His Story, His Words Part Four

Army Life

When I was at Fenham Barracks I got on with the rest of the lads very well, we all knew one and other and all helped one and  other, comradeship very early in service life, that's what it was all about.  If any of the lads were in trouble we would all help to try and put it right.

At the time we did not think much of the NCO's and instructors, they were very strict but that was there job, discipline.  I saw one lad once from the Northumberland Fusiliers, he was chasing his sergeant with a rifle bayonet, so we all stopped and watched, something had happened.

When you were learning to drill, we all had to be in step when we stood at ease or stood at attention.  A funny thing happened to me, I had only been in the barracks for about three days, this was before I went to Catterick Hospital, I saw this officer walking across the square and I saluted him and he stopped and he shouted "come here", I stood in front of him and he was not an officer he was the Regimental Sergeant Major, they where a Sam Browne the same as an officer (Sam Browne belts are a combination of a pistol belt or garrison belt and a shoulder strap (and D-rings).   The Sam Browne belt was named after General Sir Sam Browne VC, GCB, KCSI, (1849-98) of the British Army in India.  The strap was intended to help carry the weight of a heavy pistol or sword), he was a big chap, I think he was out of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, he had me standing there saluting him, up one two three, he said "you will recognize a Regimental Sergeant Major.  It was funny.

We only had one officer had Fenham Barracks, I don't remember any other officers, there was captain Wiehe, there were sergeants and a Regimental Sergeant Major but I can't remember his name, there were no other officers just the commanding officer of the depot.

I was in Inkerman squad or May squad because they used to call them by the months as well, I was in the squad for six months and joined the 1st battalion after this time.  We had a passing out parade in November at the depot.  We had marching and drills and inspection, I don't think any of the lads in the squad failed, we were not perfect but we were all good.  We got used to and settled into the military life, it just came natural.  Shortly after passing out we were posted into the battalion at Mons Lines Cattercik Camp, I would love to go back there, I have never been back since.  There was Sandes Soldiers Home where the lads used to go for a drink, cup of coffee and things like that.  There was a hospital there and the garrison cinema.  Catterick was the depot of the Royal Course Signals.

The barracks were terrible,  they were filthy and all we had was a heater in the middle of the room, one of them round stoves with the pipe up.  We used to wash outside, the wash basins and toilets were outside and in the winter the water was cold, I used to get a pot of cocoa and drink half and shave with the rest, I can't remember if we had baths.  Yes it was nasty in the 1st battalion.  I was put in the machine gunners, battalions in them days had there own machine gunners, a company of machine gunners and I was put into the machine gunners, I liked that, it was a great life as a machine gunner.  The company was called "MG" company, a whole company of machine gunners.  Afterwards it became "S" company then "D" company, "D" companies were the original "MG" companies, "S" company was support company, they kept changing the names.  One thing, I don't think they should have took the machine gun companies from the battalion and make machine gun battalions, while I was in France and Belgium our machine gun battalion was the Manchester Regiment.

Machine Gun Company

When I joined the machine gun company I met some of the older chaps and they were alright, they helped to teach us how to do it quickly such as the lock on the gun and how to strip it.  We used to have competitions like that, how quick could we strip the lock and put it back together again.  I can't remember any problems with the older men and there was no bullying because we could hold our own.

The machine gun I used was a Vickers,  it was water cooled.  I had to be trained how to use this, I was number one being a little fellow I could get right behind the gun, the number two he used to feed the belt in, numbers three and four carried the ammunition etc.  We had horse drawn limbers, when we were on manoeuvres we used to put the machine gun barrel in one box and the tripod in another and place them either side just near the wheels of the cart and we had to lie on the boxes and when the horses started galloping you had to be careful not to get your hands caught in the wheel.

The Vickers was very good to fire, they could fire over hills and unseen targets, it was accurate, there were not many stoppages and they were easy to clear because we had been trained. Practising stripping it down was part of our life, I believe we practised it blindfold and we had to feel for it. The gun had to be tapped, there were two handles on it and you had to press in the trigger, you could fire the lot off or swing it if you wanted to or just tap and raise the barrel. We had a clinometer as well to get our range and we had viewfinders and had to learn how to use them, it was like a tree upside down and it was used to get a dead range. You could fire single rounds with it or a burst, I cannot remember the range of it now but they were good guns. We used to go on the ranges to practice and we used to fire at normal targets. We used the clinometer to get our range angle and distance.

I also used to carry a revolver, it was a Webley, I had practice firing that and it used to kick up a lot, they were fairly accurate, you did not aim you just used to put your arm up stiff and fire, bang!!, like that. It was a close range weapon to be used at a few yards.

