Walter Fitzgerald

A site dedicated to the actor Walter Fitzgerald

Fifty Years of Strutting and Fretting

 

Chapter 2

At the age of fourteen I left home for the first time to become a boarder at King's College, Taunton. After the Grammar School at Ashburton it was like entering another world: the imposing College building with its long corridors and fine big dormitories, and the lofty chapel which played a large part in our education, since it was a Woodard School. The playing fields were large and reputed to be the best in Somerset, and there in the summer months I would watch the Rippon brothers open the School innings. They later became the Somerset County opening pair. I was impressed too by the smartness of the Officers' Training Corps turning out on parade with the School Band, under the command of Captain Chambers who had served with distinction during the Boer War. Then there were the outings to the Rifle Range at Langport, where we fired at real targets, with real live ammunition, and the annual summer camps at Salisbury and Aldershot, attended by contingents from all the public schools. But the highlight of my school career happened during the Coronation Year of King George V, when the decree went forth that His Majesty would hold a General Inspection of all the O.T.C. contingents in Windsor Great Park. It was my first experience of royal pageantry. Being a country boy I had never even seen the Changing of the Guard, and here before my eyes, and as it seemed for my own especial benefit, was the entire blinding regalia: the silver breastplates of the Life Guards flashing in the sun; the richly caparisoned horses of the Horse Guards Mounted Band; the Bandsmen in their golden uniforms; the immaculate ranks of Foot Guards, with their busbies, scarlet tunics and steel bright bayonets. And, to cap it all, King George himself, in his Field Marshall's uniform, riding in his Landau, between the open-order ranks of the O.T.C. boys in their comparatively shabby and ill-fitting khaki uniforms. The day was hot, the parade was long, and cadets were dropping like flies with giddiness and fatigue. But I managed not t miss a minute of that never-to-be-forgotten day.

King's College was run on the best traditional public school lines. The discipline was strict; Prefects had considerable power and were allowed to whack with the slipper, but the cane was reserved for the exclusive right of the much revered, feared and respected Headmaster, the Reverend E.B.Vincent, irreverently nicknamed Buggins. He was a keen golfer and practised his shots on our behinds with much fervour. The birch was reserved for the more serious offences in the main hall before the whole School. When a first eleven match was being played, we all had to turn out and watch. I was once put in the dreaded Report Book for kicking a ball about during one of these matches. The deposition read, "Total lack of Public Spirit", and I had to go to the Head's Study to receive my punishment, six of the best: a drive, a brassie, number one iron, a niblick shot out of the bunker, this called for a very hard jab, and two putts, though surely they would have overrun the Green! But it was all in a day's work, and I bore no resentment. We thrived on incredibly bad food, got used to the smell of incense in Chapel, and behaved, I suppose, no better and no worse than most other boys. I conceived a great affection for King's, and looking back can honestly say I spent some of the happiest days of my life there.

During the Christmas holidays at the end of my first term at King's, I paid my first visit to a theatre, the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, to see the pantomime "Jack and Jill". It was an experience I have never forgotten, the wonder, the beauty, the unbelievable magic of it all; the music, the gold and glitter of the theatre and oh, dream of dreams, the Principal Boy, Jack. That was the first time I fell hopelessly, headlong in love. I can still see her eating that rose-red apple as she swung so lazily, majestically, seductively on the flower-bedecked swing, singing "Keep on swinging me, Charley". Oh lucky Charley, ungrateful dog, fancy having to be asked! I would have swung her over the moon into space among the stars, never to return to this mundane earth. I carried the dream back with me to School, picturing her night after night, checking by my watch, what Act, what scene, what song she was singing, what time the curtain would fall, and what cads of stage-door Johnies would be waiting to escort her out to supper, to champagne, and to what else? The agony of it all! And her name I well remember to this day, for it was none other than Connie Emerald. If she should by chance read this, let her be assured that her "Jack" drove a young admirer to distraction, and nearly to ruin, if not of his life, at least of his School Reprt for one term.

