The following excerpt was to be included in ‘The Lucky Shilling’ e-book. Author Keith, found this experience from 1971 poignant, as for him it illustrated another almost secret part of his father’s life and also explained how William first came to share his hidden-away memories. The editor decided there was not enough direct context for it to be in the e-book, but was an episode that could be either read as a ‘prologue’ to William’s rememberings, or stand alone as a meaningful event.
Prologue: Woolwich, July 1971
[William Marsh:] ‘Sitting in the train from Reading, I was filled with apprehension for the evening ahead. It was two o’clock on a sunny Friday afternoon as the train rattled out of Paddington Station towards Woolwich Arsenal where I knew my son would be waiting for me.
I had been invited by the Officers of The Royal Regiment of Artillery to attend my son’s ‘Dining In’ to the Regiment as a Second Lieutenant. Although nervous, I was also proudly looking forward to what I was sure would be a glittering evening. The ‘Dining In’ was being held in the Royal Artillery’s famous Officers Mess at Woolwich and for my son it was the culmination of an initial year in The Duke of Edinburgh’s Royal Regiment, two years at The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and six months at The Royal School of Artillery on Salisbury Plain. I remember his ‘Passing Out’ parade at Sandhurst last December where our family had watched him, as an Under Officer of Marne Company, being inspected by Princess Margaret and then marching up the steps of The Old College to become an officer – we were all pretty proud of him. As I looked around at all the soldiers and the military hardware it brought back happy and painful memories.
The train pulled into Woolwich Station and, as I leant out of the carriage window to open the door, I saw Keith standing at the end of the platform waving excitedly. We greeted each other warmly and, taking my case and suit carrier, Keith led me out of the station to the taxi rank and ushered me into the first cab in line. Telling the cab driver to go to The Artillery Barracks we settled back as the cab negotiated the heavy London traffic and in about fifteen minutes we were pulling up to the guardroom. After the guard had checked the car and Keith’s identity we drove around the more modern buildings of Seventeen Training Regiment, Royal Artillery, past squads of new recruits awkwardly marching whilst being bawled at by their frustrated Bombardier instructors. Then through a large arch onto the parade square, which was absolutely huge and seemed much bigger than the squares of either Brock or Alma Barracks that I remembered from when I was in the Army.
We turned to drive down the edge of the imposing buildings that took up the whole of the south side of the square and then pulled up in front of the grand entrance to the Officers Mess. As we stopped, a Mess Steward opened the door of the taxi, took my bags and ushered us through the glass doors and into the elegant entrance hall. My son took me up to the Hall Porter’s desk where I was welcomed and given my room key before following the Mess Steward across the lobby and up the wide stairs past large pictures of military men and battle scenes. We crossed the wide first floor landing with its displays of fearsome looking weapons – lances, spears and muskets – and an enormous Tigerskin stretched out on a large and impressive circular mahogany table before disappearing into a bewildering series of corridors that led to the bedrooms. I had lost all sense of direction before the Steward opened the door to my room and ushered us inside.
As soon as my bags were placed on the bed I inquired about an iron so that I could refresh my hired diner jacket after its trip from Reading but the words had hardly left my lips before it was whisked away by the Steward along with my dress shirt and shoes. It was now about three thirty and Keith said that tea would be served in the Ante Room at four o’clock and that he would come and collect me in about twenty five minutes. I was glad of that as I really don’t think I would have found my way back along all those winding corridors!
I unpacked the rest of my case and, taking of my sports jacket, laid down on the bed for a quick rest before Keith returned. I must have dropped off for I woke with a start as Keith came in the door and announced that it was time for tea and that quite a lot of the other fathers had now arrived and, along with their sons, were congregating in the Ante Room. Slipping my sports jacket on again and feeling quite nervous, I followed Keith along the corridors, across the landing and down the impressive stairs before turning left into the Ante Room.
There were about twenty or so people in the room, young Second Lieutenants like my son, older men in civilian clothes and a smattering of other officers who, Keith said, were from the Training Regiment. The tea, along with sandwiches and biscuits, was laid out on a long table spread with a white cloth and tended by a Mess Steward. Keith and I made our way over to the tea table, collected our cups and plates of a few sandwiches and went over to a group of Keith’s fellow young officers with their fathers.
Keith introduced me to a number of his friends who in turn introduced their fathers and in no time we were all chatting about the weather, where we lived, what we did and, of course, our sons and how well they had all done being selected for such a fine Regiment. After a very pleasant hour someone suggested that, as it would undoubtedly be a long night, that we should retire to our rooms to rest before dinner. Everyone agreed and we went back to our rooms with the intention of meeting for a drink in the bar at about seven fifteen.
I found my way back to my room to find my evening attire hanging in my room with my shoes beneath looking shinier than I had ever seen them and, telling myself that I must remember to tip the Steward, I took of my sports jacket, lay down on the bed and was asleep in minutes. I awoke, showered and had just finished dressing when I heard a knock at my door. I opened it to see my son standing there in his new, and worn for the first time, mess kit. I told him how smart he looked and without further ado we set off again through the by now familiar corridors and down to the Ante Room for pre dinner drinks.
