1914-1918 — Personal narratives
1914-1918 — Anecdotes
500 of the Best Cockney War Stories
500 OF THE BEST COCKNEY WAR STORIES
REPRINTED FROM THE LONDON
AND ILLUSTRATED BY
WITH AN OPENING YARN BY
SIR IAN HAMILTON
G.C.B., G.C.M.G., D.S.O., etc.
Vice-President of the British Legion
President of the Metropolitan Area of the
ASSOCIATED NEWSPAPERS LTD.
In the remembering, and in the retelling, of those war days when laughter sometimes saved men’s reason, Cockneys the world over have left to posterity a record of noble and imperishable achievement.
From the countless tales collected by the London Evening News these five hundred, many of them illustrated by the great war-time artist, Bert Thomas, have been chosen as a fitting climax and perpetuation.
Sir Ian Hamilton’s story of another war shows that, however much methods of fighting may vary from generation to generation, there is no break in continuity of a great tradition, that the spirits of laughter and high adventure are immortal in the make-up of the British soldier.
Sir Ian’s story is doubly fitting. As President of the Metropolitan Area of the British Legion he is intimately concerned with the after-war welfare of just that Tommy Atkins who is immortalised in these pages. In the second place, all profits from the sale of this book will be devoted to the cause which the Higher Command in every branch of the Services is fostering—the British Legion.
|SIR IAN HAMILTON’S STORY|
|5.||HERE AND THERE|
SIR IAN HAMILTON’S STORY
The Great War was a matrix wherein many anecdotes have sprouted. They are short-lived plants—fragile as mushrooms—none too easy to extricate either, embedded as they are in the mass.
To dig out the character of a General even from the plans of his General Staff is difficult; how much more difficult to dig out the adventures of Number 1000 Private Thomas Atkins from those of the other 999 who went “like one man” with him over the top? In the side-shows there was more scope for the individual and in the Victorian wars much more scope. To show the sort of thing I mean I am going to put down here for the first time an old story, almost forgotten now, in the hopes that it may interest by its contrast to barrages and barbed wire. Although only an old-fashioned affair of half a dozen bullets and three or four dead men it was a great event to me as it led to my first meeting with the great little Bobs of Kandahar.
On the morning of September 11, 1879, I lay shivering with fever and ague at Alikhel in Afghanistan. So sick did I seem that it was decided I should be carried a day’s march back to G.H.Q. on the Peiwar Kotal to see if the air of that high mountain pass would help me to pull myself round. Polly Forbes, a boy subaltern not very long from Eton, was sent off to play the part of nurse.
We reached the Peiwar Kotal without any adventure, and were allotted a tent in the G.H.Q. camp pitched where the road between the Kurram Valley and Kabul ran over the high Kotal or pass. Next morning, although still rather weak in the knees, I felt game for a ride to the battlefield. So we rode along the high ridge through the forest of giant deodars looking for mementoes of the battle. The fact was that we were, although we knew it not, in a very dangerous No Man’s Land.
We had reached a point about two miles from camp when we were startled by half a dozen shots fired in quick succession and still more startled to see some British soldiers rushing down towards us from the top of a steep-sided knoll which crowned the ridge to our immediate front.
Close past us rushed those fugitives and on, down the hillside, where at last, some hundred yards below us, they pulled up in answer to our shouts. But no amount of shouts or orders would bring them up to us, so we had to get off our ponies and go down to them. There were seven of them—a Corporal and three men belonging to one of the new short service battalions and three signallers—very shaky the whole lot. Only one was armed with his rifle; he had been on sentry-go at the moment the signalling picquet had been rushed—so they said—by a large body of Afghans.
What was to be done? I realised that I was the senior. Turning to the Corporal I asked him if he could ride. “Yes, sir,” he replied rather eagerly. “Well, then,” I commanded, “you get on to that little white mare up there and ride like hell to G.H.Q. for help. You others go up with him and await orders.” Off they went, scrambling up the hill, Forbes and I following rather slowly because of my weakness. When we got up to the path, ponies, syces, all had disappeared except that one soldier who had stuck to his rifle.
All was as still as death in the forest where we three now stood alone. “Where are the others?” I asked the man. “I think they must be killed.” “Do you think they are up there?” “Yessir!” So I turned to Forbes and said, “If there are wounded or dead up there we must go and see what we can do.”
