Having already achieved minor success with a rifle, and with practical musketry imminent, I was determined to shoot better still. It had been hammered into us repeatedly that a soldier's best friend is not his mother, but his rifle, which he must cherish as his next of kin. At all times the metalwork, particularly the mechanism, had to be bright, clean and slightly oiled.
We had been taught the rules of aiming, and when firing to squeeze the trigger, not to pull it, and how to adjust the sights. All pretty basic stuff. To further our efficiency we were issued with metal aiming discs, some inch and a half in diameter, with a small hole in the centre and secured to a thin nine-inch metal rod. One man would lie prone on the floor with the aiming disk held to one eye. His partner would lie facing him with the muzzle of his rifle some three feet from the disc, at which he would aim. Having activated the bolt - without a round, of course - he would sight at the hole in the disc's centre, squeeze the trigger, and the bolt would crack home. The disc-holder would then say whether the firer's aim had been left, right, high or low. This taught us how better to aim and steady our rifles.
It was good practice, but I gradually found that although with 20/20 vision, I appeared to be more successful shooting left-handed. This meant hours of practice, not necessarily with a partner, holding the rifle to my left shoulder and reaching over with my left hand to activate the bolt on the rifle's right side, to bring another round into the breech. This was a time-consuming and clumsy manoeuvre but essential to practice if I were to shoot left-handed.
In due course we marched to the Shornmead Fort rifle ranges; no longer on the map, and probably by now a thriving Kentish town.
Our first attempt at musketry was to be snap-shooting, at two hundred yards, in the prone position. We, the first group were ready, knew our targets and had loaded with ten rounds of .303 ammunition.
Before the musketry sergeant gave the order to fire he would first announce his intentions to the men out of sight in the target butts' trench. There, the man at each target would raise into view a circular black and white disc some eighteen inches in diameter for four seconds, giving us time to aim and fire.
The disc was then lowered for the same period, thus giving us time quickly to reload and re-assume the firing position.On the target's reappearance we would aim, fire and reload again and so on for all ten rounds. For most of us, this was a fearsome prospect, to be increased by the unaccustomed noise and the rifle's powerful recoil into one's shoulder, which if not held correctly, could easily break a collarbone.
"Fire!" shouted the sergeant, which we did. After a few rounds, "Stop shooting!" he screamed. We stopped. What had happened? Was somebody hurt?
He came behind me and kicked my boot. "Fucking stand up, you," he yelled, which I did.
"Who the fuck taught you to shoot fucking left-handed?"
I stood to attention while he leaned his six-feet-plus quivering frame over me.
Careful, I told myself. Don't bank on him having a sense of humour. "No one, Sergeant," I said. "I just think my left eye is stronger than my right."
"Oh, you fucking do, do you? Right then, we'll see about that. Load up ten fucking rounds and have another snap shoot at your fucking target. And if you don't get a fucking possible (ten hits), you're on a fucking charge. Understand? Right, get down and reload," which I was glad to do.
"Target number eight" he shouted into his phone. "Use a new target for snap shooting. Got it. Right? Usual timing, ready? Good."
"FIRE," and up came my target.
I fired off my ten rounds, left-handed. When I'd finished he phoned the butts to ask the result. "What?" he muttered. "A possible, and good grouping?"
Silence. There was no talking.
Eventually, he turned to me. "What's your name?" I stood up and told him. He stood for a few moments scratching his chin, then, "You'd better come and see me after, when we're back in barracks." And that's how I joined the Training Battalion Shooting Team, and shot at Bisley.
Godlington - again
By now Goddie had learned from which end of a rifle the bullet emerges, but was not as yet acquainted with the accompanying sharp report, nor a rifle's painful recoil if not held correctly. Or perhaps someone had indeed acquainted him with these potential hazards, which may have caused his subsequent misgivings.
We were still on the rifle range at Shornmead Fort, and Goddie was now required to put into practice what he had previously learned in theory. That is, the relatively simple actions of loading his rifle with live ammunition, activating the bolt to bring a round into the breech, while lying prone. So far, so good.
Holding the rifle correctly, he was then required to aim at his target in the manner taught, and squeeze the trigger - NOT to pull it.
These instructions were simple and logical, as far as they went. Unfortunately for Goddie, they didn't go far enough.
