Authors: John Harris
There were two Bawdens, each identified by the last three figures of his number – 766 Bawden and 000 Bawden. 766 Bawden was known as ‘Clickety-Click’ Bawden and 000 Bawden as ‘Bugger-All’ Bawden. Though they came from the same town they were from opposite ends of the social scale but, perhaps because of having the same surname, they were the greatest of friends.
Known as ‘Dracula’, Private Rich had a voice that appeared to have been rubbed up with a file so that everything he said seemed full of menace. Similarly full of menace but also largely unintelligible were the utterings of Private McWatters, a Glasgow Irishman who had no time for any other breed. Most of what McWatters said – when he bothered to say anything at all – had to be guessed at, and there was an apocryphal story that the only time he’d got on the walkie-talkie, his ‘Cam’ awa’ forrit, Wullie, ye greit gleekit gowk, an’ gi’e ’un a wee bitty burrust wi’ y’ Bren’ had been mistaken by Lieutenant Deacon for German.
The ladies’ man of the company was Private Hunters, christened ‘Poker’ by the erudite Fletcher-Smith. Most of them thought it was a tribute to his virility, but in fact it was nothing of the sort and was a joke that probably only Fletcher-Smith and a few others appreciated.
‘Poker Hunters,’ he explained. ‘Pocahontas. Get it?’
‘No,’ Private Hunters said.
Private Puddephatt was not only large, heavy-featured and ugly but also lazy, sloppy, indifferent, irresponsible and utterly untrustworthy. On the other hand Corporal Gask, who looked about sixteen and innocent as a shorn lamb, was one of the toughest men in the battalion. Tall as a telegraph pole and thin as
a willow-wand, he had once marched fifty miles without water when he’d been cut off in the desert and had reported for duty the day after his return, apparently not much the worse for wear. Barry Lloyd Evans, who came from Aberystwyth but had somehow managed to be a milkman in Bradford, was known as ‘Evans the Bomb’ because he was a mortar expert. As Private Rich, not very happily married to a Welsh girl he’d met during training in Cardigan, liked to say, Evans was like all bloody Welshmen and could not only sing like an angel but also argue the hind leg off a donkey.
Finally there was Private Syzling from Cleckheaton. Syzling was supposed to be a Piat man, the operator of a Projector Infantry Anti-Tank, that spring-loaded ‘Heath Robinson’ device which gave no flash but had one or two disconcerting habits which Syzling never seemed able to master. When firing on a trajectory below horizontal, for instance, the bomb had an embarrassing habit of sliding out of the tube to fall at the firer’s feet. This was something which Syzling never seemed able to grasp, and it regularly threw his platoon commander, Lieutenant Deacon, into a screeching fury. In the end, in fact, he had accepted that Syzling would never make a Piat man, given the weapon to someone else and banished Syzling to outer darkness with more menial tasks.
Known inevitably to his associates – not friends, because he didn’t have any, and hardly comrades, because he spent all his time stealing from them what items of equipment he lost – as ‘Frying Tonight’, Private Syzling was one of the King’s Hard Bargains, always in trouble, always scruffy, always minus half his kit, and always unreliable. Along with Puddephatt – almost as bad but not quite, because nobody could ever be as bad as Syzling – he made life a permanent misery for Lieutenant Deacon.
Lieutenant Deacon, smooth-faced and fair-haired as a girl, was the product of a happy home and a good school; an only son who had everything he wanted, a doting mother, a sober father, two adoring sisters and a place in the family firm when he was free of the army. Private Syzling couldn’t have been more different. His school had been a street-corner slum school, black and depressing, and before he had been swept up into the army he had been unemployed. When the army had finished with him, he would without doubt be unemployed again because he was virtually unemployable.
Deacon found Syzling’s personality about as endearing as a bloated vulture’s; to Syzling, Deacon was as exciting as a pile of sand. But together they were better crowd drawers than Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. When Deacon started on Syzling, everybody’s head was cocked so as not to miss the gems that fell from his lips. Syzling on Deacon was never less than quotable.
‘Hitler’s secret weapon,’ Deacon liked to call Syzling.
