Back to the London Irish at last

“I arrived back at E Company on Boxing Day. They were in the line near Monte Grande. I took over from Colour Sergeant Rice, a former 2nd Skins. I felt sorry and inadequate as he had performed well in my three-month absence. The company commander, who had replaced Major Boyd, who had been killed at Spaduro in October, was my former platoon commander in Haverfordwest, Major Gerald FitzGerald. We were friends and he tolerated my rustiness.

The conditions were appalling. Mule point was a broken down farmhouse without any heating. Each night, I had to make my way to the company with about a dozen mules. I would climb a precipitous track to the peak where the company was. The last stretch was too much for the mules. They would just lie down. The Italian drivers and I would unload the mules and carry the loads up the slippery steep incline. We would then set about coaxing the mules to their feet and persuading them up the hill. This the Italian drivers did with kicks, curses and prayers to the Blessed Virgin which they often offered on their knees. At the top, we would reload the mules and proceed.

The terrain was a mixture of mud, snow and ice. ‘It was worse earlier as the mules drowned in mud,’ I was told when I arrived at the front. I would send the mules back and, in pitch darkness, climb down to the road. Here it was even worse. By then, heavy frosts covered the road with black ice and I often had to resort to crawling on all fours. Back at the mule point, I would throw myself on my blankets fully clothed and slept. I should never have returned. I was too weak from my illness. But I was better off than the men on the bleak mountainside.

There was little enemy activity during my nightly journeys. I believe that the Germans withdrew to the warmth of the valley and the towns, leaving patrols to do the work. Our generals were obsessed with the idea of holding ground, even the bleak mountain peaks. It was a Great World War mentality that was not successful then. The Poles had shown us how to do it at Montenero. A weak, half-frozen platoon on top of a mountain was no match for properly-equipped mountain troops on skis.

The 78th Division was described as a crack mountain division. This meant we always operated in mountains though we had never been trained in any mountaineering skills. Only a few officers could ski. Our clothing and equipment were rationed in the same proportions as those in rear areas and even the base had more winter clothing. To cap it all, we often did not issue winter clothing as we were afraid of a threat of a court of inquiry as happened the previous winter in Montenero.

After a short rest, we returned to the line once more. My conditions worsened. The daily route to the company followed the course of a mountain stream which wound along a valley. The mule track was straight and cut across the stream which was covered with thin ice. Each crossing was too wide to jump and the ice too thin to bear my weight. Twenty eight times the crossing was made in frozen water that splashed up to my midriff. Then the track turned to the right and across another stream. It culminated in a climb where, once again, off-loading and reloading was necessary. When I got back to base, I just rolled into a blanket and slept in soaking clothes.

Our final positions were much better. The sun shone and the mule track was easy. One day, I saw a party of notables in front of me. The leader focussed his camera to take my picture with my mules, obviously for his album and possible book: ‘In the Apennine Mountains’. My feet were unco-operative. As he pressed the shutter, I performed a somersault. He introduced himself to the prostrate colour sergeant. ‘I am the divisional catering adviser. I’ll send you a copy. You are doing a fine job.’ Was he referring to my ability as a tumbler?”


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