Monday, November 28, 2011

The Blackboard by Laurence A. Gea

(Le tableau noir)    ©2011

Anna, still wearing her coat and shoes, drops her flowery backpack in the hallway. She zips it open, pulls out a sheet of paper and waves it in front of my face. 

“Look!” she says, beaming.

I read the first of the questions: 

“What was your favourite toy? Hmm...”

I see myself at her age, playing for countless hours with blond, red or dark-haired dolls; one is missing an arm, another has a funky eye, permanently shut no matter how vigorously you wake her up. But the image that stays with me is that of a three-legged easel at the back of which – on the plywood part - I used to write “secret” messages.

“My favourite toy was a blackboard,” I say. 

Anna lifts her eyebrows. 
 “A blackboard? What is a blackboard?”

In Anna’s school, all classrooms have interactive boards. From her desk, the teacher opens and closes folders on the white screen that faces the pupils. A large “Good morning,” displayed across a bucolic background of cows and green hills finally appears to greet everyone. The shape of the letters will look the same tomorrow. There will be no way to tell if the teacher has had a good night’s sleep.

I have often wondered why I do not feel the expected nostalgia whenever I take Anna to school. I recall a picture taken when I am her age, entitled “Ecole Primaire Arthur Rimbaud, Cours Préparatoire.” I am sitting at a small desk, similar to the ones I see in her classroom. I am wearing a white pullover with a large emerald green shamrock splayed across the front. My mother’s inspired needlework was my uniform for that day. 

Suddenly it dawns on me. The smells. I recall the scent and velvety feel of chalk; the sponge smelling of the past, that feels like a frog, and that you have to squeeze above a bucket with water the colour of a pond. The noises are different too. The clanking sound of the pointing stick dropped on the teacher’s desk, the occasional teeth-jarring screeches of chalk on board, the soft snap of a long piece being broken in two to better fit a small hand... All these sounds have been replaced by modern ones.

Tap, tap, tap, on the keyboard. 

Click, click, click, on the mouse. 

The voice of my godchild draws me out of my reverie.

 “Marraine, what happened to your blackboard?”
 “Well, I was probably too big for it.”
I clearly remember my disappointment the day I found out it had been given away; I suspect my mother wanted to help me let go of the past, so I could grow.
On the way to school the next day, I carry my imaginary tableau noir under my arm. Anna is hopping around me, showing off her Irish dancing steps. Her arms are slightly lifted for balance. 

“Look what I learned yesterday!” she says, beaming above her dicky bow.

Her feet tap, tap, tap the ground. 
My hands tap, tap, tap the keyboard. 

I pause, and decide to save those lines.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

William Cosgrove VC by Aidan O'Shea

A forgotten Irish Hero.
© 2011

The coast of East Cork has a modest charm of its own. Rostellan, Farsid, Whitegate and Roche’s Point lead on to Guileen and Inch bay.   This is the area where we spent seventeen summers, staying in former coastguard houses at Poer Head. That name (from the Norman-French de la Poer) tells us that this is fertile tillage land of large estates and relatively poor Irish tenants. 
I heard that a local man had been a First World War hero, and I set out in search of his story. William Cosgrove was born on October 1st 1888 at Ballinookera, near the little fishing village of Aghada. He was one of five sons to farmer Michael Cosgrove and Mary Morrissey. A daughter, Mary Catherine, died aged thirteen from tuberculosis. Life was harsh for the Cosgrove family, and Cosgrove’s father journeyed to Australia to seek work.
Mary Cosgrove and her six small children moved to a cottage in nearby Peafield. William attended the local school at Ballinrostig where his academic career was undistinguished. As soon as he was old enough, he left to become an apprentice butcher in Whitegate, a neighbouring village on the edge of Cork Harbour. He regularly delivered meat to Fort Carlisle army camp. The military establishments around Cork harbour were an important part of the local economy, drawing supplies and personnel from the immediate area. 
As the years passed, William’s thoughts turned increasingly towards the Army as a career, and in March 1909 he enlisted in the 1st battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers and was assigned regimental number 8980.  The Munsters had developed from the private army of The East India Company, which explains why their cap badge featured a Royal Bengal tiger. Life in the army for William up to 1914 would appear to have been very mundane, but the declaration of war in August, 1914 drastically changed all that. At the outbreak of war, the 1st Battalion of the Munsters was stationed in Rangoon, Burma. They left Rangoon on the 21st of November, 1914 and landed in England on January 10th, 1915, still in their Indian issue uniforms. They stood on the quays shivering in their khaki drill shorts. The battalion was then assigned to the 86th Brigade of the 29th Division, in preparation for the landings at the Dardanelles. This was a narrow strait in North-eastern Turkey, joining the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara.