All the targets lined up in the distance were clearly numbered and each man made fully aware which target was his. Except, Godlington. For reasons best known only to himself and Providence, upon lying down, adopting the firing position and awaiting orders to commence firing, he apparently selected as his target that towards which his rifle happened to be pointing, and fired off his ten rounds; his own target remaining unscathed. Occasionally he hit other target supports but never the clearly defined target areas. The resultant confusion can best be imagined.
The muscular language of the musketry sergeant had no effect. Goddie could not shoot - or rather, could not shoot straight. And since a misdirected .303 bullet can travel well over a mile, it was thought prudent for maintaining the peace of the populace of North Kent to relieve him of musketry training and allot him cookhouse duties, like peeling spuds, which he willingly performed.
At the conclusion of our basic training in Chatham we were transferred to a Royal Engineers Field Company where we were to learn many more of the numerous disciplines expected of us. We were fortunate to come under the command of one of the most dedicated and inspiring senior NCOs I have ever known.
Company Sergeant Majors are a natural hazard in any army. So powerful is their influence upon junior ranks, even upon subalterns, that the morale, prestige and efficiency of a company will often depend entirely upon them. At the top-but-one of the non-commission hierarchy, they are more likely to become regimental fixtures than their commanding officers. The latter are usually majors, hungry for promotion and eager to achieve the next step up their career ladder with another unit.
CSMs come in all shapes, sizes and temperaments and must be assessed very carefully by their juniors in order to judge with how much leeway they can afford to misinterpret King's Regulations without landing themselves in trouble. We were probably luckier than we deserved. For the rest of our training - and we all had much more to learn - we were posted to make up the strength of the 54th Field Company at Bulford Barracks, on Salisbury Plain, and came under the tutelage of Company Sergeant-Major Boyte.
With inspired genius someone had nicknamed him Jasper, after the Victorian melodramas' arch-villains. He kept us on our toes, being strict but very fair and had a rough sense of humour. Balding, and to us, well into middle age, he was only an inch or so taller than me but considerable broader. One might unwisely have been mistaken by his roly-poly appearance, but the extra weight he carried was not fat.
Ever reluctant to put anyone on a 'charge', thus reducing their chances of subsequent promotion, he would instead invite wrongdoers to meet him behind the cookhouse, wearing boxing gloves. Three rounds with Jasper were salutary lessons for anyone whatever their size, and seldom, if ever, repeated.
For a Bayley bridging exercise the Company had travelled to Somerset. It had been a long exhausting night and I was soaking wet. As part of 3rd Divisional Manoeuvres we had to construct a Bayley Bridge across the River Parrett for a company of lorried infantry to cross. It was the first time most of us had to put our bridging training into practice. Further to test our versatility, the heavy steel sections of the bridge had to be unloaded from their vehicles, carried into position, assembled, launched across the river, made secure and road-surfaced to an impossible time schedule - in total darkness, for there was no moon.
The section to undertake this task had been lined up, numbered-off, and told to get cracking. My number, whatever it was, meant it was my job to swim the river and make bank seats on the opposite side, on which the ends of the box-girder spans would securely rest. Bank seats were firm bases upon which the heavy ends of the metal bridging spans can sit, without sinking into the earth, and even able to bear the weight of a succession of heavily loaded lorries.
This I had to manage with the use of wooden railway sleepers held in place by steel-tipped wooden pickets, or stakes, some five feet long, and others much shorter, all to be driven home with a heavy wooden maul. When the bank-seats were securely in position I had to shout that the bank-seats were ready.
When assembled, the two bridging spans were then cantilevered slowly across the river, one at a time. Standing up to my neck in the water, (Oh, for an extra inch or two!) and reaching up, I had to grasp each span end in turn and align it as it came slowly across to its correct positions on the bank-seat. Invisible to those on the launching side, their only guidance was by my shouting, "More right . . .more left . . . ahead," as the case happened to be. Once the box-girder ends were correctly sited, I had then to regain the bank and secure them with the shorter pickets, again using the maul and guessing the points of impact in the darkness.
Meanwhile the rest of the team were busily laying the planking to provide the road surface across the two bridging spans. To everyone's relief we completed the task just as the lorries of infantry arrived, crossed the bridge and went about their business.
The operation over, we were dismissed to our own vehicles to get what sleep we could. Unlikely, in my waterlogged state to be popular among my fellow sappers, I chained the tailgate of our lorry to the horizontal as a bed, stripped off, wrapped myself in a blanket and lying down fell instantly asleep.
The next thing I remember was my shoulder being gently shaken and a voice saying, "Wakie-wakie. Wakie-wakie."
