Fifty Years On

Richard Wollheim

One snowy night in the early months of 1945, we were dining in the basement of a bombed-out house in one of those neat workers’ suburbs of which the Dutch were proud. ‘We’ were the ten or so officers on the Headquarters of 214 Infantry Brigade. For protection against the fierce cold, we had an anthracite stove, which smoked, and large tumblers of Dutch gin. We had been out of the line for an unprecedented ten days, and the Brigadier was in a more relaxed mood than we had seen since the last days of training in Kent the previous summer. He said that we must promise him something. We had been through a lot together. ‘My word,’ he said, and he chuckled. When the war was over, we might start to think of these as great days of our lives. ‘I want you never to forget that war is the filthiest, the most disgusting, thing man has invented.’

My brigadier was short, with unremarkable looks: he had a small crumpled face, blue eyes and wisps of sandy hair. To the soldiers he was ‘Twinkle-toes’, from the way he dragged one foot when he walked. He could be quick-tempered when he detected inefficiency, and, in matters of discipline, he upheld the severest sentences. Normally he was soft-spoken, and it was with the dreamiest of gestures that, his eyelids partly closed against the rising smoke of his cigarette, he allowed two outstretched fingers to drift above a map, indicating the route along which he would push his troops into and through the enemy defences.

It was in 1916 on the Western Front that he had learned the terrors of war. Fresh from school, he had been sent out on patrol his first night. Every time they passed a German corpse his sergeant stopped, pulled open the dead man’s mouth, and with a pair of pliers wrenched out the gold stoppings. In the twenty years between the two wars, he had spent much of his time in an infantry battalion on the North-West Frontier, where, more interested in Indian life than in polo or big game, he had been passed over for promotion. In 1939, at the outbreak of war, he was still a captain, and he owed his rapid promotion to the new attitudes. That our paths ever crossed was due to a further series of accidents.

In 1939 I was 16, a schoolboy, and a strong, though not an unqualified, pacifist. Pacifism was prevalent at Westminster, but I owed my conversion to the fact that, one afternoon, faking illness so as to avoid games, I had walked to the Army and Navy Stores, where on a large mahogany table there were laid out two piles of yellow pamphlets, both by Aldous Huxley, one called the Encyclopaedia of Pacifism. I left the OTC, but, unlike some of my school friends, I did not join the Peace Pledge Union. I believed in the possibility of a just war. The Spanish Civil War was for me just that, but a war waged solely by the great imperialist powers could not be. What changed my thinking was the German attack on Russia. What continued to make me unreconciled to this decision was the bombast of Churchill, in which the silver prose of Augustan English was, as I saw it, melted down into racist rhetoric. I was not inclined to see any big difference between anti-semitism and anti-Germanism since for me the original evil in each was to see people in terms of nations or races.

The arrangement was that I volunteered, and this gave me a year at Oxford. In September 1941 I went for my medical examination, half-expecting to fail, since I had been ill for much of my childhood and had always avoided exercise. The doctor asked me where I had been to school, and since, as I saw from his tie, we had this in common, he passed me. But the war was too distant for me to have any reaction. At Oxford I did a day and half’s training a week. This consisted in desultory exercises in Christ Church Meadows, and lectures on map-reading given by Edmund Blunden.

I worked hard at Oxford, but what I wanted from it was to meet extraordinary, over-life size characters. In the hothouse atmosphere, generated by the imminence of war, I was not to be disappointed, and the fact that this would all disappear, and we would never see each other again, only made life more febrile.

Towards the end of my Oxford year, I realised that a number of my friends were going on quite different assumptions. They had plans to see one another in the Welsh Guards, or the Scots Greys, or the 60th. As a child, before I collected medieval coins, which I did with great success, I had collected lead soldiers. Uniforms were poetry to me, but I had not thought of a real-life equivalent to this pageantry.

With trepidation I asked a friend of mine whose judgment I trusted, a young lord, shortly to be killed, what I should do about all this. He said that if my family, which had evacuated itself, had no permanent address, it would be hard to get into the Brigade of Guards, but he strongly advised me to apply to the Inniskilling Dragoon Guards. There were, he said, amusing people in it, and they wore green trousers. I liked the advice, and the idea of going into battle so recklessly seemed to me to atone for my lapse from pacifism. My grandmother’s husband offered to help, and he arranged an interview in a small, windowless office in Victoria Street, and I was accepted immediately.

The autumn of 1942 was something for which I was quite unprepared. The exoticism of Oxford vanished, and I found myself first at a pre-OCTU on a steep hillside in Kent and then at an OCTU at Morecombe. The training was intended to toughen us, so that I always had blisters, or vertigo, or was out of breath. I made no friends, and disaster seemed imminent. At last I was an officer, and I was sent off to the regiment in which I had been accepted: it was not the one to which I had applied. It was called the Inniskilling Fusiliers, and the only approximation to an amusing person was a drunken Irish chieftain called The O’Kelly. Fierce in the morning, he didn’t leave the mess after lunch, which was always curry, until late at night, when it was the duty officer’s obligation to put him to bed.

My life as a serving officer began in earnest when I was posted to a battalion of a West Country regiment. Three days later, we set off for the West Coast of Scotland to be trained for an amphibious assault. We had the training, sleeping by day, by night storming the coast through a curtain of mosquitoes, but the assault, which I later learnt was to have been on the Azores, was cancelled. From then on we made ourselves ready for the Second Front.

You are not logged in