Thomas Somerville: an inspiration to others

This month marks the 75th anniversary of ‘Operation Compass’ which took place in the North African desert, in western Egypt during World War 2.  It was here, on 11 December 1940, that a member of the veterinary profession was recognised for gallantry of the highest order.

Dr Thomas Somerville was born in March 1887 in Ceylon, the son of a successful tea planter and merchant. After attending Framlingham College Suffolk, he entered the Royal Veterinary College in 1904, graduating MRCVS in 1908.  He immediately gained a place at the London Hospital Medical College, believing that a dual qualification would aid his plans to work abroad.

Somerville passed the conjoint medical examination (MRCS, LRCP) in the summer of 1914 and, at the outbreak of war, was commissioned in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He served in France throughout the war: in January 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross (MC) for ‘distinguished action in the field’, and in 1918 received a bar to the MC ‘for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.’

Captain T V Somerville c1918

Captain T V Somerville c1918

Following the armistice in 1918 he was posted to Northern Russia where he worked as a medical officer on hospital trains, caring for the casualties of the Russian Civil War.  He was awarded an OBE in 1920 for this service.

After demobilisation from the army, Somerville pursued a career in medicine, rather than veterinary medicine, working in general practice, initially near to Whitely Bay, Northumberland and then in Bournemouth.

At the outbreak of World War 2, Somerville, aged 52, volunteered for military service.  He was commissioned in September 1939 and posted as Medical Officer to the 3rd (Kings Own) Hussars the following month. The 3rd Hussars were despatched to Egypt in the summer of 1940, arriving in Cairo in September, to serve as part of the 7th Armoured Division, the ‘Desert Rats.’

Somerville quickly realised that medical officers would need to be highly mobile in order to provide treatment swiftly. With ‘light-hearted support’ from senior officers, and using a captured Italian ambulance, he designed a vehicle which would allow treatment of casualties on the battlefield. The Medical Assistance Vehicle (MAV) was effectively a mobile surgical unit. Being lightly armed, it could not display a Red Cross, instead Somerville emblazoned the regimental emblem, the Horse of Hanover, on each side.

‘Operation Compass’ commenced on 8 December 1940, with allied forces attacking Italian troops at Sidi Barrani The Italians soon withdrew, and the 3rd Hussars were ordered to pursue the retreating forces.  On 11 December the tanks of the 3rd Hussars became trapped in the soft crust of the dried salt lakes at Ras El Saida. – they were ‘sitting ducks’ for the Italian artillery.

Somerville drove out onto the battlefield to rescue the injured.  A tank commander recalled how he was trapped in a tank, unable to get out and thought he was going to die, when:

“Suddenly this officer appeared from nowhere. I didn’t know who he was. He tried to pull me out but he couldn’t. High explosive shells were coming in at a terrific rate. I told him to get away before we got hit again but he just dived into the turret head first, just his legs sticking out. He came out and pulled at me again. This time I popped out and he dragged me down the side of the tank onto the ground. I was nearly passing out but he sat me up and told me I was going to lose my leg but I could make it if I could hang on. I didn’t know much about it but I learned after that he was Captain Somerville and he took my leg off in that vehicle and saved my life.”

Somerville’s actions that day were clearly described in the citation for gallantry:

“…Capt. Somerville went out among the tanks attending to the wounded regardless of the heavy fire and with no consideration for his personal safety.  He continued to attend to and bring in the wounded until all were under cover from the main enemy position, and thereafter he dressed them in a position where they were still unavoidably under fire from snipers.  His cool gallantry was an inspiration to others who assisted him, and the means of saving many lives.  I consider that in view of the shattering fire of the enemy Capt. Somerville has earned the highest decoration for valour.”

Headstone of Captain Somerville, Suda Bay, Crete

Somerville’s Headstone Suda Bay, Crete

He was recommended for the award of the Victoria Cross (VC). This was agreed at all levels  of command until it reached the Commander-in-Chief in February 1941,- Wavell crossed through the recommendation of VC and approved the award of the Distinguished Service Order.

In May 1941 Somerville was posted to Crete where he provided medical care to those injured in the fierce fighting following the invasion by German paratroopers earlier that month.   At the end of May he was ordered to retreat, but remained on the island to treat casualties. He, along with his batman Corporal Fred Marlow, was befriended by local partisans, and lived in the hills and mountains during the summer of 1941. During this period Somerville was taken ill; he died on 23 November 1941 and was buried in a local cemetery lying between a local soldier and a local woman. At the end of the war, he was reburied at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Suda Bay, Crete.

