What a life
© Ivor Catt 1997
by Sydney Catt. 1974
It all began on February 11th, 1898 in Sandwich, Kent, some time in the early morning; but the details have not stayed very clearly in my memory. I do not remember much before I was about two years of age, when I was still running about in my little frocks. Little boys are not dressed like that now. We all looked like girls, except that our hair was cut short from the start.
I do remember that about this age, I was on the table by the window. My mother was doing something, sitting by me. The window overlooked a level crossing, controlled by an old man, who opened and shut the gates for every train. He must have dozed off, because he did not appear for this train. It smashed through the gates, sending bits flying in all directions. Later on, the crossing was controlled by signals. This put a stop to my having the pleasure of seeing such entertainment.
At my birth, I was the fourth child. There were already two boys and a girl. After me, there was to be another girl. At this time, we had a living in maid. She used to take us for walks every fine afternoon. We always went in a certain direction, because 'Tilly' had a boyfriend. He used to cycle over from a nearby village, and spend the afternoon with us. She did eventually marry him, but he was killed in the 1914 war.
I was soon three years old, and man enough for school. All children started at the Infant's School at three. I remember screaming, and running under the table, clutching the table leg, to stop them from taking me. I was very frightened at the prospect of it, but eventually I settled down. We stayed at the infant's school until we were six, when we moved into the dig boy's school next door. By then, we had learnt elementary reading, and also that 2 and 2 makes 4.
One outstanding memory of my infant school days was of being taken by our teacher to the Drill Hall for the Edward 7th coronation celebrations. It was raining hard. She took my by the hand to hurry me along, and I was glad when we got to the hall. We all got an enamelled mug with the king and queen's heads on it, and a small, flat tin containing a flat slab of Fry's chocolate.
The first year or two at the big boy's school are hazy, but I do remember once telling the whole world that c a r p e n t e r spelt carpenter, and also the class being asked if we all knew the alphabet. I jumped up and said; "I can do it backwards, too." which I swankily did.
As I began to read, my education progressed. I had a sensible mother, herself a great reader. She made sure that books were always there for us to dive into. She was a very good pianist. I suppose it is due to her that I grew to enjoy good music, although my father did have a good bass voice too. Coupled with this, I had a headmaster who was very musical. I have always looked back with gratitude to him, and the schooling of the intricacies of tonic sol-fa. I found this very useful in later years, getting to grips with a difficult phrase in a piece of music. This was when I joined good choirs later on. I was a choirboy from the age of seven. later, I developed into a useful tenor, and had no difficulty in getting into any good choral societies near where I happened to be living.
When I was a boy, the psalms set for the day were sung at both morning and at evening service. At one time, I was in three choirs, so I learned all the psalms, and all the lovely chants. I sang in one church for the 11am and 6pm services, in another for its 3pm service, and after the 6pm service, I raced to another church, which started a service at 8pm. As for Hymns Ancient and Modern, I rarely had to rely on the book. It is amazing to think that in those days, Sandwich had four churches, all in service, all with very respectable congregations. All had choirs. Today, only one church is in operation, and it has difficulty mustering its choir, let alone a respectable congregation.
There was no radio or television. There was no gramophone until I was past boyhood. We had home entertainment. The musical evenings round the piano are pleasant memories. We had quite a family choir. My mother sang and played. My father was a good bass. My two brothers and sister all sang, and I was able to do my bit, even from a young age. I think this was much better than sitting gazing at the box all evening.
In those days, the curfew rang every night at eight. This was the time we were expected to be home, especially in winter. It also rang as a get up bell at five in the morning. Most people got up then, as work started at six. Yes! Work was six to eight, half eight to twelve, one to five-thirty or six. That was for the tan yard, brewery, factory, and all the building workers. Shops opened at eight and stayed open all day until eight on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday was early closing. On Fridays, they closed at nine, and on Saturdays at ten. Other activities, such as choir practice, and evening functions of any sort, did not start before eight, and had to be on Mon, Tue, Wed or Thurs., as that was the only time most people were free. At seven, when I started singing lessons, the class was at 8.15. The organist, who taught us, was a chemist, and did not close his shop until eight.
I advanced through the classes at school, until I was thought bright enough to join the select party who helped in 'the concert'. Every year, a magnificent flow show was held in Sandwich. It was a terrific local draw. Miss Ward, the Assistant Head, later head of the girls' school, put on a concert for this. It was completely drawn from the boys' and girls' schools. If we did a play, or sketches, or fantastic dance arrangements, we rehearsed for months, so that it was the highlight of the year. I was so lucky to have struck the Miss Ward period. I was to learn such a lot from these concerts. I was helped a lot from the training in elocution, and also by the voice production that I got in my singing lessons. What a tremendous advantage it is to learn things young. I am sure I would not have become a scratch golfer without the opportunity to play, almost from infancy, and seeing the great Varndons, Braid, Massey, Ouimet and the other Americans of the time. During my school days, the Royal St. Georges, the Royal Cinque Ports, and later Princes, were all championship courses. What a stir the making of the Princes made, because it closed the Sandwich Rifle Club. My father was a very keen shot, and felt it badly. The butt was in such a position that any misfire would have been dangerous for golfers in the links twixt it and the sea, so the club was forced to close. My father kept the rifles until the war, when he handed them over because they ware badly wanted.
My father was a keen golfer. I liked to go round with him, carrying his clubs, and having the occasional knock. During summer, he played at the St. Georges three or four times a week, so I got to know almost every bump of the course. On my own, I had to do with the practice course. Although not up to the main course standard, it was quite good enough. Sandwich was golf mad then, but I understand that few locals play now. On summer evenings, one would see bunches of people on little rough putting courses on the outskirts of the town. Most kids had a golf club, and caddying was a most sought after job. I was not allowed to do it, as it was considered infra dignitatem. However, once two of us were going across the course for a swim, when two toffs on the first tee asked us if we would caddie for them. We recognised them as the Farrer brothers. They had recently built a huge mansion within the bounds of Sandwich. WE said we couldn't. But they said they would pay well. There were no locals about who might know us, so we took the clubs. On the eighteenth green, we were each given half a crown. We refused to take the clubs over to the club house, where we were known. In those days, half a crown was half a crown. We were amused later when Farrer was jailed for seven years for a bank fraud. His mansion cost £17,000, which you would pay for a small house here now, in 1974. I knew how much all buildings cost, because my father, being a builder, said; "Fancy playing £17,000 for a house. What could one want such a big place for?" The motor car was coming on the scene, and the toffs were having houses built here to be nearer the golf courses. Moore Brabazon, holder of Air Pilot's Certificate No. 1, built a big house at Sandwich Bay. So did Lord Lonsdale, Millionaire Peto as he became known, and the Spender Clays who entertained royalty so much, being particularly friendly with Edward the Eighth. Captain Scott, between his Arctic rambles, lived here. Everyone took a personal interest in him. When he did not return from his last trip, his loss was deeply felt. I knew Peter Scott as a baby, and now I see him on television and hear him on the radio. We often saw him with his nanny at the bay, or in town with his mother. I got particularly friendly with their chauffeur, as I was fascinated by cars, and noted the different makes. The Scotts had a Mores, the only one I have ever seen. Peto had one of the first Renaults. Unics and Peugeots began to appear. Soon the Stevens steam car appeared, but did not last long.
Moore Brabazon was experimenting with large sand yachts. We used to see him tearing us and down the sands in them. But soon he took up flying. He started at Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey, where Commander Samson of the Navy was starting the Naval Flying Wing. His was one of the first 'flying machines' we saw. While playing at the Bay one day, he landed on the sand outside Lord Lonsdale's house. WE were very excited to touch a flying machine. He came out, and asked us to hang on to the interplane struts and places. Then the mechanic, who was with him, started up the engine. He waved us away, but although he revved like mad, the thing wouldn't budge. So he signed to us to push, which we did, and off he went. He did not keep to flying. On the outbreak of war he took a squadron of armoured cars to France. He caused such havoc that all sorts of rumours got going around. One was that the Kaiser had put a price of £1,000 on his head.
Back to the days before the car. I remember a man with a red flag walking in front of traction engines as they puffed through the town. The law has changed now. People moan now about traffic noise. They should have heard the iron tyred carts and vans on the bare flints of the roads of yesteryear. No roads were tarred. Some of the streets were cobbled During fine weather, the dust was appalling. It was common to see a street knee deep in straw, because Mr. or Mrs. So and So was very ill. The straw was put down to deaden the traffic noise.
Market day was the day of the week. It was on Mondays. As soon as we were out of school at twelve, we ran down to it, to watch 'cheap jack'. He sold all sorts of stuff by Dutch Auction, starting with a watch at ten shillings, and finally letting it go for half a crown. Or sometimes, he would throw it at someone. These chaps were to be seen at all markets, and caused much fun. The cows were tied to the cow rails by the dozens. There were pens and pens of sheep and pigs. In those days, this market was one of the biggest in Kent. Cows were always driven along the roads. This made it necessary to hedge or fence all roads to save them from bolting across the fields. A large herd of milkers passed our house four times a day, going to and fro between fields and the milking shed nearer the town. I still remember the dog, who was always in charge. How some little dogs do stick in memory!
Our playground was the butts. In the middle ages, this open space within the town walls was where the archers practices. As a boy, the area was big enough for me to use a driver. I did a lot of golf there, only two hundred yards from home. In the early days, the gutty ball was still being used a lot. They were easy to come by because they were beginning to go out of use. I remember my first haskel brambling, as we called it. I found it much better than the gutty. Clubs were named, not numbered. A full set comprised a driver, brassie, driving iron, cleek, mashy, niblick and putter. Driver and brassie are as today. Driving iron was about a one iron, cleek about a three, mashy about a six, and the niblick eight or nine; perhaps a wedge. Bags were not generally used. I remember seeing one for the first time. I remember Tom Vardon going round with my father once. He carried about four clubs, with which he put up such a performance as would shame the people of today, whose caddies hump round a ton of stuff. Watching today's golf, I am very glad to have seen performances such as I saw that afternoon. We always thought him better than his brother Harry. On his day he was unbeatable. He never seemed to hold his game for a big match. I remember going round with Ben Travers in the Open. He was fresh from his success in America. The game he played with his rusty clubs was terrific. The Americans did not keep their clubs polished as we did. Caddies spent many hours polishing clubs with emery cloth after every game. Those were the days of the hickory shafts, when all pros had their names on the clubs they sold. Ouimet arrived for the open at St. George's after winning the American Open. He had been a caddie. I can see him now in his gorgeous plus fours, and hear a voice behind me say; "E ain't arf posh fer a caddie." in the Kent brogue of the day.
We also played about in the two or three farms near us. We got to know the horses and animals as well as we knew our farming friends. I pitied the horses. They toiled from early morning until dark. It was some time before the tractor came, and horses did everything. They toiled up and down, up and down all day, dragging the single furrow ploughs. The also tugged and heaved the heavy farm carts of the time over the fields carrying dung and what have you. We were so sad when the horse cart came to collect Prince or Jacko, who had worked themselves to death. The horse cart was a two wheeled vehicle with a winch at the front to drag the poor beast by the neck up onto its long floor. People are beginning to talk about the horse coming back. For the horse's sake, I hope they never do.
I can remember scythes being used, but for the large fields the simple cutter came into use. This cut down the work a great deal. At first, these only cut the corn, and it then had to be bound into sheathes before being stooked for drying. The country was lousy with rabbits. As the machine got nearer and nearer to the centre of the field, the rabbits got more and more congested, until they had to make a break for it. Lots got away, but many were the rabbit pies got in this way at harvest time. After drying for a day or two, the sheaths were carried and stacked near the farm to await the thresher. This might not be for two or three months, and the stacks were thatched to keep out the weather. These rows of stacks were a feature of the countryside before the coming of the combined harvester.
The news got round that the thresher was coming to Lawrence's, or whoever, and we would be there for the fun. The machine was drawn by its traction engine. After being set up, it was driven by a belt off the engine's flywheel. It gave out a peculiar whine, which travelled a long way. These were dangerous machines to play around. A friend of mine found this out. One day he got on top with the men feeding in the corn. He slipped, and his foot went into the works. He was crippled for life.
A barrel of beer was always supplied for the threshers. This led to what must have been my first experience of a strike. Everything was set to start, when it was notice that the beer had not arrived. Nobody would start until it did. The farmer had to dash off to town in his pony cart to hurry it up. He managed to get it, and all was well.
Dad made us a two wheeled 'barrer' so that we could go along and get a load of horse dung for the garden every evening. There was so much horse traffic down our road that it could be shovelled up in 'barrer' loads,. In those days, it was never necessary to buy fertiliser. We used to bowl our hoops for miles along our country lanes. One would not get far with a hoop today. Games came round with monotonous regularity. It would be marbles for a time. Then tops would start, and every jack man would be spinning a top. Then perhaps the diablos would come out, to be thrown all over the place. Then the banger period, when we all searched for old keys for this. These were stopped during my school days as being too dangerous, or causing too much noise. We would rub a few match heads into the open end of a key, and then fit in a nail. Have them tied to a piece of string so that the head of the nail could be swung against a wall, then Bang. The match heads would explode. The key did not last long, and another one had to be scrounged.
At first there was no gas, let alone electricity, which came many years later. For lighting, we had large oil lamps suspended from the middle of the ceiling, with huge crinkled china shades about a foot and a half across. These gave good lighting to all corners of the room. Even when gas did come, they were still used, because the split jet of gas was very poor in comparison. It was a great relief when the first gas mantle appeared, giving brighter white light. this was a great advance. Candles were always used for going upstairs to bed, or for going anywhere except the parlour or kitchen cum living room, where the only two big oil lamps were. The parlour was only used at weekends, or for music, or special occasions. there was only one tap in a house. It was in the scullery, where everyone washed, unless water was carried upstairs in one of the big water jugs. It would then be used in the large basin on the washstand, a marble table with a hole in it on which the basin stood. Tilly washed the children before bed in a small bath on the kitchen table. Saturday night was real bath night. The big bath was set on the mat in front of the kitchen fire. We took turns, then off to bed. Until the gas came, when a gas stove was put in the scullery, all cooking was done on the old iron range in the kitchen. Beside the oven was a water tank, from which we drew our hot water. There were no indoor loos until the main drainage was put in. They were all outside, but ours was attached to the house. These were emptied once a week when the 'trilby' came round. I can remember the awful smell of this business if I was late coming home.
My eldest brother, who was six years older than me, went to the grammar school while I was still young. I still remember how funny he looked in his Eton suit and mortar board. But I thought he looked very smart in his O.T.C. uniform. I looked forward to going to the grammar school too, but this was not to be.
We often went over to Ramsgate to visit Grandma and Grandpa Casely and the uncles and aunts who lived there. Ramsgate was a great fishing place, with a very large fishing fleet. My grandfather was one of the biggest owners, having several boats; smacks they were called. During a spell of bad weather, or at Christmas, Ramsgate harbour would be packed with them. The boats went out for long periods. There were times when a boat did not return. My mother told us stories of incidents she remembered. One was the night when Grandpa woke up screaming that the .... had gone. he saw it all in a dream. it must have been at the time the ship went, because it did not return.
During the summer, the place would be packed with visitors. Almost everyone took in lodgers. Bathing was done from bathing machines which were pulled to and from the water's edge by horses. The female bathing dresses covered the body right down to the knees.
This was before the days of radio, and wrecks on the Goodwin Sands, just off Sandwich, were all too frequent. Some of the larger ships stayed a long time before breaking up. In particular, I remember a large P&O homeward bound with a name something like Mahratta. I think all the passengers were saved, but it was said that the chief engineer shot himself. This was strange, because a mistake in navigation was nothing to do with him. Another time, a large boat loaded with oranges went down. Thousands of cases, still edible, washed up on the beach. For years after a coal ship was lost, coal was still washed up, there for the picking. Between Sandwich Bay and the Goodwin Sands, there was a lightship with the name GULL in large letters on its sides. Obviously this became obsolete, because it is no longer there. My parents were friendly with some of the lightship chaps. When I was quite young, I remember visiting one in Ramsgate with my mother, and hearing and seeing my first player piano/ The way the notes jumped up and down fascinated me.
Ramsgate had a good regatta. Once, the pièce de résistance was a parachute display. A man and a woman went up from the park hanging onto a balloon, but the wind was wrong, and they were blown out to sea. When well off shore, they dropped and the parachute opened O.K. But they dropped into the sea. Fortunately, a boat was handy to pick them up. This would have been about 1904 to 5; rather early for displays of this sort.
Sandwich had a regatta too, which was a big draw. An enormous funfair appeared on the Green Banks. The greasy pole was set out off the mud boat. The swimming and boat races went on through the afternoon. After dark there was a gorgeous torchlight procession. Practically all the town tradesmen and others took part. It had one of the town blacksmiths with a complete forge on a float, actually shoeing horses, a baker with his staff making bread and cakes, and the usual decorated floats that one sees today. The town was festooned with thousands of fairy lights. These were small coloured jars with candles in them. All the trees on the Rope Walk were decorated with them. It took gangs of men to get them all lit. When the street gas lights came on the scene, one saw the gaslight man hurrying around at dusk with his long pole, with the light on top, lighting the gas lamps.
Then the 'living' pictures came. I think the first I was in the Sandwich Market Square. A sheet soaked with water was put up, and the film shown from the back of it. I never saw a picture shown this way again. The pictures were very jerky and short. I do remember seeing a comic in which a man was run over and left flat in the road; all very funny. I have wondered how the lamp was lit, and presume they had a small arc lamp and some sort of dynamo. These were coming into use. The big fairs were using arc lamps run off a generator fixed on one of the traction engines and run by a belt off the flywheel. I do know that the first 'picture house' in Sandwich had an arc light for the projector. Very soon after it opened, I was curious to find out about everything. I was shown the whole works, which included the beautiful polished gas engine which ran the generator. Then the tungsten lamp filament came along. This improved the electric light very much, ad had the gas mantle earlier. I got to know the carbon filament lamp later. They were used as resistances in the first accumulator charging circuits I handled. If one wanted more charging current, one just plugged in another lamp. - wire up in parallel. I cannot remember the wattage of these lamps, but the light from them was very poor.
The picture house was a small converted hall up some stairs. The charges were tuppence and sixpence. The sixpenny seats were up a sloping floor at the back. On Saturday afternoon, we kids had a special show, for which we paid a penny. The Charlie Chaplin and Mark Sennet films started while I was still at school, so we really got our penny's worth.
Before this, we went to the pictures at Ramsgate when we were with Grandma. The Marina Hall had been opened as a 'bioscope'. It was here that I heard a very early 'talkie'. I think Nellie Melba sang a song which fitted in with a gramophone. Films were always breaking, and the running of the film and gramophone together needed very delicate handling, this was the first and last time it was attempted. The early projectors were worked by hand, so the operator was an operator. At Ramsgate, we always had the Lord George Sangars theatre. in the height of the season most of the London music hall stars and 'turns' came. Like lots of provincial theatres, this has disappeared, to be replaced by tele. What a pity.
My Grandpa Catt was also a seafaring man. At one time, he had two ocean going yachts which did cruises and Channel trips. I remember one of these, the Prince Frederick William. Although not still in the family, it was still sailing out of Ramsgate Harbour. He also had a herring curing business, for smoking bloaters and the kippering of kippers. Like my grandpa Casely, he was deeply religious; a stalwart of the Baptist church. Grandpa Caseley was an Anglican. During the siege of Paris in 1871, news was rife about the terrible starvation there. As soon as the war ended, he filled one of his boats with food, and managed to sail it up the Seine to Paris to give some relief. I never knew him or Grandpa Catt. Both died before I was born. A few years ago, I rescued from his grave a lovely bas relief in marble. Our photographs of him show that it is a very good likeness.
Grandpa Catt turned one of his boats into an aquarium. If a smack trawled up anything unusual, it would be brought back for Catt's aquarium. A small seal appeared this way. A boy who was a friend of the family, and who later married one of my aunts, used to play about a lot in the aquarium. He found he could get this seal to do tricks. One day, two gentlemen from the London Aquarium visited the Ramsgate Aquarium. The boy, Joseph Woodward, happened to be there. One of the gentlemen accidentally dropped his gold headed cane stick into the tank. Joe told him not to worry, and sent the seal down to pick it up. One asked; "Can it do anything else?" "Oh, yes," replied Joey, and went through some of his tricks. They were very impressed. After much family discussion, Joey was allowed to take the seal to the London Aquarium, where it became one of the sights of London. A little later, Uncle Joe (as he became), trained a troupe of seals. They became famous as "Captain Woodward's sealions. At the turn of the century, they were a feature of the big music halls. Barnum and Bailey, who were running the biggest circus of all time in America, heard of him, and came to England to persuade him to bring his troupe to America, which he did. He was by now married to my aunt Sarah. Two boys were born who followed in father's footsteps, and helped to run the troupe. After a long run in America, they returned to England. The two boys produced two separate troupes, one to tour Europe, and the other England. The one touring Europe died suddenly in Berlin in about 1900, but Joe, the elder, carried on here. My father was the youngest of a large family. These cousins were much older than I was. When I grew up, I became very pally with Joe and his beautiful wife, who was also a first cousin of mine via another aunt. I had many happy times with them at their home at Kingston on Sea, and afterwards in Ramsgate.
