In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the various regiments of the British Army, which then as now were fiercely individual in their ways, recruited and trained their own bands more or less as they pleased and each went its own sweet musical way. In 1854 Queen Victoria held a review of over 16.000 troops, including bands, at Scutari. It was the first time ever that so many bands had massed, the result was a disaster, they could not even play the National Anthem at the same tempo, in the same key or at the same pitch. The result was a cacophony of sound, it was deeply shaming to those concerned and, worse, carried the implication that regiments which could not even play together would be hard put to fight together, thus diminishing their important deterrent effect on many of our erstwhile enemies.
The Duke of Cambridge was the professional head of the Army at the time; he resolved that this sort of performance could not be tolerated and must never happen again. He pushed through a proposal that all Army musicians should in future be trained to uniform, high standards, and that they should be frequently inspected by one central musical organisation. The authorities bought Kneller Hall, the large country house and grounds of the distinguished court painter Sir Godfrey Kneller sited in Twickenham, about fifteen miles south west of Central London- and founded the Royal Military School of Music there in 1857.
Paul Collet, another and me at School of MusicKneller Hall1947
Me at Kneller Hall 1947 trying to impress Jock McCulloch He was not impressed!
Chelsea Barracks Westminster London
Fred the enthusiastic cymbalist
Bandsmen Bill Griffiths and Paul Collet
(Above) Brother Cpl Bob Griffiths CO's Bugler. Khartoum, Sudan 1946 (My reason for joining the KSLI)
My Mother and me 1948 at Buckingham Palace, while I was posted there for Guard Duties
Arriving at the gates of the School of Music was nothing like the time I had arrived at Copthorne Barracks on my first day in the Army. I was now seventeen years old, my height had increased to about five foot three, I was quite confident about looking after myself, and was looking forward to improving my skills as a musician.
What I did not realise was that there was not to be a great deal of time for humour during the year that was to follow. The School of Music had a reputation for turning out good professional musicians, and this could not be achieved without a lot of very hard work and diligent study. Anyone thinking he could get away with anything but that, was well and truly mistaken. Weekly progress reports were submitted on each student’s progress and anyone failing to keep up to the required standard was promptly expelled and returned to his Regiment. So, I was determined to make the grade and settled down quickly to the routine that was to be my life for the next twelve months.
The Course was made up of some two hundred odd Pupils, as we were to be called, from various Regiments and Corps, and about twenty more advanced musicians who were to be trained as future Bandmasters. They were known as Student Bandmasters, and if not already aspired to the rank of Sergeant, were given that rank on a temporary basis to put them in a position of authority over the pupils. The daily routine was made up of periods of military training, physical fitness, lessons on your particular instrument, and practise, practise, and more practise, both on an individual basis, and as a whole band.
There were also periods of training in the appreciation of music, when we attended lectures given by the Student Bandmasters, or sometimes given tickets to attend concerts at such places as the Albert Hall, after which we were expected to express our views, opinions, and understanding of the Concerts in question. All in all there was not much time for anything else but music, and, if you wanted to survive the course, Good Conduct, was absolutely essential.
I was to survive, and also to gain a little distinction by being awarded a prize for making the best progress on my particular instrument, which was to stand me in good stead a little later, giving me the chance of promotion, and a better position of authority. So it was then that I was now due to return to my Regiment, the Course having come to an end after twelve months of really hard, but rewarding work behind me.
There were plenty of enjoyable times, but nothing that could be termed as funny in any way.
Our two Battalions had been amalgamated in June of 1948 to form the 1st Battalion of The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. It was now October 1948, and the Battalion was in London to carry out Public Duties, which involved providing the King’s Guard at Buckingham Palace, St. James’ Palace and the Guard at the Tower of London. These Duties started in the previous month of September and were to continue till the following year in August. During this time, although a serious job was being carried out, we were to see some humorous and sometimes hilarious events take place which all helped to make army life pleasurable and good fun.
I had packed my kit bag, said cheerio to all the friends I had made during my course at the school, and I was off on the next stage of my career. It had been a relatively short journey by train, followed by a few stops on the London Underground, then a few minutes by bus and here I was, once again stood in front of great big iron barrack gates. This was the third time in less than three years that I had had this experience, only this time I was full of confidence, no sense of apprehension whatsoever, for I was now eighteen years old, a fully fledged private soldier in the forces of King George VI, wearing a uniform of which I was very proud, and I felt ready to cope with any situation that may arise.
I reported to the Guard Room where the Regimental Provost Sergeant confronted me. He was a big chap, and he spoke with a very strong Irish accent as he said, "You must be Griffiths, we were told to expect you". He looked over his shoulder and called to a Lance Corporal who was sat at a desk. "Corporal, take this laddie and report to the Bandmaster".
