Civilians into Soldiers

A single large tree stood about half a mile over the river. From my platform in the treetop I had a clear view, with the aid of my telescope, of the Bulgar lines.

It was my job to spot anything and everything, jotting down on my map the position of enemy trenches and places where freshly turned earth gave away a new gun emplacement, later to be confirmed, with luck, by spotting tell-tale flashes. But now the sun was setting and soon my day’s observations would be finished.

The drab sun-scorched earth in the foreground had turned to a delicate pink. Beyond, the plain stretched away and all definition was lost in the shimmering red glow. In the background the Belasica Mountains seemed to rise straight up from the plain like a huge wall towering up to the heavens. The sunset turned the mountains into a scene of unbelievable beauty. The colours ranged from pink icing through rich crimson to various shades of deep purple. I could imagine an artist going crazy trying to mix colours to catch the fleeting beauty of the continuously changing scene, with the ravines showing as deep blue-black lines like wrinkles running down the weather beaten face of an old Greek shepherd.

Tired and relaxed now that my job was finished for the day, I started to think and wonder what in hell I was doing up that tree! From the time I had joined up to the present I’d had little time to wonder ‘why’ anything! But now my thoughts took me back to that March day in 1915 when I decided that, although only eighteen, I must go to the War.

I walked timidly into the Recruiting Office on the market square and found myself confronted by a huge figure in khaki who looked quite capable of taking on the German army single handed!

“Well son, what can we do for you?”

“I want to join the army,” I replied and as I looked up at him I could see that he was thinking, “Thank God we’ve got a Navy!”

“How old are you?”


“Well, you’d better take a walk round the square, have a birthday while you are out and come in and try again.”

I took a walk round, had a birthday and entered the Recruiting Office once more.

“Well young man, what can we do for you?”

“I’ve come to join up.”

“How old are you?”

“I’m nineteen.”

My height was measured at five foot six inches; my chest measurement was satisfactory with the aid of a loop in the tape. My weight passed with the aid of the Sergeant’s foot pressed on the scales. I signed on the dotted line, received a shilling , various ‘papers’, including a travel voucher, and was instructed to report to Chester Castle on the following Monday.

Now Harry had to face his parents; father looked stunned and his mother threatened to kill him. She had been brought up with three brothers who all fought in the Boer War. She blamed the army for the bad character of two brothers and the death of her favourite, Harry. Eventually he persuaded her that he could not stay home and await call-up so she finally let him go with her blessing.

Next he had to explain to his employer after his father told the Head of the Department he had joined up.

I listened respectfully to outraged officialdom then replied quietly. “I am very sorry Sir if I have caused you any trouble, but as I don’t expect for one minute that I shall come back, seeing from the newspapers that thousands are being killed over there, the loss of my job doesn’t matter.”

I have made many speeches in my sixty-eight years but never one which had such immediate and electrifying effect on my hearer. He sprang from his chair, rushed round his desk, and grabbed me by the hand, saying “Don’t talk such rot, of course you will come back and I will see to it that your job is kept open for you. Good luck to you boy and I shall always be interested to hear how you go on.”

So he was not such a bad old chap after all and my father later informed me that he frequently asked for news of me and when he heard on one occasion that I was ‘Reported Missing’, he was quite upset. Later when he learned that I was safe he expressed great pleasure as he did also when told I had been ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’.