Decamot of the month

29 May 2018-For King and Country

Continued from ... A Whirlwind Romance

After Richard's departure, Alfred and Annie continued to meet up with each other, and Alfred continued to be a regular guest at the Central House dining table. He was always keen to hear if there was any news of Richard.

Within a month, postcards started to arrive from various locations, first in France and then in Belgium. The messages were never long. They always had a cheery tone and told of the latest village he'd seen and the antics of his men. They never mentioned the missions that they'd been on.

Whenever a card arrived, Mrs Talbott would put it aside until both Annie and Alfred next joined them for an evening meal. Mr and Mrs Talbott, Annie and Alfred would sit round the kitchen table. Mrs Talbott would hand the postcard to Annie, and she would read it out to them. Each card started: "To my dearest A"; and were signed: "Rx". If Richard mentioned a village by name, they would look for it on a large map of Europe that Mrs Talbott had hung on the wall and mark where Richard had sent the card from. Mrs Talbott would then pin the postcard on a corkboard that hung below the map.

****

As the war moved into its second year, most of the men at County Hall had enlisted. Alfred presented himself for a second time for an army medical, and failed for a second time. This time round rather than returning to his job, he was offered two alternatives: land work on a farm in Essex or overseeing a munitions factory in Fulham. He chose the latter.

Annie was delighted. They could still see each other regularly and she could try to work in the same factory. Mr Talbott pulled some strings to make this happen, and so on a cold morning in March 1915, Alfred and Annie presented themselves at the munitions factory at the end of Fulham Broadway, a short walk from the Thames.

They met Major James Hughes (retired), the officer in charge of the Fulham Munitions Factory, promptly at 8am. He spoke to them briefly in his office at the back of the factory. He was responsible for the administration of the facility. Alfred would be in charge of the day-to-day running of the factory floor and would be responsible for ensuring that the factory's production quotas were met. And Annie would join the ranks of munitionettes, the small army of young women, many of whom were the wives of young soldiers serving overseas, who worked on an assembly line turning their hand to whatever was required of them to meet the factory's quotas.

The munitionettes all wore sturdy work boots and olive green overalls gathered at the waist by broad black canvas belts. They all wore their hair up, covered by head scarfs. The head scarfs were the women's own and varied in colour; without them, it was it difficult to quickly tell the women apart.

Annie's Home Counties accent and education made her stand out at first. But once she had donned the same drab uniform and proved to be quick on the uptake, diligent, hard working, and as loquacious as her fellow workers, she was accepted as one of the girls. The munitionettes were happy to accept Alfred: he was about their age, treated them with respect, and was always fair.

In May 1916, at the suggestion of some the munitionettes, Alfred and Annie went into town after work one Friday evening to see a new revue at the Alahambra called The Bing Boys are Here. It was an evening that would change their perspectives of the war.

They went straight from work. Alfred was wearing his customary suit and Annie was wearing a smart long coat on top of her overalls and had let her hair down. The theatre was packed. A good three quarters of the audience were soldiers in uniform. The show itself consisted of silly jokes, risqué songs, and scantily clad dancing girls. The humour was bawdy in places and was frequently punctuated by catcalls and whistles from the service men. But everyone's spirits were so high that even the most prudish threatre-goers joined in when the two music hall comedians hosting the show encouraged audience participation.

When the show ended, a group of the soldiers linked arms and left singing one of the show's catchiest songs: "If you were the only girl in the world, and I was the only boy." There was much guffawing as one of the youngest recruits was singled out to be 'the only girl'.

As they were leaving the theatre, Alfred and Annie were stopped at the door by a military policeman wearing dress uniform and red cap.

"Stop right there," said the MP.

"What's the problem officer?" asked Alfred.

"Over here please."

The MP ushered Annie and Alfred over to a corner of the foyer out of the way of the audience leaving the theatre.

"What's this all about?" asked Annie.

"This doesn't concern you madam," said the MP. "Why are you not in uniform?"

"I have a medical exemption."

