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We Arrive in Liverpool
The English, so I'd been led to believe, were people blest with quiet reserve, never allowing their dignity to be lowered by some unseemly show of boisterousness or frivolous behaviour. Well, now I knew this wasn't exactly so. They were no different in most respects than Canadians, at least not the humbler types that worked on the docks. Down below the great swarm of excited passengers crowding the rails on every deck, stevedores and other dock workers were going about their business, stopping from time to time to look up with what seemed like scant interest at the hootin' and hollerin' Canadians waving at them like a bunch of schoolkids at a Firemen's Field day Parade. Then, from out of the close-jammed mass of waving, khaki-clad troops, a handful of cigarettes rained down at their feet, followed immediately by literally thousands that fell around them. Whatever reserve these dock workers might have had, disappeared in an instant in their uninhibited frantic scurrying around to pick up the cigarettes, which, as I was soon to learn, they preferred far more than their English 'Woodbines', which were in short supply anyway. Dignity be damned! This was manna from heaven and they were going to make sure they'd get their fair share, even snaring them in mid-air like ballplayers. And when a military sedan appeared on the scene, the British Army officer, a Major, no less, and his driver joined the humble workers in scurrying about with great energy and agility in the cigarette retrieval. What a hilarious scene! Straight out of a Mack Sennett comedy. But then, come to think of it, after 10 days of peril at sea we were ready to laugh at damn near anything.
It took all that morning and the better part of the afternoon to disgorge all the sea-weary troops, with my particular draft being one of the last to disembark. As anxious as I was to get off and onto dry land, especially a land I'd never ever trod on before, a land whose history I was pretty well acquainted with, I was remarkably restrained. The dancing, the shouting, and the all 'round joy of having arrived safe and sound was on the inside. That's the way I was. I needed no outburst to vent my feelings. Our time would come to walk down that gangplank and if we were the last to leave, so it'd have to be.
It wasn't till about four in the afternoon that we finally hefted our gear and trundled down the gangplank to a train waiting nearby. A light drizzle began falling, exactly the kind of weather I expected to find in soggy old England. On a siding next to our coaches were a long string of freight cars, half-sized toy-like affairs compared to the much-larger North American variety. We couldn't help but laugh at them and made unkind remarks in reference to their dinkiness to any railyard worker who happened to be in earshot. Another thing about English trains that every one of the new arrivals couldn't help hear and scoff at was the irritating high-pitched squeal of the whistle, a far cry from the the throaty, mournful wail of the six-eight wheelers we were accustomed to hearing back home.
A heavy and unbroken mass of charcoal clouds moved in as we were about to board the coaches, bringing at first a light drizzle, but after we'd been rolling southwards for about a half hour, the skies really opened up and the rain came in the proverbial buckets. For the next four hours the rain sluiced down like Niagara Falls, giving to the normally postcard pretty English countryside a much less pretty aspect, a drab, dripping, bleak look to the rolling patchwork farmland. The cities we passed through looked even more depressing. Little was there outside the train windows that ignited my interest for long, and with the monotonous click-clacking of the wheels on the rails, I and almost everybody else aboard nodded off to sleep.
Although coach seats are not comfortable for sleeping on, I found mine to some small degree agreeable with me. No doubt it had to be the ten days of sleeping on the steel deck of the Andes that gave to my new bed a feeling as though I was sleeping on a down-filled mattress. It was the first time in ten nights that I enjoyed an unbroken four hours of deep sleep. I probably would have slept right through to our destination, Aldershot had not some clumsy ox jostled me awake as he made his way down the aisle on his way to the cramped toilet cubicle at the end of the coach.
The train made several stops, first, at Crewe where we sat for close to a half hour on a siding. The next stop was at Bradford, and later at Rugby. How could I have known when I was sitting in the library as a Grade six pupil at John Campbell School reading the book 'Tom Brown's Schooldays' that I would one day pass through Rugby where the fictional Tom went to school? The scene, however, from the coach window didn't impress me in any way, since all that was out there greeting my tired eyes were the drab and dirty backsides of old warehouses, factories and untidy backyards of row-houses-as depressing as any scene could be. The impression I got of England thus far was disappointing, certainly not too flattering. But it was a disappointment that before long would evaporate once I had some sleep. When I awoke, a thrill went through me as my rested eyes looked out on the picturesque countryside, the tree-shaded lanes, the rippling brooks and the lovely and quaint villages. Overall, though. I was glad when darkness came and down came the blackout blinds.because i could still use some sleep.
