THE FADING MARGIN: serial 4Posted: December 7, 2012
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.*
That my contemporaries and I would volunteer to go direct from school into the fighting services was as inevitable as June following May. Equally unsurprising for the majority of boys from a place with an ethos such as that of the ISC was the choice of the Army rather than the Navy or the RAF. Not only that, the War Office offered selected boys from certain public schools two opportunities for fast-track progress to an officer’s commission: first, direct entry to officer cadet training for the Brigade of Guards; second, places on what were called university short courses. A commission in the Guards could be gained in less than a year. Guards officers (to be at school in the Royal Borough of Windsor was to be especially aware of them) wore outstandingly smart uniforms and commanded much respect. My father, however, who knew how little time was needed after his commissioning parade for a wartime subaltern in the Brigade of Guards to be reported as killed or missing in action, decisively advised against the long greatcoat and distinctively peaked hat.
1942 was a year that saw the appointment of Air Vice Marshall Arthur Harris as head of RAF Bomber Command. Already, the Command had suffered heavy losses of aircraft and men in exchange for trivial damage to the enemy. Now, the average life of a member of a bomber crew began to be measured in months, if not weeks. Cynics said that the War Office’s purpose in the short university courses consisted less in providing an army elite than in saving future junior leaders from the Harris system of slaughter. However that might be, for my mother, who must have shared my father’s misgivings about the Brigade of Guards, and to whom it was also obvious that the boy who had won prizes for his English essays was marked for Oxford and a fellowship at All Souls, six months in the lecture rooms of a university meant six less dangerous ones on active service.
But there was still another choice to be made. The University Short Courses were for field gunners, anti-tank gunners or signallers, taking place at Glasgow, Durham or Edinburgh respectively. I knew nothing of any of these universities, except that John Buchan had begun his higher education at Glasgow; a persuasive recommendation. I had no conception of what it meant to be a signals officer, anti-tank was explicit but devoid of any attraction. Field artillery, on the other hand, evoked a long and colourful history illustrated by countless paintings in which teams of frantic steeds with nostrils grotesquely flared in excitement or terror, ridden by heroic and handsomely-uniformed riders, dragged wildly lurching cannon and their ammunition tenders into maelstroms of shot and shell. Then again, one of my favourite childhood books had been Field Gunner on the Western Front, an account of a junior officer’s experiences in the Royal Artillery during the war of 1914-1918. Still fresh in recollection were the thrilling sight and sounds of precisely the same sort of artillery as described in the book passing through the village on manoeuvres.
Most recent – indeed, current – was an influence which, wholly unrecognised by me, was to shape my future. Exams successfully completed, my last sixth form term at school had given the sort of time for unpurposeful reading that was thereafter rarely to come again. I was already familiar with Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales (“The nicest child I ever knew was Charles Augustus Fortescue…”. “The Chief Defect of Henry King was chewing little bits of string…”) and could sometimes faultlessly recite his poem, Tarantella (“Do you remember an inn, Miranda? Do you remember an inn?”), but of the rest of his prolific works I was wholly ignorant until I chanced across Hills and Sea, The Cruise of the Nona and The Path To Rome. They were titles that strongly appealed to a very young man whose literary diet was preponderantly rich in such authors as Robert Louis Stevenson, James Fenimore Cooper and John Buchan. Like many another reader, I suspect, I was at first disappointed to find that the Belloc books were collections of essays intellectualising on a diversity of topics from politics to religion, only interspersed by prose narratives justifying the titles. But what narratives! What prose! From these beginnings, I found myself dipping into the author’s histories and biographies and selections from his other writings in a quest for more of the same.
Belloc loved and wrote about my own native territory of Sussex, and especially about the South Downs, which I could see from the top of a tree in the garden at home and had known since I could crawl. Born in France of a French father, who died when Hilaire was still an infant, and an English mother, he grew up as an Englishman whose home for most of his long life was a few miles from my own. In spite of all later awareness of his less than admirable attributes, he became and was to remain one of my heroes. Almost twenty years later, when I myself began to earn a living as an essayist of sorts, I was to realise that I was deeply in his debt.
