Retro: Sheffield man’s amazing World War One African story

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As amazing stories from World War One go, Lionel Pinder’s takes some beating.

The Sheffielder served in Africa, was captured by the Germans, almost lost his arm and received a hand-written letter from the King for his troubles.

He also had a daughter, Vera, who was a Woman of Steel in World War Two!

Jan Frost said that Lionel’s family found out a lot about Lionel when his daughter, Vera, died aged 95.

She said: “Vera was my husband Martin’s great aunt. She is his mum’s cousin. We always called her great auntie Vera.

“My husband remembers a little bit of Lionel from when he was a child. but he died when he was quite young.

“Vera talked a lot about him and a lot about the fact that he was in World War One. We didn’t really find anything else about that until she was on her deathbed. There was a suitcase with all his army records and pictures.

“He was actually sent to Africa and he had never been out of Yorkshire before,” said Jan.

Lionel served with the Royal Fusiliers and travelled to Bombay and Port Said at various points and fought in Nairobi in Kenya.

Jan added: “What we found when we went through all the little suitcase was a series of postcards that he had sent home before he was married. They were mostly addressed to his mum, when he would have been engaged to Lillian, who was Vera’s mum.”

Both Lionel and Lillian were from Shalesmoor and went to the Lancastrian School there.

Jan said: “They’re mostly one-liners. He wasn’t a great penman. One says “I am in India. This is a strange country. Your loving son, Lionel.”

Jan said that some of the correspondence shows what a great sense of humour Lionel had. She said: “Some off the cards he sent showed naked African ladies. He said, ‘I’m sending this to introduce you to my wife. Apologise to Lillian for me. Tell her I will come home at some point’.

“For a lad from Yorkshire who was 20 it must have been such a culture shock to go, not to Belgium or France but to East Africa.

“When you see the pictures of him in a pith helmet it looks just bizarre in one way but it’s fabulous living history in another.”

One letter home sending wishes for Easter 1916 is beautifully designed and written on a piece of khaki uniform, which Lionel explains is the only thing he had to hand at the time.

Jan said that they donated everything relating to Lionel’s war service to Museums Sheffield and didn’t look through some of what they took along as a lot of the paperwork was fragile.

The family were amazed when staff came across a handwritten letter from King George V, which they didn’t even know was among his things.

The letter, reproduced here, says: “The Queen joins me in welcoming you on your release from the miseries and hardships which you have endured with so much patience and courage.

“During these many months of trial, the early rescue of our gallant officers and men from the cruelties of their captivity has been uppermost in our minds.

“We are thankful that this longed-for day has arrived, and and that back in the old country you will be able once more to enjoy the happiness of a home and to see good days among those who anxiously look for your return.”

Jan said: “He was badly wounded and taken prisoner, which it turns out was the fortunate part. His arm had been very badly damaged and he was sent to one of the German field hospitals.

It was only the skills of the German surgeon that saved his arm, said Jan.

She added: “He was told later by a British military doctor that they’d have amputated it.”

He had full use of the arm and continued to work in the cutlery trade after the war as a silversmith at Turton’s, where Lillian and Vera also worked.

Jan said: “The strangest part that Vera told us is that when he was repatriated after a prisoner exchange and brought back to this country, supposedly to be invalided out, they sent him over to France.

“He had an attack of malaria there and then was invalided out. I don’t think he made it to the frontline.”

The family have also donated documents relating to Vera to the museums. She served as a Woman of Steel during the Second World War.

Jan said: “She worked in the cutlery trade but didn’t like it very much. She was engaged before the war started but her fiance was killed in a motorbike accident coming home on leave.

“That triggered her to wanting to get out and live life. She used to travel to Melton to the David Brown factory, working on the Churchill tank gear box assembly line. She got the Women of Steel certificate.

“She used to go backwards and forwards to work on a single-track railway between there and Sheffield right the way through the war.

“She was very proud of that.”

The family moved to Hillsborough when Vera was 15 and she lived in Shenstone Road for 77 years.

After the war, Vera wanted to become a nurse but her dad was adamant that she couldn’t do it, said Jan.

She waited until her parents had gone on holiday in the early 1960s and applied for a job she spotted at the old Jessop’s Hospital, sterilising instruments.

Jan said: “She got the job, quit the cutlery trade and worked there until she retired.”

Vera was also a part of the Girls Guides movement in Sheffield for many years.

The family took everything to Museums Sheffield because they thought it was important to preserve what they found. Everything has been recorded as part of the Europeana online record of the war.

Jan said: “It makes us sad we didn’t go through it all when Vera was alive. We didn’t know what there was and she could have told us all about it.

“But we’ve still got some fabulous stuff.”