My aunt Sarah died in America. I remember well the cable notifying her death, and the letter later, telling us she was being embalmed and brought home to Ramsgate for burial. I was too young to go, but it certainly seems to have been a grand affair. By this time, my uncle had become a wealthy man. Although still comparatively young, he retired to a life of luxury and ease. he settled at Shoreham. He did install a training tank there with the cousins, so that they could still play with the seals.
During the war, Cousin Joe hit on the bright idea of training seals to hunt German submarines. Some were got, and the fun started. But the brightest, 'Billikin', disappeared in the Channel on a training run. Notices were sent out offering a big reward for his capture. He would answer to his name. For some time afterwards, people could be heard on the Sussex coast calling out his name Billikin. Billikin never returned. As far as Joe was concerned, the last sealion effort was for the 1923 Empire Exhibition. Mac Fisheries asked him to put on a seal show in their exhibit, which he did.
But to get back to my school days. Everything was nice and cosy. We were able to have anything we wanted. There was money for it. But this happy state of affairs did not last. My father caught the very rough edge of the building slump which developed before the war. I don't know if this was due to the amount of emigration that went on at this time. Houses were to let or for sale by the hundreds. Along the streets of Ramsgate there were 'To Let' of 'For Sale' notices every few houses along. The last row of houses my father built remained empty for a long period. He could not sell a single one. In the end, the men had to be stood off. Then all the building material was sold by auction; scaffold poles, planks, mortice machines. This happened to all builders. I do not think there was much of a recovery until after the war. My father continued as a jobber. he was never out of work, but only employed anyone when he wanted temporary help.
What now appears to me an extraordinary state of affairs existed in those days. All bills came quarterly; from the butcher, baker, grocer and ironmonger (with whom there was considerable trade). This was O.K. while there was money in the bank. But the money dried up, and the bills continued to come in. My mother continued to get her dresses and hats 'on tick', as she had done all her life. Quarrels started about these money matters, and life was no longer so pleasant. The lovely parties had to stop. My sister's music lessons had to stop. I was not able to start piano lessons. My eldest brother did remain at the grammar school until he was seventeen, when he had to leave for a humble job as clerk on the railway. I do wish parents would think twice before rowing in front of kids. As a boy, this upset me terribly, and I have never forgotten it. Perhaps I was too sensitive. I do know that some music has a peculiar effect on me. Tears would come to my eyes and a lump in my throat. I used to hope some of the other boys would not see it. Some beautiful chant, a hymn tune, some of Bach. The first time I heard the Crucifixus and the Sanctus from the B Minor Mass going on around me, and that all-inspiring finale from the Matthew Passion, 'In Tears of Grief'. I have been lucky to do both with David Wilcocks in Salisbury and Alan Wicks in Canterbury. Music like this causes the lump to form in my throat and tears in my eyes.
So I passed up through standards one to seven. During the last year, I joined the select little band in the x seventh. Half a dozen of us had a little corner to ourselves, and worked mostly on our own. I don's know whether I learnt much. I suppose I learnt to read at home, and to do most things. I could do long division, add up pounds, shillings and pence. I got to like poetry, and lapped up and memorised what appealed to me in the Bible. I could write. But later on I found that when it came to English Grammar and simple Algebra and Maths, I had a lot to learn. When I struggled with these later, I did regret not having had more insight into them earlier. I have also been sorry to have missed out on languages. The headmaster was keen on music, and the second master Simmons did go out of his way to interest us in little bits of Chemistry and Science. He was a musician too, being a good pianist and organist. As for the other teachers, not one of them did much for me.
Most of us were mad on cricket. From an early age, I was often taken to the county grounds at Canterbury and Dover, to see Frank Wooley, Colin Blythe, Fielder, Huish and the Kent team we all adored. One match stands out. It was at Dover, when Kent played Yorkshire. I was about ten, and Rhodes and Co. were playing. At this time, Kent and Yorkshire ware the crack teams. The ground was packed. They got their money's worth, because Wooley was in great form, making one of his many big scores. Of all the bats I have seen, Wooley was the king. He made it appear effortless. I did see most of the others over the years, including the Australians. I saw Len Hutton make his record score of about three hundred and sixty. This was at the Oval, not long before the second world war. But it all seemed a struggle. Of course, he was very tired, and looked so, because he had been batting for two days.
In the early 1920s, I played on the county ground at Dover in an R.A.F. team against an army eleven. I think it was Southern Commend. I was made into mincemeat. I was supposed to be a useful bowler, and had a good record. I opened the bowling; medium to fast. In the army team was a captain who played for Essex, I think. I have forgotten his name. Like the other bowlers, I could do nothing with him, and so he had a good century. At times like this, a game becomes a heartbreaking affair. Fortunately, it was a one day match, so the performance was not repeated in a second innings. The R.A.F. lost the match.
On my fourteenth birthday, I had to leave school and get to work. Anything. There was no mention of putting me to any trade, or any encouragement. By this time, my father had lost interest in us kids. He couldn't care less what we did. Perhaps he was upset at not being able to give us the education he would like to have. I know he thought I was not clever like my brother William. He remarked upon it once or twice when I was trying to help him on some job. It is was true, I am glad, because my brother remained on the lower rung all his life, never getting a senior job of any sort. [original page 10]
I was able to start as a grocer's errand boy at the International Stores. Life started to be very hard. I was small and weak chested, and some of the work was tough. I delivered the groceries, pushing a two wheeled truck for a good part of the day and evening. I weighed up bags of sugar, flour, rice and everything, which now comes pre-packed. Everything came in sacks and boxes. Biscuits came in large tins, and were weighed out as required over the counter. You hacked off a pound of butter or margarine from the block, which had come in a large box. There were only two cheeses; Dutch Edam, ands the ordinary, which was a huge round affair about eighteen inches across and a foot high. Rashers of bacon were but by hand on the counter, as the bacon machine had not arrived. Every morning, I polished a large brass nameplate, which ran round under the windows for the whole width of the shop. About twice a week, I wasted hours polishing all the brass scales, and emery clothing all the steel rails on the provision side. I worked from 7.45 in the morning until 8.15 on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I did the country round on Thursday, early closing day, and finished about 9.15 on Friday and 10.30 on Saturday. I went out on the country rounds on both Wednesday and Thursday with another chap with a horse and cart. I often got home dead beat and in tears. For this, I was paid the princely sum of five shillings a week - twenty-five p in today's parlance. I gave mum for shillings, leaving one to buy clothing and footwear. I could not afford the tuppence for the pictures when a good film came round, let alone buy a packet of cigarettes, as so many kids seem to do now. Cigarettes were a penny for five. I think tobacco was six pence an ounce, shag being three or four pence. Beer was two pence a pint, and a nice bar of Cadbury's nut chocolate one penny. We could buy a farthing's worth of sweets. Fry's slab chocolate was one farthing a square. It was usual to see things priced as 5¾ and 11¾; in old pence, of course. In my second job, I was to sell towelling at one penny and three farthings a yard, and large packets of pins at one farthing each. Matches were one penny for a dozen boxes. Yet butter was one shilling a pound. Few people ate it. margarine was the order of the day, especially when double weight came in, when for one pound one received two. For his every day use watch, my father paid five shillings and got a new one in exchange every year. Ingersoll was the name. My first watch was Ingersoll. An alarm clock cost half a crown. In the palmy days, we had a new football every year. This cost three and six. Milk, which was brought round in large cans and measured out at the door into our jugs, was two pence a pint. People who could not afford this went along to the diary and got skimmed milk for one penny a pint. I had school friends whose fathers were getting only eighteen shillings a week, and women did not generally go out to work to help out. Everybody had large gardens, and grew most vegetables required. Pigs, chickens and rabbits were kept to augment the larder. We had a huge vegetable garden. It expended the whole length of a row of six houses. It was at the back of their kitchen gardens. My father appears to have caused a sensation among the local gardeners when he started to grow tomatoes. People came to see them. He had returned from Australia shortly before I was born, where he had made the money he was to lose in the slump. He was there when the churches and schools were being built, as well as the houses for the people arriving there. As soon as he could get a house built, my mother followed him and married him. I think one of their big regrets was to have come back to England to run into such a bad patch. My eldest brother was born in Australia.
To get back to the tomatoes which they had got to like in Australia. The only tomatoes available in Sandwich were a curious little Spanish variety, not like the tomato we know today. Father found somewhere where English tomatoes were being produced, and managed to get a few plants. He had an ideal spot facing south against a solid, tall fence. He was very successful, and Catt's tomatoes were on the map. I cannot imagine why they were not produced commercially until long afterwards. The did get going in the Worthing area, where glass houses sprang up like mushrooms. In the 1920s they were in.
Tomatoes were a luxury. During my school days, few people could afford luxuries. At times, they could not afford the necessities of life. In most towns, there was the twice a week soup kitchen, which did give them a meal of sorts. We never came down to this, but about half the school were let out early with their soup cans to get the soup, which cost a penny a can, and half a penny for a small loaf. Even after I became an errand boy, we always ate well, so I cannot say we ever became really poor.
There were no telephones until the 'toffs' came on the scene. Even the Post Office did not have one. All communication was done by telegraph sounder. These could be heard rattling away at the back of the Post Office. But the telephone had to come. An exchange was fitted up in the front room of an ordinary house in town. At first, it was a small board with only a few lines. It took a surprisingly long time before the telephone came into general use. There were so few in use that doctors, banks and businesses did not consider it necessary. Telegrams were very much used, although it cost sixpence for about twenty words. There were two or three telegram boys employed regularly. I became friendly with the postmaster, so I helped out sometimes. I was on duty the evening of the day Princess Arthur of Connaught was married. Although everybody had known it and was interested in the wedding, it was not known that the honeymoon would be in Sandwich, until arrangements for their arrival were made and the piles of telegrams began to pour in. I was kept on the run with them until quite late. I have mentioned the Spender Clays, whose house the married couple stayed in.
After about a year, I was able to change jobs. I went fifty yards along the street to P. J. Smalls, the draper. There was no truck pushing here. Everything could be delivered on a bicycle. Here, there were two or three departments stretching along the street, so I had more than two windows to polish every morning. I no longer had to weight up sugar, flour, rice and so on. Now I 'rolled' sheetings, material, towelling, and whatever else one buys at a drapers, onto strips of wood. All these things came folded in layers. For easy handling, they were rolled in this way. Unlike the grocers, all the assistants here were female. I only got the same money, but the work was much lighter. The hours were the same. All shops kept to them. But I did get the Thursday afternoons off, and could get a game of golf in with another errand boy friend.
I would like to go back a little to my school days. I think it highly improbable that many schoolchildren, while at school, have been able to enjoy two coronation festivities as I did. having started school at three, I was still at school for the George V fun and games, Edward VII having died in 1910. A strange coincidence is coupled with his death. A travelling living picture show was visiting the town for a one night show in the drill hall. Along with one or two other 'big boys', I had been asked to sell chocolates. They put on a film of Edward inspecting the fleet at Spithead. He died that night. When the news spread next day, it seemed awfully strange to me that I had seen him so hale and hearty the evening before. The drill hall was the only place in the town where shows of any sort could be staged. I was taken there to see travelling theatre groups. We saw such heart rending plays as 'The Murder in the Reds Barn', 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', which we thought terribly sad and upsetting. The drill hall had been built for the volunteers towards the end of the last century. Its six inch howitzer, there for drill purposes, did impress us kids. My father was a sergeant in the Volunteers. We loved to see him in his uniform, especially the funny little pill box hat with the strap under the chin. Along with all the 'old' Volunteers, he resigned when they were disbanded and the Territorials took their place. The gun stayed until the war, when, like all rifles and guns, it was rushed over to France.
On the evening of August 4th, we had been for a lovely walk through the fields, arriving home just as the curfew was ringing and the news was being spread that war had been declared. Looking back, I don't think I was particularly disturbed. Hadn't we seen that mightiest of all battleships, the Dreadnought, anchored in the Downs a short time before? Who dared to go to war with us? So the general impression got around that it would be all over by Christmas. My father was asked to some back and take charge of a guard to guard the reservoir, which he did until soldiers were available.
I was by now sixteen, and wondering if it really would be over before I was wanted. All the parsons we heard preaching entreated all able bodied men to enlist and fight the hated enemy. Our poor rector was to lose his two sons before it did end. Of the class I went through school with, about half are now on the war memorial. I was the only one of four chums who came back and, in a few ways, I was lucky. I joined the 1st East Kent Volunteers as, at the moment, that was the only thing I could do. We never got rifles, and all drills were done with bits of wood roughly shaped like guns. Our uniforms were light green, thin cottonish material with 'horse bandage' puttees; it was impossible to put them on without showing 'birds' nests'. We had a marine instructor for drill and bayonet fighting, and we did have a 22 rifle range, where I learned to shoot. Since the shops did not close until after eight, parades were at 8.30.
We were to have a taste of what might happen when, at about eight O'clock at night on a snowy winter's night in 1915, the alarm went off, and all volunteers were told to get to the station just as they were. I rushed to the station just as I was, and was crowded onto a train, which took us to Deal. We marched to the Marine Barracks, were handed .303 rifles, had ammunition jammed into our pockets, and rushed to the trenches on the shore between Deal and Sandwich. The ground was thick with snow, and I hadn't an overcoat. The Germans were coming!
We stayed all night until dawn, when we crawled away and handed in our guns, and literally crawled home. This experience was to be the death of two or three of us, who were not tough enough to recover.
After breakfast and a change, I went straight to work, and at about half past seven in the evening, I was given a parcel to take to a house outside the town. I was absolutely dead beat, and could hardly move. I had to say I couldn't take it. I was sacked on the spot, and given my five shillings. P.J. was a church warden, took the plate round every Sunday; a big noise in the Freemasons, etc. etc. He had been in bed all night while I had been in the trenches freezing. Makes you think, doesn't it!
It was years afterwards that we got an explanation of that night. A telegram received by the G.O.C. Defences should have read "Enemy agents expected to land at Sandwich Bay tonight." It got corrupted into "Enemy landing at Sandwich Bay tonight."
Later, I was to experience other cases of transmission errors completely changing the `original version of messages. I was at Ali Musjid in the Khyber Pass, which you will hear about later, and we received a signal requesting that an N.C.O. report to Kacha Garri, an advanced base somewhere in Peshawar, to collect fourteen carrier pigeons. We laughed like drains, wondering what blinking fool thinks pigeons would be any good here. A lance corporal was sent down on the next convoy, and roamed all over the base without result until he came to an A.S.C. conductor who, on being told that he had come from the 1st Sussex Regiment to collect fourteen carrier pigeons, began to roar with laughter, saying "You've come to collect four field kitchens." It makes on wonder what real disasters have occurred through mistakes such as these. There was a signals instruction that all signals must be sent by Morse, so such mistakes should not have happened. But I experienced cases where even this did not ensure complete accuracy.
Back to my being sacked as an errand boy. At this time, army huts were being built all over the country. My father was working for McAlpines. The were putting up a camp at Eastchurch, on the isle of Sheppey. The Clerk of Works wanted a boy, so my dad took me along when he returned after the weekend. I ate at my father's lodgings, and slept in the Y.M.C.A. hut, putting up a camp bed after the place closed for the night. I had a bicycle for longish runs, such as Sheerness. I also gave a hand putting up the huts if I had nothing to do in the office. I forget what I was paid, but it must have been more than five bob a week. The Naval Air Service training school was hard by, also the Short Brothers aircraft factory. I had to make visits to both places. I loved to get among the aircraft and engines, and watch the take-offs and landings. I took the publication 'The Aeroplane', which was now published, and continued to take it for some time. We were very near some of the early exploits. I had been given a new pair of roller bearing roller skates. At dawn, I often roller skated on the Rope Walk, the Mill Wall, and the other paths which were what remained of the town wall. We all knew Bleriot was waiting on the 'other side', to attempt the first flight across the Channel. But like Latham & Co., who had all failed, we did not think he would. But this morning dawned, sunny and calm. I was at the end of the Rope Walk when a policeman came along, calling "He's done it." to some chaps going to work. This was on July 25th, 1909. The Daily Mail got into the habit of giving huge prizes for first flights. Then came one for the first London to Manchester flight, then the first Atlantic flight by the Englishmen Alcock and Brown, just after the war.
I often saw the Short Brothers, especially the one with the head very much like a bullock, supposedly the ugliest man in the world. He often had a beautiful secretary with him in his car, which made him stand out all the more. All sorts of stories were around; that he had two brains; that he had sold his head to some hospital for £4,000 so that he could carry out his interest in aircraft design. I don't know when he died; possibly during one of my sojourns abroad, when I missed so much home news. I don't know whether anything peculiar was found.
While I was on Sheppey, the German spy fear was rampant. We all had to carry identifying cards. I think the main reason was that the dockyard was in use, and warships were always coming in and out. Just before I arrived, the Bulwark was blown up with much loss. I was with my father, walking across the marshes one very peaceful Sunday afternoon, when a terrific explosion rent the air. Just across the Swale, an enormous cloud of smoke began to rise into the air. "God," said dad, "Something terrible has happened." We returned to Eastchurch to learn that the powder works at Faversham had blown up. It being wartime, the place was working normally on Sunday. The losses were very bad. Later it was said that three hundred had been killed. The death toll was felt all over the country. One young man who lived in Sandwich was killed.
At the war's outbreak, I think the total strength in dirigibles was three. We saw two of these, the Silver King and the Astra Torres, almost daily. The Astra Torres was not completely round, but looked like three round bananas stuck together. It was yellow. The Silver King was bright silver, and looked beautiful in the sunshine. They were usually pretty low, so one could see the crew leaning out of the gondola. These were not rigid, like Zeppelins, or like our airships were to become, with the envelope built over a strong metal frame. Germany had developed the Zeppelin. Soon they appeared at night. They could carry heavy weight, and did quite a bit of damage. However, we later got the better of them by producing an aircraft which could reach the height at which the Zeps flew. There was intense excitement when the first one was first shot down over London, and landed a burnt out mass at Potter's Bar. The pilot was awarded the V.C. for this. Some strange antics were inaugurated to combat the Zep. Our light fighter planes had short duration, and could not fly far out to sea to meet the Zeps. One bright idea was to tow an enormous mat behind a powerful destroyer with aircraft on it, to be taken well out into the North Sea before the aircraft took off. This was successfully done. Later, I served for quite a time with the pilot, who was awarded the D.S.O., Flight Lieutenant S. D. Culley. Later, he was in my desert survey party, but more of that later.
The hutments at Eastchurch were finished, and I returned home. I was free, so with another chap, younger than I was, went to Canterbury to try to join up again. "How old are you?" was asked. "Eighteen last month." was the reply. Bit it was no good, and I was told to go home and cling to my mother's apron strings for a little longer. But Buchanan had got through. He looked older, and I was very annoyed when he arrived home with two stripes on his arm a little later. We went to the photographer's to celebrate. We had a picture taken; he in his uniform, with me in my miserable civvies. I still have a copy of this. I never saw him again.
I had done some crazy acting with Jack Hoile in school concert shows. He had left the baker's and joined the army. He was two years older than me. He served most of his time in France, got a commission, and survived to come back. But like me, he could not settle down in civvy street, and rejoined the army.