‘That bloody Deacon,’ Syzling would retaliate. ‘He’s as mean as cat shit and I wish he’d stick his head up his arse and get ’isself sold as a jug ’andle.’
‘They’re as good as Laurel and Hardy,’ Fletcher-Smith observed.
In fact, that was very much what they were – Deacon, too clever by a mile, pompous and careful of his dignity; Syzling, dim as a Toc H Lamp, blank-faced, perpetually puzzled, but possessing an animal instinct for comfort that always managed to acquire for him those things like food, warmth, drink, girls, that all Deacon’s cleverness never did.
As they came to life in the town of Trepiazze, they moved like drugged bees, scratching themselves, passing dirty hands over dirty faces as if they could wipe away the weariness. There was a thin rain falling, but the cooks had established a cookhouse in a battered warehouse, and the petrol cookers had settled down to a steady glow that could produce seven hundred breakfasts in just over an hour. There was a smell of bacon in the air and it brought them out, sniffing hungrily.
It also brought out the small Italian boys touting for their sisters. They had picked up the army slang as fast as the soldiers had picked up Italian.
‘This bloody chow’s no bloody buono,’ grumbled Private Puddephatt. The corporal-cook responded with a bitter ‘Fangola, you! Zozzone! Fuck off!’ while the small boy to whom Puddephatt had ‘dashed’ it yelled delightedly, ‘You no want it? Okay, bob’s your ankle. Is bloody whizzo.’ Which, to him it undoubtedly was.
‘You don’t know when you’re well off, you lot,’ Henry White observed gloomily. ‘We didn’t get food like this in the last lot. It used to come up in a sandbag and was usually covered with mud.’
‘Ah, but they made up for it in peacetime, didn’t they, Henry?’ Parkin said. ‘Queen Victoria was always red ’ot at lookin’ after ’er soldiers.’
White gave him a dirty look. ‘The peacetime army was all right,’ he growled. ‘The peacetime army kept England going until you lot decided to join up, didn’t it? If it wasn’t for the peacetime army where would North Africa be?’
‘Right where it always was,’ Parkin retorted cheerfully. ‘Two thousand miles of shit-coloured fuck-all on the south side o’ the Med.’
They ate like famished wolves, savouring the taste of the greasy bacon and hot sweet tea, while CSM Farnsworth prowled among them, concerned as an old aunt and on the lookout for anybody who, rather than leave his friends, was hiding an injury or some minor illness.
‘You all right?’ he asked Fletcher-Smith.
Fletcher-Smith, stuffing away his food in the shelter of a cottage wall, looked indignant, as Farnsworth knew he would. Despite his spectacles and owlish expression, Fletcher-Smith was as tough as Old Nick’s nag nails, but Farnsworth had never much liked him since the day he had tried to give him a lecture on war; something Fletcher-Smith had learned from books and Farnsworth from being shot at while winning the Military Medal in the other bun-fight in 1914.
Mail arrived and billets were scrubbed – to the amazement of the Italians who couldn’t understand why they threw down buckets full of water inside while the rain came down in bucketfuls outside. When they’d finished, they were fallen in and marched to the mobile bathhouses which had been set up, and their filthy clothes were replaced by clean ones. Nobody chivvied them and the sergeants spoke to them with an unexpected gentleness. In the afternoon they were allowed into town. Trepiazze was like all small Italian towns. It might have looked better in sunshine, with foliage on the trees, but the trees were bare and the rain fell on the painted houses, turning the yellow stone of the older buildings to a depressing grey.
It was a shabby little place, and the first joy of liberation had long gone. The names of protesters shot by the Germans that had been painted on the walls were growing fainter, and the fascist posters and the communist hammers and sickles scrawled over them were becoming more tattered in the rain with every day that passed. In the Piazza Garibaldi, the main square, there was a large notice – TO FORWARD AREA, 10 MILES – to which Private Parkin promptly added the nostalgic comment, ‘TO BRADFORD, 1500 MILES’. Not far away the ditches were still cluttered with the rubbish of war – cartridge cases, articles of clothing, tins, cartons, broken weapons and German helmets by the dozen. One bar owner had lined the front of his veranda with them, cementing them in a metallic frieze to the top of the wall.
