He’d watched Southampton disappear in the distance, suddenly feeling scared for the first time. He’d never been this far south before. Never been on a boat, unless it was the pleasure steamer in Scarborough harbour.
Now he had a long time at sea ahead of him. They hadn’t been officially told where they were going, but everyone knew. Egypt. The Suez bloody Canal. He’d joined up to fight in France, to take on the Hun and they were sending him to the other end of the world. All the others felt the same way. They’d trained in the Dales, ready for cold and mud, and they were going to get their knees brown instead. It didn’t make any sense, but what did in the army?
A train from Alexandria, heading south through the desert night. A lot colder than he’d expected and black as pitch. Eight of them in a compartment, too tired and mystified to talk. Somewhere out there were the pyramids. Maybe they’d see them tomorrow. Maybe they wouldn’t. They were all too bone-weary to care.
The voyage had sorted out those who got sea sick. At least Jimmy hadn’t been one of them, not after the first day. And now it was more movement. On land, at least. He looked forward to when it was over. Even some square bashing seemed good right now.
Days turned into nights and days again as they were on the move, taking kit bags from luggage racks and tipping them in the back of lorries. The days so hot it was hard to breathe. Finally a barracks. Somewhere to stop, even if all the movement continued in his head.
‘You can write a letter home,’ the sergeant told them. ‘But don’t say where you are or it;’ll be censored. Play it smart and play it by the rules, lads.’
Canal. The only one he’s ever seen was in Leeds, with the barges moving up and down, loading and unloading on the busy wharves. He’d expected the ones in Egypt would be like that. But Suez? It was like looking out at the ocean. So wide, so long. Huge ships gliding along, taking things to and from India and parts of the Empire. The first time he saw it, it took his breath away.
Now he could see why they were guarding it. The captain had explained its importance to them all. If the Germans got their hands on this they could strangle Britain. They might not be in France but they were doing a vital job here.
Once he got used to it, the duty wasn’t bad. It was a cushy billet, really. Just too hot. When they got a day’s leave they’d vanish into the bazaar. The souk, they called it. Watch out for all the kids begging, keep close watch on your money because they all have stick fingers. That was the warning. And keep clear of the women. Not just the tarts, but especially the decent ones. They were young, they were nervous, didn’t speak a word of the lingo. So they walked in threes or fours. Laughing, joking. Trying to haggle for the odd present to take back home.
His arms were already growing brown. Aye, he could do a lot worse.
At last. A weekend pass. A whole bloody weekend away from the mud and the cold of camp. There were plenty of them going back to Leeds, most of the new intake, it seemed. Standing at the station in their uniforms, part-proud, part self-conscious, they talked about the rumours going round.
‘They’ll be shipping us out when we come back. That’s how they do it.’
‘No, you daft sod, we’ll have months of training yet.’
‘Give over, you don’t know what you’re on about.’
Jimmy Morgan listened but didn’t say anything. He didn’t know what was going to happen. If he had to put money on it, he’d bet they were going somewhere. But where that might be was anyone’s guess. There were troops all over the map. He wanted France. They all did. That was where the fighting was. The reason they’d joined up, a chance to go against the Hun and win.
Funny how so much of the patriotic talk had died down when it wasn’t all over by Christmas. But he was still eager, and so were the other lads. You saw it at bayonet practice when they ran forward scream and shouting and did their best to kill a sandbag. It took the edge off their anger. And their fear. The one thing none of them talked about.
He had a seat by the window on the train. They sky was grey, rain tipping down as they passed through Harrogate. Closer to Leeds, though, the clouds were less leaden, even a hint of blue in the Saturday morning.
Mary was there, waiting. Waving as he strode down the platform. She looked different, he thought. More assured, more…womanly. And all his.
‘You look smashing in your uniform,’ Mary said as she hugged him close. ‘I’ve missed you.’
The letters were no substitute for holding her. Neither of them was good with words. Face to face, though, none of that matter. He smiled and kissed her.
The day was carefully planned. The afternoon at home, the evening with Mary after she finished her shift at work. Sunday, more time with his family. Until evening when he and Mary would go down to the station and he’d be back to Colsterdale.
The time went too fast. If he could, he’d have gripped it tight and let it out fraction by fraction. But he didn’t have that power. All too soon it was Sunday evening, the gas lights bright along Boar Lane, crowds of men in uniform with sweethearts and parents all heading for the station.
