Soldiers

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"From the acclaimed biographer of Lord Mountbatten and King Edward VIII: a poignant and illuminating book, rich in narrative and anecdote, that explores the lives of nine British soldiers, or "Chelsea Pensioners," whose wartime experiences span the twentieth century." "A particularly British institution, the Royal Hospital Chelsea was opened in 1692 and, like Les Invalides in Paris, it was designed to provide a secure home for indigent veterans. Three hundred years later, it is still serving its original purpose, and its residents - who have seen ...
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Overview

"From the acclaimed biographer of Lord Mountbatten and King Edward VIII: a poignant and illuminating book, rich in narrative and anecdote, that explores the lives of nine British soldiers, or "Chelsea Pensioners," whose wartime experiences span the twentieth century." "A particularly British institution, the Royal Hospital Chelsea was opened in 1692 and, like Les Invalides in Paris, it was designed to provide a secure home for indigent veterans. Three hundred years later, it is still serving its original purpose, and its residents - who have seen action from Passchendaele to Anzio, from the Malayan emergency to the Mau Mau uprising, from Aden to Indonesia - are perhaps a more traditional breed of soldier than can be found anywhere else." Philip Ziegler is fascinated by the values that these veterans share, and that the Army inculcated in them: self-discipline, acceptance of risk and pain, patriotism, loyalty to their fellows. And sometimes, of course, bigotry, narrow-mindedness, even blinkered stupidity. Are the old values of duty, honor and country still relevant, or are these men the last survivors of a lost world?
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Respected British historian Ziegler has alternated between writing biographies of historical movers and shakers, like Lord Mountbatten and King Edward VIII, and those of famed but essentially trivial personalities, like Lady Diana Cooper and Osbert Sitwell. His latest title is based on in-depth interviews with nine retired British soldiers, whose lives brush against history but are ultimately mundane. The soldiers live at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, an institution founded by King Charles II as a retreat for old or disabled soldiers and opened in 1692 by William and Mary. The Hospital is famed as one of London's most exquisite architectural treasures, designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the late 17th century in the grandiose style of Les Invalides in Paris. Yet Ziegler keeps the focus clearly on the modest soldiers' lives, their often harrowing military service and rather depressing later lives. There is plenty of stiff-upper-lipping here, such as a near-centenarian who "views his own future with wry resignation; very occasionally when he is feeling ill he will say, `I think it's time I curled up....' " Ultimately, the lives described here end pathetically in cramped quarters; one soldier watches a video of Singin' in the Rain over and over. But Ziegler's quietly understated prose does not overstate the obvious, such as the soldiers' real contribution to their country's safety. Nor does he dwell embarrassingly on the fact of human aging, merely juxtaposing a 1938 photo of a Hollywood-handsome corporal with another snapshot of the same man in 2001, looking like Edward Heath. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
Unquestionably, the most popular kind of historical writing always seems to be "people history." Most readers have an instinctual interest in the lives of other human beings, and if these people happen to have done interesting things, so much the better. Publisher and biographer Philip Ziegler knows this well and has made full use of it in authoring this profile of the British Royal Army during the 20th century. The story illuminates, in fact, a much larger theme: the decline and loss of the British Empire. Ziegler tells this story through the lives of nine army residents of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. The Hospital, created by King Charles II in 1682, is actually the Army's old soldiers' home, whose inhabitants live out their declining years in attentive, if somewhat archaic, comfort. Once a year, all inhabitants are required to don their cocked hats and distinctive scarlet uniforms, and to parade in honor of the Crown. These ancient warriors spend much of the rest of the year in storytelling and yarning about their lives in the "old Army," just as in any Veterans Administration hospital in the U.S. Zeigler tapped into this rich vein of oral memory to produce this book. Most of their stories reflect the lower middle and working classes that traditionally furnish the bulk of the enlisted ranks: unassuming tales of stunning childhood poverty, and unselfconscious memories of battlefield heroism and horrifying carnage. The matter-of-factness of their reminiscences provides the perfect touch of realism to counteract the drama. The thing to remember is that these nine tough old birds were survivors, not only of a century's various wars, but also of years of deadly boredom, endless training, andmurderous little skirmishes in nameless far-off lands. What cannot be forgotten, of course, are the multitudes of men who were not so fortunate. Highly recommended to high school and adult collections. KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2001, Penguin Putnam, Plume, 331p. bibliog. index.,
Library Journal
Ziegler, who has previously written biographies of Lord Mountbatten and King Edward VIII, now approaches British history by focusing on nine Regular Army pensioners living out their years at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Although their lives span much of the 20th century, World War II is at the center of most of their stories. These are enlisted men, not officers of high rank, so one reads about the details and boredom of prewar, wartime, and postwar military life. Combat situations, while certainly terrifying, actually take up only a small amount of their time. These soldiers and their mates were quietly patriotic, entering the army not only to serve in times of need but just as often to escape bad situations at home. The service provided them with discipline, structure, identity, purpose, some adventure and money, and a sense of belonging, much of which was lacking in their earlier life. The epilog should be read by anyone interested in British military history. This latest book from Ziegler, a former diplomat and editor at publisher William Collins, is suitable for public and academic libraries. Daniel K. Blewett, Coll. of DuPage Lib., Glen Ellyn, IL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
British diplomat turned editor and biographer, Ziegler tells the stories of nine In-Pensioners of the Royal Hospital Chelsea who had joined the Regular Army between 1917 and 1926. He talked not only with them, but in some cases with their relations. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
Profiles of individual British soldiers, by accomplished biographer Ziegler (Osbert Sitwell, 1999, etc.). In the 21st century, it seems apparent that men carrying rifles and inhabiting trenches have in general been made obsolete by bombs of all sorts. This sea change has brought waves of adulation for the 20th-century combatants who were in all likelihood the last soldiers in the traditional sense, admired for a type of personal heroism that seems distant in the age of technological warfare. Ziegler's narrative serves as a mausoleum for this kind of bravery. It focuses on nine residents of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, a retirement home for military pensioners. Though the men came to the military in varied ways and left with different experiences, they are united by a seemingly lost sense of duty and stoicism that is particularly poignant from the British perspective. Whereas American war efforts in the 20th century were part of the nation's ascent, the soldiers whose lives are chronicled here oversaw an epic decline. Service took them to withering bastions of British power like India, Hong Kong, Palestine, and Egypt. Though the Empire lost strength, the men gained from their service. Most entered the army poor and left with healthy pensions and solid middle-class standing. For each, the military experience was the most important part of their lives; bloody battles and hours of boredom resulted in a strong sense of camaraderie and belonging. Ziegler clearly admires these men, not because they were exceptional but because they were not. Their lives were shaped by uncomplicated notions of honor in exceptionally violent times. Ziegler's approach is equally simple: The British Empire, asdepicted here, was the rule of reason and courage enforced by simple, strong men. A nostalgic look at soldierly virtue.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780753197400
  • Publisher: ISIS Large Print Books
  • Publication date: 1/28/2003
  • Series: Isis Hardcover Series
  • Edition description: Large Type
  • Pages: 480
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.68 (h) x 1.61 (d)

