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Francis George Leyland Wooster

Birth: 13 Jan 1890

Death: 21 April 1953   Tree  Gravestone

World War I: Gallipoli, Egypt, Yser (France)

Rank: Second Lieutenant, 5th Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment

Embarkation Vessel: SS Olympic

Destination: Gallipoli, Turkey

POW: 29 Aug 1917 to 20 Dec 1918

Frank Wooster at War - an extract from ‘Why does Frank Wooster’s name appear in Montreuil-sur-mer? Who was he, and what did he do?’ by James Gibbs

Note: This extract refers to Alan Pryce-Jones, to his memoir The Bonus of Laughter and to his draft obituary of Frank.  There is a reference to Frank’s ‘dream house’ in Montreuil sur mer - the Hôtel d’Acary that ‘fell in love with’ on a visit to the town in 1910.

Eugène Fould (Fould Springer) , who is mentioned, had been attracted to Frank when he spoke about his ‘dream-house’. Pryce Jones writes that Eugène was infatuated with Frank.

Eugène’s wife, the very wealthy ‘Mitzi’, nèe Marie-Cäcile de (or von) Springer, came to feel that there was a strong spiritual  bond between herself and her husband’s friend, Frank. In her widowhood and to the surprise of many, she was baptised ‘Mary’ and married Frank. Thereby becoming ‘Mrs Mary Wooster’.

After Frank died, she insisted that he continued to impart both spiritual wisdom and advice about her garden from beyond the grave. She devoted considerable energy and money to trying to preserve his memory.

I would be grateful for additional information, comments and queries on this material.

James Gibbs

Pryce-Jones informs us that Frank was in Brighton with his valet when war broke out. I haven’t been able to find out precisely what had drawn him to that elegant South coast resort, but the town has much to offer and the fact that Schuster had a flat there may have provided a particular incentive.

Despite his health problems, Frank prepared to volunteer and immediately consulted his horse-riding friend Harold Brown. Although initially found unfit, Frank was later accepted by the Norfolk Yeomanry and underwent training with them. An anecdote has come down from this period to add to that connected with Alexandra: it seems that during an exercise Frank was thrown from his mount into the path of many galloping horses; they all missed him, or avoided him,  and he rose to his feet unscathed. Predictably, he came to see his escape from injury or death as providential.

Training completed, Frank was posted to Gallipoli. On the day he sailed on the S S Olympic, he heard that Brown had been killed.[1] A coincidence that was sifted for meaning and passed down to posterity.

As is well known, the Gallipoli Campaign was ill-thought out and its failure represented a severe set-back to the Allied war effort. Frank, apparently, saw action, and recalled, as Pryce-Jones’s recorded in his draft obituary, shooting a Turk whose wife and children he had watched – and, the implication is, ‘got to know’ - in the trenches.

While in Gallipoli, a friendship developed between him and Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton. According to Pryce-Jones, Hamilton, a soldier of remarkable courage and vast experience, a novelist, poet and linguist, admired Frank, or at least his turn out, his consistent smile and helpful manner. In trying to bring Frank into focus in these pages, these qualities need to be noted and set beside the testimony of others who also found him presentable, pleasant and charming. Mitzi went further and suggested there was a ‘radiance’ about him.

Frank was saved from being numbered among the very high casualty figures in Gallipoli because he contracted typhus and was sent home. Always delicate, it is possible, as Pryce-Jones suggests, that Frank may never have recovered completely from this illness, that his health, poor in a childhood and made worse by the infection picked up in Egypt, was permanently impaired as a result of typhus.

The draft obituary by Pryce-Jones includes an anecdote about Frank in hospital in London. It seems that one day the nurses dressed him in blue silk pyjamas (!) and ushered in a distinguished visitor who was rather nervous and spoke gruffly with a trace of an accent. The visitor was George V, and apparently, urged Frank to feel that he had served his country enough and did not need to rejoin the troops. Pryce-Jones gives no indication as to the background to this visit, or whether the king spoke in the same way to all the sick men. The point of the story is that Frank did not heed the King’s call and returned to the front line; he was unflinchingly brave and patriotic. He lived to serve, and, as his next tour of duty was in France, he witnessed suffering and suffered.