"Show me?"

"Pardon?"

"Your medical exemption certificate."

The policeman held out a white gloved hand.

"Oh yes of course."

Alfred reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and brought out a sheet of paper which he unfolded and handed over. The MP took it and looked at it closely. Satisfied, he handed it back.

"Very good sir. Have a good evening."

He looked at Annie, nodded: "Madam."

The MP then resumed his position at the door observing the remaining audience members leaving the auditorium. Alfred and Annie hurried outside.

"I didn't like his tone," said Annie.

"He was only doing his job."

"But you're doing important war work."

"He didn't know that though."

"You shouldn't have to prove yourself."

"Look, let's not allow this to spoil our evening. Did you enjoy the show?"

"Oh yes," said Annie. "Bit rude in places, but the songs were great fun."

She linked her arm in his. She started to sing:

"If you were the only boy in the world..."

Alfred joined in.

As they were nearing Trafalgar Square, Alfred stopped.

"Let's take a shortcut," said Alfred. "This alley takes us straight down to the river."

"It's awfully dark with the street lamps extinguished."

"But it's not far. And it will save us a good ten minutes."

They started to sing again as they walked down towards the river. When they were about half way down, two figures in army uniform appeared in front of them taking up the full width of the alleyway. Annie and Alfred stopped in their tracks.

"What do we have here?" said the first soldier.

"Having fun are we?" said the second soldier.

"Nice night out with your girl?" said the first soldier.

"Let's just turn round slowly and head back out of the alley," Alfred said quietly.

They turned round to find two more soldiers blocking the other end of the alley. They were trapped.

"Bit of a coward are we?" asked the third soldier.

"That why you not in uniform, is it? said the fourth soldier.

One of the soldiers started walking towards Annie and Alfred.

"My friend asked you a question," said the third soldier.

"We've just come out of the theatre," said Annied, "Just like loads of other people having fun on a Friday night."

"Oh we know where you've come from. We've been following you" said the third soldier.

"Look what do you want?" asked Annie.

"We want to teach your boyfriend a lesson," said the third soldier. "Isn't that right lads?"

He pushed Alfred roughly in the chest. Alfred took several steps backwards.

"It certainly is," said the fourth soldier.

"Alfie's doing important war work at the munitions factory," said Annie.

"Get your Mrs to fight your battles for you, eh?" said the fourth soldier. "What sort of man does that?"

"What are you? Coward, nonce, or nancy boy?" asked the third soldier.

With each insult, he shoved Alfred's shoulder with increasing force until Alfred had backed all the way down the alley towards the first two soldiers.

Alfred reached into his jacket and pulled out his medical exemption certificate for the second time that evening.

"Look," said Alfred "I tried to sign up. Twice. All I got was this. I failed the medical."

"We don't care about pieces of paper," said the third soldier.

He snatched the certificate out of Alfred's hands, screwed it up into a ball, and threw it over his shoulder. He then punched Alfred in the stomach. Alfred doubled up in pain. The first soldier stopped him from falling over and held him upright clamping both of Alfred's arms behind his back. The third soldier punched Alfred for a second time, this time in the face.

"No," screamed Annie.

She tried to go to Alfred's assistance, but the fourth soldier stopped her and roughly turned her to face Alfred and his attackers.

"You want to be careful who you get seen with luv!" the fourth soldier whispered in her ear.

"You want to chose a real man next time. said the first soldier," said the second soldier.

When the third soldier hit Alfred for a third time, the first soldier let him fall to the floor, blood pouring from his nose.

Suddenly there were several long, shrill blasts on a military policeman's whistle.

"Hey you there," said a loud voice. "Stop where you are." One of the soldiers looked up to see two military policemen at the top of the alleyway.

"It's the cops. Scarper!" said the fourth soldier.

He ran off down the alleyway, kicking Alfred on his way. The other three soldiers followed him and disappeared round the corner. One of the policemen chased after them.

The second policeman hurried down to Alfred and Annie.

"Are you OK Miss?" said the MP.