The Ante Room was quite crowded by the time we arrived with a loud buzz of conversation and laughter. Keith led me over to a small group of young officers and their fathers and after introductions to the ones I had not met at teatime we accepted a drink offered by a mess steward and started to relax into the evening. I was chatting to one of the fathers, a Major Self, who I believe was the Band Master of The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, when I sensed someone standing behind me, I half turned to see an imposing figure. He was about my height but in the full dress uniform of a Brigadier with prominent parachute wings on his chest – he put his hand on my arm and with apologies to Major Self said quietly, “Mr Marsh, my name is Bob Flood and I have the honour to have you as my guest for tonight, please carry on chatting to Major Self and I’ll collect you prior to going in to dinner.” And with that, he walked away, leaving me with a shocked expression on my face.
I looked back to the Major who smiled at me and said, “Where do you know the Deputy Commandant of Sandhurst from?” I replied that as far as I knew I didn’t know him, but there was something about the Parachute Brigadier that was vaguely familiar. I excused myself from the Major and went over to Keith who turned away from one of his friends to whom he had been chatting and, seeing my rather puzzled face, asked me what the matter was. I told him about the Brigadier. “Oh” he said, “The Deputy Commandant, he must be one of the chief guests, I think we should go and look at the seating plan.”
Off we went to look at the plan and when Keith saw it, he looked fairly shaken. “I expected us to be sitting near the end of the table not right in the centre with you sitting next to Brigadier Flood and me next to a Gunner Colonel – why are you sitting next to the Brigadier?”
The same question was running through my mind and, although I wasn’t sure, the worm of an idea was slowly forming in my brain. Anyway, I didn’t have time to formulate the idea to my son as the dinner gong sounded loudly and the Brigadier was at my side ready to escort me into the dining room.
As chief guests, we were one of the first to enter the fantastic room. It was flanked with huge imposing mirrors so that the room seemed never-ending, there was wonderful gleaming silver on the tables, livered, bewigged footmen stood in attendance and the Royal Artillery Chamber Orchestra was playing. Brigadier Flood ushered me to my place and we stood and waited whilst everybody else filed in. Grace was said and with a scraping of chairs on highly polished floors, we all sat down. After a couple of minutes, during which I introduced myself to the person on my left, the Brigadier turned to me and said quietly,
“Fourth Battalion The Royal Berkshire Regiment 1939, oh, and please call me Bob, everyone else does.” I knew I had recognised him. I had been in the First Battalion and only a private soldier but we had had joint exercises and parades with the Fourth Battalion as they were a Territorial Regiment and recruited from Reading.
We started to reminisce and he told me that he had been at Reading University and had been granted an emergency commission when war was imminent, joining the Fourth Battalion and going to France with the BEF as a Bren-gun carrier platoon commander. He told me that whilst involved in a British counter-attack in the withdrawal from Louvain in Belgium he had been wounded when a bullet went through the side of his binoculars, which he had been looking through at the time, and then through his right hand. It was some days later that, coming to in a makeshift hospital in a French cathedral, a nurse asked him if he wanted his middle finger, which she produced in a bottle.
“I really couldn’t think of a use for it so I declined the offer,” laughed Bob, holding up his hand to show me the missing digit.
During the rest of that marvellous dinner, and putting me completely at ease, he told me more of his story: how he had transferred to the Parachute Regiment, even though they initially turned him down because of his missing finger, and won the Military Cross in 1945 when his Battalion assaulted over the Dortmund-Ems Canal. During his story we were both also talking to the other guests at the table and it was during the cheese course that Bob said,
“ Now Bill, enough of me, tell me your story, I’ve heard of you of course and that you won the Military Medal at the battle on the River Dyle but I would love to hear the story from you – did you get back to Dunkirk?”
However, before I could answer there was a buzz of expectation and Bob said, “Bill watch this, and keep you hands in your lap.”
I was mystified but I did as he said. Having cleared the table of crockery and cutlery a be-wigged footman was now stationed at each end of the tables and picked up the end of the heavy cloth runner that stretched in front of the diners, they proceeded to twist the runner until it was quite stiff and then, with a flourish from the Orchestra, one of the footmen jerked the runner which now speed down the table whistling in front of the guests. Everyone roared their approval and we settled down to toast ‘The Queen, our Captain General,’ and to finish the diner with cigars and brandy. I hadn’t had much time to continue to talk to Bob but, as we started to leave the dining room he took my arm and, after asking a mess steward to bring drinks, steered me up the grand stairs to the landing with the ‘Tiger skin table’, settled me into a comfortable arm chair and said, “Right Bill, your turn.”
Much, much later as I lay in bed sights and scenes that had not been in my head for years were whirling around – they took me back to 1967. My younger son Ian, had been hit by a car whilst getting off of a bus on his way home from school and was in hospital for three months. I was working in the Reading Postal Sorting Office at the time and started to visit Ian every night on my way home from work. However, after about a week of visiting, and I would typically stay about an hour, I had completely run out of fresh subjects to talk to a twelve year old boy about, so one evening I said to Ian, “I don’t know how you feel about it but would you like me to tell you a few stories about the war?”
Ian was excited for me to begin, so I started to remember…’
NOW YOU CAN READ WILLIAM’S TRUE STORIES OF WORLD WAR II, IN THE E-BOOK ‘THE LUCKY SHILLING’
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