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'As War Clouds Gather'

Part 1 PUB. JUNE 2000 Part 2 PUB. JULY 2000 Part 3 PUB. AUGUST 2000 Part 4 PUB. SEPT. 2000 Part  5 PUB OCT. 2000

During the years of Robert's apprenticeship the dark cloud of war hung over the village. There were heartbreaking casualties and soon it would be Robert's turn to go to war. For the present he returned to help his father in the Chequers. At one stage there had been nightly incursions by Zeppelin airships. The family leaned from bedroom windows on moonlit nights, craning their necks as distant explosions were heard. They learned that six airships had been lost in one night while returning from East Anglia. Much clearer evidence of the horrors of war was revealed when a long column of men arrived in the village. Ill clothed and exhausted, many rested on the green by the Chequers. Their arrival is hard to explain, but Robert said that they were survivors from a sunken Canadian troop ship. Bertie found their plight very disturbing. A large barrel of beer was taken outside to raise their spirits. Hearts must have been very heavy when the call up papers arrived for Robert. He was just eighteen years old.

 On the appointed day Robert arrived at barracks in Norwich with five other recruits. One of the group had been discharged earlier for enlisting when under age. His knowledge of the joining up procedures helped them all. In the afternoon, before donning khaki uniforms and heavy boots, and upon advice from their knowledgeable friend; they all got busy with needle and thread from their housewives (sewing kits) to reduce the baggy legs of their army trousers, being assured that they would look smarter when wearing puttees. Later in the day they were free to leave barracks, but ordered to return before 10 p.m. Robert felt very self-conscious and his boots were uncomfortable. He said that he felt "quite another person" - number 63577. The following day Robert's group, plus one extra, left for training at Dovercourt in Essex where they would sleep under canvas. One of them reported sick the next morning, missing church parade, and later being diagnosed as having scarlet fever. This meant isolation for the rest of the group. Their tent was moved to the outskirts of the camp and a warning sign erected. Robert described what followed as "the best and finest six weeks of my army life". A complete holiday, with food and essentials placed at a distance and the beach close by. In the evening a short seafront walk would take them to Harwich which was then a bustling naval port with dozens of public houses. Who could have asked for more?

Army training for the isolated group at Dovercourt was very limited. The holiday was Robert's most abiding memory although he didn't forget being marched with the entire company to a cinema for an enlightening and thought provoking film about sexual matters. He called it "most illuminating". Very soon a contingent of men, including Robert's group, was ordered to Watford, where a tented camp had been flattened by floodwater. Billeted in an empty school, and fed on meagre rations, they cleared up the site. A week's leave followed where Robert truthfully assured his family that Army life was very enjoyable, but inwardly did not relish the thought of going back.

His destination this time was the Army camp at Sittingbourne, where he was assigned to a regiment, the Queen's Royal West Surreys - "The Lambs". His old friends were there and recruits from every corner of the land. Now real training began in earnest. The Company Sergeant Major was horrified by the incompetence of the group of seven, but Robert considered that they all became trained soldiers in two weeks! As always, they were poorly fed but raided the nearby orchards of Kent to ease their hunger.

During the summer of 1917, many Sittingbourne soldiers, including Robert, dug trenches and tunnels on the outskirts of London. Invasion was feared. It was Christmas when Army training intensified, and this time included trench warfare training at Maidstone. Robert was chosen to go with an advance party to seek out private billets in Maidstone. For a few weeks he lived like a lord with two elderly ladies who owned a restaurant. The return to Sittingbourne and a tent in winter was very depressing. The men began to doubt if they would ever serve overseas but in March they learned exactly what the future held for them. All were paraded in full kit for the Commanding Officer, and informed by him that "this evening you will leave by train and boat for the French area of operations."

