [of the 9th battalion], including Captain G S Tetley, an officer who was always extremely popular and greatly respected in the battalion.’

It is a great pity that he didn’t live quite long enough to see the great success of his young friend’s play about their shared experiences in France, which he would undoubtedly have relished.