||One day in 1911, the boy was called in from the garden by his elder sister with whom he was lodging, and told to clean up and prepare to go to Bristol. The purpose of the visit was to buy him a new suit, his first to have long trousers. The transition from short to long trousers for village boys at least, right up to the second world war, was the surest recognition in the community that a boy had graduated from schoolboy to the world of work.
Long trousers were never worn at school, shorts would have been laughed at at work. The boys were pleased of the recognition that they were on the first rung of the ladder to manhood and authority. But for this 14 year-old the suit had a more sombre significance: he was to wear it to his mother’s funeral, and the sadness of this poignant coincidence never forsook him.
By the age of 17 his turbulent relationship with his farmer employer no doubt in part to his confrontational nature reached breaking point. It was August 1914. “I’m off to join the army”, he said. “Not old enough”, said the farmer. And so, within a few days the boy, advancing his age by 6 months, enlisted in the Somerset Light Infantry.
Training began in Bath and shortly afterwards the colonel announced one morning parade that they were no longer the S.L.I but the 10th Devonshire Regiment. A proud moment was when the colonel assured this young man that he was one of the smartest ever to wear khaki. They were billeted in long huts, a trained soldier in charge of each hut. The beds were simple wood boards resting on small trestles. The trained soldier in this hut found it quite fun to come in at night and kick over the trestles, and have the recruits scrabbling about to remake their beds. “Don’t kick mine down”, said our young soldier, and they were promptly kicked over.
The boy, not yet 18, of medium height and about 160lbs, with strong upper body and well made for it, leaped out of bed and made for the hut bully. “You’ll need this”, he said, offering the boy a pair of army boots. They were flung to the ground and a fierce fight ensued. This kind of boldness sends out a very clear ‘keep off the grass’ message, and this bed was never disturbed again. In any all-male environment, barrack room or mess deck or building site, the alpha males rule OK. It was ever thus. It is primeval, the rest tag along like wolves in a pack, aware of their station.
Later, the recruits were joined by a number of Welshmen, coal miners who had enlisted in a fit of bravado following a night out. They were rather older youths, less respectful of army authority or tradition, not easily intimidated, imbued with the camaraderie of their calling. They liked to fight among themselves “because we are useless.”
One of their PT instructors had been a sparring partner of Welsh world champion boxer, Jimmy Wilde. As he put them through their paces, the young recruit of this account was quick to join in, eager to learn. He was pleased to discover that he was quite effective and good at a sport then known as the noble art of self defence. He could also joke that he’d fought with the sparring partner of a world champion ! The sport does not have the following it once did. Interestingly, one of its best exponents, and one of the hardest and toughest boxers of his, or perhaps any generation, said “Boxing ? You jus’ get your brains cooked, your money took, and your name on the undertaker’s book.” That was Joe Frazier.
All these young men were volunteers, there being no conscription until 1916. The slaughter in France was yet to come. By 1918 some 12% of British forces had been killed. Many years later, Mr Churchill spoke admiringly of them. In 1942, when the British and Australian forces had been summarily driven out of Malaya by a Japanese force less than half their size, and Singapore had fallen, lowering the blinds on the legend of British and white superiority in Asia, Mr Churchill said that the young men of 1915 would have done better.
By September 1915, with a year’s training behind them, the Devonshire Regiment, however unfavourable the wind, was ready for France. They arrived during the battle of Loos, in which the British and French used gas. The battle seems to have lacked what General Montgomery claimed was the first essential to fight one, namely a good plan.
Allied casualties were more than 240 officers killed and 58,000 troops. Robert Graves, of “Goodbye to all That” fame, fought in it. Rudyard Kipling’s only son died in it. But the Devonshires were held in reserve and were spared it, and later entrained for the south of France, embarked on an eastward-bound trooper, and were certain they were bound for the Dardanelles to fight the fearsome Johnny Turk.
They knew this because every rumour doing its rounds confirmed it. And so they steamed into the northern Greek port of Salonika to become part of the Allied Balkan Campaign. The Greeks seemed not yet to have decided which side they were on, their guns all directed seawards.
The first task of the Tommies was to make their minds up, and re-direct their guns. Meanwhile, the Greek Guards, in fancy uniforms, were in full retreat riding little donkeys until they collapsed beneath them.
On a free day, the young soldier of our story embarked in a little boat with a friend, to take a closer look at the big ship at anchor. When they were well out, the friend, just for fun, pushed him overboard. Opportunities to learn to swim were few in a Somerset village, and this proved a compelling time to learn a few strokes. When he eventually pulled himself from the filthy harbour, without stopping to dry himself, he chased his laughing friend, and when he caught him, gave him a lesson in the sport he had learned with the Welshmen.