The 1st Munsters together with the 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers and Hampshire Regiment were on the converted collier ‘River Clyde’ when it ran gently ashore at ‘V’ beach on the 25th of April 1915 at 6.20am. On departing from the ship the 2000 British troops were subject to the most ferocious enfilading machine gun fire from the Turks. Some of the Battalion’s finest men fell at this stage of the battle; those who managed to get ashore could not advance due to this withering Turkish fire. On the following day it was decided to destroy the wire entanglements that the naval bombardment had failed to do. It was during this attack that Cpl Cosgrove performed the action that was to earn him the regiment’s first Victoria Cross of the war. The action is best described by Cosgrove himself.
Our job was to dash ahead, face the trenches, bristling with rifle and machine guns and destroy the wire entanglements. Fifty men were entailed for the work, poor Sergeant-Major Bennett led us, but was killed, a bullet through the brain. I then took charge, shouted to the boys to come on, from the village near at hand came terrible fire to swell the murderous hail of bullets from the trenches. Some of us got close to the wire and we started to cut it with a pliers, you might as well try and snip Cloyne round tower with a scissors.” He then grabbed hold of the stakes holding the barbed wire, “I dashed at the first one, heaved and strained and it came into my arms … I believe there was wild cheering when they saw what I was at, but I only heard the screech of bullets and saw dirt rising all round from where they hit. I could not tell you how many I pulled up. I did my best and the boys around me were every bit as good as myself.

He was also wounded during this action and was promoted to Sergeant and saw no further action due to his wounds. The award of the V.C. was gazetted on August 23rd, 1915, stating “For most conspicuous bravery leading this section with great dash during our attack from the beach to the east of Cape Helles on the Turkish positions on April 26th, 1915. Cpl Cosgrove on this occasion pulled down the posts of the enemy’s high wire entanglements single-handed, notwithstanding a terrible fire from both front and flank, thereby greatly contributing to the successful clearing of the heights.” 
A popular ballad celebrates the bravery of the Munsters, who lost 4267 men in World War One. 
The Kaiser knows the Munsters
By the Shamrock on their caps,
 And the famous Bengal Tiger, ever ready for a scrap,
 And all his big battalions, Prussian Guards and grenadiers,
 Fear to face the flashing bayonets of the Munster Fusiliers.

Cosgrove transferred to the Royal Fusiliers in 1918 to the Leinster Regiment in 1920, the Northumberland Fusiliers in 1922 and later went as an Instructor to the Indian Territorial Force in 1928 to become 7042223 Staff Sgt Instructor. These regimental changes came about following the disbandment of Irish regiments in July 1922, because of the establishment of The Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann). He came home in 1935 pending discharge to pension; unfortunately his plans were all to go wrong. He was admitted to Millbank hospital, but took discharge before he was fit. After a short leave in Cork, he returned to London, where he was admitted to Middlesex hospital with complications caused by shrapnel still lodged in his body. He was later transferred to Millbank hospital, where he died on 21st July, 1936.