Apparently, Frank spent more than a year in the trenches at Yser, and during that time was profoundly distressed by the conditions endured by the animals used by the troops. He also ‘suffered to see his men and comrades killed.’ On one occasion, he forwent, Pryce-Jones tells us, an opportunity to return home. Then, on the day before he was, at long last, due to go on leave - how these special ‘days’ pile up in Frank’s tale – or Frank’s tale as mediated by and / or for Mitzi!, there was a fierce battle that left many wounded men in ‘no man’s land’. Seeing this, Frank volunteered to go forward with a Red Cross team, and, while engaged in rescuing the wounded, was taken prisoner.

He was, apparently, held for a time in Hôtel de ville at Courtrai, Flanders, and then arraigned before a court marshal where he was questioned about gun positions - about which he knew nothing. He was told he would be shot, presumably as a spy, on the fifth day. However, the German soldier who brought him his ‘bread and water’, Feldwebel Klein, asked him if he had any contacts in Holland who might vouch for him. Frank produced the name ‘Robert May’, and (miraculously? providentially?) on the fearfully awaited fifth day his guards told him that they had heard from Holland. Cleared of suspicion of being a spy, Frank was then taken to Freiburg im Breisgau where he was held at the University. While there he cooked for fellow prisoners, and helped to maintain morale.

In his draft obituary, my source for these uplifting details, Pryce-Jones records that, during the Autumn of 1917 and while still a German POW, Frank threw a stick into a tree to knock down apples. As a result he was accused of taking food that was reserved for Germans and condemned to three months ‘silent confinement’. However, he actually spent only about five weeks so sequestered before being let off further punishment in the name of ‘Prince Max of Baden’. This must have been ‘Maximilian Alexander Friedrich Wilhelm of Baden (10 July 1867 – 6 November 1929), a nobleman and politician who was to play an important role as the war drew to a close.

Frank was then offered the chance of freedom in exchange for a German POW, but, ever the self-sacrificing hero, he preferred to let another soldier take his place, a man who had children and whose wife had gone mad.

During much of the time he spent as a prisoner, Frank had been ‘posted’ as ‘missing presumed dead’, but at some stage he was located and eventually released. Programmes run in the names of Princess Margaret of Connaught and the Count Munster may have assisted in this process.

Such formal military records as I have had access to lack the details reproduced above. They indicate that Frank reached the rank of Second Lieutenant, and that he was marked ‘exonerated officers’ list’. This exoneration carries no pejorative connotations and may have been occasioned by the sicknesses already mentioned. It means that the bald military record lacks all the colour and detail found in the ‘family traditions’ that APJ has passed on.



Eugène and Montreuil during the War

Eugène was also drawn into the conflict that convulsed Europe, becoming an interpreter attached to a General whose name I have seen rendered ‘Burtshel’. This may have been Eton and Magdalene educated Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Percival Dearman Birchall, a Royal Fusilier attached to the 4th Battalion Canadian Infantry (Central Ontario Regiment). However, since Birchall was killed at Ypres on 24 April 1915, Eugène may have worked with other officers as well.

As is well known, Montreuil became the General Head Quarters of the British Expeditionary Force and for a time was the centre of the allied world! The ‘back office’ of a new kind of military operation occupied buildings in or inside the ramparts; General Douglas Haig was assigned a mansion, Beaurepaire, on the road from Montreuil towards Hesdin, and his train was often drawn up at the station below the town. The War Correspondents, a distinguished group that included John Buchan and Philip Gibbs, occupied a Château between Hesdin and St Pol, and nearby properties accommodated the visitors who wanted to get within the sound of the front – but rarely visited the forward positions. Haig’s Diaries together with those kept by his chaplain, the Rev’d George Simpson Duncan, GHQ by ‘GSO’ (pseudonym of Sir Frank Fox) and  the post-war writings of Philip Gibbs  provide glimpses of Montreuil – of what Gibbs, no relation and particularly perceptive, referred to as the ‘City of Beautiful Nonsense’. Philip Gibbs wrote:

I came to know G.H.Q, more closely when it removed for fresher air, to Montreuil, a fine old walled town, once within sight of the sea, which ebbed over the low-lying ground  below its hill, but now looking across a wide vista of richly cultivated fields where many hamlets are scattered among  clumps of trees. One came to G.H.Q. from journeys over the wild desert of the battle-fields, where men lived in ditches and "pill-boxes," muddy, miserable in all things but spirit, as to a place where the pageantry of war still maintained its  old and dead tradition. It was like one of those pageants which used to be played in England before the war, picturesque, romantic, utterly unreal. It was as though men were playing at war here, while others, sixty miles away, were fighting and dying, in mud and gas-waves and explosive barrages.


An "open sesame," by means of a special pass, was needed to enter this City of Beautiful Nonsense. Below the gateway, up the steep hillside, sentries stood at a white post across the road, which lifted up on pulleys when the pass had been examined by a military policeman in a red cap. Then the sentries slapped their hands on their rifles to the occupants of any motor-car, sure that more staff- officers were going in to perform those duties which no private soldier could attempt to understand, believing they belonged to such mysteries as those of God. Through the narrow streets walked elderly generals, middle-aged colonels and majors, youthful subalterns all wearing red hat-bands, red tabs, and the blue-and-red  armlet of G.H.Q., so that colour went with them on their way.


Often one saw the Commander-in-Chief starting for an afternoon ride, a fine figure, nobly mounted, with two A.D.C.'s and an escort of Lancers. A pretty sight, with fluttering pennons on all their lances, and horses groomed to the last hair. It was prettier than the real thing up in the Salient or beyond the Somme, where dead bodies lay in upheaved earth among ruins and slaughtered trees.


War at Montreuil was quite a pleasant occupation for elderly generals who liked their little stroll after lunch, and for young Regular officers, released from the painful necessity of dying for their country,  who were glad to get a game of tennis down below the walls there, after strenuous office work in -'which they had written "Passed to you" on many "minutes," or had drawn the most comical caricatures of their immediate chief, and of his immediate chief, on blotting-pads and writing-blocks.


It seemed, at a mere glance, that all these military inhabitants of G.H.Q. were great and glorious soldiers. Some of the youngest of them had a row of decorations, from Montenegro, Serbia, Italy, Roumania, and other States, as recognition of gallant service in translating German letters (found in dug-outs by the fighting men), or arranging for visits of political personages to the back areas of war or initialing requisitions for pink, blue, green, and yellow forms which in due course would find their way to battalion adjutants for immediate filling-up in the middle of an action. The oldest of them, those white-haired, bronze-faced, grey-eyed generals in the

administrative side of war had started their third row of ribbons well before the end of the Somme battles, and had flower borders on their breasts by the time the massacres had  been accomplished in the fields of Flanders.


As might be expected, Eugène’s duties as an interpreter periodically took him to Montreuil, and on one visit he was able to locate, but not look inside, Frank’s ‘dream house’. In 1917, while in Paris recovering from ‘une phlébite’, Eugène had occasion to tell his wife that meeting Frank, whom he referred to then and later as the ‘Montreuil Boy’,  had had a profound impact on him: he said that seeing Frank smile ‘changed one’s ‘outlook’.[2] In about 1918, Eugène, whose work as an interprester  took him to Hesdin,  visited Montreuil once again, but, as before, he could only look from a distance at the ‘dream house’.  