Thomas Somerville is recognised on a number of memorials in this country, including Framlingham, the London Hospital and The Roll of Honour of the Royal College of Surgeons of England; he is yet to be recognised by any veterinary institution.

Detail from War Memorial of the London Hospital

Detail from War Memorial of the London Hospital


I would like to thank Dr Paul Watkins MRCVS for his help in compiling this post.

William Moss: one man’s journey through the Somme and Beyond

1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, is a day remembered as one of the worst in British military history. The attack commenced at 7.30am; by the end of the day, 19,240 British soldiers had been killed and three times that number injured. The battle lasted 140 days, and amongst the thousands who took part was at least one future member of the veterinary profession.

WP Moss 1914

William Moss 1914

At the outbreak of war, Lieutenant William P. ‘Willy’ Moss was an 18 year old art student, noted to have a talent for capturing ‘the essence of animals.’ In October 1914 he joined up and was commissioned into the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Rifles. He was sent to France in October 1915, and was injured by both a gas attack and mortar fire in early 1916. His battalion was held in reserve at the opening of the Battle of the Somme, but early on 7 July they relieved the men of the Cheshire Regiment in the British trenches. Ordered to penetrate a breach in the German line at 09.50am Moss lead his men into ‘no-man’s land.’ Due to the heavy rain the previous night the men soon sank to their knees in the mud and were met by an onslaught of machine gun fire.

Moss was hit in the leg, fell and lay helpless and unable to move. After several hours, his batman managed to carry him over 100 yards to the British trenches. The ferocity of the action that morning was described as like ‘hell let loose.’ During the encounter 30 men of the battalion were killed and 120 wounded. Moss was evacuated to hospital with a gunshot wound to his left tibia. He was sent home for treatment, which took many months, and left him with a permanent deformity of his leg. For his actions he was awarded the Military Cross in 1917, he did not return to France.

Lieutenant WP Moss 1917

Lieutenant WP Moss 1917

Following demobilisation from the Army Moss was unsure of his future and applied for a place at the Royal Veterinary College in Ireland. Commencing his studies in Ireland in 1919, he did his final year at the Royal Veterinary College, London and qualified MRCVS in 1923. Initially he worked as a Veterinary Inspector for the Ministry of Agriculture, in the control of foot and mouth disease. Four years later he established a veterinary practice in Woking, Surrey and at the same time joined the RAVC as a territorial officer. At Woking, he was able to rekindle his love of art, joining the Woking Art Club.

With the outbreak of war in 1939, Moss again served his country, one of several veterinary officers dispatched to Palestine with the 1st Cavalry Division. He arrived in Palestine in December 1939 and three months later was posted as Veterinary Officer to the Cheshire Yeomanry. Over the next year he combined his veterinary work with his skill as an artist, drawing many scenes of the cavalry in Palestine.

In June 1941 plans were laid to capture Lebanon and Syria, with the Cheshire Yeomanry set to play a crucial role securing the River Litani, in southern Lebanon. As the men and horses moved into position one observer recorded that they were like ‘trespassers about to partake in a picnic on forbidden ground, rather than an invading force going to war. Everyone was excited.’ Advancing across the river the yeomen came under heavy machine gun fire, six horses were killed and several injured. Moss found that evacuation of injured animals was extremely difficult due to the nature of the terrain. Eventually they started to make their way north arriving in Damascus after five weeks, where the armistice parade included the men and horses of the Cheshire Yeomanry. The battle of the River Litani was to be the last occasion when British troops went into battle on horses.

The Machine-gun Section: Cheshire Yeomanry, going into action in Syria © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 5742)

The Machine-gun Section: Cheshire Yeomanry, going into action in Syria © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 5742)

Mechanisation of the Cheshire Yeomanry in December 1941 meant Moss’ veterinary services were no longer required. He took command of a Druze Cavalry Regiment where he encountered an official War Artist, Anthony Gross who described meeting a ‘wonderful Irishman, the vet, called Moss; a real scream.’ On seeing Moss’ art work Gross advised him to write to the War Artist’s Advisory Committee (WAAC) in London. They were impressed by the portfolio, especially the black and white sketches, and Moss was awarded a ‘Category C’ contract. Other artists in this category included Stanley Spencer, Jacob Epstein and L. S. Lowry. Moss was the only veterinary or medical officer to receive a contract from the WAAC.

Farrier Sergeant Faris el Beini © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 3085)

Farrier Sergeant Faris el Beini © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 3085)

Moss continued to serve in the Middle East until early 1945, when he returned home. He did not return to veterinary practice, but instead pursued farming as well as his interest in art. A number of his original works are held by the Imperial War Museum. We are fortunate to have, in our Collections, a number of the sketches he made of the veterinary profession to illustrate articles on the ‘Modern Veterinary Surgeon’ published in Sport & Country in 1946.  William Moss, MC, MRCVS died in 1980.