Meet the Author

Philip Ziegler is the author of London at War; the biographer of, among others, Diana Cooper, Mountbatten, Harold Wilson and Edward VIII; and a historian of the Black Death. He is a skilled and sensitive interviewer and regards this book as the most important he has written.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

albert alexandre

It would be hard to imagine a less promising upbringing than that of Albert Alexandre. He was born in the Channel Islands, in the little Jersey town of Longueville, on 6 October 1901. The population of Jersey had been almost entirely Norman French until the early nineteenth century, when an influx from the British Isles began. By 1901, though the British element had grown substantially, the majority of the islanders still used a patois incomprehensible to English speakers and likely to cause confusion to the French as well. Albert's Catholic father, however, was an immigrant from France; his mother was born in Jersey but came from English stock. Their children spoke mainly English at home but were fluent in French; they hardly attempted to grapple with the local dialect.

Albert was the youngest of four children but his brother and two sisters were all considerably older and had left home by the time he reached the age of six. His father was a general labourer who spent much of his time in forestry work; money was extremely short but the family was never in need and Albert had enough to eat and was adequately clothed. Then, shortly after his sixth birthday, his mother fell ill and was removed to hospital. Within a few weeks she was dead, Albert thinks of a tumour on the brain. His father followed a few months later, when a tree which he was felling crashed on top of him. Albert knows nothing about the circumstances of the accident: perhaps grief at his wife's death had weakened his father's will to live; perhaps worry or lack of sleep slowed the speed of his reactions. His son found himself an orphan. None of his siblings had a home inwhich he could take refuge. He had one uncle living in Jersey but he was unable or unwilling to make room for him; Albert was consigned to the orphanage.

