Yate veteran tracks down 40 of his former Royal Engineers apprentices after 25 year search
David Clensy meets the former Royal Engineer who spent the last 25 years tracking down his fellow apprentices
THE smile on Fred Carslake's face says it all, as he hands me a picture of a large group of men in their early 70s, all beaming at the camera.
"That was taken last year when we all met up in Swindon," he says. "It was quite something to get them all back together."
Many of the old soldiers who gathered at the reunion hadn't seen each other for more than 50 years – when they took their basic training together as army recruits.
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The year was 1957, and there was a group of sense of potential and optimism for what lay ahead as the 160 young men travelled to Harrogate to face the beginning of their military apprenticeships with the Royal Engineers, Royal Signals and Royal Artillery.
By the end of their apprenticeships three years later, the number had whittled down to 107, but the successful men then all went their separate ways into army life, and later into their civilian careers.
Fred himself enjoyed ten years of service with the Royal Engineers. By the time he left the army in 1967, he had served in Germany, Aden, South Africa and Denmark, and won the Army's boxing championships.
He went on to an equally rewarding, 21-year career with Rolls-Royce at Filton, followed by 14 years as a community magazine publisher.
But in 1987, Fred decided to try to track down his fellow apprentices of 1957.
"I wanted to arrange a reunion," the 71-year-old tells me, as he leads the way into the lounge of his Yate home. "I thought it would be nice to catch up with some of my old friends.
"But I was also keen to find out what had happened to them afterwards – I wanted to ask each of them to write about their memories of being an army apprentice in Harrogate, but also to write about what the training allowed them to go on and do with their military and civilian careers.
"I wanted to aim the book at young people – to inspire them to consider an apprenticeship themselves, whether military or civilian."
It took more than 20 years for Fred to track down the 40 former apprentices that he needed to make up his 40-chapter book.
"I tracked people down every way you can imagine – word of mouth, the internet, adverts in local papers around the country and in Soldier magazine.
"I was amazed at how far people had gone. One man that I thought lived in Yorkshire had ended up in Inverness. But then I found that people had settled all over the world – Germany, South Africa, Australia – all sorts of places.
"Of the 107 successful apprentices that I was with, we had one man who had gone on to be a lieutenant-colonel, ten majors, two captains, 42 senior NCOs and 24 junior NCOs.
"Then they had all gone on to have very successful civilian careers after leaving the Army – everything from council leaders to high up jobs in industry. Not bad going for the bunch of waifs and strays who had turned up at Harrogate from all over the country to start their apprenticeships on that February day in 1957.
"We also had some apprentices from Ghana and Nigeria, so it would be nice to track them down next. I did track down one of the African apprentices in Ghana just before Christmas, but sadly he died just a few weeks after I'd found him."
Fred hopes the book will inspire the next generation of would-be military and civilian apprentices.
"There are a lot of people out there today with no work," Fred says. "One of the main reasons is that they have no initiative, which can lead to them being unemployed for a very long time.
"You can have all the qualifications in the world, but if you don't use your initiative you won't get anywhere at all.
"I left school in 1956 without any qualifications, but after ten years in the Army from the age of 15, I had not one but two very successful civilian careers.
"The success stories of these ex-Harrogate apprentices are what this book is all about.
"It will certainly give a great deal of inspiration to anyone reading it, whatever their age."
The Harrogate Army Apprentices – Our Story, by Fred Carslake, is out now, priced £15.
If you served as an apprentice with Fred, he would like to hear from you. Call him on 01454 317112.