Post-War Positions

All three of the central characters in this narrative came through the ‘war to end wars’ and after it Eugène and Mitzi gravitated towards Paris where the shape of the new Europe was being mapped out. Since her wealth was largely derived from Central Europe, Mitzi took a close interest in the way European boundaries were being redrawn, and Pryce-Jones relates that Mitzi ‘gained access to Lloyd George’ at the Peace Conference, and showed him on a map where the new international boundaries should be drawn – so far as she was concerned (108) [3]. He wisely cautions that he may be repeating a ‘family legend’.  In fact, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, Springer interests lay in at least three ‘states, Austria, Czecho-Slovakia and Hungary’. (108)


Frank in the Post-War Period

After the War, Frank sought his destiny bearing in mind the words of his boyhood epiphany that he was to be needed. A visit to the widow of the manly Harold Brown led to flight when, Pryce-Jones records, she made it clear that she wanted to marry him. He fled to his mother and stayed with her, thinking she might be the one who needed him. Pryce-Jones records that, one day in 1919, after sending him out to play golf, she died at Eastry. He does not say, as was found at the inquest conducted  by the Coroner for Kent, F.W. Hardman, on 19 April, that the cause of death was ’suffocation by drowning. Suicide while of unsound mind [4]. Since the Death certificate carried the information, in the space for ‘occupation’, that Annie was ‘Widow of Frederick Wooster of Independent Means’ it is not clear how deeply into the matter Hardman was able to delve. Annie’s deception that ‘Wooster’ was her married rather than her maiden name seems to have survived her death. The actual method used Annie to kill herself, involving a bed, ropes and a bucket of water, was very unusual and was given column inches in a New Zealand newspaper.[5]

Pryce-Jones writes in some detail about what happened after Annie died, but what he writes makes more sense if we know about the circumstances of Annie’s passing. It seems that shortly before Annie’s suicide, her elder son, had contracted polio, and as a result of this the burden of settling her affairs fell to Frank. The draft obituary, presumably reproducing information from Frank, continued:

Unaided [Frank] went through a worse Hell than the war had been. He often said that having to live on without Harold and his mother was much harder than ‘going over the top’. Finally, after long lonely hours of cruel hard work, he managed to get his mother buried at Deal. Everything crumbled around him. He only then learnt something that tore his heart more and more. His mother who he had loved so tenderly, to whom he wished to dedicate his life, left all she possessed, many charming souvenirs and lovely pieces of furniture, to her sister, not mentioning either of her sons in her Will.

He was too broken in health, too deeply unhappy, to stay on in England so decided to spend most of his time in France, or travelling. He always said that France had the most hospitable people. No wonder he made friends wherever he went. He was beautiful, radiant, always thinking of others, never of himself. No one could imagine the sorrow in his heart or the handicap of ill-health which inflicted such suffering upon him.

This is, incidentally, the final section of the draft obituary, and one must wonder why the account stops at this point rather than with Frank’s death. As I have stressed already, Pryce-Jones’s attitude to Frank in this draft obituary is very unlike that in his memoire. I read this as a rather forced funeral tribute. It is particularly hard to take the ‘long lonely’ and ‘the hard, cruel’ in the paragraphs above and by the time we get to the ‘sorrow in his heart’ one must feel that Pryce-Jones’s tongue has slipped resolutely into his cheek – or that he is expecting readers to ‘reach for the sick-bag’. He is making a mockery of the form he has adopted, and no longer expects the dispassionate reader to take him, or his portrait of the saintly, suffering Frank, seriously. Elsewhere in his writing about Frank there are drops of vinegar but here the taste is of several tablets of saccharine. In brief, I think the portrait of Frank of the draft obituary was painted to please Mitzi but that Pryce-Jones found himself parodying the eulogy form and gave up. He completed a quicker, more honest sketch in The Bonus of Laughter where he felt free from constraints.

James Gibbs copyright 2013


[1]  There may be relevant papers in the Regimental Record Archive.

[2]  He seems to have used the English word ‘outlook’. My source for this is ‘Voici les raisons exactes..’ the  Guide to the Hôtel that may be by Lephay or Le Roy The sources I am drawing on were produced for popular consumption, some colour may have been added and some names, such as ‘Burtshel’, misheard. ‘une phlébite’ - Circulatory  problems ‘ran’ in the Fould family.

[3]  It will be recalled that all the numbered Pryce-Jones references are to The Bonus of Laughter, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987.

[4] See mfo. The death is recorded at Eastry, Kent.

[5] This suicide has been researched for the Wooster Family Site by members of the family.


  Page last updated

  12 October 2015