I walked into his job, and started to become a baker. From half five in the morning, I helped with the bread, and making cakes and pies. The bread was kneaded by hand; one loaf under each hand. The forearm muscles I developed are still pretty hard after sixty years. I liked the bakehouse, especially during winter, when it was so warm and cosy. There were three of us; Mr. Stokes, who must have been getting on for seventy. One day, while we were making the bread together, he told me how as a boy he had gone down to the station to see the Duke of Wellington's funeral train go slowly through on its way to London, where he was buried at St. Paul's. This was in 1852, and appears to have been one of the great pageants of the century. He was Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, and died at Deal. Then there was Wally, the son. I got on fine with him, and remained friendly until he died at a very ripe old age. After the morning's work of mixing and baking, I went home for dinner and a change. In the afternoons, I did a round with a bread barrow. Wally did one half of the town, and I the other. Except for a short break for a cup of tea, this took until about half six or seven. There was no break for breakfast, which was taken as we worked. This went on for six days of the week. I might go in on Sunday afternoon when I took a turn at making up the bread comp, which was done on the day before the baking. Otherwise, I had Sunday off. This left no time for any tomfoolery or vandalism, or a game of golf, and little time for reading, which was a dead loss. I started at about ten bob a week, but the time came one Friday night when Mr. Stokes put into my hand a golden sovereign, saying; "Sydney, boy, you are such a help now that you are worth this." I looked at it with wonder. Sovereigns were then much scarcer than five pound notes are today. While at the grocer's I used to have to take 'the bag' to the bank. This was the takings. They were done up in bags of five shillings in silver, and rolls of five shillings' worth of pennies, done up in paper. Never once do I remember taking a golden sovereign. But the days of the sovereign were numbered. Soon, the Bradbury replaced it, and we handled the bits of paper we know today. Then there was the five shilling piece, known as the dollar. I suppose its exchange rate was something near the American dollar. A few of these would soon wear a trouser pocket through. The threepenny piece, a silver coin, was in general use, but was so small that it was disliked.
I continued to play at being a volunteer as and when I could, and began to wonder if I would ever be wanted in the real army. It was 1916 now, a long while after the Christmas when it was all going to be over. Kitchener had been blown up with the Hampshire on his way to Russia to see what he could do to help them out of the mess they were in. We had had the tragedies of Gallipoli and the losses in Mesopotamia, and the Turks had almost got across the Suez Canal. Perhaps I would be wanted yet.
Not long after the war began, troops had begun to arrive to do their rifle shooting training at the butts, which were hastily put up at Sandwich Bay. Billeting officers came around and looked into every house. We thought we had no room for any, but on looking into our parlour, he said "Three can come here," so the table was taken out, the piano pushed into the corner, and in the three came. They were issued with their rations, which we had to cook and prepare.
My papers finally came. Tom Carpenter and went off to report to Canterbury. My father, who seemed a little concerned, came to the station to see me off.
At the Canterbury depot, we were soon stripped off and prancing about in front of two doctors. They began to shake their heads about ME. I was small, light, and had a bad chest, in addition to being very skinny. Tom got through all right, and was considered good enough for the artillery, so we did not stay together. When I asked if I could go into the flying corps, because I liked aeroplanes, this was taken as a bit of a joke. However, after another look see, I was passed C3, the lowest physical category of the lot, which meant that I was fit only for home service. A uniform was found for me with difficulty, and I looked a real fright. It was second hand, had been cleaned, and the tunic was stained with a darkish patch which I was told was blood stains. This, I thought, was a pretty good start. I said goodbye to Tom, and joined a small party with a sergeant. I had been issued with all the necessary kit, including a cut throat razor, which amused me, because I had not yet begun to shave. "Where are we going, please?" we asked. "Aldershot," was the reply. Off to the station we went, on the way to join the 25th Middlesex Garrison Battalion.
We were taken to Talavera Barracks, and what a place it looked! I never found out exactly, but it was said that it dated from the Crimean War. As far as its primitive conditions, the place could have dated from the Battle of Talavera itself, 1809. At first we were not put in the barrack, but in huts built around the barrack square. We slept on the floor and ate in the hut, the food being fetched from the cookhouse by the orderly of the day. Tea was drunk from big china basins, this being usual in army barracks. We had to go to an outside wash house for 'ablutions'. Whoever was responsible for calling all army wash houses ablutions? Were we, every time we washed, preparing ourselves for some religious rites?
I soon settled down to enjoy my holiday. To me, that was what it was. My days of working for twelve or thirteen hours were over, for the time being, anyway. We were woken by the Orderly Sergeant at six, and the orderly for the day appeared with the 'gunfire'; the early morning tea and biscuits. The tea came in buckets. Then out onto the square for P.T. and, sometimes, a little drill before breakfast. From about nine to twelve we learnt how to bayonet Germans, lectures, route marches, being taught all the bits of a rifle and how to handle it, and, for a time, actually firing on a nearby range. I remember my first shot. Regardless of what the instructor had said about the kick of the rifle, and how necessary it was to pull the gun hard into the shoulder to eliminate any shock, I still seemed to get a pretty hefty push.
The shooting I had done on the .22 range had been good practice. At the end of the course, to everyone's surprise, I was the champ. I had to explain why I was able to shoot so well. I could only say that my father was a crack shot, that I had had an air rifle for years, that I had done a lot of .22 target shooting, and that I did not mind the bruising I got from the gun. This put me on the map, and was a help to me later.
After dinner, we paraded for square bashing and further training, but at about four we were finished for the day. I was still far from tired.
Tea was the last free meal of the day, but suppers in the canteen or in the troops' eating places in the town were quite cheap. The seven bob a week I was now getting was all mine, so I always had money for this.
I did not smoke or drink booze. This was not unusual. None of the other chaps I went out with did either. There was time now to go out to the theatre. At that time, the Aldershot theatre did the London shows and music hall turns. While there, I saw most of the big people of the time.
We had a wonderful chap in command. Colonel John Brown had about him a very good batch of officers. They were always helpful, and one could always go to them to talk anything over. Brown had influence, because he had collected one of the finest bands I have heard. They came from the various first class orchestras and bands in the country, and gave much pleasure later on when we were far from Aldershot.
I enjoyed the life, but some did not. One day, after a bit of strenuous work, the chap next to me was almost in tears, whimpering; "This will kill me." Hear was nearly twice my size, and I asked him what he had done before joining up. He just said; "I haven't had to do much." He had a touch of the Upper Ten about him, but he got little sympathy from me. I was glad I came from a tougher class.
We were a strange collection of bodies. There was Clark, late of Charterhouse, who naturally became 'Nobby'. He was also Upper Ten. His mother appeared complete with chauffeur in 'the car' to bring him, a beautiful sleeping bag. I supposed he had done a little moan about the hard floor. Obviously he had not got a commission because he was not a bright boy. Melville, quite above us, since he was something on the London stage, was a nice chap. He became batman to the Company Commander, thus getting cushy number. When we got abroad, since all officers' servants were then native, he got another cushy number as operator in the Barrack telephone exchange. Le Mesurier, originally from the Channel Islands and manager of one of the well known London clubs, was another very likeable chap. Smith, the Smithfield Market meat porter, was a real cockney. I never tired of listening when they got talking together in the real cockney slang; ".... and she skiddled up the old apples and pears ...." I found to mean ".... she dashed upstairs." I wish I could remember more of this, as it appears to be dying out. I must mention Chickley, horse dealer and dealer of all sorts. He was almost old enough to be my father. I was to get to know him quite well. He could neither read nor write, so I read and wrote his letters for him. He was from Bromley. Owing to some of the queer stuff his wife tried to tell him in her quaint uneducated way, I read stories of some of the crude swindles these people carry out. He sold an unrideable pony a few times. When he himself had it under control, it was O.K. He told me he never had a banking account, and only did business on a strictly cash basis. He would take the money. A few days later the buyer, very often a woman, would come back with tears in her eyes, and he would take it back at a much reduced price. He could not read or write, but what a brain for remembering!
Among these chaps, Brag was a favourite game. I got interested in just sitting and watching them. I never joined in, as it all seemed a stupid waste of time. I would watch him piling up the pennies, or later on the cents, until his opponent would finally throw his hand in. I asked him how he managed, and he replied; "I knew just what he had." He remembered all the cards after a few hands, and in Brag the cards are never shuffled. He did not booze, and we often went to supper together.
The rumours started. We were going away, we were going abroad, somewhere east. And sure enough, the regiment was going. Drill clothing and Wolseley helmets were issued, but I was not in the party. I was still C3, and Home service. I got frantic, and at night I went to the Sergeants' mess and asked for the Sergeant Major. They kicked me out, because 'men' were not allowed into the Sergeants' Mess, but I insisted. At last he came. I put on a weeping act, whimpered to him how I liked the regiment and wanted to go with it. He took me to his quarters to talk things over. He was a brick, and the next day he told me to get fitted out. Goodness knows what he had done, but I didn't care. A few days afterwards the C.O. was inspecting us all in our drill and helmets. Mine was almost sagging over my ears because it was too big. The C.O. stopped in front of me and said; "What's this boy doing?" The Sergeant Major replied immediately; "We've got special permission for him to stay with the battalion, and his family agree." There had been no asking my family or anything, and I really think he did it off his own bat.
The old sweats were very useful when it came to putting on the puggrees around the helmets. It was no easy job to get them on neat, tidy and level all round. Mine had to be done a few times before it would do. How is it that now it is not necessary to wear these things in the tropics?
Right up to my last tour in the East, topees were the order of the day. I remember some stupid incidents relating to this. I was high in the Hymalayas in the middle of winter, and the snow lay thick all around. We had to wear topees even there if we went out during daylight. One chap actually put me on a charge for being caught out without my helmet on.
We had our photograph taken in our tropical kit, complete with helmets; the whole Company in one of those panoramic affairs. This one is four feet long. Each face is big enough to be easily recognisable, and the condition of the print is first class. I certainly look like the boy of the class. Even the Sergeant Major's Boer War ribbons stand out. As it was taken nearly sixty years ago, I wonder how many of us could answer the roll call now.
The dear old Regimental Sergeant Major was not to come with us. He had fathered us throughout training. He had given us lots of fatherly talks on such things as how important it was to make a will on the page for the purpose in our pay books, the dangers of associating with loose women, what a wonderful country we were fighting for, etc. Company Sergeant Major of D Company took his place, and we waited for the move.
By now, I had been found a place in the main barrack block, and become acquainted with the standard solid iron bedstead.. It was in two pieces, one half sliding under the other half when made up for the day. The mattress consisted of three biscuits; three separate thin horsehair packed squares which were stacked for the day, and on which the folded blankets and sheets and small hard pillow were placed. The blankets and sheets had to be folded to a definite size, and all arranged so that all beds looked exactly the same. An orderly officer and sergeant carried out an inspection every day. We took turns at being room orderly for the day. He did general sweeping and tidying up, fetched the gunfire, collected the night bucket which was placed in the middle of the room, and emptied it in the morning. He fetched the meals, which were eaten on tables placed in the centre of the room.
Attached to the barracks were a few other ranks' married quarters, which were occupied by the families of the soldiers away on service. These quarters were also of the Crimean War vintage. I remember how I pitied the poor things who had to live under such conditions. Having been brought up in the country, and having never been to London and seen the slum conditions which prevailed, I had no idea that such living places as those soldiers' married quarters existed. I suppose all these places have disappeared long since, and Talavera Barracks, even if still there, will have been drastically modernised. Although I have been in the Aldershot neighbourhood many times since, I have never taken the trouble to go and look to see the place where I started my service career.
We were marched to church every Sunday morning, but I don't remember getting much pleasure out of the services. There was a big difference between sitting in a choir stall in a cassock and surplice and sitting with a crowd of men in khaki. As long ago as it was, I do remember a parson, in a sermon, saying that we are so different on earth that there must be different classes in heaven. He went on to expound on the subject. I have never since heard this point put forward.
The time seemed to drag. We had learned and re-learned how to pack the big overcoat and all the necessary kit into the pack that the infantry were weighed down by. We wondered if we would get any leave before going. This came at last. We got four days in which to travel and say our goodbyes.
At home, they said they noticed a big change in me. "You've got bigger," they said. So apparently, army life was doing me good. It was a long time before |i was to see my family again, and by that time I had certainly changed a great deal.
I was glad to get back to the hoped for adventures, and sure enough, things were moving. We packed out kit, strapped our helmets onto our packs, and went off to the station. We were packed into a long train. It was an awful squeeze with our rifles, equipment and kit bags, so it took a long time to get comfortable. The modern corridor trains had not been brought in, so we were in separate compartments. It was soon obvious that we were going south-west, and sure enough we arrived at Plymouth.
We did not hang around, and were loaded onto a tender and out to our ship, the Tyndareus. It was a ship of the Alfred Holt Line of Liverpool, with a huge blue funnel. It was mainly cargo, with very little passenger accommodation. Apparently there was enough for the officers, because none were accommodated below decks with us. Not only was it my first trooping experience, but also my first time going to sea. This method, of treating troops as cargo, was kept in use, so that I experienced it a number of times. The cargo decks were fitted with long tables and forms fixed to the floor, on which to eat our meals. Rows of large hooks were fixed to the ceiling, from which to hang our hammocks in which we slept. There were so close together that the hammocks touched. There were about two hundred and fifty on this deck, and only half a dozen wash basins. If you wanted to wash, you queued for goodness how long.
I was on the second deck, and there was a lower deck covered with a hatch. I was resting for a while, lying on this, and pondering on the date. It was Friday the thirteenth of December, and looking up, I started to count a row of holes bored in the steel side of the upper hatch opening. There were thirteen of them. Was this pure coincidence? It certainly did rush back to me not much later when something really did happen. [original page 20]
We stayed anchored off Devonport for quite a while, and did not sail until well after Christmas. It was obvious that a large convoy was being collected. The Walmer Castle appeared, a large Cunarder whose name I forget, and several others. We did nothing, were not allowed ashore, and tried to get used to the horrible food we were getting. I soon started getting about, and crept down the iron ladders to the engine room. I was surprised that none of the engineers told me to buzz off, but let me wander around. I gazed in amazement at the enormous (for me) reciprocating engines. One of the chaps, seeing I was interested, tried to explain such things as triple expansion, and things miles above my head.
I crept into the stokehold, and watched the Chinese stokers. It was lovely and warm down there, away from the December chill up tom. I crawled along the 'tunnels' which took the driving shafts right aft to the propellers. I could be quite alone here, away from the crowds of troops swarming up top. The engineers were decent chaps. None of the other troops had dared intrude into the bowels of the ship, and I was never chased. I would like to have gone up to the bridge, but notices proclaimed that that was sacred territory. The only parts of the ship in bounds to the troops were the iron decks over the holds in which we were housed, and as it was winter and the hatches were on, the hatch covers themselves, which rose above the surrounding deck by a foot or two.
Christmas day came. It was like all the others, except that an effort had been made to get in something of a Christmas dinner. An effort was made to get a Christmasy atmosphere going, but it was a flop. I had many Christmas days on troopships, because trooping was always done in the winter months.
When our patience was getting exhausted, one very dark night, the engines finally began to rumble, and we crept out of Plymouth Sound. I climbed up and out on deck into the pitch blackness. Strict orders had been issued that when sailing, no lights of any sort were allowed on deck, not even a match to light a cigarette. The whole ship was moving in total darkness, which was weird. The ship began to heave and roll about. The sea was quite rough, and I began to feel very queer. With many around me, I was experiencing my first bout of sea sickness. I was to be sick many times, and never became free of it. I got through a miserable night lying rough in the open. Fortunately it did not rain much, but the spray flew around in the rough wind. When daylight came, and I looked over the side at the sea under a leaden sky, the sensation I got was terrible. At one moment I was looking down straight onto the sea, and next moment I was looking straight up into the clouds. I dared not move far from the scuppers, or anywhere where I could vomit away. Eating was out of the question, and I touched nothing all day. I noticed the other ships, and the cruiser and destroyers looking after us, but I felt that I would not mind if a German sub appeared to put me out of my misery. On the second day I was feeling pretty weak. Two or three chaps, who seemed to be enjoying it, tried to make me comfortable on the hatch cover, and brought me food. It was no good. Although I tried for their sakes, I could not keep anything down. The weather was still bad and the sea still rough. We had steamed far out and well into the North Atlantic.
On the third day they fetched an officer to me as I had begun to vomit blood, and he fetched a doctor. There does not seem to be a cure for sea sickness. Nothing could be done, but in the afternoon he brought a bottle of Schweppes table water, and I got a little of it down. A little later he tried some dried biscuit, and that worked. Neptune had relented, and decided to let me off the hook. The weather began to ease. The ship was not bucking and prancing quite so much. We had turned south, and were on the way to warmer weather.
We were nearer to the coast of America than Europe, so we must have made an enormous detour to miss the German submarines, which were causing havoc at the time. I got well enough to go down into the engine room to see those huge pistons going up and down, and the big cranks going round to drive the propeller shafts. I was surprised to count how fast the propellers went round, since they were so large.
In a day or two we turned east, and then we sighted land. It looked very pleasant. We found ourselves in Freetown harbour, Sierra leone. It was then known as the white man's grave, but to me, from the anchorage in the harbour, it looked inviting, and I would like to have gone ashore. The bum boats began to come out to us. After a bit of haggling, we would send down the money, and the goods would be pulled up in small baskets.
It was here that an incident occurred which was to change my whole life. We were two hundred yards from one of the big boats, on which we could see troops. Someone said; "I wonder who they are." I said; "Let's try and see." I borrowed two white handkerchiefs, and, getting a little height, I made the semaphore call sign. I had learnt to signal by semaphore with my sister while a child. After a time somebody answered, and we were in contact.
"Who are you, and where are you going?" I asked. Back came the reply; "Sixth Devons from Mespot." I signalled who we were and where we were going. I was carrying on with backchat when I felt a prod on my bottom. Looking down, I gasped to see the R.S.M. with his stick. I jumped down, and he asked; "Who are you?" "Catt of D Company," I replied. "Report to the Signals Officer at once. We want people like you as soon as we arrive at Singapore," which I did. The poor Sixth Devons. I was to see the big cemetery in which so many were buried north of Ramadi near the Euphrates, where they suffered heavy losses in one of the last battles of the Mespot campaign.
I would not have ever seen the Signals Section had it not been for this incident. Being an army signaller definitely led to what I was to do afterwards. Learning semaphore and Morse as a kid with my sister just for the fun of it let to a lot. Today, with TV and other distractions, kids don't have to get up to such games to mass the time. Today, not many can tap out Morse signals across the table with their knives and forks, as we used to, or talk to each other across a field by semaphore. I suppose modern walkie talkie sets have driven it out of use anyway. However, Morse is still used. I often read signals from ships when they break through on the radio. I have not forgotten semaphore, because I was to use it a great deal with the navy.
We stayed a long time in Freetown. It was very pleasant, even though we never went ashore. Eventually the whole convoy was ready, and we steamed out into the sunny Atlantic in conditions very different from those when we left Plymouth. From now on, it was lovely to be on deck listening to our band, which often played to us. The food got worse, but none of us starved. I often longed for a nice tasty meal.
We began to have P.T. parades on any suitable part of the deck, and I continued my sly visits to the engine room and stokehold, but it was getting warm down there.
We ploughed on through a tranquil sea. The horrible grey greenness of it had changed, under the semi-tropical sun, to a beautiful blue. Porpoises came to greet us. I never tired of their antics as they kept pace with us. How graceful their leaps are as, again and again, they leap completely out of the water. At times they are so close that the little glint in their eyes is discernible. And is that a grin they sometimes give? I remembered these first performances I saw when, years later, I was to see the marvellous exhibition they put on at Marineland near Los Angeles in California.
A large gun was mounted astern. We were told that a practice shoot would be carried out. A barrel was dropped overboard. When it was at the right distance, off went the gun. It was a good thing we had been warned. The crack it gave would have caused alarm. It really shook the ship.
It was January, so we were running into the southern summer. The weather became warm enough for drill clothing to start to appear. Except for P.T. we did nothing. I felt that if signallers were wanted as soon as we arrived, we should be doing a little practice. I found out later that no one on the boat had any experience, and could not give instructions. Had I known this, perhaps I could have started with a few of the 'clever' chaps, who later did form the section. At least we could have practiced semaphore, which we were going to use a lot.
We had church parades on deck on Sundays; a few well known hymns, a few well known prayers, and the colonel would give a sermon. He was quite good, and spoke sincerely on religion. In one sermon he expounded on the cosmos, probably inspired by the wonderful starry skies that we sailed under at night, and the enormous expanse of sea on which the sun poured all day.
The destroyers had left us, but we still had the cruiser to mother us. Now it kept ahead, and did not prowl around. The speed of a convoy is that of the slowest. Had we been on our own, I am sure we would have made better going. No day's mileage was given, as is done during peace time, so I have no idea how many a day we did. It was not until February fifth that we arrived at Cape Town. We did not stay anchored off, but went straight alongside a quay. This was wonderful, but would we get ashore? By jingo! We did. The buzz went round to get tidied up, ready to parade for a route march in our drill uniforms. We paraded just off the docks, and with our lovely band blaring away, we were off. We went right into Cape Town, along Adderley Street. It was obvious that we made some impression. Of course, the band did it. Soon the streets were lined with people. It was great to be able to stride on terra firma again after long weeks confined on the Tyndareus.
Back at the ship, we were dismissed, with instructions to be back on board at nine thirty. I hurried back to town, and dashed into the first restaurant I came to. Gee! Now for something to eat! I sat at one of the few empty tables. A flunky came to me all dressed up in the usual bib and tucker of the upper ten places. This made me realise that I was somewhere posh, but this didn't deter me. I asked him to being me some food. "What would you like?" he asked. I said it didn't matter; anything would do. He went away to get it, and I glanced around. It certainly was 'upper ten'. The waiter brought my dishes. I woofed it all like a wild animal, and asked him for more.