‘Do you know what’ll happen next?’ Mary asked. It was the question everyone had avoided all weekend.
‘Not yet. They don’t tell us anything. I doubt we’d hear until the night before.’
‘You just make sure you come home to me.’ She tried to sound cheerful, but her smile was more hopeful than real.
‘I will,’ Jimmy said. ‘I promise, luv.’
Then it was time to board, everyone squeezing into the compartments. Men were standing. Many looked lost, on the edge of tears. Jimmy lit a cigarette and wondered where he’d be in a month.
Colsterdale. He was surprised the place even had a name. It was the middle of bloody nowhere, and cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. Row after row of tents and young soldiers all looking as stunned as Jimmy felt.
He’d been so eager to join up and play his part. Now he was starting to wish he hadn’t bothered. There was no way to get warm up here. If this was how the army wanted to toughen them up, the only thing it built was resentment.
The NCOs has been on them from the moment they climbed off the lorries, in their civvies and looking around in astonishment. A camp in the wilderness, and icy wind sliding straight through them.
Now it was do this, do that, march here, march there. A cross-country run in full gear, the pack like a stone on his back as the miles passed. And always orders. How would parading in formation help them fight the Hun?
His father had been right, it wasn’t over by Christmas. The politicians had forgotten that promise like it had never been spoken. Everyone seemed dug in for the long term.
But the worst thing was the puttees. They had to be just so, wound tight and even over the calves. Do them wrong and the corporal put you on a charge. No leaving camp, although there was nowhere to any, anyway. In the cold the puttees froze to you so you could almost feel your leg ballooning. In the wet they became so heavy with mud that lifting a boot was effort. Get them soaked in the River Burn and they weighed a ton. Neither use nor bloody ornament, Jimmy thought.
He’d shot a rifle. That was all right, and he seemed a natural at it, hitting the target every time where most of them seemed to be firing into the next valley. But every day they went through the drill of taking the gun apart, cleaning and reassembling it.
‘Do it right,’ the sergeant told them. ‘One day your life’s going to depend on it. Can’t have the Germans coming and your weapon jamming.
Every day was filled, even church service on Sundays, about the only way he had of marking the weeks. By the lantern in the tent, he wrote to Mary and to his parents, trying to describe what things were like. He wasn’t allowed to tell them where he was, although they’d know anyway. He picked on the funny stories, trying to entertain. But the words never came out too well; he wasn’t much of a writer, never had been.
And when mail call brought him replies. Mary had started work at the Leeds Forge Company in Armley filling shells for the big guns. She loved the freedom and she’d made friends.
His mother was proud of him. So was his dad, she wrote, although like as not he’d never come out as say it. Jimmy smiled. That was the old man all over.
The signal sounded for lights out and he settled under the blanket. Never get bloody warm up here, he thought. Never in a million years.
Christmas was just a fortnight away, but there didn’t seem to be much cheer in Leeds. Just grim, determined faces. There will still things at night – the public house, dancing, a moving picture performance at the Hyde Park, the music halls. But no one seemed to have much joy.
Jimmy went out with Mary twice a week, when she could wheedle a few hours away from work. Her employers weren’t bad, she told him. Their son was a captain in the navy, already at sea somewhere, so they didn’t mind the staff seeing sweethearts. An evening here or there when she could put away the maid’s uniform.
‘It’ll not be much longer,’ she told him. ‘Our Lucy keeps hearing things. She says Leeds Forge over in Armley will be taking girls on soon.’ Mary smiled at him. ‘Someone has to make shells and it’ll be better than being at someone’s back and call all the while.’
Jimmy grinned. But underneath it all, he was chafing. They’d accepted him into the army on his eighteenth birthday. But that was the last he’d heard. No letter telling him to report anywhere. It would be all over by Christmas, that’s what they’d promised when the fighting began. Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn’t. But he didn’t want to miss out. When King and country came calling, you did your bit.
He resented every day at work. As soon as he got home from his shift he’d look at his mam to see if anything had arrived for him. And every day she shook her head.
‘Don’t be in such a bloody rush,’ his father said as they stood in the pub one night. In the other bard someone was banging on the piano and they were singing “Tipperary.” ‘You’ll have your chance. Everyone will in time,’ he added darkly.
