Joseph Edward Rogers

Joseph Edward Rogers

Joseph Edward Rogers enlisted with The South Borderers on the 3rd September 1914, less than two months after the start of the war (28/07/14). Like many others he responded to the patriotic call for volunteers.

He had been born in West Bromwich on 19th April 1889 and was 25 years and 5 months old when he enlisted. His family had moved around a lot. After West Bromwich he had lived in Handsworth, Tipton, and Oldbury. The 1911 census return shows him living in Meredith Street in Cradley Heath. On 25th May 1912 he married Annie Phipps who came from the neighbouring Old Hill. Sadly, before he enlisted they had already lost one child in March 1913, from pneumonia. Lawson had only lived for 12 days but a second child, a boy named Luther had survived. He had been born on 2nd March 1914 and was 6 months old when Joseph enlisted. The census of 1911 had shown that at that time, Joseph was a life insurance agent but the army records show that by 1914 he was a coal miner.

The enlistment document shows that he was 5ft 7ins tall, weighing 9 stone 1 pound. Therefore, he was only a slight figure. The medical officer noted that he could see the correct distance with both eyes, that his heart and lungs were healthy and that he did not suffer from any kind of fits. Therefore, Joseph was declared fit for the army. He was attested as a private, the document being signed by Jas. Grimbswood, Major and Adjt. Of the 7th Service Battalion of the South Wales Borderers. He was posted on the 14th September 1914, eleven days later.

So Joseph had just a few days to get everything sorted at home and say his goodbyes to his wife and baby boy. It must have seemed like an adventure at the time with little regard for the dangers of war and no idea of the horrors to follow. It was all going to be over by Christmas after all! Whether his wife was happy about the situation we will never know. But I am sure that the wives and mothers of the soldiers were proud of them and felt patriotic too.

Sadly for Joseph and Annie, was soon to follow when baby Luther died aged 11 months on 23rd February 1915. Thankfully another baby was on the way. This time it was a girl named Cissie, born on 9th April 1915 who had been conceived just before Joseph joined up.

Army life had not lived up to expectations for Joseph. Despite being declared medically fit for the army in September 1914, by June 1915 he was declared physically unfit for duty and was discharged from the army for medical reasons. His discharge papers state that he had valvular disease of the heart. This is very strange because the medical when he enlisted had said that his heart was healthy. So what could have happened in the 9 months since Joseph had enlisted. The Army claimed that the heart problem was not attributed to, nor aggravated by his service, stating that it has originated 10 years beforehand. At that time Joseph would have been 16 years old. If this was the case why wasn’t valvular heart disease picked up on his original medical and why wasn’t Joseph aware of the problem. He was now suffering from shortness of breath and pain around his heart. This was not something he could have ignored before he enlisted nor would it not have been obvious during his army medical.

Joseph was discharged on 30th June 1915 from Maida Barracks, Aldershot aged 26 years and 2 months. The discharge papers suggest that it was Joseph himself who had requested to be discharged.

“I hereby declare that I do of my free will request to be discharged from His Majesty’s Service.”

Joseph’s service had lasted only a total of 301 days and was signed by the same officer who had signed his enlistment papers. Grimbswood was now the Commander of the 7th Battalion of the South Wales Borderers and had risen from the rank of Major to Lt. Colonel.

So what had happened to cause such a major illness? Joseph now had a degree of disability of 75%! Upon discharge he became an Army Pensioner. His Pension Record Card shows that his invalidating disability was Luitial Disease. This is better known as Rheumatic Fever. This is a serious disease which develops after an untreated streptococcal throat infection or Scarlet Fever. If the heart problem had originated 10 years before when Joseph was just 16, it suggests that he must have Rheumatic Fever then.

Rheumatic Fever is an autoimmune disease. It is a process of inflammation that spreads through the body in an uncontrolled way. When the body senses a streptococcal infection, it sends antibodies to fight it. However, the antibodies can sometimes attack the tissues of the body, such as the joints or the heart instead. If the antibodies attack the heart, they can cause the valves to swell, which can lead to scarring of the valve ‘doors’, called leaflets or cusps. The effects usually last for a few weeks. They include tiredness and breathlessness and a gradual return to normal activity may occur after an attack. So perhaps Joseph had suffered from Rheumatic Fever at 16 but had recovered and had no further symptoms. But why did it come back with a vengeance after 10 years?

My mother said that Joseph, her dad, had a tracheotomy because he has contracted diphtheria. She believed it was during his time in the army. I have not found any mention of this in the army documentation. Therefore, it might have been at an earlier date. However, it does seem that he did suffer some sort of severe throat infection at some time in his life. Once a person has suffered from Rheumatic Fever, it is common to have further attacks. Presumably this is what happened when Joseph was in the army.

Rheumatic Fever can cause permanent damage to the valves of the heart. It is then known as Rheumatic Heart Disease. This is what happened to Joseph. Once the heart is damaged in this way it is unlikely to fully recover. Symptoms include shortness of breath and constant tiredness. Joseph’s medical report dated 16th June 1915 from Aldershot, notes a valvular disease of the heart, a presystolic, murmur and thrill and a systolic murmur.

