Sunday, February 01, 2009

Wednesday 5th April 1944

This the famous yet mysterious “PSO”, or “ASC”. This is Newcastle-on-Tyne.
Actually, 175 Field Regiment is the official designation and it's situated about three miles outside the City.

The camp buildings sprawl around the grandstand of a race-course. It must be nice here in warm summers but just now it is exceedingly miserable. The rain has fallen dismally ever since we arrived, on Monday afternoon. If we had comfortable quarters it would not be so bad, but we live in a badly lighted, stone-floored Nissen hut which is perpetually cold and damp. There was no light at all until today. Now we have feeble gas jets – two with mantles, one with a broken mantle and three with no mantles at all!

Perhaps tomorrow we'll be able to get some fuel for the fire. Then things will be much better as we can dry our damp clothes and bedding. There is mud everywhere and pools of water. I've never been quite so far north as this before but really this is so different a climate from the weekend's humid warmth of Essex that I might have travelled a thousand miles nearer the North Pole since then. However, these are all physical discomforts, and we all find them more easy to bear than the mental discomforts of Woolwich. This place, too, is run on the lines of a regiment. It is a small, more homely atmosphere than the teeming ant-hill life of Woolwich.

It is rather worrying here, all the same, as there is so much to do. For instance, all webbing equipment must be blancoed green by Friday. I haven't done mine yet owing to a muster parade being ordered (which was later cancelled) for 5:30p.m. tonight. Therefore I was late for tea, and when I did get back, found a huge crowd of men at the blanco bench, where only four can work at a time. So I decided to write up my diary instead, in the canteen, where it is fairly warm. Therefore I must blanco my kit tomorrow – but will it be dry by Friday? And where shall I keep my respirator, and the contents of my pack and haversack in the meantime?

However, in many ways this is better than the infamous RA Depot as there is a feeling of kindness in the air and less obstreperousness. It doesn't seem there is much hope of leaving the Army from here. This seems more like a sort of military employment agency. The first fortnight here is spent in interviews, tests etc and physical training tests. When the staff have sorted out all the information thus gleaned, an effort is made to find one a suitable job in the Army.

Soon after we arrived, the Major delivered a “pep” talk. “There is an impression,” he said, “That this is a place where men get discharged from the Army. Well, they do not, unless they're nearly dead! You may see men who've been here months, hobbling about as if in the last extremity of disease. But they're not waiting to be discharged; they are waiting here until they're posted to a suitable job somewhere.”
Then he added consolingly, “Of course, if some of you really are dying, you may be discharged from here...”

He said that this Division was formed to cope with the problem of down graded men. At one time, men in low medical categories wandered from unit to unit until they eventually ended at Woolwich RA Depot, where they speedily became “browned off” and demoralised. So the ill-effects of Woolwich are know here! Then why is it allowed to continue it's poisonous existence?

Living will be cheaper here; there's so much to do and the hours are so long that there is small likelihood of getting into town except at the weekends. On the other hand it is less necessary to “escape” from here. The canteen I use is for corporals only and is quite a nice small place, much pleasanter than the dreary, huge, barn-like NAAFI at Woolwich, which was always crowded. I called in the Pay Office quite on the spur of the moment, and without previously sending a written request via the bombardier-sergeant-officer route. Nevertheless, I was received in a kindly, helpful way and shall be able to draw a little extra money this week and the rest of my credits next week.

We've all been interviewed by the Major and the MO. When I was with the doctor I suddenly began to cry. I don't know why – I'd been calm and collected a moment before the interview began. When I came out, an orderly followed me and called me into his private quarters, where there was a warm fire. “There! Sit down until you feel better,” he said sympathetically, as though to a woe-begon child. I felt ashamed; and when he'd left me, the tears became sobs that shook me. I couldn't stop for a long time. I heard someone come up and quietly close the door of the room.

When the sobbing eventually stopped, leaving an awful headache, the orderly returned and made me a huge mug of cocoa. Some people are kind and understanding, right in their hearts. But such weeping leaves me mystified, beside ashamed. I've never broken down so badly since I was a small boy.

The Division sign here, worn by all members of the staff on their shoulders, is an unusual one, depicting King Arthur's Excalibur, being brandished above the waters of the mere by an arm “clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful.”


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