With my kit bag over my shoulder once more, I followed the Corporal. As we walked alongside the Barrack Square, I looked up at the buildings. They were great big buildings built of stone, three stories high and they seemed to stretch forever. This was Chelsea Barracks, the home of Guards Regiments, and I couldn’t help noticing that everything seemed larger than normal. The Guards were known for their height, in those days they had to be at least six foot tall, so I suppose everything was built to suit them.
We arrived at a door to a building at the end of the Barracks where I was ushered into an office. There was the Bandmaster George (Scrubber) Hey. He smiled, welcomed me back, and complimented me on completing my course with a special mention to the progress prize that I had won.
He introduced me to a new Sergeant that had been posted in to the K.S.L.I from the Parachute Regiment. He looked a bit tough and evil but very smart. I thought to myself, I should have to be careful not to upset this chap. The formalities over I was dispatched to my new home, which was on the second floor of this magnificent building. It seemed like sheer heaven. A real building to live in at last. I had forgotten to mention that the billets at the School of Music had been much the same as Copthorne, old Nissen huts built from semi circles of corrugated iron, complete with the old iron stoves, twenty or so men to a room, and a long track to the wash rooms and showers. But here, I was being treated to sheer luxury. The rooms were large, with high ceilings,beautifully polished floors, still with about ttwenty men to a room, but with much more floor space per man.
There was something missing, it took me a little while to work out what it was. It was those big horrible black iron stoves. There weren’t any! Instead, there was central heating. Central Heating! what a life these Guardsmen led. Here I was, once again in the company of my old pals. They did not appear to have changed much. Some of them like me had grown quite a lot, others seemed much the same. There were quite a few new faces as well, chaps who had joined us from other Regiments, and others who had joined directly from civilian life.
I was quickly filled in on what our duties were here in London. We had to supply the King's Guard at both Buckingham and St James’ Palace every other day. This meant marching from Chelsea to Buckingham Palace, then on to St James’ Palace to mount the Guard one day, the following day to dismount the Guard. The next day would be spent rehearsing to perfect our drill for these ceremonious occasions. The ‘BULL’ required to keep up the standard of turnout for these duties was unbelievable. ‘BULL’ being the polite word for ‘BULLSHIT’, which was the common term used to describe the cleaning, polishing, shining of brass work et cetera that makes the British Soldier what he is. A smart upright figure of a man, with every part of his uniform or accoutrements, which could be shined or polished, done so to the utmost perfection.
There was an inspection every morning to make sure that everyone had carried out his ‘BULL’ to the highest standard. First a Sergeant would carry out the inspection. Then by a Sergeant Major, then by a Captain or Major, and finally, if it was a day on which we were to go to the Palace, by the Adjutant or The Commanding Officer. God help anyone who had not turned out anything other than immaculate. But after a while all this ‘BULL’ became second nature, and just a way of life. It certainly never did us any harm, in fact I think even in these days, you can pick out the older civilians who went through this sort of training just by their appearance and bearing. We had a Regimental Sergeant Major posted into the Regiment from the Welsh Guards. This was because his experience of Public Duties could be passed on to us, and therefore ensure that we could do everything that was expected of us in the highest possible standard.
It really was quite an honour, and an uplifting experience to march through those Palace gates, with all the Pomp and Circumstance and the crowds gathered round to watch. We often saw Prince Phillip, or the then Princess Elizabeth standing in the windows overlooking the Palace forecourt, and when Prince Charles was born he was often to be seen as well. Life here in London was quite different to anything I had known before. The pace of life was very fast. The emphasis was on the very highest standards of military discipline and appearance. There was certainly no room for anyone who was not prepared to accept anything less than one hundred per cent commitment to giving and displaying those standards.
It was great to see brother Bob again. He was a Corporal in the Bugle platoon, a section that he had helped to create whilst serving in the Sudan in 1947. He was the senior Corporal in that platoon and held the position of Commanding Officer's Bugler. He had learned to play the bugle when he was with the Army Cadets in Hereford before joining the regular Army. He was an excellent bugler and I could always tell when he was acting as Duty Bugler. It was a pleasure to wake in the morning to hear him playing ‘Reveille’, and during the day I used to wait to hear the rest of the daily bugle calls because he played them so well, especially Sunset and The Last Post.
I was not present on the very first parade that took place on these Royal Duties, but I have it good authority that it was normal practice for a London policeman to march ahead of the guard on it’s journey from Chelsea Barracks to the Palace, in order to control any traffic or other form hindrance to the parade. On the morning of this first parade by our Regiment, the London Bobby duly arrived and took up his place outside the Barrack Gates ready to carry out his duties. He was apparently left standing as our guard were given the command to march off, because the pace at which we marched was one hundred and forty paces to the minute. That is fast! And to make matters worse for him, our Adjutant had ordered that the pace be even faster for this first parade to create a really good impression on the public. The copper was well and truly left behind and it was fortunate for the guard that there were no major hold up’s. The result of this was however that the following morning the police sent the escort on horse back in order that he could keep ahead of the guard, and this was to be the procedure for the rest of the Regiments tour of duty. But not without minor mishaps.