Around Christmas the following year, a telephone was installed in Ashburton, the first ever, though we had read about them in the papers. Yes! In Miss Batten's little shop in Station Road was actually installed a telephone booth. My brother Basil took me on one side and confided in me that we were about to put this strange contraption to the test. We would telephone the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, twenty-six miles away, and book two seats for the Matinee of the Pantomime. I stayed outside while he entered the booth, and in no time at all I hear him talking to someone. Presently he emerged and told me we would have two circle seats waiting fo us for the Saturday Matinee. I told him I did not really believe it possible, but he, though sceptical, was more convinced.

Early that Saturday morning we set out to ride the the twenty-six miles to Plymouth. What a joy cyclin was in those days. There was next to no traffic, and motor cars were few and far between. We could enjoy the freedom of the roads, and explored at will a radius of about twenty miles around Ashburton, which embraced such exciting places as Exeter, Torquay, Teignmouth, or Tavistock over the Moors. Arrived at the Theatre Royal, we found that the miracle had really happened: the two seats booked by telephone were waiting for us. I could not recapture the mystery and wonder of the previous visit to "Jack and Jill". After all Jack was not there, and the apple long finished. But the miracle of the telephone remained vividly in my memory.

The time came, when due to lack of funds, we had to leave School, and my brother and I returned home to continue our studies under my Father's tuition. But this was, in a sense, a retrograde step in our adolescent lives, and led to much frustration and perods of moody resentment. Gone was the glamour of school life which we had tasted for too short a time, and when we were confined once more to the narrowed precincts of the Vicarage our growing pains not unnaturally led us into escapades which brought worry and anxiety to our parents, and no credit to ourselves. But perhaps we were no worse than most adolescents of our age, and how many parents have not been worried and perplexed by their growing teenage children? Some can, no doubt, look back on those difficult years before manhood with complacency, bt we were just not made like that, the spirit of adventure was too strong in us. Much as we still loved our nest, the desire to fly from it was strong.

In addition to the natural fluttering of young wings, rumours were in the air, strange rumours of War, war with Germany. This possibility had been a favourite subject of discussion with us for some time. Even as young children we used to sing "In the year nineteen hundred and ten, the Germans are coming here then", and now, at last, the fateful day arrived, and war with Germany became a reality.

For some years it had been the custom for the local Territorials to drill in the Vicarage field one evening a week. They would march through the town, headed by the brass band, past the Vicarage gates to the entrance at the top of the garden, and there train until dusk, when they would march back, again with the band playing (how I loved those great big brass bombardons), and disperse to their homes, or, more likely to "The Red Lion". To what purpose they did this, we as children could only dimly imagine, and we were sometimes innocently cynical as we watched these grown men playing at soldiers.

But in that August of 1914 these men were among the first to leave their homes and wives and children for the bloodiest battle field in history, many of them never to return. In that same week my brother Basil, who was on the Special Reserve of Officers, by virtue of his Certificate "A" which he had got at King's, received his papers to report at Higher Barracks, Exeter, and he was drafted to France within weeks, to serve as a Second Lieutenant in the Devons. When the wire arrived telling us that he had been ordered to France, my Father came into the dining room, waving the telegram, and in his most dramatic voice declaimed "Basil has gone to the wars".

Next day I cycled to into Exeter to see him depart with the 3rd Battalion, the Devons, from St.David's Station, after a triumphal march through the city, feted with flowers, cigarettes, chocolates and hugs and kisses from one and all. I returned home feeling sad, lonely and jealous. I had lost the companion of my youth, and in spte of our many fights and quarrels we loved each other with a fond brotherly love. The casualty lists were already beginning to appear in the papers, and I wondered if I would ever see him again. But I too would follow him before long, for I too held a Certificate "A", and could claim a Commission. But try hard though I did, my sight proved an insurmountable obstacle, and though I went through several "medicals" it was this that always proved my undoing. Immediately on entering the Medical Officer's room, I would fix my eyes on the board with the letters N, HVT, ZANRS etc., trying to learn them by heart while I was being examined for general fitness, and on one eye, maybe the weaker of the two, I would rattle off the first few lines, but then the doctor would turn the card over. "Now the other eye", and that was that. They cared about sight in those early days.

