My father told me this story in late 1958 as we sat by a dying fire. He was smoking a last cigarette before beginning his nightly routine of winding the clock, putting the empty milk bottles out, and locking the doors.
During the last year of the war, his main duty was driving a senior staff officer from headquarters to front line command posts. The Colonel’s responsibility was to collect the latest information on enemy troop movements, strengths, causalities etc. He also passed on any new directives, information and orders.
The vehicle my father drove was a late model “Talbot.” The car was favoured by the British Army for its rugged build. Originally produced by a French Auto maker it was known as “Clement” and later manufactured in North Kensington near London. The army version had a powerful six cylinder engine of 2.6-litre with a rating of 15/20 hp. The popularity of the car was due to a combination of smoothness, reliability and speed. The latter was not something to be appreciated on the rough tracks serving as roads in the war zones of France and Belgium.
On one of the trips between headquarters and the front line command posts sometime in early February of 1918, they had set out just after dawn, in cold and miserable weather conditions. The foul weather caused them to run well over an hour behind schedule. By the time they arrived at the final post it was already late afternoon. The sky was dark and overcast, making for poor visibility, and my father knew that, in the growing gloom, the return journey would not be easy or pleasant. Even in reasonable weather it was at least a two-hour drive back to the base. Driving in the fading light would slow them down considerably. Bad roads and deteriorating weather conditions were a dangerous combination. The car had lights, but it was neither wise nor permitted to use them. A moving light would almost certainly attract the eye of both enemy and friendly snipers. At almost four in the afternoon, he finally started the engine and turned the big Talbot in the direction of the base, a hot supper, a bath and a good nights sleep. It had been a long day; they were tired, cold, hungry and anxious to be finished. To make matters worse, the open car offered no protection from the icy weather.
After driving for about thirty minutes, they had managed to put little more than five miles between themselves and the front. Suddenly and without warning, a German aircraft appeared overhead. Neither man could believe a plane would be flying this late and in such weather. The pilot was obviously lost and had come out of the clouds hoping to spot a landmark. Unfortunately he spotted the car instead, and was turning to attack. The plane circled low ahead of the car, preparing to turn and make a strafing run. My father brought the vehicle to an abrupt halt, almost landing the colonel in the front seat. The German had levelled off and was flying straight down the road toward them. Its single machine gun began stuttering as a line of tracer came toward them. A neat row of muddy splashes raced toward the car as the shells hit the road. For a split second the two men sat motionless, caught in a hypnotic trance, fascinated as events unfolded in slow motion.
Neither soldier knew how they managed to leave the car with such speed that day. As they hit the ditch, the car was raked with gunfire and burst into flames. The German plane disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived, and an eerie silence fell over the thunderous cacophony of gunfire and gasoline exploding.
Slowly and carefully the men crawled out of the muddy, water-filled ditch. Standing alone on the deserted road, their sodden uniforms dripped mud and water, forming puddles around their feet. Looking around carefully and warily, they saw no one nor heard anything. The heavy silence was only broken by the crackling fire consuming the remains of the car. They listened to the hiss of snowflakes hitting the flames and the red hot metal of the burning wreck.
They checked themselves for injuries, but fortunately found nothing more serious than a few scrapes and bruises. Standing shivering in the cold, they estimated being about 25 miles from camp. Both men moved nearer the burning wreckage to benefit from its heat. Standing in the warm glow of the flames, the colonel tried to decide the best course of action. They were more likely to find help sooner if they headed back to the front line, approximately five to ten miles away. But it was already dusk, and it would be dark long before they reached the trenches. Floundering around the front at night could be extremely dangerous. Not only would they risk enemy fire, but they could easily be shot by their own troops. Passwords were needed if a patrol came upon them – passwords they didn’t have.
Their safest option was to strike out for the base camp some twenty-five miles away. As darkness closed in and the temperature dropped to freezing, their clothing became stiff and heavy. The ground under foot was strewn with ruts and potholes. Walking through the darkness of night on such tracks was not good. In addition, they were almost completely unarmed. The colonel had a sidearm; my father had two pouches of ammo on his webbing, but it was quite useless without his rifle.
Added to this combination was the constant danger of being spotted by a patrol. It would have mattered little which side they were from. The normal practice was to shoot first and ask questions later. It was a long slow slog to camp and they stopped often to rest and listen for sounds or movement. Both men were scared and close to exhaustion; hunger and cold were taking a heavy toll. It continued snowing and the clouds blocked out any hope of moonlight, challenging their sense of direction. Much of the time they were sure they were lost; then they spotted something familiar and their hope surged back. The hours dragged on interminably until the first faint rays of light dawning through the overcast sky began to lift their spirits. Surely (they must have thought?) they were safe now. Somewhere around six o’clock, they stumbled over a rise to see whispers of smoke coming from campfires ahead. As the daylight increased, they saw their headquarters nestled in the valley below, a safe and warm refuge beckoning a mile or so away. A combination of relief and joy flooded over them and gave them a final burst of energy to help them reach safety.
Half an hour later, my bedraggled father staggered into the orderly room to report the events of the night. A brawny Scottish sergeant on duty quickly saw his dreadful condition. He gently placed my father on a chair beside what must have been a beautiful and welcome sight – a large potbelly stove glowing red. The sergeant helped my father remove his frozen uniform and sodden boots, and wrapped a blanket around his shaking shoulders.
He left my shivering father sitting by the hot stove and disappeared from the orderly room. He reappeared moments later with a huge cheese sandwich and a steaming mug of cocoa.
The two slices of bread making up the sandwich were each a couple of inches thick. This type of sandwich was known in military terms as a doorstep. The size did not slow or deter my father, and he devoured the food in less than a minute. He told me later that never in all his life had he felt as hungry.
Once he finished the sandwich, he gulped down the mug of cocoa. It was sweet and very hot, but he hardly noticed. He felt a wonderful glow as the hot liquid coursed through his frozen body. His ordeal was beginning to tell, he felt dizzy and light headed, and the room seemed to be moving. The sergeant placed a strong arm around his waist and led him off to his tent. Removing the rest of his wet and tattered uniform he helped him collapse onto a cot. Lastly, he carefully wrapped and tucked several blankets around his cold body.
We laughed about it later, in his entire army career, this was the only time a sergeant had shown him such kindness. To be put to bed and tucked in by a sergeant was surely unheard of in the British Army, and it all happened without my father being aware. By the time his head hit the pillow, he was out for the count. He slept through the next day and well into the night, only rousing in the small hours the following morning. He awoke feeling rested and refreshed, the only lingering effect of his ordeal being a nasty headache.
He dressed and reported back for duty at the orderly room. The same sergeant was on duty and seemed pleased to see him. He offered my father a cup of tea, and asked how he was feeling.
“I ‘m fine, “my father replied” “well… except for an awful headache”. When the sergeant heard this, he roared with laughter. “That’s not a headache son, it’s a hangover. You drank half a pint of rum in your cocoa last night”. My father was aghast, shocked and horrified to learn he’d taken rum. Worse yet was to learn that his headache was actually a hangover. .
The sergeant went on to explain. “When you came in last night there was no medical staff available. Your lips were blue and I was concerned about your body temperature. I decided to lace you’re cocoa with a strong dose of black rum. It seems to have worked just fine. Rum must agree with you”.
My father was never to touch alcohol again, his headache serving perhaps as a lasting reminder of the evils of drink.
Story by F.Ben Rodgers Author and Submariner