1941, My Year as a Young Soldier
Written by Mark Tapping
My parents had accepted that I would have to go on active service at some time and no objections were raised to my joining up. So, aged eighteen, I volunteered early in 1941. Eventually my joining up papers and travel warrant arrived and I was on my way from Aylesbury station. My destination was Dursley, a small market town set in pretty surroundings in Gloucestershire, although I did not appreciate its beauty at the time. Here the battalion was in the process of formation at Boulton Mills, a disused carpet factory. I was assigned to ‘A’ Company under Captain J.F.R. Peel. Other officers known to me then and later were named Allison, Futcher, Lightfoot, Ginswick, FitzGibbon, Revnell and Soskice, who rose to very high office after the war, eventually becoming Baron Stow Hill.
Once at Dursley little time was lost and we settled down to medical examinations, inoculations and the issue of kit, including the boots which took some getting used to: either the boots had to be made to fit our feet or our feet had to learn to fit the boots! Then there was the marching, saluting, drill – and more drill! We were also issued with our regimental numbers and I became No. 5391568 Private M. Tapping. There was no canteen and our only relaxation was visiting the shops in Dursley’s main street and ogling the girls. There was a rather pretty one in one of the shops – but that’s entirely another story.
We also got used to sleeping on biscuits. Biscuits? Yes. That was the army’s name for square, coir filled mattresses: two to a bed. All too soon we found ourselves using soldiers’ descriptive – but not drawing room – language. It was hard to remember not to use it when home on leave!
Then we were moved into an unfinished and very cold school on the outskirts of Dursley. More drills! Then came the naming of parts, weapon training and judging distances, amongst other things. We learned that the army only recognised three kinds of tree: poplar, fir and bushy topped. We also had lectures. I well remember one talk given by Sergeants Bruce and White. It was on venereal diseases, very basic, and it taught me a lot!
Regimental history was another of the subjects on which we were lectured. We learned about the regiment’s predecessors, the 43rd and the 52nd Foot. Much was said about the routing of the French Imperial Guard by the 52nd at Waterloo. Not so much was said about the British defeat in attempting to seize Baghdad, the 43rd being in at the surrender because of starvation of Kut al Amara in 1916.
While on guard duty at night we could hear and see the bombing over Bristol. On one occasion we were required to mount guard over a German plane which had crashed near Berkeley, although there seemed to me to be little left worth guarding.
At this time we slept in wooden, double tier bunks and, as it was now winter, our sleeping quarters had large iron stoves which were supposed to keep us warm, but for which there never seemed to be sufficient fuel.
Of course we not only had to undergo military training we also had to learn how to live together in a restricted area. The young men in the new battalion came from many parts of the country: there was at least one from neutral Ireland. Many others came from England’s industrial midlands and these included some who seemed to have very little understanding of either discipline or hygiene. We all had to learn to adapt and learn to cope with the idiosyncrasies of others.