By the time we pulled into the outskirts of Metropolitan London I was 'dead to the world' again, until someone shook my shoulder. It was my buddy, Jim Renaud, greeting me with the news that we were in London. We weren't allowed to pull back the blinds, so we went out to the platform at one end of the coach to have our first look at the big city that we'd seen so often in newsreels, burning under the bombing of the Luftwaffe. As it was, we didn't get to see all that much, only the gutted skeletons of house and buildings and the huge mounds of brick and mortar from blocks upon blocks of row-houses and buildings that had been completely destroyed during that demoralizing period between September and November of 1940 known as the Blitz. Here in the skies over London is where the momentous Battle of Britain had been fought, where the few had fought to a standstill the might of Goering's Luftwaffe and literally saved the British Empire and possibly the free world from defeat by Nazi Germany. In open spaces where once had been rows of houses before the bombing, there were now great pyramidal mounds of rubble. I couldn't help but ponder on all that had happened here during those bomb-wracked, flame-filled nights, when, to the citizens of London, it seemed that the end of the world was at hand. Imagination could not near bring to mind the horror of what had gone on here, where whole blocks of dwellings were obliterated by blast and fire, killing men, women and children in great numbers. Whole families were wiped out in the blimk of an eye. Along the road, neatly swept of debris stood the lampposts (unlit of course) like ghostly sentinels guarding the road that led to nowhere but another desert of ruin and rubble and open spaces.
The train sat on the siding in London for what had to be at least an hour, and I began to wonder if somewhere in the night skies over Germany or occupied France that massed fleets of Luftwaffe bombers were assembling for another massive raid on the city. It made for an uneasy feeling, yet in a way it was an exhilarating feeling, much like what I used to experience, when as a kid I was being chased by an irate neighbour for some misdemeanour or other I had committed. It was scary, but exciting. Actually, we were not all that much in danger, because the Luftwaffe had 'shot its bolt' in the blitz of 40/41 after which came transferal of the major part of the bombing squadrons to the Eastern front. Except for isolated nuisance raids by single, sometimes two, three or even as much as a half dozen planes on coastal cities, and occasionally on London itself, nights in London were relatively quiet at this time. And this May 29th night was one of the quieter ones.
The huge, sprawling, cosmopolitan city was a ghost town at night. But, from sunup to twilight it was a veritable bee-hive of activity, especially in the West End entertainment, shopping and business centre. The streets and sidewalks were crowded with traffic, both wheeled and pedestrian. Its citizens would be hurrying off to work in the many government offices concentrated there, and to the shops in Piccadilly, the Strand, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Knightsbridge and a dozen other store-lined thoroughfares as they had always been doing in peacetime, and more so after war was declared. As the day progressed, the streets would fill with uniformed humanity seeking whatever pleasures the city core might offer. There were scads of men and women wearing the colours of the three services of every Allied nation, going hither and thither in their pursuit of enjoyment or whatever else was on their agenda for that day. London was a tremendously exciting and stimulating city to visit, as I would soon find out.
