Grouses in Greece

Once settled in camp the guards posted were warned that the local inhabitants were possibly hostile and it might be dangerous to visit the nearby village. Greece at that time had not made up her mind as to which side she was going to be on and so there was no fraternising with the native people.

Seeing that the climate of Salonika is so terribly hot in the summer time we got a shock to find that the winter is very severe. We had many very heavy falls of snow and the effect of a ‘Vardar Wind’ has to be experienced to be believed. Washing and shaving out in the open when there was a ‘Vardar’ on was something to remember.

One night when we had settled down in our dug-outs, an NCO pulled aside the entrance asking for Acting Lance-Corporal Smith and finding him with us told him to be ready to depart at dawn to go on a course. That meant he had to get busy and prepare for a ‘spit-and-polish’ inspection. We all set to and helped him and he went outside to get shaved. Presently he poked a partly lathered face into the dug-out saying “Billy,” (that was me, all William’s being “Billy” just as all Smith’s were “Smudger’s”), “can you shave me? I can’t see in the dark.” So I joined him outside in the cold moonlight and as he sat on an upturned box I completed lathering his face with icy cold water. It was the first time I had shaved anyone but seemed to be doing quite well. Next morning when he turned out his face was a mass of cuts and dried blood. I had nicked him umpteen times but the ‘Vardar’ wind was such an effective anaesthetic that he had felt nothing.

Soon their numbers were made up with new draft of Manxmen from England. The resulting reassignment of men meant that Bill and Harry ended up in same platoon again.

Bill introduced me to a pal with whom he had shared a dug-out and a right queer looking bloke he was. He was small, extremely thin, with the face of a clown, one moment pathetic in the extreme, the next grinning from ear to ear. In fact his mouth seemed to reach from ear to ear! Such a contrast to the stocky, unemotional Bill it would be impossible to imagine that they had become great friends.

Sam Shepherd was our new pal’s name and when we managed to stop him talking for a second I asked the usual question all soldiers ask “Where do you come from Sam?”

“If I tell you, you’ll only curse the place and tell me you once waited there for hours!”

“You don’t mean Crewe?”

“Yes, don’t tell me we’re townies?”

“Sure thing Sam, I waited there over eighteen years!”

He jumped up, grasped my hand nearly shaking it off and proceeded to talk about Crewe for hours. He had a way of relating ordinary every day happenings that made them uproarishly funny and he pulled his funny face about so much he had Bill and I doing it in sympathy. He had spent some time with a circus, played football, done a bit of boxing, was quite expert at tap-dancing and could sing comic songs like a professional.

Relations with the Greek people seemed to be improving and we were now allowed to go into the nearby village of Ijvatli where we could buy bread and fruit from the locals who by now had learned the few odd words of English, such as “Orangy Johnny.” One slick Greek vendor had hoped to steal a march on his competitors by learning more English than they and had bribed some comedian of a Tommy to teach him what to say. He must have been very puzzled when after all his trouble all he got was his back-side kicked and none of his wares bought. He had been taught to call “Johnny Engleesh bloody beeg fool! Me bloody cheat. You want orangy?”

Our guess that we should be staying in the neighbourhood of Ijvatli was soon confirmed when a gang of RE’s turned up one day and erected a boxing ring in the centre of the camp. The brigade organised a boxing competition and we enjoyed some very good bouts. Most of the old regulars, especially those who had been in India before the War, were keen on sport and our battalion had some good men at each weight. Our heavy weight was a man named Smith, an intelligent boxer with a terrific right hand punch which made him the Divisional Champion later. Out of the ring he was as gentle as a lamb and would take cheek from little squirts of men in good humour.

The men interested in boxing put in all their spare time training for the contest. Sam entered and put in a lot of time shadow boxing and tap-dancing by way of training. Bill and I were very surprised when we saw him stripped in the ring to see what a wonderful muscular development he had and he gave a very good account of himself. A vivid memory I have of that camp near Ijvatli is of Sam teaching me to tap-dance on the boxing stage by moonlight. He taught me to do one little routine which I remember to this day and could still perform it if it wasn’t for arthritis in my toe joints. The dancing lessons however were cut short by our departure for the Struma Plain so I never became a second Fred Astaire.

Much against my will I was now made to put up a stripe and became ‘acting unpaid Lance-Corporal’. This enabled me to take charge of out-posts and patrols. My ignorance of ceremonial drill and barrack square procedure gave me an inferiority complex and I detested that part of army life. On out-post or on patrol or observation post, I was quite happy and confident seeming to know by instinct how to take cover, how to camouflage my post and how to make use of dead ground. When I went scouting forward of my observation post I never returned directly to the post but always made my way back to a spot some distance away so that I could approach it under cover. I learned this little bit of field-craft from the sky-lark which never returns directly to its nest.