One morning on our way to the Palace, preceded by our mounted escort, we had just passed Victoria Station and had come to a junction with a turning to the left. We normally went straight on, but this particular morning there was a diversion sign at the junction indicating that traffic should turn left. The police escort was obviously aware that it was not necessary for us to obey the diversion for reasons best known to him, so he carried straight on. Not our Bugle Major, he thought the policeman had gone the wrong way, so he threw out his left arm to indicate that the parade should bear to the left, and left we all went. The Bugle Major was then confused because we had not travelled this route before, and he was not sure which turning to take next as we were now heading towards Hyde Park Corner instead of Buckingham Palace. By this time the policeman had realised that he had lost his charge, and had turned round to gallop after us. We heard the clatter of horse’s hoofs and someone who knew the way was once again leading us. A sharp right turn took us back on course and the day was saved. Another few yards and we would have been way off course, marching round the back of the Palace instead of the front.
The poor old Bugle Major was very relieved that he had been saved from total embarrass-ment, but took a lot of ribbing about what might have been, for some time after that. Many times when we reached that same point on later occasions, voices could be heard saying, ‘straight on, no left turn’. He never made the same mistake again, not on the way to the Palace anyway, but he did manage to take us the wrong way on another occasion when we were marching to Windsor Castle, and this time we did not have a police escort to put him right, so we were completely at his mercy. We made it in the end, and once again it left him wide open for ridicule, but, he could take it, he had no option.
There were to be other little funnies on the way to or from the Palace, like the time the fellow playing the cymbals, a chap called Fred, got a little too enthusiastic and gave an extra bit of effort during a rousing march that was being played, causing one of his cymbals to fly off the handle, narrowly missing the head of the musician in front of him. The offending instrument crashing to the ground with even more effect than he had intended. He broke ranks and quickly retrieved the cymbal, but was unable to use it for the rest of the parade, much to the annoyance of the Bandmaster, but of course, the blame was attributed to the age of the instrument and not to Fred.
There were two very relieved musicians at the end of that parade, Fred, for not being blamed for the disaster, and the musician in front of him, for not losing his head. Another time when we were on the Barrack square just waiting to march off to the Palace, the Adjutant's dog ran on to the square, running in and out of the ranks, snapping at our heels. No one dared move, except Jeep. Remember Jeep?
He was playing the bass drum, and there he was all dressed up in his leopard skin, and wielding great big drumsticks. The dog got a bit too close to Jeeps’ heels and Jeep let fly with one of his drumsticks. There was one hell of a yelp! And the dog went scurrying across the square, with the R.S.M. shouting to Paddy Ryan the Provost Sergeant, "Catch that bloody animal and lock it up in the guard room".
The Adjutant didn’t look too pleased, and Paddy, who was rather large and a trifle unfit, didn’t look much like being able to carry out the order being given. But, he surprised us all and actually caught the dog, duly locked it up as ordered, and stood there looking so pleased with himself, It was probably one of the best arrests he ever made in all the time he held the post of Provost Sergeant.
I don’t know how long the dog was sentenced to imprisonment, but I suspect that the Adjutant had him released pretty quickly. Funny though, we never saw that dog on parade again. I wonder why?
Dabber Davies was to cause a bit of a stir on another occasion. It was on the way back from the Palace, and he kept falling behind the rank he was in, and every so often had to almost run to keep up with the rest of us. He was not too big a chap, but he was playing the biggest instrument we had, the Double Bass.
The Band Sergeant, Snips Parsons, the ex paratrooper, was not amused at Dabber’s antics, and thought he was playing the fool. When we arrived back at camp, Snips promptly told Dabber that he would be put on a charge for fooling about on parade. Being put on a charge was to be hauled in front of the Company Commander, and tried for misconduct, and if found guilty, given some sort of punishment.
Dabber thought he would get one up on Snips, and before he could be charged, dashed to the Medical Centre together with his big Double Bass, and asked to see the Medical Officer. When asked what the problem was, Dabber said "this", and held the instrument up in front of the Doctor. He explained what happened on parade, and complained that the instrument was much too heavy for him to carry at the fast pace that we were expected to march at. The Doctor weighed Dabber, and then weighed the Bass, he agreed that the instrument was too heavy, and wrote a letter to the Bandmaster suggesting that Dabber be given a smaller instrument.
Dabber laughed all the way back to the Bandmaster’s office. Snips was absolutely furious, but he had the last laugh. He changed Dabber’s instrument to a cornet, the smallest of the brass instruments, and gave him a week to learn to play it, or risk getting thrown out for incompetence. Poor old Dabber, he made it, but I think that helped him to make up his mind to leave the Band shortly after that.
Another character who often gave us call for a laugh was also called Davies, but this one was nicknamed ‘Sparkler’, why I really never knew. He had joined the Regiment whilst I was at Kneller Hall. He came from the North and was really a very good musician. He had lots of experience playing in brass bands and was very proficient on the cornet and the euphonium. Just why he was picked on for practical jokes I don’t know, but he was. He is sure to get a mention or two during the rest of this book.