I pulled the blanket from my head, blinking for the sun was high and bright. Standing by me was Jasper. "You did well last night, Lad," he said, and handed me a mug of hot sweet tea. Without another word, he turned upon his heel and marched smartly away.
After war had been declared and we were on active service, there was nothing Jasper would ask of us that he was not himself prepared to undertake and he was usually the first to assess the difficulties of any dicey situation. To the best of our knowledge he was not married and seldom took the advantages of leave. The 54th Field Company had apparently become his family. At the time, wild horses could never have dragged from us any admission that we felt the slightest affection for the old bugger. But with hindsight, many of us must surely admit that he taught us something about manhood.
Godlington - finale
How Goddie remained in the Army for as long as he did is still a mystery. So too was his ability to survive while we assembled a pontoon bridge to cross the Fleet, the thirteen-mile narrow stretch of water dividing the Chesil Beach from mainland Dorset.
To simulate wartime conditions we all wore gas masks as well as the mandatory kapok lifejackets. The Fleet, where we were to cross, was about a hundred yards wide, and dangerous. The tide, whether ebbing or flowing, would race at fourteen or more knots. The expediency of bridging it at the tide's turn would have made life too easy and scarcely have tested us. So, with a full tide in spate, the first pontoon was assembled and launched broadside on. It had then to be held in position against the pull of the water by two anchor-men holding it steady in place with lines (ropes), fore and aft, on the steeply sloping landward side of the water, as stony as the Beach itself.
This was necessary so that the next pontoon could be assembled, launched, and attached, fore and aft to the first one, and so on until the far bank was reached.
Goddie was an anchorman. His instructions were simple: to wrap the rope tightly around his waist for better security, dig in his heels and maintain his hold on the first pontoon until the next was ready for launching. No mention was made of the rapidly rising tide that was evident to us all. It was assumed everyone would all take the necessary precautions.
We were all busy with our various jobs when, "Where's Goddie?" someone shouted. Where indeed? His orders were to stay put, which he faithfully obeyed.
But the end of the guy-rope and himself holding it had been completely covered by the fast rising tide, in spite of him wearing a lifejacket.
He was quickly rescued, still wearing his respirator, which was removed so that a burly sergeant could give him artificial respiration, pumping heavily on his chest to get the sea water out of his lungs. Yet, somehow he survived, with apparently no ill effects!
Before long he was to be taught to drive a car, as indeed we all were. The site was a level area of Salisbury Plain, slightly larger than the size of a football pitch. The vehicle was an open Austin Seven, then probably the cheapest car obtainable and the controls surely the simplest.
The afternoon passed pleasantly. Under a corporal driving-instructor, the lessons were undemanding, pleasant and mildly exciting. We were taught how to drive the car around the area three or four times at varying speeds, finishing the lesson by driving over the same course in reverse gear. Those of us not under instruction had nothing to do but laze in the sun, observe our mates and criticize. An afternoon off, one might say - until it was Goddie's turn.
Then we all then sat up to watch. Anything of a novel nature in which he was involved incited our interest. But no one could have foreseen any problems at so simple a lesson as learning to drive in a wide-open space. Even an Austin Seven. Even on the limitless terrain of Salisbury Plain.
Goddie took his seat behind the wheel and put the engine into gear. Which gear was never satisfactorily resolved, for the vehicle then shot off like a rocket into a tight circle. Perhaps the driving instructor had tried unsuccessfully to wrest the steering wheel from Goddie's determined grip. Perhaps the steering wheel had jammed, or even the accelerator. We never knew, for the increasing speed of the car in its circular course introduced a strong centrifugal force which threw open the driver's door; obviously not securely shut. The same force then ejected the driver too, onto the grass, while the car continued its fast journey.
Naturally, we were all roaring with laughter. But before the instructor could bring the car under control, it had again completed its tight circle, this time hitting the prostrate Goddie and breaking his leg.
As the scene now resembled a successful circus act, it took some time before order could more or less be restored and Goddie rushed to hospital.
I believe a veil of diplomatic silence was drawn over the whole episode, for we heard nothing further of the matter. Nor, I believe, was the instructor disciplined. It was a story that denied believability except for those of us who had seen it and knew Goddie. But someone had said 'enough', and Sapper Godlington was honourably discharged from the Army.
I saw him for the last time when he returned to barracks to collect his belongings. His leg was in plaster, he was wearing civilian clothes and as he said goodbye to us all, the tears were streaming down his face. He was the first, but not the last man I was to see in tears, on being discharged involuntarily from the Service.