My lovely old Grand-dad was all the more lovely – when after a few Guinness’ he would get nostalgic and regale us with some of the lighter moments he spent in the army. He joined the army as a boy in 1912 and was sent as a trooper in the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards to France soon after the 1st World War started. His regiment was one of the first drafts of regular soldiers sent to France. He often talked of the horses drafted along with him and his mates and how much they meant to him, but one story in particular has always stuck in my mind….
He recalled that in those days even horse troopers did their stint in the trenches and after two/three or even more months living cheek by jowl in the trenches from hell, where mortars, bombs and bullets all had his name on them, they were relieved to get some welcome ‘R & R’ back behind the British line for some relief and rest. After that amount of time he and his muckers were all filthy dirty with mud, and worse lousy with lice crawling in their hair and beards. All took extraordinary measures to try to get rid of the problem like dousing with paraffin and later running the flame from a lighted match up and down the seams of their tunics. But, the eggs were another insolvable problem where within days they hatched into full lice. Grand-dad said, “He dreamed of immersing himself in a hot tin bath of water” and like all of them, they were desperately in need of a wash, shave and a clean change of clothes.
They arrived behind the safe Allied lines late one night, tried, hungry and exhausted. They were directed to a field of dirty khaki tents and told that food, and perhaps their belongings would be sent on later if they were lucky. Grand-dad said, “All they wanted was food and sleep so once they had had a mug of tea and they had eaten the ‘bully beef’ they then settled down for a nights sleep.
His story went on, the next morning he woke to find that the tented field he was billeted in was alongside a stream and, following a recent rain storm it was running fast and quite high. Being a King’s trooper he always carried the basic equipment needed to care for ‘Jason’ his three year old gelded warrior horse, such as his brush, Naphtha soap and liniments, so having sorted out pockets and still carrying the mess tin he carried on his belt he took the mess tin and the horse soap down to the stream. Having stripped off and stepped into the cold water he sloshed himself liberally in the water. However, on using the horse soap he soon realised that horse soap, was not the luxuriating balm he believed it could have been. By the time however he had lathered his head, face chest as well as his nether regions. Within minutes the active ingredients in the soap began to work on his (un-horse like) human delicate skin. He recalled that he ran screaming round the field stark naked before jumping back into the stream, much to the amusement of his mates and the ribald comments of other companies sharing the field with them.
It took a long while for him to live down that incident, but he did write home begging his Mum / Dad for carbolic soap to be sent along with any chocolate that might be wrapped in an illustrated newspaper he might be able to share with the other comrades.
My daughter is a teacher now and history is just one of the subjects she teaches, and the curriculum she was currently covering was the 1st World War. She often comes to me for small anecdotes she can use to make her lessons more interesting, and I told her this story, but she was a little dubious about using it. However, the following week she rang to say that she had decided to tell the story and being a rural based area the kids could actually relate to the use of the soap and other liniments, sheep “foot rot” for example, and how strong it really was. The story had brought the reality to life for them.
As Armistice Day comes around each year, sadly the poppy emblem I and most people pin on our coats or jackets can never truly repay the debt we owe to those brave volunteers, those valiant men.
My dear old Grand-dad made light of his time in “The Great War” but behind his lovely old eyes were clearly scenes I dared not ask about and memories he was clearly not happy to recall. Now, in later life I wonder why, he and his fellow soldiers were expected to fight Germans who were probably as scared as them – whilst the Generals on both sides probably strutted in pompous glory all the time, whilst they and thousands of young innocents paid the price for British resolve and the Kaiser’s arrogance.