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Life at an Army Training Camp Part 1

by actiondesksheffield

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Vernon Ledgard
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14 December 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Doreen Partridge of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Vernon Ledgard and has been added to the site with the author’s permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

Part 1

Life at an Army Training Camp
Royal Engineers,

When I was eighteen, I received my call up papers. First I had to go to Leeds for a medical examination, which I passed A1 and then I received a train warrant and instructions to report to Brancepeth Camp near Durham on 7th December 1944. When I arrived at Durham station, there was a Durham Light Infantry corporal shouting for any recruits for Brancepeth to go outside and board the waiting army lorries. As we approached the camp which was just huts, I was surprised to see soldiers with rifles and steel helmets running through a wet field and throwing themselves down every few yards. This occurred to me as not very healthy, but I later found that the throwing yourself down in the cold and wet was the best bit because then you got a little rest.

We were allocated to a hut and told to put our belongings on one of the two tier bunks. I was only able to get a lower bunk! We then had to fall in outside and were given a knife, fork and spoon each, marched to a long dining room full of very noisy solders all clad in denims, which were the working uniform of the time. We queued up and received a meal of re-constituted potato, boiled tasteless haricot beans and a piece of tough stringy meat. Even so, the men around were shouting for us not to throw anything away, but to scrape it onto their plates. Outside the hut was a large tank full of boiling water to plunge our eating irons in to wash them. We were then marched back to our hut for a first night on a hard camp bed with a pillow filled with straw and three army blankets.

Reveille was at 6a.m. followed by a difficult shave in a room full of jesting squaddies, some of whom used cutthroat razors. Later, we were taken down to Brancepeth Castle to the stores where we were issued with two Battle Dress Uniforms, an overcoat, respirator, rifle, bayonet, denims, two pairs of boots and all accoutrements required for soldiering. Then to the barbers where our heads were shaved to a stubble.
Everyday following, we were rushed from pillar to post, never having a minute until lights out at 10p.m. Continual rifle drill, physical training, Bren gun (a light machine gun) training and marching at a very fast pace at all times. Saturday mornings we were inoculated against various diseases, each man stood in a queue with a bared arm into which was plunged a large blunt needle. Some men fainted. Our arms were very sore and tender for the weekend but when Monday came along it was more marching, rifle drill etc.

It was bitterly cold and I never seemed to feel very well or to be able to get warm.
One day there was a terrible blizzard with a biting north wind; this happened to be our day for a five-mile run in P.E. kit. We ran from the camp gate for two and a half miles west with snow caked on our right side and when we turned to come back, this melted and we received the snow on our left side. We were absolutely frozen, but it was immediately back into denims and out on the square for drill wet or not.

I had to attend the dentist for treatment, which resulted in a tooth being pulled out. All day long it kept bleeding and when I lay on my bunk at night, it still bled so I had to get up to report to the Medical Orderly room. It was a cold clear night with several inches of snow on the ground and I left a trail of drops of red blood in the white snow. I knocked up the corporal on duty and after inspecting the bloody hole in my gum, he rang for a medical officer who came and plugged the hole with cotton wool and instructed me to stay the night in the medical centre. This seemed heavenly, as it was a lovely soft bed with clean white sheets and white pillows.

One day we were issued with two Mills Fragmentation bombs. They looked like a metal pineapple with a locked metal handle on the side. We had a forced march in full kit with rifles, respirators, steel helmets etc. to the throwing ground. It was a bitterly cold day and because of our march, we were sweating when we arrived, we then had to wait our turn to go into the sandbagged throwing bays. The throwing bays had two N.C.O.’s in them and they took two men at a time to throw the grenades. For some uncanny reason, when my time came - we were all sat shivering - I invited the man next to me to go before me. Of course his hands were frozen with cold and he dropped his grenade in the mud, it exploded, resulting in both soldiers and the N.C.O.’s being taken to hospital with severe shrapnel wounds.

I spent a miserable six weeks at Brancepeth camp having infantry training and it seemed like years. The harsh regime was obviously designed to turn callow youths into soldiers, irrespective of the price, which in some cases caused some youths to attempt suicide.
It ended with my transfer to the Royal Engineers and I duly received a railway warrant to report to Kitchener Barracks in Chatham, Kent for a three months training course. The rail journey took me first to London on a packed train. I was in full kit with my rifle and kit bag containing much of my spare clothes and equipment. Most of the time I was unable to get a seat so I sat in the corridor on my kit bag. The change of stations in London meant that I had to use the underground, once again standing room only and I seemed to be carried along by the crowd, packed like sardines in the carriage.


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