The first time I remember him being picked on was one night when he had gone out boasting that he was dating some gorgeous female at a big bonfire party. It was suggested that he might end up being the ‘Guy Fawkes’ but he dismissed this saying that we were all jealous because he had a date and nobody else did. He was probably right, so someone dreamed up a gag to put one over on him whilst he was out.
One of his uniforms was taken from his locker, not his best one of course, we were not that malicious. It was stuffed with his pillows and blankets, his boots were attached it and a head formed from a pillow with his beret attached to it. The whole creation was one of the best ‘Guys’ I had ever seen, in fact it looked more like Sparkler’than him in real life. Someone went up into the loft above our room and dared to make a small hole in the ceiling just above Sparklers's bed. A piece of cord was then fed through the hole and ‘Sparkler was ceremoniously hauled up and suspended from the rafters above. Lights out had been sounded on the bugle and everyone went to bed. Sparkler had not yet returned from his bonfire bash, so most of us were unable to sleep, waiting anxiously to see what happed when he came back.
It must have been about half past eleven when we heard footsteps coming up the stairs. "Quiet everyone" someone shouted. We all pretended to be asleep, and in came Sparkler. It was not too dark as there was a little moonlight shining through the windows and of course we did not have the luxury of curtains in those days
Everyone was trying to get a peep from under their blankets to see what Sparkler's reaction would be. It was strange, because for a few minutes or so he did notice that anything was wrong. It was either because of the half
-light, or perhaps he was reminiscing on the events of his evening out, but all of a sudden he exploded. "What the bloody hell’s going on. Who’s been playing about with my bed, where’s my blankets?" All this in his broad Lancashire accent just made everyone curl up laughing. "What’s up Sparkler?" someone shouted. "Keep your bloody voice down, there’s people trying to get some sleep round here."
That only made poor old Sparkler more angry than ever. "If I can’t sleep, then why the hell should you?" he cried. Then he looked up and saw the dummy hanging from the ceiling, he reeled back, and even though it was quite dark, I swear he was seen to go quite pale. It didn’t however take him very long to realise that it was his own kit that was hanging there.
"You bastards" he cried as he flew out of the room, and he could be heard stamping up the steps to the loft area which was by now even darker than ever. We heard him scrambling across the beams in the loft, and then the dummy started to swing. He had obviously found the end of the rope securing it, then there was an almighty crash, we looked up and there was one of Sparkler’s feet coming though a hole in the ceiling. He was very lucky because he somehow or other had managed to hold on to one of the beams before hauling himself back up. The dummy had dropped down and there was a fair sized hole in the ceiling and lots of plaster all over his bed and the floor area surrounding it. The initiators of this prank were already beginning to wonder if they gone a bit too far this time, thinking ahead to the consequences when the hole was discovered.
Sparkler then came rushing back into the room still shouting abuse at everyone, and racing to his bedside to rescue his kit from the debris. By this time a few of the worried guys had leapt out of bed and were hurriedly helping to clear up the mess that had been made. Our polished floors were immaculate, and had to be, for the room inspection, which took place every morning, so the pranksters did not want to be blamed for the mess that had been made
Eventually after being helped to tidy up the place, his bed made and his kit returned to his locker, Sparkler, still muttering and threatening revenge, retired to bed and everyone else tried to settle down, although those responsible for the hole in the ceiling were desperately worried about the eventual outcome. After all, they could not put the blame on poor old Sparkler. The next morning we could not believe it when the room inspection took place, because the hole in the ceiling was not noticed. There were a few faces with a distinct look of temporary relief, and already the scheme was being hatched to make some attempt to hide the damage. It turned out to be reasonably simple. Someone managed to stick a piece of paper over the hole and gave it a coating of white Blanco, and from below it was not really very noticeable. We never found out if it was ever discovered and certainly nobody ever was charged for the damage.
Our Bugle Major had gone on leave for a short period and was replace by a Corporal from the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. I can’t recall his name but he was to cause embarrassment to himself and a laugh for us all when one morning, as we were leaving St James’ Palace after mounting the guard, we had a right turn out of the Palace Yard and the signal for this movement was indicated by the Bugle Major throwing out his right arm with his mace reaching out to it’s full extent until the move had been completed by the front rank, the remainder of the parade following suit.
Simple enough you would think as it had been done several times during every parade, But this particular morning the Corporal got a little too enthusiastic with this movement and, as he threw out his fight arm the mace slipped from his grasp and flew across road in front of us and the watching crowd. Talk about red in the face, poor chap, he broke away from the parade, picked up the mace and rejoined the ranks as fast as he possibly could. Strangely he never appeared on another parade with us and my brother Bob had to take over the job until the return of our regular Bugle Major.