The aim of the Anglo-French campaign was to provide military aid to Serbia, which had been attacked by the Austro-Hungarians. Ultimately, the campaign failed. In 1918 the Allies called these Balkan countries to order. Croatia joined the new country of Yugoslavia, the Czechs united with the Slovakians, formerly northern Hungary. Romania took Transylvania, Macedonia went to Greece and Yugoslavia. Huge loathings and bitterness simmered in these countries, culminating in the war of the 1990s, with their bloodcurdling aim of ‘ethnic cleansing’.
In the context of the Great War, this campaign was something of a sideshow, but it was fought in very severe conditions. The British suffered 160,000 cases of malaria in a total of more than half a million non-battle casualities. Food was very poor hard tack and Tickler’s jam.
Nestlé’s tins of condensed milk provided a special treat. This almost forgotten army also experienced the ferocity of the Balkan winters, some of the coldest of the century. When from sheer exhaustion they did sleep, there were mornings when they awoke with their heads frozen to the parapet. The CO was almost apologetic, telling them that their conditions were as bad as anything he had experienced in the South African war, in which disease and non-military factors killed more soldiers than the Boers.
Despite all their privations and their best efforts, at the end of the year, the Anglo-French armies found themselves back in Salonika, and the British government in favour of pulling out, but they were dissuaded by the French, Italians and Russians.
There were further offensives in 1916 and 1917, but the six British divisions mad little impression on the Bulgarians, with their German officers. There were times when the opposing armies were almost in shouting distance, and, one morning, an enemy soldier signalled his contempt for the British by criss-crossing his arms in front of him like a cricket umpire signalling ‘no run’. Our young soldier, by now a marksman, and never from his cradle one to fail to react to insult or provocation of any kind, waited for a repeat performance. When it came he promptly killed him with one round. In an instant he was filled with regret and remorse. Soldiers are there to kill soldiers, but this seemed a very personal and avoidable death, and his remorse never left him.
Week in, week out, the campaign moved hither and thither, morale was good and they did not fear their enemy. They were exceedingly grateful to voluntary medical organisations like Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Then, in the harsh winter of 1917, on the night of February 10th, and progress still being slow, it was decided to make a night raid, the aim of which was to capture prisoners from whom they would extract information. The raid was a great success, but for the private soldier of this account, the consequences were life-changing.
On this raid he was not armed with a rifle, but was the battalion bomber. Mills bombs were strapped on, all the pins straightened, dropping one was not survivable. As the night’s fighting advanced, this soldier found himself quite alone. A group of German infantry appeared just ahead. He had one bomb left, and this he hurled into their advance, and blew them to who knows where. The he turned and ran for home. He kept running until he was stopped in his tracks, and pirouetted on one leg, falling headlong into an enemy trench. The fresh blood of an enemy soldier splashed his face. He had been hit in his left leg by shrapnel and was in great pain and unable to move, and soon began to shout for help. To his huge relief he was heard by a stretcher-bearer he knew well, Pte W. Wall, a fellow swede-basher, a native of Somerset. His home was in Blackford, near Wedmore, and for many years now, his has been one of the tombstones in the little churchyard of the 19C Holy Trinity Church there.
With great effort, Pte Bill Wall hoisted his wounded friend from the trench and proceeded to carry and drag him back to base. They stopped many times, and on several occasions the wounded man asked to be left where he was. But at last they arrived where they would be, and a new battle began against infection. Numerous operations were performed to try to forestall the gangrene, each time shortening the leg well above the knee, but, crucially leaving enough to facilitate the use of an artificial leg. The treatment and dressing were exceedingly painful; the young soldier, now rising 20, would shout and curse staff as they approached his bed. “You’ve got something to shout about,” they said and a strong man held him down as the treatment progressed.
On one memorable day the Luftwaffe dropped bombs on the hospital tent, but probably not because they were wicked men; the British had placed a large ammunition dump in close proximity.
The weeks passed slowly by, and in May the army assembled 500 or so seriously wounded men for repatriation to England. Assurance was sought and confirmed that the Germans would not molest a hospital ship, and so the old, 8,200 ton Dover Castle of 1904 vintage duly set out with her cargo of severely maimed young soldiers. On 26th May, with Malta well behind on the port beam, and 50 miles north of Cape Bone, the old ship struck a mine. She shuddered violently from stem to stern and stopped. The crew largely unseen by the passengers were now very quickly everywhere, assisting the limbless men to the boat stations. The captain and 3 crew remained aboard in the hope of salvaging the vessel, but within 3 minutes, Dover Castle sank beneath the waves, and they perished, as did the 7 stokers on impact.
