Jeremy’s War: Chapter 18 "Strawberry Jam"

Posted on March 23, 2008

Ch.18

STRAWBERRY JAM

Mr Armstrong Senior (‘Thomas’ only to one or two old friends) was annoyed. Very annoyed.

Lunch at the club was not the same. He cut at his steak with wanton ferocity, as if it personified the very devil he loathed so much.
He would have to have a word with the Ministry, that was all there was to it. Prices had to go up. Nothing else for it. They would have to understand that raw materials were up, labor was up, everything was up. Only profits were down. Seriously down.
It wasn’t good enough.

He was worrying about it.
Waking up at night, fretting about it, in fact.
He hated that.
Anyway, what was wrong in making a decent profit? The way Mrs Armstrong had snapped at him, you’d think there was something positively immoral about a businessman making a profit during war time!
They never understood, the detractors.
Nobody comprehended the simple facts: a healthy business has to make a healthy profit.
Always.

Damn it all. Look at that two faced liar Stephenson…
That man, that impostor, was positively creaming it out of supplying the troops with ‘strawberry jam’.
If there was a single strawberry anywhere in that vile mush, then he, Thomas Armstrong, was… a gipsy!
On top of that insult to the catering corps, ‘Stephenson’s Best Strawberry Jam’ was positively coining it in. He had just bought himself a red bricked mansion at the top of Queen’s Cross.
Ridiculous!
The man was an upstart, a social climber, with not a fiber of decent breeding in him.
Infuriating.

If a minor item like strawberry jam could be rewarded so richly, then surely to God "Armstrong’s Best Boots", in which the troops marched to war, were worthy of a far higher reward.
The whole thing was absurd.
He sipped some Mouton Cadet, and felt a righteous indignation. Nobody understood the pressure he was under.
His contribution to the war effort was immense. Inestimable, in fact. The men could eat a variety of jam. Food was food. Jam was jam. But they could only march to battle on one pair of boots.
They couldn’t go barefoot, could they?

It was a good line of argument.
He would remember that for the Ministry.
Maybe he would try it out on Mrs Armstrong.
He frowned. Maybe not.
She was becoming more and more hysterical.
She was going on about the profits of war now…

She didn’t mind living in luxury, did she?
It all had to be paid for though.
Did she stop to think about that?
Ever? No! They never did.
Criticize, criticize, criticize.
Nobody understood the worries of the business man. If he lived well, this was small recompense for the sacrifices he made. The stress he suffered.
Small sacrifice indeed.

* * *

It was their turn at last. ‘R&R’. ‘Rest and recuperation’. Thank God. A few days in rear areas, away from the immediate front line.
Away from the hell of death, destruction, madness, and fear of dying. First however, there was the small task of the march back.
Five miles. A long way for weary men, with sore, aching, blistered feet. If only some damn fool manufacturer would provide some decent waterproof boots, then there might even be an alternative to constantly wet feet, which led to trenchfoot. It got so that after a time, even a short walk was agony. Even a walk to the rear areas.

They could either walk along the top, keep their feet dry, and risk getting shot or shelled; or, they could just accept it, and wade through the stale, muddy, smelly pools at the bottom of the communications trenches, and aggravate their maladies. The further you got away from the front line, the greater the temptation to climb out and walk along the top. Some guys took too many chances.
Occasionally they copped a shell. If they were lucky, they died instantly. If not…
You had to be careful. If the other side twigged the fact that you were moving troops, well… they really banged down hard on that. Yes, sir.

They traveled in a loose column, without consciously trying to march on parade. Everybody was dog tired. Bushed. Whacked. Lack of sleep. Lack of dry clothes. Those damn useless wet boots. No facilities.
However. It was all in a good cause. They were all volunteers. All friends. King and Country. Nothing else mattered, did it?
They trudged on, sinking up to their knees in the mud. Occasionally the water rose to their middles. They splashed on. Incredibly, there were still the jokers about. The wisecracks. Did your heart good.
The cartoonist, Bruce Bairnsfather, had -amongst others -published a cartoon of two soldiers up to their chests in water, rain lashing down.
One says to the other:
"They’ll be torpedoing us if we stick ‘ere much longer, Bill".
Another one showed a hat floating around in a trench. An officer inquires:
"What’s that hat doing floating around there, Sergeant?"
The sergeant studies the hat, thinks about it, and replies:
"I think that’s private Murphy sittin’ down, sir".
But the best known was that of two soldiers sitting in a shell hole. All around them, shells are exploding. Bullets whine past, mortars whistle overhead. One man is looking rather unhappy. He has obviously dared to complain. His partner snarls back:
"Well, if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it!"
The men had laughed. They had recognized themselves.