I was not to escape being embarrassed or flirting with the threat of losing the chance to earn my Long Service Medal, in fact one occasion which sticks in my memory was the time when our drummer who was shortly to be married wanted to go home for a weekend to see his intended bride, but had been told that he was required that weekend to play for a church service in the Regimental Chapel. This was a weekly parade performed by a small number of musicians due to the size of the chapel, and unfortunately the drummer was required on every occasion because he was the only competent percussionist.
On this particular occasion Stan, the drummer asked me if I would stand in for him if the Bandmaster would allow it. I agreed because the only instrument used was timpani, a rather large drum gently beaten with a soft larger than average drumstick. The Bandmaster agreed to this providing I proved my competence during a rehearsal. I managed to follow the music and performed to his satisfaction, after all, we were not playing anything complicated, just a gentle piece of music as a voluntary, a few hymns and a lively piece whilst the congregation left after the service.
The morning of the service came, Stan had gone off for his weekend leave and I trundled off to the church with drum and sticks, confident that I was to make a name for myself as a budding percussionist. The service started, I got through the voluntary and during the hymns there was little to do. The came the end of the service, and the time came to play the National Anthem. A roll on the drums always precedes this. This had obviously been taken for granted during rehearsal, and I had not been given the opportunity to practice this.
All of a sudden I realised this was not easy. I could visualize Stan, practising this difficult task for hours every day. He practised for hours every day to achieve perfection. I remember well the way he tapped his drum twice with his left drumstick, then twice with the right, repeating this getting quicker and quicker saying out loud as he did so, ‘mum-my dad-dy’ ‘mum-my dad-dy’ until the speed of the drumsticks gave the required effect. I now know why he practised so much, because as I tried to produce the roll that was expected all I got was a sound that resembled a broken down old motor car, going, ‘put-a-put’ ‘ put-a-put’ ‘put-a-put’. There was no way I could get anywhere the sound that was required.
The Bandmaster’s face was something I shall never forget, he went red in the face, he fumed, he snorted, grunted and if looks could have killed, I would not be here to tell the story. He quickly brought down his baton and the band started playing without the necessary drum roll. At this stage I wished that I had never offered to stand in as drummer. I was only five foot three but felt more like ‘three foot five’. After the service we got back to the band store and the Bandmaster went berserk. He told me never to set foot anywhere near the percussion section again, and was in two minds whether or not to put me on a charge for my incompetent behaviour. Lucky for me he didn’t. (Long Service and Good Conduct?)
He had been so embarrassed at the ‘cock
-up’ I had made especially as the Commanding Officer had been in the very front seat in the chapel. He was not nearly so embarrassed as me, for I was the one who had recently received praise for doing so well at the School of Music, but on the clarinet I must add, not on the drums.
When Stan arrived back from his weekend, I told him what had happened at the church service. "Damn" he said, "I never thought of that, what an idiot I am" I said, " The Bandmaster was fuming, he was about to have me shot". Later the Bandmaster got hold of Stan and gave him absolute hell. He was told never to ask for weekend leave again because it would not be granted. He was also told never to let anyone near his percussion instruments again.
Life however went on and we were all enjoying ourselves, despite all the hard work that we had to put in to keep up the standards expected of us. Certain luxuries were afforded us such as our laundry. We did not have the facilities to do our own clothes washing, so we were able to send our dirty socks, shirts vests pants etc to a laundry via our Quartermasters department. Our weekly bundle of dirty bits and pieces were duly wrapped up, generally in a towel, tied with string and labelled with an official label listing all the items in the bundle. These were then sent off to a laundry in Windsor, and returned the following week all nice and clean and smelling decidedly better that when sent off.
We guessed that the laundering was done by female staff, and to this end we used to write little messages on the backs of the laundry labels, and we were quite pleased that very often we got little notes back from them, giving their names and a few little kisses. It got to be quite a regular performance, and we even used to send our little bundle for the particular attention of a named girl at the laundry. It worked well and it was almost like having your own personal laundress. They all seemed to have a sense of humour, because we would very often get our laundry back with perhaps, the tops of a pair of socks sewn up, with a message saying this was to stop them getting smelly. Or perhaps a pair of underpants starched so stiff that they would be impossible to wear without doing damage to certain parts of the anatomy.
Sleeves and buttonhole of shirts were often stitched up and we soon learned to look at our kit as soon as we got it back to see what the girls had in store for us. Nothing was worse than trying to get your shirt on just before a parade only to find some part of it sewn up, and having to work frantically to remove the stitches and still be ready for parade. Brother Bob and myself had been put in touch with two sisters who worked at the laundry. Through various notes we had put on the back of our labels, they had deduced that we were brothers, and getting near to the Christmas period they invited us to visit them at their parents home in Windsor. All this on the backs of our laundry labels. The system was better than Royal Mail or pigeon post. Bob and I readily accepted the invitation and through our primitive means of communication, were given directions on how, where, and when to meet them.