William Cosgrove’s body was conveyed from London to Fishguard by road en route to Upper Aghada for interment in his native place. About five hundred members of the Old Comrades’ Association (O.C.A) of the R.M.F., met the vessel at Penrose Quay, Cork, and formed a guard of honour as the coffin was being taken from the boat to the waiting hearse. When the remains reached Upper Aghada, the coffin was removed from the hearse and shouldered by members of the Cork O.C.A., and local people to the burial place. The last post was sounded, while other ex-army men stood to attention. A British serviceman’s funeral was an unusual spectacle in those days, following the struggle for Irish independence. . On the 16th of June, 1940, the O.C.A. of the Royal Munster Fusiliers unveiled a memorial over the grave.

Every year, a small ceremony takes place at the war memorial in Whitegate village, to honour Irishmen who fought and died in all wars. Irish Army UN veterans mingle with British and US forces veterans in mutual respect and remembrance. A guard of honour is provided by the Irish Naval Service. 
Footnote:  The Dardanelles landings ended in failure and the withdrawal of Allied forces after ten months of intense fighting, at a cost of 200,000 lives. William Cosgrove’s portrait is given a place of honour in Collins Barracks Military Museum, Cork, beside veterans of the War of Independence. History has come full circle.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Doodlebug by Victor Sullivan

 A true story of Essex in World War Two    © 24/4/2010
"Please Mummy, may I go across the road to play with Carol?" eight-year-old Jane requested in a stage-whisper as she entered the kitchen where her mother was preparing one of the family's many rabbits for the evening meal. With a swift movement the rabbit was skillfully deprived of its skin as Jane watched the familiar procedure.
"That's not one of our own rabbits, is it, Mummy?"
"Er— of course not. I got this one from the butcher's shop. Why are you whispering?" asked her mother.
"Because Grandma is asleep in Daddy's chair again and I might wake her."
"Humph!" grunted her mother, the rabbit being of greater interest at that moment.
"Mummy, when Daddy comes home from the War will he let Grandma sleep in his chair like she does now?"
The eight-year old had asked that question more than once since her Grandma had come to live with them at number 14, Heath Drive in the quiet village of Theydon Bois at the edge of Epping Forest. Grandma's home and shop on Plaistow Road had been badly damaged by Luftwaffe bombs during one of the many air raids on the East End of London. Grandma had arrived on the doorstep of her married daughter Ivy's rural home accompanied by Jane's Aunt Cissy, a roll of carpet with a kitten inside it, some items of furniture and a piano with glinting shards of bomb-blasted window glass embedded in one end. Grandma felt safer, much safer, in Theydon Bois. Aunt Cissy went by train each day to work in London where her job entailed censoring mail. The Mansfield family and their next-door neighbours, the Johnstons, had jointly constructed an Anderson Air-Raid Shelter in the Johnstons' back garden. It had been used several times when the sirens wailed their rising and falling warning.  The village had experienced a few air raids.

Digging Party for the installation of the shared Anderson Air Raid Shelterat 14/16 Heath Drive. L to R: Mr. Moore,  Hod Mansfield (Jane’s father), Colin Dibble, Mr.Johnston. Mrs. Ivy Mansfield watches from over the fence.