‘I’ve got to go. I just wish they’d start my training.’ Jimmy pulled out a packet of Black Cats and lit one. ‘Trevor’s there. Will, too.’
‘Let them. Remember, you’re a long time dead. It’s not the politicians who are rushing off to fight, is it? Not the rich.’
‘Leave it be, Dad. Please.’ Jimmy didn’t have the energy for this argument.
It was a sparse Christmas. He had money, and he spent it. A new pipe and some tobacco for this father, lace and chocolates for his mother. Bits and bobs for other relations. A cameo brooch for Mary.
She came over in the late afternoon. All the relatives had come for their dinner, most of them eating like gannets. Some had already left, a few were sleeping off the meal while the women cleaned everything up in the kitchen.
‘Do you fancy a walk?’ she asked Jimmy. ‘Maybe through the park.’
Before the weather turned cold, he knew what that had meant. But now? They’d had nowhere really private to go since the first frost in the middle of November.
‘Aye,’ he agreed. ‘All right.’
The trees were bare, the soil like rock under their feet. She had on a cloth coat, scarf wrapped around her neck, and a felt hat covering her hair.
‘I’ve given in me notice,’ she told him as they strolled. Her arm was through his. ‘Start of the year I’m off to work in the factory.’
‘Good for you,’ he said. ‘More money, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. More freedom, too. I’ve already found some lodgings up there. Cheap, and it’s clean.’
Jimmy hugged her and gave her a quick kiss.
‘I still don’t know what’s happening with me,’ he said.
‘You’ll be going,’ she said with certainty. ‘Probably sooner rather than later.’ She looked up at the clear sky, night already beginning to fall. ‘It’s Christmas, isn’t it, and it’s not over. It won’t be for a long time, if you ask me.’
‘I’ll be happy to be there. You know that.’
‘I do, and I’m proud of you. I just wanted to ask…do you want me to wait for you, Jimmy? Because I will if you do.’
The words took him by surprise. But they gave him a glow, he realised. Made him happy.
‘Aye,’ he said. ‘I’d like that. I’d be dead proud.’
On the 27th the letter finally arrived. He had to report to Leeds Station at eight am on the first of January, 1915 to begin his training.
It had been a sombre Bonfire Night. No one had been in the mood, not with so many lads already away. There’d always been a big fire at the end of Jimmy’s street, boys out chumping for weeks before, stuffing straw into old clothes and begging for a farthing for the guy.
Not this time. Not when the country was at war. His mam had made parkin, Mrs. Wilson at number 36 had her special cinder toffee, but it was only the kids who were eating as the stood around the small blaze.
‘You’re eighteen tomorrow,’ Teddy Wilson said. He’d joined the month before, now he was just waiting for his notice to report.
‘Aye,’ Jimmy said. ‘I’ll be down at the depot first thing.’
Teddy glanced over at Jimmy’s parents.
‘Do they know yet?’
He didn’t answer. They must have guessed. In the last two months they’d been over it a dozen times. And from tomorrow they couldn’t stop him.
‘What about that lass you’re walking out with?’
Mary. They’d met on the second Sunday in October. The weather had been balmy, even some sun, and Jimmy had taken the tram out to Roundhay Park. They’d met in the queue for an ice cream and he’d ended up buying her a cup of tea. The next Sunday he took her to the pictures at the Hyde Park. She was a maid in one of the big houses past Headingley, but no side on her for all that. A cheeky smile and dark hair. She made him laugh, then more when she gave him a kiss.
‘I talked to her,’ Jimmy told him. ‘She’s dead proud.’
She wouldn’t be a maid much longer, she’d told him that. Soon enough they’d want women for war work, that was what she believed, and she’d be off like a shot. No more yes sir, no sir and working all hours for next to nothing. She was ambitious, was Mary, and she didn’t mind anyone knowing.
There was drizzle in the air the next morning. Jimmy washed and dressed, ready to be out of the house early. Sod work, he had something better planned. Serve the King and see a little glory while he could. If they were right he’d be home in the New Year, anyway. He’d just made a pot of tea and was scraping dripping over a slice of bread when his father came into the scullery.
‘That’s right,’ Jimmy answered.
‘Are you going to do it?’ his father asked.
Terry Morgan gave a small nod.