It was to be quite simple, we would go by train and they would meet us at Windsor station, they then would take us back to their home where they assured us we would be made more than welcome by their parents and that we were to be treated to Christmas dinner and all the trimmings. The time arrived and off we went, quite excited at the prospect of meeting the girls. I can’t for the life of me now remember their names, but we were very impressed when we met them. They were two lovely girls, pretty, pleasant and wonderful company.
They took us back to their home chatting and laughing all the way, they were really good fun. They introduced us to their parents who were also very nice, and the perfect hosts. The welcome and hospitality they showed us was tremendous. We had a fabulous time, and they made us feel like part of the family. At the end of the evening, the girls escorted us back to the station where we caught the train back to London, but not before having accepted a further invitation to visit them the following week for a further family get together to celebrate the New Year. We got back to barracks and of course everyone wanted to know how we had got on. They were all quite envious of us, and would not believe that we had just had a good evening of family entertainment, and not taken the girls off for a ‘bit of the other’.
We tried to explain that they were really nice girls and that sort of thing was really out of the question. Nobody believed us of course, especially when we said that we were going back again the next weekend. The weekend arrived and off we went to Windsor again to meet the girls. This time it was on a Sunday, the previous having been a weekday. Once again the girls met us at the station and took us home. Mum and Dad were there to greet us and once again plied us with enough food and drink for the whole of the Regiment so it seemed.
This time they did leave us alone in the parlour with the girls where we did get a little bit of a kiss and a cuddle, but I can assure you that is as far as it went. ‘Honestly’. The end of the evening came too quickly and once again it was time to return to barracks. The girls asked what time our train was, and we said it would be the last train the same as the previous week. So off we went, escorted by the girls, great isn’t it, a couple of hairy soldiers being escorted by a couple of pretty young girls?
We arrived at the station and found it absolutely deserted and wondered what had happened. A porter who was standing on the platform looked at us and said, "What do you want lads?" "The train to London" said Bob. "You missed that, it went about an hour ago" said the porter. It must have been about quarter past eleven and Bob said, "But we caught one from here at half past eleven last week", "I’m telling you that the last train leaves here on a Sunday at ten thirty, and it’s gone" said the porter. Sunday! ! It suddenly dawned on us that the previous week we had visited the girls on a weekday, and of course the last train would have been much later. The girls laughed their heads off, and we must have looked like a couple of real country idiots. "Never mind", said Bob, "We’ll go and catch a bus". "Last bus went before the last train" said Mister Porter. He was laughing now, and it was only poor Bob and myself not laughing.
"We’ll just have to walk then", said Bob. "You can’t do that" said the girls, "It’s about twenty seven miles, come back to our place and we are sure Mum and Dad will put you up for the night". What a lovely thought, perhaps we could take over from where we left off earlier in the evening, then we might be able to go back and report to our mates that we had scored after all. "We can’t possibly do that" said Bob. "We are on parade and have to mount the guard at the Palace in the morning".
"Goodnight girls, thanks for a lovely time, come on Bill, by the left, quick march"
We gave the girls a quick kiss, said good night and off we marched out into the darkness of the road outside. We were confident that it would not be long before we were able to hitch a lift, but it was New Year, no trucks, no cars, no traffic at all. We were fortunate that we had travelled that road before whilst performing guard duty at Windsor Castle a few weeks before, so off we marched. Twenty seven miles, even if we kept up our Light Infantry pace it was going to take us all night. Bob suddenly said, "Bloody hell, we’ll be in trouble now, we will have been marked absent already". Now there is a damned good reason for losing entitlement to the Long Service and Good conduct Medal if ever there was one.
"We might just be able to get out of trouble", said Bob, "If we can get to a phone, I know the corporal on guard duty, I’ll give him a ring and tell him what has happened". We came across a phone box, Bob did just that and our story was accepted, but we still had a long way to go, and it was not certain that we were going to make it in time. Fortunately, the weather was quite good, I was a fit young eighteen year old, and Bob was an even fitter twenty one year old. Poor old feet, they were beginning to ache despite the fact that we were both fit and used to marching long distances. In those days of course we didn’t have motorcars or even bikes, so we had to walk. Just as well because it really stood us in good stead. We battled on and now the legs were aching as well as the feet.
I started to struggle a bit but Bob kept egging me on. "Come on" he said, "You can make it". I wasn’t going to let him down so I really tried harder, and after a while the pain started to disappear, or perhaps the poor old legs had gone numb. Whatever it was, I was glad, because about what must have been about five and a half or six hours later we turned a corner, and there it was. Chelsea Barracks, we had made it, but only just.
