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A Shout From The Attic: Re-Enlisting

...I remember almost being run over by a silent camel as I lay on the cooling desert floor by the shore of the Red Sea watching towards the jebels for danger, but failing to hear or see the rider coming from my left in the twilight’s dim, and I recall how still and silent I lay until rider and steed were no more than a dark patch in the Cimmerian curtain of night and I could breathe again...

Ronnie Bray remembers in detail his army service - even though the military authorities failed to do so.

I re-enlisted in 1960 and was accepted back into the Army, in the Royal Tank Regiment, with my original army serial number. In basic training I won the coveted "Best Cadet" award, signifying some monumental progress from my 1952 Blandford fiasco.

This time I served for eighteen months on work of national unimportance, but my contributions were acknowledged and appreciated by the officers of the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards at the military establishment in Catterick.

In 2003, Queen Elizabeth II gave her Royal Assent for General Service Medals to be issued to veterans of the 1951-54 Suez Canal Zone conflict that has begun in 1951 when Egypt rescinded a treaty made in 1936 on the number of British troops that they would allow in the Canal Zone. Britain and Egypt became entangled in a stalemate, which led to violent disorder and anti-British violence by Ægyptian irregular forces, such as the Fedayeen.

Thousands of soldiers were sent to keep the hundred and three-mile canal open and more than three hundred British servicemen died at the hands of terrorist gunmen, bombers, rioting crowds, and diseases. However, the armed conflict was officially designated an ‘emergency’ not a war, so its veterans were overlooked, and have been designated, "The Forgotten Army."

When I learned that I was due yet another medal, I applied to the Ministry of Defence Medal Office to have them send me my gongs: the missing one for my service in Cyprus, and one for Ægypt. I am an old man, getting older, and would like to have something to pass down to my children. But I was more than a little surprised when they wrote back asking who the heck I was!

They wrote: We have no record of your Army Service prior to nineteen-sixty.

Right! I pressed my case, wrote back with biographical details, numbers, dates, places, etc., and have just opened their latest letter. It reads in part:

We regret to inform you that after extensive requests to various archives where Service Records are stored, we have been unable to obtain your Service Record.

So here I am, the Unknown Soldier, lost in the Plutonian entrails of the Army Record Archives and, it seems, that wherever my insignificant details dwell in their solitary darkness, they are irretrievable. It is as though I never was.

But I remember my comrades at Blandford, Barton Stacey, Ellesmere, Borden, Sudbury, Kabrit, Shandur, Suez, Dekhelia, and Aldershot.

I remember also the forty-eight and thirty-six hour passes when I hitch hiked from Ellesmere to Huddersfield, often with an army friend to spend the weekend at my home instead of going slowly mad in the boredom of the wooden huts that housed us throughout the week.

I remember travelling back to camp by train and sleeping on the luggage rack outside Whitchurch on the milk train, waiting for dawn to come so that we could creep along to Ellesmere station.

I remember travelling back to Sudbury on the midnight flyer red-eye special coaches out of Leeds railway station, sleeping against the shoulder of another soldier as we leaned against each other to snatch some sleep before arriving at the camp too weary to sleep somewhere around four or five in the morning, with reveille at six!

I remember Johnny Bubb from Birmingham who was in every camp I was in, and in every hut I was in from 1952 to 1955.

I remember Roy Davey, a smiling cheerful boy from Cricklewood in London, and the time I stayed with his family on a weekend pass.

Of course I remember others. Tall chaps, short chaps, including Fletcher from Liverpool who had not a hair on his body, but who was deducted a shilling every two weeks for haircuts, and who had to set out his razor, comb, and lather brush for morning kit inspection.

I remember Taffy Parfitt, the card player who took the pay of several of his comrades at Pontoon almost every payday in Ellesmere.

I remember the little lad from Wiltshire who said he had an Italian razor and couldn’t get blades for it when he was jumped on for turning up for a muster parade unshaven.

I remember the food, it was very good, and I put on a few permanent pounds, having become addicted to Pom.

I remember the elderly Ægyptian gentleman we called ‘Pop’ who sold watches from an old wooden hut outside the camp at Shandur, near the spot where a lad from Morley, Craftsman Chew sunbathed for two hours on his first day out and kept the whole camp awake all night with his moans and screams.

I remember almost being run over by a silent camel as I lay on the cooling desert floor by the shore of the Red Sea watching towards the jebels for danger, but failing to hear or see the rider coming from my left in the twilight’s dim, and I recall how still and silent I lay until rider and steed were no more than a dark patch in the Cimmerian curtain of night and I could breathe again.

I remember the boys who did not return with the dawn after being on patrol at the filtration plants, or who were sent to guard the water pipelines that brought life to our parched lives.

I remember those decapitated by piano wire stretched taut across the roadways.

I remember small Arab children smiling at the troops who waved to them as they passed through their villages being pulled indoors by frightened parents.

I remember Moses Nicolai, the camp barber at Dekhelia, and the time I was a ‘cumpari,’ a best man, at the wedding of a Greek friend in Pyla village.

I remember Uncle Arthur, an ageing homosexual with Siamese cats who invited young soldiers to his home, ‘Ripon House,’ in Larnaca.

I remember these and many others because I was there! But even as I remember, I have been forgotten. Perhaps my service records are lost down the back of one of the thousands of cabinets that hold the lives and doings of old soldiers in far-off years, and in distant places, in their fusty viscera.

We old soldiers cannot tell all that we know of those years, nor even all that we remember. We cannot share all that we did in those places.

We didn’t question our reasons for being until we grew a little older and more contemplative, having abandoned "the hours of careless youth," if we were of the number blessed to return and grow older.

I do not ask for much for my contribution was very small. But I would like my medals so that my children can remember what the nation has been forced by official negligence to forget! My discharge books were lost many years ago, and careless hands shovelled my ordinary paybook into the dustbin in the long ago, along with other treasures.

The medals, cheap things of no real worth, would at least provide me with some validation for the time I spent in strange places, doing strange things, among some interesting and exotic people, many of whom became my friends, and many of whom will now be dust in the dust, but who will only really die when no one remembers them any more.

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