"Just a little shaken. But Alfie's been hurt."

She hurried over to him.

"I'm OK," said Alfred. "Just a little winded and a bit bruised. I'll be alright."

Annie looked up at the policeman, tears now streaming down her face.

"They attacked him because he was not in uniform. But ..."

She looked around on the floor of the alley. She hurried to where the soldier had thrown Alfred's medical exemption certificate.

"But look, he's got a medical exemption."

She held out the crumpled paper.

"Yes I know love. It was me you spoke to as you left the theatre."

He smoothed the certificate, folded it and handed it back to Annie.

Now addressing Alfred, the MP said: Now let's get you checked out. There's a hospital near Waterloo, they specialise in the walking wounded.

"There's no need, really," said Alfred. "They've got much more important cases to deal with. I've just got a few bruises."

"What about your nose?" asked Annie.

"The bleeding's nearly stopped. It's not broken. I'll live."

"Well at least let me escort you to the police station so that you can report the incident," said the MP.

"I don't want to do that."

"But Alfie, you've got to!" said Annie.

"They were drunk. They weren't thinking straight. They're under great pressure."

"But they could have killed you," said Annie, nearly shouting.

"For all we know, they'll be heading to the Front Line in the morning."

"But Alfie ..."

He silenced her by placing his finger on her lips. He put his arm around her and she sobbed into his shoulder. Alfred looked over her head to the MP.

"Many thanks officer," said Alfred. "It could have got a lot worse if you hadn't come by. We'll be OK now."

"Well if you're sure. You take good care of your girl, sir. She's a brave one. A real keeper."

The MP left them.

****

When Alfred arrived at the factory the following Monday, he a swelling under his right eye and a cut across the bridge of his nose. The Major took one look at him and ushered him into his office.

"What happened to you?" asked Major Hughes.

"I was set upon by a small group of soldiers."

"Whatever for?"

"They took exception to my not being in the services."

"We can't have you getting assaulted every five minutes. Your work is vital to the war."

"So they tell me."

"Ignorant bloody squaddies," said Major Hughes. "What you need is a uniform, son."

"Yes, but how can I get one if I can't enlist?"

"Go straight to the Quartermaster at Chelsea Barracks, that's the ticket. Let me write you a note explaining the situation. That should do the trick."

Before Alfred could refuse the offer, the Major reached into desk for writing paper and an envelope.

*****

Alfred headed for Chelsea Barracks straight after his shift that evening. He didn't tell Annie what he was up to, just that he would see her later at Central House. Alfred showed the Quartermaster the letter that the major had written for him. The quartermaster read it quickly.

"Well well well," said the Quartermaster. "Major Hughes eh? A fine officer. I served under him in the Transvaal when I was a young man. He was old even then. Always kept an eye out for his men. I think I can find something appropriate for you."

"That's very kind, thank you."

"I can only spare you a single uniform, mind."

"That's quite alright."

"And it'll have to be a private's uniform. So it will have no insignia."

"I don't mind."

"You'll be regarded as the lowest rank."

"Honestly, I really don't mind."

"And you'll have to call everyone sir."

"I just don't want to keep standing out when I'm in London," said Alfred. "Sir!"

Alfred was delighted with his uniform and put it on before catching the train back to Byfleet and Woodham station. His lightness of spirit left him the instant he walked into the kitchen of Central House. Mr and Mrs Talbott were sitting at the kitchen table in a very sombre mood. On the table in front of them was an opened parcel. The contents had been removed and placed alongside it: a Captain's cap, a silver cross, and a small battered leather-bound book. Mrs T looked up at Alfred as he entered the kitchen. She took one look at Alfred in uniform and burst into tears.

"Not you too," said Mrs Talbott.

"What's happened?" asked Alfred.

"Come sit down," said Annie.

"Not Richard?"

"No. It's Willy," replied Annie.

"But he's an army chaplain. How ..."

"The company he was assigned to came under heavy fire. Thousands died on the beach. He got caught in the crossfire."