Where we stood we were a bit far away from the top of the wooded hill for a jezail shot to carry and once we began to climb the slope we found ourselves in dead ground. Nearing the top, my heart jumped into my mouth as I all but put my foot on a man’s face. Though I dared not take my eyes off the brushwood on the top of the hill, out of the corner of my eye I was aware he was a lascar and that he must be dead, for his head had nearly been severed from his body.
At that same moment we heard a feeble cry in Hindustani, “Shabash, Sahib log, chello!” “Bravo, Gentlemen, come along!” This came from another lascar shot through the body—a plucky fellow. “Dushman kahan hain?“—”Where are the enemy?” I whispered. “When the sahibs shouted from below they ran away,” he said, and at that, side by side with the revolvers raised to fire, Forbes and I stepped out on to the cleared and levelled summit of the hill, a space about fifteen feet by twenty.
All was quiet and seemed entirely normal. There stood the helio and there lay the flags. Most astonishing of all, there, against a pile of logs, rested the priceless rifles of the picquet guard with their accoutrements and ammunition pouches lying on the ground beside them. Making a sign to Forbes we laid down our revolvers ready to hand, took, each of us, a rifle, loaded it, fixed the bayonet and stood at the ready facing the edge of the forest about thirty yards away.
Even in these days when my memory is busy chucking its seventy years or so of accumulations overboard, the memory of that tense watch into the forest remains as fresh as ever. For the best part of half an hour it must have lasted. At last we heard them—not the Afghans but our own chaps, coming along the ridge and now they were making their way in open order up the hill—a company of British Infantry together with a few Pathan auxiliaries, the whole under command of Captain Stratton of the 22nd Foot, head Signaller to the Force.
In few words my story was told and at once bold Stratton determined to pursue down the far side of the hill. Stratton had told me to go back to camp, but I did not consider that an order and, keeping on the extreme left of the line so that he should not see me, I pushed along.
I noticed that the young soldier of the picquet who had stuck to his rifle was still keeping by me as the long line advanced down the slope, which gradually bifurcated into two distinct spurs. The further we went the wider apart drew the spurs and the deeper became the intervening nullah. Captain Stratton, Forbes, and the Regimental Company commander were all on the other or eastern spur and the men kept closing in towards them, until at last everyone, bar myself and my one follower, had cleared off the western spur. I did not want to cross the nullah, feeling too weak and tired to force my way through the thick undergrowth. Soon we could no longer hear or see the others.
Suddenly I heard Click! “Take cover!” I shouted and flung myself behind a big stone. Sure enough, the moment often imagined had come! Not more than twenty paces down the slope an old, white-bearded, wicked-looking Enemy was aiming at me with his long jezail from behind a fallen log. Click! again. Another misfire.
Now I was musketry instructor of my regiment, which had been the best shooting regiment in India the previous year. My revolver was a rotten little weapon, but I knew its tricks. As the Afghan fumbled with his lock I took aim and began to squeeze the trigger. Another instant and he would have been dead when bang! went a rifle behind me; my helmet tilted over my eyes, my shot went where we found it next day, about six feet up into a tree. The young soldier had opened rapid fire just over my head.
At the same time, I saw another Afghan come crouching through the brushwood below me towards a point where he would be able to enfilade my stone. I shouted to my comrade, “I’m coming back to you,” and turned to make for his tree. Luck was with me. At that very moment bang went the jezail and when we dug out the bullet next morning and marked the line of fire, it became evident that had I not so turned I would never have sat spinning this yarn.
That shot was a parting salute. There were shouts from the right of the line, and as I was making for my tree the Afghans made off in the other direction. I shouted to Stratton and his men to press down to the foot of the hill, working round to the north so as to cut off the raiders. Then, utterly exhausted, I began my crawl back to the camp.
Soon after I had got in I was summoned into the presence of the redoubtable Bobs. Although I had marched past him at Kohat this was my first face-to-face meeting with one who was to play the part of Providence to my career. He made me sit in a chair and at once performed the almost incredible feat of putting me entirely at my ease. This he did by pouring a golden liquid called sherry into a very large wine-glass. Hardly had I swallowed this elixir when I told him all about everything, which was exactly what he wanted.