‘I just hope the bastards don’t come back,’ Private Rich said. ‘He’d have a champion job explaining.’
But you could get beer and wine; and above all there were women. Even to those men who weren’t interested merely in satisfying their craving for female flesh, that was a point in favour of Trepiazze because in the male world where they’d lived – that harsh, uncomfortable, cold, cheerless, noisy world of the front line – to be able to look at a woman – merely to
at her, knowing she was warm and soft and quiet and comfortable – was enough.
The dead had been buried in the hills before they’d left. The plaintive note of the Last Post had died away and as they were forgotten, Major Warley brought out A Company office, which consisted of a tin trunk newly arrived from B Echelon, and set about listing the casualties and informing the adjutant. With the personal belongings of the dead packed, he then sat down, faintly depressed, to write to the relatives. He tried to do it as always without hypocrisy because he felt the dead men would have preferred it that way, and after so long with the battalion he felt he knew them.
He had been through all the fighting up and down the desert, for the battalion had originally been with the Eighth Army and had only been switched to the Fifth since landing in Italy. He’d slogged through Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, across Sicily, and now up the length of Italy, progressing from lieutenant to major as others fell by the wayside. He hadn’t particularly enjoyed it, yet his temperament was such that it hadn’t made his life miserable either. He was an adaptable man, quick to adjust to good or bad conditions, able to ignore the war and the dullness of sustained repetition as an interruption of the life he had planned for himself. He intended eventually to leave journalism for the law, and if the war took ten years, very well then, so be it; that was when he would start becoming a lawyer. It was as simple as that.
As he finished the letters, and without considering it at all odd, he began immediately to fill the vacancies among the junior NCOs and reorganise his sections and platoons to absorb the newcomers and make use of the old hands. The company quartermaster-sergeant appeared, to be told the revised ration strength and bring replacement kit, sitting opposite Warley to await instructions, bolt upright, on parade, as if he were attending a funeral and owed the dead man some money.
Needs weren’t just confined to ammunition and food. They required a great many fresh battledresses, socks and boots, as well as those deficiencies which always existed after a period in the line but which Q Branch could never understand. The CQMS studied the list cautiously, holding it at arm’s length as if it might spit in his eye.
‘It’s a long one, sir,’ he mourned.
‘We were a long time up the line,’ Warley said.
Pay was dealt with and the minor worries at home were referred to the padre. They played football against anybody who would oppose them, and a lot of them gave away their rations to the hungry, stick-legged Italian children, offering them first their biscuits, then their tea, and finally their entire meal – ‘Here, for Christ’s sake, take the lot!’ A few of them, out of sheer high spirits, argued with the Italian police, small men with rifles and bomb-burst badges, who preferred to disappear if possible whenever there was trouble and leave it to the Provost Department. The uproar they created didn’t worry Colonel Yuell too much. His men needed the gentleness of women, he knew, and hid their need chiefly in loud voices and sexual aggressiveness, which as often as not came to nothing.
Their impressions of Trepiazze were crude, blunt and to the point.
‘I don’t think she had a stitch on underneath,’ Private Hunters said.
‘The beer,’ Private Rich announced in his graveyard voice, ‘wun’t get a possum pissed.’
‘Vermouth’s too sweet. I always did say so.’
‘When I said “What about a kiss?”’ Private Puddephatt was saying earnestly, ‘she said “Proibito”. What’s “proibito” mean?’
‘Same as in English, you bloody great twit!’
‘Well, she said I was “simpatico”. Does that mean the same, too? Because I wasn’t trying to be sympathetic. I was tryin’ to get ’er up against a wall.’
The shops appeared to be full, a small indifferent cinema was functioning, and there was opera further south at Caserta where Fifth Army HQ was now situated. Anyone could visit it provided they could get a place on a lorry, but, being newcomers of course, they couldn’t. Khaki appeared everywhere in the streets, some soldiers on rest, some merely lines of communications troops engaged in bringing the town back to life. When they’d first passed through Trepiazze going north, there’d been only infantry, tanks and guns. Now all sorts of people were crawling out from under the stones and Corporal Wymark was stopped by a fat little lieutenant emerging from a restaurant, whom he’d omitted to salute.