The "Industrial School," as this institution was optimistically entitled, provided shelter for some 120 boys. "It wasn't really a school at all," Alexandre remembers. "I wasn't educated there. I learnt how to read and write a little, that sort of thing, but I never touched arithmetic." There were only two teachers who were remotely concerned with education in the more liberal sense of the word; otherwise the emphasis was entirely on technical training. There was a tailoring master and a shoemaker master: any boy leaving the orphanage, it was hoped, would have acquired at least the rudiments of a trade. But though the surroundings were dour and the ethos utilitarian, the boys were not Oliver Twists oppressed by some latter-day Mr. Bumble. "It was a really good place," Alexandre insists. "They were very kind to you." The food was adequate if sparse; it was neither the time nor the place for displays of affection but the exiguous staff were concerned about the boys' welfare and did their best to ensure that they were happy as well as healthy.

He stayed at the orphanage until he was nearly twelve, during which time he scarcely saw any members of his family or ventured far beyond the grounds of the institution. Then the elder of his two sisters, who had married a farmer's son and lived in St. Peter Port in Guernsey, volunteered to take in her little brother. She could not afford to provide any further education for him, but at least he would have a home and be living with relations.

Albert left the orphanage without regret but without bitterness-bitterness seems, indeed, to have been unknown to him at any time; the singular sweetness of his disposition defied every brickbat that fate might fling at him. He at once looked for work and found it in the local brewery, washing bottles and occasionally filling them with beer. He had no wish to drink the stuff himself, but his sister deplored the temptation that was being put in his way and felt that a brewery was no place for a twelve-year-old boy. Instead, she found him a job in a market garden, where he washed pots and performed other menial tasks in the winter and picked flowers for export in the summer. It was hard and uninspiring work, ill-rewarded too, but Albert always did his best to perform whatever duty was imposed on him and it would never have occurred to him that he might be qualified for something more exacting and better paid.

Then, in 1913, his brother-in-law joined the Army and was posted for his training to the neighbouring island of Alderney. Albert's sister soon joined him there and Albert followed in their wake. He lodged in St. Anne's with an elderly lady, who loved him like a son and whom he came to consider almost as his mother. His first job was on a farm, in fact little more than a smallholding, but though he enjoyed the work the owner could afford to pay him only a pittance. For himself he would have been satisfied-throughout his life, what he was doing seemed far more important to him than the money he earned by it-but he knew that his landlady was making very little money out of him, was perhaps even losing, and he wanted to pay her more. The principal source of employment in Alderney was the quarries run by the Channel Island Granite Company and soon Albert was employed by them as a driller. With the outbreak of the First World War many of the Company's workers joined up and left the island. Albert was still only thirteen, but he was tall and strong and looked considerably older. Strictly speaking he should not have been allowed to handle explosives until he was eighteen but in wartime nobody was too fussy about the regulations and within a few months he was carrying out blasting work as if he was a man.

At first the war did not impinge on his life, but by the time he was fifteen he looked so mature that people began to ask him why he was not fighting for his country. One night a soldier stationed in Alderney accused him of shirking his duty. "And what are you doing out of the Front on a cushy island like this?" Albert retorted, but later the same evening he asked himself whether perhaps he should enlist. Restlessness, a wish to see the world, a craving for adventure, were as strong as patriotism among his motives but his brother and several of his friends were already in the Army and a feeling that he should do his bit by joining them was an element in his thinking.

At the age of fifteen and eleven months, Albert Alexandre took himself to the recruiting centre in Alderney and volunteered to join the Army. Though lying did not come easily to him he had prepared himself to claim to be much older than he was. He need not have worried; the question of his age was never mentioned. In the summer of 1917 the war had reached its most desperate stage. The United States had entered the war but any substantial help from the other side of the Atlantic still seemed a distant prospect. On the Eastern Front the Russians had been routed. The Allied High Command concluded that an all-out assault must be mounted if an overwhelming German offensive were to be pre-empted. Recruits were urgently needed for the Western Front, and provided a volunteer was not obviously a child he would be welcomed with alacrity. Alexandre was despatched to Guernsey to become a soldier.