A week later the Commander of the Cavalry Brigade, Redan Massy, applied to Headquarters for an Aide-de-Camp. Sir Fred Roberts advised him to take me. That billet led to unimaginable bliss. Surrounding villages by moonlight, charging across the Logar Valley, despising all foot sloggers—every sort of joy I had longed for. The men of the picquet who had run away were tried by Court Martial and got long sentences, alas—poor chaps! The old Mullah was sent to his long account by Stratton.
But that is the point of most war stories; when anyone gets a lift up it is by the misfortune or death of someone else.
COCKNEY WAR STORIES
The Outside Fare
During the third battle of Ypres a German field gun was trying to hit one of our tanks, the fire being directed no doubt by an observation balloon.
On the top of the tank was a Cockney infantryman getting a free ride and seemingly quite unconcerned at Jerry’s attempts to score a direct hit on the tank.
“Hi, conductor! Any room inside?—it’s rainin’!”
As the tank was passing our guns a shrapnel shell burst just behind it and above it.
We expected to see the Cockney passenger roll off dead. All he did, however, was to put his hand to his mouth and shout to those inside the tank: “Hi, conductor! Any room inside?—it’s rainin’!”—A. H. Boughton (ex “B” Battery, H.A.C.), 53 Dafforne Road, S.W.17.
“Barbed Wire’s Dangerous!”
A wiring party in the Loos salient—twelve men just out from home. Jerry’s Verey lights were numerous, machine-guns were unpleasantly busy, and there were all the dangers and alarms incidental to a sticky part of the line. The wiring party, carrying stakes and wire, made its way warily, and every man breathed apprehensively. Suddenly one London lad tripped over a piece of old barbed wire and almost fell his length.
“Lumme,” he exclaimed, “that ain’t ‘arf dangerous!”—T. C. Farmer, M.C., of Euston Square, London (late of “The Buffs”).
Tale of an Egg
I was attached as a signaller to a platoon on duty in an advanced post on the Ypres-Menin Road. We had two pigeons as an emergency means of communication should our wire connection fail.
One afternoon Fritz put on a strafe which blew in the end of the culvert in which we were stationed. We rescued the pigeon basket from the debris and discovered that an egg had appeared.
That evening, when the time came to send in the usual evening “situation report,” I was given the following message to transmit:
“Pigeon laid one egg; otherwise situation normal.”—D. Webster, 85 Highfield Avenue, N.W.11.
On a bitterly cold, wet afternoon in February 1918 four privates and a corporal were trying to take what shelter they could. One little Cockney who had served in the Far East with the 10th Middlesex was complaining about everything in general, but especially about the idiocy of waging war in winter.
“Wot yer grumblin’ at?” broke in the corporal, “you with yer fawncy tyles of Inja? At any rate, there ain’t no blinking moskeeters ‘ere nor ‘orrible malyria.”
There was a break in the pleasantries as a big one came over. In the subsequent explosion the little Cockney was fatally wounded.
“Corpril,” the lad gasped, as he lay under that wintry sky, “you fergot to menshun there ain’t no bloomin’ sun-stroke, nor no earfkwikes, neither.”
And he smiled—a delightful, whimsical smile—though the corporal’s “Sorry, son” was too late.—V. Meik, 107 King Henry’s Road, N.W.3.
A “Bow Bells” Heroine
For seven hours, with little intermission, the German airmen bombed a camp not a hundred miles from Etaples. Of the handful of Q.M.A.A.C.s stationed there, one was an eighteen-year-old middle-class girl, high-strung, sensitive, not long finished with her convent school. Another was Kitty, a Cockney girl of twenty, by occupation a machine-hand, by vocation (missed) a comédienne, and, by heaven, a heroine.
The high courage of the younger girl was cracking under the strain of that ordeal by bombs. Kitty saw how it was with her, and for five long hours she gave a recital of song, dialogue, and dance—most of it improvised—while the bombs fell and the anti-aircraft guns screamed. In all probability she saved the younger girl’s reason.
When the last raider had dropped the last bomb, Kitty sank down, all but exhausted, and for long cried and laughed hysterically. Hers was not the least heroic part played upon that night.—H. N., London, E.
Samson, but Shorn
During the German attack near Zillebeke in June 1916 a diminutive Cockney, named Samson, oddly enough, received a scalp wound from a shell splinter which furrowed a neat path through his hair.
The fighting was rather hot at the time, and this great-hearted little Londoner carried on with the good work.
Some hours later came the order to fall back, and as the Cockney was making his way down the remains of a trench, dazed and staggering, a harassed sergeant, himself nearly “all in,” ordered him to bear off a couple of rifles and a box of ammunition.
