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The meeting of Doctor Puddicombe of Silverton and Private James Heal in 1915.

Edward Leonard Puddicombe was born in 1866, the son of Dr. Edward Morgan Puddiford from Dartmouth, living in Tiverton Road, Silverton. After studying at Blundells he followed his father into the medical profession and by 1901 had taken over his practice in Silverton and had acquired a wife, Winifred Grace and three children. The 1911 Census records the birth of a further child, Phillip Morgan, just 3 months old.

With the onset of the Great War Dr Puddicombe, like many others of his profession volunteered their services to the Red Cross and in 1915 was tending the wounded in France. In a letter home to a friend (Mr P Gale of Silverton) he related the marvellous escape from death of a Bradninch man serving at the Front. He wrote,” I was in the x-ray room yesterday, when a man named Heal of the 1st Devons, a native of Bradninch, was brought in suffering from the German poisonous gases. He was also suffering from a swelling at the back of his neck, which the x-rays revealed to be caused by a great bullet. There was no wound, and the man himself could not explain the presence of the bullet. On examining his mouth I found a scar on the cheek. The man must have been charging with his mouth open, and the bullet buried itself in the inside of his right cheek, travelled right around his spine, and found a resting place at the back of the neck on the left side. Fancy the man knew nothing about it! He was very proud of the bullet, but he has the idea we cut him about for fun, and gave him a bullet to pacify him!”

Subsequent research has identified the soldier as Private James Heal, 11534 of the 1st Battalion, Devonshire Regiment, which arrived in France on 21st August 1914.

James was born in 1889, the second child and first son of James Heal (a plate layer) and Elizabeth, who worked at the local paper mill. At the time of the 1911 Census there were 6 children, each born in Bradninch as were their parents.  We cannot be certain as to James’ occupation but when, on 9th September 1914, at the age of 25, he enlisted at Exeter, he declared that he had already served with the Devon Territorials for 1 year, before resigning. After due training he was posted, on 19th January 1915, to France to join up with the 1st Battalion, which had for some time been digging- in on the Messines Ridge, where trench warfare had become a way of life.

 In April the battalion  moved back to front-line trenches some 2 miles South of Ypres and on the 20th it was ordered to move, under darkness into trenches at Hill 60, about 3000 yards south/south east of Zillebeke.  Hill 60 was in effect a mound of excavated soil, 150 feet high and 250 feet long, from the construction of a railway cutting on the Ypres-Comines railway line in 1860. It was high enough to serve as a valuable artillery observation post, from where it was possible to have a clear view over the surrounding territory. The Hill had been held by the Germans since December 1914 but then stormed and taken by the 1st Royal West Kents. In the early hours of April 21st, the Devons relieved them and for the next 9 days, with only brief spells of respite, were continuously bombarded and subjected to enemy counter attacks and suffered more than 200 casualties.

On 1st May the battalion was relieved by the 1st Battalion Dorsets and headed back behind the lines, intent on rest but on the first evening a tremendous bombardment began and the word “gas” was passed around. Immediately the Colonel ordered the men back to the Hill, where the trenches were “full of men choking and gasping for breath, some foaming at the mouth, in every degree of agony and distress, incapable of offering any resistance to the advancing enemy[1]

Some 400 yards of the front line was almost totally unmanned and open to the advancing enemy. The Devons immediately engaged them with whatever weaponry came to hand and, by a stroke of fate, a shift in the wind carried the gas cloud back towards the German lines. It is conceivable that Pte James Heal, referred to by Dr Puddicombe, was one of the men affected by the gas.

The good Doctor seemed to make light of the incident but from James’ Service Records, we learn that he was soon repatriated (10th May 1915)  and eventually discharged from the Army on 13th November that year as “physically unfit” by virtue of 2 gunshot wounds to the head.

His military service lasted 1 year and 66 days. We presume that upon discharge he returned to the family home but it is perhaps significant that after the War, various documents relating to his army service were sent to an address in Hereford, linking him with a marriage, registered in Hereford in September 1916 between a James Heal and Mary E Powell. He would then have been 27 years of age.






[1] Atkinson p.79