Today is Armistice Day, and I want to pay tribute to Reg Hill, one of the last of the Old Contemptibles.
He was awarded the Croix de Guerre with star for conspicuous gallantry and I was sent to interview him when I worked on a weekly newspaper. Being a junior reporter and only 19 I didn’t really know much about anything, and that day when I arrived on his doorstep in November 1978 was no exception. My knowledge of the Great War was fairly sketchy and I had just pushed the doorbell when I realised I had nothing to write on and nothing to write with.
But by then it was too late. Reg had already opened his front door. He was 96 and he looked small and vulnerable. I couldn’t help thinking that he actually looked like a tortoise that had lost its shell. But in two ticks he had welcomed me in, brushed off my ineptness, put the kettle on and given me a pen and a fancy boxed set of paper and envelopes to write on.
Reg was with the British Expeditionary Force present in France up to to the end of the First Battle of Ypres on 22 November 1914. Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, who was famously dismissive of the BEF, reportedly issued an order on 19 August 1914 to ‘exterminate… the treacherous English and walk over General French’s contemptible little army.’
Sixty four years later Reg settled into his armchair and said, ‘There’s only three of us Old Contemptibles left in North Bucks now. That’s what Kaiser Bill called us. So we thought, right, that’s our name then.’
Reg was a sergeant artificer in the Rocket Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery in 1916. ‘We were in the trenches after a bit of a do, and we were being shelled and I heard this voice shouting, ‘Blesse, blesse,’ and I knew that meant, wounded, see, in French. So I put my head above the parapet and I could see this bloke lying out in No Man’s Land. I couldn’t just leave him there, could I?’
Despite his mates’ best advice not to risk it, Reg scrambled over the top, under fire, ran to the man and heaved him on to his back.
‘We were heavily shelled – I had to jump into shell holes three times on the way back,’ said Reg. ‘Terrible places, they were. Full of water.’
And he carried that man on his back all the way to the nearest first aid post. ‘They made such a fuss when I got there,’ he said, in some wonderment. ‘And being French, they insisted on plying me with wine before they let me go back.’
Reg went on to fight at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, and survived both, before being invalided out with a wounded arm.
‘I always go to the Remembrance Day services,’ he said. ‘Because I lost some good chums. No mistake about that.’
Reg died not long after that interview and was missed by many. I still think of him.
I was going to write here about my mum hijacking a bus, but my granddad started edging in to the story, so I’ll start with him. Be patient.
My grandad (not the one in my previous posts who fell off the Mauretania in New York) started with nothing. He was the son of a ploughman in Perthshire and when he was 20 he signed up as a stoker with the Royal Navy. This meant, literally, that he spent most of his time in the bowels of one destroyer or another shovelling coal, while up top sailors fought off Chinese pirates or German E boats, or whoever else was trifling with the British Empire. He was a cheerful, alert, competent man and good with machines, so he got trained as an engineer, and by the time he retired 20 years later, he had come through the First World War in one piece, had been Mentioned in Despatches, was a Chief Petty Officer with a row of medals, and still cheerful.
He left the Navy in 1920, and took his wife and baby daughters to a small village in Perthshire where his brother thought there might be labouring work at the local Big House. The family, like most others in the village, grew all their own vegetables, but it was William who thought of putting the best ones in his wheelbarrow and then taking them round to sell to all the local hotels. With his pension, he bought a truck to sell his veg in Perth, and then –stroke of genius here – he put benches down either side of the truck and gave people lifts into the town for a penny a go.
This was a sensation in the village. Up until now, if you had wanted to get to Perth, you had to get in on a horse and cart. Still, there were doubters. One old lady made ‘Wully’ stop at the bridge just outside the village. She had no faith whatsoever in the truck making it across in one piece. ‘I’ll just go across on ma own two legs, and you can get me oan the other side.’
‘Wully’ was such a nice bloke, that if you didn’t want to go into town, you just gave him your shopping list, and when he parked up, he would go off and patiently queue for whatever you had asked for. This occasionally backfired, for instance when he misheard one woman’s request for ‘pan shine’ and bought her ‘sand shoon’ (trainers) ‘I had to guess your size, missus,’ he was heard to say. ‘I hope they’re big enough.’
Business thrived. By 1936 Wullie had a fleet of buses, my auntie Helen was the first woman bus driver in Scotland, and my mother, aged 16, was an accounts clerk. But she was itching to have a go behind the wheel. One evening when she left the office in Blairgowrie where she worked, she queued up as usual to get on one of her dad’s buses to go home. The bus had been parked up for an hour or so, and when she saw the driver coming out of the pub she realised that now was her chance.
She smiled at him. ‘Did you enjoy your pint, Charlie?’
Charlie was obviously rather bemused by this.
‘Aye,’ he said cautiously.
Mum went straight in with the killer blow. ‘Good, because I want to drive the bus home.’
The bus was packed, but Charlie, fazed by my mother’s implied blackmail, meekly gave her the keys. My teenage mother then, having taken no test (not that they did in those days) and with no driving licence, sat down, started up and drove home.
It’s fair to say I was rather shocked when mum told me this story. ‘But, but, but…’ I kept bleating.
‘Ach, away,’ was her reply. ‘Charlie knew I could drive. In those days there were none of these silly rules and regulations telling you what you could and couldn’t do.’ She paused for a bit and then said, ‘And, anyway, nobody on the bus minded at all.’
‘How did you know nobody minded?’ I demanded.
Mum looked astonished. ‘Because I was Wully Armstrong’s daughter. So, they knew they were fine. Everybody trusted my dad.’