What was germane to my decision of the moment was that Belloc had soldiered in the French artillery. It was the clincher. I duly applied for the appropriate short university course, was accepted, and on 10th November, 1941, a few weeks before the end of my final term at the ISC, passed a cursory medical examination and took the King’s Shilling at the Army recruiting office in Reading, a momentous occasion for which I have a Certified Copy of Attestation, signed by a Major J. W. Tomkins, but no detailed recall. The Major said that I would be called to the colours “sometime soon”.
There are few reliable aids to autobiography concerning this brief transition from schoolboy to soldier cadet: no diaries, photographs, letters or mementoes to shed light on the period. Of the several faculties of memory the olfactory is said to be the most powerful, and it is with the aid only of the odours of new woollen suiting material, cheap catering and the London tube that I am able to recall the time between autumn of 1941 and March 1942. As a stopgap I had somehow or other found a job in the Oxford Street premises of a firm of wholesale clothing manufacturers. Part of my duties was to fetch out bales of cloth for the sales staff to show to prospective buyers. One of my rewards consisted of luncheon vouchers valid for Lyons Corner House at Marble Arch. I lodged south of the Thames with a benevolent elder brother in the Metropolitan Police and his wife and travelled to and from work on the Northern Line.
How much I earned and in what manner I spent my spare time I have no idea. Nor are there any other souvenirs of that interlude between leaving Windsor and finding myself at Marske-by-Sea, Yorkshire, in the early spring of the following year. And although there must have been some sort of an introduction to military drill and discipline, nothing of a week in Marske except the acquisition of boots, battle dress, and all the other usual impedimenta of an army recruit and a vague suspicion of having been to a dance hall, escorted a girl to a bus stop afterwards and made a clumsy attempt to kiss her goodnight.
There must have been home leave between the end of Marske and the start of Glasgow; leave which may have included the briefest of reunions in Sussex with one or two members of my family other than my Father and Mother; but the probability is small. One of my five brothers was ferrying bombers from the USA to Britain. Another was with the 8th Army in North Africa. A third was a wireless officer on tankers, routinely facing the enemy U-boat menace, and was twice sunk. Yet another was serving in RAF Coastal Command. Possibly, I would at least have had drinks with the one who had been unable to obtain his release from the Metropolitan Police, and who had so far come largely unscathed through the London Blitz. Perhaps my only sister was on holiday from her boarding school. More than likely, however, time went mostly in reading, sleeping, and going for walks in the hope of encountering the 17-year-old daughter of an opera singer who had sought a country refuge from the London bombing. Dark-haired, and in my easily dazzled eyes glamorous, she took a black Labrador for strolls in the afternoons and had no competition for the role of village beauty. Effortlessly (and unconcernedly) she displaced any lingering boyhood interest I might have retained for building huts in the woods. In April, the six months in Glasgow began.
At home, I probably never said much about the curriculum, which consisted of higher mathematics, the chemistry of fuels and explosives, survey, and the theory and practice of the internal combustion engine; but if anyone had ever thought that a War Office short course at the fourth oldest university in the English-speaking world might provide the beginnings of an education in the humanities, they were doomed to disappointment. What work we did, how we were examined, what levels of academic achievement we were required to attain, and whether any of us failed to reach them, I cannot say. In that regard my sole and unreliable recollection is of manipulating a theodolite (surveying) in the university grounds overlooking Kelvingrove Park, where daffodils were in bloom, and having my notes blown away in the April breeze. As to where and how we lived, nothing. As to what we did when not at work, almost nothing. There was (and still is) an institution properly called the Glasgow College of Domestic Science, but affectionately known as “The Do (as in dough) School”, which in statu pupillari housed young women of about our own age. One of them was called Jeanie. A popular song of the time was Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair and on the very rare occasions that I hear it now I am reminded that there were trips to Loch Lomond which began with a penny tram ride to Milngavie and led to waterside picnics when hands were certainly held and possibly kisses were shyly stolen.