"And this is all we've got left of him," said Mrs Talbott bitterly.

She waved her hands at the small pile of William's belongings, all that had returned from the front.

"And now you want to go off too."

Annie put her arm round her mother's shoulder to console her.

"It's not like that mum," said Annie. "Alfred's been given special permission to wear a private's uniform so that he doesn't get accosted again on the streets of London."

Feeling awkward, Alfred picked up the battered leather-bound book. It was William's bible. He idly flicked through it. Inside, he saw that William had written on every blank space available. On the inside front cover and on the next few pages he had written diary entries. Further into the bible, William had started to write short poems and illustrate them with small, simple pictures, mainly landscapes.

On the inside cover of the back page of the bible, William had written a longer poem in the form of a sonnet. It was entitled 'In Doubt'. It clearly showed how shaken he had been by his experience so close to battle. Any levity had long since left him. It concluded with the lines:

To live or die on this land; such madness. Is this truly my God's plan? Such sadness.

Alfred closed the bible and gently laid it back on the table. Mr Talbott stood up. He put a hand on Alfred's shoulder.

"Let's leave the ladies alone for a while so that they can compose themselves before supper," said Mr Talbott. "I've got something that I'd like to discuss with you."

Mr Talbott left the kitchen. Alfred followed him into his study.

Mr Talbott was sitting behind his desk as Alfie walked in.

"Sit down," said Mr Talbott.

He held a humidor towards him.

"Cigar?"

"I don't er,,," Alfred stammered.

He patted his chest.

"Of course you don't. Stupid of me. Sorry. "

He pushed the humidor to one side.

"Look, I want to thank you," said Mr Talbott.

"Thank me?"

"For what you've done for Annie. You've been such a great support for her. She misses her brothers so much."

"She's one of my best friends."

"And anyone can tell that she adores you."

"Well I ..."

"This war's not going to last forever, and when it does, I want what's best for Annie."

"Well of course."

"And I don't think they pay you enough at County Hall."

"I get by," said Alfred.

"Exactly. You get by. But getting by is not enough. You're a talented young man."

"Er thanks, I ..."

"After this war is over, I'm going to need A skillful architect. No matter what else happens people will still want houses. And I've got great plans for this area. You've seen the race track haven't you?"

"Yes I have. The train goes right by it just after Weybridge."

"Brooklands is going to be a real draw after the war. It's going to be big, and people with money are going to want to be near it. I know Hugh Locke King who owns it, he also owns the golf club that you walk passed on the way here from the station. I built the club house there for him in exchange for membership."

"Do you like golf?" asked Alfred.

"Can't abide it, but people with money do, and they're people worth knowing. I've already built a couple of big houses up on St George's Hill for a couple of the members. I plan to build more, all the way from there through Byfleet and down to Woodham."

"Sounds ambitious.

"It is ambitious. And I want you to come work for me to help make it happen. With your architectural skills and inside knowledge of local government planning regulations, you'd be a real asset to my business."

"Well I ..."

"And I'll pay twice what you were getting at County Hall."

"That's very generous."

"And if at some point you want to ask me about Annie..." said Mr Talbott. "Well, you'll get a favourable reception."

"I don't quite know what to say."

"Say you'll think about it."

"I certainly will do that," said Alfred.

*****

That evening Mr and Mrs Talbott, Annie and Alfred ate almost in silence, everyone absorbed in their own thoughts. At the end of the meal Annie persuaded her father to lend her his car so that she and Alfred could let her parents have the rest of the evening to themselves.

When they got outside, Annie got into the driver's seat. After Alfred had climbed into the passenger seat beside her, she lean over to the backseat to retrieve a large travelling blanket. She handed it to Alfred.

"Here," said Annie. "Put this over your legs. It's going to get quite chilly."

"Where are we going?"

"I want to be close to Richard tonight. And I'm sure you do too."

Without another word, she started the car, put it in gear, and then drove slowly out of the driveway.