Once we got rolling again and cleared the city it didn't take me more than minutes to drop off to sleep again. But the intermittent squeal of that high-pitched train whistle and the clacking of the wheels kept dragging me back to that limbo between wakefulness and deep sleep. And then this loud, raucous voice impinged itself gratingly on my semi-consciousness. I was damned if I could make out what that irritating voice was hollering. I opened one eye and saw this guy with a funny, peaked cap going down the aisle shouting in gibberish. "Cha paxon! cha paxon! Mon, cha paxon!" At first I thought it was a red-cap (a porter}, but then I realized the man wore khaki, so I had to assume he was an M.P. Actually he was what was known as a R.T.O.(Route Transportation Officer) whose job it was to control bodies of troops in transit on the railway. Anyway, this loud character succeeded in waking everybody up with his raucous shouts of unintelligible orders. No one knew what the hell he was hollering about. After he'd passed through each coach and was on his way back, still shouting, it was only then that I suddenly caught on to the strange language issuing so loudly from his lips. He was letting us sleepy-eyed passenger know it was time to get our packs on. although it most certainly didn't sound like it. If he'd been speaking Canadian it would have been, "Get your packs on! Get your packs on! Come on, get your packs on!" I turned to Cec Vanderbeck, " If that's the way people over here talk, Cec, we're going to have one hell of a time understanding them. They talk like they've got a mouthful of marbles." "You can whistle that again," Cec replied. And that's when everybody in the car started loudly mimicking the RTO his raucous shouts even before he'd gone on to the next car. The place was a bedlam of hilarious shouts and laughter- a good waker-upper
It was darker than Toby's ass when we stepped down onto the platform in Aldershot Station. How the officers and NCOs managed to bring order out of chaos and form us up into column of route in the blacked-out rail yard remains a mystery to me. But they somehow did, and we marched off into the blacker than black streets like blind men. By the second block, night vision slowly came and now we could see enough so that we no longer walked up the backside or tread on the heels of the man ahead. Aldershot was like another ghost town. Not a soul walked the streets. I should have known, though, that with Aldershot being a barracks town, that its population would be abed with "Lights Out" at 10 p.m. Not a twinkle of light showed anywhere. It was almost midnight.
Along the way, unknown to us, the column was broken up into several segments as the various drafts from all across Canada veered off to their respective draft Reinforcement Depots in town. After a short march of several blocks our part of the column trooped into Salamanca Barracks just off the main intersection of town. On both sides of the road where we'd been brought to a halt loomed the silhouettes of the three-storied, wrought-iron balconied barracks blocks. Without further ado, we were broken off and told to find a bed anywhere on the two upper floors in the one to our left. The ground floor contained the kitchen and mess-hall and other staff offices. We needed no urging, and with a noisy clatter of boots on steel grating we hurried up the stairs to lay claim to a bed. As for the bunk-beds, they were a sight to behold. Built of two by fours and thin steel slats to support the mattress, they stood only about three feet high, with the bottom bunk a mere six inches off the floor. The mattresses came in three pieces called 'biscuits'. The guys who got the top bunk had it easy. Those of us who were a little slower on the draw had to settle for a bottom bunk. I was one of that number, and much to my dismay found that getting into the bottom bunk was easier said than done, In fact it took a certain acrobatic ability to do so, along with some considerable practice to master without slipping a disk or straining the shoulder or back muscles.
There were two ways to overcome the problem of getting into the bottom bunk. The first was as follows: Facing the head of the bed you set the knee closest to the frame onto the mattress, and then with a quick flip, you rolled over onto your back. "Voila!" You were in! The second was a little more complicated and took some upper arm strength and a touch of acrobatics to succeed. You took a firm grip of the upper frame with both hands, more or less chin yourself as you swung yourself inward and then let go. if your timing was right, you landed squarely onto the biscuits. If it was off a split second too soon, your back landed on the hardwood frame, giving you a jolt you'd feel from shoulder blade to the crack of your ass. It took several of these minor accidents before we got the 'hang' of it.
Having skipped breakfast aboard the Andes I was undeniably famished by the time we arrived at our destination, and would have eaten just about anything to quieten the growling in the stomach. Since it was midnight, no one expected to be fed until morning, but then a Corporal came around with the good news that pancakes and tea was being served downstairs in the mess. Hardly had he gotten the last words out of his mouth when I was out the door with my mess-tins and enamelled cup. Never had pancakes tasted so delicious as they had in the early minutes of a Sunday morning. The first two went down in a matter of several gulps. I was still hungry and thought that that was my ration for the night, but to my welcome surprise I found out I could go up for seconds and even thirds. And I did just that. Satisfaction supreme!
That first night in England, as I was dropping off to sleep about one in the morning, came the distant wail of the air-raid sirens in London. I sat up with a start. In my shorts I dashed out to the balcony along with about thirty other guys likewise in their shorts, to witness for the first time what we all thought would be another bombing raid on the great city that had taken so much punishment from the Luftwaffe in the blitz. Off to the northeast about 35 miles away, long pencils of searchlight beams flicked back and forth across the sky, seeking out the raiders. Meanwhile, the mournful and eerie moan of the sirens rose and fell in the cooling damp of the night. We waited with the excitement of children at a circus parade, but this was a different kind of waiting. We waited almost breathless for the drone of engines and bombs exploding. But after more than a quarter of an hour of waiting and fixing our gaze on the sky in the direction of London we were disappointed when the sirens shut down and the searchlights flicked off. A false alarm.