Within months my two elder brothers enlisted, Lionel in the Liverpool Rifles, while Arthur managed to get an Assistant Pursership in the Royal Naval Reserves. Both Lionel and Basil had a bad time of it, and were eventually sent home and discharged with shell shock from which they never fully recovered. Arthur was lucky; he was fond of the sea, very proud of the Senior Service, which he always spoke of in BLOCK LETTERS, as it were, and seemed to spend most of the war sketching his favourite subjects, ships and seascapes. He loved to come home in his tidy clean uniform and impress us with such remarks as, "Of course, we in the Navy are allowed to toast the King sitting down". He almost made one feel that he personally had had something to do with this special arrangement. Dear pompous Arthur, he had an endearing quality, and his sketches bore out the promise he shewed when, at the age of eighteen, he had his first picture, an etching of a Battleship, accepted by the Royal Academy. "It was hung on the line, you know, Pater".

Meanwhile, I was left to continue my studies at home, to prepare myself for Oxford Responsions, as they were called, and a University education, after which my Father was determined I should take Holy Orders. However, God and the War wisely intervened. I was restless, and could not give my mind to Homer and Euripides. But deliverance was near at hand.

Chapter 3

An Agent of the P&O Steamship Company came to visit us and thrilled me with stories of his life in remote parts of the world. My Father took the opportunity to discuss with him my future, with the result that he said to me one morning, "Walter, how would you like to join the P&O? Mr.Jenkins thinks he could get you in." My spirit of adventure seized on the idea. I at once pictured myself on some far-away desert island, in dirty dungarees with a large shady hat, a gin bottle protruding from my pocket, hand raised to my eyes to protect them from the broiling sun, searching for the little speck of smoke on the horizon which would announce the imminent arrival of the P&O Liner bringing fresh supplies, and mail for me to deal with.

Some weeks later I was on my way to London with my Father to be interviewed by the Managing Director of the P&O, at their head office in Leadenhall Street, and shortly afterwards I found myself sitting at the bottom desk in the Pursers Cash Department at a commencing salary of Forty Pounds per annum.

The Head of the Department, which dealt with the provisioning of ships and payments to seamen of the entire fleet, was a very pleasant and impressive elderly man, whom we addressed as "Sir". His salary for this highly responsible position was £500 per annum. This I soon discovered because one of my tasks was to write the salary cheques. The Chief Clerk, who would eventually succeed to the top desk, if he lived long enough, received about £375. The work was responsible even for me as a junior, for I paid daily visits to the bank to pay in, and draw out, which involved carrying through the streets in a little black bag anything up to £3,000 in cash, but I was never coshed or beaten up. I was expected to dress well. Spats were very much in vogue then and they were very useful in covering up a hole in the socks and giving a smart appearance to a not-very-smart or well cleaned pair of shoes. My daily lunch was a cup of coffee at Lyons with a Cambridge sausage, made hot, and a roll and butter: cost, sixpence-halfpenny. I shared a room with my brother Arthur, who prior to his wartime Naval career was working at the Bank of England, "Of course, Walter, we are not referred to as Bank Clerks; we are called Gentlemen of the Bank", and, with a little help from home, I enjoyed my freedom as a young "Man about Town". But the office work irked me, and visions of that far-off desert island began to fade, and I still longed to enlist and get into the War somehow. At that time white feathers were being distributed by well-meaning female patriots to any young men in civilian clothes, sometimes to men who had done their bit in France and had been discharged with war wounds. But once again deliverance was at hand.

