Monday, 30 January 2012

Becoming a Pukka Sahib


Life in the army may not have been easy, but it had more excitement and adventure than the average civilian life. There was always something new and interesting just around the corner, or so it seemed to my father. After a short period at Gibraltar, the Regiment was required for a more active role as a peace keeper.

Turkey being an ally of Germany lost a considerable amount of territory at the end of the First World War. This loss of territory soon led to a confrontation between them and one of their traditional enemies Greece. Not for the first time these two countries were ready to fight over disputed ground and it was Britain who was expected to keep the peace.

Over a lengthy period of time the Turkish Empire had been slowly eaten away, and they had little left apart from their mainland territory which lay between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. This did not prevent Greece from attempting to take advantage of their enemies defeated status. They had always insisted that portions of the Western coast of the Turkish mainland belonged to them, so what better time could there be to take it back. It could be argued that much of this country had been Greek before the coming of the Turkish Empire, but history had marched on and it now seemed something of a lost cause except in the memories of the Greek Nation.

Seizing their opportunity and with the aid of French and Italian forces, they took possession of the port and province of Izmir immediately after the defeat of the Central Powers in 1919. Naturally the Turks confronted this invasion as soon as they possibly could, and it was apparent that it was only a question of time before hostilities broke out.

I am not sure of the exact date, but at one juncture a small British force was rushed to the point of confrontation. This force included the 1st Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment, which was sent to guard a bridge across a ravine with a small detachment of its men. On each side of the bridge stood a large and belligerent army, both determined to win the area for themselves, and both equally convinced that right was on their side. This small British force would not have lasted very long had either of the two armies decided to advance. Fortunately Britain was still seen as a powerful nation, and both sides in this dispute decided that they could not afford to have the British Army as an additional enemy. No attack took place, and once again the British Army had saved the day. The complexities of this situation is not part of my story, so all I need to say is that after a time the British units were withdrawn and an uneasy peace settled over the disputed territory ; though history records that in 1922 battle was eventually joined, resulting in the defeat and ejection of the Greeks and their allies.

From the time my father joined the battalion it had gone through an unsettled period being moved from one posting to another quite rapidly. Such circumstances did not allow regimental life to develop or individuals to make progress in their careers, but thanks to his determination and hard working approach, Dad certainly appeared to be doing better than most. In the regular army at that time it was not unusual for a recruit to take ten years of service to gain a stripe. The lowly rank of lance corporal was quite an achievement making the fortunate soldier one of an elitist group. Often called the backbone of the British Army, the Non Commissioned Officers were the ones that led in the heat of action, and usually suffered the highest casualties. The speed of promotion was naturally dependent on the quality of the man, and considering that young Billy had earned his first stripe after only about three years service it was beginning to be apparent that he had qualities which placed him above average.

Life and practical experience is the best teacher it is said, and there is no doubt that my father had learnt to become a survivor. It is also my impression that he had discovered that if you make yourself useful to those in authority they often make life a little easier for you. It was only a short step from this view to the awareness that if it is possible to make one self indispensable then one is in an even better situation. Starting from rock bottom one can only go up and that is what Dad set out to do.

The traditional home of the regiment was near a small village called Whittington which was about 4 or 5 miles from the cathedral city of Lichfield. This base camp had been the headquarters of the North and the South Staffordshire regiments for a long time, and was an ideal location being on the edge of a common which was often used for military training and exercises. Though this was the home of the regiment it was rare that it was in residence; its very existence resulted from the active duties it was called upon to perform so periods at home were few. New recruits were constantly being trained and dispatched to the active unit, and that continuous round of training made Whittington Barracks the last place that most of the old hands wanted to be. It was always considered a mark of superiority to be chosen for service with the Battalion, a posting to the depot was usually considered to be a sign that you were not quite up to scratch.

This continuous service was the usual thing in the British Army, which brings to mind that story of the Welsh Border Regiment. In the 16th century they had been posted to the West Indies and were not called home for over 70 years. When they did eventually return home, when they disembarked from their ship they were found to be still wearing the tarred pigtail that the Army had sported when they had left England. The Army had dispensed with this form of hair style a number of years before their return. So to commemorate this unusual situation the regiment was allowed to retain the black ribbon worn on the back of the uniform to protect the tunic from the tar in which the pig tail was coated. Such little things often make up our traditions, many of which are now being lost it is sad to say.

Soldiers go where the army sends them, and they remain at their post for as long as they are needed. Sometimes they are constantly on the move, but as with the Welsh Border Regiment, there can be occasions when they remain in one place for a long time. In the 1920s the North Stafford’s were posted to India, and there they remained until the outbreak of WWII. This stability allowed army tradition to take over, and life for the men became more relaxed and even enjoyable.

I found this picture of my father which was one of three he had kept for romantic reasons and which he never showed to anyone. The note he had written explains his reasons for keeping it and it reveals a softer side to his nature which normally he never allowed to show.



(He has the rank of corporal and his cap badge is that of the North Staffordshire Regiment)

This picture of me is taken at Secunderabad, India on 2nd December 1924. I was then nearly 22 years old. It was taken by a German who used to take portraits and paint them for the Nizam of Hyderabad of his many wives in his harem. I sent this photograph to Walter Jones (my late wife’s brother) instead of a Christmas card. I married Mary in 1932. She had this photograph in her possession. I said “How did you come to have this.” She said very shyly “I fell in love with it and asked Walter to give it to me.” This seemed romantic, but it is true and I would never have revealed this if Mary was alive. That is why I have kept this particular photo.

Life in India proved to be far superior to that enjoyed by the average citizen in Britain and my father was to spend some years developing a liking for it. There were aspects that required some adjustment such as the hot climate and the presence of diseases such as Malaria and Dysentery but if these hazards were accepted life in general had many benefits.

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