Sunday morning, May 21st was the beginning of our first full day in Merrie England. But England not so merrie any more. What a lovely day it wa s, so unlike the blowzy rain-saturated day of our disembarkation. The bugler hadn't even finished blowing reveille when I was dressed and ready to go exploring right after breakfast. With no parades on tap on Sunday, not even a church parade, we newcomers had all day to scout the town and environs to see what was what and what it had to offer.
Before I get further into my war memoirs, I'll include here a few historical bits of information about this garrison town to let the reader know something about howit became associated throughout the war as a Canadian enclave. Let's go back to the year 1853 or thereabouts. The English Government at that time came to the realization that nowhere in the whole of England was there an adequate facility for the concentration and training of a large body of troops. Wherever battalions were garrisoned, it was usually in small forts and rundown castles. Some troops were even billeted in private homes. It was immediately evident that discipline and control were sacrificed under these conditions. Training , especially suffered, as it had to be undertaken in many cases on private, cultivated acreage which also caused legal problems.
To alleviate the situation, it was none other than Queen Victoria herself, along with her husband, Prince Consort, Albert who made strong recommend-ations to the government that a permanent camp should be established in some suitable section of the country. After much reconnoitring of available, wide open tracts of heathland, Aldershot was deemed the best-suited, and so it was acquired, comprising some 10,000 acres. Although the whole area was ideal for the deployment and tactical movement of large bodies of troops, there were great stretches of nettle and gorse that broke the openness of low meadow grass. Fairly large patches of the stinging nettle were scattered about the district, causing much discomfort and even pain to the unfortunate soldiers who found them-selves thrashing through this abomination of growth. I know exactly what the generations of soldiers who did their traineing in these parts were up against with the nettle plant. I ended up in a patch of them on a night scheme, and by the time I worked my way out of it, it felt like I had been bitten by ten-thousand bloodthirsty mosquitoes. I scratched almost all night long.
In planning for the built-up portion of the camp, some wise soul stressed the fact that the barracks should be so built as to ensure the comfort and warmth of the troops even in the coldest of English winters. Though I hadn't spent a winter in the Aldershot Barracks, our 1st Infantry Division fellows that had spent the winters of '40 and '41, winters here, said to be two of the coldest on record, will swear up and down that whoever the architect or the builder was, he or they sure slipped up somewhere. The bitter cold seeped through what had to be millions of cracks and openings in the uninsulated buildings. A derelict barn on the Saskatchewan prairie in the dead of winter couldn't have been more drafty than these ancient works of civil engineering.
Aldershot Military District, although small by comparison with the military districts in Canada, it had far more barracks facilities and parade-squares. The place in both wars teemed with troops, mainly Canadians. Two large camps made up the military District; designated as the North Camp and the South Camp. The North Camp known as the Marlborough Lines began at the southern limits of Farnborough, with barracks blocks and parade-squares on both sides of Queens Avenue. All the barracks blocks in the Marlborough Lines were named after victories in Lord Marlborough's campaign against Louis XIV of France in the War of the Spanish Succession 1704 to 1709; Malpaquet, Oudenarde, Ramillies, Lille, Tournay and lastly, Blenheim, his greatest victory. The South Camp began at the southern border of the North Camp, extending from the Farnborough Road on the west, all the way up to the Basingstoke Canal north and east, and thence south to Wellington Avenue joining Aldershot High Street with the Farnborough Road. The camps went under the name of Wellington and Stanhope Lines, the barracks blocks therein were named after battles in the Napoleonic Peninsular Campaign; Albuhera, Badajoz, Barrosa, Corunna, Gibraltar, Maida, Mandora, Salamanca, Talavera, and Waterloo. Other barracks within the bounds included Buller, Clayton, and McGrigor (and by the way, this latter name is not misspelled). South of Wellington Avenue within the boundaries of Aldershot town itself were Beaumont, Willems, and Warburg Barracks. So, you can see, just by the number of the barracks buildings that Aldershot was one hell of a big military district compressed into a relatively small area. It was almost a world of its own.
Since Salamanca and Badajoz Barracks is where I spent my first two and a half months overseas and therefore the one I'm most familiar with, I'll describe them as best as I can. All the others were built along the same lines, with minor variations in architecture here and there.