The War had now been in progress for some two years, and more and more men were wanted to fill the vacancies caused by the appalling casualties. The Derby Scheme was introduced, which would include even men with short sight who would be enrolled medically as C 3's. A great recruiting campaign was in progress, and one day at lunchtime, as I was passing the Mansion House, I was hailed by recruiting sargeants, back from the Front, calling me to join up. The P&O had only taken me on the understanding that I was unfit for Military Service; however, I mounted the steps, was received like a hero, and signed on for the King's Shilling. On returning to the office, I told my boss what I had done, and was taken down to the Directors' Room where I had a very cool reception. However, there was really nothing they could do about it, and in day or two I received an O.H.M.S. telling me to report at Higher Barracks, Exeter. I was enrolled as a C 3 Private, given a uniform which fitted where it touched, and, on my first evening, proudly went into the city I knew so well to show myself off.

My military career was undistinguished and for the most part uneventful. Drafted to Gosport for training, I found myself among a company of "half fits" and "misfits". My Company Commander was a retired Exeter solicitor, who was quite incapable of commanding even a patrol of Girl Guides. When the Company was on a route march rapidly approaching the edge of a cliff, or a blank wall, he would tremulously appeal to the Sergeant Major, who was always at his side "What's the next word of command, Sergeant Major?" "Right wheel, Sir", and he would give out the command in the same tremulous voice, "Company, right wheel", and so on. My Platoon Commander, who sometimes led us on these marches, was an unaffected young man of very small stature. The men would regale him with a ditty, "A little child shall lead them". He would listen to this 'send up' patiently; then one day he announced to us, "Tomorrow there will be a twenty mile route match, and a little child shall lead them, but he will be mounted upon a horse". I slept on bed boards with a straw palliasse, a most comfortable form of bedding. On my left was the Platoon Sergeant, who came in after "lights out" reeking of beer, which on occasions he would throw up in my direction; on my right was a poor chap who suffered from eplieptic fits. We could tell when these fits were coming as he would start jerking violently some time ahead. When the fit was upon him, his false teeth had to be removed, a task I had no predilection for, and somehow I always managed to arrive on the scene when someone else had done the job. I got very tired of the filthy language, the filthy jokes and the filthy habits; no doubt I was still a bit precious from my more secluded Vicarage days. But I found one or two kindred souls I could get along with, and I've no doubt that this slice of life in the raw did me more good than harm.

After a time we were given the chance to go to Palestine to fight the Turks. I volunteered, and in so doing lost the L/Cpl stripe I had by this time acquired. I was excited. At last I was to go overseas - if not to a desert island, at any rate to a desert - and perhaps to take part in some real fighting. We sailed from Plymouth in an old fashioned top-heavy liner, which had been converted into a Troop Ship. I was one of a draft of five hundred unfortunates who, owing to a careless blunder of the R.T.C., found themselves on a ship which was already fully booked. There were no messing facilities; we were attached to already crowded improvised mess tables in the bowels of the ship, and right up forward against the bows. There was no cargo and no ballast to steady the ship; we were there to take the place of both. The sea was rough, the ship pitched and rolled unmercifully, and themen, most of them going to sea for the first time, were as sick as proverbial dogs. At first we unwanted ones were allowed to sleep in crowded cabins, but owing to the sickness we were turned out of these, and spent the rest of the voyage on the deck. Each morning around 4 a.m. the crew came to swab the decks, and we had to stand up, holding all our worldly goods above our heads. For food, we cadged what we could from the Orderlies who served in the Officers' Mess.

Eventually, we arrived at our new home, Kasr-el-Nil Barracks at Cairo, on the banks of the Nile. The barracks had been condemned before the War as unfit for further habitation even by Tommies. The walls were completely bug-ridden, and in addition, with the Nile rising, it was the festival season for mosquitoes. There were no sleeping nets ready for us, and after the first night most of the men were unrecognisable, their faces and bodies swollen. We suffered agonies on parade, as the slightest movement of a hand to assauge our itches was loudly and vocally frowned on by the the ex-guardsman Regimental Sergeant Major, under whose fatherly care we now were. I sensed we should hear a lot about our parentage and the unfortunate specimens they had brought into the world, and I was not disappointed. But life was great. Here we were in an ancient Oriental City, with visits to the Pyramids, the Mosques and Bazaars, being spat at in the streets by dirty little Arab boys.