As I was about to finish, two ladies came and stood by me. One of them said; "You are very hungry." I blurted out that I was starved; that I had been on a ship for several weeks with almost inedible food, and had been very ill with sea sickness for some time. One of them said; "You are very young. What are you doing in the army?" I replied that I was old enough, ands added, "I'm older than I look." Would I be in Cape Town tomorrow? I said did not know, and the dear woman said; "If you are, come to me for the day," and she gave me her address. She said it would be lovely to have me.She was a Mrs. Alexander of Observatory Road, and the other was a Mrs. Franklin. They left, adding; "Do come." The waiter came, and I nervously asked for my bill. I had very little money with me. He said it was nothing, as the two ladies had paid for everything. I almost broke into tears, I was so overcome. Mrs. Alexander was to write to me all through the war, as I did to her.
What a disappointment it was when, at about six next morning, the propellers began to turn, and we were off. As we sailed out of Cape Town harbour, I could not help thinking about the lovely day I was missing. Little did I know what was in store.
As soon as we were clear it was obvious that we were alone. No other ship in sight. We were away from all danger, it was said. It was soon clear that we were travelling faster than we had ever done in convoy. Checking on the log being towed behind, and on the engine's vibrations, this was very evident. It was a lovely day, all seemed set fair, and we talked about being in Singapore soon. At about six in the evening, with the sun still shining, I was again working out our speed from the log, and I was saying we were doing..... a terrific explosion occurred forward and the ship shuddered. We stood agape, and some nit said; "We've burst a boiler." Within seconds the colonel shouted from the bridge; "Stand steady. Now is your opportunity to behave like Englishmen. Get to your stations and await orders."
I had been allotted to a raft with about twenty others, and so we stood by. I kept going to the side to see how fast we were sinking, and made a mental note that when the ship was down to a certain mark, I would get out of it and get clear of the ship. I knew all about a sinking ship dragging people down with it. We then got hold of the raft, and started to argue about how to get it overboard. I got a length of rope tied to it, and said we would lower it over and they could all slide down the rope. I would then untie the rope and jump down to them. Then I thought of the little money I had, and if we got out of this, I might want it. I had hidden it in my pack, but that was two decks down. I looked over the side, and decided to chance it. I don's suppose those deck ladders and steps have ever been done in the time I took that evening. I tore the pack open and got my few shillings, had a quick look round at the completely empty deck as I had never seen it, and bolted back up. I was so glad afterwards that I had done this.
Back on deck, all was calm. Checking over the side again, I noticed we were not sinking quite so fast.
Then something happened which will remain in my memory as one of the highlights of my life. Someone forward in A or B Company started to sing; "There's along trail a'winding into the land of my dreams;" a song we were mad on at the time; one of the great war songs. In no time, the whole battalion was singing, and the colonel looked down in amazement.
It began to get dark. Then, over the horizon, covered with blazing lights, a ship was rushing towards us. It was soon steaming around our stern, and a terrific shout went up from us all. The colonel shouted down to us that they would get the rest of us off. The few boats on board were lowered and got away. Soon the boats from the other ship with an enormous red cross in lights were coming over, and we awaited our turn. Another boat appeared, which turned out to be another Blue Funnel boat, the Eumaeus. It started to send boats over too.
After what seemed an age, but really could not have been long, my turn came in the queue I was in. I got over the side and down the rope ladder. From the top, there had not appeared to be much of a sea running, but going down the ladder, the boat below rose and fell quite a few feet. One had to wait for the boat to come up to meet one and be grabbed by the chaps in the boat. There were a few accidents with chaps who were too hasty, letting go and falling some feet.
I got into one of the Oxfordshire boats. Soon I was being pulled over its side to safety, and I offered up a prayer of thanks. There were a lot of empty beds, and I was put into one; all snugly into clean sheets. The Oxfordshire was bringing wounded and sick down from East Africa, where the fighting was still going on. I must have been exhausted by all the excitement and have gone straight to sleep. I remember nothing more until I awoke late on the next day with my life belt lying by me.
For a few days I had had a discharging are from a vaccination which had gone pussy. This did not stop me from giving a helping hand with an oar in the lifeboat, but when I did wake, my shirt and clothing over my shoulder and sleeve were soaked, and my arm was quite painful. However, the exertion must have done it good, because in a day or two it had completely healed. We all got off. There was no one severely hurt in the explosion, and except for minor injuries such as flesh being torn from hands when sliding down ropes, there was no severe damage.
The boat did not sink, but stopped with its propellers well out of the water as though ready to dive. Some of the engineers I was friendly with had done a heroic job with masses of padding and stuff to stop the water from spreading to coal bunkers and other places. We were near Cape Agulhas, where in the same month, February, in 1852, one of the first steam troopships was wrecked; the Birkenhead. Four hundred and fifty-four were lost, and the gallantry of those on board, especially the troops, will ever be remembered. Regardless of all the stuff published about us at the time, and the illuminated card we all got from the king, I am glad to have experienced it all, and seen how a well disciplined crowd of men will behave at a nerve-wracking moment. Had there been panic to get on one of the few lifeboats, how differently it could all have ended.
Some of the crew stayed on board when it became clear that the ship might be saved. When all the rest were clear of the Tyndareus, the Oxfordshire and the Eumaeus made for Cape Town. We soon arrived there, and were unloaded with just our lifebelts slung around our necks. We were told to keep them with us, and they were later returned to the ship.
The news of us had gone before, and a lot of people were around to welcome us. That day's papers were full of the story of the repetition of the Birkenhead, but in my opinion, our little affair bore little resemblance. A tented camp had already been put up for us at Wynberg, and we were soon settled in. The weather was marvellous, as it can be at that time of the year. Loads of fruit and goodies of all kinds began to arrive, and enough pipes and bags of tobacco for everyone. I tried to smoke a pipe, but, fortunately, could get no enjoyment from it and gave it up.
As soon as I felt I could get away safely, I went to the station and took a ticket to Observatory Road, the Cape Town suburb where Mrs. Alexander lived. As I had nothing else, I was still in the rough outfit I left the boat in. I found her house, and the black servant opened the door to me. She called Mrs. Alexander, who came and, on seeing me, shouted; "You were on that boat!" and clutched me in her arms. She had seen the exaggerated report in the paper. The story had certainly been heated up, as journalistic reports usually are.
This was the beginning of a wonderful time for me. She did more for me than the best mother could have done. Mr. Alexander was wonderful, too. He was the Chief Engineer for South African Railways. I went on surf bathing trips with her to Muzenburg, party trips to Cape Town, and had lovely, quiet days with them at home. She had a niece from Port Elizabeth who might have been a year or two older than me staying with her on holiday. life was so happy-go-lucky at the camp that I was never missed. I made sure to be there if anything was happening.
The Tyndarus had not sunk, and the cruiser got her into Simonstown Docks. It was patched up, and I saw her months later in Singapore Harbour. I have a photo of her taken from the cruiser, showing her well down forward, with propellers in the air, ready to take the plunge.
Working parties went to collect all kit and equipment, a terrific jumble, which was brought and stacked in heaps about the camp. Then the fun began, sorting out over and over until one finally found the second pair of socks, and so on. Or perhaps a shirt left hanging out to dry. And so on. In a few days, everything was found. I lost nothing, because most of my kit was in my kit bag, with my regimental number clearly stamped on it. All kit was numbered too, and so we shouted out the numbers to find owners.
We were soon spick and span, and given the honour of lining Adderley Street for the pageantry of Parliament's opening.We marched behind our band, and took our places at the roadside. The crowded street of people cheered us, and along came the Governor-General with his plumed hat in his carriage, saluting us. It was good fun, and I enjoyed it immensely. After the show, we went to the enormous feather market building for a good meal provided by Cape Town, and most of the ladies of the town helped to serve us. The enormous feather market was a feature of Cape Town. Ostrich feathers were in great demand to decorate women's hats. I remember my mother's hats with the flowing feathers around them. They were one of South Africa's main exports. I wonder what happened to the building when the demand stopped.
We had a pay parade. I was one of the two detailed to accompany the 'pay bob' to the bank to collect the money. The bank was in Wynberg. The counter cashier shovelled gold sovereigns from a heap. Goodness knows how many there was, but it was a sight I was not to see again. Notes had already come into use in England, although, as I have said, my last pay was a golden sovereign. At this pay parade, I received two sovereigns. I held on to them for years, eventually selling them for four pounds each.
The fun and games, the visits to Mrs. Alexander, the climbs up Table Mountain, the spending of tickies (the South African threepenny piece) were at an end. A boat had arrived which could continue our voyage to Singapore. After the goodbyes, we boarded the Ingoma. She was a passenger ship, but we continued as cargo, packed down in the holds. We were used to this by now, and we made ourselves as comfortable as we could. This was easy, because the weather was beautiful. We looked booked for a pleasant voyage.
We ran into a sea which was unbelievable, the like of which I was never to see again. For days, it was like a sheet of glass, without the slightest ripple. I never tired of leaning over the very prow of the ship to watch the continual fan of flying fish which leapt from the water, flew for a couple of dozen of yards, and flopped back again into the sea. They were in their thousands. The water became phosphorescent, and at night, the pilot fish, which kept just a few feet in front of the boat, made a picture that I have never forgotten. I gave up sleeping in a hammock long before we got to Cape Town, as I found a corner of the deck more comfortable. Sometimes I would sleep on the mess table now that the boat was rolling. The food was quite edible, the washing arrangements were far better, and it developed into a holiday cruise.
The German cruiser Emden has caused havoc in these waters until it was caught by the Australian cruiser Sydney, hiding at Keeling (Cocos) Islands. There were rumours that there was another about, and one day the Ingoma turned off coarse and went like mad. In the direction we had been going, we saw smoke coming from a ship. We were never told the reason for the panic, but we were soon well clear, and on course again.
We saw no beautiful tropical islands, or land of any description, and I got some idea of the enormous expanse of the Indian Ocean. The glassy sea got left behind, and we were told that we were entering the Straits of Malacca. Here we were hit by a typhoon, which made a complete change. I think some warning must have been received by radio, because we were battened down in our decks. When it did come, it was very scary. The wind howled through the rigging up top, the ship began to pitch and toss, and I got alarmed. Then suddenly it was all over, just as quickly as it had started, and from then on all was calm again. Going down the Straits, we did see tropical islands complete with palm trees and tropical growth right down to the water's edge. This was the first land we had seen since leaving Durban, where we had stopped for a few days after leaving Cape Town, and where we had been fëted again.
While in Durban, I was taking a tram ride into the country late in the afternoon when a gentleman sitting near me leaned over and said; "Are you doing anything particular?" I said "No," and he said, "Would you like to come and have dinner with me?" Of course, I said "Yes." We got off, and he led me up the drive to a large house. I was introduced to his wife and two charming daughters. They played the piano for me, and we sang a bit before going in to a sumptuous meal. They got me to sign the visitors' book, and I found that he was the Chief Judge. These people were just too kind for words, and I cannot imagine why they gave me this treat.
Just before arriving at Singapore, we learned that we were not all staying there. A and B Companies were to go on to Hong Kong, and our beloved Colonel was going with them. He took the band, of course. C and D Companies were taken over by the second in command, the Major. On arrival, we were met by the band of the regiment we were relieving, the Somerset Light Infantry. We marched to Tanglin Barracks, about two miles from Singapore City. They were set in tropical surroundings. The first impression was one of perfect peace. I thought; "It's going to be fine here." I was soon in one of the huge bungalows which were thatched with tatti (coconut leaves). It being evening, I asked where I could get a meal. "Oh. In the canteen." With another chap I went for my first meal in Singapore. The canteen was run and staffed by Chinese, and just then they hadn't much on, but we could have egg sandwiches. We had not had an egg since Cape Town. This sounded O.K., and we had some. They were so nice, and so well cooked, that I had fourteen before I was satisfied, washed down with cups of tea.
Singapore had not yet been cleared of mosquitoes, and we had our first experience of sleeping under mosquito nets. It had not been cleared of tigers either, and twice we were confined to barracks when it was found that they had swum over from the mainland.
A signal section was put together. We started serious training under a corporal who came over from the artillery based on Blackang Mati, an island lying just off Singapore, where the heavy gun defences were. We worked all day and half the night, learning how to signal by Morse flag, semaphore, heliograph and the Begbee lamp. The oil lamp had a venetian shutter arrangement, which was opened by a plunger, all in metal, for night signalling. It made a considerable noise. I was never to use it. The equipment we used on the station was much more modern. I had played at Morse and semaphore signalling, so I had a good lead over the others. I easily came top when the flag officer from the naval headquarters station came to examine us. It caused some embarrassment when he said; "This chap must be promoted to take charge." I was still considered too young for this by the regiment. He insisted, so I became a lance-corporal. With the four other top people, I moved to the signal station on Fort Canning. This was a hill rising from the middle of Singapore. It had originally been a fort, but there were no longer any guns, except for the time gun, which was still fired at noon and when the English incoming mail boat was sighted.
There was still a barrack for one company of infantry. The Naval Headquarters was just behind the signal station, which was also the Lloyds Shipping signalling station., controlled by an Englishman, with four Malays who handled the flag signals. They were only there during the day, and lived down in Singapore. The site overlooked the Singapore Roads where all naval vessels anchored before the naval base was built. It was our job to do all the communicating between the boats and the headquarters. It was a marvellous job, and we did nothing else. We messed with the troops, got extra pay, got adept at handling the big semaphore arms and the flag signals which were pulled up a tall mast nearby. For night us, we had electricity for a mast head light, and for distant signalling a powerful light which could be beamed. We had a five foot telescope to read flag signals before the ship was on the horizon. This enabled me to see the moon as I had never seen it before, and we could easily see people in their rooms down in Singapore.
The Chinamen still wore a pigtail, and many of the Chinese ladies could be seen hobbling about on their tiny feet. Sun Yat Sen did a good job when he stopped this stupid practice. We heard about opium dens, and I was determined to see one, although they were strictly out of bounds. I strolled into one of the back streets one night where I knew there was one, and pushed my head through the curtained entrance. Just inside, a man sat with the pipes and things by him. It was almost dark, and it took some time for my eyes to get accustomed to the light. No one took any notice of me, and I stayed put and gazed upon the horrible scene. Down each side of the room were sloping low shelves full of chinks. Most of them seemed out of this world and in the land of the dreams they craved, while a few were leaning up and puffing at pipes. I can still see the picture, which remains imprinted on my mind after nearly fifty years.
Funerals were elaborate affairs complete with band. Very often we heard the funeral march blaring out from the street below. I went to the cemetery, which was on sloping ground. I was amazed at the size of the graves. The coffin was slid into a hole, and around it would be built an edging about eight feet across in the shape of, I was told, a womb. I never checked up on this, so I cannot vouch for it.
One could not be long in Singapore without getting to know the extensive brothel area, especially if one was in the service. We were keen to see Singapore, and soon after getting settled, Chickley, the illiterate dealer from Bromley, who bedded near me, said; "Let's go down to Singapore for supper." We walked to the road and got a rickshaw, saying "Chow chow, food." The rickshaw wallah nodded and trotted off. In Singapore, he turned into a well lit up area, and down a street lined with open windowed houses in which sat smiling bunches of the most 'entrancing' Japanese girls, all dressed in beautiful Japanese kimonos. The rickshaw stopped about half way down outside a restaurant, into which we went for supper. We were to find that this was the only area where we could get eats. It was the well known Malay Street. got to know it well.
When I was at the signal station I often ate there. I was never accosted, and never saw anything like the bawdy behaviour seen on the television during the Olympic Games in the Munich brothel area. The girls might have looked 'entrancing', but as I had never been 'broken in', I had no difficulty in treating them as nothing else but exhibition pieces. In any case, I did not have the money to throw away on beautiful Japanese prostitutes, thank God.
When I returned to Singapore twenty years later, I found that Malay Street was no longer the centre of Singapore night life. It had been swept clean years before, and had sunk into a miserable Chinese slum.
Of the many unhappy signals I have had through my hands, one I received remains in my memory. The crew of an Australian sloop on the station had caused much trouble with minor mutinies etc. Many courts marshal had not solved the troubles. It was decided to sack the ship, and return it to Australia. Leaving the Roads, it hoisted the calling pennant, and I received the following; "To C.inC. from Capt. Fantome. Ref. & Date.... Regret leaving you under such circumstances, and hope to return and serve under you in better conditions. Time." And off to Australia it sailed.
Our regimental padre was Padre Roberts, with whom I had little to do at the time. When I returned to Singapore later, he was Bishop of Singapore. I then got connected with the cathedral and go to know him well. I do not think Roberts had anything to do with the cathedral during my Fort Canning days. If there was a bishop then , I do not remember him. I did get refreshment sometimes by going down to the evening service. I was never spoken to by anybody before or after the service. During the time I was there, I made no friends outside the army. Mr. Braun, the Lloyds man, did not get very friendly, and I never saw him outside the station. He was a Rider Haggard fan, and introduced me to Alan Warterman, King Solomon's Mines, and others that he lent me. One day, when he seemed a little more communicative than usual, he told me he had made the Trans Siberian Rail journey. It was one of the most unhappy experiences he had had. By what he said about it, it must have been. I think his trouble was that he had a Eurasian wife. His daughter, who once brought him some books, looked the part.
All flags were made in the signal hut by a Malay who had been there for years. It was interesting to see him cutting out the different coloured pieces of bunting, and putting them together on the sewing machine. There are dozens of flags. Besides the alphabet and numbers, there are ship's company flags, special flags for special orders, and what have you. All this made the job very interesting. I consider myself very lucky to have fallen into it so early in my career.
I was able to start playing tennis. The naval people had a court, and allowed me to join in. I soon got the hang of it. Soon I was able to enjoy a good game. I made my first acquaintance with a billiard table. Although I would be glad to give a game, I never got much out of it. There was no snooker.
Walks into the country taught me what rubber was about, and how it was got. You could see Malays cutting the strips in the trees, sticking on the pots, and finally collecting the lacteous sap. Rubber was in great demand for the war effort. The planters were doing very well. Coconut trees were everywhere. Copra went by the ship load. Singapore was obviously doing very well.
We were lucky to be so far away from the fighting, and from the war conditions we read about in letters from home. Some of them were lost when ships carrying them fell victim to German submarines. The regular regiment we had relieved were soon in action in France, and in the casualty lists. We had the occasional Japanese warship in, but we did not see much of the crews. Fraternisation was not encouraged. It was said that during their stay, all important notices were taken down. If this was true, there must have been doubts about them even at this time, when they were allies.
Towards the end of the war, in 1917, better news began to come from home. We were having victories in France. Things were going well in the Middle East, and we began to think that the end was in sight. Little did I realise what some of us were in for.
The good time in Singapore ended. In the middle of December, I was considered A1, and so fit for anything. I was no longer the sweet little boy. I had grown considerably, had started to shave, and had been found capable of handling a job. I was a MAN.
I was part of a small draft for India just before Christmas. We boarded the Sanshia, a B.I. passenger boat. As before, we were cargo, and on the way to Rangoon. The ship was lousy with cockroaches, as only ships in the tropics can be. At night, life was anything but comfortable. There were two or three officers up in the passenger cabins, but they did not seem very interested in us. We spent Christmas Day in the region of Penang, but did not get ashore. On Christmas Day, one of the officers came down and apologised on behalf of the captain, as no Christmas fare had been put on board for us. However, cases of Nestles tinned milk were found and given to us as a treat. We splashed the creamy stuff over everything we could. I had loved the stuff as a child, so I got through quite a lot of it.
Well out in the open sea, we came upon a junk affair making distress signals. We went alongside it. There were four natives. They had lost their sails, run out of food and water, and asked to be taken aboard. This was done, and it was decided to sink the craft. I was right over the nose of our boat. Just before we hit it, I saw a rat creep out from under the floor of the empty hold. I can see the poor thing now. [original page 30]
Rangoon lies quite a long way up the River Irawadi, and for much of the way rice fields stretch away on either side. We went alongside at Rangoon on New Year's Eve. The Christmas had been my second running in a troop deck. More were to come later. At midnight an awful racket started, when every ship in harbour started tearing away on their sirens to welcome the New Year. Rangoon must have been alerted by the din.
We went sightseeing next morning with the officers, especially to Rangoon's pièce de résistance. This was the famous Shway Dagon pagoda, surrounded by mane Buddhist temples and shrines. We had to take our boots off before entering.
