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.’
Florence Parrott was the first person I ever interviewed as a junior reporter. I was 18, the same age as she was when she joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1918.
I had been a reporter for about two weeks when I was sent to talk to Florence, who was then 79, and partially deaf (you’ll have to speak up, DEAR!). She was tall, rangy, ready to laugh, with great booming ho, ho ho’s, and she told her story with a sort of matter of fact understatement that I, as a teenager, just nodded at and wrote down, and now as a mother and grandmother, think of with rather greater imagination.
In 1917, the teenage Florence Maple was a wine waitress at London’s Liverpool Street Hotel, and part of her job was to go next door to the railway station to give lunch boxes to troops departing for the front.
She said: ‘The train and platform were packed with people that day. We heard a whistle and thought it was the train moving off. But we looked up and there was a zeppelin, dropping bombs. I don’t think there was much of the train left.’
In the midst of all this carnage, Florence, who was hit in the arm, shook her fist at the zeppelin, swore at the Kaiser and then was taken to St Barts Hospital. When she was discharged, she went straight to the Connaught Club and joined up. ‘I said to them, if I’m going to get knocked about, I’ll damn well go where I expect it.’
She was one of the first women allowed to join the women’s section of the Royal Flying Corps, which became the Women’s Royal Airforce in April 1918. She went to France with the first boatload of such women and was stationed in Cressy, near Vron in northern France. It was her job to pick up stores from Etaples (‘Funny names the French have. We pronounced it Eat Apples’) which had become a vast military camp and giant hospital and then deliver them to local depots. According to FirstWorldWar.com the hospitals were targeted several times by incendiary bombers, and many of the orderlies present risked their lives getting the wounded men to safety. Florence just said: ‘We had to run for our lives a couple of times, dear, and I’ve known days when there was nothing to eat but a piece of hardtack. Of course, you couldn’t drink the water.
‘I remember the morning that the news of peace came through –we got every vehicle that had a wheel, including wheelbarrows, and we put the men who couldn’t walk in those and we went round and round the green patch in the middle of the camp. The PoWs came and the people from the village. We just couldn’t stop laughing and singing.’
Florence eventually made it back to England, with the last boatload of women who had served in the corps, in 1919. She married and settled down in Buckinghamshire, where she spent the rest of her life. To my shame I have no idea when she died, and I regret that I never asked her the questions that I’d like to ask her today; about how she felt and how her experiences affected her. Although I doubt, even if I could ask her, that she’d want to answer those kind of questions. All I have is a faded cutting and an enduring memory of one of the strongest women I ever met.
Remember I told you about my grandad, the one who went to New York and fell off the Mauretania? Now I want to tell you what happened to him when he joined the army in 1914. Partly because it’s interesting, and partly because there is no memorial to the regiment that he served with; which when you think of what they went through, is nothing short of shameful.
James had four brothers and two sisters. His brothers Bob, Alexander (Sandy) and Arthur all signed up. I’m not sure what the youngest son George did, but their parents must have found life hard with four sons on the Western Front. Bob was 30 and married. His wife Peg gave birth to their third child in November 1914, and he joined the Scots Guards in January 1915. At first everything went pretty well, the army kept him in England and trained him to shoe horses. But in 1917 he was posted to the Somme and in March 1918, when the Germans mounted a counter attack he was shot in the shoulder and died the next day. Here is the list of personal effects that were sent back to Peg, on August 3, 1918: photographs, cards, a poem, two discs, letters, religious book, a handkerchief, 11 buttons, a purse, scissors, a French dictionary, two badges, a wallet and a broken brooch.
Sandy, two years younger, was a driver in the Royal Artillery. This meant riding a horse in a team of six pulling a gun carriage, and making sure that they got to the front line without stampeding or turning the gun over. Bit like his farm job, I suppose, except that nobody shoots at you in Fife. Amazingly, he survived and went to Canada, where he had a rather extraordinary and ultimately tragic end (but more about that another time). Arthur was 21. He too was in the Scots Guards, and was shot in the knee and invalided out.