SALAMANCA & BADAJOS BARRACKS
As you enter the camp from Hospital Hill Road you pass a small building to your right which was the Church of England chapel. Another few paces and you're standing on the road between two long three-storey structures, facing each other, the upper two having wide iron balconies running almost the full length of the barracks block. They are known as the Salamanca Barracks. At the far end of this block long roadway abutting close up against the Farnborough Road are two exactly similar buildings, one on each side of the road. They comprised the Badajos Barracks part of the complex. In that long stretch between Salamanca and Badajoz are other buildings, the one on the south side, a large house-like structure serving as the Officers Quarters and mess. while on the north was a smaller, one storey cottage-like building housing the NAAFI canteen, complete with writing, reading and games rooms where those not out on the town could while away the hours playing pool or darts. The parade-square took up the remaining space bounded by the barracks blocks on the north, Hospital Hill on the east, Wellington Avenue on the south, and the Farnborough road on the west. An entire battalion could form up on parade here and there'd still be space left over.
Barracks are barracks, but the barracks in Aldershot were quite unlike any barracks we'd thus far been billeted in. Like I said, eight foot wide iron balconies stretched almost the full frontage of the two upper stories, with iron stairways at both ends. The ground floor was taken up in administrative offices, the mess hall and kitchen. The one on the north side had Q.M. stores, the Post Office, barber shop, shoemaker, and an armourer's workshop. The sleeping quarters were on the second and third floors, with ten rooms to a floor, each housing fifty men. On the south side barracks ground floor was the kitchen and mess.
When the buildings were first built they were connected by a massive framework of steel and glass extending from rooftop to rooftop, allowing the troops to do arms drill on the pavement beneath even in the foulest weather. As neat an idea as it seemed to be at the time, it had a serious drawback. A series of accidents occurred due to glass falling on the heads of men drilling below. It was soon found that glass panes had been loosened earlier by the weight of daredevil individuals crawling across in foolhardy attempts at impressing their mates. The huge canopies were taken down shortly thereafter.
Although the barracks had been built around the time of the Crimean War, they were sturdily constructed and much better for billeting troops than provided by the old and obsolete factories or warehouses at many military sites in Canada. They were surprisingly bearable in late spring, summer and early Fall, but in the colder and rainier remaining months, especially in the dead of winter they were something else again. They were downright punishingly cold places in which to sleep. I was lucky, along with thousands of others who managed to escape being stationed in Aldershot during these colder months.
Strange as it may seem, especially when the whole southeast of England suffered under the pummelling it took day and night from the Luftwaffe during the 'big blitz', and in hundreds of scattered 'tip and run' raids over the next couple of years, and then late in the war the V1 bombing and the launching of the V2s, that Aldershot emerged largely unscathed. Although thousands of enemy bombers had winged their way over Aldershot before and after bombing London, only a single bomb fell within the town's environs. For some unfathom-able reason, Goering and all the other high-ranking Luftwaffe Generals had overlooked Aldershot as a choice bombing target. Who knows what would have been the lot of the Canadian Army had they sent their bomber fleets against the town? For sure, at least in regards to the Reinforcement units based there, we'd have been in a bad way. But it didn't happen, and lucky for all of us, we went about our training and our waiting to go on to a field unit in complete safety, and therefore without fear.
Now that I've given a little of the early history and background of the Aldershot Military District, I'll get back to my day to day experiences, observations, opinions, thoughts and whatnot as I progressed through training and my eventual experiences in an infantry Regiment in and out of action.
I'd been overseas only a little over a week or so when I got hit by that non-fatal or debilitating malady known as 'homesickness'. And I got it bad. But I'm sure I wasn't the only victim. Practically everybody else had to have been afflicted. Most hid their feelings behind a facade of ' business as usual' behaviour. As for others, it was unmistakable in the hang-dog expression on their faces and that far-away look in their eyes. I must have fallen into the latter category at least for the first two weeks. All I could think of was my being so far from home, wondering what everybody back in Windsor was doing. There was no doubt about it I was flagellating myself through self-pity.
