An Old Contemptible at just 15
PUBLISHED: 15:39 19 November 2008 | UPDATED: 10:16 23 August 2010
WHEN the European war clouds burst in 1914, Germany offered us scant hope. Their Kaiser Bill scornfully dismissed our troops as that Contemptible Little Army and forecast a walkover in months. Four years later, after the bloodiest war in military hi
WHEN the European war clouds burst in 1914, Germany offered us scant hope.
Their 'Kaiser Bill' scornfully dismissed our troops as 'that Contemptible Little Army' and forecast a walkover in months.
Four years later, after the bloodiest war in military history, Germany surrendered.
At a cost of millions of British and allied men, many barely out of their teens, that Contemptible Little Army had shown what they were made of.
The term Contemptible now had a new meaning.
All over the country after the war there wasn't a village, town or hamlet that didn't boast an Old Contemptible Association. They became as well-known and respected as the British Legion.
Sadly, with the passing of time membership has faded and it is doubtful if any branches still survive. But the memory of what it once stood for will endure forever.
My father had the proud and rare distinction of being just the second youngest Old Contemptible on record having been in action at the age of just 15.
The youngest was a boy bugler who was born a couple of months after him.
When war broke out in 1914 there was a desperate call for volunteers. My father wasted no time and cycled straight down to the recruiting centre. He looked older than his years. Spun a yarn about having mislaid his birth certificate and the sergeant turned a blind eye.
My father accepted the King's Shilling, signed on the dotted line and he was in. Such was the situation in those grim and desperate days.
Almost before my father had learnt how to squint down the barrel of a Lee-Enfield or squeeze the trigger he was en-route for Belgium with Winston Churchill's Royal Naval Division.
It all happened so quickly that my grandmother didn't know what was going on.
By the time she found out she almost had a fit. But all efforts to track him down failed, and she wasn't to see her son again for four long years.
By that time he had become a man in more ways than one it seems.
After some fierce fighting in Belgium my father's unit were ambushed and forced to surrender at Antwerp.
There followed a long, arduous route march to Germany, hundreds of miles away on almost no rations. At one point along the way they halted next to a field of turnips. My father told me that all the prisoners scrambled into the field and devoured the raw vegetables.
The guards most had been very understanding. It seems that the prisoners were all later violently sick. But at least they had known what it was like to have something in their stomachs for a while.
Once installed at the camp every new prisoner had the German eagle tattooed on his shoulder. This was to facilitate identity in case of escape and consequent re-capture.
From no age at all I can remember asking my father what the big blue bird was on his shoulder. It remained there until the day he died in 1964 at the age of 66.
My father learnt to speak fluent German and became the official camp interpreter. But that wasn't his sole interest, by all accounts.
He had an eye for a pretty fraulein and eventually fell under the spell of the Commandment's teenage daughter.
Starting off with a few flirtatious chat-up lines across the barbed wire, he ended up clambering over the stockade at night and taking her for a romantic boat trip on the nearby River Spree - ever heard of going on the Spree? I think my old dad was the first one to do it.
Afterwards he would wait until the coast was clear and clamber back into his quarters.
When the commandment found out what was going on he was almost apoplectic.
He ordered his guards to stop the audacious young Englishman at any cost. The sentries waited patiently night after night until their moment came.
They caught my father in the act of returning from his romantic tryst and one thrust a bayonet through his ankle. My father was unable to walk for months. But he was not put off. He discovered another way across the wire and was eventually up to his old tricks if somewhat painfully.
After the war my father studied hard and eventually became a high ranking Customs officer. Not bad for a youngster who had left school at 14 and had little formal education.
His great knowledge of German never left him and was to prove invaluable. Sometimes when crossing from South to North Shields on the Tyne ferry in his early years he would overhear some German seaman discussing where they had hidden their contraband. He used to move in closer and make a mental note of what they were saying.
They must have been astonished when he went straight to where their smuggled goods were concealed.
In later years he was stationed at Gravesend and was prosecuting in a case involving a German seaman who spoke not a word of English.
The court interpreter was unable to understand the seaman's dialect. But my father was quite up to the task.
With the court's permission he proceeded with the case and received an official commendation and a glowing account in the press.
All his life my father showed qualities that once made our country great.
He had patriotism, determination and courage. And more than a hint of audacity.
I'm proud to bear his name.