Rite of passage

A few weeks into our training there occurred an event that was permanently to affect my social behaviour.

Because of my lack of inches I was determined to compensate with muscle. Gym sessions therefore, however strenuous, I always welcomed. One day, too energetically tackling the vaulting horse I bruised my right thigh, raising a painful abscess that needed immediate surgery; three or four days off sick at the most. The only place for this was Chatham's Naval Hospital. The only bed available was in the VD ward, next to a sailor with terminal syphilis.

An ugly hole in his face where his nose had been. His back raw; the sheets changed twice daily and burned. The top joints of most of his fingers were missing. He lay half-upright on the pillows of his bed and spent his time picking the dead tissue from one hand with the remaining finger-stubs of the other. During much of the day his parents sat by his bed, silent.

With macabre joviality, the doctors who examined his back would exclaim, "Oh, good! It's drying up nicely." But this, obviously, was only for his benefit. The smell was appalling.

I healed quickly and while saying thank you and goodbye to the ward Sister, she confided the sailor would be dead within two weeks. The infection by then would have reached his brain. Although penicillin was already acclaimed worldwide as the new wonder drug, supplies were not yet available in any quantity.


Our initial daze of adjustment had quickly shown that no man among us could afford to be an island. We relied too much upon each other for practically everything.

Each barrack room soon became a fiercely self-defensive co-operative society. Smaller cadres formed; self-supporting units irrespective of background, regional speech or personal imperfections. Which is exactly what the Army intended. It is best illustrated by the arrival of a latecomer. Godlington.

He was well-spoken, well built and desperately anxious to please with an earnest evangelical zeal, but his urbanity rested awkwardly upon the shoulders of a would-be soldier. He was given a bed in our barrack room and with time-saving necessity was soon known impiously as God or Goddie, to which he made no strong objection.

But in short he was a mobile disaster. His mind and body refused to co-ordinate. Apart from his ability to speak, eat and perform the necessary ablutions, he appeared to have few other reflexes worthy of mention. When we marched, he gangled. We treated him with rough sympathy, for we all had problems of our own. But by a reversal of Darwin's Law of natural selection, the four or five of us nearest his bed had to become his nursemaids. We helped him clean his kit, and showed him how to burnish his toecaps, his chinstrap. With parade-time approaching, it was we who had to be ready well in advance to assemble his equipment, struggle him into it, find his hat and adjust it, find his rifle and bayonet and still doing up his buttons, somehow propel him down the stairs and onto the parade ground with but seconds to spare.

It was strongly rumoured that his father was a senior policeman in Scotland Yard and Goddie's enlistment had been a last hope of shocking him into some semblance of personal responsibility. This could well have been the case, so too the suspicion that collusion existed between Scotland Yard and certain friends in Army Higher Command.

But during the time we could afford to help him, it became dangerously apparent that in any situation when in action, where quick effective teamwork was essential, he would only be a lethal menace. We shall hear more of Godlington.

Seamens' Mission

Tiny Black occupied the next barrack-room bed to mine. It was obvious why he was called Tiny, since he was six-foot four inches tall and more than proportionally broad.

"I'm Welsh," he'd told me as though his accent hadn't already screamed the fact. "I'm from Pontypool, Man, and I'm Chapel, but don't let it frighten you." It didn't.

Tiny was a year or two older than me. He'd been a miner since leaving school at fourteen, but his rapid growth had soon shown him that coal mining was best suited for smaller men. Colliery owners were not going to widen their galleries for a giant, however much coal he could shovel. And since he had to eat and drink, the only option for Tiny appeared to be the Army.

He may have been Chapel, for he neither smoked nor swore. But at any drinking session it was obvious he had hollow legs; and if we might have a serious booze-up when affluent enough on a payday, it was NAAFI beer we drank and remember, it was a lot stronger then and only sixpence a pint. Many of us had army songs, salacious stories and party tricks for occasions like those, but nothing the Palladium would have booked.

Tiny had a rare accomplishment which brought roars of acclaim from us, but could annoy the Welsh NAAFI manager, probably also Chapel. He would fill his enormous frame with huge lungs-full of air and with enough imbibed, produce a fart of such brute force as to rattle the NAAFI windows. Further to illustrate his versatility he would perform short bursts, which realistically imitated controlled Bren gun fire.

To many it might have appeared that Tiny and I were complete opposites, as indeed we were, in size, backgrounds and outlook. Yet somehow our barrack-room proximity and army life made us almost perfect companions. We were the best of friends, possibly because we appeared to have so little in common; little that is to disagree about. Surely, a sublime combination. Naturally our mutual goal was survival, with minimum effort and maximum comfort.

With the Army's muscle-bound mental hold of World War One's military manuals, learning how to dig and rivet trenches was still part of a sapper's training.

On one occasion Tiny and I were digging our adjacent 'tasks'. These were lengths of trenching: almost an entire day's work. He finished his task with effortless ease, took over from me and finished mine. For the rest of the day we sat in the sunshine on the parapet while I helped him compose an emotional love letter to his Welsh sweetheart. A valuable friendship.

Despite plentiful meals, our vigorous training kept us hungry for most of the hours between them. Thus our constant search for even more to eat led to an incident that illustrated the difficulties the Military Police must have had adjusting to unaccustomed situations.

Chatham's Seamen's Mission was housed near the docks in a large dusty hall redolent of hymnbooks and sanctity. At street level a Victorian Gothic stone archway opened onto a flight of steps leading up to a similar but smaller arch, entry secured by a pair of stout wooden doors. On Sunday afternoons the good ladies of the Mission dispensed unlimited mugs of tea and sticky buns to both soldiers and sailors, all of whom were ravenous. For the knowledgeable it was best to arrive early, eat and drink as fully and as quickly as possible, then leave.

The uninitiated, equally as hungry, would linger, whereupon with a hall full of servicemen, the entrance doors would quickly be shut and locked. The captive congregation would then be seated and treated to an afternoon session of hymns, prayers and the encouragement of pure thoughts.

In the past, some had mistimed their departure and suddenly remembering pressing engagements elsewhere, had become involved in unseemly scuffles as the doors were being closed. To ensure the future decorum of the establishment, a military policeman was henceforth stationed on duty at the top of the entrance steps.

One Sunday Tiny and I made our usual visit to the Mission. Ahead of us on the steps climbed another soldier. As he reached the top, the tall MP beckoned him over. Leaning down, his face within eight inches of his victim's, he lowered his voice to the hushed level of cathedral reverence and snarled, "Take yer bleedin' hat off. Don't you know you're in the House of God? C - - t!"

For a small moment Tiny stopped in mid-stride and glared at the corporal, but once inside Tiny and I ate and drank with our usual awesome vigour, keeping a careful eye on the number of servicemen present. With the Mission Hall becoming comfortably crowded, I raised my eyebrows at Tiny and nodded at the door.He nodded back and together we left.

"G'd afternoon Corp," said Tiny, engagingly as we passed the Red Cap on the top step.

I didn't hear his reply, for a second later Tiny Black produced the most devastating fart ever heard in Chatham's long history. It reverberated around the enclosed space like a stun grenade. Had we been in the street it would have rattled the windows in Rochester, just up the road. In short, it was perfection: a fitting tribute to military authority.

Geoffrey Chaucer would have been proud of him. Even the London Palladium might have been interested.

Copyright Bob Thwaites, 2007