It came on quite suddenly. One day, everything was just fine, nothing out of the ordinary, and then on the 15th morning as I woke to the blare of the bugler's reveille, looked out the window, and greeting me was another one of those rainy, blustery, no good, rotten, miserable days like the day we rode down by train, and then it hit me. Days like that, even at home tend to sit heavy on a guy's mind, but here, 5000 miles away from home, and suddenly I'm not feeling well at all- not physically ill, only depressed. Self-pity, one of the worst things that can happen to a soldier seized me, and for some two weeks off and on I wallowed in its suffocating grip. The only saving grace for me was that almost everyone else looked to be in a similar state of mind. Realizing I wasn't alone in my misery gave me a fighting chance to come out of my downward spiral of mental outlook. The bloom on my enthusiasm for army life had worn off and now I found myself yearning to be home with all that was dear to me. The aspirations I'd always had of returning to Windsor as a highly decorated and celebrated national war hero had come unravelled. Worst of all, I wasn't afraid to admit it, either to myself or to my buddies. What could have intensified the malaise I was going through was the fact that I'd gotten no letters from home even after we'd been here for three weeks. After every noon meal at mail-call time I hurried down the road to the Post office in hopes of pickling up some letters or maybe even a parcel or two. No such luck! Others were already getting mail from home, but not me. And when the last letter had been handed out, with none for me, I'd walk back to my quarters feeling lower than ever, my feet practically dragging. It was like I didn't have the strength to lift them. All this affected my attention at lectures and my attitude towards training. I finally arrived at that moment that I had not even remotely considered ever doing, and that was to 'swing the lead', a common expression for getting out of something unpopular. I'd never been one to fake illness to get out of duty. It wasn't in me, to pull off such a despicable stunt. But now, since I fell into such a sorry state of mind, I was willing to go to almost any extreme in hopes of getting back home to Canada. What made it even worse; I was ready to do it even though I was deeply ashamed of myself. My self-esteem had evaporated. It was sheer, mental torment. Here I was, a good soldier in every respect, with all the makings (possibly) of a heroic figure, or so I assumed, and what do I do but yearn and pine to go back home to mama. What a poor excuse of a man!
Within a couple of days of the onset of this insidious bout of homesickness, I was in such dire straits, that in desperation I decided to go on sick parade using an old minor football injury to my ankle hoping that maybe it would be my ticket back to Canada. What a pathetic hope! The MO suspected right off I was swinging the lead, gave a cursory examination of the ankle, flexed it a few times, put my foot down, and, looking me straight in the eyes, said, "There's nothing wrong with your ankle, son." In other words, I knew exactly what he meant. "Quit this malarkey and get back to soldiering." And do you know what, with his condemning look and his sharp advice I felt a heavy weight fall off my shoulders. All I needed was that verbal 'kick in the ass' to straighten me out. Just like that (a snap of the fingers) and my mind was suddenly clear, and the mental torment had gone wherever bad ideas and thoughts go. I'd weathered the storm.
Being new to the sights, sounds, smells, and all other things English, it was only natural that I should make fun of and laugh at almost everything my eyes took in. First, there were the toy-like freight cars and the irritating high-pitched squeal of the train whistles. What we didn't make fun of, however, were the passenger trains that ran so much faster than our own. I was in awe of their speed and the efficiency with which the rail system ran in this country. At any station platform that I might be standing on I couldn't believe what my eyes were taking in. An express train would rush by going at least 80, then not more than a minute or two later another one would roar by on the same track going the other way. How they did it, I couldn't begin to say. But they did it
It didn't take us long to accept the fact that the English did things a whole lot differently than the way we did things in Canada, some I considered good, others not so good. For one thing, their driving on the left was hard to get used to. And not only that it drove us to distraction trying to remember whenever stepping off the curb to cross the street that we look to our right first instead of our left. There had to be more than a few Canadians that didn't get to see the light of another day after they made the mistake of looking the wrong way for approaching traffic. I had a couple of fairly narrow squeaks myself in London when I forgot myself for a moment thinking I was back in Canada. If it hadn't been for my fancy footwork I might have ended up in a hospital or had myself a plot in Brookwood Military Cemetery.
