A “Mention” and Malaria: 3

It was strange to see my home town exactly as I had left it. The only difference was that the shops, houses and other buildings seemed to be much smaller than I remembered them.

My parents and relatives seemed unchanged. I don’t quite know what I expected but it somehow surprised me to see them looking and carrying on just as they had always done. The living room and my bedroom had shrunk so much I was afraid to move in case I knocked something over. I soon realised that the folks at home, with a few exceptions, had no idea at all what life was like for the men at the front. Most of the people I met were so busy telling me how terrible it was at home, not being able to get butter and sugar, etc., etc., that I refrained from telling them any of my experiences.

I called in at the office where I’d worked as a boy. The first person I saw was a man of military age, warming his office coat before a huge coal fire before putting it on. He asked me what I had done to get ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’ and I told him I got it for larking about! One thing that disappointed and disillusioned me was that nobody knew what the various chevrons and badges that the home coming Tommy wore, denoted. Nobody seemed to know for example that the blue chevrons denoted the number of years a man had served in the War, and that the gold stripes told how many times a man had been wounded. Whenever I saw a soldier with three or four blue stripes and two or three gold ones and possibly the MM or DCM ribbon on his chest, I just had to take a second look at him and try to imagine the story he could tell.

My leave passed all too quickly and leaving my folks and my girl friend was a terrible wrench. There seemed to be no hope of the War coming to an end and I wondered how long it would be before I saw them again, if ever. Some men back from leave said that parting from their loved ones again was so upsetting they almost wished they had never gone home. I could readily understand their feelings.

Map showing relative positions of Salonica and Serres (Greece) Dorian and Belasica (Serbia) and Struma (Bulgaria)

On the way back to Salonika, I lay on the deck of a very large, very old, French battle ship, on the way from Italy to Greece, so ill that I wished a German sub would send us to the bottom and put me out of my misery.

An old British sailor noticed how miserable I was and he came to me and said he could put me right in no time. He gave me a large lump of ship’s tobacco and told me to chew it. I was feeling too weak to protest so I chewed for a while and then rushed to the side of the ship and was very, very, sick. I thought I was going to die but very soon afterwards I felt better and the old sailor said “There you are son, I knew that would put you right.”

We disembarked at a small port and as we trudged up the slopes of a bare hill to the camp on top, there was never a more miserable looking lot of men. Having been directed to a number of bell tents, we entered them and dumped our packs and equipment on the floor and sat there gloomily awaiting whatever came next. Then, what appeared to be a soldier gone mad, came rushing from one tent to another, shouting “The War’s over, the War’s over, Hoo-bloody-ray, the War’s over!” We really thought he had gone off his head and took no further notice of him. Later in the day when we were paraded, the NCO confirmed that the Armistice had been signed but even then we could hardly take it in. Whatever our ideas of the ending of the War had been, it was certainly nothing like this. Small groups of men discussed the news for hours, trying to guess what would happen to us now.

This was settled next morning when we started on the long trek towards the Struma once more, where we were told we should join our various units. We were on the march for several days and when we were well across the plain it suddenly began to dawn on me that we were heading straight for the Rupel Pass. For more than three years I had been watching the area near the Pass hoping one day we should succeed in breaking our way through, and next day, the party I was with just walked through it and a few miles inside we met up with our battalion marching back towards the Struma. When we reported to headquarters they asked “Have you just marched from Salonika?”

“Yes,” we replied.

“Good. You’re just in time to march back again with us!”

We felt mad to think that the ‘powers that be’ had marched us over one hundred kilometres just to march us back again. On the long trudge back the most discussed topic was whether we would embark for Blighty at once or not, and our hearts sank when a rumour went round that we were going to Russia!

We reached a camp outside Salonika and it was obvious we were going to remain there for some time as passes were issued for officers and men to visit the town for a day. The Scout officer asked me if I would like a pass but as Bill was posted on guard duty away from the platoon I said I wouldn’t bother as I had no suitable pal to go with. Talking to the Post Corporal later, he said he would like to see Salonika and I told him I could get passes but that I didn’t wish to go drinking or to visit Red Lamp Street and when he told me he only wanted to go sightseeing I agreed to get passes. He seemed a very decent man, about ten years my senior, married with two children whose photographs he proudly showed me.

I got the passes and we went to see the White Tower, the shipping in the harbour, the shops and other interesting things. About the middle of the afternoon we stopped at the corner of a street hesitating which way to go. As we stood there, the door of the nearest house opened a little and a neat little ankle poked out. This was followed by a silk stockinged leg, a pause, then a pretty face appeared and a beckoning finger. I started to hurry away, saying “Come on mate, let’s get out of here quick” Then I discovered I was talking to myself and turning round I was just in time to see my happily married corporal friend disappear through the door.

I decided I had seen all the sights I wanted to see and made my way out of the town onto the road which led back to camp. It was long way so when an army lorry slowed down and someone shouted “Jump on!” I quickly did so and found myself with about six other soldiers, all rolling drunk and singing at the top of their voices. The music left something to be desired but the lyrics left nothing to the imagination. When we had gone a few miles, bumping and lurching over the rough track, the truck slowed down and someone from the driver’s seat called out “Pick that poor bugger up and dump him inside.” Lying on the roadside, hopelessly drunk, was a soldier belonging to our battalion. As I was the only one sober I climbed over the back of the truck and began to drag the drunk in by the shoulders. I was just getting him over the tail-board when it moved off again. Running and jumping on whilst trying to get the rest of the drunk into the truck, I fell full length in the road, cutting a gash in my forehead. When I collected myself together I could see the dust made by the truck as it disappeared up the road. At camp I had to have a couple of stitches in my head and when I next saw my officer he laughed his blooming head off. Then I tried to explain what had happened he said “That’s alright Corporal, I quite understand, anyway I hope it was worth it!” He obviously didn’t believe a word of my story and thought it all a huge joke. If I sound smug let me hasten to say that I was no more moral than the other chaps, just scared stiff of women and fearful of the terrible disease I had heard tales of.

When the days of rejoicing are over,
When the flags are stowed safely away,
They will dream of another wild ‘War to End Wars’
And another wild Armistice day.

But the boys who were killed in the trenches,
Who fought with no rage and no rant,
We left them stretched out on their pallets of mud
Low down with the worm and the ant.

Robert Graves (1895-1985) British poet and novelist. Armistice Day, 1918.