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Trenches and Trees - Chapter 6, continued

Bill and I lay for a few minutes firing back in the direction of the revolver shots and then I signed Bill to move out to my left whilst I kept firing. After a few more minutes I started snaking after Bill towards the end of the scrub. Bill and I had stopped firing now so as not to give away our new position. The Johnny with the revolver was still pumping shots in an effort to find us, we rushed round the end of the scrub just in time to see the Bulgar officer disappear into the scrub and the scout officer and his men running towards the Bulgar soldiers, who had dropped their arms and were standing with their hands in the air and looking very frightened. Their ponies were grazing, quite unconcerned nearby. We got the Bulgars into a line and a couple of men were detailed to guard them whilst others were sent to round up the eight ponies.

"What went wrong Corporal?" asked the scout officer. I explained how I had failed to get them to believe that the Bulgars would actually come right up to us and that when the realised that they were only a few yards away they lost heir nerve and rushed away. "This is a very serious matter Corporal, desertion in the face of the enemy and refusing to obey an NCO's orders in action. They could be court martialled and shot!" I pleaded with him to consider their lack of experience for this sort of fighting. Such training as they had had consisted of being taught to destroy the enemy so that holding their fire when at close quarters didn't seem natural to them.

Leaving an NCO and half the available men to guard the area in case the Bulgar officer tried to make a getaway, the rest of us started for our lines with our prisoners and the eight, nice, little ponies. I had not seen the Bulgar Cavalry so close to before and I was surprised to see what little animals they were, but they looked very tough and strong. When we arrived back at HQ the CO seemed very pleased with our day's work and calling me over he said "You don't get on very well with that crazy mule you have for transporting your maps, do you?"

"No Sir," I replied, "he's a menace, I'm scared stiff whenever I go near him."

"Right Corporal, you can have one of the Bulgar ponies, take your pick."

I was delighted at this and used the pony for carrying the mapping boxes for the remainder of our time on the Struma Front.

The men who had deserted their posts and fled were still in the guard room and one evening the CO summoned me to his tent and asked me to tell him exactly what had happened and what I thought about it. I told him in detail what had happened up to the point when they ran away and then he asked me what I thought should be done with then. I stressing their lack of specialised training and inexperience in that kind of job, adding that I hoped he would be able to deal leniently with them. I hadn't much hopes that he would take much notice of what I said, so I was very pleased to learn that they were to be punished only for disobeying an order and that the charge of cowardice had been over-looked. We'd heard tales of men being shot for that. The CO had a few words to say to them which I am sure they would remember for the rest of their lives. We saw no more Bulgar patrols cross the river and the lone tree became our forward observation post.

In rest camp again, I was summoned to the CO's office. He frightened the life out of me when he said "Corporal, our scout officer has been appointed to a post on brigade headquarters as a Staff Captain. You know more about this job than anyone so I am offering you a Commission."

I blurted out "Not me Sir, please; I should hate it. I'm no soldier, I' m just a civilian and only waiting to get this over and get back to my peace-time job."

He explained the advantages of a Commission and an army career but didn't pressure me when he saw how I felt. "I'm sorry that you don't feel like accepting my offer," he said. "However, it is your own decision. I have no more officers, so, for the time being you will have to run the show on your own until we get an officer."

His next spell in the line was a sector with just one large village much nearer to the Bulgar. Several patrols approached the village but none had entered it. Searching a number of the houses they found nothing suspicious, so a look-out was posted as Harry started to move forward house to house.

I had not been feeling too well that day; the heat seemed to be getting me down and I felt weak and dizzy. Suddenly I became much worse and had to lie down in the shade. Before I felt able to get on my feet again there came a warning shout from our look-out who said he could see a Bulgar patrol approaching the village. Our orders were not to get into a fight when scouting so I ordered the men to hide me and then to get out quickly. They dragged me into an old barn some distance from the main road through the village and covered me with straw. I was feeling very sick and decided that I had got an attack of malaria. Too ill to care what happened, I lay there and after a time I heard strange voices and guessed that the Bulgar patrol was passing. I fell asleep and when I woke it was dusk and I was still feeling too ill to worry about my position.