He had wanted to follow his brother into the Royal Artillery but the recruiting sergeant told him that the Guernsey Light Infantry was in dire need of recruits and urged him to join his local regiment. Obligingly he agreed. The Guernsey Militia, as it had originally been styled, was a highly respectable and antique body whose oldest existing ordinance dated from 1546 and provided that haquebutes must be kept in good order and les boulvers (earthworks) properly maintained. Alexandre found that the new intake consisted largely of Irishmen who had been resident in the Channel Islands or of recruits to the North Staffordshire Regiment who had been drafted in to make up numbers; he preferred to consort with these foreigners rather than the native Guernseymen, whose patois he could hardly understand. He found that the sergeants knew their jobs and were firm but fair. The senior officers were equally acceptable-"mostly gentlemen, ex-militia and that sort of thing." It never occurred to men like Alexandre to question the higher strategy. Siegfried Sassoon pictured an affable general greeting the troops as they went up to the Front:

"He's a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack. But he did for them both with his plan of attack.

Alexandre was Harry and Jack, and though some of his regimental officers may have joined Sassoon in cursing the General's staff "for incompetent swine," he had no such feelings himself. His only reservations were about the younger officers who were frightened by their new responsibilities and tried to ensure that nothing would go wrong by fussing endlessly over trifles and bullying those under them: "They didn't really know how to handle men."

Seven weeks' basic training in Guernsey were followed by a move to Rouen at the end of October 1917, where training continued six or seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and sometimes overnight as well. Reinforcements were desperately needed to confront the big German push that it was feared was coming, and hardly a moment could be spared for rest or recreation. For all Alexandre knew or cared he might have been in Timbuctoo; he had neither time, energy nor inclination to get to know the country and its inhabitants: "When I was in France I did what I was told I had to do and that was that. Where I was didn't interest me whatsoever." Nor was he told, or even concerned, about the progress of the war. While still a civilian he had been influenced by official propaganda presenting the Germans as brutal barbarians but once he was enlisted this was spared him; he just got on with his work day by day and waited with some apprehension for the action that could not lie too far ahead. The actual training caused him few problems. He was among the fittest of the recruits and proved adept with rifle and bayonet. Because he was used to working with explosives and had a good throwing arm he was selected to specialise in grenades; soon he found that he was particularly skilled at manoeuvring himself into the right position to launch his missile without drawing attention to himself. But though a success, he was at this stage entirely without ambition; it never occurred to him that he might be promoted, nor would he have welcomed promotion if it had come his way.

Even if the schedule had left him free time or he had felt inclined to indulge himself, he would have had little money to spend on his pleasures. His basic pay was 7 shillings a week and of this half was paid directly to his former landlady and "foster mother" in Alderney. The payment was voluntary; the Army made a point of ensuring that its soldiers contributed to the livelihood of their dependants at home but in a case like Alexandre's, where there was no blood relationship, would have seen no moral, let alone legal, obligation. The result of Alexandre's generosity was that-after various extra deductions made from his pay by the authorities-he had barely enough left for a mug of tea and a very occasional pint of beer. Even if he had hankered after wine or women-concepts, in fact, far beyond his imagining-he would have been unable to do much about it.

While Alexandre was finishing his training the Guernsey Light Infantry had been taking part in one of the bloodiest and most futile offensives of the war. The advance at Cambrai in November 1917, cost the regiment six or seven hundred casualties in ten days; the shattered remnants were pulled back and sent to rest and absorb their reinforcements forty miles or so behind the lines at Houvin. It was there that Alexandre joined them at the beginning of November. Any remaining illusions about the sort of fighting that awaited him were quickly dispelled when he spoke to the survivors of the battle; even though they had been the lucky ones who escaped serious injuries, these men were scarred by the horrors that they had seen and the massacre of so many of their friends. But the mood was one of resignation and a bloody-minded determination to carry on; when on Christmas Eve they began the march to the front morale was high, astonishingly high when one considers what so many of them had been through and what they all suspected might lie ahead. Nor was this spirit unusual. There were, of course, moments of apathy or despair, but the resilience of the British infantryman in intolerably hideous conditions was one of the miracles of the First World War.

