“About Life and People” Pt.I Training

In a little break from environmentalism this is an extract from “About Life and People”, an autobiography by William Dron, my Grandfather and hero. For anyone interested in what life was like for a somewhat ordinary British soldier (he played the pipes, so was not on the frontline as was decreed by General Montgommery after 1943), then I hope that you will find this account interesting as well as entertaining. It is a tale told with compassion, honesty and a good degree of down to earth humour. I’m still editing all the Scots and British dialect to make it more readable for the international reader. At this point in the Autobiography, William, or ‘Bill’, has enrolled into the army and is on his way to Fort George, in the Highlands of Scotland. 

The Army.

I set of for Fort George full of a mixture of hope and apprehension not knowing what to expect.  Although Dad had been in the Army he didn’t offer me any advice on what life was like or how to play it.  Therefore I arrived in Fort George on the Moray Firth a complete innocent and it didn’t take long for the Army to knock that out of me.  I think I was half expecting a warm welcome, as a volunteer, and being granted a few favours when they realised how lucky they were at gaining such a brilliant recruit.  That was not the Army way I’m afraid, there were no favours, everyone was treated exactly the same, like cattle!  We were harried from pillar to post from morn till night until we didn’t know whether we were coming or going.  Of course that was done on the principle that you began to accept orders without question and without using your own brain.  After we had all the inoculations and vaccinations we were given 24 hours to recuperate.  I did not recuperate very well but fell ill with tonsillitis and was shifted to the sick-bay, which was another Nissan hut but with linoleum on the floor and sheets on the beds, the lap of luxury.  The food was from the mess hall, in other words inedible, and the medication was Asprin, which was ineffective.  After a few days even the M.O. realised I was not improving and I was transferred to the Hospital.  When I arrived I was met by a nurse who ordered me to take a bath before sullying her clean sheets.  Once in bed I was given a load of large pills and fell into a deep sleep, only to be wakened and fed another dose.  This went on for the next couple of days until I awoke one morning feeling much better and absolutely ravenous.  The pills were one of the sulphonamides a fairly recent discovery and a precursor of penicillin.  I was duly pronounced fit and returned to duty.

Thus was my inglorious entry into the Army; hardly the stuff of regimental history.  When I returned to duty I was dumped into a new intake of conscripts, what a come down for the brilliant recruit.  But as the old saying goes the De’il looks after his own.  The volunteer platoon had been set up as an example to the poor conscripts of how a platoon should act and behave with true military zeal.  I need hardly add that by this time my zeal had sunk without trace and I was more than content to settle with the poor conscripts.  The volunteers were mostly Army Cadets who could strip down a Bren Gun and knew Army Regulations as well as, if not better than, the NCO’s.  That wasn’t so difficult as some of the NCO’s, especially the Regulars, were not noted for their intellectual capacity.  Training began therefore in trying to turn a bunch of unfit civilians into trained fighting machines.  I had thought I was fairly fit because I had done a lot of hard cycling in the previous months, on Saturday afternoons I often did a circuit by Forfar- Kirrie-Alyth about 40/50 miles.  However I soon realised that my comparative fitness was as nothing compared to what it became in four months time.  Apart from square bashing i.e. drill, we had to do physical drill, route marching, forced marches with full pack, and generally run about like mad things until we were passed as trained recruits.  Note! not yet trained soldiers, we still had a long way to go.

After the first six weeks we were allowed out to sample the delights of Inverness on a Saturday afternoon.  It was a busy place with lots of military personnel and loads of Canadian lumberjacks who were stripping out the adjoining forests.  We soon found a Church of Scotland canteen offering home cooking, warmth, and cheery female faces.  It was a regular port of call for us as the food was such a contrast to the usually inedible Army grub.  I fell in love with Inverness or ‘Snecky’ as it became, a play on Harry Gordon’s (the famous Scots comedian) ‘Inversnecky’.  It was a bonny wee [nice, small] town then, steeped in history with a wonderful position on the River Ness the Caledonian Canal and Tomnahurich (The hill of the Fairies) the most picturesque cemetery in Scotland.

