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War Diaries: A Lesson In Survival

by ateamwar

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Arthur Cope, R. A. (T. A.)
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
02 August 2005

The following story appears courtesy of and with thanks to Arthur Cope, R. A. (T. A.) and Richard A. Cope.

The day after the declaration of war, our regiment boarded a train, which transported us to Aldershot, whilst waiting to move to France. We pitched tents and put our personal belongings in them. Later, I was detailed for guard duty. Our task was to patrol round a large dump of army stores. The rota was 'two hours on, two hours off'. During our rest period we were allowed to curl up on the ground besides the pile of stores.
At about 2am, the sergeant was walking round and saw me looking extremely cold. He saw that I was wearing a greatcoat and asked why I had not got a blanket. (We had earlier been issued with one each). I told him that when I had returned to the tent my blanket 'had disappeared'. The sergeant then pointed out that amongst the stores we were guarding were hundreds of blankets. Help yourself to those," he said, "there's no-one looking." But I told him that I could not do that "because it would be stealing." (I really was an innocent 21-year-old at that time!) Taking pity on me, the sergeant went to one of the piles and took out a blanket. Handing it to me he said: "Look, son, you'll have to learn that in the army you look after yourself first, second and last."
It is rather ironic that when I had finished my night guard duty, I went back to my tent to get my mess tin for breakfast only to find that, too, had gone. I went to the quartermaster sergeant to ask for a replacement. When he asked what had happened to my original, I told him that I thought someone had stolen it. His reply was typical: "Well, go and pinch someone else's!"
Later that day, whilst still on guard duty, (it was a 24-hour stretch), things were quiet so I laid my rifle against a tree and lit a cigarette, but almost immediately I spotted the colonel heading my way. I grabbed my rifle, sloped arms and slapped my hand on the butt of my rifle, as we had been taught in our Territorial Army days. The colonel saluted and then stopped in front of me. He said:
"That was a really smart salute. Well done. However, it is usual to remove a cigarette from your mouth when you salute an officer!"
A couple of days later we got news that His Majesty King George, would be visiting us the following day. Feverish preparations were made to ensure that everything was in perfect order for his arrival. All personal equipment was polished as never before, every bit of litter was removed from the camp and officers scurried about checking that all was in pristine condition.
The morning arrived. We had early breakfast and then paraded for inspection. Then the sergeant-major walked down the ranks. "You, you and you," he said to three of us he chose at random. "Cookhouse duty today."
What a terrible ordeal that was. There I was eagerly waiting to see my King for the first time in my life. Perhaps, even, having the honour of him speaking to me personally.
But no, I did see the King, but from quite a long distance away, and instead of standing briskly to attention in front of him, I was in the cookhouse scrubbing away at greasy dixie lids.
This was the second time I had felt extremely humiliated in less than a week.

'This story was submitted to the People’s War site by BBC Radio Merseyside’s People’s War team on behalf of the author and has been added to the site with his / her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.'

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