A systolic murmur happens when the heart is in systole (contraction). It usually happens when the mitral valve does not close properly which allows blood to leak out backwards. This puts extra strain on the heart because it has to do extra work to pump the required volume of blood. A presystolic murmur is usually associated with a narrowed ventricular valve. The normal forwards flow of blood had to move through a progressively narrowing mitral opening during the end of the atrial systole (contraction).

It must have been both worrying and frustrating for Joseph. He had answered the patriotic call and through no fault of his own was unable to carry out his patriotic duty. To add insult to injury the army had stated that his Army Service had not aggravated nor caused his condition. However, Joseph’s army records show that this decision was appealed on 5th January 1917, some 18 months from his discharge from the army. The record says;

‘Man states the wet weather and no change of clothes brought on bronchitis and the strain of the training brought on valvular heart trouble.’

The Officer in Charge of the South Wales Borderers added;

‘… that the man was exposed to exceptional hardships and exposure in the Oct/Nov 1914 at camp at Seaford, clothing was short, food was short, and the weather was extremely cold and wet.’

The army was clearly not prepared for the situation it found itself in. ‘Exception hardships’, ‘lack of food and clothing’ in ‘the cold, wet weather’, would not have been the conditions the nation expected its soldiers to face during training. Joseph was clearly not the only soldier that found the conditions detrimental to health. however, he was already susceptible to illness because of previously having Rheumatic Fever, it is little wonder he became seriously ill.

After deliberating the situation, the army medical report was issued on 26th April 1917. It said;

‘It is probable that his disability has been aggravated by the stress of military training and service’.

Not a complete acceptance of culpability, but at least meeting Joseph half way.

The report also notes that when Joseph was first discharged from the army he received 30 shillings a week. However, from December 1916 he had received only 6 shillings a week. This probably related to the amount of service given but it is a very large drop of 24 shillings a week which was a lot of money then.

A medical examination of Joseph was conducted in Wolverhampton on the same day, the 26th April 1917. It noted that he was in a poor condition. His lungs were in a poor condition and that he had organic disease of the heart. It also showed that he had mitral systolic and presystolic heart murmurs and that his heart was enlarged. His degree of disability was recorded as 70%.

Another army medical examination was carried out in Wolverhampton on 7th August 1917. Joseph complained of shortness of breath and of pains around his heart. Presystolic and systolic heart murmurs were noted again. His pulse was described as small and his degree of disability was still found to be 70%.

Finally, some good news for Joseph and Annie came on 13th February 1918 when another child, a daughter named Vera was born. They now had 2 healthy children. But it was another mouth to feed on Joseph’s small pension.

The final medical report on Joseph’s pension card is dated 29th October 1918, two weeks before the Armistice on 11th Novemeber and the end of the war. Once again it took place in Wolverhampton. It noted that Joseph’s degree of disability remained at 70%, still very high. Joseph said that he felt exhausted after exertion. The examination of Joseph’s heart showed that the apex beat was forcible, suggesting problems with the left ventricular function of his heart. It is caused by an obstruction to the flow of blood out of the heart. This caused pressure overload. The inner part of the ventricular thickens reducing the ventricular cavity which becomes like a slit. The presystolic murmur was still noted.

Joseph’s heart was having to work very hard and he was becoming a very sick man. The medical record notes that his heart was moribund. It was in terminal decline and that it lacked vitality and vigour.

Joseph was asked to report again to Wolverhampton on 30th March 1920. There are no further records on Joseph’s Army Pension Documents, possibly because the war had ended before the next medical examination was due or possibly because Joseph was too ill to travel to Wolverhampton.

His daughter Barbara was born on 24th September 1920. Around 8 weeks later, Joseph’s heart finally gave out and he died on the 22nd November 1920. He was just 31 years old.

The story of Joseph’s war was a sad one, but not for the usual reasons we associate with WWI. Volunteering within a couple of months of the start of the war beginning. Responding to the patriotic fervour that filled the nation. Yet that war was to be the cause of his death as surely as if he had been mortally wounded in one of the hideous methods of war. Without the privations of that terrible existence when training, he may never have gone on to develop Rheumatic Heart Disease. Tragically it took only 9 months for that devastating effect on his health to happen. His Commanding Officer agreed that within 1-2 months of his joining up, conditions had been exceptionally hard as he had been exposed to ‘exceptional hardships and exposure’. Shortages of clothing and food made the effects of the unusual cold wet weather much worse than they would have been and Joseph’s health had suffered as a consequence. The army also admitted that the stress of training had aggravated his condition.

Spare a thought for Joseph and others like him who dearly wanted to serve their country but through ill health were forced to give up. They deserve as much sympathy as those who were wounded and invalided out. Joseph like many countless others paid the ultimate sacrifice with his life.