This was the last straw. “Strike, sergeant,” he said, weakly, “I can’t ‘elp me name being Samson, but I’ve just ‘ad me perishin’ ‘air cut!”—”Townie,” R.A.F.
“What’s Bred in the Bone——!”
When we were at Railway Wood, Ypres Salient, in 1916, “Muddy Lane,” our only communication trench from the front line to the support line, had been reduced to shapelessness by innumerable “heavies.” Progress in either direction entailed exposure to snipers in at least twelve different places, and runners and messengers were, as our sergeant put it, “tickled all the way.”
In the support line one afternoon, hearing the familiar “Crack! Crack! Crack!” I went to Muddy Lane junction to await the advertised visitor. He arrived—a wiry little Cockney Tommy, with his tin hat dented in two places and blood trickling from a bullet graze on the cheek.
In appreciation of the risk he had run I remarked, “Jerry seems to be watching that bit!”
“Watching!” he replied. “‘Struth! I felt like I was walking darn Sarthend Pier naked!”—Vernon Sylvaine, late Somerset L.I., Grand Theatre, Croydon.
A Very Human Concertina
In March 1918, when Jerry was making his last great attack, I was in the neighbourhood of Petit Barisis when three enemy bombing planes appeared overhead and gave us their load. After all was clear I overheard this dialogue between two diminutive privates of the 7th Battalion, the London Regiment (“Shiny Seventh”), who were on guard duty at the Q.M. Stores:
“You all right, Bill?”
“Where’d you get to, Bill, when he dropped his eggs?”
“Made a blooming concertina of meself and got underneaf me blinkin’ tin ‘at!”—F. A. Newman, 8 Levett Gardens, Ilford, Ex-Q.M.S., 8th London (Post Office Rifles).
A One-Man Army
The 47th London Division were holding the line in the Bluff sector, near Ypres, early in 1917, and the 20th London Battalion were being relieved on a very wet evening, as I was going up to the front line with a working party.
Near Hell Fire Corner shells were coming over at about three-minute intervals. One of the 20th London Lewis gunners was passing in full fighting order, with fur coat, gum boots, etc., carrying his Lewis gun, several drums of ammunition, and the inevitable rum jar.
One of my working party, a typical Cockney, surveyed him and said:
“Look! Blimey, he only wants a field gun under each arm and he’d be a bally division.”—Lieut.-Col. J. H. Langton, D.S.O.
“Nah, Mate! Soufend!”
During the heavy rains in the summer of 1917 our headquarters dug-out got flooded. So a fatigue party was detailed to bale it out.
“Long Bert” Smith was one of our baling squad. Because of his abnormal reach, he was stationed at the “crab-crawl,” his job being to throw the water outside as we handed the buckets up to him.
It was a dangerous post. Jerry was pasting the whole area unmercifully and shell splinters pounded on the dug-out roof every few seconds.
Twenty minutes after we had started work Bert got badly hit, and it was some time before the stretcher-bearers could venture out to him. When they did so he seemed to be unconscious.
“Poor blighter!” said one of the bearers. “Looks to be going West.”
Bert, game to the last, opened his eyes and, seeing the canvas bucket still convulsively clutched in his right fist, “Nah, mate!” he grunted—”Soufend!”
But the stretcher-bearer was right.—C. Vanon, 33 Frederick Street, W.C.I.
“I Got ‘Ole Nelson Beat!”
Several stretcher cases in the field dressing station at the foot of “Chocolate Hill,” Gallipoli, awaited removal by ambulance, including a Cockney trooper in the dismounted Yeomanry.
He had a bandage round his head, only one eye was visible, and his left arm was bound to his breast with a sandbag.
His rapid-fire of Cockney witticisms had helped to keep our spirits up while waiting—he had a comment for everything. Suddenly a “strafe” started, and a shrapnel shell shot its load among us.
Confusion, shouts, and moans—then a half-hysterical, half-triumphant shout from the Cockney: “Lumme, one in the blinkin’ leg this time. I got ‘ole Nelson beat at last!”—J. Coomer (late R.E.), 31 Hawthorn Avenue, Thornton Heath.
Two Kinds of Fatalist
A German sniper was busy potting at our men in a front-line trench at Cambrai in March 1918. A Cockney “old sweat,” observing a youngster gazing over the parapet, asked him if he