Though we came from a large, mainly English-speaking country, we found soon enough that in some ways the language as spoken in the country where it originated can be quite different from the way we spoke it. For instance: Take the crude expression we use in Canada for pregnancy, that, of course, outside genteel and professional circles; we say "She's knocked up." In England it means something altogether different. It's used in question form, like; "What time do you want me to knock you up in the morning?" And that means 'to wake someone up. In Canada, to keep your pecker up eould be under stood as a sexual expression. Not so in England. It means to keep your spirit up. And then, of course, there were the nouns like 'windscreen' in place of our 'windshield'; 'bonnet' for what we knew as the 'hood'; 'spanner' for 'wrench'; 'wireless' for 'radio'; and lastly, 'cinema' for 'movie theatre' or 'show'. These examples were just a few of the many differences in language we had to get used to if we expected to understand English as spoken in the land of its birth.
The monetary system of pounds, half-crowns, shillings, pennies and farthings was a distinct challenge to master. But only for a short while. Like everything else in this country, it didn't take us long to learn and work with. In those first few days, most of us, when we went to the canteen to buy a cup of tea, an apple tart or rock cakes or Mars bar, we'd invariably plunk a pound note down on the counter to make sure we had enough to cover the price, trusting the countermaid to give us the right change back. Which they always did, or so we presumed or hoped. Where our difficulty came was when we tried to relate their money to our decimal monetary system. Not an easy thing to do. It was surprising how fast we learned once we forgot about our dollars, quarters, dimes and nickels, and went entirely British. Thrip'ny bits or thrupence (three pennies)-florins(about 20 cents- shilling(like our quarters)-half-crowns (close to our half-bucks)-ten shilling notes(equivalent or close to our two dollar bills-and then the pound note about equal to $4.00- we got use to them all in a very short time.
There were a few things about the mannerisms of the English that I didn't care very much about or looked on with mild disgust. But they were only a few. The one that irritated me more than any other was the smoking habit of the women. Nothing I hated worse in a woman than to see her with a cigarette dangling disgustingly from her mouth, especially when it stuck out straight from the very middle of her lips while she carried on a conversation from the corner of her mouth. I also couldn't help notice the peculiar habit of a lot of people, mostly men, who spoke through their teeth, with their jaw closed. It was hard enough to understand some of them when they spoke with enunciation like we did, but when teeth are clamped together, it was next to impossible.
If there was anything that helped alleviate the pangs of homesickness all of us were plagued with in those first few weeks, it had to be the tricycle contriv-ances known as 'tea-wagons'. At every hourly 10 minute break in our training routine we could expect to see anywhere from one to a half-dozen of these little foot-propelled wagons materialize out of nowhere as their owners raced to converge on the platoons scattered about on the training grounds across the Farnborough Road. They did a roaring business selling cups of tea and apple tarts and other pastries. The tarts were my favourites. These 4" by 4" tarts were so delicious I practically gorged myself on them as long as I had the money. I have good reason to believe that it was the tarts and not the food the army served us that kept me going full throttle during the strenuous periods of our daily syllabus.
When I look back on those Aldershot days and think of all the pastries, Mars bars and the poor excuse of a lemonade that we called 'jungle-juice' I consumed daily, it had to be some kind of miracle I didn't put on an inch or two of lard around my middle. But when I recall how much energy I pumped out every day except Saturday and Sunday, I knew I had to be burning up calories as fast as I was taking them in. Actually, I did put weight on, but it wasn't in the form of lard or water. It had to be all lean-in other words, muscle. I weighed myself one day on a penny weigh-scale outside the Woolworth store in downtown Aldershot and the little card I got out of it said, 12 stone 8 oz. With a stone amounting to 14 pounds, that came to a little over 168 lbs, with not an ounce of flab around my middle or my keester. I ruminated on how I could have used that poundage when I played 'end' on the Tech football team a couple of years back. Hell, at 135 lbs I was a flyweight trying and doing a pretty good job of knocking guys down 50 pounds heavier.
Training, which began at a somewhat easy pace, picked up by the first of July. By this time we were going on weekly 20 mile route marches. Although 20 mile affairs like this were nothing new to us, we learned soon enough that they could be a little tougher than what we'd gone on in Canada where for the most part we walked on gravel which was a lot kinder on feet than asphalt, or Macadam, as it is known in England. Within Aldershot's environs we hardly ever did see a gravelled road. All our marching was done on asphalt, and in summer, especially when the temperature went up, it can get to be pretty hot to march on. By the time you reach the halfway point your feet felt like they were on fire. As a result there were far more men drop out of the march for blistered feet than ever happened at Ipperwash.
