Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A British Soldier's Diary

A website hosted by Northumbria University (UK) includes entries about Richard (Dick) Fawcett, who served in the Durham Light Infantry in India in the 1920s and 1930s. This entry, which includes information from Fawcett's diary, is written by his son.

On the left the camp barber gets to work. On the right Corporal Dick Fawcett.

The 1932 diary is completely filled in pencil and the handwriting is noticeably more mature and settled in style. By this time Dick had been in India for about four years (and in the army maybe eight years) and the routine was easy, filled with guard and sentry duties. He was a corporal and had a cushy number in the office of the Battalion Commander as was usual then for members of the boxing team. (It was the same when I was in the RAF in the early fifties.)

About the only break in routine in the diary was an entry in January about two young girls who had been brought into the local childrens home who were quite wild - having been brought up by wolves! Another break from the tedium was duty on the racecourse. (Although I know there was a lot of unrest in the civilian population at that time there was no mention of it anywhere in the diary so presumably he was not involved).

Dick also killed a fair number of snakes and mentioned them in such a casual way that it was obviously routine and nothing "to write home about" - although once, as an experiment, he put a small snake into a corked bottle to see how long it would survive in an airless situation. He was amazed that it was still moving over a week later but must have got bored with it all as he never mentioned the outcome!

All the men slept in tents but it was so hot that many were in the habit of sleeping outside “under the stars” where they carried their beds and put up the necessary "mossy" nets before retiring. There were many entries mentioning the beauty of the full moon. On the whole, Dick was very contented with his lot and although some of his comrades were homesick at times, the army was his home so he was okay but later in the diary, knowing that their term in India was almost over, he was also caught up with “boat fever” expressed at the end of some pages as “JILLO that boat” - meaning "Roll on"!

Each day for Dick started with tea (or char as they put it), bath, parade, breakfast, then – if he was in training, which seemed to be most of the time –PT in the gym followed by a seven mile run (road work), bath, attending to things in the office (which never seemed to take long and wasn't every day) or writing letters, dinner, bed (this was every day and must have been a siesta), tea, Pictures (cinema, mostly silent films!) or the skating rink (I don’t know whether it was ice or roller) – both places had a half-time break for tea and cakes! He went to the pictures every day for a few weeks then stop for a couple of weeks and read every day instead.

When in full training just before a fight he would do more road work before going to the pictures and at other times would fit in visits to the swimming baths. Then his day would end with more char and chats or playing the mandolin and singing with his friends before going to sleep under the stars. (Years later when in “civvy street” he would often sleep out on the lawn in the summer!) As his routine contained very little "work" it’s no wonder he loved the army!

At one time he even started cross-country running which was probably no different to his roadwork and was training over hurdles.

While he loved the army, some things about it annoyed him and started him thinking of home. For instance, one day they were instructed to take down their four-man tents and re-erect them "six inches to the East"!

Another day, the CO came round on his horse, dismounted, got a bucket of water and threw it over their tent shouting that it was a fire drill. Dick was not amused by the fact that most of the water went over his bedding and his clothes.

Then there was the time they were ordered to scrape all their leather equipment, sandpaper it, and make all the straps and belts brown instead of the normal black.

Another entry mentions the added expenses like his topi (tropical helmet) which had picked up a stain. He had to pay to get it recovered for the next day's parade.

Also some things were noted which made you realise he was thinking of home when, for instance, he wrote on Saturday April 23rd 1932 "Newcastle 2 - Arsenal 1". Even in India the Geordies supported their team.

However his routine received a hiccup when he got into trouble for the first time:
"May 17 Argued with a sergeant in the dining hall who was throwing his weight about and I was going to bash him but was rushed into the hoosegow. I was put in the big cell and nearly pegged out with the heat and was soaked in sweat when they transferred me to a smaller cell with a fan.
May 18 In front of CO. Stripped of a stripe.
May 25 Transferred to B Company."

From then on he was disenchanted somewhat with his lot and was looking forward to his tour of duty being over and returning to "Blighty".

The disenchantment subsided as he made new friends. However he drove himself hard when training resulting in winning all of his fights and becoming more popular than ever particularly with his Commanding Officer who asked him to arrange boxing contests and camp concerts.

He found in B Company that he had a new audience appreciative of his singing and mandolin skills resulting in being in demand to teach the instrument. B Company were living in bungalows with verandas and it was only a short walk through the park to the riverside where they went swimming and Dick regularly showed off his high diving abilities after which they had regular sing-songs to the delight of the local civilians then more private sessions back on the veranda.

Later, as rumours abounded of Boat Dates for the return to Blighty, Dick began to dream of home and wondering what the future held. In late October, the first batch left for home via Bombay and in early November a new squad of "draughtees" arrived to be taught the ropes.

Finally, towards the end of November, Dick was told he would be on the next boat due to leave on the 3rd of January and so began a countdown entered at the top of each page. The last day of the year was spent going round wishing everyone a "Happy New Year" and "Goodbye". An emotional day and the last in the diary. We can only assume that he left on or about the 3rd of January 1933 after around five years in India.

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