And now we come to James. He was 26, and, as I said, he joined the Army Service Corps. He might have been assigned to the regiment because he was one of the very few people at that time who could drive. This was probably because of his apprenticeship to a grocer, but I don’t know. He signed up on November 17, 1914 and was sent to France on December 23. When his daughter asked him what he did, he simply said he delivered stores to the front line. As was quite common in those days, he gave no descriptions at all. We do know that he was promoted to corporal and based at No 2 GHQ Reserve Motor Company in Calais.
The Army Service Corps wasn’t a glamorous regiment. It didn’t get its Royal prefix until after the war was over, and the men in it called themselves Ally Sloper’s Cavalry (after a cartoon drunk and rent dodger). There were only a few hundred motor vehicles worldwide in the regiment in 1914, but there were 105,000 at the time of the Armistice. What I found strange was that there were also 650 former civilian buses on the Western Front, used to transport troops and stores. It must have seemed like the blackest of humour to be sent up to the front line at say, Ypres or Arras or Paschaendale, on a Number 32. (I think my granddad drove one of these; he was certainly a bus driver for a time after the war.)
Historians have paid so little attention to this regiment and the part that its men played in the war, that it is extremely difficult to get any details about specific units and what they did. But it doesn’t take much imagination to realise how terrifying his job must have been. You can’t drive and shoot at the same time. You just have to keep driving. When James was demobbed on May 27, 1919, his discharge papers noted that he was a ‘very good driver, thoroughly reliable’.
The German artillery definitely liked to target the supply trucks and depots. And when casualties mounted among front line troops, the soldiers of the ASC were routinely given a gun and sent to the front. According to the Western Front Association it is rare to find a British War Memorial without the name of a soldier in the ASC. Two members of the regiment were awarded the Victoria Cross. Some of the bravest men in the war, those who drove the field ambulances, were in the ASC. This year marks the centennial of the start of the First War, and yet, according to Army history site The Long, Long Trail, the regiment, so vital to the army, merits just four mentions in the Official History of the war. There is no memorial to it.
As I said. Shameful.
This is my granddad, James Scott, in a photo taken at his village school nearly 120 years ago. He’s aged about ten or 11 here, I think, and he’s staring into the camera with a good deal of scepticism. Of course, he’s been done up like a dog’s dinner by his mother with an outsize bow-tie but there is also the fact that, at this time (about 1900), photography, especially in the wilds of Fife, where he lived, must have been a pretty rare thing. Photographers in those days had a camera on a tripod and they disappeared under a big black cloth to change the plate. Then, when everything was ready, they held up a big tray of magnesium and applied a match. Flash bang wallop, what a picture. I like the way the teachers are all dressed up, too, in their tailcoats. God knows how they kept order with that lot.
James’s father, and his father’s father, in fact all his ancestors back to 1620 were ploughmen in Fife, and none of them ever did anything different. Until James came along. After he left school, probably not long after this picture was taken, he was apprenticed to a grocer in his home town of Newburgh. Nothing really exciting. But then, out of the blue, when he is about 19, he packs everything in and travels 500 miles to Southampton to sign on as a ship’s steward, bound for New York.
He doesn’t sign on with just any old ship, mark you, he gets a job on the Mauretania, (sister ship of Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1915). It is the most prestigious ship on the Atlantic, packed with the kind of people you’d never normally see from behind a horse’s arse in Fife. On a voyage during December 1910 Prince Albert and Prince Radziwell (who he? ed) were amongst the passengers.
So there he is, on the Mauretania, the fastest ship on the Atlantic steaming into New York past the Statue of Liberty, and what happens?
Aye, weel, as my relatives would say that is a moot point. My mother says he fell off. My auntie says he did no such thing. The only record we have is his Board of Trade employment book and that has had all its pages torn out. He certainly survived, and when he came back he signed up in 1914 for a new, rather more terrible adventure, as a private in the Royal Army Service Corps. He was driving a grocer’s van once more, but this time he was taking supplies to the trenches on the Western Front.