Herbert Wells: The Chertsey boy soldier interned in the Swiss Alps

Herbert Augustus George Wells, known to many as Gus, was the Chertsey shop boy who enlisted in the Army in 1914 aged only 16, was seriously wounded and taken prisoner within two months of arriving in France, and spent part of the Great War interned in a Swiss alpine resort. Gus returned home and went on to run a small chain of tobacconist shops, one of which has a connection to the pop band Dexys Midnight Runners.

Herbert Wells in August 1915 shortly before departing for France. Image courtesy of Roger Wells.

The Wells family was originally from Hampshire but, in seeking work, they moved closer to London and settled in Chertsey. Gus’s father Herbert Wells Senior was in the building trade and constructed the family home, a red brick detached property in Abbey Road, Chertsey which he named ‘Langley Cottage’ in honour of his wife Jessica Langley. It was here that Gus, born in 1898, resided with his parents and younger siblings throughout his formative years. 

Langley Cottage in Abbey Road, Chertsey. Image by Ian Lacey.

After a spell at Sir William Perkins’s School, Gus started work at Morton’s boot shop at 129 Guildford Street. As a lad of 14 or 15, he would have welcomed the opportunity to escape the confines of the shop to deliver repaired shoes around the town on his bicycle. With the outbreak of war in August 1914, Gus seized the chance to expand his horizons beyond Surrey.

Gus wasted little time in joining up, enlisting in the 9th East Surrey Regiment at Kingston upon Thames in September 1914. He declared that he was 19 and was accepted. Like most of his family Gus was tall so perhaps his physique of just over six feet and 138 pounds made him appear older. It is also likely that the recruiters, under pressure to deliver numbers, did not ask many probing questions.

Gus spent almost a year based at training camps in Britain. Yet, when he finally set foot on French soil on 31 August 1915, Private Herbert Wells was still six months short of his 18th birthday, the legal age to serve in the British Army. His time on the Western Front was destined to be short.

Herbert Wells (third from right in the standing row of eight) at a training camp. Image courtesy of Roger Wells.

The East Surrey Regiment was deployed at the Battle of Loos which took place between 25 September and 8 October 1915. This was the biggest British attack of the year and involved the first British use of poison gas as a weapon. Loos was the first mass engagement for ‘The New Army’, also known as ‘Kitchener’s Army’, comprised at the time of volunteers such as Gus. Conscription was only introduced in Britain (but not Ireland) in 1916 as the initial surge of volunteers slowed and casualty numbers increased.

In late September 1915, Gus was wounded and spent 48 hours in a shell hole before being captured by the Germans. Back in Chertsey, the Wells family waited anxiously for definite news for almost a month. The Surrey Herald published two articles about him being missing in action. The second on 22 October also mentioned that Ernest Dyos of White Hart Yard was missing. In a remarkable coincidence, Gus replaced Ernest Dyos at Morton’s boot shop when Ernest moved to the firm’s Tiverton store in Devon.

Surrey Herald 22 October 1915. Image by Jim Knight.

A week later on 29 October 1915, the Surrey Herald confirmed that Gus was alive. The paper published a letter to his mother dated 4 October which said:

I am in hospital in Germany. I am wounded in both legs and in the shoulder but don’t worry about me, as the wounds are slight and I feel all right. Send me a parcel with something good to eat. Send me also some money: a few shillings should do […] Let the other friends of mine know my address, as I can’t write myself. We are being treated very kindly here.

Gus’s most serious injury was to his right leg. He had surgery, but a nerve had been damaged which led to a residual foot drop for which Gus wore a metal caliper, used a stick, and later received a 10% war disability for life. His sister kept the offending bullet.

Gus is recorded in a photo alongside 15 other soldiers at a military hospital in Cologne. Two of the group are Indian soldiers. This is noteworthy given the recent debates about the use of non-white troops from the British Empire in the Great War and how their contribution was, for many years, either ignored or erased.

Herbert Wells (front row in the dark shirt) and fellow soldiers at a German hospital 1915. Image courtesy of Roger Wells.

