It was back in the halcyon days of my youth, when I was misguided (or misled) enough to believe that ‘serving Queen and country’ was actually a beneficial thing for the majority of the world’s population, that I first heard the word ‘bottle’ used in a different context from that of a glass thing with alcohol inside.
‘Trooper’ – Iron Maiden
In my old regiment, being tagged as someone who had ‘bottled it’, or ‘bottled out’, or ‘lost his bottle’ was on a par with admitting at an Iron Maiden concert that you preferred Cliff Richard. You would carry the scars for the rest of your life!
The ‘lost bottle’ in question is thought to derive from Cockney rhyming slang – ‘bottle and glass – arse’, an organ which is generally reckoned to ‘twitch’ when under extreme pressure! It is one of those weirdly British terms and refers to a person who has undertaken to do something and then ‘chickens-out’ – loses their courage at the last moment. This was not considered a very useful character trait in the Paras.
As a 71 year-old ex-para I can cheerfully admit that last Thursday, when J and I looked at the weather forecast for the mountain area where our cabin is situated, our collective ‘bottles’ were most definitely dropped! Ice, snow, sleet and temperatures predicted to drop to -16C (that’s 3.2f for the un-reconstructed)! It was time to bail out and take to our heels and aren’t we glad we did.
when this . .
changes to this . .
. . and this, we knew we’d made the right call. Mind you, it can be very beautiful once the skies clear. This from last winter when we were photographing crocus in the snow up there.
. . our supply of villagers’ firewood. It included four (or was it five?) monster lumps that, dint of their sheer size, were relegated to the end of the queue. Their day had come!
J and I have been hard at it ( in a wood-cutting sense) putting in four or five hours every other day, with a day off for recovery in between. The results are pretty impressive:
by my reckoning there are at least 9 cubic metres of firewood there and we haven’t finished yet!
I’d managed to cut up two of the giant trunks into log-sized discs and, using a sledge-hammer and steel wedges, had reduced one trunk to usable size. That had taken me two days! This morning, after nearly two hours of huffing, puffing, grunting and groaning I’d split one disc and a few odd logs when who should turn up but J’s young garden helper, Samet.
a reminder of the size of these things – and of J’s cavalier attitude to safety foot-ware!
Now, Samet is a very strong young man who is used to doing all the things village farming lads are expected to do. So, when he had finished his garden jobs, I seconded him to the woodcutting division!
Bloody hell! Talk about rubbing it in – within an hour he had reduced four of those discs to matchwood (in a manner of speaking)! J could barely keep up with him as she barrowed the logs away to the depot.
‘Hey, old man! Easy-peasy!’
Freshly showered but feeling distinctly past my sell-by date I surveyed the scene of youthful vim and vigour. Memories of how things used to be – those days when ‘tabbing’ across the ‘ulu’ with 120lbs of gear on the back was considered a bit of a jaunt! Back then I wouldn’t have just given young Samet a run for his money – I’d ‘ave bloody ‘marmalised’ him! Whoever wrote that twaddle about ‘age shall not weary them nor the years condemn’ knew a thing or two! The video has a lousy sound track so use your discretion – that said, has-been old farts like me will still get dewy-eyed at the memories it dredges up.
What was really nice was that J came over, put her arms around me and said ‘ I think you are still strong – in fact, I know you are!’
Coincidences are funny old things; a few are amazing, some are funny or not so funny and most are really insignificant and barely flutter a synapse in passing. There are some, however, that open up dusty, cobwebby passageways to memories long locked away for one reason or another or simply lost in the mists of time.
Anyway, back to the present and my little string of coincidences. A few weeks back I was reading the psychedelic ramblings of a certain blogger whose story weaving skills I thoroughly enjoy. She was writing about soldiers tales and mentioned the title of a book about her grandfather who had emigrated to New England but returned to Scotland and enlisted at the outbreak of WW1. The book was titled ‘A Tale of Two Captains’ and had been co-written by her uncle. Curious, I searched out the book on my favorite independent second-hand booksellers site, learned a little about the leading characters and their connection with The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). I can’t tell you exactly what it was but something ‘Cameronians’ clicked in the archive department way down in the basement of what passes for my brain these days. I saw that one copy was signed by the author and, although a tad more expensive, on impulse bought it. Meanwhile, I emailed my blogger friend and was made privy to some family history and political matters that have no place here – they did, however, help to pad out the picture.
Today my book arrived.
On the cover are old photos of the two captains in question – one of them clearly displays a belt and cross-belt with the distinctive badge of the The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). That name again! I couldn’t pin it down. Then I opened the book and inside, signed by the author was written ‘For General John and Jean Frost, with every good wish’, and the penny dropped.
I’d joined the Paras less than 20 years after the end of WW2; John Frost was a living legend to everyone associated with the regiment. The Commanding Officer of 2 Para (2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment), Frost and his 747 men were the only unit to succeed in reaching the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem during Montgomery’s ill-conceived Operation Market Garden. Their task was to hold the bridge for 48 hours until relieved by the British armoured column led by XXX Corps. That relief never arrived!
Frost and his men were surrounded by the German 2nd SS Panzer Corps, all veterans of the Eastern Front, and what followed was described to me by a survivor (still serving when I joined) as an ‘abattoir’. Eventually the survivors ran out of ammunition – there were less than 100, including a wounded John Frost. The 9000 strong British 1st Airborne Division, of which 2 Para had been a part, existed in name only, some units were wiped out. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded for actions during what became known as the Battle of Arnhem. In 1978 the Dutch re-named the bridge ‘John Frost Bridge’ (he was not amused but eventually was persuaded to go along with it) to commemorate the stand by 2 Para.
As a young parachute soldier I was required to learn the history and personalities of this time inside-out and backwards, and here’s the murky memory, the coincidental link – John Frost’s parent regiment was The Cameronians!
So, there you have it – The Cameronians – two captains – a book – John Frost – the Paras – Arnhem – New England – blogging – a blogger (with more going on in her head than most of us can imagine). A little row of little coincidences that led to the bubbling up of loads of dusty memories – ‘old soldiers never die, we just get boring!