"Will Daddy make Grandma sleep in some other chair when he comes home?" Jane asked again.
"We'll have to wait and see what happens when Daddy comes home, won't we."
"Mmmm. Please Mummy can I go to play with Carol?"
"Oh go on then!... Don't make a mess all over Carol's house... You should both play outside on a fine day like this."
"Yes Mummy!" Jane replied over her shoulder, already trotting down the driveway heading towards the home of her playmate directly across the empty road. As she reached the front door Jane became aware of a faint distant noise. An aircraft from nearby North Weald Airbase? She had often counted the Lancaster Bombers as they flew out on their deadly missions. She listened. No. This noise was not a Lancaster, nor was it the powerful snarl of a Spitfire. It gave her a creepy feeling, then, as she rang the bell she remembered what it was. She had heard it a few times before. The door opened and the welcoming, smiling face of Carol's mother looked down at her visitor as Jane pointed to the clear blue sky overhead said quietly,
"That's a Doodlebug, isn't it?"
Mrs. Forster's kindly smile vanished as she listened for a moment to the steady, harsh drone that was getting louder.
"You're right, Jane. It's a Doodlebug. Go home to your shelter!"
As Jane crossed the road her other friend, Meryl Brewley, was approaching and both girls pointed up at the sky together then ran to the back door of Jane's house. Jane burst in followed by Meryl and announced:
"There's a Doodlebug!"
"You'll call wolf once too often, young lady!" Jane's mother admonished her daughter and just then she became aware of the sound and realised the child was right as the rising wail of the Air Raid Siren confirmed the approaching danger.
"SHELTER!" barked her mother.
Jane and Meryl ran to the shared Anderson Shelter in the adjoining garden reaching it just as the now very loud noise of the Doodlebug suddenly stopped and Jane heard her mother yelling,
"Mum, Doodlebug! SHELTER! NOW!"
Jane leaped down over the few steps and dived into the Anderson Shelter followed by Meryl. The cramped metal structure was half under, half over the lawn, its roof covered in grassy turf. Glancing back Jane saw her mother run from the French window that led directly from the living room to the garden and almost throwing herself down the shelter steps. Meryl remembered her school training sessions, grabbed some pillows and clamped them over Jane's and her own ears. Jane's mother, Ivy, turned and screamed frantically towards the house:

The end of the word was obliterated by the most ear-shattering explosion they had ever heard. The shock-wave hit and they sat listening to the the tinkling of shattered glass followed by thuds and thumps outside. They waited. How long should they wait? Would it be safe to go out now? Would the house be still there? Would the other houses be still there? Would Carol's house be there? And what about the rabbits and the chickens in their flimsy accommodation under the apple tree at the end of the garden? It suddenly grew darker, much darker, as a dense cloud of black smoke enveloped the garden.
"Grandma?" said Jane.  Her voice didn't sound right. Her ears were not working properly. She repeated it, louder this time and it came out as a shriek:
Without a word her mother ran towards the house. There was a changed and darker world outside. Where there had been fresh green grass, clear skies and sunshine there was now a pall of thick, black smoke. Black smuts fluttered down onto the grass where bits of strange stuff lay smoking between larger fragments of twisted metal. Glass splinters from shattered windows were scattered everywhere.
The siren's wail began again, this time holding a continuous steady note denoting ALL CLEAR.
They rushed towards the house, relieved to see that it was still standing. On the way they passed one half of the French Window leaning against a rose bush. All its glass panes were still intact. It's other half was still closed and bolted in its place but every one of its glass panes had been shattered.
On the living room floor Jane's Grandma was getting to her feet in the midst of broken glass, books, knitting wool, an empty wooden biscuit barrel and knocked-over chairs. Only her dignity had been injured and the gentle old lady said things about Germans that her little granddaughter should not have heard her utter. But then, her own house and butcher shop had been destroyed by an air raid.... There was a limit to one's polite tolerance.
"Did the Doodlebug throw you on the floor, Grandma?"
"Of course not."
"Tea?" asked Ivy.
"Yes please, Ivy. Unless there's something stronger?" 
As Ivy went towards the sideboard her young daughter and Meryl went exploring into the hall. There they stepped over the attic hatch-cover that had tumbled down the stairs and now lay beside the door-mat. The girls cautiously ventured out through the hole where the front door had been. It now dangled crazily from one hinge having been blasted open. What an exciting day! Doors blown off hinges, windows broken and thick black smoke swirling about. Now Jane could definitely say that her home had suffered real bomb damage. Her status in school would be assured. 