But no sprig of heather. No snapshot. Not so much as a misty image in the memory. Whatever impression Jeanie may have made was to be comprehensively effaced by an encounter of seismic significance. A popular musical destined for London was opening in Glasgow. In an overcrowded and highly competitive calling, the four principal dancers, like so many would-be Alicia Markovas or Margot Fonteyns, had, faute de mieux, graduated to the company from Vic-Wells. All of them were attractive enough to turn even strong men a little weak at the knees. One of them so captivated the painfully callow cadet that years after Glasgow and Loch Lomond had faded to near unreality, the agony and the ecstasy of his first love affair were still to have the frightening power of annihilating time and reason. Untypically, the archives can bear cogent witness. Photographs that can still quicken the heart rate. Bundles of letters that dare not be read again. No lipstick traces, but a cigarette case (is it believable that such a thing was once de rigueur for the well-bred smoker?) and a lighter bearing the recipient’s engraved initials that were birthday presents. No airline tickets to romantic places, but dinner menus (one from the Dorchester Hotel on which the set meal is priced at £5), theatre programmes (Blithe Spirit at the St. James’s Theatre, Brighton Rock at the Garrick…) and a toy lamb made of pipe cleaners, grubby and misshapen, that later became a much-travelled talisman without which its owner would have felt perilously vulnerable.
At the end of Glasgow came a night train south, the corridors crammed with men in uniform, the steamed-up carriage windows blacked out, the stations blue-lit, the unscheduled halts frequent and unexplained. Summer had gone. In the Pacific, American naval and air forces had won the battle of the Coral Sea, and – pivotally in the war as a whole – the battle of Midway. In Prague, the supremely evil SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich had been assassinated and the village of Lidice, its inhabitants murdered or otherwise terminally disposed of, erased in retaliation. In the Arctic Ocean, British convoy PQ 17, incompetently in conception and disastrously in consequence ordered to disperse by First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound, had lost 25 ships out of 36. And in the English Channel the Dieppe Raid, for which the egregiously ambitious Lord Louis Mountbatten, with matching incompetence, bore a heavy share of the responsibility, had ended in catastrophe.
Now, wearing white bands round their ridiculous ‘fore and aft’ forage caps as a sign of their transitionary status, the Glasgow cadets were at what was called “pre-OCTU” (OCTU = officer cadet training unit) in a muddy, Nissen-hutted woodland camp near Wrotham, overlooking the weald of Kent. Here, we learned how to ride motorbikes and drive lorries. Here we were required to move everywhere “at the double” and went on cross-country runs, forced marches, and night trials in map reading. Not the least purpose of pre-OCTU, it was said, was the weeding out of insufficiently officer-like material. Hence, on the assault courses and battle training exercises a cadet was especially well advised to exert himself to the utmost. In a sham ceremony I was presented with a toggle rope (a device for scaling walls and other barriers) as a reward for outstanding prowess in street fighting; but the exercise had been blanketed in acrid smoke, under cover of which I had cheated by skirting one of the more formidable obstacles rather than scaling it. Soon afterwards I lost the ill-gotten trophy, but lived for months with my private shame.
Among the few surviving recollections of the period are the taste of tea and cakes at a NAAFI snack bar on bitter-cold mornings in October and the sight of a sergeant major, on his way to a commission, who greeted each day by lighting a pipe before getting out of bed. It was autumn when pre-OCTU and another home leave came to an end, and while 20,000 Russian Jews were being machine-gunned into the death pits of Bronnaya Gora, and the German Afrika Korps was retreating from El Alamein, I took the train north again to Yorkshire and the place that was known to the Roman legions as Caractonium and to the British Army as the Aldershot of the North.
