Work and play

1915 - 1917



I was happy in my new job although the six shillings per week tag still clung to me like a limpet.  In that day and age employers did not compete for staff by offering higher pay, you accepted what was offered or went without. There was nothing better to be had elsewhere. Obviously costs were very much lower, and an adult wage of thirty to thirty-five shillings a week was a general level. Farm labourers were paid thirteen shillings but they had rent free cottages and other perks.  I was working for a future, and living at home made things easier for me.  I was now working an eight hour day, and the amount of leisure I now had, compared with my previous job, was very agreeable. Moreover most weeks I did shift work, such as all night duty and early mornings, which seemed to add further to the leisure hours, but often at the expense of sleep I’m afraid.            

I became great friends with Cyril Swell who had started work at the Wallingford Post Office a few months earlier.  His home was at Bicester, a few miles from Oxford, and frequently on a Sunday we cycled there to spend a few hours with his family.  We managed between us to buy, quite cheaply, a  punt which we kept moored on the river.  All the summer hours we could find we spent on the river and many a night we slept in it under the stars, with just the splash of water rats and fish to keep us company.  In the morning, we dived in for a swim, and then home for breakfast. Cyril’s father was an ex-regular soldier and was at this time serving as Sergeant Major with the Oxford and Bucks Hussars.  They went into camp at Churn which is on the Downs near Blewbury. We cycled to Churn and spent a Sunday at the camp, having our meals in the sergeants mess.  The food was plentiful and beautifully cooked and served, and I made a mental note that the army was alright food-wise.  How naive can you be?

To us with all our varied activities the war was just an unpleasant background, and fairly distant at that, but with the passing of time and the growing seriousness of it all, I think we both were reasonably certain now that we would in due time be involved.  I am afraid that the real stark truth was being kept back from the people, and in consequence, the war did not seem to make much impact. Admittedly more and more men were leaving to join up, and women were taking over jobs that were unthinkable only a few months before, and frequently one heard of local men being either killed, missing or wounded.

There was a blackout too because the German Zeppelins were making occasional bombing raids on London and the East Coast.  Wood and canvas aircraft were incapable of night flying at that early stage, and even if they were they had no armament to attack
the Zeppelins. Anti-aircraft guns were futile at this period of time. A lot had got to be learned about air warfare. Then a a shocked country heard that German warships had appeared off Great Yarmouth, Grimsby and Scarborough and bombarded these towns and then sailed back to Germany more or less unchallenged.  The war was now beginning to come close to home and we were obviously vulnerable. In time the Zeppelins were mastered by night flying aircraft armed with machine gun and tracer, but in the meantime Germany was building larger bombing aircraft, so the mastery was short-lived.

Time was running out on Cyril and me.  It was late 1916 and as he was the eldest, his turn came first.  He joined the Royal Engineers Wireless Section.  He came to see me when he was on embarkation leave before going to France.  It was our last meeting, because in 1918 just before the war ended, a shell hit the dugout in which he was working and he was killed.  All the men from the Wallingford office had now joined the Royal Engineers and I expected that during the next two or three months I too would become a Sapper. So far as the office was concerned I was the only male left.  The women had taken over the night duty and late night duties and I felt a bit out of place. My release to the forces couldn’t come soon enough for me..

In March 1917 it came, but it was a bit of a shock and a great disappointment for me after thinking in terms of the  Royal Engineers for so long.  I was being released to the Royal Flying Corps, Wireless Section.  This was something I hadn’t taken into my reckoning, and I didn’t really know what was involved.  I made a few enquiries and gathered it was quite an interesting job and anyway there was nothing I could do about it.   It was like going to a strange country, I was never likely  to meet up with anyone I knew, and I never did.