During the evening, we saw the officers leave the boat. We had orders to remain on board, but as the way down the gangway seemed quite clear, I and a few others went too. We found some food, and were quietly strolling along when we ran into the officers. We turned and bolted back to the boat. To our surprise, nothing was said about it.
We changed ships, going over to the Bharata for Calcutta. This was another B.I., but fast and sleek looking. But we were down in the hold again. (The company B.I. had a monopoly in these seas.) On this trip I became fascinated again watching the pilot fish showing us the way. Again the sea sparkled.
Calcutta is a few hours up the river Hooghly. I remember it being interesting, but have not retained any details. And so we stepped on to the soil of India at this amazing city. We were taken to Dalhousie Barracks. It was an amazing building for the tropics. It could have stood unnoticed in the middle of Aldershot. I learned later that two sets of plans had been submitted to the War Office for barracks at Calcutta and Portsmouth or somewhere in the south of England. The plans got mixed up, and the wrong ones went to Calcutta and the tropical bungalows were built in England. I did not see much of Calcutta city during my stay of a few days there. The enormous maidan , with its horse racing track, hockey pitches, football pitches and what have you was very nice for an evening stroll, and Singapore had given me a pretty good idea what cities in the east could be like. We learnt we were en route to Lucknow, where we were to join another Middlesex Regiment. So we had out first experience of an Indian troop train. These trains had single narrow compartments to hold six, complete with kit. There was nowhere to stow the kit away. Racks let down, three on each side, for sleeping. We could only move one at a time. We fetched our food at stops, and had to do all the necessaries at stops, too. These train journeys were horrible, and I never got used to them. It was a slow go, and took two days and nights.
On arrival at Lucknow, we were piloted to Havelock Barracks. These were stretched out over another enormous maidan, with long distances between bungalows. This was to combat cholera clouds. If a cholera cloud clamped down, it would not wipe out every one, but only those in its path. Such was the thinking many moons ago.
The Tenth Middlesex were a fine crowd. A lot of them were London University students. On the outbreak of the war they had joined the regiment. It had been one of the first regiments to relieve the trained regulars in India and France. For a time they had been stationed at Calcutta. I was soon settled with the Signal Section. As far as I could in the horrible climate, I began to enjoy myself. But I never got used to the terrible heat. During the excessively hot days, we did not move from our bungalow unless it was necessary between about nine in the morning until late afternoon.
There was no electricity. Over each bed a punkah was suspended. All were joined together by a cord which went through the end wall and was pulled by the poor punkah wallah. Tatties (mattings of leaves) were put over all the doors. The wallahs continually splashed water over these so that what air did come through was cooled. For a rupee, that is, one quarter in old pence, we bought charpoys, simple wooden frame beds interlaced with coarse string. These were carried well out of the hot bungalow, and we slept on them under a cloudless, starry sky. I began to study and get to know the constellations, which was wonderful.
Feeble old oil lamps at the ends of the bungalow were considered sufficient lighting at night. We had to buy our own lamps if we wanted to do reading or anything after dark. How cheap everything was! We never wore anything twice, even if we changed three times a day, yet we got all this dhobied for six pence per week. If you liked, you got shaved every day in bed for twopence.
Just outside the barracks was a Sands Home where we could get a complete supper, with tea, for three and a half pence. This became understandable when we saw the coolies being paid, after a day's work, in pies. A pie then was worth one twelfth of a penny. Our cooks got one rupee per month, which was general payment for all camp followers. It seems unbelievable now, but it is how things were. I had gone up in the world, but I was still only getting about twelve shillings per week. This was more than ample, because I neither smoked nor boozed.
In this climate, the heliograph came into its own for visual signalling, because the sun was always there. The sun's rays were directed by a mirror, or, if the sun was awkwardly places, two mirrors, up to a distant station. Using a plunger, the sun's reflection was brought up to a spot positioned in front on an arm. This had been aligned onto the station. Using Morse, away we went. If two stations were in a visible line, great distances could be covered. I remember once, up in the Hymalayas, we 'spoke' to a station well down on the plains, many miles beyond the foothills. The modern walkie-talkie will have replaced the heliograph, which will now be a museum piece. It is nice to know that I used it a lot.
Thursday was our day off. We were completely free all day unless we were on camp duty. Signallers were never called upon for guard duty or the like.
All calls were made by bugle. The last post, coming from a distant guard house across the maidan on a still tropical night was something to have hear, and to remember. For me, there was something emotional about it. It is no wonder that the last post has been retained for funeral embellishment. This was always followed by lights out fifteen minutes later, and so ended another day.
Sunday was not a holiday. Church Parade was the parade of the week, and all had to attend. We paraded in equipment, with rifle and bayonet, with ammunition pouches filled. It was the only time we did not parade as a section, but under the commander of the company to which we belonged, so we were in no way privileged. The inspection was rigorous. We were on this for a long time before marching off to church, led by the drum and Fife band. There was no band to compare with the band of the twenty-fifth. On the pew in front of one was a rifle rack into which the rifle went so as to be nice and handy. The clatter made by this, and the rattle of the bayonets as one got up and down, can be imagined. The whole business was completely uncivilised, and most degrading. I am not surprised that for some it drove religion completely out of their systems. The reason for all this was that, when the mutiny broke out about seventy years before, a regiment was caught on church parade and massacred.
I went to Lucknow only a few times. It was some distance and necessitated a long ride. For me there was little interest after I had seen the main sights. A survivor, who had been a very young soldier at the time of the siege, showed me round the famous residency. It seems strange that, through him, I had a connection with the Indian Mutiny, as I had a connection with Wellington through my baker boss.
During the cold weather we would go on manoeuvres. These meant long route marches as there was no transport, at least not for the troops. The transport we did have was bullock carts and mules. Along the roads of India were rest camps every twenty miles or so into which we would stumble after a long day's march, and put up our little bivouacs for the night. These were tiny bivies that we carried, which were just big enough for two men to crawl into after having a meal. This would have been prepared for us by the cooks, who had arrived before us in their bullock transport with the mobile cooking gear. At almost every rest camp were small cemeteries and monuments to troops who had died while on a march. A lot of them died from cholera. Thousands and thousands of soldiers must have found their last resting place in these camps. And as for the huge cemeteries at the main garrison centres, with the numbers of wives and children as well, we paid a pretty heavy price in lives for the proud possession of our empire. The garrison church walls were lined with memorials to members of regiments who had served there. I wonder what has become of these. When we were there, all these places were well kept up.
On manoeuvres we were always in a tented camp. We crowded into bell tents to sleep, and ate in the open around our field kitchens. The kite hawks knew the 'come to the cookhouse door boys' when it was blown for meals. They would swarm overhead. If you got through a meal without losing any you were lucky. They would swoop down and take it off your fork as you were lifting it to your mouth. One chap caught one day as it jabbed itself onto his fork. They were big birds, and their wings could give one's cheek a pretty hefty crack. Even at Lucknow, one day as I was carrying my little pat of butter enclosed in my hand, one of these birds swooped and clawed through my fingers to get at it. I got come severe scratches.
One time we went a considerable distance into the country, about five days' march, and camped within a couple of miles of a big religious gathering. Indians poured in from all directions, on elephants, bullock carts by the hundreds, and by any method they could. We were not supposed to go near, but I could not resist the temptation of seeing a bit of fun. So by making a detour, I got near. I saw some horrible sights, at least they seemed so to me. I saw a man tied up by his feet, and, head downwards, swung through the flames of a big fire. I doubt if he survived. If one got around, seeing fakirs was normal. I have seen men pulled along on a bed of nails driven upwards through a planked bed. I saw a man who had held his arm upright for so long that it had seized there. But enough of that.
We were on manoeuvres in camp on November 11th, 1918. Very late at night, when we were camped down, a chap who had obviously had a drink too many shrieked through the camp; "It's all over, you b...... It's all over." He was put in the guard tent, but in the morning we really got the news that it was all over. Funnily, it made no difference. We just carried on. We would have to await relief, which would take some time.
I managed to get a good break, however, due to an accident on the soccer field. I was carried into hospital with bad cartilage trouble, and the surgeon said I ought to be operated on. He warned me that I might be left with a stiff leg, but as I seemed to be crippled in any case, I consented. A cavalry officer was suffering from the same trouble due to a fall while playing polo, and we were operated on on the same day. I was lucky, but he wasn't, and went home with a stiff leg. The operation was in its infancy then, and was a hit or miss affair.
It was suggested that I go somewhere to convalesce when I left hospital. Did I know where I might go? I started to make enquiries in our Orderly Room. I found information about a holiday establishment at Mussooree, where soldiers were welcome. We knew this was one of the 'posh' hill stations where troops did not go en bloc for the summer hill period. I wrote, and they could accommodate me. I went off to Lucknow station, and took a train to Dehra Dun, the rail head for Mussoorie. The authorities had done very well for me. I had a dandy chair complete with coolies to meet me and carry me right up to Mussoorie. There were five coolies, so that rest turns could be taken. It took four to carry me.
With very brief rests, they took me almost at a trot. I felt very much a rajah. It was a climb of about seven thousand feet, and the distance some ten or twelve miles. It might have been more, but the trip was so enjoyable that it was soon over. I was welcomed by the proprietor and his wife at the guest house. I made a speedy recovery under delightful conditions. I was soon taking walks and playing badminton. After a couple of weeks I was almost fighting fit, and doing a little climbing.
The week of peace celebrations arrived. One of the items was a 'pagal gymkhana' (mad sports). There were all sorts of stupid races and competitions. I won a lot of lovely prizes. I remember a gold mounted cigarette holder in a case; a safety razor, which is still about me with my name on the silver case; a full painting outfit which must have cost pounds, and the silver cup for being the champ. I have it by me now, beautifully inscribed. I certainly must have made an amazing recovery, because I was carried there crippled only about three weeks before.
Between races there were mixed items which required a female partner. For these, I asked a beautiful young girl if she would partner me. She looked up to her mother, who nodded, so she joined in the fun and games with me. She had come out from England, where she was at boarding school, for the holiday. Her father was on the C in C's staff at Delhi. I made her accept the painting outfit I had won to remind her of the occasion. I never saw her again, and I often wonder what became of her.
At night there was a grand fireworks display, which might have ended disastrously when the store of fireworks caught fire. Rockets, squibs and bangers flew around in all directions. Thousands of Indians were there, and all the English holiday makers, so there was a bit of a panic. Happily, though, there were only a few minor hurts, but it put an end to the grand firework display.
I got very friendly with the proprietor and his wife. I spent a lot of time with them and their two charming little girls, who were aged ten and eight. I read stories to them at night when they were in bed with their armah sitting by. Armahs never seemed to leave their charges. They slept on the floor of the kiddies' bedrooms. I have a small photograph taken with them on the veranda, to remind me of this happy time in Missourie. I was invited to return when I got clear of the army, to take on the secretary's job at the Mussorie Sports Club. I might have done so, but I ended my service time ion India in bad health, and far from fit. But more of that later.
This was not my first trip to the hills. For the Summer break, I had been to one of the regular hill stations with the regiment. This was a pleasant experience, parts of which are imprinted on my mind. We left Lucknow in the raging heat at night for Kathgodam, the rail head for Ranikhet. Ranikhet is five days' march from Kathgodam, and what a walk with under decent conditions without equipment and rifles slung around one. The scenery beggars description. I would so like to do it again under less trying conditions. We camped at night at dak bungalow rest camp sites. One day, I remember, one of the chaps who had been there before, showed me that night's rest camp perched up ahead, looking no great distance away. What a time it took to get there, winding up the valleys, and at times doubling back on ourselves. I pitied our bullock transport heaving our kits and stores up this rough track. We passed near Naini Tal, with its beautiful lake. This was an aristocratic holiday centre, not for soldiers. We had to go much further up and on.
We had left the heat of the plains at Kathgodam, and were now in a climate which came back to me slightly later when I got above Lauterebrunen under the Eiger and Jungfrau years later during a summer break. But there is nothing like the Hymalayas as I remember them. I was fortunate to see a few different places up there.
Getting up in the morning, we felt like jumping over the nearest peak. On and on we went, getting higher and higher, until, on the last day, we turned a corner, and, Bang! What an amazing sight for a youngster of twenty-one. Nanda Devi in pure white, looking as though it was only a few miles away, so clear was the atmosphere, stretching up into an absolutely cloudless sky. No words can describe my feeling on my first sight of one of the world's most magnificent mountains. I was told that the slope coming down was the Pindari Glacier. It was sixty miles away, but so clear was the weather that it showed up in complete detail.
As the days passed, it became very familiar, along with many minor peaks within sight. Although it impressed me so much, I never felt the urge to climb it. There seemed no sense in doing so. Distances were vast. Across the valley to the next range would take three or four days of quick going. There was a place further in; Almoora, the recruiting centre for the famous Ghurka regiments.
We were not kept busy, but had heaps of time to take long walks along the range on which Ranikhet stands, or to do a little climbing up the nearby peaks. It was expedient to take things easy, or one was puffing and blowing, with the heart thumping a little. I was to remember this period when, years later, I entered a hotel at Flagstaff, Arizona, en route to the Grand Canyon. Large notices were displayed in Flagstaff warning visitors to move slowly because of the height, which could cause heart trouble. They must be delicate there, where it was not much over seven thousand feet high. But then they say that an American never walks ten yards if he can help it.
I did not stay the full time at Ranikhet with the regiment. A hasty call from Lucknow ordered me and another signaller, Nimms, to return post haste. We packed our kit, which was then taken by coolies to meet us at Kathgodam. After a last look across to Nanda Devi, poking up out of the eternal snows, I murmured goodbye. We were given horses and syces, and told to make Kathgodam in two days.
We made an early start, in conditions sublime. We did not take the road we had come by, but took short cuts via narrow kud paths, which were sometimes just wide enough to take us, and which had no barriers to stop us from dropping a few thousand feet sheer into the valley below. I began to get very scared when I found it impossible to pull my horse away from the very edge. I found myself leaning more and more towards the hillside, so that, when it did fall over, I might be able to stay aloft. At last I gave up. I shouted to Nimmo; "I'm walking," and found he was only too glad to do the same. We took off our equipment, and tied it, with our rifles, to the saddles, and handed them over to the syces, telling them to keep with us.
We did about thirty miles that day. What a jaunt it was, mostly down hill, with nothing to carry, easy going. We found shelter for the night at a dak bungalow; woke completely refreshed, and made another early start, because we had to make Kathgodam by late afternoon. Our short cuts took us so close to Naini Tal that we skirted the beautiful lake. I wish we could have idled there for a while. It was getting warmer, but still quite pleasant, and we made Kathgodam in good time. I had wondered whether our kit and baggage would arrive in time, but there was no need to fear. The smiling coolies were there. They were terrific in the weight they could carry on their backs, suspended by ropes attached to a band around the forehead. Practically everything was carried this way into the hills. By now, no doubt, the car and the means by which good roads can be made, these human beasts of burden will be a thing of the past. When travelling, troops always went second class. This was so as to avoid the third class, wooden bench coaches crowded with Indians. It was not unusual to see women travelling purdah, in little tent like contraptions. They could be seen standing on the platforms. They were so low that the females in them must have been in a permanent squat. The contraption would then be lifted into the train. I hope this stupidity is over now. It struck me as barbaric to shut women away from everything like this.
We changed trains at Bareilly. There was time for a stroll, but we went, because it was not too hot. We passed the government dairy, went in, and spoke with the manager. He gave us a lovely long drink of cool , fresh milk. Fresh milk was considered so necessary that every garrison station had its government dairy and herd of cows, usually managed by an Englishman. We had travelled through the night, and so arrived in Lucknow before next dark, and got into a tonga (a light wheeled pony cart used all over India) for our barracks. We were wanted for a signallers' instruction course, but some muddling had crept in, as is not unusual in military dealings. We did not get it for weeks. I had the cartilage operation and the holiday at Mussoorie before I did go.
About this time, the stillness and serenity of the night was severely disturbed by the blowing of the alarm. This soon had us awake, dressed, and parading in equipment, ready to go. We were hurried to the station, where a train was waiting, and on our way somewhere. We were soon to know. Bad rioting had broken out at Faizabad, a city about eighty miles away. We arrived there at about breakfast time, and were hurried out to parade outside the station, fixed bayonets, and marched right through the city with a battery of guns behind us. This must have had some effect. Quietness prevailed. After a few days, we returned. It was difficult to find out exactly what had happened. Some said it was one of the religious clashes, which were so prevalent in India; others that Mrs. Besant was in the neighbourhood again. What a remarkable woman she was! At that time she was continually in the news, and spending a lot of time in India. I wish I had been able to get to know more about her. What I did find out about Ghandi, and what a wonderful man he was, means that it might have been possible that Annie Besant was also a sincere person whose object in life was to right wrongs. It appears that her arrest at about this time for seditious writings was a mistake, as was the treatment of Ghandi.
The cool season came along, happily for me. I was then able to take long walks into the surrounding country, and see things as they were. There was a small river where snakes abounded. I actually saw cobras, which it paid to keep well clear of. One of the acts we often saw in the barracks given by the travelling galli galli men was a fight between a mongoose and a snake. The mongoose always won. The amazing conjuring that these Indians did right under our noses were always good entertainment. One had a small wicker travelling case over which the outer cover fitted closely. Into this a youth folded himself, and the thing was then closed up. Swords were then pushed through the case in all directions. We would say, "One here," and in there one would go. Of course, the boy came out unharmed. Another was for a dried mango nut to be showed around and then placed in a hole in the ground, and then well watered. It was then covered with a cloth, and with much incantatory blurb and more water, the centre of the cloth would begin to rise, until there was a full grown bush about three feet high. This trick always amazed me. I was very glad, a year later, when making a stop at a hotel in Ceylon for lunch with my wife and two children, we had a private showing of this trick. I had no answer to the children's demand to know how it was done.
Loose wallahs were always a menace, and the bungalows were never left unguarded. At night we would take turns at prowlers. Three or four of us would do a night, doing two hour stretches. Even then, there were cases of thieves getting in and lifting stuff. We had to take great care with rifles, which were locked into iron racks in the centre of the bungalow. Even then, the bolts had to be removed and held personally. I always put mine under my pillow, as did the others.
Christmas came along, my third soldiering. It was to be different from the other two, and we did have fun and games. Our section officer hired a piano for us. There were some very good pianists in both our section, and the band shared the other half of our bungalow. Although I had heard a lot of music from my mother, I now heard much that I never knew existed. I shall never forget hearing Rachmaninoff's C sharp minor prelude for the first time. I got to know Liszt, Chopin and others as I had never known them. When the chaps knew how crazy I was about music, they went out of their way to give me enjoyment. "I've got a very nice piece in the mail that you will like. Come and hear it," and I knew I was in for something good. Peacock, one of the band, was a grand chap for this. One of the section was a good organist who played the church organ, and I went with him when he played on his own.
Nimmo and I were to join the next instructors' course at Kasauli. We took the train for Kalka, the railhead for another part of the Himalayas. This time it was Simla Hills. Simla was then the summer seat of the Indian government, and a little further into the hills. But this was winter, and we got to know what winter in the Himalayas was like. I had seen no snow or frost since leaving England, but here we got it thick and heavy. The barrack rooms were built for it. There were small rooms holding half a dozen around a huge fireplace which burnt logs, and which was kept in all night. The classrooms were heated. For me, it was not a bad change. We made toboggans from large sheets of corrugated iron by turning up the leading edge. We had great fun. It was possible to get six or even eight people aboard.
At Kasauli, I got my first insight into electricity; Ohm's Law, what a transformer was, electric cells and accumulators, how a telephone worked and how a buzzer worked. I was fascinated by it all. There were half officers and half N.C.O.s , who all worked together. I was to learn how to lecture. I am very grateful for this. If many speakers I have heard had had my training, they would not be so difficult to hear. I gave my first five minute try-out. The chief instructor said; "See that officer over there in the far corner. Speak to him, and make sure he understands every word you say. Then everybody in the hall will hear you."
We did have parades. Every Saturday morning, if the weather was fit, we would assemble on the square with our Morse flags. These were not the usual cotton issue pattern, but lovely silk ones we could buy in the bazaar. One of us would be perched up in front. I don't know whether it was because of my musical tastes, but I found myself in this position. The instructor would order; "Ready." Up went the flags. Then "Ack to Emma by the front, commence," and off we would go. It looked beautiful, and the sound made by the silk flags, in absolute unison, was music to me. When the weather cleared, we did outdoor exercises in map reading, checking up on the viability of points we had worked out in the classroom. This was most important for visual signalling.
A Pasteur Institute had been inaugurated in Kasauli, it being the only one in India or the Far East. Hydrophobia was quite common. Should a soldier be bitten by a dog or jackal, he was rushed there as quickly as possible. Some did not arrive in time for the treatment to be effective, and the results were horrible.