Christmas Day was spent at Verchocq, reached after an exhausting route march of more than twenty miles. It was marked by a febrile gaiety, as any money the soldiers chanced to have left was squandered on drink and the commissariat did miracles in eking out the rations with a few extra titbits. The festivities, recorded the regimental history grimly, gave rise to "an unbounded vein of hilarious humour and uproarious chorus in celebration of a Christmas that many knew would be their last." The hilarity quickly faded when the march to the front was resumed the next day; by the New Year problems of supply meant that rations were cut and bread almost disappeared from the daily diet. Then came the news that in two weeks or so the regiment was to be consigned to the most dreaded of all destinations, the Passchendaele-Ypres sector. When the announcement was made, from the ranks of the veterans came "continuous outbursts of growling"; the new arrivals were less immediately downcast but had learnt enough over the previous few weeks to share their seniors' apprehension.

In mid-January 1918, the Guernsey Light Infantry relieved a battalion of the Worcesters near the main road running between Poperinghe and Ypres. They paused to absorb the latest horror stories of flooded trenches, constant shelling, gas, and days without food when the ration parties were unable to get through, then resumed their trudge along a duck-boarded track through the sterile and pockmarked desolation that had once been prosperous farmland. A final halt was made for the men to wash their feet in warm water and to grease and powder them, and for two days' rations to be added to the full pack, rifle, Mills bombs, Lewis gun ammunition, spade and sheet of corrugated iron which comprised the average private soldier's burden. On 18 January 1918, Albert Alexandre arrived in Passchendaele. He was exactly sixteen years and three months old.

. . .

"Do you believe in hell?"Alice Keach asked Mr. Birkin in J. L. Carr's novel A Month in the Country. "Hell? Passchendaele had been hell. Bodies split, heads blown off, grovelling fear, shrieking fear, unspeakable fear! The world made mad!"Alexandre was more phlegmatic than most and had the resilience of youth, but the memory of that battlefield would never be expunged. The so-called "front" consisted of little more than a series of shell-holes, most of them waterlogged, connected by inadequate trenches which crumbled regularly into muddy ruin. Gas shells were sent over day and night, hampering the ration parties and stretcher teams and forcing the men to spend hours at a time in hot and claustrophobic respirators. Alexandre caught whiffs of gas but not enough to do him any serious harm; the smell reminded him of musty hay and left him feeling that he was suffering from an attack of influenza. The danger of death or mutilation by shell or mortar fire, hand grenade or sniper's bullet, was omnipresent, by day and night. "I expected it to be bad," says Alexandre, "because of the casualties we'd heard of, but it was a lot worse than I had expected. Mud, snow, ice, everything . . ."

In February the regiment was pulled out of the front line for a period of rest at Poperinghe, though the "rest" was hardly recreational; working parties were sent out every day to repair roads and fill up shell-holes. A major German offensive was believed to be imminent and in March it came. The regiment was hurriedly thrown back into the line and spent a few days digging trenches in the spongy soil outside the village of Passchendaele.

They were never to be used; the front was crumbling, collapsing almost. The Germans had advanced ten miles at Saint-Quentin, Passchendaele was outflanked, and the regiment began to withdraw, then was thrown into a gap in the line at Doulieu. A powerful German attack was almost immediately upon them; they were ordered to retreat under murderous machine-gun fire, made a stand, then again fell back when a battalion on their right was overrun. For several days the retreat went on, the Germans attacking with overwhelming numerical superiority, the battlefield a scene of carnage, made more hideous by the helpless and hopeless refugees clogging whatever roads existed, half-starved pigs, cows moaning in agony for want of anybody to milk them. Finally the line stabilised; the German offensive ran out of steam; the war, though nobody would have dared predict it at the time, was won.

Alexandre had endured several months of bombardment and brutal fighting without a scratch. Not many of the thousand or so soldiers who went into battle with him could say as much; more than a third of them were dead. To survive unscathed required a great deal of luck but also physical strength, quick reactions, cunning and an ability to strike first and quickly. It is not a period on which Alexandre cares to reflect. "I wouldn't like to say if I killed a German-that's something that I never said to anyone. I don't like to think about it. All I can say is that it was hand-to-hand fighting and you had to defend yourself."

