Harry – November 1918
On November 11th 1918 Harry was at home, on leave with a fellow soldier. When the news came they were relieved; the war was over. With the Armistice, there was no need to return to the trenches. They were eighteen. Three years before they had lied about their ages and joined up. No questions had been asked.
I met Harry when I joined Upminster Bach Society in the late nineteen-seventies and sat with him among the tenors. In between times, this is what he told me.
For a few days their sense of relief continued and then came word, of other young men re-joining their units, and then it was pointed out by wiser heads that they were absent without leave and that this could lead to charges of desertion and a firing squad. The war might have finished but they were still enlisted. They were advised to re-join their units immediately. If they were stopped anywhere by the military authorities and their papers checked they would be in trouble.
Travel to France involved getting to London and then catching a train to the Channel ports. The square outside Victoria Station, and the station itself, were full of military police, checking the papers of troops as they boarded trains bound for Dover. Harry and his friend withdrew to consider their options. Fortunately his friend had worked on the railway. The two of them found their way onto the Embankment. Near where the railway lines from Victoria crossed over the Embankment onto Grosvenor Bridge there was a hole in the fence and the two of them were able to walk back along the tracks into the station and, undetected, board a train.
Safely back with their unit they listened as they were told why they could not return home. The war might be over but they were still serving soldiers and, what was more, the papers that they had signed back in 1915 had been for the regular army. Despite their having lied at the time, despite their having been under age when they signed up, they had committed themselves to twelve years in the colours. Three years later, Harry spent his twenty-first birthday on a troopship navigating the Suez Canal en route to some far-flung corner of the Empire.
Harry had been the only man in the choir not to wear a poppy as November approached and I had asked him why. If you want to know more about him, give me a shout.