Four miles gone. One mile to go. A lot of men hobbling painfully. Blasted boots. Oh well. Nearly there.
Keep your chin up, Smithers… Nearly there, lad!
The word that was passed back along the ranks. Along the snaking column. From man to man. "Top Brass ahead!"
Uh-huh. Nobody was really that interested. Still, all news gratefully received. Top brass, eh?
They rounded a bend, and at last stepped out of the trench onto a paved road. It was a relief to be away from the mud, but for some men the hard, dry surface was almost the last straw for their bleeding, wretched feet.
Who designed those bloody boots anyway?

They were about to be marched around yet another bend. A staff car was pulled over to one side, to let the column through. Some smartly groomed men were standing beside it. Ah… That must be the top brass. Come to look at the front.
A slight flicker of interest. Murmured comment.
"Must be a general!"
-I’m going to ask him for a lift!-
"Fat chance! He’ll have you done for insubordination!"
-Well, he can bloody try walking in these boots then!-
The column shuffled on. Tired, weary feet. Those men who got closer to the top brass pulled their shoulders back a bit. Puffed their chests up. Tried putting a little bit of bounce into their feeble plod. Instinctive really. Fly the flag. Show a bit of color. British troops. Can’t beat ’em, you know. Proud to be in the army, Sir. Proud to serve the King, Sir.
They were level with the general now. He was frowning. Severe look of disapproval. Odd. What’s biting him?
Miserable sod. We’re doing our best…

The general turned in disgust to his adjutant.
"Make a note, Bennet! Those men are DIRTY! Not good enough!"
The adjutant scribbled a note. The men heard, and passed by. Out of earshot, stunned voices were raised.
"Did you hear that?"
-Bloody right I did!-
"What does he soddin’ well expect? Boy scouts?"
-Bloody hypocrite!-
"Has he ever BEEN down a trench?"
-No chance.-

They shuffled on. The feeble bounce had gone.
"Those men are DIRTY!"
Four words.
Eight men heard them from the general’s own lips, but within a few days the story was all over the regiment.
One man was to remember it all for seventy years…
It changed him, and made him bitter.

* * *

Ruefully, The Hunter reflected on the new strategy.
The improved alert system worked well, but it did have one draw back. It was excellent the way the forward artillery spotted the British aircraft coming across. Excellent the way they telephoned the news direct to the Staffel. However, it was a damn nuisance it always had to be at four o’clock in the morning! It interfered with a fellow’s sleep.
He tried hard to ignore Kramer’s knocking. If he tried hard enough, it could be a dream, and maybe it would go away. Maybe.
"Herr Baron! Herr Baron! The English are coming! Six Bristols coming across from Arras in the direction of Douai!"
Oh, damn and blast. Go away, Kramer.
"Herr Baron! Herr Baron!"

Oh, all right then. For God’s sake…

He dressed in no great hurry. When he walked out, the others had already departed. His own all blue Albatros stood ready at the doors of its hangar.
He climbed in, yawning, and took off.

* * *

One and a half hours later, nine machines circled the airfield. A few minutes later they were taxying in. They switched off, and climbed stiffly out. Waste of time. Nothing to show for the sortie. The damn Bristols kept escaping into cloud. Not even a decent fight.

Gerhard grinned at Kurt Wolff, and shrugged his shoulders.
The others joined them, commiserating. Waste of time. The English had been too clever. There had been no way of bringing any of them down. Pity.

Gerhard wondered why his brother hadn’t come.
Unusual for him. Somebody cracked a joke about nice, warm beds.
Gerhard laughed too. It was the Baron’s privilege to stay in bed if he so chose. Still, they would rib him about it. Him lying in bed, whilst they were up there freezing their socks off, trying to fight the slippery English?
They would make a meal out of that!
Ribald laughter split the air. High spirits, despite the cold.

It was Karl Schaeffer who first pointed at the Baron’s Albatros.
Mechanics were swarming all over it. Mysteriously, they were changing the ammunition belts.
The little group of pilots altered course, and wandered closer to the blue machine. The closer they got, the more they quietened down. Puzzlement replaced banter. Oil stains. The damn thing had been flying!

Gerhard collared the nearest mechanic, who seemed surprised. Yes, the Baron had been up. Yes, the Baron had been in a dog fight. Yes, he had shot down a British plane. A Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter. East of Givenchy.
Where was the Baron? Sorry. He didn’t know.

The little group of pilots walked back in silence. How did the man do it? Single handedly he had pulled off what nine of them together had failed to do.
Where was he?
They searched for him, but couldn’t find him. Gerhard decided to check in his brother’s room.
He was about to knock, when, on impulse, he turned the handle quietly. He stuck his head round the door, and stared in amazement.
There was his brother, stretched out, peacefully asleep, a faint smile on his face.
Carefully, Gerhard closed the door again. He stared at the Lewis gun decorating the entrance, and shook his head slowly.
How many victories did his brother have now? That one made it thirty three. Thirty three aircraft driven down, most of them in flames.
Nothing seemed to bother the man.

Not even shooting down another Englishman before breakfast…

F.M.
(c)


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