In the second half of 1916, Gus was transferred from Germany to Switzerland where he remained for the rest of the war. Prisoners like Gus who were wounded, but still capable of carrying out non-frontline military work, were interned under an international agreement. As British historian Susan Barton noted, this arrangement had benefits not only for the former prisoners but also for the Swiss.

In the early years of the 20th Century, Swiss alpine resorts had grown to meet the demand of increasing visitor numbers, but hotel developments were often funded by loans and mortgages. The outbreak of the war brought most tourism and its associated income to a halt. Swiss hoteliers were keen to host the internees because the fees they received could be used to keep their businesses going.

Nestlé booklet cover Christmas 1916. Image courtesy of Roger Wells.

Between January 1916 and August 1919 nearly 68,000 officers and men were interned in Switzerland including 4,081 British, 37,515 French, and 21,000 Germans. Each of the nationalities were hosted in different regions with the British sent to areas that were popular with English speaking tourists before the war. This is how Gus found himself staying at the Palace Hotel in the town of Mürren.

According to a memoir published in 1918 by a Canadian officer J. Harvey Douglas, all officers and some men were quartered in the Palace Hotel, with the rest of the men distributed among seven other hotels. They were all treated as guests with their daily board paid for by the British government. During this period, many internees engaged in winter sports such as skiing and curling. The injury to his right leg would have prevented Gus from taking part in more vigorous activities but he used the time in Switzerland to develop his skills as a painter. Gus said of Mürren, “It snows for seven months a year, and it rains for five, and the rest is summer.”

Painting by Herbert Wells. Image courtesy of Roger Wells.

The interns were permitted visitors and, in July 1917, Gus’s mother travelled to Switzerland to see him for the first time in almost two years. There is no record available of her journey to Mürren but on 23 September, the Surrey Herald published a letter from Gus dated ‘July’ confirming his mother’s arrival. He sent thanks for the two shirts which had been made for him by Chertsey women.

Herbert Wells’ mother Jessica. Image courtesy of Roger Wells.

Gus was repatriated in December 1918, arriving home just before Christmas. After a short spell learning carpentry from his Uncle George, Gus returned to the retail trade. He became a tobacconist and ran a small chain of shops close to the Imperial War Museum in London. In 1923 he married Alice and they had two daughters Ann and Janet. After Alice died, Gus married Marjory in 1951 who gave birth to a son Roger, and the three of them visited Mürren on holiday in 1965. Gus divided his time between his businesses in London and his roots in Surrey, and he died aged 79 in 1977. 

Like many of his generation, Gus was reluctant to talk about his wartime experiences, despite the best efforts of his son. Roger acknowledged recently that Gus had a relatively ‘good war’ compared to many of his contemporaries, even though his father was left with a physical disability. It is unknown whether Gus was involved in the debates about how Chertsey should commemorate its fallen men, or whether he attended the war memorial unveiling ceremony in Windsor Street on 30 October 1921. In later life, Gus said to his son that subsequent generations “wouldn’t be so foolish” to be taken in by the patriotic fervour of 1914.

Herbert Wells in Switzerland. Image courtesy of Roger Wells.

What was Gus’s connection to Dexys Midnight Runners? One of his former shops was featured in the 1982 video for ‘Come on Eileen’ which was filmed in Lambeth. The full video is available online but, for copyright reasons, it is not possible to provide a link. Look out for the 10-second clip of a red shuttered shop front with the sign ‘H Wells’ above.   

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Roger Wells for sharing photographs and other items from the family archive, and for recording the video ‘Roger Wells remembers his father Private Herbert Wells’.

Additional thanks to Gus’s daughter Ann for sharing her memories, to Sally Dyos for providing research assistance, and to Jim Knight who photographed the Surrey Herald clippings for the Runnymede Remembered Archive.

Suggested reading

Internment in Switzerland during the First World War by Susan Barton (London: Bloomsbury, 2019).

Captured: Sixteen Months as a Prisoner of War by J. Harvey Douglas (Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1918), available from Forgotten Books.

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