Two hours later, they stopped. Annie parked the car by the side of the road and got out. Alfred hurried after her.

"Where are we?" asked Alfred.

"Beachy Head. Come on."

She grabbed Alfred's hand and led the way. It was a clear night and the moonlight illuminated the path that took them up a slope to the cliff top. Annie walked to within a few feet of the cliff edge and finally stopped. Alfred came alongside her. They stood there together looking out across the Channel. Neither said anything for several minutes.

Alfred, broke the silence: "Annie, can you hear that noise? It sounds like thunder."

Annie nodded. She had tears in her eyes.

"But it's a clear night. Not a cloud in the sky. What do you suppose it is?"

"That's cannon fire from the front line," said Annie. "I read in The Times that you could hear it from this very spot."

"Oh my God. Poor Richard."

They were silent for a few minutes.

"Have you got your harmonica with you?" asked Annie.

Alfred nodded.

"I think now would be a good time."

Alfred reached into his pocket and brought out the harmonica that Annie had given him on the eve of Richard's departure. He put it to his lips. He played tentatively at first, his hands shivering slightly from the cold. But the tune became steadier as he continued. When he'd finished, he put the harmonica back in his pocket. They stood in silence for several minutes. Eventually Annie reached for Alfred's hand.

"Come on," said Annie. "Let's go."

*****

One day in early August 1917, a catastrophe in the munitions factory was narrowly averted thanks to Alfred's quick reactions and bravery. An overloaded plug, a pile of newspapers, and an upturned paraffin bottle led to a small fire. Alfred was quickly on the scene and extinguished it with the contents of a sand bucket. As a precaution, he sounded the fire alarm and ordered an emergency evacuation. When he was happy that no one was left on the factory floor, he grabbed a clipboard and joined the women outside.

Alfred had held drills several times in the past and everything went to plan. The munitionettes were lined up in the courtyard outside the factory. The women were standing to attention awaiting Alfred. They were grouped eight across and three deep.

Alfred looked at the clipboard and started to take roll call. But then he started to cough. He doubled up clutching his stomach. Annie called out from the ranks of munitionettes.

"Are you OK Alfie?" Annie called out.

Alfred looked up sharply and frowned.

"Sorry," said Annie. "Are you OK Private Caine?"

"I’ll be fine."

Before he could resume the roll call, one of the other munitionettes suddenly shouted: "Fire! The factory’s on fire!"

Alfred turned quickly. Smoke was pouring out of one of the windows.

Alfred, speaking rapidly, but calmly said: "OK girls, let’s not panic. We need to act quickly. Now then, there are 25 names on the list, and only 24 of you in front of me. Who’s missing?"

"Oh my God it’s Lucy," said one of the Munitionettes. "She was repairing uniforms on the upper floor, she couldn’t have heard the alarm."

"Right then," ordered Alfred. "Girls you need to clear the courtyard. Wait for the Major on the other side of the road. I’ll go get her."

Alfred hurried back towards the factory.

"Alfie," shouted Annie. "Wait!"

Alfred didn’t look back, but dashed into the burning building. The other munitionettes hurried away from the factory. Annie remained alone in the courtyard. Tears were streaming down her face.

Alfred rushed up the stairs. There was smoke everywhere. When he reached the top of the stairs, there was a closed door in front of him. He crashed into it with his shoulder. The door flew open. Inside there was a munitionette lying on the floor overcome by fumes.

Alfred hurried over to the stricken girl. She was still breathing, but unconscious. Alfred part dragged, part carried the girl out of the room and to the top of the stairs, coughing the whole time. He managed to prop the girl up into a sitting position on the top step, and with an almighty effort, heaved her over his shoulder.

Annie was still standing alone in the courtyard watching the door intently when it suddenly flew open and Alfred staggered through it. The girl was still over his shoulder. He was wheezing and coughing violently.

Before Annie could react, there was a huge explosion from inside the factory. Alfred was knocked off his feet and the girl was thrown to the floor. Annie rushed over and fell to her knees by Alfred's side sobbing.

