In Hadrian's Camp on Christmas Eve a half century ago

Former Tommy, British Army

Posted 12.21.06

NORTH OF ENGLAND | It was bitterly cold, windy, wet, and dark and a miserable night for a beast to be out on, never mind eight young newly trained soldiers together with their older experienced and gnarled sergeant. We were all lying in the long grass, not minding the cold wet dank earth, in fact; we were trying to wriggle our bodies deeper into the earth

I swear to this day, I actually smelled where General Hadrian had been -- by the urine scent his horse had left in that earth. That's how deep I was trying to wriggle. But, that's not what was what I had on my mind.

The grass was fairly long, not grazed by those stupid local Cheviot sheep. (Sheep kept Hadrian's Wall neat & tidy. This made it so easy to observe savage intruders creeping up under the wall from the north). Thinking back now, those sheep were not so stupid.

An army training camp with its disgusting 'cook-house' is no place in which a sheep should wander -- with all those hungry young soldiers looking for a good meal. Plus, I would have liked a nice warm sheepskin to keep that wet cold from my young bones instead of the lightweight dark coloured wool clothing covering us from head to foot. With blackened faces and hands the only warm clothing was a heavy wool 'watch' type hat and wool cloth around our 'camp' shoes to keep down noise.

No, I was thinking that the grass could as easily conceal intruders as I hoped I was concealed, and, long grass was no protection from high speed projectiles no matter what kind of weapon sped them towards me. As well, I was hoping that if the sergeant did give the order to fire it would be during a brief period when the moon peeked out from behind those dark nasty looking clouds -- more rain coming too.

I would like to see where my shots were going because weapons taken from camp armouries were notoriously 'off' until the soldier was able to sight them in after loosing several shots. And that's why we were there -- weapons to be taken from armouries.

A few minutes ago, we had all been lying on our backs sleeping on the stone floors in the guard-room cells, a weapon on the right arm and a supply of ammunition around our left shoulders. Only a blanket and the warmth from the guard-room stove kept us there as I'm sure we would rather have been outside watching the biting cold black rain clouds coming in from over the sea to the west! That, and the rough tough sergeant who commanded us to "Rest -0 stay inside, you never know when trouble will strike."

The 'savages' had stopped coming across the Wall long ago, but another groups of Celtic 'rebels' were coming in from the sea trying to get their hands on some of the Empire's stock pile of weapons and ammunition. So, the Emperor was calling up all males 18 years of age and over -- to do military service where the Empire had outposts. Hadrian's Camp was one of the training depots churning young boys into 'men' capable of a high rate of accurate fire with whatever weapon we had. Oh yes, and discipline too!

Eight of us, now called 'trained soldiers' (ha!) had been picked for tonight's 'flying patrol' to reinforce the regular night guards. Funny name, the only flying we did was when the sergeant was behind us with his all too real threats if we didn't move when he said "Move."

He had also told us that another military camp closer to the sea had been attacked a few nights before. A young sentry had been overpowered and stabbed with his own blade. We egotistically thought we had been picked because of our skills with weapons, but the army doesn't work that way -- one of my mates that night was almost blind.

Anyway, the camp was way less than half full of soldiers, so the walls and fences could have easily been broached by determined men sneaking in looking to plunder any of the camp armouries. Those of us 'on' this particular flying patrol were from the North of England. We Northumbrians celebrated more the end of the month changing into that called after the God -- Jannus -- rather than the Christian celebration -- Christmas.

Besides which, we 'half savages' got an extra couple of days leave if we 'volunteered' to stay in camp on Christmas and take our holiday leave later. The rest of the camp thought us to be 'Scot savages' anyway, but, the real savages north of the Wall wouldn't have us -- except on the end of a spit.

So here we lay, getting wetter and more miserable by the second, waiting, waiting, waiting like soldiers had done for eons. Then, slowly, the door of the armoury opened and the Orderly Officer stepped out and shouted, "Well done soldiers. You beat the speed of the last nights' squad quite well. Now go back to the guard-room -- but stay alert."

What! What kind of game is this, we thought? We lie here in this wet smelly grass for what seems like half the night, we're cold, wet and frightened, and he tells us to "ůstay alert." Officers!

To keep us on our toes the Orderly Officer always rang an alarm somewhere in the camp -- every bloody night. This was supposed to test the mettle of the 'flying patrol' and see how long it was before we could surround the alarm site -- with weapons ready and spare ammunition ready to shoot those who would pillage the Empire's stores. Lying in cold wet grass, called out to an officer's 'false' test alarm is not the way to win the hearts of young troopers on Christmas Day -- in the morning!

My Margaret had made me a Christmas cake earlier, in the fall when the fruit and nuts were ripe, and put it in a sealed container. It had been sprinkled with strong liquor before it had been sealed to keep it from going bad. I had received it a few days earlier and knowing I was to be on Guard Duty over Christmas I kept it un-opened until the first night guard. Strange how bottles couldn't get past the Guard Sergeant -- but a cake container fitted neatly inside an army pack.

Returning to the cell, and the stone floor, after the 'alarm' I opened the tin to divide out our 'snack'. The smell of fruit cake soaked in booze engulfed the guard room faster than the officers alarm bell rang! The other Guard Sergeant came running in -- just in time to be included in the division of the cake. After all, he had kept the guard room stove red hot so we owed him something.

To this day every time I smell fruit jam or Christmas cake, I remember those big pieces of fruits and nuts -- dripping with booze -- and not a crumb left on the cell floor for Morning Inspection! That was exactly fifty years ago. There was to be another Christmas Eve in uniform away from home and Margaret.

But, we married five years after that and have never been apart since. It's almost worth putting on a uniform again -- just to see if she will make me another cake like that one. In those days (and to this day) she hates fruit cake and refuses to have any piece anywhere near her. But that cake was a real labour of love -- so knowing what else went into the cake it bridged the loneliness somewhat -- of being far away from her and my family.

Mike Crossling is a retired farmer and business consultant now living in Ontario.

Copyright © 2006 Mike Crossling/Log Cabin Chronicles/12.06