But though the enemy had not hurt him he did not escape untroubled. Before the regiment was again involved in any major action, he had been struck down by what was described, with some imprecision, as "trench fever" and taken to hospital. From there he was moved to a convalescent home near Trouville, only discovering after he had left that the brother whom he had not seen for nearly five years was within a few hundred yards of him. At the convalescent home he was asked if he would like to volunteer for some sort of work. He said he would and was hailed as a godsend when it was realised that he had some experience of working on the land and was also fluent in French. For six weeks he lived with a French farmer, helping out in various ways and in particular liaising over the provision of horses for the British Army. After the horrors of the front line the work seemed infinitely to his taste. For the first time since he had joined the Army he began to look ahead to a world in which he would be free to lead whatever life he wanted.

First, however, there was a job to be finished. As soon as he was passed as being fully fit he was sent to Rouen and then to rejoin his comrades at Bertincourt. On 11 November the regiment was marching towards the front line, knowing that German resistance was collapsing but foreseeing much hard fighting before the war was won. A despatch rider on a motorcycle hurtled past the column and stopped where the Colonel was standing. Within minutes word was passed down the line that an armistice would be signed at 11 a.m. "We were all very excited," remembers Alexandre. "We jumped for joy but some of us couldn't believe it." They marched on to take up their place in the front line to find there a scene of unnatural inactivity-nothing was moving except for a few German troops packing up their belongings in a mood of mingled mortification and relief. Alexandre looked at them with loathing: "Propaganda is a terrible thing, it lives with you for a long time. We were taught to despise them as the enemy, to hate them. It was either you or them all the time."

Demobilisation could not come too soon for Alexandre but its date was calculated after considering a man's length of service and the importance of his future role in civilian life. On neither ground could he hope to be granted any priority. Several months had passed and twenty batches of demob-happy soldiers had preceded him before he marched into Boulogne on the way home. It was cold and wet, their hobnailed boots slithered on the slippery cobbles, the euphoria of victory had long faded, and tempers were frayed. It was "a horrible march with much sliding and falling, resulting in cursing and even fist fights." At last they boarded a boat and were taken to Southampton. Alexandre and a few friends rushed to a nearby pub. "Now then, you lot," the landlord greeted them, "before you take one more step, SHOW US YER MONEY!" Thus the land fit for heroes welcomed back its champions.

Disillusionment was not dispelled over the next few weeks. He returned to Alderney and had a rapturous reunion with his honorary foster mother, but there it ended. Even if he had wanted to go back to the quarry, every place had been taken by ex-soldiers who had been demobilised before him. There was no job on the land that offered any prospect of permanency. He had no other skills or strings to pull. What was more, rather to his surprise, he found that he missed the camaraderie and structured pattern of military life. For the first time he began to consider the possibility that he might re-enlist. The more he thought of it the more the idea appealed to him, partly for want of any more promising alternative, still more because he felt that peacetime soldiering would suit him well.

The next question was what sort of a soldier he wished to be. The Guernsey Light Infantry would have taken him back without problems, but he felt no particular loyalty towards them. "We Channel Islanders are all the same," he remarks. "We fight each other-they called me a crapaud." He felt that he would do better to make a fresh start, and so he reverted to what had been his first idea, the Royal Artillery. At the depot of the Royal Garrison Artillery at Plymouth he explained that he had always wanted to be a gunner and enlisted for eight years in the Colours and a subsequent four in the Reserve. He was still well short of his eighteenth birthday but if he had been old enough to fight at Passchendaele, the recruiting officer not unreasonably considered, he was old enough to carry out his basic training for the Royal Artillery.

Strictly speaking he should have spent twelve months or so training as a foot soldier before starting work in the Artillery but since he obviously knew all about it already he was quickly despatched to a riding course at Winchester. By the time he had finished that he was qualified as a driver. He was then posted to Lydd, where he joined a brigade group of 60-pounders and 6-inch howitzers and learnt the crafts of loading and firing guns as well as dragging them from one point to another. Life in the Royal Artillery was to be an endless process of mastering new techniques but the basic foundations had been put in place. The real work was now to begin. In August 1919, he was sent on embarkation leave. He went to say goodbye to his foster mother in Alderney but found no one else there whom he particularly wished to see. Nor were any of his relatives immediately accessible. It was not so much a case of a soldier going on leave to visit his family as of a soldier returning from leave to rejoin his family. For Alexandre, though he hardly yet realised the fact, the Army had become and was to remain his family.

