“Tuesday 17 October was my last night as a civilian. I worked late as we were so busy. The other salesmen suggested packing up and going for a drink at the local pub. I excused myself after a couple of halves of light ale which was about my capacity. I walked to the bus stop and rode home. I had a small snack and walked to the club which was very crowded. All the committee were there. They were surprised that I had not arrived earlier and could not understand why I would work so late on my last night as a civilian.
The club chairman Mr Madden called order and made a speech of thanks for my services. Miss Levey then presented me with a gold wrist watch engraved ‘Dickie, Corpus Christi Club’ with that day’s date. I was genuinely surprised. I had already handed over the accounts and funds to my cousin Frank, who was a couple of years younger. He continued running the club for about another year until he was called up into the RAF in which he served as an observer in Sunderland flying boats.
The next morning, I was up early. After a good breakfast, I dressed in a Harris tweed jacket, sports shirt with club tie and brown brogue shoes and set off to Liverpool Street station where I was to report to the officer commanding the London Irish Rifles. I carried a small attaché case with a few personal items, including my missal. I arrived well before the stated time.
Captain Gibbs, who was in charge of the reception party, was ready to receive me at his desk which was a blanket-covered table. He was very tall and correct but very pleasant, particularly as I meticulously addressed him as: ‘Sir.’ He questioned me about my background and my work. I told him I worked for Hawkes of Savile Row. ‘The regimental tailors!,’ he declared. I had never seen Gibbs’ name on any order so I assumed that he, like so many others, could not afford our high prices.
Not all the 96 recruits were as eager as I to become a soldier. It was well into the afternoon before the final stragglers turned up. Meanwhile, we were given one shilling (5p) which we spent in the railway restaurant. When it was time to move off, we were assembled into three ranks and, to our surprise, marched to the tube station. Here, we were packed into an ordinary service train. We travelled on the District Line to Southfields south of the River Thames where we assembled into four platoons before marching off. We still had no idea of our destination. I had spent almost the whole of my first day in the army travelling from south-east London to south-west London via north-east London. We made our first route march, which was about two miles, to Barker’s sports ground on Church Road, Wimbledon.
We were directed into a large hall. The first platoon of 24 men was spaced out on the far side. My platoon was given the side where we had entered. A third platoon filed down the centre and the fourth one was positioned at the far end. There were no seats, so we were told to put our cases down and squat. Each platoon was commanded by a sergeant assisted by a corporal.
The platoon sergeant introduced himself. ‘My name is Wigger and these stripes indicate that I am a sergeant. If I speak to you, you will stand to attention and say, ‘Yes, Sergeant.’ I am in charge of you and you are in my squad – Ypres squad. Do you understand?’
He gave the impression that we had been accorded a singular honour to be serving in his London Irish Rifles. He told us that Ypres was the name of a famous 1st World War battle. It was to be pronounced Eaper not Wypers. The other squads were Loos, Somme and Festubert, names of the regiment’s Great War battle honours.
A squad at a time, we were marched to a store where we were issued two blankets and a paliasse (a mattress bag that was to be filled with straw), a D-shaped mess tin, a metal bowl, two metal plates, a knife, fork and spoon, a holdall, a small bag called a housewife containing needles and cotton and a shaving brush and razor. We were shown how to pile them neatly in our three feet of space and told that we would sleep there. I looked around at my comrades. They were of all sizes and dressed in a variety of clothing, some wearing overcoats, some suits, others working-type clothes. They certainly did not look like soldiers.
We were very hungry and were pleased to be called, again a squad at a time, for our first army meal which was not memorable except for its poor quality. Hot tea was poured into the metal bowl. By the time it was cool enough to touch with our lips, the tea it contained was too cold to drink and it was not very sweet. We were then called to carry our paliasses to a stack of bales of straw where we were to pack sufficient into the linen sack to make a comfortable bed. ‘Pack plenty in,’ said Wigger. ‘There’s no second helping.’ Those who did not suffered for the next two months. A sort of canteen was open where soap, toothpaste and confectionery could be bought.