Bob sneaked a quick look into the guard room, saw his mate the guard commander, who took one look at us and said, "Christ, you two look absolutely knackered, you’ll never be able to make the parade this morning", "Oh yes we will", we both said together, and made a quick dash for our billets before anyone spotted us. Some of the lads were already up getting dressed ready to start a new day. "You dirty pair of ‘stop outs’" someone shouted. "Don’t try and tell us you haven’t had it away this time. You both look as though you’ve been at it all night". We were too shattered to argue, so we let them get on with it while we started to get ourselves ready for parade, dreading the fact that our legs might seize up if we didn’t keep moving. We both managed the parade all right, but with difficulty, and we felt the pain for quite a few days afterwards. You know, we never went to see those girls again, even though we had further invitations.
We have laughed at that affair and related the story many many times since, and I don’t think we have made a train journey since without first checking, and double
-checking timetables. And what’s more, we always tried to find out where girls lived and how far away it was before we dated them.
And what about the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal?
This episode would have been most serious if we had been caught out. Missing a Kings parade could have been considered a very serious offence I am sure, so once again I had avoided messing up my army career as the type of soldier I knew my father wanted me to be.
We used to go out in the evenings, usually to the nearest pub which was called the Rose and Crown, where Bob and I used to play darts quite a lot. We were pretty good at the game in those days and we made a point of going to the pub fairly early so that we could be first on the board. We would deliberately play not so well and it was not long before someone would challenge us to a game for a pint. We accepted gladly, then proceeded to play our very best, and we had many free pints as a result of our devious ploy. At this time we were not of course supposed to be out together, because NCO’s and private soldiers were not allowed to fraternise, so when we went to book out at the Guard Room, Bob would go out first on his own, and I would follow a little later. We would then meet up once outside the barracks.
Inside the pub it didn’t matter so much because if anyone came in who was in a position to catch us out, I would just sit down and chat to a couple of old Chelsea Pensioners who were in the pub every night. They were smashing old boys and very interesting to talk to.
There was one occasion when Bob and I were chatting to each other on the side of the barrack square when the RSM was way over on the other side of the barracks. We had not seen him, but he saw us. "Corporal Griffiths" he bellowed, we both turned and saw him in the distance, his left handover his head fingers spread like spiders legs. This was the recognised signal to go over to the person giving such a signal. "At the double" he roared. What a voice, I bet he could have been heard all the way over to Buckingham Palace, well almost.
Poor old Bob, he went hell for leather over to the R.S.M. and stood firmly to attention in front of that formidable figure of a man. "Who’s that you are talking to?" he said. "It’s my brother, private Griffiths" Bob replied. "I don’t care if it’s your brother or not, he’s a private soldier, double back over there and make him stand to attention when he’s talking to you, do you understand Corporal?" "Yes sir" said Bob, and with that turned smartly about and doubled back to where I was standing. "Stand to attention", said Bob, "That blighter’s got eyes like a bloody hawk, you better get yourself promoted to Lance Corporal pretty quick otherwise we won’t even be able to talk to each other". "I’m doing my best", I said. "My report from the school of music could have helped, but the episode on the drums at church might hold me back a bit, but I will keep trying".
After that Bob and I did not fraternize too much in camp, but still managed to see a lot of each other outside, like our evenings out winning beer at the dartboard. Very often after our nights out, having earned our beer money at the dart board and therefore still having cash left, we would go over on to Chelsea Bridge where there was a hot dog stand. We would gorge ourselves with hot dogs or beef burgers washed down with big mugs of strong coffee. Sometimes we would take some back to camp to eat before going to bed. Some of the lads cottoned on to this, and it wasn’t long before we were taking orders from the guys who didn’t go out a lot, and bringing their supper back for them. We didn’t mind doing this, it made us quite popular and we often earned a free hot dog as a result.
There was one chap though who tried to take advantage of us. His real name I can’t remember, but he was nicknamed ‘Doofer’. This was because at the time cigarettes were not very plentiful, and this guy used to go round picking up cigarette ends, which were known as ‘dog ends’ or ‘doofers’. He would take out the bits of tobacco that were left and roll them up in new cigarette papers and smoke away to his heart’s content, but much to the disgust of the rest of us. Hence the nickname ‘Doofer’.
One evening before we went out, Doofer asked us if we would bring back a couple of beef burgers for him when we came back with our ‘supper order’. This we did but when we asked him to pay for them he said that he had no money at that time but would pay us on Payday. Payday came and we still didn’t get our money. He came out with some excuse or other that we foolishly accepted. But a few nights later he again asked to bring him a couple of beef burgers, which we did, and once again did not get paid. He had taken us for a ride, and we like fools let him do it. We could hardly believe the cheek of this chap when once again a few nights later asked to be included in the nightly supper order. We told him OK but this time he would have to pay before we handed over the goods. We were quite sure that he was broke and would not be able to pay.
Anyway, when we got to the hot dog stall I remembered the ‘Nuff Nuff’ and bacon sandwich incident a couple of years before, so I said to Bob, "We’ll teach this blighter a lesson tonight", and with that ordered an extra burger, cut it open, scooped out a big hole in the middle and filled it cram full with mustard and lashings of pepper, popped it back in the bread roll and headed back to camp. "This will make his bloody eyes water, and I hope his arse burns when he farts, he won’t want another burger after this", I said to Bob.