. . .

His posting was to India, with the 9th Heavy Battery of a new Artillery Brigade. After 1918, planning for the armed services was carried out on the assumption that there would be no major war for at least ten years; there would therefore be no serious involvement on the continent of Europe and the Army could revert to its traditional and proper role, that of policing and defending the British Empire. Before 1914-indeed, until the transfer of power in Ireland in 1922-India and Ireland had figured in the life of almost every soldier except those belonging to a few units which, for one reason or another, were doomed to stay at home. Ireland was now fading from the scene but India retained its role until after the Second World War. Its importance to the British Army cannot be overstated, either in terms of the forces it provided for use in other parts of the world or of its own vulnerability. Whether the threat was deemed to be from Russia and dissident tribesmen in the north or from subversion within, there was nowhere in the Empire where defence and policing were more evidently called for.

During the First World War the demands of Europe and the Middle East had meant that the British military presence in India was much reduced, but with peace restored and a potentially dangerous Communist Russia posing new threats from beyond the Himalayas, there was a need to rebuild the Army in the sub-continent. By the end of 1919 there were about 50,000 troops in British units in India, predominantly near the North-West Frontier, as well as 180,000 Indian and 20,000 Gurkha troops whose officers and sometimes senior NCOs were for the most part also British. Some of the soldiers were scattered in small cantonments around the country where, willy-nilly, they were forced into a measure of contact with the local Indians, but more were concentrated in large barracks in the potential trouble areas: Lahore, Peshawar, Rawalpindi.

For officers with a sporting bent India was close to paradise: hunting, shooting, and polo, all at a quarter the price of the same delights at home. For the men there were fewer such advantages. There were compensations for their exile: the nastier chores in barracks were looked after by Indian cleaners, most of the time the schedules for work were undemanding and there were plentiful opportunities for games. But that was the end of it. Except for the temperature and the weight of uniform they might just as well have been in Britain; even the food was substantially unchanged. For most other ranks-indeed, for most officers unless they had unusual tastes-there was no contact with Indian society nor involvement with Indian culture. Alexandre learnt to refer to the "syce"rather than the groom and the "dhobi"rather than the laundry, but in most important respects his life in barracks differed little from what it would have been at home. As for his life outside barracks-it could hardly be said to exist at all.

His first stay in the sub-continent lasted little more than a year, at first with coastal artillery, then with a heavy battery in Central India. He had assumed he would stay longer but was unflustered when told that he was to be posted to Malta: the ways of the military authorities were unfathomable and it was not for him to question their mysteries. He did feel that he was being hard done by, however, when, on arrival at Malta, he was despatched to learn how to be a signaller. This meant that he would forfeit his proficiency pay as a driver, and worse still he felt himself incompetent to undertake the new work. "I'll drop dead!" he told the Regimental Sergeant-Major. He would need at least a Third Class Certificate of Education before he could qualify as a signaller, and that seemed as far beyond him as a First in Greats. The RSM was unsympathetic: orders were orders, Alexandre was on the list, and he must be at the signalling school the following afternoon.

It proved to be even worse than he had feared. On the first afternoon the class assembled for arithmetic; the subject was the Lowest Common Denominator. The men were told to write down the answers to certain problems on the blackboard. Alexandre stared aghast at the virgin sheet in front of him. "Come on, have a go, it's easy!" urged his neighbour. "It's easy if you know how to do it," retorted Alexandre. "What don't you know?" asked a voice from behind him. A captain had come into the room and was standing a few feet away. "I don't know any arithmetic at all, sir," protested Alexandre. "But you must have been to school?"Alexandre explained about the orphanage and how he could barely read and write. The Captain called him out of the classroom and told him that he must continue to follow the course but that he should come back every evening after sport for half an hour's private tuition. It was the schooling that he had never had and Alexandre relished it.

Copyright 2002 by Philip Ziegler
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