It was by then early evening. Wigger told us there was nothing more to do and we could prepare our beds. Lights out would be 10pm after which there would be absolute silence. Reveille would be at 6am. I started to get to know my neighbours. On my left was a small, dark man named Vic Blake who had worked in the sample shoe shop in Coldharbour Lane, Brixton. He told me a tale about his pregnant girl friend and I was not sorry when the chap the other side took his attention. On my right was Basil Creasey, son of an army officer.
Next to him was Pip (Charles) Ward, a Dartford printer who I liked.
My eyes caught sight of a quartet opposite me by the side of the cookhouse door. The only characteristic they shared was that they were all about six feet tall. Barney Colquhoun, a roughly-spoken and dominant person, was a transport driver. Wearing a long, black, square-shouldered overcoat and a rakish black Homburg hat was a man named Shannon. Tommy Finn was slighter, soberly-dressed and spoke with a stammer. The fourth member of the group was a well built, quietly-dressed man with perfectly-groomed almost platinum-blonde hair who you could see would be the leader. He was Eddie Mayo. The four appeared to be already acquainted. They all came from Dagenham in east London where they worked in the Ford factory. Most recruits seemed to be east Londoners.
Whether by accident or design, the squads appeared to reflect the physical and other characteristics of their sergeants. Wigger of Ypres was quiet but authoritative and meticulously dressed. He wore his caubeen absolutely correctly with the badge over his right eye. Wigger was well-spoken and knowledgeable. All his squad, like him, were on the small side with just the odd taller one standing out such as Terry O’Keefe.
Somme had Sergeant Jigger. Tall and bespectacled, Jigger was educated and very dominant. He wore his caubeen with the badge and hackle straight up and inclining to the right ear. Everyone in his platoon appeared to be tall.
Sergeant Kavanagh, red haired and quite rough, was about medium height. He wore his caubeen pulled down on his head, well tucked in at the back. Consequently the badge and hackle lay flat on top of his head. He was noisier than the other sergeants but seemed to lack confidence. His squad was Loos, named after the most famous London Irish battle honour. The final squad was Festubert. It was commanded by Sergeant Jack Allen, an actor who had been in the film The Four Feathers. I recognised him but didn’t have the courage to introduce myself. Despite his fame, he appeared to be completely anonymous. His squad appeared to share his quietness. He wore his caubeen with the hackle and badge leaning slightly forward and not pulled down. Of all the squads, his one was to be seldom heard. I cannot remember the name of a single member.
Characters immediately appeared. In Loos, a red-haired man carried a large suitcase on our route march. He was Syd Nathan who had run a business, possibly off a barrow, in the East End. After we had settled down, the portmanteau was opened to display his wares: razor blades, writing pads and envelopes, sweets and chocolates and mysterious packets of three. He was simply continuing his work as a general trader. Close to him was Cohen, a barber who would soon start to make a fortune trying to cure the regimental hair-cuts. He was quickly appointed regimental barber, a position he held until his release in 1946. At least 10 of the recruits were Jews. These men of varying characters were to enrich the regiment with their contrasting qualities.
Another character was French who spoke very little English. He had been working in a West End restaurant when he had been caught up in the draft. At inspection the next day, the officer demanded: ‘Name?’
‘Macey,’ was his reply.
Sergeant Wigger, roared: ‘Macey what?’
Nervously the lad replied: ‘Macey, George.’
He was of course expected to say: ‘Sir.’ It broke the ice. The officer roared with laughter, the sergeant smiled and Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) Reid’s permanent frown lifted slightly. We were all human beings again. After all, we were still the same men dressed in our civvies trying to recover from our first 24 hours in the army.
Notwithstanding the sergeant’s warning, lights out on the first night was delayed to 1030pm. By that time, most had prepared for their first night’s sleep on our lumpy straw beds. Despite constant shouts of ‘Silence!’, talking and laughter continued well into the night.”