Saturday, March 3, 2012

A Historical Perspective: War Games at Tow Law

I've posted before about my grandfather Les Parkinson's experiences serving in the British Army of the 1930s, and looking through my text files I've come across another extract that hasn't yet made its way to this weblog. In his descriptions of coal-fired mobile kitchens and the mechanized army still being a thing of the future, it really underscores to me just what the situation was like in the years immediately prior to the Second World War, and how much of a whirlwind of change that decade saw. The events described below took place in 1935 or 1936, after the deployment of the Cheshire Regiment to Malta that the last post covered; ten years later, the world would be practically reshaped.

Still, despite the coal and horses and so on, I'm certain that the majority of my grandfather's experiences will be deeply familiar to anyone who's ever spent time in the army, no matter what century or decade.


After the short leave and on our return to barracks, we learnt that we were going to go on "manoeuvres." This was to play at being soldiers in a war atmosphere. Remembering what we did in Malta, we thought it would be a piece of cake. That was where we were wrong. In fact, it was brought home to us when we had to do a lot of exercises to get us fit and in fighting order. This toughening-up consisted of lots of route marches and physical training. All this gave us some idea that what lay ahead was not going to be a picnic. We learnt that we would be near a town called Tow Law. This was a small town in County Durham, out in the wilds and in a mining area, and the exercises would last about three weeks.

Prior to setting out, we had to be sure that all our equipment was in good order. This applied especially to our groundsheet. This was a cape-like item made of a rubberized material that acted as a cape and could also be used as a bivouac or small tent. By lacing two together, one could make a small tent and this we were taught to do, but we just laughed and thought they can't do this to us, it's not human. How wrong we were.

At this time the regiment still used horses, for the army was not yet mechanized. The only people with motor transport were the RASC, known as the Royal Army Service Corps. They provided all the motor transport that was required. We had horses for the main officers to ride. They were the CO, the second in command, the adjutant and the five company commanders. Even they could not ride all the time, they had to march like the rest of us, and when they did the grooms had to lead the horses. The other transport, such as the supply wagon and field kitchen, were pulled by draft horses that were hired by the army for the occasion.

As we were going to a "war," we did not have to be bandsmen so we did not have our instruments. Instead, the music we had to march to was provided by the drum and fife band that the army maintained, just as the Scottish regiments used their pipe bands. As the bandsmen were the official stretcher bearers, they were all assigned to various companies to perform first aid duties, and those who were not first aiders were assigned as riflemen to various companies. I went to "B" company, just my luck, for they were the duty company and did not know just what this meant, but I soon found out.

At the appointed hour we formed up on the square, ready to set off to go to the "war" games. To make sure we had our food we had field kitchens. Now these were ovens on wheels pulled by four horses with a rider on one of the front horses and two cooks marching behind each kitchen. The kitchens were fired by a coal fire, as each had its own supply of coal. The cooks wore blue overalls and marched behind their kitchens, as they had to keep the fires going all the time to make sure that the midday meal was ready on time.

Anyway, we set off on the way to Tow Law. On the line of march we marched for fifty minutes of each hour and rested for ten minutes, covering a distance of two and a half miles each hour. During this fifty minutes and after the first one, we were allowed to smoke. This was called "marching at ease."

After about four hours we had to learn what being "duty company" meant. We had come to a steep hill. The men marched up and then the duty company took off their equipment and marched down the hill only to be passed by the horses being led up the hill. The kitchens were still at the bottom of the hill. It then dawned on us that we were to be the horses. We were the "drag rope" party. Drag ropes were attached to the field kitchens and we humans became horses and pulled the carts up the hill to save tiring the horses. The cooks were still with their kitchens but looked like negroes, for their faces were black from the smoke from the fumes and the handling of the coal. When we got up the hill we got dressed and set off on the march again and the horses did their work again.

At work at the British Army's field kitchens outside Ypres, 1917.

We were told that we would have a couple of hours' rest at lunch time. Eventually we went into a field through which ran a stream. We were ordered to bare our feet and soak them in the stream, during which time an RAMC orderly would inspect our feet and treat any blisters that we had. There were some, but I had none as I was taught to look after my feet.

Then came dinner. Part of our equipment was a mess tin, as it was called. It was a thing that served as a plate and drinking vessel. When the bugle sounded "cookhouse," we lined up for the food. I was hungrier than I had ever been and this was my first meal out of a field kitchen, one that I would never forget. BULLY STEW! Corned beef, probably left over from World War I, and everything else that you could think of. Wow, the taste was queer, to say the least. Smoked, yes, and the cooks themselves, though they started out wearing clean blue boiler suits and clean faces, by the time they had marched for four hours behind the kitchen and keeping the fires going, their clothes were just as black as their faces. In fact, they looked like gollywogs.