Alfred and Lucy were rushed to the Royal Chelsea Hospital. Lucy was released the next day, the doctors being satisfied that she had sustained no lasting damage. Alfred was not so lucky.

Every day after work Annie would hurry over to the hospital where she sat with Alfred holding his hand and praying that he'd regain conciousness. Each evening she left with just enough time to catch the last train back to Byfleet and Woodham. Sadly, he died several days later.

*****

One evening several weeks after Alfred died in the hospital, Annie returned home from the factory to find that they had visitors. An army vehicle was on the driveway. Annie felt her heart sink.

She opened the front door and let herself in. She could hear voices coming from the kitchen. The door was open. Annie could see that a soldier in a major's uniform was addressing her parents. Annie sat at the foot of the stairs where she could both see and hear what was going on in the kitchen.

"Mr and Mrs Talbott," said the Major. "I'm terribly sorry to inform you that..."

Before he could finish his sentence, Mrs Talbott shrieked: "No!"

Mr Talbott put his arm around her shoulders.

Sobbing, Mrs Talbott said: "It's Richard, he's dead isn't he?"

"Captain Richard Talbott was a very brave soldier and a highly respected officer. He led his men by example. But yes, I'm very sorry to have to inform you that he was among those who didn't make it on August 2, 1917."

Mrs Talbott gasped.

"He was a very great credit to you, to the Army, and to King and Country."

"There's no area for doubt?" asked Mr Talbott. "No possibility of error?"

"No, I'm afraid not Mr Talbott."

He paused.

"It is with great sadness that I must leave you with this," said the Major. "His final effects."

The major placed on the table a large box measuring about 30cm square and 20cm tall. Mr and Mrs Talbott stared at the box dumbly. No one spoke for several moments.

The Major broke the silence: "With your permission, I shall leave you now, with my sincerest condolences."

"Yes of course," said Mr Talbott. "Let me show you out."

Mr Talbott and the Major left the kitchen. Annie remained sitting at the bottom of the stairs watching as her mother opened the box brought by the Major. She reached in, removed Richard's captain's cap and placed it on the table. She reached into the box again and this time removed a small metal object which she held up to the light. Annie could see from where she sat that it was Richard's harmonica, now badly battered. She reached in for a third time and removed an envelope and the photo that Annie and taken on the eve of Richard's departure. She stared at the photo intently for some time before finally walking to the other side of the kitchen and pinning it to the corkboard next to the final postcard that they had received from him.

She returned to the kitchen table and picked up the envelope. It was unaddressed. She opened it and removed a single sheet of paper and unfolded it. Annie hurried into the kitchen and sat down next to her mother. Her mother quickly refolded the letter, and put it back in its envelope. She hugged her daughter.

"Here take this," said Mrs Talbott "Your brother would have wanted you to have it."

She handed Annie the envelope.

"It's probably best if you don't mention it to your father."

Annie slipped the envelope into her pocket.

Later that evening after they'd had their supper, Annie told her parents that she needed spend some time on her own. She went up to the attic that had once been Richard's bedroom. She sat on his bed and removed from her pocket the letter that had returned from the front. She also removed from her pocket two harmonicas: Richard's battered one and Alfred's which was still as perfect as the day she gave it to him. She placed them on the bed next to her then removed the letter from its envelop and started to read:

My Dearest A

This is the last time I shall write to you until my war ends. Tomorrow, promptly at 6am, we go 'over the top' when the whistle blows. I cannot bear to obscure my memory of you with the brutal ugliness of combat. I shall not write again until it is over.

PS: Remember your pledge to me to look after Annie. Please keep her safe.

Love you always.

Rx

She folded the letter and put it back into its envelope. She then walked over to Richard's wardrobe and took out a small cardboard box. She sat back down on the bed, removed the lid and placed the letter inside the box. She then picked up each harmonica in turn and played a few random notes. She then put them both, side by side, into the box and replaced the lid. Finally, she returned the box to a high shelf in the wardrobe and closed the door.