I was also trained in the Lewis gun, this was a good gun too. When I was in France on the 10th of May and the Germans were bombing a place called Douai, I had a Lewis Gun on a tripod out in a field by a barn shooting at the planes, one plane came over after it had done its bombing and it was flying low, we were taught to fire in front of the plane and the German pilot waved at me (Jim Miller laughing at this point in the story). The Lewis Gun had a few stoppages but I can't remember them.

Other training we had at Catterick with the machine guns was speed, getting down, get the tripod up and get the gun on quick, I had the barrel and number two had the tripod which was heavy, it was made of manganese bronze. These guns were also water cooled.  We practiced getting off the limber and into action.

Volunteering To Go To India. October 1932

I left the 1st battalion and joined the 2nd battalion, I wanted to go to India, I joined up to see the world, I just wanted to go as I did not know what India was like, I liked roaming I liked to get around. I knew that the 2nd battalion were out there, there were no worries about leaving the 1st battalion, when I joined the 2nd they gave me a "C" stripe, it was a lance corporals stripe, a full corporal would get a lance sergeants stripe.

The ship we sailed out on was called the Nevassa (Sailed from: 1913-1948, Gross Tons: 9070, Passengers: 128 1st, 98 2nd, 1920 117 1st, 70 2nd, 1050 deck. 1948 scrapped at Bo'ness )

On the ship we slept in hammocks, we were all crowded up and people would be swinging, there was our lads and other regiments on board. In the mornings you had to get up out of your hammock to the sound of a bugle playing and you had to fold the hammock properly and then stand in a long long queue and hand the hammocks back to the sailors on the ship, if your hammock was not folded properly you had to go back and do it all over again. The meals were down in the messes below. Porridge was the first meal in the morning and I remember a couple of lads coming down with porridge and one slipped and the porridge was all over the floor.

Some of the lads used to play Crown And Anchor which was a gambling game, I did not play because it was not allowed and it was illegal, we did not have much money to gamble, there were guards looking out for players and they would be put on charge if caught, it was usually the sailors who used to play the Crown And Anchor. We used to play bingo as well, it was not called bingo then, it was called Housey and that was the only gambling game allowed in the regiment, the proceeds would go into the battalion fund. Housey Housey was cards not paper and you could change the cards, we used bits of matches or stalks and if your number was called out you would put these on your number, they were not proper discs to put on and if you were sweating for a number somebody would knock all your numbers over. Funny tricks and it was all a fiddle, the blokes that were running it were creaming off the profits. we used to play this on the decks of the ship.

On the way to India and even when I went to Canada I never had a problem with sea sickness but some of the lads did they would lean over and forget which way the wind was blowing, we had some laughs.

On the way there we sailed on the Mediterranean and down the Suez Canal, this was the first time I had seen dolphins, the dolphins used to follow the ship, they looked like serpents, as one was going down one was coming up, it was fantastic.

There was loads of booze on board down where they call the wet canteen, there was two to three inches of water on the floor. All together it was rough but it was part of your life.

Barrackpore

We disembarked at Bombay. My first impressions were that it was warm and the first meal of rice was lovely. From here we travelled to Barrackpore which was about ten miles from Calcutta, this is where the 2nd battalion were stationed. To get there we travelled right across India in a train, the trains were horrible, there were no proper toilets just a hole in the ground and there were two handles where you had to squat down and hang on. The seats were like laths and they were also our beds, all our kit was in with us. I can't remember if we took rifles.

We got to Barrackpore and I was still in the machine gunners, the lads there said "hello" and they were pleased to see us. Some of the old soldiers had been up to the North West Frontier before they moved to Barrackpore.

The Barracks

I have a photograph of the barracks with the mosquito nets, the mosquito nets were long. We also used to have Punkas (Definition: A fan used especially in India, made of a palm frond or strip of cloth hung from the ceiling and moved by a servant) and a native, a punkawallah would swing the punkas and if he started to go to sleep at three o'clock in the afternoon there were boots and everything thrown at him. There were char wallahs and beastie wallahs, a char wallah would make tea and we would buy tea off him and also sandwiches, beastie wallahs used to sweep up in the barracks. Some of the lads used to buy tea of these chai wallahs and they used to put it on a bill and they would put names like Pearl White or Tom Micks or names like that on the bill, the chai wallah would come looking for his payment and would say has anybody seen Pearl White or Tom Micks which were names of actors and actresses from days gone buy, so they got no money.

When we were in England we had three little square mattresses but in India we had a full bed, there was a kit box by the side of the bed and the rifles had to be fastened up every night and you had to take the bolts out in case there were thieves about. Sometimes we had our rifles chained to us, fastened to our bodies.

We used to go on church parade, there were Catholics and Protestants and that is about all I think. We used to go to church with our rifles because at the Barrackpore church many many years ago some soldiers were massacred by some Indians so we had to go to church with our rifles.


Barrackpore Church Of England Church

Part Five