Catterick; reputed to be the largest army base in the world. Catterick; a name to chill the blood of generations of young men who have meticulously folded their blankets in its cheerless barrack rooms (I write of 1942), incessantly polished their boots and their brass buckles and blancoed their webbing for inspection, drilled on its parade grounds, endured its disciplines and longed for an end to its trials by physical and mental ordeal. Catterick; from which thousands departed at last with the conviction that nothing in their future military experience could be as bad as that which they had left behind on the Yorkshire moors.
After pre-OCTU, Catterick was OCTU proper, at the end of which we would either be commissioned officers or —called, but not chosen— designated ‘RTU’: “Returned to unit”. Meanwhile, fitter, a good deal more cunning in the arts of survival, tougher and rougher, we did everything that we had done at Wrotham and a lot more besides. Again, the images are sparse, but one at least is always with me. It is December. The army of General von Paulus is still investing Stalingrad and in the course of an exercise with armour on the moors the hatch of a tank has fallen on the fingers of my left hand. Had I not been wearing two pairs of gloves, the outer pair especially thick leather with sheepskin lining, I would probably have lost several of my fingers, as many a man had done before me. In the event, only the end of a middle finger was badly crushed, but I see the injured cadet as he squats inside the machine while shells explode on the hull (the object of the exercise is to demonstrate the invulnerability of the heavy tank to any but armour-piercing shot), deeply shocked, trying to control his voice so as to give orders to the driver, then weeping as shock gives way to pain.
Near the end of the course, and of winter, we are engaged in battle training on the moors of Otterburn, Northumberland. Fording a glacial stream, a member of my patrol stumbles and loses his grip on the Bren gun that he is carrying. My right hand is occupied with my own weapon. With the bandaged left hand I recover the Bren and make to go with it at least until we reach dry ground. Scrambling to his feet, the other man reaches out for it, but he is obviously near the end of his endurance and with my own laboured breath I gasp that he should let me keep it for a while (the RIGHT STUFF). He grabs at the Bren and there is a momentary (and for my injured hand agonising) tussle before I give in and continue with only my own rifle. Unknown to us, the incident has been imperfectly observed and erroneously interpreted by one of the directing staff and I am later called in front of higher authority and accused of refusing to carry the Bren when it was my turn to do so. My attempt to explain is cut short (“And don’t attempt to argue!”) with a warning that any further complaint against me will prove fatal to my chances of a commission, a threat that is the cause of acute anxiety for the ensuing week before the passing out parade. On commissioning leave at home the damaged middle finger of my left hand is clumsily operated on by the village doctor, subsequently becomes septic, and is slightly deformed to this day.
NEXT FRIDAY, 14th December. Chapter Four: Stiffening the Sinews.
It was a time when General Montgomery, building on the victory of Alamein, was intent upon the twin tasks of training the British Army to competence and self-confidence and convincing it that the Germans were not the master race. It was the time when whole formations of soldiery would be summoned to cinemas or stadiums (or to open spaces, to be ordered to “break ranks and gather round” the general while he stood on the bonnet of his jeep) and told that we were going to “hit the enemy for six” right out of the German-occupied territories of Europe. And we believed him. They were the days and nights when the intervals between field exercises were few and brief and we grew more sure of ourselves. “Monarch of all I survey!” my friend had declaimed, posing on the trig point. But his earthly reign was to be ended a few months later by a German shell………
……….As 1944 wore on,everyone knew that the Allied invasion of the Continent could not be long delayed. Night after night the pubs of the southern counties of England were thronged with the soldiery of half the world. Night and day the roads grew ever more congested with wheeled and tracked machinery of every shape and purpose, painted in green and displaying the allied white star. Anyone in an active service unit was aware that in weeks, if not days, the hitting for six must begin. For many a very young man it was a time for Rupert Brooke (“If I should die, think only this of me…”) and the lodging of last letters with his bank.