I was to start playing rugby at Kasauli. Although I developed into a useful full back or three quarter due to being nimble and able to catch, I never came to like the game.
It puzzled me why I was sent on a course at this time. Since I was enlisted for the war's duration, I was due for demob now the war was over. However, it was by no means over for me, as I was soon to find out. We had been getting news of trouble on the frontier with the Afridi, but the Khyber Pass was a long way from us in Lucknow. Not so. Signallers were wanted there, I was to find, and I was to be one of them. With a small party, I took train for Peshawar through country I began to know so well. There was little hanging about, although we did have a night or two in Peshawar barracks.
Leaving Peshawar, we were soon passing Jamrudd Fort at the entrance to the Khyber Pass. We were not close to it. To me , it looked like a crude warship stuck on land. The rocky, desert-like country did not look very enticing. As we wended our way up the pass, I began to wish I had never seen the place. The towers of a cable railway could be seen at regular intervals up the valley, but the war had stopped work on it. I have often wondered whether it ever came into use.
We were to join the Royal Sussex Regiment based at Ali Musjid, about half way up the pass. We arrived there to start what was to be, for me, a miserable time. It was a tented camp, set above the pass in a big perimeter. It also held a regiment of Ghurkas, whom we were to get to know and admire. The main job seems to have been to keep the Afridis from the pass and from the lower regions around Peshawar, where they had caused considerable trouble. A Sangar Line (small defence points on hilltops) had been made well clear of the pass. In these hilltop sangars an officer and about twenty men would stay a seek or more on continuous duty. Owing to shortage, only one signaller could be spared. At time, I found myself having to stay on for an extra spell. The only connection with the base, about a couple of miles away, was my line, and I was required to wear my headphones night and day. If I woke in the night and found my phones had slipped, I would get straight on to base and ask if all was O.K. It was on Rocky Knoll where I had one of the frights of my life. After dark only whispering was allowed, so that the 'listeners' at the corners of the tiny perimeter could hear the slightest sound. Rocky knoll could not have been more than twenty yards square. Yet, one dark night, a corner collapsed and fell away. I had dozed off, as had those on listeners. Grabbing my rifle - we always slept with them wrapped in the blanket around us - I stood to with the others, absolutely scared stiff when we realised all was quiet. Some of the rascals had got through the lower defence wire and loosened some of the bottom rocks which built up the post. Fortunately, only a small part of the sanga fell away. No one was badly hurt. Only a short time before, the next sangar, about three quarters of a mile away, had been overrun and all killed. No wonder we had the creeps.
One time my line went dead. I felt I must see if it was near my end. I told the officer I would risk seeing, and would, as far as possible, keep within sight of the sangar. Two or three of the chaps kept watch on me from the sangar, and I did not mean to go beyond rifle range. I found the break, and repaired it O.K. I think I got a stupid mention for it [his only medal for bravery], but seeing there happened to be no danger at the time, it meant little to me.
I was to learn what it was like to be always tired. I never got a night's sleep. There was no cover on the sangars. We just lay rough on the rocks. The only cover for wet was our ground sheets, but there was very little wet. Back at the main perimeter, so many were required for guard, as there was a post at every fifty yards or so, within speaking distance. so every officer and N.C.O. and man took turns. I have been on a post with a captain and lieutenant for the night. Even this was not enough. One night, one or two of them got through the wire near the medical tent and killed the sleeping doctor. This sounds peculiar until one realises how tired we all were. One got so tired and numb that one lost all one's senses. At least, that is how I was eventually. I went thirsty. The water was so heavily chlorinated that I held my nose when drinking it, or when tea was mode from it. For a long period, the food was the worst. We never drew any money, as there was nowhere to spend any. In the main camp, we soon got to know which direction the bullets came from, and there were very few casualties from them. But there was always the fear, and one was never sure. I began to long for a long rest; to get into a bed with lovely clean sheets, to get a clean glass of English tap water. Had I ever lived where these things were taken for granted? There were tiny bright spots to look back on. Sometimes, when on watch at the main camp, in the middle of the night, when all seemed quiet, the field exchange operator would connect us all up and we would sing to each other. I remember a wit at Landi Kotal, a base camp further up the pass, where, if I remember rightly, a regiment of the Durham Light Infantry were stationed, who was a good entertainer. But patches of happiness were few and far between just then. People continually went down sick, malaria going rampant, and numbers got smaller and smaller. I often felt like crumbling, but managed to hold on by sheer obstinacy. There was another Corporal Catt in the section who was a regular soldier. Between us and the few chaps left, we managed to keep things going.
At last, it was decided to go right into Afridi territory and blow up the village from which much of the trouble was coming. There was a fort there which we had built for them during friendly days long past. This meant going over Chora Kundal, a range stretching to the west of the pass. For a few weeks, we would go out as protection to crowd of sappers and miners who were making the necessary track along which to get six inch howitzers to pound the fort. It was decided that the job could be done in one day. So all being ready, we set off before dawn to get the job over. The tribesmen retreated as we went forward. Eventually we came near enough for the guns to begin operations. The fort had been built by an Englishman, and the six inch guns did little damage to it. So it was decided to clear the village and let the sappers dynamite the place. This was done, but the time had gone on. It was early afternoon and necessary to make base before nightfall, so the scramble commenced. Our water bottles were empty long ago and we all got extremely thirsty. I sent a signal back to the nearest communication point to us for onward transmission to base for water to be brought out to us as soon as possible. It was during this retreat that I saw a magnificent display by the mountain battery accompanying us; the speed with which they dismantled the guns, threw the bits and pieces onto their mules and back to a new position to cover us. We would then go back through the guns and cover them while they blazed away again. It was so exciting, one forgot how tired one was. The water had come out. We scooped it up from a small trough as we hurried by, and felt a little refreshed. We had very few casualties, which was usually the case in these scraps.
After this affair, things quietened considerably. Soon, a sort of peace developed, and there seemed a chance that we would get away. Not too soon. I was beginning to feel anything but well. I did, however, march away with what was left of the regiment, and manage to make Peshawar on my feet. But on getting into camp, I collapsed, and was carried to hospital. O remember waking to find myself in heaven, with a beautiful angel stroking my forehead, and saying, "How are you now?" Then I saw she had no wings, which seemed strange. But I was in heaven, in a bed with lovely white sheets. Although I was saturated with perspiration, I felt cleaner than I had felt for a long time. I had at lest caught the malaria bug, although, no doubt, it had been hanging about me for some time. I had had feverish bouts off and on which I had not taken seriously. But to have waited until now before knocking me for six was a bit unfair. I really was on my way home at last. A little while before leaving Ali Musjid, the C.O. had sent for me and asked me to consider signing on with the regiment as a regular soldier. He said I would do very well, and the regiment was booked for a nice station in the West Indies. However, anybody who signed on as a regular after our experiences, the filth, the permanent discomfort, the rotten food etc., would have been a lunatic. I said as much, and of the duration of war troops, not one took the bait.
As soon as I was fit enough to travel, I was taken to a big hospital at Rawalpindi. I had to say goodbye to my angel. Malaria can be obstinate, and it was some time before my temperature would stay steady. It did eventually get to that point, and I entrained for Deolali. This was a long journey. Deolali is not far from Bombay, and it took four days. But nothing mattered now so long as we kept moving in the right direction. After the last horrible months, all was well with the world. December was nearly here, December 1919, and the war in Europe had been over for more than a year. We should have been home and demobbed ages ago. Lots of the chaps were definitely 'anti'., It was useless the controlling sergeant majors or N.C.O.s trying to keep order, although things never really go tout of hand. There was only one parade each day. All the demobees crowded round a small hill in the camp to hear the names of those who were for the next trooper home. If you missed your name, you'd had it, as no lists were published. You could have heard a pin drop while the names were being read out. There were moans when he shouted "That's all." [original page 40]
We were paid all the credits we had amassed. For those who had been on the war path for so long, these were considerable. We were even paid our war gratuity. Our standard rate of pay had been at fourteen rupees to the pound, and also our war gratuity. The pound had dropped to ten rupees, so were quids in. As soon as I could get clear, I went down to the Eastern Bank, Deolali, with my wad of ten rupee notes, and asked if I could open an account and have it transferred to England. "Of course. Which bank?" I remembered the Westminster Bank at Sandwich, and said "There." I was to see stupid clots lose the lot on the boat on the way home, when the crown and anchor boards came out. later I saw them in the dole queues. I was glad I had kept my little next egg.
My name was shouted at last. I joined the happy gang for the short run to Bombay. We were all experienced troopers, so we soon sorted ourselves out in the holds of the P&O Caledonia, and drew our hammocks, stupidly thinking and saying it was for the last time, and hoping for a pleasant journey home. I was glad to see Bombay disappear astern, and had no regrets at the thought that I might be losing a good life as the secretary of the Mussoorie Club. I had had enough of India, for the time being at any rate. I knew I would never forget the Himalayas where I had spent the brightest spots of the India saga. But the miseries of the marches, the times I had been really thirsty, and the awful time of active service in the Khyber Pass which ended so miserably with the bad spell of malaria. These last things would be best forgot. Yet, writing this after well over fifty years without notes, how well the times are imprinted on my memory. Incidents are there so clearly that they could have happened only yesterday. What is this memory that we have, and where is the mass of thousands upon thousands of trivial things stored, to come back to one after such a long time?
The voyage home was a change. We could now go via the Suez Canal, which I found interesting. Little did I think that I would be seeing it again so soon. We were no allowed off anywhere. and only saw Suez, Port Said and Malta from the boat. To cap it all, we struck one of the worst storms ever known in the Mediterranean Sea, and it was Christmas; my third Christmas on a trooper. There were no Christmas goodies for us. But, since everybody was sea sick, it didn't matter much. By now, ships were getting news by radio. The reports of the shipping losses around the Spanish coast were not very cheering. However, all was well, even if all the crockery and moveable stuff was getting smashed in the upheaval, so long as we kept going in the right direction HOME. Passing Gibraltar, the sea eased, and we were able to walk again. But on getting up towards the entrance to the Channel, we ran into thick fog. It was so bad, and as we were in the shipping lane, we were ordered to wear our life jackets. We could hear the sirens hooting off, quite near at times. Once, when the fog lifted a little, we passed so close to a ship that from our bridge we heard them asking if our position could be given. Obviously we were lost, and knew not our whereabouts. This was before the navigational aids which now enable a ship to know its position exactly, no matter what the weather. We started to crawl along, and had men posted right in front, up the mast, and everywhere. At last the man in the prow shouted "Hard astern", and the ship pulled up. Through the murk we could just see waves breaking on some rocks, and we all wondered where the dickens we were. Then a lighthouse appeared faintly, and the bridge recognised it as one of the Channel Islands. We pulled clear, did a complete turnabout, and made off for Plymouth, where we were to disembark. The fog lifted, and by the time we were anchored in the Sound, it was fine. How lovely it was to look upon England, and what a lot had happened since I had sailed out of this harbour three years before.
Tenders were put out to pick us off, and straight to the station we went to entrain for Purfleet.
Purfleet, on the north bank of the Thames, was where all troops from abroad went through the final stages of demobilisation. We had a medical check up, got measured for our civilian suit, received our final payment, and a travelling warrant for wherever we were going. With another chap with whom I had served from the start, I left Purfleet, and we took a train back to London. He was going to his home in Orpington. I was going to Sandwich, on a different train. We shook hands and parted at Charing Cross Station. It was all over for us, and neither of us wrote, or attempted to keep up any connection. To this day, I have wondered how Frank Leech made out.
The excitements and expectations of coming home are difficult to describe. I had grown up, and changed considerably. I was no longer the boy who had said goodbye over three years ago. I was inches taller and broader. I had not been in a normal house since leaving England. The house in which I had been brought up seemed tine. Everything seemed cramped, and it was some time before I got used to it.
The excitement passed, and there seemed nothing to worry about. As instructed, I went along to the exchange and signed on. We were known as the twenty-ninth division, because our dole was twenty-nine shillings per week. And so I joined the ranks of the multitude of unemployed. One only had to attend and sign on every day, and continue to enjoy life. It was not long before I got fed up with this.
I had met two chaps in the twenty-fifth who came from Eastry, only three miles from Sandwich. I found they had both got home, and visited them. One, the son of a farmer, invited me to stay at the farm for a day or two, which I did. On returning to Sandwich and going down to sign on the dear lady behind the counter barked; "Where have you been?" I quietly replied that I had been to spend a day or two with a friend. "You can't do that," she barked; "You must sign on every day, so you must stay here. "Oh, must I?" I said; "We'll see about that. This is the last you'll see of me." So I left the twenty-ninth division and the layabouts.
One of the first things I had done was to go to the bank and ask about the money I had sent from India. "Oh yes, it's all O.K." and the cashier disappeared for a moment, coming back to say the manager would like to see me. I was ushered into his office. We had a chat about what I had been doing, and he appeared surprised that I had accumulated so much money, until I explained how it had come about. He said; "What do you want me to do with it?" I said, "Nothing yet," as I had enough to carry on with. He then said; "Well, you should not let it sit doing nothing. Why not invest some of it?" I said I didn't know anything about that, and he replied that he could help me. He advised me to put it in a new conversion stock, which had started at five per cent, and this is what he did for me. That is when I learnt that money makes money. I transferred my account back to that branch after I retired. On asking the cashier if he had any record of me opening my account there, he disappeared, and then returned within a few minutes with an old ledger, pointing to the original specimen signature I had given, which had not changed one iota. If they keep all records fifty years or more like this and can find an item in a few minutes, they must have a pretty efficient filing system.
There were no jobs where I could fit in. Although I was not being idle, I felt I ought to get some gainful employment. The thrills of getting home soon passed. I began to long to get moving again. Eventually, I did find a job in the docks at the mouth of the river Stour. It was where the roll on, roll off train ferries started, and where there were a number of ocean going tugs for towing large barges of supplies to and from France. Every so often, these had to have their boilers scaled, and it was some job. It necessitated squeezing down between the boiler pipes, and chipping off the scale with long chisels. My only light was a smoky oil flare; a can arrangement with a spout, out of which poked some cotton waste, which sucked the oil up from the can. The only ventilation came down through the manhole in the boiler. As there were three of us in the boiler, the atmosphere got pretty awful after an hour or two. If anyone wanted a short life and a horrible one too, this was the job for him. I preferred the open air, and after four days I said goodbye to the manager.
A friend of my father's was down for a few days' holiday with his people. My father mentioned me to him, saying that I was finding it difficult to settle down. He had a good job in Marconi's, being superintendent on the transatlantic wireless station at Caernarvon. He asked my father to send me along to him for a chat, and I went. He thought I would fit in with him, and arranged for me to go to their school in Clapham Road, as I must get a diploma first. This seemed just the stuff. I went up to London and along to Clapham Road, where I interviewed the head at the school. As I had so much experience, we thought that I would only need a term or two, so I signed on. I got lodgings at a nearby Y.M.C.A., and settled in to kill the week I had to go before the new term started. I walked everywhere, and started doing all the museums, churches, Westminster Abbey, the cathedrals, and the lot. But I began to feel very lonely roaming about on my own. How lonely one can be in London, I was to find.
On Thursday morning, I was on my way up the Strand. On a switch box or something, opposite Charing Cross Station, on the street side, there was a poster. It was a chap in blue, and behind his was a mosque standing in the desert. It blared; "Join the Royal Air Force and see the world. Enquire round the corner, No. 4 Henrietta Street." This would pass a little time, so round the corner I went and into 4 Henrietta Street. "You are recruiting," I said. "Whom do you want?" An officer sitting at a table came forward with a list; fitters, riggers, turners, wireless operators, the lot, but for none of which I was qualified. I said I was a telegraphist, and he said I might be able to become a wireless operator. On saying, "Can't I join as anything?" he said I could join as an aircraft hand, which is a sort of labourer. I said that would do, but was there any chance of getting abroad? "You can go to Egypt next week." A chance to get away from it all! Gee, this was it! I was soon prancing naked in front of the doctors upstairs. "You've got malaria," said one. "I did have it in India, but since I've been in England I have ceased to have attacks." He had tumbled to it by me eyes, which were still showing the effects. I was told to report there tomorrow morning, which I did. Gone were all thoughts of joining the Marconi Company, or settling down to anything. I was off on a spree. I was a bit of a cad, because I did not even cancel with the school. I must have been in a sorry state. I was to find that I was not the only young chap left in a sorry state by the war.
With a few others, I left Henrietta Street for the Royal Sir Force Depot, Uxbridge, hoping to become an aircraftsman second class in the trade, if one can call it a trade, of aircraft hand, the lowest of the low. It had not crossed my mind to ask what my pay would be. I just didn't care whether I got paid or not. I had asked it I could get out when I got fed up. I was told that I could buy myself out. As it wasn't much, I did have this up my sleeve.
The first thing to get over at Uxbridge was the entrance examination. No matter what trade one joined up for, the real duds were sorted out by a simple educational examination of two papers; Maths and English. There were a lot of duds, because few passed in the crowd I went in with. There were bank clerks, and all sorts of types who failed, who not only looked, but spoke as though they were up to passing such an exam. One wondered where the had gone to school.
Then we drew our uniform; khaki working dress, and blue walking out. Both uniforms had breeches and puttees. We also got a stupid little cane with a silver know on the end. It was only about eighteen inches long, and had to be carried horizontally. Other necessary bits and pieces were issued, such as hair brush and comb, cut-throat razor, knife, fork and spoon, and holdall with needles, cotton etc. Everything was stamped with 341185, my Air Force number. This was a bit bigger than my regimental number, which had been 49272. At regular intervals, there was a kit inspection, at which shirts, towels, pants etc. had to be folded so that the number showed.
I did not go to Egypt 'next week', as the chap at the recruiting office said I would, but commenced square bashing. I was taught how to march, salute, stand to attention, stand at ease, and the rest. I was not the only old soldier in my section. Most of us had done much more than the people instructing us. We took it all as a big joke. Life was all a joke, as we just had nothing to worry about. We did various fatigues, such as potato peeling in the cookhouse, coal lorry, general cleaning up, and what not.
Work had started on the sports stadium. When we had learnt how to march, salute and stand to attention, we became labourers on this. This was fine. With a few others, I became one of a team going to surrounding factories on a Leyland lorry to get loads of ashes. We went as far afield as Ealing and Southall, to gasworks, margarine factories, and anywhere where ashes were to be got. The weather was getting warm, and we wore nothing but boots, socks and a suit of overalls. We enjoyed every minute of it.
One just cannot talk about the Uxbridge of those days without mentioning the stupid clot who was in charge, Group Captain B.C. He was a product of the army. It was said he had had a distinguished career. If this is so, he must have changed drastically, because no pre-war officer I had served with would behave to all under him as this man did. As we were the lowest of the low, to whom he could do no damage, we delighted in taking the mickey out of him. We would go out of our way to meet him just to see what the poor idiot would find fault with in our dress, the way we were walking, dusty boots or what have you. We were always sure to have something wrong, even if it was only the stupid puttees the R.A.F. issue. It was impossible to put them on without having open gaps at the bottoms of the turns. We called them horse bandages. He had built up around him a gang of officers and N.C.O.s of like ilk. Even the corporals delighted in terrorising all who came under their charge. The damage this gang must have caused before the Air Ministry did eventually sort them out was alarming. There was Stiffy, in charge of training, and the proud boaster of having the loudest voice in Christendom. It was said that when he was the officer in charge of the R.A.F. detachment on any ceremonial occasion in Central London, he would try to make his voice heard in Uxbridge umpteen miles away. How lucky we were, we who had seen the rough side of service, in the trenches in France or, in my case, the heartbreaking time I had had in India. There was clean water in the taps, a bed of sorts at night, and the bawling and shouting from these poor simpletons just blew over us. Those of us who had seen army or naval life in the raw were able to comfort some of the younger ones who were finding the life a bit too much. We could not believe that the R.A.F. was going to be like this. We told them life would be different when we got away from Uxbridge, as indeed it was. But even then, one met vestiges of this mentality some years afterwards.
I can only refer you to T.E. Lawrence's chapter in 'The Mint' for a better account of this mad house as it was. He was there two years after me. It is possible that he had something to do with cleaning out the rubbish there. I wonder if B.C. would have tried to humiliate Lawrence had he known who he really was. To B.C., he was 352087 A.C.2 Ross. I was to serve with, and get to know, Lawrence fairly well later on. In my humble opinion, B.C. was not fit to lick Lawrence's boots.
