In case you’ve been on Planet Zog and missed its significance, November 2018 was one hundred years after The Great War ended, at that 11th hour on that 11th day of that 11th month. They waited for five hours after a ceasefire was agreed, they waited for a nice tidy numerical sequence of hour, day and month; meanwhile hundreds died, for a political gesture! (See PS) Much has been made, rightly so, of the immense sacrifice of life, both military and civilian, that four years of conflict had witnessed. The war to end all wars; until we went to war again 21 years later.
The simply poppy has become synonymous with remembrance in the UK
Now we will remember them. We read about both heroic and pointless sacrifice, of simply ‘doing your duty’, of man’s inhumanity to his fellow humans, and shudder. My maternal grandmother’s eldest brother Dudley Corbett, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps, died a month after the end of the war from a war-related illness; he was 37.
In amongst memorabilia handed down, from whom I am not sure (!), I have this metal shaving mirror in a leather pouch, from Merchant Taylors’ School Club dated Christmas 1915 and wishing its recipient ‘Good Luck’, and think of that hugely optimistic cry ‘It’ll all be over by Christmas’, and that was in 1914!
In Germany, this year’s 100th anniversary is not being commemorated in the same way. Instead of looking back, they are looking forward to this time next year when they will remember the thirty years since the Berlin Wall came down, paving the way for reunification a year later. You may recall the dividing of the then East German city Berlin by a hideous concrete block wall, and the fortification of the long land border between East and West, the Inner German Border (IGB). Stationed in Lippstadt, West Germany, in 1973, I took a patrol along the British sector of the IGB, accompanied by a member of the British Frontier Service. These ‘civilian’ guides monitored the border along the southern sector of the British zone from Lauenburg to Schmidekopf. They wore a uniform rather Naval in appearance, white topped cap and fawn duffle coat, and the chap who was with us as we watched the East German Border Guards, and were watched in return, was a mine of information. My week-long patrol was accompanied by a Second Lieutenant from some Guards battalion; we shared accommodation in barns and farmhouses – on the first morning he exclaimed: “Drat! My batman hasn’t packed my shaving kit!” I didn’t have a batman and packed my own stuff so wasn’t too sympathetic!
Memories from my five years in the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) could fill many PCs. Some immediately come to mind and others require more than a nanosecond:
The ubiquitous roadside snack bar (Schnellimbiss) that served a long sausage drenched in a hot sauce (currywurst mit pom frits) on a cardboard tray that only just took the weight. When you were hungry, this was manna from heaven.
Two regiments, my Royal Artillery one and one Royal Signals, were housed in a large barracks. On the gate was a soldier with a rifle. No one realised that the ammunition was kept under lock and key inside the guardhouse; couldn’t trust the squaddie with live ammunition!! Until the Baader-Meinhof Gang started causing mayhem; alert states went up and the ammunition went into the rifle’s magazine!
I have fond memories of food! If we were out of barracks on some form of training, but not on a tactical exercise, we relied on the BQMS to provide meals from his 3 ton kitchen truck. The alternative was to have our own tinned rations and do it ourselves; the first option was always the best. Breakfast: great noisy gas blowers shot flames under the large dixies of water; on top flat trays cooked greasy fried eggs, fried bread (yum yum), bacon rashers, mushrooms and tinned tomatoes. It was alright if it was dry, but if it was raining water somehow got into the mess tin and turned the tomatoes into soup.
Married officers lived on The Patch; if you were under 25 you had to get permission to get married, as well as find someone who would have you of course!
Self-propelled guns, armoured vehicles and supply trucks lined up after some large-scale exercise in 1974.
We trained and practised our profession. The cycle hadn’t changed much since Wellington’s time; individual training at the beginning of the year then section, platoon, company and regimental. Not until the autumn did we link up with other units in huge divisional exercises across the north German plains. And as the combined weight of the USSR and Warsaw Pact would have squashed us easily, we practised going backwards (we didn’t talk about retreating, just going backwards or a fighting withdrawal!); hopefully this would have given the politicians time, someone would authorise the use of a tactical nuclear weapon and everything would stop. Fortunately we never had to put these plans to the test.
We drank. The BAOR enjoyed Duty Free status and that applied to everything from cars to alcohol and petrol. When we were in barracks, as a single officer the temptation to drink at lunchtime, drink before dinner, with dinner and after dinner, was immense; there was no television. (See PC 15) If the Russians wanted to invade western Europe, Christmas was definitely the best time as everyone walked around in an alcoholic haze!
In addition to our professional training, we undertook adventurous training of all sorts. For me this focused on offshore sailing in The Baltic (see PC 106); delightful and memorable experiences.
Our experiences in life are what shape us, and understanding their importance and their influence is essential. We can’t change those experiences but we can keep their memories in perspective, as we live today and move into tomorrow.
Richard 30th November 2018
PS Rather like the Japanese found on some remote island a year after the Second World War had ended, news of the Armistice took days to reach those in conflict in Africa. It wasn’t until 25th November 1918 that German forces in East Africa surrendered and 100 years on services of remembrance took place in Kenya and Zambia.