To relieve the monotony of the daily parades on the Barrack Square, and to get away from that tiresome R.S.M., I conceived the idea of joining the Regimental Band as a Drummer, and as Drummer Bond, I wore a Drummer's badge on my sleeve, with a red flash underneath, which I thought looked rather distinguished, and marched proudly through the narrow streets of Cairo, flashing my drum sticks with the best, proclaiming to the cowed Arab populace that we were British to the core. I did occasionally drop a stick, and had to grovel to pick it up before being overrun by the oncoming buglers, but apart from that I did pretty well! On certain evenings we were privileged to play sweet music outside the Officers' Mess whilst they gorged themselves at dinner, after which we were led in by a side door to the kitchens where we were given a drink as a reward. One of the Officers was a Captain Fox, whom I had met in earlier days when my brother Basil was stationed at Exeter. He asked me to go and see him at his quarters, surreptitiously after dark, for a whisky and soda. But surreptitiously it had to be, for both of us would have been in trouble if we had been discovered. He took a sporting risk, and I was grateful to him.

Then, at long last, came the order for us to move on up to Kantara, the big military base from which the fighting forces around Gaza were being supplied. FRom there began the long trek on foot to join the boys in the front line. We trekked for miles on wire netting roads, the sand being too soft for marching. It was hot and tiring work. Water was scarce, and the allowance per man was one water bottle per day for all purposes, washing and drinking. We were not allowed to touch them when on the march until the order came through "You may drink". We marched mostly at night, digging ourselves into the sand to sleep during the early hours before dawn. When the sun rose, hot and angry, we quickly made a covering with the aid of our rifles and the blankets which had protected us from the chill night air, to prevent ourselves from being roasted alive.

One morning, after we had been on the move for several days, I had reason to doubt my senses, for there in the middle of the desert, not a hundred yards away, was what appeared to be a mirage in the form of a huge liner. Running towards it we soon realised it was no mirage, but a Troop Ship moving along the Suez Canal, which, although so near to us, was quite undetectable from where we had dug in for the night. We plunged into the refreshingly salty water, so salty and bouyant that even a non-swimmer could hardly drown, and exchanged lusty greetings with the boys on board.

Before leaving England, I had put in my papers for a Commission, and sure nough one morning as we were approaching Gaza, I was sent for by the Company Commander, who handed me instructions to return home and report to the War Office in Whitehall. Another man received his papers at the same time, and together we started our homeward journey. It was a weird experience travelling back along the way we had come so laboriously, in the empty supply trucks returning from the advanced depots near the firing line. Also, I felt a bit sheepish at leaving the Battalion to go on , whilst we returned home. During my sojourn in the desert I had seen enough Turkish prisoners, and smelt them, to realise that the war in Palestine was going in our favour, and that, perhaps, they could manage without me; however, I did hear that the Battalion was soon engaged in heavy fighting with severe casualties.

After reporting to the War Office back home, I was sent off to get my kit, prior to being sent to an Officers' Cadet School. It was fun dressing up at last like an Officer and a Gentleman, though with a white band round the hat to show that I hadn't yet made the grade. But my time in the higher strata was short lived. After being posted to a school, I developed pneumonia. I was put in a ward with two others, both very ill with consumption, one of whom died while I was there. Three doctors came in and stood round my bed. They told me that I was suffering from T.B., that I would have to lead an out-of-door life and never again go near a theatre or cinema or any crowded indoor place; and that I would be discharged from the Army and sent to a Tubercolosis Camp at Bovey Tracey, a few miles from my home in Devon.

I arrived there to find myself in the midst of patients all in an advanced state of consumption. I wrote to my Father asking him to come to my rescue, as I did not believe I had T.B., but knew that if I stayed there I would certainly get it. Next day, I heard a stentorian voice calling, "Walter, come along. Quick, into the carriage, I am taking you home." And without time to collect my baggage,without a word to the Matron in charge, we were bowling along the road, back to the Vicarage.