THE FADING MARGIN: serial 6Posted: December 21, 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.
Stiffening the Sinews
The holding unit – a sort of sink into which flowed surplus-to-establishment army officers of all descriptions – was a tented camp at Northiam in East Sussex, not more than twenty minutes ride on a motorbike from my home in the other half of the county. Administered by the most skeletal of staffs, it had no routines except a daily call-over, and no discipline except take-it-or-leave-it meal times. How many of us were there? No one ever knew. How did we spend our time? Three of us who had improperly not surrendered our Smith and Wesson .38 service revolvers when leaving our units hunted grey squirrels in the great oaks of the park, buying ammunition from the camp quartermaster, a congenially corrupt veteran who could also arrange for the loan of a Norton motorbike. With this advantage I more than once went to see my parents for a few hours, taking as presents butter, marmalade and cheese, of which large quantities were piled on tables in the mess tent and which the quartermaster, hearing of the purpose of the trips, also supplied. “It’s the nature of a holding unit”, he said, seeking no additional payment and easing my conscience. “People always coming and going and no knowing how many on the establishment, so always obliged to indent for emergencies. Anyway, I wouldn’t worry if I were you. When you’re eating at home you’re not eating here”.
I falsify the annals for those Northiam days – indeed, of all those late adolescent months of ‘43 and ‘44 – if, fearing an excess of self, I omit the mood of the time and my own state of mind. 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. As 1944 wore on, with the cuckoo calling and summer icumen in, 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.
With no specific duties or responsibilities to occupy me, I thought even more than usual of Nicola (let us at last give the ballet dancer a name) and whether (rapture beyond reasonable possibility) I might spend a night with her away from the protective eye of her mother. To this end I went to a well known and especially attractive hotel not far from the camp and – greatly daring; hoping that I did not strike the receptionist as being as gauche as I felt – reserved a double room for two nights of Nicola’s imminent holiday. When she agreed to come I soared into a near delirium of expectation, at frequent intervals tortured by fears of disappointment and failure to live up to my own daring. The fears were well founded. Two days before I was due to meet her off the train at Hastings I was given orders to report without delay to a unit of the Military Police in Colchester. Almost a lifetime on, the scent of lilac is the heartbreaking scent of the blossom that had decorated the foyer of the hotel when I went to make the booking: the scent of spring ‘44. Lilac and laburnum were in bloom and the grass was new green in the park at Northiam as I packed my kit and departed in the rain.
On the fourth day of June it was raining again as I stood in the cabin of a naval launch rolling nauseatingly at anchor off Harwich, a launch that was to carry me, a corporal of the Military Police, a private from the Medical Corps, and a man on a stretcher to an ambulance waiting on a quayside. D-Day ought to have been on June 5th. Two days before, hundreds of thousands of men had been briefed and started to board vessels of every sort in the harbours and anchorages of southern England; vessels that would take them to France. Some fell seriously ill. Because they knew where and when the landings would take place they were a potential security risk and had to be escorted by an officer to a hospital bed in a secure medical unit ashore.
The MP corporal and medical orderly got into the back of the ambulance with the man on the stretcher. I joined the driver. We had not been going long when there was a knocking on the rear window of the cab. We pulled over and stopped and I went back to see what was happening. “Afraid he’s gone, sir”, the medic said. Motionless on the stretcher, the soldier’s face presented a pallor and an indefinable something – or lack of something – that I had never seen before. Awed, frightened I think, I returned to the cab and told the driver to carry on to Colchester and the hospital. I had seen death for the first time.
Two days later, with the news that the Normandy landings had begun, the security job was manifestly at an end. Duty, I knew, would require me to report to my parent unit, now in Sheerness. But the regiment, I also knew, having more pressing business on its administrative mind than the whereabouts of one of its spare junior subalterns, would not be waiting up for me. Effectively, for the time being, no one who for military purpose mattered either knew or cared where I was or what I was doing. So I was free. Free to take a train to London. Free to spend a night or two in the spare room at the Kensington flat that was the home of Nicola and her mother. Before lunch I had obtained a travel warrant from the Railway Transport Officer at Colchester barracks, but no specific orders, and was on my way to Liverpool Street.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers……..
