The making of Rosie

“After church parade and lunch on 22 October, we were told that the rest of the day was for ‘interior economy’. This was free time for cleaning kit and polishing boots. ‘Will we be allowed out?,’ we asked. ‘Not until you look something like soldiers,’ was the reply. It was approaching mid-afternoon when the corporal in charge of the picket asked for me by name. He said that my father was at the gate with a parcel. I went to see him. Dad asked me how I was getting along. I was very abrupt, as I did not want people to think I was a mummy’s boy. Dad asked me what the food was like. I told him it was bad but we were all in the same boat. He then said: ‘Your mother cooked this little fruit cake especially for you.’ I said: ‘I can’t take that. What will the other chaps think?’ Corporal Grandison saw my father leave dispiritedly and asked me what was wrong. I told him about the cake. ‘You sent back a home-made cake! You must be mad. You could have given it to me. Don’t for Lord’s sake tell your mates. They’ll murder you.’ When I told my group, they were not at all pleased.

We paraded the next morning for the first time as soldiers dressed in our new uniforms. On the smooth road surface outside Wimbledon and on the level concrete paths surrounding the tennis courts, we were put through our rifle drill. We marched confidently until we were given the order to about-turn. At that point, nearly all the field service caps flew into the air. At the end of each stretch of marching came the order: ‘Pick up caps.’ For many, the exercise on the parade ground and the physical education (PE) was the first they had since school. Supervised by corporals David Peel and Grandison, actors from F Company and gentlemen who treated us well, we got very fit.

At last, we were given an evening pass from 5pm until 11pm. Most could only go as far as Wimbledon but I was able to get home by tube and bus. I remember arriving to be greeted at the door by my mother. She did not know whether to laugh or cry. I was kitted out in an over-large battle dress held together by a webbing belt, which was almost hidden by the fold of the blouse, and a side cap which threatened to fall off my head. The last time she had seen me, I had been wearing a well-cut Harris tweed jacket and flannels. In the wardrobe hung two hand-made Savile Row suits. I apologised about the cake. She clearly understood that I was endeavouring to stand on my own feet and did not want to appear any different from my new mates. About this time, my family moved to 31 Arodene Road, a large house with six rooms, a kitchen, a scullery and a bathroom. It was still rented but there were four earners in the family: my father, Danny, Nellie and Tom. I was in the army and no charge on the family.Our first pay-day arrived. We were summoned in alphabetical order to the pay table. Here, we were to receive our money. The first one was called.

‘701597x rifleman Adams. Seven shillings stoppages. Seven shillings pay.’

‘What stoppages?,’ said Adams. ‘Sir,’ prompted the colour sergeant. He turned to the officer commanding (OC) Captain Gibbs. ‘Barrack damages, Sir.’

‘What barracks, Sir?’ asked Adams.

‘Quiet!’ roared the sergeant major.

‘701597x Rifleman Allinson,’ shouted the colour sergeant, completely unperturbed and turning to the next victim.

We were to be systematically robbed of seven shillings (35p) each week for the whole training period and beyond. The damages were alleged to have been caused to requisitioned buildings we occupied. In fact, the system of pay and mess rolls was so complicated that practically the whole British Army was at odds with the Army Paymaster. (The basic pay for a private was 3 shillings a day but there were more than 200 differential wage rates in the British armed forces). The damages were a way the battalion balanced its books.

Late in the second week, Sergeant Wigger announced that there would be a company concert. ‘It will be given by you.’ He moved along the ranks of his squad and said in turn: ‘Rifleman, you will sing.’ To the next he might suggest a recital or dance.

‘Rifleman O’Sullivan, you will sing and dance.’

I said: ‘I can’t dance, Sergeant.’

‘Good!,’ He said. ‘You will sing!’

The following Saturday, in front of the whole company, our officers and others, I sang the only song that I really knew. It was the Rose of Tralee, taught to me by my mother. I was assisted by a backing group who contrived to hum in harmony. I received thunderous applause. On the bill with me were some professionals from F Company including Hodge, Peel and Stock, who impersonated Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh in the film Mutiny on the Bounty. He improvised and declared: ‘An officer is an officer, a sergeant is a sergeant; a corporal is a corporal but the lowest form of animal life in the British Army is a b*****d conscript.’ This did not go down well with the men. They had been conscripted into the army, but many territorials had joined to avoid the call up, as, indeed, the actors in F and trainee teachers in H Company had done. A result of my singing came a few days later when I offended someone by my strict adherence to orders. He called me: ‘Bloody Rosie.’ The name spread throughout the battalion and then the brigade. It stuck until I was to become a civilian again almost seven years later.”