SHIELDS AND DEFENDERS

Posted by Admin on Monday, 25th July 2011, 12:19

I had been reading of the repulse of French rovers which, in 1377, resulted it is alleged in the place of their defeat (Upper St James’ Street, Newport) being named Node Hill. It was then that from the reign of Richard the Second my thoughts skipped nearly six centuries to more recent lines of defence – to the Home Guard of World War Two, and to their predecessors of the 1914-18 conflict, the Volunteer Training Corps, in which my father was a corporal.

The first uniform worn by the V.T.C. was field-grey, with a red brassard bearing the letters G.R. I still have a brassard and a shoulder-badge with the word ‘Cowes’ surmounted by ‘V.T.C.’ in brass capitals. Later the grey was replaced by khaki. In those days puttees were used, and when my father was encasing his legs my mother and I found it advisable to absent ourselves. A perfectionist where puttees were concerned, he sometimes wound and unwound a dozen times before achieving the desired effect. Puttees were long and patience was short. His uniform was a good fit, and his Kitchener-type moustache gave a final touch to his military appearance.

From the outset he took a great interest in the Corps, and from time to time sundry drilling and signalling manuals were brought home. The Morse-code I never knew thoroughly: the semaphore alphabet I learnt with ease, and quite soon became adept with two small red and yellow flags. One day I was called upon to show my prowess to a visitor. The stranger, evidently a man of means, gave me half-a-crown. Morse-code signalling, I recall, was practised to a spoken accompaniment of “Umpty-iddies”.

The venue for a large proportion of the V.T.C. training was the Cowes Drill Hall, where a sergeant from the ‘regulars’ presided. He had, apparently, the pungent volubility of his kind, for I remember my father’s amusement after hearing some of his unflattering similes. This caustic warrior also taught them bayonet-drill, an exercise which, perhaps more than anything else, brought them face to face with the ugly realities that lay behind what they were so light-heartedly doing. In moments less bloodthirsty an officer gave lessons in French, in consequence of which I could be heard repeating “Je ne sais pas”, referring to “mon chapeau”, and using various other Gallic snippets – the beginning of an interest that in later years was to open for me the covers of works by Honoré de Balzac.

From the front windows of my bungalow I am able to look across the road to the place patrolled by my father during his spells of guard duty. The buildings are new; Hitler’s bombers having destroyed the original hangars of Somerton Aerodrome in 1942, when at the same time they stripped my roof of half its tiles. Occasionally a bull would be turned loose on the aerodrome. To hear it snorting and pawing in the vicinity of one’s beat, and to be unable to see it on account of the darkness, was an unenviable experience. A ‘brass-hat’ from Albany Barracks who came suddenly out of a particularly opaque night complimented my father for being the only sentry he had met who knew his duty. I, too, knew it by heart; and at the age of seven could recite precepts which forbade loitering on or near the post, and prescribed that the sentinel conduct himself in a smart and soldierly manner. I could also challenge a stranger, call out the guard, slope, trail, or present, arms, and generally behave like an authentic Tommy Atkins.

Weekends were occupied with route marches, musketry on the Newtown range, and manoeuvres. During one of the latter my father gained another distinction. He nearly lost his life. It was on the occasion of their being taught to make grenades from cigarette tins, and to throw them (after the necessary time lag) into the enemy’s trenches. All went well until one man accidentally lobbed his bomb in the wrong direction. It struck the ground, exploded, and sent a jagged piece of tin straight at Corporal T. W. Hudson’s head. Instinctively he turned away, and the fragment hit him a glancing blow behind the ear, making a nasty gash. Had he been only one step nearer to the explosion, the situation might easily have called for reversed arms and the ‘Last Post’. C’est la guerre!

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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