‘I think you’re daft. But if you’re sure, cut me a piece of that loaf and I’ll come down with you.’
‘You won’t change my mind.’
‘I know that, lad,’ Terry said quietly. ‘It’s your right. But I’ll testify that you’re old enough. If I were them I’d not believe you otherwise.’
It was easily done, quick enough. In as Jimmy Morgan, out as Private Jimmy Morgan. They measured his height and his chest and gave him the nod.
‘Go home and back to work,’ the NCO told him. ‘We’ll send you a letter saying when and where to report.’ The man sounded bored, the words spoken too many times.
‘Yes, Corporal.’ Jimmy stood at attention, back straight. ‘Thank you, Corporal.’
‘Next,’ the man called, already looking down the line.
The Scarborough Taps was close by.
‘Fancy a drink?’ Terry asked. ‘Celebrate your birthday.’
‘Aye, all right,’ Jimmy said. He’d never had a drink with his father before. If they called him to fight soon, who knew when he would again?
This is the second part of Jimmy Morgan’s story, to be updated month by month, until 1918, if Jimmy survives that long.
While you’re here, I’d be very grateful if you’d glance through the site and take a look at my books, too. After all, writing is what I do (that was the ad segment).
It had been a piss poor month. The only good thing was that so many had joined up at the factory that he’d been promoted to fitter. Another shilling a week in the pay packet. But that went to his mam, anyway. And not as good as a uniform and a rifle. He’d had letters from his mates, already off training, saying how good the grub was. Everything found.
Another month and he’d be eighteen. Jimmy Morgan, private. It had a ring to it.
‘Don’t be so bloody daft,’ his father had said. ‘They can’t send you overseas until you’re nineteen, anyway. Don’t you know owt?’
‘Where does it say that?’
‘It’s the law,’ Terry Morgan told him as he put on his cap and left for his evening drink.
‘Don’t you go doing it, Jimmy,’ his mother said as she sat down on the other side of the table. ‘It’ll break your da’s heart.’
‘Him?’ He laughed. His father was made of stone. Ale, fists, and anger, that was all he knew.
‘He’ll not say it, but it’s true. He’s been that worried since you tried to join up.’
‘I’m eighteen soon enough.’
‘I know, luv.’ She reach out a thin, worn hand and took his. ‘And I know it’s a good thing to do. Someone has to defend the country. But just think on it first.’
There wasn’t much thinking to do. Though. Not when you were out of an evening and all the lasses looked at you, wondering why you were still here, if you were a coward. He tried to explain a few times, but it was all wasted words. They didn’t want to listen.
Still, not long until he was eighteen now. Then he could look everyone in the eye.
He’d seen the tram down at the Swinegate Depot. All done up like a bloody dog’s dinner, God Save The King in lights on the side and Berlin as its destination.
Dog’s dinner was right. He read the slogan on the window – Wanted At Once, 5000 Recruits From Leeds. British Bulldogs. Airedale Or Yorkshire Terriers. Line them up and watch them run at the Hun. Still, he couldn’t help feeling a bit of pride.
There was already a queue hundreds long waiting to join up. In one end of the tram, out the other with big smiles on their faces. He joined at the end, smoking, listening to lads chattering away, full of spunk and fire about how many they’d kill and still be home by Christmas.
He didn’t care when it was over. However long it took, it would be better than what he had here. Grafting away in a factory for next to nowt. No future, just years of the same. His dad drunk Friday and Saturday nights, battering his mam when he came home.
Finally he stood in front of the corporal. The uniform was neat, the moustache clipped, buttons glinting in the light. Eyes full of pride.
The corporal looked up.
‘If you want to be in the army, son, you’d better get used to rank.’ He pointed at the stripes. ‘See those? They mean I’m a corporal. So you address me as corporal or sir. Got it?’
‘Yes, corporal,’ he answered. It was like talking to the foreman.
’31 East Park Road. Corporal.’ And he’d be glad to get shut of that place, too. No room, nowhere to think. Not that he expected the army to be much better. But at least he’d be a man, not just Tommy Morgan’s son.
The man snorted.
‘Pull the other one, lad, it’s got bells on. How old?’
‘Then come back on your birthday.’ He looked down the line. ‘Next!’
Outside, all the ones who’d joined up were congratulating each other, off for a drink to celebrate. He walked off, hands in his pockets.