Mervyn Ninnis – Trenches Like Canals

Whilst scanning items for our North Devon War Items project on our Facebook page, I came across several stories about the men who served in the war which made me want to find out more about them. One of these men was Mervyn Ninnis of the Devonshire Regiment.

Born on the 9th January 1889, in Barnstaple, his parents were William (a draper) and Ann. Mervyn was one of eight children, two boys and six girls. He went to school in Bear Street until 1898 when he was forced to leave due to being “In very delicate health”.

After being apprenticed to R B Slee, a butcher, he joined the 4th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment towards the end of 1906 at 18 years old. His surviving Army records show he was 5ft 4inches tall and weighed 106 lbs. He had blue eyes and dark brown hair.

By the outbreak of World War One, Mervyn had been transferred to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment and was stationed in Egypt. The Battalion was mobilized on the 6th August 1914 and arrived in Southampton at the beginning of October from whence they moved to Winchester to join up with the Eigth Division. They moved out at the beginning of November and soon found themselves in the thick of it around Neuve Chapelle.

14th January 1915 5d Back to the LandIt was from these trenches Mervyn Ninnis wrote to his friends and family back home. The first of his letters to be published in the North Devon Herald on 14th January 1915 came with the heading “Back To The Land”. In it he spoke about the Christmas truce and thanked his relatives for their gifts. In subsequent letters published in both the North Devon Herald and the North Devon Journal he compared the trenches to canals, a theme which runs through his published letters throughout January 1915.

The 11th March saw his letters describing life in the trenches published in both of the local newspapers for a second time. As members of the public back home in Barnstaple and North Devon read about Mervyn’s experiences, he was in the midst of the battle for Neuve Chapelle, being hit by a shell and wounded in the right leg and ankle. Ten officers and 274 men from the 2nd Devons lost their lives in the action which lasted four days.

Mervyn’s brief note home telling his family he was injured was published a week later and then he went quiet.

18th March1915 5f Stopped At Last
North Devon Herald 8th March 1915 page 5 column f

What had happened to Mervyn? He hadn’t been killed as his name didn’t appear on the War Memorial.

A year later and in an article headed Barumite’s Return in the North Devon Herald, I finally discovered what became of him. Mervyn had, at last, returned home to Barnstaple. After being wounded he was sent to Folkstone where he spent three months in a military hospital before being sent to hospitals in Sandgate and Eastbourne, then to a hospital in Croydon, before finally being discharged from both the army and hospital.

On returning home he was quoted as saying “It’s twelve months since I left the fighting line, and I am trying to forget what I saw there.” He went on to say “I have done my bit, and am now satisfied to remain home in Britain.”

However, this is not the end of Mervyn’s story, in 1918 he married Emma Dorcas Glasby at St Mary Magdalene Church, Barnstaple. They had a daughter, Millicent, in 1923. Mervyn became a postman and they lived in Bickington, where he was also a member of the local choir.

Mervyn died 29th April 1962 aged 73.

NDJH 10th May 1962 10a Thank You (2)

Further Reading:

You can view all of Mervyn’s published letters alongside other newspaper articles about his life on our Facebook page

We also hold a pedigree file about him and his family in our collections

You can also access online collections, including service records and school admission registers for free in the North Devon Record Office and Local Studies Library. Please contact us for more details.

…Barum Athena


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