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A Shout From The Attic: The Army Years - 3

...In a cupboard with an ill-fitting door we were excited to discover sets of canvas fencing suits, long gloves, masked helmets, and an array of swords, inviting us to take them out and do with them what they were meant to be done with. We obliged...

Ronnie Bray recalls with relish a day of "combat'' during his Army service.

Sword Play

Life as a trainee clerk had its lighter moments, such as the time a trio of us went exploring some buildings at the periphery of the camp not far from the Clerical School complex. At one time it might have been part of a sports programme, but when we visited it we found the front door unlocked, its rooms stuffed with antique sports equipment, but no sign of recent occupation.

In a cupboard with an ill-fitting door we were excited to discover sets of canvas fencing suits, long gloves, masked helmets, and an array of swords, inviting us to take them out and do with them what they were meant to be done with. We obliged.

It is fortunate that the store was in a less frequented place, outside Cambrai Lines, and towards the wild places, for if any passers by had espied us in swashing our buckles, they might have thought us escapees from a secure institution and had us hauled off to take the rest cure.

Because the storage building was almost full to the gunwales, we took our spoils outside, and, donning the dusty suits, gauntlets, and helmets, assumed the aspect of spectral haunters. After cladding ourselves in the trappings of the noble art of the swordsman, we then gave ourselves to uncontrollable hilarity at the vision each of us presented to the others through the mesh that covered our faces, protected our eyes and other vital face parts, and made us virtually unrecognisable.

When we were spent of merriment, we threw ourselves into mortal combat, one on one in rotation, the precedence being set by the one who could strike another with the flat of the blade. When choosing our weapons we had eschewed epee and rapier as being foppish and somewhat unmanly, more suited to the conceit of the dandified coxcomb than to the muscular arms and thews of the British fighting man, and so we took to hand the heavy curved sabre of the skirted warrior, the ancient cavalryman, and their antecedents.

The slap across the back was the invitation to do combat, and was answered with a standard sabre salute, a crossing of blades, that were then thrust asunder by the non-combatant who fell into the role of referee, and the battle was joined. The rules were simple: whoever cried, “A Boon, sire, I prithee, a boon, sire!” first, replaced the referee, who then entered the fray as a combatant.

What we lacked in finesse we more than made up for in sheer brawling ferocity, Shakespearean oaths, depredations, unintended grunts, and a variety of other noises suitable to mortal combat between deadly enemies.

Our arena lacking definite circumscription ranged far and wide, as the needs of the combatants were served or subjugated. Although I remain unconvinced of Carl Jung’s theory that primitive archetypes dwell within modern man, during the hour that we beat each other senseless, and stabbed and slashed at our dear comrades as if they were demonic spirits from the Realm of Pluto, it seemed that we recapitulated the whole history of sword fighting.

At one moment it was Narfi dealing death to Cormac the Skald in answer to Cormac’s taunting, "Now see to thy safety henceforward, and stick to thy horse and thy buckler; or this mallet of mine, I can tell thee, Will meet with thine ear of a surety!” Naturally, Narfi had to despatch the braggart, which he did with a slash at the neck of post-room driver.

With Cormac dead, and Narfi dancing in triumph, as Vikings were wont to do, there entered with a blood curdling scream the avenger in the guise of King Sigmund whose demise was on this wise, ‘But now whenas the battle had dured a while, there came a man into the fight clad in a blue cloak, and with a slouched hat on his head, one-eyed he was, and bare a bill in his hand; and he came against Sigmund the King, and have up his bill against him, and as Sigmund smote fiercely with the sword it fell upon the bill and burst asunder in the midst: thenceforth the slaughter and dismay turned to his side, for the good-hap of King Sigmund had departed from him, and his men fell fast about him; naught did the king spare himself, but the rather cheered on his men; but even as the saw says, "No might 'gainst many", so was it now proven; and in this fight fell Sigmund the King.’

Two dead men, and the third stood in triumph on the bloody ground. However, spectres are immortal and eftsoons up rose one that a moment gone was nothing more than a spook. With clenched teeth and high held blade ‘he ran upon Eidgrim, the living man, to exact vengeance for the dead he raised up his halberd and struck through the back between the shoulders so that the coat of mail was torn and the halberd flew out through the chest, and Eidgrim fell dead.’

The mists of time swirled around that place in which our sport had taken hold of us, and from its smoking formed shapes of soldiers other time had brought up. The Icelanders and Vikings were swallowed by the haze as from its smoky curtain came Teutonic longswordsmen who lay about each other with the vigour of heroes until the sun set on their scene, and other players came to the fore.

‘So all day long the noise of battle rolled,’ and as a pair contested, a third called hys advise to them, as if to have them perfect their skills. “A full stroke a for foyne with a quarter lythly delyueryde. And yff hyt be tweys pleyde hyt wyll bryng you agayn to yore grounde! A bouwble rownde wyth a bake foyne and a quarter lyghtly delyueryde And hyt be tweys pleyde hyt wyll bryng you agayne to yore grounde. A dowble rownde forwarde an other bakwarde A down ryght stroke voydyng bake ye lyffte legge a bake foyne voydyng bake the ryght legge folowyng in wyth the lyffte legge smyte a quarter bakewarde And yff hyt be tweys pleyde hyt wyll bryng you to yore grounde.”

After an interesting play and ploy that was directed by, “A dowble rowndys forewarde an other bakewarde a downe ryght stroke voydyng bake the lyffte legge A bake foyne with a bow foyne voydyng bake with the ryghte legge lyghtly smyte a quarter. To doble rowndys forewarde and ther folowes contrary all to son yon yor man and yff you pley hyt a gayne hyt wyll bryng you to yore grownde.

The knights grew tired, and we grew tired of trying to fight and translate at the same time, so we transmogrified, without the smoke this time, into swordsmen nearer to our time and place, although they were celluloid inventions designed to thrill impressionable children. Their purpose was fulfilled in North Yorkshire that balmy day, as we amalgamated Robin Hood, Blackbeard the Pirate, the Bengal Lancers, and the British Light Cavalry Brigade in the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava in what turned into intemperate efforts of each of us to bring the contest to a close by exhausting the other two by any method we could conceive short of actual slaughter.

Such is the nature of fighting men that rules sometimes are cast aside, and the referee who thought he had been excluded from the fray for an inordinate length of time, thereby robbing him of the chance to win the Victoria Cross, abandoned his neutral role and entered the affray striking at both antagonists. There was no call for a truce to iron out the new relationships between combatants. Instead, an immediate recognition and acceptance by all of what was taking place.

The absence of a referee to enforce the Geneva Convention and the Marquis of Queensberry’s Rules, led to some excesses of enthusiasm, during which a broad sabre blade gave way to superior forces and snapped in two as it was brought down viciously across someone’s back. Whose back it was is of no importance, for we were joined in this venture after the stamp of Porthole, Aramaic, and Diogenes, the Three Stooges immortalised in the book “The Count of Monte Carlo” by Degas during his blank period.

Even in the heat and dust of deadly strife the breaking of the blade was the precipitant for hilarity, and we threw our arms to the ground, bent our legs at the knees and fell helpless into the dust where the pools of blood ought to have been. Our fun was brought to a fitting end as it had begun, in friendship and good humour, for we were comrades in arms in ways that only those who have fought under the colours can appreciate, and thus it was impossible that we could ever become enemies, not even after being used as an anvil on which to break martial steel!

Although there were no ‘great gouts of blood’ there were some bruises that took a week or so to heal, and the incident was told and retold to our grinning comrades for many a night thereafter as we ‘remembered it with advantages.’

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