The young soldiers slept on the troop train and crossed the channel the following day. The small ships were escorted by destroyers and covered by a smoke screen. The voyage seemed to be lengthy and many were seasick. Robert and friends stayed on deck. From Calais they marched for several miles to a tented camp but after a few days left in small groups for the front line. The Loos Salient had been fought over for three years, a scene of desolation and horror. Robert wrote a long and harrowing account of his war experiences. He called it "Hell on earth". At some stage Robert attained the rank of corporal. One of his comrades was also promoted. We only know him as Warburton but the two corporals shared duties and became firm friends. Towards the end of the war the corporals were given a very unusual task. On a cold morning they were asked to dole out a rum ration for the men. Some of them refused it, so, having a surplus, Howlett and Warburton finished it off. The result was calamitous. Found in a drunken stupor they were in serious trouble and feared the worst. They were fortunate to be treated leniently -severely reprimanded and reduced to the ranks where they continued to carry out their usual duties.

It is strange to read that our troops knew two days in advance that an armistice would be signed on the eleventh of November especially as hostilities continued until the end. The Battalion advanced daily but met no opposition, even German shelling was a rare occurrence. Robert's section spent the night of the tenth in buildings surrounding the main square of a French town. In the morning the two ex-corporals crossed the square to collect rations for their men. Warburton was called back, and given extras; and as he returned alone carrying a loaf of bread and a jar of jam he was blown to pieces by a German shell. The long awaited armistice had arrived. A grim and sad day for the friends of Warburton, but outstripping all other emotions were their overwhelming feelings of anger and hatred.

The armistice did not herald immediate demobilisation. As Christmas approached, Robert was one of a large group of men billeted in empty houses on the border between France and Belgium. They were soon to be part of an organised Amy of occupation in Germany. Meanwhile food supplies were the biggest headache. The four company Commanders discussed the situation, and decided that only one company would have a special Christmas meal. They tossed for it. Robert's group was unlucky. They playfully snowballed their representative and later decided to organise their own Christmas dinner. A foraging expedition netted three rabbits and three chickens and various vegetables. Cigarettes were bartered for French wine, and a dixie borrowed from the cookhouse. Christmas in their house was second to none.

In the New Year they left by train for a camp close to Cologne. The battle weary men were excused many duties, Guard and ceremonial duties now being carried out by young regular soldiers newly arrived from England. As Robert put it "All spit and polish and so impressive'. For Robert and his comrades it was almost a holiday. Hours were spent fishing. Such an abundance of large speckled trout that they became quite bored with fishing and monotonous fish menus. They had trips on the Rhine river steamers and visits to the Cologne racecourse where various regiments raced their horses. During this period Robert went home for two weeks leave. He had not seen his family for fifteen months. The welcome was so joyful, his sisters were getting quite grown up, and his brother Ralph was working at the aerodrome. He visited Mr. Barley Porter's shop and found that women were being employed there. Suddenly Robert became aware that very soon he would be discharged from the Army and would have to make many important decisions for himself.

When Robert returned from home leave demobilisation was well under way, but it was almost a year before his turn came. The final job for his section was to search trains for contraband goods as they arrived from unoccupied territory. Robert left Germany with six other members of the platoon, bound for a centre in North London. There they exchanged their uniforms for civilian clothes, and for most of them the next stop would be their local unemployment office. Robert went hopefully to Barley Porter but no job was available, so he signed on the unemployed register receiving twenty-nine shillings a week. The money was useful and his parents appreciated his help, but within a short time Robert was unwell. The glands in his neck were very swollen. Robert had been badly gassed during his army service, a type of warfare that had seemed unthinkable in peacetime, but introduced by the Germans to gain an advantage in the spring of 1915. Many men died in agony before properly designed box respirators were issued in 1916. Even then protection was not complete. Robert's throat and eyes had burned, while around him some men vomited into their masks and were told to withdraw. Those least affected were ordered to dig in but as they did so, the buttons on their tunics were changing colour in the toxic air.

Continued in, "The Author is Born".