"JANE! MERYL! Come over and see what's happened to all our windows." Carol called excitedly from across the road but before Jane and Meryl could respond a convoy of emergency vehicles led by an ancient Fire Engine with a clanging bell came up Heath Drive, heading towards the column of smoke rising at the end of the road. Two trucks of ARP men followed and some Home Guard volunteers on bicycles. 
"I must go home first," declared Meryl, "they will be worried about me." 
Jane crossed the road to join her other excited friend.
An ambulance drove slowly past and a Red Cross nurse called out to the two girls:
"Is there anyone injured in there?"
"No thank you, not today!" came the cheeky reply.
The ambulance progressed slowly along Heath Drive, unsuccessfully seeking injured victims, closely followed by the village Policeman, P.C. Hart, panting along on his bicycle. The next vehicle to arrive was far more interesting. It was a large van with steam rising from a vent in its roof. Jane and Carol followed it and watched as the side panel was raised to reveal a counter from which tea was immediately offered to everyone. FREE!
"It's the WVS! C'mon, let's get some tea." prompted Carol. Jane hesitated. 
"Better ask at home first." She did and regretted her decision.
"No!" Jane's mother dismissed her daughter's pleading request abruptly. "We have our own tea, even if it is rationed. The Women's Voluntary Service has come to help those people who have had their homes and their kitchens destroyed. It's not for the likes of you."
 Jane was about to argue when her mother grabbed her by the hand and said,
"I'm coming with you to see what damage was done to Heath Drive by that Doodlebug."
At the gate they found another neighbour, Mrs. Wiltshire and her young son Raymond, calmly watching the spectacle. Other neighbours had also emerged from their houses or from shelters. Friendly hand-waves were exchanged but few words were uttered. Jane and her mother didn't get far. A team of men were approaching with ladders, rolls of tarpaulin, a wheelbarrow of tools and an assortment of other emergency materials.
"Temporary windows and roof repairs at your service! Anyone get hurt here?"
"Nobody hurt. Windows smashed, even the taped ones, doors off hinges, attic hatch came down. Haven't had a proper look around yet."
"That'll do for starters. Just show me around while these guys run up a ladder and check your roof-tiles. We don't want loose tiles sliding down on anyone."
"Anybody hurt further along Heath Drive?" Ivy asked.
"Just one caught by a bit of flying glass. Two houses at the end of the Weind lost their back walls. One old lady got a bad fright when the back wall of her house came down. The house at the end of Heath Drive is badly wrecked, Bennett's they told me. Mostly windows smashed in the rest. Lucky everyone at that end of Heath Drive had gone on an outing, a picnic in Epping Forest someone said. They'll get a hell of a surprise when they get back, especially the Bennetts."
"Which house did it hit?" asked Ivy.
"None! Hitler missed! Bloody thing landed in the field. The farmer came down and is hopping mad as it burned one of his haystacks."
"My Grandma is hopping mad too." said Jane, "She said awful things about Germans. She said they were...."
"JANE! That will DO! Go play with Carol."
And she did. 
The two friends began to collect bits of Doodlebug from Carol's garden. Some of the bigger pieces were still warm. When Meryl returned and joined them they collected pieces from Jane's garden, then from the roadside and from other people's gardens. By the time their mothers came looking for them they had assembled a satisfying collection of twisted Doodlebug souvenirs. They intended to bring a few samples to school as evidence. That would show them! What an exciting day it had been. Pity about the WVS tea though.

That evening Jane's Auntie Cissy stepped from the LNER train at Theydon Bois station on her way home from her job censoring letters. There was an unusual buzz of excited chatter in the station booking hall as she passed through and she overheard "Doodlebug… Heath Drive… houses... V-1... destroyed... bomb... fire engines... many damaged…" 
Cissy ran all the way from the Station through the village, along Dukes Avenue and into Heath Drive, arriving breathless and gasping at Number 14, and found it was still there with everyone in it unharmed. She had to ask several questions  to elicit what had happened. They told her  that a V-1 flying bomb had exploded at the end of the road and broke some windows.

Jane,leaving her home on way to school. In her left hand she carries her gas mask (not visible)
The V1 impact site is at the end of the footpath, 125 metres away.

I lived in Theydon Bois for a few years in the late 1950s. The crater left by the V-1 Doodlebug was still clearly visible at Heath Drive then. So was Jane. She came down a snow-clad hill on a toboggan and crashed into me. We got married in 1960 and moved to Ireland where we celebrated our Golden Wedding in 2010. 
I count myself very fortunate that Adolf Hitler's V-1 Doodlebug missed Jane Mansfield of 14, Heath Drive, by 125 metres!