I was getting the princely sum of three shillings a day, all found. I neither smoked nor boozed. The summer evenings were coming on. I could take long walks, or take the tram, which then ran all the way from Uxbridge to London, and into the country. I very much liked to go and sit on the canal side, and watch the endless stream of barges go by, and listen to the quaint patter of the bargees. I would take every week-end pass I could get, generally going to London for a theatre or music hall. Everything was on the cheap. We got cheap railway tickets. We could get a good bed at the Union Jack Club for one and nine. We got into Lords Cricket Ground in uniform free. We could sit in Hyde Park and listen to the band for nothing. What more could one want, except to get away from it all and on the way to Egypt, as I had been promised.
At last, I was put on a draft, and issued with sun helmet and drill clothing for the second time. I was the old sweat this time, able to help the others to put pugrees round the crown of the helmets.
We left at night, and carried all our kit to the station, where we entrained for Baker Street. About fifty of us were on our way. Again we carried our kit across London to Liverpool. It was an uncomfortable journey with all our kit with us, and I was jolly glad when Liverpool was reached and we detrained not far from our boat. This was the old Teutonic. I couldn't scramble aboard fast enough. Down in the cargo hold we went again, and drew hammocks. We were not the only ones going, as a number of army personnel were en route for Egypt too.
I wonder why it was, but the relief of seeing Liverpool disappearing from the stern of the ship was great. Thoughts of new excitements ahead were very cheering. I must have had the adventure bug deep within me. I said to a chap nearby; "I don't care if I never see that place again." Thank goodness I grew out of that eventually, but what a lot I was to do before I did.
We had a lovely trip, stopping at Gibraltar and Malta, as most passenger ships did. How nice it was to get into drill again, and have the comfort of wearing the lightest clothing. It was nice to see the interest the porpoises took in us again. Hardly a day passed without our having their company. Was it the same shoal, or is the sea full of them? After seeing all the oceans, can anything equal the blue of the Mediterranean on a calm sunny day?
Both the army and the R.A.F. personnel disembarked at Alexandria, where a lorry was waiting to ferry us out to Aboukir, a few miles along the coast. It was early summer, the weather was glorious, and for me just what the doctor ordered. The only snag in this pleasant state of affairs was the food, which was pretty awful ,by any standards. This was to culminate in unpleasant behaviour on our part. It was breakfast time. Some rissoles had been produced which were absolutely inedible. They seemed to have been made with some bad bully beef, but even that was a guess. The Orderly Officer, with the Orderly Sergeant, came in as usual, and asked; "Any complaints?" It seemed quite spontaneous, but we all pelted him with the so-called rissoles, and rushed out of the dining hall. We went to our hut, collected our towels and went to the beach some distance from the camp. We stayed there all day, returning at dusk. We were surprised to find no one awaiting us, and more surprised when nothing was said to any of us. I can only assume that the rissoles had been found to be inedible, and to have charged a whole section with mutiny might have looked bad. But it ended our fun and games at Aboukir, and within a couple of days we were all moved to Ismalia, half way down the Suez Canal. We were paraded there under another curious type of Royal Air Force Warrant Officer (discip.), and were met with "Mutinous behaviour, eh? Well, we'll show you what we do with that." He proceeded to show us by doubling us over the desert. So we ran away from him, ignoring his commands to about turn. When he caught up we were resting, almost livid, we meekly said we didn't hear his order. That taught him a lesson, and the chases across the desert stopped.
We had come to Eight Squadron, who were equipped with the wartime R.E.Eights, under the command of Squadron Leader Guilfoyle. Some of the others had enlisted as aircraft hands, with a view to becoming wireless operators. I joined with them in a class under a couple of N.C.O.s. After the efficient instruction I had received in the army by people who knew their stuff, this was pitiful. The officer read a lot of blurb straight out of a book, explaining nothing, and we found neither of the N.C.O.s had a clue. It was obviously a hurriedly rushed up business by someone with the mentality of our old friend B.C.
We were kept more or less busy doing camp guard and other fatigues. None of us ever went near an aeroplane. I was on main guard duty when the aforementioned W.O. Discip. caught me with my equipment off. I could see the delight in his eye as he started talking about putting me on a charge, until I said; "In the army, we were allowed to take our equipment off to go to the lav." He was so surprised to hear that I had been in the army that he dropped the bluster a little, and said; "Oh, all right."
Except for the stupid camp life, Ismalia was not too bad. It was a pleasant stroll into the town, which was nicely laid out with houses, mostly occupied by the pilots and people employed on the canal. It was on the shore of Lake Timsah. The swimming was good, and one could take a boat for an evening row. It was also on the canal itself. There was a good restaurant, where I could make up for the trash we were expected to eat in camp. I had come to the conclusion that the R.A.F. was very different from the army in its feeding standards. All the camps I had known were much the same. We had not been here long before some of the chaps started to show signs of malnutrition. There was no reason for this. They were getting as much pay as I was. Using a little common sense, they could have kept as fit as I was able to do. I had no qualms, as there was enough clean water to drink, and a bed of sorts at night. With the filthy time I was having less than six months before in India still very fresh in my mind, this was all a cakewalk, and I was able to smile and laugh the world away. I still have a photograph taken at this time. I don't look very miserable in it.
One feature of the place was the teeming swarms of flies, from which it was difficult to get away during daylight, and the swarms of bed bugs at night. We were housed in platted rush walled huts, through which you could see, which just served as shelter against the sun. For the short time I was in Egypt, it never rained once. The bed bugs were overcome by blazing a blow lamp over the whole iron frame of the bed, and then standing the legs in oiled water. To stop them from coming down from the roof into the mosquito nets and thence to the bed, a tin of oiled water was fixed to a metal rod through its bottom, and placed between the roof and the net.
I was not sorry to leave Ismalia, with two or three others. I moved along to Abu Suier, to 216 Squadron. Here were the Handley Pages which had been designed to bomb Berlin. They were never used for that, because the war ended. They were being replaced by the new D.H.10, which turned out to be so dangerous that half the squadron were killed in a few weeks.
We found a different atmosphere at Abu Suier, immediately on arriving there. The W.O. Discip. who met us was a kindly man, and we took to him at once. At Aboukir and Ismalia, there had, as I expected, been some jiggery-pokery with the rations. This was made obvious by the big difference at Abu Suier. In Ismalia neither I, not anyone else, had been made into a wireless operator. It had been an awful waste of time, but I was detailed to the wireless section. I became a sort of lackey to a mechanic who was supposed to be fitting up the radio gear in the D.H. 10s. He did not seem to know much about it. Some time later, when I had risen a little in the world, he was posted to my section, still only a leading aircraftsman. I amused myself about the section in the office. There was a typewriter, and I got much pleasure doing my correspondence.
At that time, Abu Suier was a great sand yachting place. The surrounding desert was ideal for it. Chassis were made from aircraft wheels and axles, and the sails from fabric. I did not stay long enough to be able to enjoy this because I was soon in for another move. The powers that be considered that I would be of more use elsewhere, and off I went to Suez to join a small party for Mespot. We had heard of the disastrous episode of the Manchester Regiment at some place on the Euphrates, but whether our quick move had anything to do with that, we never knew. About thirty of us collected at Suez. Although it was no longer a flying station, there was an officer and a small section there as a maintenance squad. We were to wait for a boat, and did nothing but amuse ourselves. But we did give a hand at times in dismantling the besaneau hangars which were being taken down. We wandered down into Suez, especially at night. There was a good small orchestra in one of the beer gardens. I think it was Rumanian. They liked to play pieces requested. One evening I asked a chap named Oddy to go up and ask the conductor if he would play 'The starving barber'. The conductor had long hair, and didn't appreciate the joke.
After two or three weeks messing about at Suez, the day came to say goodbye to Egypt. We bundled into the lorry which had given us many bathing trips. Port Taufiq is not far from Suez, and we were soon there. We approached a fine looking passenger boat, thinking it was our boat. It looked as if we were in for comfortable voyage. But we passed right by it, and stopped by a filthy tramp ship of a few thousand tons. We asked if we were going on this thing, and got a yes in reply, but that it was only a short trip. We were soon to find out that this was to be the trooping ship to end all trooping ships. "Where do we go?" we asked. "Oh, there's no accommodation. You must camp down on deck." We put our baggage on one of the hatch covers. We numbered about thirty, with not one N.C.O. among us. Just before we sailed, two officers appeared, both R.A.F., and disappeared to the upper regions of the bridge. They were on passage, like us, and had little interest in our welfare. One was a junior officer, and the other an engineer officer for the R.A.F. Headquarters Baghdad. We did not hang about, but were soon steaming down the Gulf of Suez. We set about staking our plots on the hatch cover, without mattresses, and with one blanket each. Pillows were made with our kit bags and spare clothing. As it was summer, and pretty hot, clothing did not matter much, and one blanket could be used to soften the hatch cover.
The name of the boat was Horncap. I have never found it difficult to remember it. It ranks, almost, with the two Marus that I found myself on years later.
As the first afternoon out of Suez faded, we began to wonder when we were going to get a meal. It was not long before we began to shout so. The Medical Officer came down to us. He said he was from the captain, and that he had a pretty grim admission to make. No rations had been put on board for us. They would do the best they could by eking out what food there was on board. Soon after coming aboard, we had noticed a pen on the forward deck with four live Asiatic type sheep. Goodness knows where they had been picked up, but the ship had been wandering around the Eastern Mediterranean ports. We were doing nothing strenuous, and had to be satisfied with the bits and pieces we did get. On the third day, some inedible stuff appeared. We were told that a barrel of salted pork had been found down below. We found that it was from Gibraltar, where it had been in the siege store since the 1880s. The mate said it had been picked up during the war, but had remained unopened. It was absolutely vile, but we ate some of it. It was sweltering hot, as anyone who has sailed down the Red Sea during summer knows. The sea was dead calm, except for the slight breeze made by the ship as it staggered along at seven or eight knots. There was no wind. We had no shelter over the hatch, until a bit of canvas was produced, with which we could make a little. Then we got a hose pipe, and took turns showering the whole bunch of us, huddled together stark naked in a corner of the deck. We wore nothing but a jock strap or underpants, and we got burnt almost black.
But worse was to come when we approached the bottom end of the Red Sea. The heat had begun to cause trouble among the engine room and stokehold people. So many of them fell sick that the dear squadron leader came to us and said we must take turns helping out. We did not want to be marooned in this hell, so we said we would try. Those days helping out in the stokehold and engine room of that ramp were a nightmare. We tried to do two hour turns, but found that even that was almost impossible. We would do about fifteen minutes struggling to get the hot ashes out, splashing water over each other as we did so, and get the fresh coal along into the furnaces. Everything one touched was burning hot; the shovels, the rakes, the buckets which hauled the ashes up to the deck, and even the iron stairs and hand rails. After a short spell of this, one would get up the stairs as quickly as possible, out onto the deck to hang over the side to cool off as much as possible, before getting down for another spell. Except for a pair of boots, which had to be worn because the iron deck in the stokehold was burning hot, we worked stark naked. But I had joined the R.A.F. to see the world, and, by jingo, I was seeing it. By doing this work, we had to be helped out with as much of the crew's food as could be wangled, but an extra thirty mouths to feed on a small boat took some wangling.
The weather cooled a little as we got into the Indian Ocean, for which we were very grateful. To while away the spare time, four of us started a bridge school. We often played all day, and even half the night. We ran quizzes, and argued about the various star constellations which gazed down upon us out of the cloudless heavens. And the days passed. It took nearly three weeks for the Horncap to lumber along to Basrah, but at last we dropped anchor as the mouth of the Shatt-El-Erab to await the pilot. We suddenly saw two huge fish leap out of the water in a frolic. They were too big for porpoises, and one of the crew said they were a very large type of shark. "Shark," I said; "Get a hook." A hook was produced, baited with a chunk of the inedible pork, and thrown over the side. Within a minute, we were hanging on like grim death. Eventually, we pulled a shark about four feel long over the side. We slashed it into chunks, and the cook dished out the nicest supper we had had for a long time.
We did not move until the next morning. The Arab pilot came on board, and then began another trip very much like the Irrawaddy and Hooghly. Miles and limes of dead flat country stretched for miles on either side. There was the occasional village, with young Arabs waving to us. Soon we could smell it, although we were still some way away. Yes! OIL. Abadan came into sight, with its oil tanks shining in the sunlight. Although this was only 1920, it was a foresight of what was to come. The night before, we had anchored off Kuweit and seen only a miserable little village. How different from the Kuweit of today, with its fine buildings, schools, fleets of large American cars, and all its modernity.
i was determined to go and look see some food as soon as we arrived at Basra. I was glad to see that the edge of the boat was only two or three feet above the quay. As soon as I saw I could make it, I was off. I ignored the shouts from the officers on the bridge, and ran to a bunch of people. One of them was an Englishman. "Can I get any grub anywhere?" I asked. "There's a place at the end," he said. After a bit of arguing about my Egyptian money, they brought me something civilised, which I bolted like the wild animal I was becoming. I didn't care two hoots what would happen when I got back to the boat, and was surprised when nothing did. After the nightmare we had had, I had a jolly good reply to any supposed breach discipline that might have been thrown at me.
We left the boat for the Transit Camp, run by the army. News of us must have been sent before us, because a lovely thick stew awaited us. Although I had had the meal on the quay, I still had room for this. The roads about the camp were made of empty bottles turned bottom upwards. It must have taken millions of bottles to make them. They were stacked into solid rows, a complete road's width.
The Basra transit camp was quite civilised. It was a treat to be looked after by the army after the tomfoolery of the R.A.F. that I had experienced for the past months. I am sure no army authority would have exposed any bunch of troops to the conditions we had undergone for the past three weeks. The whole episode wreaked of inefficiency and a couldn't care less attitude. Those of us who had seen other services realised what a mob we had entangled ourselves with. But we had joined the R.A.F. to see the world, so whose fault was it? By now, as I found was the case with Lawrence, I was keen to see how it would turn out, and was determined to soldier on.
First Baghdad and Iraq.
There had been a serious fire in Basra a few days before our arrival. One of the first things to do was to look see the damage.
It was bad. Streets had been burnt out, and were still smouldering. We started clambering about the ruins, and came upon what must have been a beer merchant. Under the wreckage were cases of bottles of beer, absolutely untouched. This seemed a mystery. We reported it back in camp, and then found that the whole area was out of bounds until things could be sorted out.
There was no railway to Baghdad then. It was completed during my stay. The way to Baghdad was by river boat to Kut al Amara, and thence by train. The boats were huge paddle boats, very much like the Mississippi stern wheelers, except that they had side paddles. There was plenty of room, and we kitted down on the covered deck. Two barges were strapped to the sides outside the paddles. It was palm trees all the way. Now and then, stops were made near villages, where dates, eggs and things were brought to the boat side. The food was good, so it was not necessary to buy any. We had no news that one was on the way, but one brilliant moonlight night on this trip I saw one of the grandest eclipses I have seen. It was almost total, and remains in my memory distinctly. Going upstream against the tide made it slow going, and the barges often hit a covered sand bank to hinder things. But after three days we were at Kut, and entrained for Baghdad. The railway was narrow gauge and very slow going. The plain wooden seats were uncomfortable.
The station was well outside the city of Baghdad to the west. This meant crossing the Tigris to get to the city. Baghdad aerodrome was between the city and the railway, so we did not have far to go. The whole aerodrome and buildings were surrounded by an enormous barbed wire fence. It had block houses at regular intervals, with Indian troops manning these. Even this did not stop Arab loose wallahs from raiding the camp. Shortly before I arrived, a large opening had been cut in the fence, sufficiently big to get a few officers and horses away.
All accommodation was tented. The tents were not the stupid little bell type we had been crowded into before, but the large Indian type square ones you could walk about in. There was only for to a tent. As well as room for a bed in each corner, there was room for a trestle table between the two supporting poles in the middle. The party I had come with was split up around the various squadrons. I found myself with No.6 Squadron, in a tent which already had three occupants. These were a mixture. One, fairly old, had been a pre-war London bus driver, and had driven busses in France. He must have been Irish because he was nicknamed 'paddy'. He was in the transport section. Another was a fitter, actually working on aircraft. He was soon to get me my first flight. The third was youngish. He said he was an operator on the wireless station. The tent was fitted with electric light, and all was comfy. The weather was perfect. It was the period between the extreme heat of May, June and July, and the rainy season of the winter when things get pretty awful.
I was given a job in a big technical store, given a bucket of paraffin, and told to wipe all the engine spare parts ranged around the shelves. It was a job like painting the Forth Bridge. When they come to the end, it is time to start at the beginning again. It was obvious that I had a job to last me the duration of my tour in Messpot. After about three days of this, the Flight Sergeant came to me and said 'they' had been talking about me, and considered that I was a bit above doing this work. Would I let 'them' reclassify me to a storekeeper? In disgust, I shouted; "A storekeeper?" "Yes," he replied. He seemed quite surprised when I told him not to worry about me as I was quite happy and contented, and wanted for nothing else.
After a day or two, I got a trial in the squadron soccer team, and jumped to the top of the graph. The adjutant was an ex blue soccer. From then on it seemed I had nothing to worry about. Catt was a find. He asked me what the dickens I was doing as an A.C.H., to which I replied; "Just passing the time." People did seem to want me to get on in the world. Years later, when I hinted at the same sort of stuff to T. E. Lawrence, I remembered these days, and knew just how he felt. [original page 50]
Coming into the tent one evening, I heard the wireless operator moaning about his job, and I asked him what it was all about. He said they were so short handed that life was getting too tough. I asked him what they did; how many words per minute they worked at, and the rest. He said they had to do about eighteen words per minute, and generally explained the job. "Eighteen words a minute," I said; "That's pretty slow. I'd do that and read a paper at the same time. And so would Steve," I said. "He's been a telegraphist." Steve was one of the originals I had palled off with. He used to come over of an evening, and we would go to supper together. This chap went straight to his sergeant next morning, told him about me, adding; "He's a decent chap, and I think he's telling the truth." Immediately, a message came from the wireless station, instructing the squadron to tell me to report there. Similarly, Steve. We went along together, thinking this was a joke. On arrival we were met by the officer in charge. He asked for our histories. Satisfied, he said; "Will you have a Morse test?" "Not 'arf," I said, and we sat down by the sergeant, who started scribbling out Morse. I looked over to Steve, and saw that he too was able to take his time over it. We did a chuckle. When he had finished, I said; "Let's have a go, Sarge," and we changed places. I soon had him wondering what it was all about. I said; "Get it, Steve." Steve said "O.K., but what a pity you are out of practice. I could have done with it a little faster." Like everything else in the R.A.F., the communications system was a shambles. Why the devil didn't they drop some of the stupid bull, and encourage sensible people to work sensibly?
I was immediately whisked into the operating room, and told to sit down by the chap who was on watch. It was Nat Gould, I was to learn; an L.A.C. operator; a big noise. I soon got the hang of the log that I was to keep. The procedure was not unlike what I had been used to. O began to wonder what happened inside all the lamps (valves), and what all the knobs and switches did. The hum of the transmitting generator was music of a kind, and I was on top of the world. next day, I felt a little restless. When Nat took the bundle of traffic for Jerusalem off the hook, I said; "Let's have a bash, Nat," and we changed seats.
I had seen quite enough to know how far the transmitter valve rheostat wanted adjusting, and the generator switching on procedure. This was a cakewalk compared with flag wagging and heliographing from hill to hill in India. I was in my element when the officer in charge walked in and murmured to Nat; "Send him in when you can." I cleared the Jerusalem batch, and went in. He said; "You've never seen a wireless station?" in an amazed voice. "No," I said, "But it's only another form of communication, very much like what I have done." He said; "You are an aircraft hand." "Yes," I said, "But that;s all right with me. I will like this job."
I got on like a house afire, and on the fourth day I was considered good enough to rake over the watch. This started at six a.m., and my second operator was the stooge from my tent. I wondered if all the lights and things would come on O.K., and if they didn't, what I should do about it. I had little faith in the chap going in with me. But all went well, and life became very pleasant. Steve followed me by taking over another watch within a few days. WE soon found ourselves king pins of the station. We were transferred to headquarters staff, but I remained with six squadron for accomodation and rations for the time being. Entering the office a few days later, I was asked; "Seen orders, Syd?" There it was. I had been remustered to Group Two, and up to L.A.C. wireless operator. I spoke to the officer about it, saying I had not been asked. He just replied that I was doind the job, was making a very good show at it, and that was that. This was the Flying Officer named Coward who had come over to the R.A.F. from the navy, whom I became very friendly with later on. He was one of the good ones.
The way into Baghdad from the west aerodrome was via the Maud Bridge. It was a pontoon bridge thrown across the Tigris on the fall of the city to General Maud. Owing to the very strong tide, it needed very solid anchorages. Although it heaved and waved when anything heavy passed over it, it still looked very serviceable after the three and a half years it had been there.