Fifty-five years have gone by since I stepped ashore in Greenock, Scotland after arriving on April 14, 1945 from my service in Italy. It's hard to believe that it was that many years ago. The war was nearing its end, and although I didn't know it, I would spend yet another eight months overseas, but it proved to be the most pleasant period of my three and a half years service in the army.
At the time, it was only natural, that I'd be just a-busting to get home, but as I look back on the last eight month period of my army career, I'm glad I never did get on one of the early boats on its way to Canada. Those eight months had to be, without a doubt, the happiest, most carefree, most enjoyable time I could have ever asked or hoped for. Let me describe briefly what it was like and the feelings that went through me.
April and May in England of 1945 was a delightful succession of bright, sunny days, the kind of Spring everyone looks forward to and revels in. As far as I was concerned, though most of my contemporaries wouldnąt agree, few are the ways in which one can experience contentment and inner serenity than can compare to an unhurried walk along shaded country lanes and across flower speckled meadows, even for a virile young specimen of Canadian manhood as I was. I did just that in the beautiful garden countryside of Surrey and Hampshire counties. I found this out in the next three months or more as I went about such a non-macho and mundane pursuit of pleasure.
Idyllic Spring days, followed by the ideal days of an equally beautiful summer did more for me in my coming back down to earth from the stresses of battle than anything else I can think of. Thereąs something about communing with Nature that's better medicine for the inner spirit than any potion a doctor can prescribe.The frequent walks and bike rides that took me through the leafy tunnel of the oak wood at Esher on my wanderings to here, there, and everywhere was a tonic for the stresses Iąd been subjected to in the year and a half I spent in Italy. Shafts of sunlight piercing the upper foliage of the tall oaks danced on the black asphalt of the roadway; birds twittering and singing, hidden amidst the foliage somewhere high above me; the flowers in brilliant hues along the wood's edge; the soughing of the gentle breezes of Spring in the leaves above; all these awakened the aspiring muse within me and I expressed myself in the way I felt through my writing. Many an evening I spent at the Underwood typewriter in the Repat. Depot Orderly Room (I was the runner) with no one around to bother me as I tapped away at the keys with two fingers, putting down on paper anything that came to mind. I wrote about what I had seen along the way on my frequent bicycle rides and meandering walks through the lovely Surrey and Hampshire countrysides, and even into Berkshire equally as lovely. I drew pictures in words describing the pastoral beauty of the fields, the farms, the canals, the country cottages. I wrote about the people I met or passed along the way. Anything that came to mind I scribbled first on little note-pads and then typed on letter-size sheets when I returned to camp. The scraps of paper on which my musings and observations were typed, have long since been lost to me, my friends, and the literary world. Deathless prose? Not likely. But whatever it was that I scribbled or typed, I like to think there had to be something there that might have been worth reading and ruminating over, or that those same thoughts and observations would have given a few moments of pleasure to me or to anyone else who enjoys such stuff. How I wish I still had those scraps of paper.author unknown
Often when it seemed I found
Goodness here, there, all around,
I saw, on closer scrutiny
The goodness come from inside me.
Why did the whole world seem to smile?
Because I laughed with it awhile.
Why was all earth so bright with sun?
Because my heart gave it one.
The past seems dear, the future right?
What was it set the day apart?
The peace of God within my heart.
Since then, when life looks dark and grim,
My assets small, my prospects dim,
I push dark thoughts back on the shelf
And seek for heaven in myself.
As the saying goes nowadays; "I must have been some kind of a nut" to spend my idle hours walking the fields and along back-country lanes and grass- banked streams, while so many others were spending their time and money getting looped-up on beer or ale in the local pubs or chasing the skirted ones. That day would come for me, but not just yet. Maybe I did seem kind of strange in their eyes. But I knew different. I was no more strange than they were. There was a purpose in those solitary walks, a becalming purpose, a celebration of my coming back from all those days of miseries, of living a good part of the time in holes in the ground, of enduring the cold rain and the sleet and snow of northern Italian winters, followed by the sweltering heat and dust of an Italian summer, and wallowing in the quagmires of the rainy season of Fall. And of course, in my quiet way I celebrated the fact that I survived the days of battle. I was at peace with myself and the world.
Stan Scislowski. Perth Regiment, Canadian Infantry
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