When we arrived back in the barrack room we dished out the supper leaving Doofer till last, having told everyone else what we had done, and to keep their eyes open for what was about to happen. We asked Doofer for the money, but just as we had suspected, he said he didn’t have any. We said this was the very last time, and he could only have one burger instead of two. He was a greedy sort of sod, and he always ate like it was the last meal he was ever going to have, he didn’t really chew his food, he just threw it down his throat and swallowed like a pig. It was really a treat and worth the price of the burger to watch him take that first massive great bite. The mustard and pepper must have hit the back of his throat like a rocket, it was too late to bring it back and within seconds he leapt out of bed naked in the direction of the lavatories. I’ll swear smoke was coming out of his ears, nose, mouth and every other orifice of his scrawny scruffy body.
The laughter around the room was tremendous. "That will teach the tight fisted bastard", someone shouted. It was some time before he returned to his bed, muttering all sorts of obscene and obnoxious threats whish of course were completely ignored by all. Funny thing, he never asked us to get his supper again.
One of our lads that used to enjoy Sundays in particular was a lad from Cornwall. A big chap who was affectionately known as the ‘Cornish Pixie’. Far too big for a ‘Pixie’ but the name stuck nevertheless. It took us ages to find out why he delighted in dressing up in his best suit, slicking his hair down and walking out with a big fat grin on his face every Sunday morning that he was free from duties. He told us that he was going to church somewhere with the Salvation Army. We were not sure why because he just didn’t seem to be the type.
Anyway, after some time he let us into the secret of his Sunday morning excursions though not the location. It would appear that this particular meeting place had an abundance of lovely young girls, and although members of a highly respectable organisation, were not exactly backward in coming forward, and the ‘Pixie’ told us that he only really went because of these young girls and swore that he never failed to ‘score’ if you know what I mean, and I am sure that you do. We of course were all very jealous, and try as we might, he would just not let us know where it was he went. He was not going to share his fruits of passion with us at any cost.
We were nearing the end of our period of public duties in London, and we had been warned that we were shortly to be sent for service in the Far East. This was to be a posting to Hong Kong, where we would join other Regiments as part of the Military Garrison there, and we were quite excited at the prospect of serving overseas. In preparation for this we were moved from London to a camp in Bulford during the August of 1949. We were told that after being kitted out with our jungle green uniforms, given the necessary inoculations and a short period of leave, we would be on our way.
Just after receiving the ‘jabs’, we were told not to go out drinking, as there might be some unpleasant side effects. Did we take any notice of this advice? Of course we didn’t, we knew better than the medical staff, or so we thought. That evening, off we went, and it wasn’t long before we had a few pints inside us. Bob, myself, a fellow called Albert Guest and one other chap, I remember distinctly coming out of a Pub called the Roebuck Inn, quite merry and beginning to feel the side effects of the ‘jabs’ received earlier that day. Our arms seemed to be heavy, a big lump appeared under our armpits and they were sore and aching like hell. It was too late now, the ale was flowing freely inside us and we went in search of another pub.
Just outside the door of the pub, Albert wanted to say something to Bob, and to attract his attention tapped him on the arm. You would have thought he had his arm cut off the way poor old Bob squealed with pain. You’ve guessed it, it was the arm with the lump under it, and it obviously hurt like hell. Bob turned on Albert and said, "You bloody great idiot, what the hell are you playing at?" He drew back his right arm, fist clenched, and said, "Where would you like this, arm or chin?" Albert just laughed, pointed to his chin, and said, "Here". Well, Bob let fly with a right hook that was just like a sledgehammer, right smack on the point of Albert’s chin. Poor Albert flew out into the middle of the road, crumpled in a heap like a sack of potatoes. He didn’t know what had hit him, he was out cold. I don’t think it did a great deal of good to Bob’s arm either.
We picked him up and carried him to the pavement to recover which didn’t take too long. There were no hard feelings, and we all had a good laugh about it. Albert though, now had not only aching arms, but also an aching jaw to match. I often wondered after that why Bob didn’t take up boxing, but I suppose it’s not often that you get a perfectly still target like the one poor old Albert offered that night. And anyway, Bob was not really that type.
We soon got over the effects of the ‘jabs’, carried on with our preparations for the forthcoming journey, and tried desperately to keep out of trouble until the time came for our new venture. We had tried on our new jungle green uniforms, which were made of thin cotton material. They were all creased up, and we must have looked perfect for the parts played in a later comedy TV series about the army abroad, ‘It ain’t half hot mum’. But we were not worried what we looked like, we were just looking forward to a nice three year spell in the Far East, enjoying the sunshine and eastern delights, or so we thought. Had we known that just eighteen months later we would be sent to the war in Korea, where we would spend another seventeen months on active service in the front line, we probably would not have been quite so excited.