METCALFE, Captain John Clifford

Captain John Clifford Metcalfe, pictured in 1912. Image supplied by Stuart Archer.

Captain John Clifford Metcalfe, pictured in 1912. Image supplied by Stuart Archer.

John Clifford Metcalfe (known to his friends as ‘Cliff’) was born in 1889, the eldest son of John Richardson Metcalfe and Grace Hollings Metcalfe of ‘Eastfield’, Carlton Road, Liversedge.  He had two older sisters, Beatrice and Mary, and a younger brother, Alfred.  His father was a Mill Manager and the family home was a substantial stone building – a fitting status symbol.

In the 1911 census, John was recorded as a twenty two year old medical student, living with his father John Richardson Metcalfe, who was 60 years old and his mother Grace Hollings Metcalfe who was 56. His brother, Alfred Hollings Metcalfe was 17 in 1911 and also went to the front as a Lieutenant with the 1st/4th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Alfred survived the war. He would no doubt have commanded another Batley old boy, Orlando Morrison who was in the same regiment in France. The family was completed by a sister, Beatrice Alice, but another sister Mary Elizabeth had married and moved away by 1911.

John Metcalfe began his studies at Batley Grammar School in the summer term of 1901 and quickly proved himself a lively and distinguished scholar.  In 1907 he entered Leeds University Medical School with a Major Scholarship and graduated with first class honours in 1912.  He was a capable footballer, lawn tennis player and sprinter in his student days.  He went on to be a house surgeon at the Leeds General Infirmary.   The university holds his photograph with a group of other doctors which was published in an article in Medicine Matters, the Leeds Medical School Journal.

Metcalfe was a distinguished student, being awarded a West Riding Scholarship  in 1908 and an Infirmary Scholarship in 1909.  After qualification he spent one year as a Houseman at the Infirmary, and then became Prosector in Anatomy in 1913.  He was then appointed ‘Dresser’ to the famous Professor of Clinical Surgery at the Infirmary, Berkeley Moynihan. John Metcalfe was certainly on course for an eminent career in Surgery. He also had a medical practice in Liversedge.

On the outbreak of war he enlisted in the Territorial Army, and joined the 1st (West Riding) Field Ambulance of the Royal Army Medical Corps.  He gained a commission to the rank of Lieutenant, which was published in the London Gazette of 30 November 1914.  He was soon in France, disembarking there in April 1915, where he saw action as part of the 49th (West Riding) Division for the remainder of the war. Each military Division had three Field Ambulance units.  These were not vehicles but mobile front-line units and had responsibility for the recovery and treatment of casualties and the operation of points along the casualty clearing stations.One of the main problems in the first months of the war was that wounds were infected with tetanus by the fertilisers used by French farmers before it was checked by an anti-tetanus serum.

The number of hospital beds available rose from 9,000 in 1914 to 97,000 by 1917.  The shortage of doctors also grew worse, by 1915 it rose to two hundred with a wastage of nearly fifty a month.  The bravery of the doctors was seen in their frequent imprisonment as they stayed with wounded men, and by their death when they remained with the wounded in the firing line.  Eventually they were forbidden to do this and they had to stay at the regimental aid post.

Motor ambulances began to replace horse-drawn carriages and the number of hospital trains was increased.  Ambulance flotillas worked to carry the seriously wounded along the canal system of Northern France to hospital ships in coastal ports.  Convalescent or Command depots were opened to the rear of the front lines to speed up the wounded in returning to their units.  Five special ‘hospitals’ were set up for those suffering from venereal disease – they had less comfortable amenities and patients were put to fatigue work as soon as they were fit for it.  ‘Trench foot’ was the most serious disease in the first two years of the war, due to long immersion in cold water and the wearing of tight boots or puttees.  Precautions eventually lessened its incidence. In 1915 the threat of gas attacks created yet another medical problem and a separate department was set up to provide effective gas masks and treatment.

The RAMC certainly served with bravery and its personnel were praised repeatedly in despatches, and won over 1,100 medals for distinguished conduct.  Metcalfe’s military cross was one of 1,484 awarded to medical men. The Division to which he was attached [the 49th, made up of West Riding units including the 1st/4th ‘Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, (which was the local Cleckheaton Territorial Battalion), took part in many of the main offensives and Captain Metcalfe must have encountered thousands of wounded soldiers at the sharp end as the Field Ambulances were the first places the wounded and dying were taken for treatment.

He visited the school on leave in March 1917, and grimly warned the editor of the school magazine against any talk of the usual ‘tommy-rot’ about his decoration. Civilians, he warned, ‘knew nothing, and should not make their friends less friendly’. A blunt warning that the home front knew little of the actuality of war on the western front.

In 1918, Metcalfe returned to Britain with a broken leg. The Medical Board allowed him a month’s extension on home duty but he claimed to be fit and asked to be sent back to the front. The school magazine for 1918 noted his death: ‘Captain J.C. Metcalfe MC. RAMC died in action in March. He was gassed last November and had been at home with a broken leg.’

The headstone of Captain John Clifford Metcalfe in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, Belgium. Image supplied by Stuart Archer.

The headstone of Captain John Clifford Metcalfe in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, Belgium. Image supplied by Stuart Archer.

Returning to the front after being granted an extension of leave to recover was certainly a heroic gesture, and probably in keeping with the personality of a soldier who had already been awarded the Military Cross for his service. His death came on 20 March 1918, though his medal card record in the National Archive records ‘Dec’d 20-3-1916’ some two years earlier. The ‘Old Boys News’ section of the magazine added that:

Cliff will be remembered as one of that group of six who took the Senior Local together and cleared the Leeds ‘Matric’ in one go. At school he was a most consistent worker on the field a troublesome right outsider and a good fast bowler; as a member of the O. B. Committee he used to bring  teams against the school and never missed coming over when he had a chance. He was a good pal and it is difficult to realise we’ll have no more pow wows.

Captain John Clifford Metcalfe. MC. was buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Belgium. During the First World War, the village of Lijssenthoek was situated on the main communication line between the Allied military bases in the rear and the Ypres battlefields. Close to the front, but out of the extreme range of most German field artillery, it became a natural place to establish casualty clearing stations. The cemetery was first used by the French ‘15th Hopital D’ Evacuation’ and in June 1915, it began to be used by casualty clearing stations of the Commonwealth forces. Between April and August 1918, the casualty clearing stations fell back ahead of the German advance and field ambulances (including a French ambulance) took their places.

The Leeds University Roll of Honour records that John Metcalfe was a student at Batley Grammar School before coming to Leeds University and pays a compliment to the school for the quality of its students in the first decade of the twentieth century. It notes:

Captain J.C. Metcalfe, M.C., R.A.M.C., elder son of Mr. and Mrs. J.R. Metcalfe, of Eastfield, Liversedge, has died of wounds received in France. He was a distinguished scholar at Batley Grammar School in one of its most brilliant periods. In 1907 he entered the University of Leeds, and graduated in 1912.

Captain John Clifford ‘Cliff’ Metcalfe is remembered on memorials at Batley Grammar School, Christ Church, Liversedge, St Saviour’s Church at Norristhorpe and Heckmondwike. The Roll of Honour at Leeds University bears a full tribute to him as well as including his name on the panels of the memorial in the Brotherton Library there.