During my time in the Fort the realisation dawned upon me that my political views were not so far to the left as I had thought.  The nemesis that brought about this transformation was a Campbell in my platoon.  He was a theatrical type from Glasgow, a committed Communist, and a thorn in my flesh.  There was not one single thing we had in common and we fought bitterly on every subject discussed, until I came to the conclusion that my political salvation lay more in terms of Socialism.  Many years later I discovered Gordon? Campbell had become a great man in the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, and a famous director.  I have much to thank him for.

The following ten weeks were devoted to Infantry training; by this stage the halt and the blind had been sorted out and the survivors were deemed to be suitable for the infantry or, as some say, rejected by everyone else.  We were taught fieldcraft- weapons training – map reading and so on.  One young Corporal had trouble with a map until I noted it was upside down but he was a good sort and I didn’t get a severe reprimand.  The tips I had from Grandfather Dron, who was a crack shot, should have helped in the shooting but the old Lee Enfields we used in target practice were not very good.  It wasn’t until we got the Bren a light machine gun that I had better results.  All good things must come to an end and at the finish of this period we were posted to Battalions.  My draft were sent to the Italian front but I was too young and was posted to the Liverpool Scottish the English Territorial Battalion of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.

At last I became a full member of the Camerons but it was strange having so many Englishmen sporting the tartan and talking Liv’pool.  They had to show some Scottish roots to get into the Terriers and were proud of their Scottish connections.  I applied to join the band when I met the Battalion in Eastbourne on the South Coast of England, a long way from Fort George.  I was unable to do so until I survived a further spell of training and became a Trained Soldier.  When I got into the band I was a fairly average piper but there were few class players in the band.  The only one I remember was Hutchison  a regular soldier from Edinburgh.  He was a flashy guy and a flashy player and the only one who comes to mind.  The Pipe Major was a Terrier not a great piper but a reasonable man.  He was a good dancer and got together a dance team for the Strathspeys and Reels [a type of dance], I enjoyed dancing and became a member of the team.  It was traditional in the Highland Regiments for the bandsmen to specialise in dancing.

One of our duties on the coast was to patrol at night to repel any incursions by the enemy.  This involved a cycle patrol along a section of coast between Eastbourne and Hastings where the Martello Towers stand (built to warn of invasion by Bonaparte).  I used to set out on my bike in the wee small hours with my trusty rifle, 50 rounds of ammunition, and not a clue of how I would react if a boatload of Storm Troopers landed on my patch.  Pretty scary in the dark hoping you wouldn’t bump into anyone or anything but OK on a beautiful moonlit night when you could see for miles.  The effectiveness of the patrol was never tested, thank God.

About November 1943 we were moved to Northern Ireland to a wee town called Banbridge in County Down not far from Belfast.  This was a popular posting, food was plentiful and cheap there were lots of bonnie lassies [beautiful young women] and the war seemed far away.  A Battalion of American troops were in an adjacent camp and we made friends with some of them and heard interesting stories of Hollywood and the stars.  One chap claimed to be a nephew of Mary Pickford (the Screens Sweetheart) it may have been true and in any case he was a great storyteller.  The most interesting commodity in Banbridge was food; all the wee cafes served ham and eggs, toast and tea for the princely sum of half a crown (12½p).  We soon discovered that the Americans were being charged much more as their wages were vastly superior to ours.  Not only that, but also their equipment resources, their living conditions, and their food bore no comparison to ours.  We were using the basic equipment of the First World War while the Yanks had modern weapons superior back-up and food we would have killed for.  Their attitude to discipline was much more relaxed, their officers were treated as equals instead of superior beings, and while this may have had an effect on their performance as fighting men, it certainly made life a whole lot easier for the ‘Doughboys’.  To me it was an example of American democracy and a complete contrast in class distinctions.

