The British Expeditionary Force leaves for France

William Pennington was 18 and a Lance Bombardier with the Royal Horse Artillery when war was announced. For him “the prospect of actually firing our guns in anger was exhilarating”. The regiment was given notice to be ready to embark for France within a week:

The regiment did arrive in France, but ten days later, as predicted by Sergeant Smudger Smith, on Monday September 11, 1939, at six in the evening, to be precise. ‘We are always bloody well late,’ Smudger said, ‘in the same way we always start our wars with a retreat. What can you shaggin’ well expect when the pissin’ officers say they can’t go until all the mess furniture and the silver is packed. And we can’t do that until the friggin’ weekly Guest Night has been held next Monday. Mustn’t miss that, you know, or people ‘ud think it strange of us to be so unsociable, even if there is a fucking war on! And Captain Crapoff won’t bleedin’ want to go until he’s got his polo ponies ready. Can’t win a war without ‘em, you know! And we all know that the Colonel has to go down to Brighton for his usual dirty weekend with his tart from Kidderminster. So what’s the fucking hurry? The French are there to keep the pot boiling, and they’ll be on about their bloody “On ne passe pas” even though the only thing they’re capable of passing is the shit in their pants. But Gerry will make them do that in a hurry, you just watch.’

Polo ponies or not, the Captain did sail with the regiment from Dover (the Colonel was to follow on in a few days’ time), and the behaviour of the men showed this ranked second only to watching the English football finals: we were in high spirits and we very definitely wanted to go to war: The laughter and the joking never ceased, and it was just as well that we left England happily, because our return would be a pitiable one.”

See William Pennington: Pick up your Parrots and Monkeys…: A Boy Soldier in India (Cassell Military Paperbacks)

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