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here …*
In our age of the anti-hero, it may appear unlikely that a self-respecting young gentleman of fighting age, abed in England, might be eager to cross the Channel and might feel more than a twinge of guilt at listening to battle reports filed daily by BBC correspondents in France. Yet in that week following D-Day, lost as I was to authority, on nobody’s unit strength, eagerness and guilt vied with the bliss of walking hand in hand in the park, dancing cheek to cheek at the Wellington Club, sitting late by the fire in a euphoria which, had the young gentleman known it, never would come again. With a percipience deeper than consciousness, perhaps he did know: whatever the eagerness to be in the breach, there was a compelling reluctance voluntarily to surrender so halcyon a tenure of stolen time.
White hands cling to the tightened rein,
Slipping the spur from the booted heel,
Tenderest voices cry Turn again!
Red lips tarnish the scabbarded steel. * *
MARCH TO THE GUNS
Then one morning I telephoned Major C at Hobart House, told him how I had come to be in London and asked him what he thought I ought to do next. “If you want to march to the sound of the guns, get back to your original unit as soon as you can”, he said. It was to be years before I came across the expression about marching to the sound of the guns again in a book about the Battle of Waterloo, but the Major’s double meaning (as he knew, I belonged to a regiment of artillery) was clear. Though in the past twelve months I had spent almost as much time away from the regiment as with it, I still had a sense of loyalty: it was part of the 53rd Welsh division; my mother’s maiden name was Griffiths; all of its senior officers had been territorials with strong Welsh connections. That I had been posted to it in the first place had likely as not been a coincidence, but one that I liked to think of as significant. Telephoning regimental headquarters at Sheerness, in Kent, I was astonished and pleased to be spoken to, if not exactly as though I were the Prodigal Son, at least as if I were someone the adjutant was glad to hear from. “We move tomorrow”, he concluded. “Catch the first train”.
We moved by night. In spells, I was required to patrol the convoy on a Norton, attending to march discipline; which is to say the maintaining of proper intervals between vehicles and the proscription of all except ‘differential’ lights (the ones illuminating rear axles and thus visible to the following vehicle, but not from the air). When relieved on patrol, exhausted, I slept in the back of a 3-ton lorry. Dawn saw us entering the London docks and a tented encampment enclosed in Dannert wire, under which, in peril of court martial, I and my battery commander (B.C. for short), Major G, crawled that night with a more or less common motivation; his few stolen hours to be spent (he said) with his wife at the Savoy; mine, more chastely than I could possibly have wanted, and anyone not born a decade or two before the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial would be likely to understand, at the flat I had left not 72 hours ago. By first light the two gravely delinquent officers were back behind the wire. A few hours later we embarked for Normandy.
* St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, William Shakespeare
* * The Winners, Rudyard Kipling
NEXT FRIDAY, 28th December. Chapter Five : A Taste of Calvados.
We sailed on a ship, not a landing barge. There are no group photographs, no snapshots, no tangible souvenirs of a voyage of which I recall the boredom of torpedo watches as we went down Channel, the discovery that a hammock was not at all a bad thing to sleep in, and the evening when some of us were philosophising on deck and one of our number said that he thought a man went on living after death so long as he was lovingly remembered. I didn’t know about lovingly, I said, but I’d remember him all right, since a few weeks earlier he’d borrowed my uninsured bicycle without my permission, and lost it; but I’d do my best. He was killed five months later, by which time the hereafter had ceased to be a subject for levity and I wished I hadn’t made the joke about the bike.
At Port-en-Bessin, near Arromanches on the Normandy coast, we transferred by crane and scrambling net from the ship to smaller craft and made our unopposed landing in France.