Anyway, after they had served the food they were able to wash themselves in the river. While we were resting after that "gourmet" meal, I was surprised to see an ambulance pull into the field. This, we learnt, followed behind us and picked up the waifs and strays, all those that could march no further. To our surprise, it was empty. After a while we set off again on the line of march. We did learn that we were going to "camp" out for the night so we had to erect bivouacs, and after eating our evening meal - that is what they called it - it went dark and as we did not have any lights we all "crashed," that is, crawled into our shelters and went to sleep.

At about two in the morning, we were rudely woken up by the bugler sounding the alarm, so we broke camp and set off on a forced march. This, we soon learnt, was to march quicker and for two hours at a time without the usual ten minutes' rest each hour. Just as dawn started breaking we learnt that an enemy force had tried to, or was on its way to, attack our stopover place and that was why we had to break camp and set off on a forced march.

Fortunately for us and unfortunately for some poor farmer, we stopped alongside a field in which a crop of turnips was growing. Well, it was food and we were hungry, so we helped ourselves. I reckon that the farmer was a little mad when he saw what the army had done to his crop of turnips. Almost everybody had one, and I can assure you they tasted good and filled a large hole. Later we stopped at a little village called Sunnyside. Little was an apt description, for it consisted of two rows of houses and a coal mine. We had breakfast of sausages and bacon and two hunks of bread. Boy, it was good. We also had a good audience for all of the villagers must have been there watching us. For most of them, it was the first time they had seen soldiers since the war ended. Little did we know that this audience participation would be with us until the "war" was over.

After breakfast, we set off again to go to where we would stay in proper tents. What a luxury that was to be. We finally got to our camp site around tea time. This time we had a light in each tent. Although it was a hurricane lamp powered by paraffin, it was a light, but we did not have time to bother with lights for we were too tired to do anything but sleep, sleep, and more sleep. I slept so heavy that the next thing I remember was hearing that stupid bugler sounding reveille.

Having the army on their doorstep was something new and exciting for the locals, so much so that they followed us around. Wherever we went, they were sure to be. In the mock battles there were always the "good" and the "bad." The latter was known as the skeleton army. Ten men would represent a hundred and always wore blue arm bands for they were the blue army, while the other side was the white army and in the middle were the umpires who were mounted on horses and wore red. Their word was final. They watched closely what went on and declared the winners and losers, and gave you signs that said you were out of action. I was always in the blue army and would have to leave camp first to take up our positions to repel the invaders. The riflemen fired blank cartridges and the machine gun was represented by a wooden arrow on a stand, and the gunner had a rattle to imitate the firing of the gun.

On one of the stunts we were on, the first one had the attention of all the villagers. The plan was that we were defending a valley. We were posted atop the hill with our machine guns pointing down the slope. Through the trees, it was the perfect ambush site. Unknown to us, the locals had followed the white army and had guessed what was to happen, and had got in a position behind us and could be seen by the whites. They sent half their force behind our lines whilst the other half kept us busy, and we were all "killed" thanks to the locals.

These "wars" took place at varying times of the day. The funniest, though, was one near the end of the two weeks. We were all issued with bits of kindling wood in addition to our haversack rations. The plan was that our field kitchens and transport were to be captured and we had to fend for ourselves. Well, we all had heavy loads on our backs to carry. Some of the fellows got fed up with the extra weight in their packs and dumped some of it. At evening time we stopped and bivouacked in a field and told to cook our own food, as the transport had been captured. Those who kept the extra weight were able to prepare a meal by joining forces, and those that ditched their load went on the scrounge or did without. Then everybody settled down for the night.

During the night, our transport was returned and was able to feed us all with a big breakfast. We did not have any portable latrines, so those who had to "go" had to do it in a ditch by the hedgerow whilst the others were breaking camp. Suddenly a lot of shouting attracted us and we saw men running towards us, some with their trousers around their ankles. They were being chased by cavalrymen. Secretly, the other side had brought a troop of cavalry up during the night and they decided on an early attack. Being chased by a man on a horse and having him slap your rear with the flat of his sabre is not funny, especially just after breakfast.

Anyway, after the umpires stopped the "action," we returned to base camp to prepare to march back to our barracks in Catterick Camp, for the war games season had ended for that year. After the thirty-odd mile march, barracks never looked nicer.

Past Perspectives:

No comments:

Post a Comment