‘I lost my nose in France – but there’s no point going back for it’

The story of a north Northumberland man, who went to fight in the First World War aged just 15 and returned having suffered horrendous injuries, forms part of a recent book about the conflict’s wounded.

Wounded – The Long Journey Home from the Great War, by Emily Mayhew, is the story of a journey: From injury on the battlefield to recovery in Britain.

It is the story of the soldiers themselves, from the aid post in the trenches to the casualty clearing station in the rear, from the base hospital to the ambulance train returning them to Blighty, but it is also the story of those who cared for them – stretcher bearers and medical officers, surgeons and chaplains, nurses and ambulance drivers.

And one of the four chapters telling the tale of individual injured soldiers is about Joseph Pickard, from Alnwick, who worked for Hardy’s before he signed up.

He joined up in 1916, aged 15-and-a-half, at the drill hall in Fenkle Street having lied about his age, because he ‘wanted the war to make a man of him’.

When he arrived in France, he was assigned to a bearer team at a field ambulance behind the lines, which he hated.

But he eventually saw more action than he would have liked, on Easter Day, 1918, at Moreuil where the Northumberlands were defending their line.

Something hit him, he lost consciousness and when he woke up, he was lying in a trench full of corpses.

‘The shrapnel in his back had sliced through his sciatic nerve and exited through his bladder at the front, smashing his pelvis along the way. No wonder he hadn’t managed to get up; it was a miracle that he had been able to crawl.

‘His leg was all but shredded and his nose had been blown clean off. He heard the harassed doctor say that he had no doubt this was Pickard’s last night on earth.’

The padre had administered the last rites and they had started to dig his grave, but Pickard refused to die and so began the long, painful journey back to England.

‘It took Pickard a long time to recover and, when he finally went home, people stared at his broken face. But he didn’t mind it much. He had gone to the war to become a man, and a man he now was, even if he didn’t look or walk quite right.

‘One day a child asked him what had happened to his nose. He had lost it in France, he replied, and there wasn’t any point in going back and trying to look for it.’

His son, Hugh Pickard, from Alnwick but living in Aberdeen for the last 11 years, picked up on the book and his father’s story when a review was published in a national newspaper.

That story and the first edition of the book referred to Joseph Pickard dying in poverty, which wasn’t true; he had his own watch and clock repair business at Hill House, Bondgate Within. This has been corrected in the paperback edition.

Mr Pickard also told the Gazette that this was a much fuller account of his father’s wartime experience than he had been told.

“I knew a bit about it and I knew he had lost his nose as a very young chap,” he said.

“There were also some tapes, because he had done some interviews with the Imperial War Museum, which are now in the Fusiliers Museum of Northumberland (at Alnwick Castle). It was only recently that I brought myself to listen to the first one.

“There was never a full story that came out, just bits and pieces about his time in the Forces. My father was a very hard man and it took a lot to knock him down.”

Wounded, published by Vintage, is available in paperback and e-book format priced at £8.99. ISBN 9780099584186.