Whilst in Ireland I discovered a certain aptitude for cross-country running which came as a shock, because I was a bit of a dead loss when running with full equipment.  The Adjutant was an enthusiast for the sport and that meant the Company was expected to be just as keen.  One day we were out on a long run when I got my second wind and just started to run comfortably increased my pace until I finished in the leading group, much to the amazement of my Corporal who had viewed my previous efforts with disdain.  The downside of my career in Ireland took place one dark and freezing winters night when I was hurrying back to billets.  I was pounced upon by two Regimental Police [RP’s] and charged with the heinous crime of having my coat collar turned up.   Next morning the Company Officer was mortified that I had let the Company down so badly – the RP’s involved – the Honour of the Regiment – Three Days Confined To Barracks!  C.B. or as we called it ‘Cockie Bendy’.  I was a criminal with a record, three days of spud bashing, would I ever be able to hold up my head again in decent society?  At the same time the C.O. let it be known that my record showed that I had been marked down as N.C.O. material, and he hoped I would mend my ways.  Is it not some sort of miracle that we won the war with such attitudes?

I had always hoped that my Grandfathers aptitude for marksmanship would rub off on me and it was in Ireland that it came to pass.  The Bren gun was my favourite weapon it seemed to suit me much better than the rifle.  One day we were having a competitive shoot on the banks of Lough Neagh, that huge inland loch [lake], and I couldn’t make a mistake I just kept getting ‘Bulls’.  Eventually it came down to a straight contest between the Regimental Sergeant Major and me and I won.  I’m afraid the R.S.M. wasn’t very sporting about it in fact he was decidedly unchuffed [unhappy].

Good news at last, I got my first leave in December 1943 and would be home for Christmas.  We took the boat over to Stranraer, the bus to Ayr, then to Glasgow, and the train to Dundee.  It was good to be home in the bosom of the extended family and visit all the relatives I possibly could.  Not for long, as a Telegram arrived telling me to report back pronto.  This was ominous, the Battalion could be going overseas, so I bade a fond farewell to Mum and Dad, and returned.  I actually travelled back on Hogmany [New Year’s Day] and arrived in Ireland on New Year’s Day.  As soon as I reported in I found I was on a draft to another unit.  After a few days preparation about one hundred of us embarked for destinations unknown.  One of the draftees was a drummer Abbie George who I knew well; I think we were the only ones from the band.  A few of the draft like Abbie had been pre-war Terriers and had spent four years in a training Battalion, never having heard a shot fired in anger.  I almost felt sorry for them.  We sailed back to the mainland, a much easier passage than at New Year, when the seas were crashing over the decks, and the bogs [toilets] were full of very sick troops.  We entrained and set of on the usual wild goose chase all over England until we finished up in High Wycombe.  When the train drew to a halt in the station my heart sank when I saw numbers of soldiers with Red Hackles in their Tam-O-Shanters (Bonnets).  The Black Watch!  I was not impressed atall atall.  I could have joined the Watch in Dundee without going to the bother of becoming a Cameron.  I considered it a terrible loss of dignity to come from a Real Highland Regiment, to one with an ambivalent history and some support for the Hanoverians against the Prince*.  Besides they were only quasi-highlanders coming from Fife, Angus, and Perthshire.  I considered giving the Colonel my thoughts on the subject, but when I met him he seemed such a decent fellow, I didn’t have the heart to hurt his feelings.  He was in fact Chic Thomson a Dundee C.A. and when he asked where I came from, and what I did in civvie street, he was delighted when I mentioned Jute Industries; his Father had been one of the original Directors.  I thought I would be OK in this crowd having the Colonel as a friend but I don’t think I ever spoke to him again.  C’est la Vie!

The Pipe Major appeared after the Colonel to ask if there were any Bandsmen in the draft?  Abbie and I stepped forward smartly and did our party pieces.  I thought I would be diplomatic and played Heilan’ Laddie the Black Watch regimental march,  Abbie did some fancy stick work, and we were admitted to the ranks of the band, an action which probably saved our lives…

Part II will see Bill head off to the vision of hell that was the battlefield in the direct aftermath of the D-Day landings. 

*The Blackwatch were born with this name, as they were originally a militia founded in 1725 to “keep watch” over the unlawful highlands. The Regiment had sided with the British Government during the Jacobite Rising of ‘Bonny Prince Charlie’, the grandson of the last Catholic King of England, Ireland and Scotland, James VII and II (seventh of Scotland, Second of England)