At the London Clinic: resetting a broken leg of a dog

At the London Clinic: resetting a broken leg of a dog

Acknowledgements I would like to thank Dr Paul Watkins MRCVS for his help in compiling this post.

Image credits

The Machine-gun Section : Cheshire Yeomanry, going into action in Syria by W P Moss © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 5742) reproduced under the IWM Non-commercial Licence

Farrier Sergeant Faris el Beini by W P Moss © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 3085) reproduced under the IWM Non-commercial Licence

The two photographs of Moss are from a private collection and are reproduced with permission.

A Norwegian White Christmas

This month marks the 75th anniversary of an important military operation which paved the way for true ‘combined operations’ involving the Royal Navy, RAF and Army; an operation in which two members of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons took part.

In 1941 Vaagso, a coastal town in Southern Norway, lying between Trondheim and Bergen, was an important part of the German defences of the Norwegian coast. It also housed numerous fish oil refineries, producing oil that was used in the manufacture of explosives. In late December a seaborne raid was launched, attacking the town and destroying defences and the refineries. The troops were from the still ‘embryonic units’ of Army Commandos. They were led by Colonel John Durnford Slater, whose signals officer was Captain Charles Head, MRCVS.

Charles Head MRCVS

Charles Head MRCVS

Charlie Head graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in 1933, and immediately joined his father Alfred (who had served with the Army Veterinary Corps in both the Boer War and World War 1) in practice in Helston, Cornwall. At the outbreak of war, already a member of the Territorial Army, he joined the Commandos. In March 1941 he took part in the commando raid on the Lofoten Islands, off the coast of Norway, which resulted in the destruction of a number of enemy facilities and the capture of valuable information relating to the German enigma coding machine.

The flotilla bound for Vaagso departed from Scapa Flow on Christmas Eve. Just over 550 troops landed at Vaagso at 9am on 27 December, they soon met fierce opposition. No. 3 Troop was quickly engaged in fierce house-to-house fighting and their commanding officer was killed, along with three soldiers. One of those was Private Peter Keast MRCVS.

Born and raised in south London, Peter Keast entered the Royal Veterinary College, London in 1933, but in July 1936, was suspended, having ‘failed or been referred in one examination three times.’  Still wishing to qualify as a veterinary surgeon, he secured a place the Royal Veterinary College in Ireland, Dublin, and graduated MRCVS in December 1939.  With Britain at war, he returned to London, where he soon became frustrated with the reservation of the veterinary profession which precluded men like him from serving out-with their professional role. With no real opportunities to serve in his professional capacity he finally managed to enlist as a soldier, and subsequently applied successfully to join the Commandos.

Headstone of Peter Keast MRCVS

Headstone of Peter Keast MRCVS

Keast’s actions at Vaagso were reported in The Daily Telegraph of 5 January 1942, under the heading ‘Commando’s Vain Sacrifice. Vaagso Raid’; it described how

 ‘a 25 year old commando, Peter Keast, a veterinary surgeon of Tooting, London lost his life in a vain  attempt to  save a sergeant on the road at  Vaagso.’

The account had been sent to his father by an officer who saw him die. That officer had just seen his own brother killed when Keast was hit:

‘He got it trying to save the section sergeant, Povey, who was also killed. Thank heaven it was instant.’ ‘“Doc” as the chaps called Keast, was one of the best men in the troop, always cheery and helpful.’

Peter Keast is buried in Trondheim (Stavne) Cemetery  where his headstone has the inscription ‘He gave up his career. A volunteer to fight for a Christian way of life.’

At the time that Keast was mortally wounded, Charlie Head was accompanying his commanding officer as they continued to engage the enemy. Quite fortuitously they arrested a Norwegian man barricaded in a house; he turned out to be a high ranking member of the local, Nasjonal Samling (The Norwegian Fascist Party, established by Vidkun Quisling) and one of the men identified as being of high priority for capture. With his commanding officer, Charlie Head was the last to re-embark on the landing craft, some 5 hours after coming ashore. He received a Mention in Despatches, the citation reading:

‘The task facing Head was complicated but he never allowed a quickly changing position to confuse him or prevent a continuous flow of information. He proved most steady and reliable at all times and was of the greatest assistance to his Commanding Officer.’