All the soldiers were tumbled into the boats by the seamen who soon had them away from the wreck. All the boats were lashed together by rope. In each boat there was a sailor armed with an axe. Down on the face of the sea even seasoned seafarers can be undone by seasickness, and this rapidly added to the trials of the soldiers. One vomited his cigarette onto the head of another. “You head’s on fire, mate”, they shouted. “Let the b…. burn”, the folorn reply. Hour after hour for 6 hours they wallowed in the famous Mediterranean swell. It began to seem that, after all they had experienced, and having given him the miss on the Langaza plains, and outwitted him in the tents of the surgeons, it was actually going to be here that they would meet the ‘last enemy’, here in what the psalmist calls the uttermost parts of the sea, and that in the morning they would be only corpses tossing in the great, green seas.
But the Dover Castle’s SOS signals had been heard in Malta, and a rescue ship was diverted to the scene. All the young men were rescued. In spite of their 6-hour ordeal, none died, though, sadly, in the following days, a number did die in Malta. Over the centuries, Malta has provided a safe haven for many a ship-wrecked mariner, the most famous being St Paul in AD60, who spent 3 months on the island before continuing his voyage to Rome.
These young survivors of 1917 spent 7 months there, and were treated royally by the Governor and his wife and daughter. Once again life, in the words of A.L. Rowse, seemed to be at the full. Although in his letter from Rome St Paul never mentioned them, a major attraction to these 20-year olds, were the Maltese girls. To soldiers who had been starved of female company, they were a revelation. Many of the better off young women had French, Spanish and Italian blood, and were deemed very beautiful. One old ex-RN Wringtonian was saying to the year he died in 1952 that if he ever as much as thought of them, he just had to take a long walk !
Another more prosaic but unforgettable feature of daily Maltese life was its system of morning milk deliveries. Known sometimes as the biggest heap of stones in the world, Malta was no place for cows, and goats provided the milk. The herdsman would drive his flock door to door, milk a goat, and move on. When each goat was dry, she would move to the back of the flock.
By November, this idyllic interlude came to an end, and the men were returned to England, home and winter. They were sent to the 900-bed St Mary’s hospital in Roehampton. In the grounds were a number of artificial limb manufacturers, and here they began the long process of rehabilitation and training in trades commensurate with their disabilities. Back in civilian life there was little in the way of social support. Mr Lloyd George’s “land fit for heroes” had not materialised. Mr Atlee’s reforming government was two decades in the future. It was, as Lord Tebbit has said, a case of “on yer bike”.
However, the ex-soldier of this story did not see himself as a victim, nor seek special treatment. A favourite maxim was “Life’s what you make it”. He believed with Ella Wheeler-Wilcox that, ‘if you laugh, the world laughs with you, and if you weep, you weep alone’. He didn’t much like to be told he was lucky by people who had never been in the army, let alone to a war zone, but he well appreciated that unlike so many young men of his time, he had not, in the words of a Brooke 1914 poem, had to ‘lay the world away’. He would enjoy his considerable physical strength, he was certainly a useful man to have around when a man was needed. A lady in a nearby village would vouch for that, as she called to him when she was being dragged into their house by the man in her life.
He was also bold enough to sing a Victorian ballad in a crowded room; he would instantly challenge any snide or unseemly remark or other provocation. If, as the young village tearaway who thought he was big enough to get away with anything, you went too far, you might find yourself, as he did, with an uninterrupted view of the ceiling.
By the mid 1920s he had found himself a wife and a new village to the west of the A38, called Wrington. He had become a father .. my father. The sailor was at last “home from the sea and the hunter home from the hill”, and on his first Saturday evening in the village he decided to sample the local pubs. He put on a suit and trilby, probably looked for a buttonhole, took up a stick and set off, walking mainly in the road to avoid the pavements made unusable by the house martins. In Broad Street he had the choice of The Bell and the Golden Lion, and chose The Bell.
He turned the knob of the bar door, but the door was locked. At 8pm on a May evening this was very odd, and he could hear voices inside. He put his shoulder to the door, and gave the knob another twist, the brim of his trilby hat bent against the frosted glass, and the door flew open pulled open by a heavy man with a long cane in his hand. “Get over there”, said the heavy, and the curious visitor did as he was bid, and lit up a cigarette. Through the drifting smoke he took in the scene.
The landlord, in a collar-less shirt, sleeves rolled up, was leaning against the tilting barrels. Standing against the walls around the bar, a number of men nursed glasses of beer and cider. In the centre of the room a small man was kneeling down, a trickle of sweat crept down his face. On top of his head, just visible, was a small match box and the purpose of the long cane became clear. As soon as the man with his cane had completed his act, the kneeling man leaped to his feet, the others shuffled rather sheepishly towards the bar, some a little fearful that they might be told to volunteer for an encore.
Having done with volunteering, and with only disdain for conscripts, my 30-year old father moved to the bar and ordered a pint of Bristol United bitter.