Some hours later I became aware of movement in the vicinity of my barn and presently my patrol, with stretcher-bearers, reached me. I was given some medicine, loaded onto the stretcher and taken back to our lines. The MO looked after me and having decided that I was not too bad, he didn't send me down the line. After a week or so I was about again but feeling groggy. I was excused from patrol work for a time and it was during this period that we got a new scout officer. He came to see me and proved to be a very decent chap. He said had had been asked to take over the scouts but admitted that he knew nothing about the job and that he would have to rely on my help. I readily promised to do all I could to 'put him in the picture' and we became very good friends. He had come straight from England and had not seen any action but he very soon got the hang of the job and made us a very good officer.

The RSM had his men dig a bathing pool for him, fed from was a clear mountain stream. It was just large enough to swim a few strokes each way. One day the RSM stopped Harry and told him to use his pool anytime he liked.

I had dressed and was about to leave the pool one day when the RSM appeared on the scene.

"Did you enjoy your dip Corporal?" he asked, smiling.

"Yes thank you Sir," I replied, wondering what he was up to. I could not make out why he should suddenly start being nice to me.

"Corporal," he went on, " I have some news. The Brigadier and his Staff are coming to visit the battalion and a number of NCO's will be picked out to drill the battalion in his presence. Now I don't suppose battalion drill is your strong point so I want to help you. If you will come along to my tent this evening we will see what we can do."

I had to take a lot of leg pulling from the lads for using the RSM's pool and for visiting him in his tent and they were obviously just as puzzled as I was. For several evenings I was instructed by the RSM in battalion drill with the aid of rows of matches and then the brick dropped.

"Corporal," he said "I don't want you to tell the men yet, but I have applied for a Commission and I want you to help me with my mapping"

So that was it! He was being nice to me so that I would help him in return. Contours seemed to get him down so I took him out sketching and explaining, and soon he got the hang of it. He seemed duly grateful.

About a week later the big day arrived and we turned out our battalion parade, all cleaned end polished up and looking very smart, or so we hoped. The General made us the usual speech of platitudes and got it over so quickly that I don't think even he believed it was other than a load of tripe. One by one the NCO's were brought out and having been duly told by the General what he wanted they proceeded to carry out certain drill movements.

In spite of the RSM's help, I realised that I should have got the battalion tied up in little knots if I had been called out but time was passing and I was just beginning to think they were going to miss me when someone called "Corporal Williams!" Shaking a little at the knees, I marched out to face the General and managed to execute a smart salute without falling over.

"Congratulations on your scouting Corporal," said the General. "And now I am going to let you have the honour of dismissing the parade. First of all tell the battalion what you want them to do, detailing each movement and then proceed to give the orders. Right Corporal - carry on!"

I managed to get plenty of voice and instructed the battalion as to the drill and then I bawled out -"Battalion - 'Shun." Then "Slope arms - battalion dismiss!" Turning to face the General I smacked the butt of my rifle in salute and he took a few paces towards me smiling broadly.

"Well done Corporal, you have invented an entirely new drill, but don't worry - look - they've all gone so it was very effective!"

He patted me on the shoulder and departed with a look on his face which plainly said "What do you expect from civvies?"

A gang of other NCO's waited for after the parade to rib me. "A right bloody mess you made of that..." but here I cut them off "The General was very pleased he was sick of the sight of this mob and was jolly glad when I got rid of you!"

Written by Harry Williams 1965, 2010. All rights are strictly reserved. This publication may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, typescript, recording or otherwise, without prior permission in writing. Scanned from the original typescript and edited by Leigh Graham.

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Bulgar.

A member of an ancient Finno-Ugrian tribe that settled in what is now Bulgaria and adopted the Slavonic language; a Bulgarian.

N.C.O.

abbreviation: Non-Commissioned Officer.
An NCO is a soldier who has been given authority by a commissioned officer. The NCO corps is the 'junior' management of the military. Typically NCO's serve as administrative personnel, as advisors to the officer corps, as trainers and as supervisors of the lower-ranking or less experienced personnel.

C.O.

abbreviation: Commanding Officer.
The Commanding Officer is the officer in command of a military unit. Typically, the Commanding Officer has ultimate authority over the unit, and is usually given wide latitude, within the bounds of military law. In the British Army the title of Commanding Officer is reserved for commanders of major units (regiments, battalions and similar sized units), almost invariably holding the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

M.O.

abbreviation: Medical Officer or Medical Orderly.

R.S.M.

abbreviation: Regimental Sergeant Major.
RSM is an appointment held by Warrant Officers Class 1 (WO1) in the British Army, Royal Marines and many Commonwealth armies. The RSM is primarily responsible for maintaining standards and discipline.