Charles Head with wife and family in1953

Charles Head with wife and family in1953

Charlie Head was soon back in action at the ill-fated Dieppe Raid in 1942 and then at the landings on Sicily in 1943. Here he was badly wounded, and his gallantry was recognised by the award of the Military Cross. He landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day in June 1944, with his injured leg in a calliper, determined to play his part in the liberation of Europe. When the war was over, he returned to veterinary practice in Helston. A son, born in 1947, and also a graduate of the Royal Veterinary College, continued the family veterinary tradition.

Acknowledgements I would like to thank Dr Paul Watkins MRCVS for his help in compiling this post. 

Image credits

Thanks to John Head MRCVS for kind permission to use pictures of his late father, Charles Head, MC, MRCVS

Guest Post – Jane Davidson: Venues of Veterinary History

As I work through the archive material for my PhD, the people and the places leap off the page and create such a vivid picture of the events I’m reading about. The places, in particular, are striking a chord with me as so many of them are in London, my home for over 20 years. I am fascinated by the history of London buildings and how they chart the rise and fall of different areas over time. The records of meeting venues has had me looking up what these buildings are used for today. Once this lockdown is over, I hope to be able to take a walking tour of the places that are becoming familiar to me as key venues in veterinary history.

At a time when the team at the RCVS are scattered to their homes to work and Belgravia House stands empty, it might seem odd to focus on places and locations. However, from the archives, it is clear that the veterinary profession is a body of people used to being an identifiable presence despite a lack of a permanent home. The RCVS has moved premises and had temporary bases in their history, and this is just a part of the process of professionalisation that will continue with the move from Belgravia House that is planned.

Freemasons’ Tavern

The first recorded venue for meetings of the RCVS is The Freemasons Tavern, in use regularly since 1844. On Great Queen Street in Lincolns Inn Fields, the street is probably known to many now as a quick route from Holborn tube to Covent Garden. I have used this route many times to avoid the inevitable tourist crush at Covent Garden. It’s an unusually wide and open street in an area where the buildings are usually packed in tightly together. The stone used for the buildings on the western side of the street is a very light colour and this adds to the feeling of space. Compared to the narrow streets and damp looking dark red London brick of the surrounding streets, my memories of the street are that it is always sunny. The street houses many buildings related to the Freemasons and this has allowed a coordinated approach to building layout and design, which shows in the street’s different style from the earlier buildings around it. Now the site of the Connaught Rooms, the building of 1844 has been rebuilt several times. A popular meeting place that has been used by many associations, it is perhaps most famous for being the venue for the first meetings of the Football Association. A Freemasons Tavern still exists but is now on Long Acre, just around the corner.

Official notice of the first RCVS Annual General Meeting in The Gazette

The Freemasons Tavern was advertised as the meeting place for the newly formed RCVS. This was put into several papers in London, Edinburgh and Dublin, and the meetings were a mix of private matters for the College but also a way to engage with the public.

Red Lion Square

The minutes of an RCVS meeting in 1846 noted a lack of finance as the reason for the RCVS not having a permanent location for their sole use as a corporation. It was in 1853 that the RCVS made 10 Red Lion Square their first home. A previously notorious area, it had been transformed into a gated square and by the early eighteenth century was used for both residential and professional purposes. The business users were medics and lawyers, and so the veterinary profession was to join established professions in the neighbourhood. From the RCVS building in Red Lion Square, we have the stained glass Coat of Arms of the RCVS and the veterinary schools, which are currently in the reception of Belgravia House. These windows have followed the College through three different buildings over the years, and you can read more about their history elsewhere on this blog.

The Coat of Arms of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, on display in the reception at Belgravia House

The RCVS remained at Red Lion Square for over a century, apart from interruptions during the Second World War when the library remained in Red Lion Square but other RCVS activities were temporarily moved to Wembley. The bombing raids of May 1941 saw the assistant librarian Miss Molly Raymer go to the building to check on it after the night of bombing. More worried about water damage, she reported being met with a torrent of water coming through the library ceiling! Red Lion Square is still there, and the buildings are beautiful, but sadly numbers 9 and 10 are no longer standing. However, it is still worth a visit as, despite more modern buildings taking its place, it still has the air of a grand London garden square.

Painted engraving of Red Lion Square in 1800

Walk the History

A walk between these three places provides a wonderful way to see much of London. Red Lion Square to Horseferry Road is around a 45-minute walk and you can incorporate many London landmarks. The Freemasons Tavern to Red Lion Square is a shorter 10-minute walk. It is possible to spend a pleasant afternoon walking the history of the places of the RCVS from Red Lion Square to Belgravia House – missing out on the need to go to the wartime home of Wembley!