I spent a lot of my time exploring Baghdad. There was something fascinating about it. With its tangle of narrow streets, barred windows and the permanently closed doorways which, should one be able to peep through, led to enclosed patios, which always looked cool.
A wide street had been blasted right through the centre of the city, leaving the jagged edges of houses, which looked very unsightly. It appears to have been necessary to make it possible to get the heavy military vehicles through the old city. I never tired of watching the craftsmen working in the bazaars, the amara artists chiselling out the pictures on the silverware and filling in with a black substance which was a trade secret. I have a gold soccer Iraq Championship medal, in the centre of which is a mosque with its muezzin tower and palm trees. It is done so delecately that it seems hardly possible that it was cut before putting in the black picture. This was the 1922 championship, 54 years ago now. It might have been made yesterday. I was to get more soccer medals, but none to compare with this one.
At this time, Baghdad had thge reputation for being the place for Persian carpets. One day, I strolled into the biggest dealer's store, and started to look at those on show. I told the Arab who appeared, who understood some English, that I could not buy anything, but just wanted to look see his lovely things. There was nobody else there, so he said; "I show you," and topok me into an inner store and unrolled carpets worth thousands of rupees. He seemed to get pleasure from showing them to me, and rolling off the names of the various makes, each of which had their distinctive features.
Life became very pleasant, especially when tented accomodation was supplied right by the wireless station, with our own cookhouse and sooks so that we were self-contained. I played a lot of football. I was in the combined R.A.F. side, and also in the Baghdad area representative side, which included the pck of all the league; R.A.F., army and civilians. The Baghdad side would go to Basra to play the pick of the Pasra area for two matches in a week. Then the Basra people would come up to Baghdad to give us two more games. These matches drew thousands of Arabs, as well as thousands of R.A.F. and army. King Faisal was always there at all the big matches. The excitemend was intense. I loved to hear the swarms of R.A.F. followers screaming "Seed, Seed," (Syd) when I did something which pleased them. I was Syd to all the R.A.F. chaps, and that's where the Arabs got the 'Seed' from.
An attempt had been made to settle the Arab question. Abdullah had been proclaimed King of Transjordan and put on the throne in Amman. Faisal had been enthroned as king of Iraq. A large open covering had been set up on the outskirts of Baghdad. I went along to look see the durbar, at which the surrounding sheikhs came to offer obeisance. Faisal looked magnificent in his full Arab dress. Nobody appeared to object to my presence, and I was able to get a very good view of it all.
You could not be long in Baghdad without hearing something about Gertrude Bell, the "Uncrowned Queen of Arabia," as she became known. She had become an authority on the Middle East, and was an associate of Lawrence. She played a big role as an adviser to the early Iraqui governments, and was instrumental in setting up the archeological mjuseum in Baghdad. She died in Baghdad in 1926. Shortly afterwards, on my second trip to Baghdad, I was able to visit her grave there.
Christmas 1920 came. For the Bosing Day, a trip to Babylon was arranged. I was lucky enough to get on it. We started early, takiing picnic lunches. There were then absolutely no tourist facilities. The railway passed near the site, but there was no station. We were met by a German archaeologist who spoke English. He hoped to start excavations there. None had taken place yet. We saw things above ground which had survived time and wear, but little of the magnificence of Belshazzar's time. This is where the Tower of Babel was built. The hanging gardens were, and so forth. It would be interesting to go again, now that more work has been done there. What really happens when a city like Bebylon completely disappears? Inundation can certainly be one answer. With two big rivers and the flat country, it probably was the answer.
The woireless equipment I woked with would be real museum pieces today. The short wave in common use today had to wait a few years. All wavelengths were so many metres. The Middle East chain of stations worked on 1,200 metres. There were so few wireless stations that there was no interference such as one would experience today. Continuous wave transmission had recently been invented. This was an enormous improvement on the spark system, following Marconi's efforts. I used one of the first type sets, and all the bits and pieces were fixed onto a wooden board. The aerial tuning coil was in a large box, with tappings which were brought to plug holes at the front. Plugs were inserted to put in or take out p[arts of the coil, to tune to the wavelength required. The 250 watt valve hung in brackets. These valves were so costly that a record was kept of the time of every transmission. I wondered what every bit and piece did, as I sat in front of the thing during the first few days I was to operate it. Accumulators were used to supply filament current, and a step up motor generator for the high tension.
The receiver would send a modern 'ham' into hysterics. Agauin, all its bits and pieces were fixed onto the wall. The space occupied was enormous, compared with the small box required today. Again, the tuning inductance was in a large bos about a foot cube, over which a leaved slider moved to roughly tune to the wavelength. The tuning condensers were huge brass affairs in large glass containers about six inches across, operated by a huge external knob as big as your fist. There were two of these, becsause the primary aerial circuit was coupled to a secondary circuit via an adjustable transformer. This was fed into a single rectifying valve panel, and thence to a simple three valve amplifier. The valves were about as big as a modern electric bulb. They were the early three electrode type. The filament took six volts from accumulators, and the high tension from batteries of cells. Whe I get out the old photographs and compare with the modern little box controlled straight off the mains, I cannot but feel amazed at the changes that have taken place.
It is highly probable that I did the first bit of radio telephony in Iraq. We had heard of the experiments being carried out elsewhere, so I thought we might as well have a go. I removed the microphone from the telephone, and over the W/T told Basra to listen out for music. I fixed the mic. to the transmitter, and sang; "Somewhere a voice is calling for you....". On going back to W/T, Basra said they received it O.K., but my voice sounded so sorrowful that it made them all weep. It was some time before I did R/T seriously.
We had a three hundred feet tubular steel mast. This had been left intact by the Germans (or Turks) when they were driven out of Baghdad. We wanted to bring it into use. All that was required for this was to fix the halyard, which had come adrift. A search was made for a steelpejack type to come and do it. There was a ladder right to the top. I saw no reason why we should wait. I told a couple of the other chaps to come out at dawn to help me, and I would fix it. I made a rope belt with a hook, with which to anchor myself, and had no trouble in doing the job. In fact, I found it most exciting. I got a mild ticking off for supposedly risking my neck, but really, to anyone not affected by height, it was a simple affair.
February 1921 came along, just over a year since I had been demobbed from the army and and wandered quite a bit. But more was to come. One afternoon, while I was on watch, the Flight Sergeant from headquarters appeared to interview the operators to select one for a special job. He came and sat by me. When I could get free, he asked me to come and have a chat with him. He told me he was going to fly out into the desert with a complete wireless station, and that I was going with him. I remonstrated with him, saying I had no experience of anything like this, and that I wouldn't be of much use to him. But he seemed to have made up his mind, and we began to get organised. It meant taking seventy foot masts, an engine with generator, a small tent, and the dozen and one other necessary items. We were to be an advanced point to assist in an aerial survey of the Western Arabian desert. Also, Churchill was flying out to see King Faisal, and it was thought that an advanced aommunications point was necessary.
After much weighing and sorting out, it was found that we, and all the equipment, could be carried by four D.H.9s. I had to dismantle the engine from its base plate, and disconnect the generator and switchboard, so that heavy items could be distributed around the aircraft. We found it possible to strap the eleven foot mast sections below the bottom of the planes.
A spot had been selected west of a pooint on the Euphrates, between Ramadi and Hit. At last all was ready, and we loaded the aircraft for an early morning take-off next day. We woke to a lovely spring-like day. As I walked down to the aerodrome with F/Sgt. Dobson, I worried about ahta the day held in store for us, and whether this amazing adventure would be a success, as everyone hoped it would be. We were taking enough food to last us about four days. The arrangement was that we would be replenished by air after that. My aircraft was so loaded that I could not get right into the cockpit, but had to sit perched up on top of the equipment. This meant getting the full blast of the slip stream. Dobby was in the same boat, and we made the best of it.
The way to start the eninge in those days was for three men to join hands, while one took the bottom of the propellor. Shouting "Contact!" the pilot would switch on. The three chaps would heave the prop round. If you were lucky, off it would go. As we taxcied out, I gave the thumbs up sign to Dobby. Soon we weere roaring away in fairly close formation. We flew over the desert between the Toigris and the Euphrates, flying under a cloudless sky. We crossed the Euphrates at Falluja, and proceeded to our spot in the desert.
On arrival, one of the pilots threw over a smoke candle to give wind direction. These were nothing like candles. They were containers the size of milk tins. An igniting device was set off by rubbing a knob in the top with a rough piece of material attached. They gave off a lot of smoke lasting for a few minutes. We were soon all down, unloading our equipment. When this was finished, we assisted in starting up the aircraft. They left immediately, leaving us two on our lonesome.
We did not hang about. There was much to be done. We tackled the masts first, as we wanted to establish communication as soon as possible. Getting up seventy foot masts is not as difficult as one would imagine. The sections all slot in. There are three sets of guys at equal heights. One lays out the mast, complete with guys, on the ground. The bottom of the mast fits into a boot which slots on to a peg driven into the ground. Hinged to this boot is another, into which goes the derrick. The holding pegs are driven into the ground about thirty feet from the base of the mast. The derrick consists of two mast sections, to the top of which one set of guys are attached, and the pulley block for lifting. The derrick is lifted upright, and a second pulley block and lifting rope attached to the guy peg. Then, by heaving the derrick down, the mast is pulled up. As there were only two of us, it meant continually stopping lifting, and dashing round to adjust the stay wires. At last we had the two masts up and solid.
My next job was to assemble the engine. The small tent was only big enough for the transmitter, which had to be under cover, so the engine had to stay outside. I had lettered all the wires and connections, and made copious notes on how everything joined up. I was wildly elated when, pulling the starter cord, it burst into life. This was my first bit of motor mechanics which had worked. I found later that Dobby knew as much about it as I did.
We worked like niggers all through the day. At about half six in the evening we called Baghdad. Everybody, including the A.O.C., was there to get our first call. They seemed as excited as we were. The A.O.C. sent us a "Well done" message, and everybody seemed happy.
It was now late evening. We were both exhausted. Having made arrangements with Baghdad as to what time we would call them tomorrow, I got the primus going, made a cup of tea, and we had a well earned meal. Then we rolled into our blankets and slept like logs until well after dawn. The weather was perfect, but cold enough to necessitate serge clothing. We spent another busy day getting things shipshape in our little camp. I felt a wonderful sense of elation, and utter peace at being so far away from everything one takes for granted. Dobby was an ideal partner. We got on wonderfully together. He was much older than I, but it made no difference. He appeared to be able to withstand the tough side of this sort of life, as I was. To me, it was a cakewalk compared with what I had had to put up with in India not so long back. I do know what Gertrude Bell was trying to express to her father in a letter she wrote after her first trip into this desert. Again, I became deeply aware of the cosmos, as the stars and moon at night, and the sun by day, steered their ways through the heavens. Again and again, I wondered what it all meant. I never discussed these things with Dobby. In all things, he seemed very 'earthy'.
The Churchill trip was cancelled, so we did not have to wqorry about that. The reconnaissance flights were infrequent. They did not last but a few hours, so we were able to take life very easy. On the fourth day, Sunday, we expected a plane to come with stocks to replenish our larder. In the afternoon, I asked Baghdad what had happened. I was told that the aircraft had crashed into some very high telegraph wires which crossed the Tigris near the aerodrome. Fortunately, the pilot was not killed, but our grub had gone for a burton. Another plane would come tomorrow. But that night the rains came. Anyone who knew Iraq in those days knows what this means. Nothing is able to move. The only way to get about is by slithering about on foot. Cars cannot move on the unmettled roads. An aeroplane is bogged down, unable to move. We did not have to be told to conserve what little food we had, and we put ourselves on very strict rationing. I had a small bag of flour left, but very little else. In a couple of days, I was making two small plain sugarless pancakes twice a day. There was a panic in Baghdad. The two starving chaps in the desert became big news. Yet it was all very funny, and we continued on with the job. One night, as we got into our blankets, Dobby turned over and said; "You know, Syd, there's many a man in Vine Street tonight who wold give five thousand pounds for my appetite." I shall never forget that little bit of poetry. The weather did not let up, and means were hot as to how to get to us. A corporal of the aircraft depot went to his C.O. and said he could get through to us with a tender. He selected a tough aircraftsman to accompany him. He used planks, wire and sacking to get beyond the mud, and reached us in less than a week. This was a wonderful ewffort, but half the sack of rolls and cakes were quite inedible after so long. I cannot imagine why they were put in. But the large tins of oeat, biscuits, sugar and what have you were very welcome, and we had a great spread. After their effort, the two chaps rested with us for a few days before returning to Baghdad.
If there was no flying on, we would close down for the day, and roam the desert. One loovely morning, Dubby said, "We'll go for a long walk today." "Where to?" I said. Ho pointed to a low rising in the distance, and said; "Over there." So we filled our water bottles, took some biscuits and cheese, and started off 'over there'. It was absolutely marvellous. I felt as though I could have gone on for ever. Climbing up the side of what had become quite a hill, we found it to be impregnated with mica. Getting to the top and looking ahead, we looked upon a yellowish desert, and wondered whatever it could be. So we wandered on. The desert began to crunch under our feet, and it suddenly struck me that it was sulphurated. On up another slope and looking ahead, we saw what appeared to be pools of water. WE hurried to see what we had found. They were certainly pools of beautifully clear water. It gugled up from holes in the bottom of the pool, with an occasional black substance which floated to the top and out by the runaway. I felt the water, and found it to be beautifully warm. I said "I'm going in for a bath," anbd stripped off and got in. It was the first wash I had had since leaving Baghdad, and I was so enjoying myself that Dobby was soon in with me. It was fantastic to think that here were two nuts having a warm bath well out in the Arabian desert with nothing to worry about. Back at Baghdad and talking about it, we were to learn that we had found some of the finest sulphur springs going. The bitumen spurting from them became a commercial proposition. We got out and dressed, and began to go on, when I began to feel as though I was being pricked all over. I noticed that Dobby was twitching too, and he said he was being pricked all over. I said it must be the water, so we should get straight back to camp. We hurried as much as possible, and to our great relief it eased off. A long time before we were 'home' we felt all right. How can one describe times like this? I had had the feeling before, when I climbeds to a height in the Himalayas and sat alone looking around me. What did it all mean?
We were to give up our isolated spot. A troop of Indian cavalry had set up camp near the river. It was thought that we could carry on there, so we moved to the camp and put up our masts and set up our equipment in a large Indian pattern tent. it was an aristocratic regiment called Harrianas Lancers, or some such name, and the officers seemed glad to have us join them. They tried hard to get me on to a horse and teach me polo and peg sticking, but I would have none of that. I had never taken to the four legged mount, and always made excuses. But I admired their riding in these events, especially the tent pegging. At full tilt, they charged down upon a peg, and picked it out of the ground with a lance as clean as a whistle. I don't think I should ever be able to control a horse and lance up to their standard.
Hit was within walking distance if one took the time. I itched to see the place. It had a bad reputation, since it had played a leading role in the uprising of the year before. It was considered a dangerous place to visit, but regardless of that, I hinted to Dobby that I would like to do it on a free day. He was not too keen, but in the end agreed to come with me. So taking some grub, we set off. We certainly got some pretty dark looks, but, salaaming all we passed near, we walked the length of the main street, which wasn't very far. We turned and looked into one of the open fronted shops, which are usual in Iraq, and asked how much some oragnes were. The Arab didn't seem to want to have anything to do with us, until laughingly I said something about Allah being good, and what a good chap he was. We got our oranges, and a few other things, and left the best of friends.
1921 was flipping away. The warm weather was drawing to a close, and we discarded our serge for drill clothing.
I experienced a curious kind of fishing here with Mills bombs. Throwing one into the water, the explosion stunned fish within quite a distance. They floated to the surface to be picked out. Thet went by the name of Tigris Salmon, were terribly bony, and to me, not very likeable. I did not take to them.
The Lancers moved on, as we did, to a site just outside Ramadi. The Indians returned to India, and we returned to civilisation again, even if it was only an Arab one. This was the third time we had pulled up our masts. By now, we knew all about it. Dobby thought he had had enough, and suggested to headquarters that I was quote capable of running the station with another operator, to allow him to return to Baghdad. This was agreed, and an aeroplane appeared with Sid Baker as a replacement, and my very close arssociation with Flight Sergeant Dobson was over. But what a wonderful experience it had been. In the long time we had been alone together, never once did we argue or fall out about anything. When we were hungry, things could have been so different if one of us had turned awkward, but there was never a semblance of this. I think my experiences in the army helped me, as did some of the times Dobby had had in the mavy. Neither of us were products of this new shambles we had volunteered to see the world in.
Life at Ramadi continued on a smooth path. There was a proper market, into which we walked every morning to buy all we needed to eat. The dealers soon got to know me, and what things I wanted. Everything was amazingly cheap, according to our standards; half a dozen eggs for an old penny, a kilo of tomatoes for half that. I used to buy all the stuff for the day for about sixpence, and this included meat. I bought sugar in the bazaar, where it was sold in solid cones. I have never seen sugar in this state before or ssince. The cone qeighed about a pound. Looking round the sheelves of one dirty llittle place one day, I picked up a tin. I was absolutely amazed to find it to be a tin of peas from the small tinned peas factory at Sandwich, my home town. The Arab had no idea where he had got it from. I can only think that it came from some army supply source. They were very, very nice, and I wished there had been more of them. I was quietly going Arab, and liked to sit among them in their tea drinking dens, sipping the over-sweetened tea from the small glasses they used. As I did not smoke, I did not share with them the ever present hookah. I could never pluck up enough courage to try it. To hear them coughing and apitting over it was enough. The whole idea of this exercise was to prepare for the desert survey proper, which was to take place in the summer.
As soon as the war was over, thoughts turned on an air route to India. The long stretch between Jordan and Iraq was quite a hop for aircraft of the day. A scheme was afoot to make a string of landing sites across it, and meant carrying out a survey of this little known desert. There was a secondary survey party by the Engineers under a Major Holt, to establish whether a railway was feasible. The two parties were separate endeavours, but had a lot in common. Major Holt had already done much preliminary work on the Iraqui border. He also had an R.A.F. wireless operator, a sergeant from the Baghdad station who had been in the army. I got to find out what was going on when the party of Model T Fords went through Ramadi. All this never bore fruit; the railway never materialised. I wonder how Major Holt and his dog Peter, who accompanied him in all his desert rambles, made out.
July came. An aircraft arrived with a corporal from Baghdad to take over from me, and to fly me back to Baghdad. I had received instructions about this, but was amazed to learn, on arriving back in Baghdad, that I was to join the desert survey party as the wireless operator. I went to town over this. I asked whether I had not already done enough, and earned a rest. I suggested that another operator ought to go. I had been away since February. I had done a lot of roughing it. But it was no use. "We must have someone reliable. It's a very important job. Only you can do it." and like rubbish was thrown at me. I made the retort; "Jolly fine being the only reliable wireless operator in the R.A.F. It's time they began to get some reliable people to do things properly."
I had only a few days to get the equipment ready. There was to be no engine. A stupid generator driven by hand was to supply the high tension to the transmitter, which was the small T57 used in aircraft. WAs I expected to get signals over hundreds of miles with this lot? "Yes," I got, "You must do your best." I replied that I hoped nothing serious would happen.
July fourth arrived. How I remember that date. For me, the date we started on was to be anything but a picnic. This would have taught Gertrude Bell just what the desert can be like.
The convoy consisted of three Rolls Royces and five special high chassis Crossleys fitted with secondary radiators in the back to conserve water, which might become a problem. Some crank had thought that it would be a good idea to get all forms of R.A.F. transport across, so a five ton Leyland lorry and a P.&M. motor cycle were included. The motor cycle, ridden by Flying Officer S. D. Culley, who had won the D.S.O. for bringing down a zep. during the war, actually completed the crossing to Cairo. The lorry, like the Crossleys, had had an extension radiator fitted in the back. Otherwise it was the standard hard tyred vehicle of the period. It was into this that I loaded all my equipment, and in which I was expected to travel. It was too much to have seventy foot masts on this, so I had to make do with easily erectable thirty foot masts. With the gear I had, everybody realised what a difficult job I would have in getting communication of any sort at some hundreds of miles range.
The reason for taking off during the heat of the summer was to ensure hard, or rather dry, going. We were to see by some of the ground we traversed that it would have been impossible during the wet season.
There were seven R.A.F. officers and fifteen other ranks, under Squadron Leader Welsh. All were from Egypt except for me. So it was left to me to carry the can for Iraq Command.
He had gone to another aquadron. He used to come over of an eveni
typed by Ivor Catt, sept 97 My father's autobiography from his birth up to the time of T.E.L.'s death is now all typed up into the computer. It will help P.M. to determine the level of significance for the TEL story of a career which has parallels. (Ivor is too close, so his judgement is valueless.)
Ivor Catt 5.9.97