Training at Wimbledon

“My greatest joy was the pipes and drums band. The bagpipes were under the command of Pipe Major Archibald (Archie) Evans. He had a Welsh surname, a Scottish Christian name and spoke with an accent that he thought was Scottish. He had been the pipe major of a battalion of the RUR but he was born of English parents. He looked extremely fierce in his green doublet worn above a saffron kilt and green socks with the whole covered by his green cloak. His headdress was a green caubeen with a St Patrick’s blue hackle above the London Irish badge, in my opinion, the most beautiful in the British Army. The bugle major commanded the drummers, who were also buglers when required. He wore a highly polished (or patent leather) cross belt that bore the regimental battle honours and a whistle in silver. The bugle major carried a silver-headed walking stick which acted as a mace. We were not to see the dress uniform of the band again until after the war. I loved pipe music, particularly Irish war pipes.

Our quarters were only adequate for sleeping and eating. Our training, for the main part, was in the All England Club. I can truthfully say that I learned to fire and aim a rifle on the centre court at Wimbledon. We learned to use a bayonet. In rifle regiments, there is no drill for fixing bayonets. That is probably because the rifleman was a soldier trained to act alone, originally in the American colonies, so they seldom fought as a regiment. I was given the task, with a couple of others, to set up the dummies for bayonet practice under the direction of 2nd Lieutenant Savage, a charming man who treated us with much more respect than the NCOs. I hated the thought of using a bayonet on a fellow human being and I thank God that I never had to. Training in Wimbledon lasted eight weeks. Around the middle of December, we were posted to our companies. Before this happened, the champion recruit was selected. It was no surprise to anyone that Eddie Mayo was unanimously chosen.

Ward, Creasy and O’Keefe were all posted with me to G Company, which was commanded by Captain Gibbs, and placed in 15 Platoon. We were stationed in an old house, which had been requisitioned. Our beds were the floors. There was no hot water. Our task was to guard, together with 13 and 14 platoons, the records’ office and the maintenance unit of the RAF. These two very large establishments were across the road from our billet and separated from each other by the district railway. We mounted guard every other day on the maintenance unit.

We saw how the other half lived. The majority were clerks and mechanics, yet few were apparently below the rank of leading aircraftsman and NCOs abounded. They lived in spacious quarters with beds, sprung mattresses, sheets and pillowcases and individual lockers. Our comforts were confined to two blankets and a palliase. Most of us were still without greatcoats. I was paid a measly allowance for wearing my grey, Melton double-breasted overcoat, over which I buckled my webbing. It was completely ruined and I dumped it when a greatcoat was finally issued. The greatest difference was in the well-appointed mess hall. We ate at the records’ office mess. Food was served immediately we arrived. Tea was unlimited. There were four meals daily including supper. When on guard, a supper meal we paid for was to us Cordon Bleu. Barrack damages continued at seven shillings a week. I concluded that the army was the poor relation when provision for the armed forces was made.

On my very first guard duty at the maintenance unit, Sergeant Daddy Nicholls was guard commander. After inspecting us, he said: ‘Any person with a watch?’

Innocently, I said: ‘I have, Sergeant.’

He replied: ‘Let me borrow it for this guard.’

I took off my gold presentation watch and handed it to him. Strapping it on his wrist, he remarked: ‘Nice little watch.’ At the end of our 24-hour duty, I expected it to be returned, but he retained it for over a week. In the end, I summoned up enough courage to ask for it back, at which point he took it off and handed it back to me, but with no word of thanks. I had a 48 hour pass that weekend, so I left my watch at home, where it remained for a year or more. The corporals and sergeants were, generally, not very pleasant. They often took advantage of the genuine fear that the young soldiers had of them. Soon, they would be replaced or transferred.

Guard duty was unpleasant but being on patrolling picket was much worse. One was alone, whereas sentries were in pairs. Armed with a pick-handle, the picket patrolled the perimeter of the unit and in a two-hour duty would only have time for a couple of circuits. When a blizzard came, I patrolled in deep snow which drifted in places to a depth of about two feet or more. We had only our civilian overcoats. As a result of our privations on guard and in the sub-standard billets, we were vulnerable to influenza. As with many other soldiers, I was taken into the station hospital where I was kept for about three days. At the end of this, the billet was so overcrowded that I was sent home on sick leave of 72 hours.

An amusing incident occurred while I was on guard. I was the mobile picket and, at about 3am, I discovered a couple of bent railings at the side of the railway which formed a gap large enough for a man to get through. I immediately blew my whistle. A fighting picket of about six men led by Corporal Gerry Teague ran to me. He asked breathlessly what the trouble was. I pointed to the fence. He laughed and suggested it must have been like it for years. The whole company had stood to. The incident was not referred to, but I think that G Company Commander Captain Gibbs was pleased at the reaction to the alarm and my powers of observation.”