Friday, August 22, 2014

Hooves@War: Wilfred Blackband Was Such a Good Farrier, He Never Went to War

Hooves@War graphic

Did Wilfred Warren Blackband go to war or not? Read his story and then you can decide.

He is the first British farrier of World War I in this series, but not the last. And he’s not the only teenage boy whose story you'll read here.

Fran Jurga
There’s something about Wilfred Warren Blackband that reminds me of the young wizards of horseshoeing who come along today: brilliant hands with laser-sharp eyes, talented, coordinated, skilled beyond their years. At one time, Grant Moon, Billy Crothers, Austin Edens and others were declared youthful prodigies of forging skills that were supposed to take decades to master. Was Wilfred like that?

Or was he just picked out of the crowd?

Wilfred, from Nottinghamshire in England, was the youngest of eight children. Like a footnote out of PBS's Downton Abbey, he left school at age 12 to learn the specialized skill of growing and hybridizing daffodils, which were exotic and new--and very popular--at that time in the British Isles.

But Wilfred was lured out of the Edwardian greenhouse by a chance to apprentice to a blacksmith.

And what 12-year-old boy wouldn’t want to work in the arched horseshoe doorway of the majestic Gonalston Forge? Just look at Wilfred in this photo in 1912, when he was almost 16:

farriers in Gonalston England in 1912
Wilfred Warren Blackband, age 15, rasps a hoof on the stand in 1912. He and the other men are dwarfed by the impressive entrance to the Gonalston Forge in Nottinghamshire, England.

If you are admiring the fine brick building and doorway that frames the young man in John Travis’s family photo and think it looks familiar, this same building was featured in the Hoof Blog back in 2008, launching a long series of great architecture photos related to smithies and forges around the world. Gonalston was the first. Wilfred and this web site go way back.

More than 100 years later, the forge where Wilfred apprenticed is still standing, and is a nationally-registered building.

Wilfred spent five years toiling as an apprentice inside the Gonalston Forge. In August 1914, when World War I was declared, he would have been just short of 18 years old. Like so many around him, he volunteered for the army and was sent with his local unit to the coastal town of Margate in Kent.

The Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry was a mounted unit; horses were also used for transport and big guns. “My Grandad was good at teaching farriery,” his grandson John Travis wrote. “When the Rangers were sent to Gallipoli, dismounted, my grandfather’s skills were so highly regarded, the army kept him in Margate, training farriers and blacksmiths, so he never got to France at all.”

Perhaps his young age made the officers making decisions think he was a good choice for an instructor.

If you know about Gallipoli (or saw the great movie), you know it was a terrible, bloody eight-month battle on a little peninsula in Turkey. In fact, many farriers died at Gallipoli. Great Britain and her allies suffered a devastating defeat. The British and Australian forces had to retreat to Egypt and prepare to defend their access to the Suez Canal.

But Wilfred was back in Kent, training more men from Nottingham's Sherwood Rangers to shoe horses. As you can see in the photo, most of his students were his seniors by many years. They'd pack off, hammers in hand, to shoe the regiment's horses in the Middle East for service in Egypt, Palestine and Macedonia.

Wilfred may well have been teaching his students to shoe cold, using shoes imported from the USA or made up by the hundreds by local smiths who were given patterns to follow by the army as to what size, shape and style of shoe was needed. Then again, the men in this photo are hoisting heavy hammers used for striking hot iron, so perhaps these men were experienced farriers who were recruited with Wilfred.

Notice that almost everyone is holding something in his hand in this photo.

British military farrier students in World War I
Wilfred Warren Blackband, front left, and a group of the farriers of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry he helped train in Margate, Kent during World War I. He remained in Margate to teach farriery while his students proceeded to the front; this particular unit fought in the Middle East in Palestine, Macedonia, Turkey and Egypt. Photo courtesy of Sheila Clipsham.

Margate was no picnic for Wilfred, surely. On Christmas Eve in 1914, the first aerial bombing of England in history began near Margate. Through the years of war, German zeppelin raids were common, as well as airplane raids. The seaside town was shelled from the sea. Men died in a military munitions explosion. The townspeople hid in caves when they heard the planes.

When the war was over, Wilfred went on shoeing horses and running a general smithing business for almost 20 years, but his grandson remembers him complaining about the Shire horses and the low pay and the shrinking horse population.

In 1936, the smart young farrier was 40 years old. He stopped shoeing and went to work in a machine shop and later, in the cutlery industry. After he retired, he went back to making gates and sharpening tools for people.

Old smithy in Gonalston, England
Gonalston Forge today is a national registered building in Great Britain. Photo by Iain Paterson.

A look at Gonalston Forge as it stands today makes the building seem tiny compared to the impressive and stately building in the 1912 photo. Yes, they seem to be one and the same, other than that the horseshoe door frame is now painted black. The forge was built in 1845, according to the official record, for architectural history buffs.

verse about farriers
Wilfred Warren Blackband must have memorized the saying above the door of Goulston Forge. 

There's a verse over the door of Goulston Forge that reads:
"Gentlemen, as you pass by,
pray on this shoe cast your eye.
If it's too strait we'll make it wider.
Twill ease the horse and please the rider.
If lame by shoeing (as they sometimes are),
you can have them eased with the greatest of care."

Like so many of the farriers you’ll read about in this series, Wilfred Warren Blackband contributed to the war effort in a special way with his special skill. Unlike the others, he never went far from home but you can't say that he didn't do his share, or that he didn't go to war. Perhaps if he was such a good farrier and instructor, he was able to help the horses in the war from far, far away, through the men he trained.

He may have played a greater role than even he knew. Throughout Great Britain, men like Wilfred regurgitated what they knew, as best they could, in the time they had. Their students went on to the war zones, with their instructors words still fresh in their ears.

Perhaps Wilfred even taught them the little verse over the Gonalston forge's famous door.

Wilfred’s story is coming to you third-hand. His grandson, John Travis, told the story to Marion Bryce of the Long Eaton Natural History Society, who shared it online and with me. Thank you to both of them and to Sheila Clipsham for the Yeomanry farriers group photo and to anyone who reads these articles and believes that the past is worth digging up and airing out and keeping around.

Read John Travis's original remembrance of his grandfather, as told to Marion Bryce.

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