By John Bean.
As we move in to 2014, TV programmes, press articles and books marking the centenary of the European fratricide known as the First World War become more numerous. At this time of year many think the unscheduled break in hostilities at Christmas 1914 when British and German soldiers left their trenches, exchanged presents, sung hymns and even played a game of football – which the Germans apparently won (perhaps on penalty goals?).
In late 1979, I talked to an elderly lady who said that, when she was 17, she played a role in the tragedy of that war although she never left our shores. This was a Mrs Dorothy Mills who I interviewed for a village magazine in Suffolk where I then lived. She was believed to be the first woman car driver in the whole of West Suffolk – and a young woman at that, being only 17.
When I knew her she still had a strong Gloucestershire accent from her childhood days at Arlingham on the banks of the Severn. When she was 16 she came to Suffolk to live with her aunt and uncle who ran a grocer’s shop in Clare. Then in 1914 the First World War began, and with men going to the front in ever increasing numbers, her aunt and uncle found it more and more difficult to find drivers for the horses and carts they used to deliver groceries within 10 miles of Clare. So Dorothy Goulding (as she then was) found herself on the road to Lavenham or Long Melford delivering groceries.
Late in 1914, the Clare grocers acquired a Model T Ford van for their deliveries – the first such van seen in the area. Dorothy Mills told me that as two boys could not pick up the knack of driving it, she asked her uncle if she could have a go. Mr Harry Deaks, the Clare coach builder, brought the van along and took her up the Cavendish road then said ‘you steer it’, which she did until reaching Cavendish. Then, Mr Deaks told her: “Right, you drive it to Sudbury”. At Sudbury she was told to park outside a pub, while Harry Deaks went in to quench his thirst (and perhaps to fortify his courage). She then drove back to Clare, pulling up at the Bell Hotel.
Following three further lessons, Dorothy Mills went on her grocery rounds with the van on a regular basis. She would crank-start the old Model T herself – not bad for a 17-year-old girl – and did all the running repairs. Having once watched some mechanics take the head off the engine and carry out a ‘de-coke’, she decided that she would also do this job herself.
1915 came and it was not long before she was carrying something far more valuable than groceries in her Model T van: the shell and bullet-torn bodies of our wounded soldiers from France who arrived in ambulance trains at Ingham station.
Up to three times a week she would join a convoy of ambulances, cars and other vehicles and take the wounded from the station to the Suffolk Red Cross Hospital at Ampton Hall. The seriously wounded stretcher cases would go by ambulance and the walking wounded would go by car or van. She told me: “The worst thing was to see them coming in suffering from mustard gas burns”.
She was the only ‘woman’ driver (in reality a ‘girl’ driver) and would sometimes have to wait at Ingham station until 3.00 a.m. before the train came in. Having taken the wounded to Ampton Hall, she would then arrive back at Clare at 6 am, with only bicycle lamps on the front and candle lanterns tied to the spare wheel at the rear. She recalled battling on more than one occasion through several snow drifts and taking more than one skid on the frosty roads – and roads that bear little resemblance to those of today.
It was towards the end of the war that she picked up another victim of mustard gas at Ingham station. This was Monty Mills of a village near Clare.
In 1922 they were married and came to live in his village, where Monty Mills, being a motor engineer, opened the first local garage. In 1924 they moved away to Haywards Heath in Sussex, but she returned to Suffolk in 1965 when tragically her husband died, partly as a result of effects of the gas attack in the First World War.
I recall that when I finished my interview, Dorothy Mills, with justifiable pride, showed me a commendation she had received from the Suffolk Red Cross. Let it speak for itself:
“The Members of the 41st Detachment, Suffolk Branch, British Red Cross Society, desire to express their thanks to you for the valuable help gratuitously given by providing the means of transport, when they were summoned to render assistance in the removal of the Sick and Wounded arriving at Ingham Station, for the Suffolk Red Cross Hospital at Ampton Hall.
“Of the 92 convoys, bringing 6,568 patients, the Detachment was called on 40 occasions at all hours, and never failed to report on duty.
“We feel that it must have entailed much sacrifice on your part, but at the same time, that it was gladly undertaken with the desires of doing all in your power to help those who were suffering on our behalf.
“We ask you to accept our grateful thanks for the help you thus rendered.”
With no living relatives, Dorothy Mills, a patriot and heroine of the First World War, died alone in Bury St Edmunds hospital in 1987.