SSAFA commemorates the First World War

Frederick John Meachin

Stories from the First World War

Frederick John Meachin

Paul Whittle, volunteer for SSAFA Dorset, shared the story of his grandfather Frederick John Meachin the first of some 200 soldiers to get out of Belgium with British nurse Edith Cavell’s assistance.

Edith Cavell paid the ultimate price for helping Allied soldiers to escape occupied Belgium during World War One. Her execution by a German firing squad in 1915 caused international condemnation. For Frederick Meachin - the first of some 200 soldiers to get out of Belgium with Cavell’s assistance - it was 20 years before he felt able to talk about his daring escape.

CSM Meachin, who made his escape attempt with Lt Col Dudley Boger DSO, didn’t talk about it at all until after the death of the Colonel. But in 1939 he told journalists: “Nurse Cavell was one of those people you can never forget. I recall her as a small, slightly-built woman of middle age. Her face was full of determination and there was a light in her eyes that gave you the impression that she loved life. She was typical of the best type of hospital matron, the kind that gets things done without you noticing that they are being done.”

On the morning of August 24, 1914, the first of the Battle of Mons, Meachin, then a Sergeant, was in charge of a platoon of the Cheshires marching south west from Bossu Bois. He recalled: “They say you don’t hear what hits you but I heard the whine of the spent bullet: it caught me just below the temple and I was knocked out. When I recovered later in the day, hell was let loose. The battle was in full progress.

“My wound had been dressed and I had been dragged to cover. Three times our cavalry charged the German guns which were in the open but protected by strands of barbed wire. Plunging, riderless horses galloping back to their base added to the hazards from shells and machine-gun fire. I lost consciousness again and the next time I knew a German doctor was standing over me.”

Meachin found his way to a Red Cross post in the convent of Witheries and it was there that he found his Colonel lying wounded. The pair managed to obtain some civilian clothes and four days later were able to walk out of the convent. The wife of a Mons solicitor, Madame Lebe, hid them in a loft at the bottom of her garden. Meachin recalled: “I was given the overalls and jacket of a labourer and, as a silent explanation of why I was not with the armed forces I put pads between my shoulder blades to turn me into a hunch-back. As I could speak no French I used to practice acting daft.”

When the pair left the loft they found an outhouse to hide in but Meachin said the owner was ‘greatly distressed’. “The Germans were under the impression that Colonol Boger was a general she told us and a tremendous fine would be imposed upon the villagers if we were found. We had to get out.”

They moved on again and found shelter at the convent of Wasmes where they were contacted by a gentleman named Capiau, a friend of both the Lebes and Nurse Cavell. He arranged photographs for false documents and then gave them food, a map and the key to the Lebes’ townhouse in Mons which happened to be opposite the German General HQ. Meachin said: “We stayed there cold, with little to eat and scarcely daring to move for three days. At 7am the next day we met Capiau near the railway station: he gave us our tickets and the three of us took our seats in a different part of the train for Brussels. On arrival there Capiau drove us to an institute of some kind.”

In fact, it was the clinic in which Nurse Cavell had been training Belgian nurses when war broke out. They were shown into a back room and it was there Meachin met Cavell for the first time. He said: “She seemed overjoyed to see us. She ordered food, fixed up where we were to sleep and arranged for an operation on the colonel’s foot.”

They were eventually given passports and after arranging to meet the Colonel again in Flushing, Meachin left for the Dutch coast with a fisherman, however the man quickly deserted him when they encountered some German soldiers. “That night I slept in a pigsty and when morning came walked up the road towards Brussels to lie throughout the day in a ditch. I nibbled a few turnips that I found in a field and returned the following evening to Ghent.”

In Ghent he was lucky enough to encounter a man who smuggled English newspapers across the border. “On the Sunday, his day for smuggling, we put sacks on our backs and pretended to be working in a turnip field, all the time moving slowly towards the frontier. We were only 20ft away when I noticed a German sentry. We ran for it. As we got to the far bank I heard a rifle crack. I turned and saw the sentry about a hundred yards away. We hurled ourselves over the bank and the bullets must have peppered the earth behind us.”

At the Station Hotel in Flushing Meachin found a note from the Colonel waiting for him. It said ‘Have been detained. Do not wait; go on.’ Lt Col Boger’s fake passport had been spotted by a German Intelligence officer and he had been interned.

After all he had been through, on his return to Britain, Meachin found himself placed in a military prison as a suspected deserter or a spy. “I did not exactly expect to be treated like a conquering hero when I got back to England but did not expect what I got. The depot at Chester had disclaimed all knowledge of me and it was 36 hours before I could persuade the adjutant at Folkestone to consult the records department and obtain my release.”

Lt Col Boger ended the war in Switzerland where he was waiting to be exchanged with a German officer when the Armistice came and he was released. Despite everything he had been through, Meachin volunteered to go back to active service and went on to receive a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions at Oppy Wood on June 28, 1917. He retired from the Army in 1929 and died in July 1954 at the age of 65.

His grandson Paul Whittle had little opportunity to get to know his grandfather in life but has been touched to discover the regard in which Meachin is still held by his regiment. He said: “Sadly we lived down in Bournemouth and he lived up in Chester so I never really got to know him. I was only 10 years old when he died. I know he didn’t have to go back to the front but I think he wanted to.

“I went to the regimental museum up in Chester to find out more about him. Someone asked me who I was looking for. It turned out he was the archivist and he stood there and told me all about my grandfather without even looking it up! Surprisingly, the first thing he told me was that he had been good at hockey which is something I also played well.”