Tag Archives: Royal Engineers

Chapter 1b: Enlisting, and posting to… Biggleswade

Leeds, March 1915

The two I left behind

The two I left behind

I applied for permission to join the Army in November 1914, but without success, as all the Territorial members in the Civil Service had been mobilized on the outbreak of war thus weakening the staff left to carry on. However after further applications in December and January I received my calling up papers and, with my confrere Arthur Hedges, was duly attested, medically examined, [passed A1], and mustered as a Sapper, in the Royal Engineers, Northern Signal Section of the Territorial Army.   In quick succession followed khaki, squad drill, Swedish drill, riding lessons. Lectures on the war, horsemanship, etc, route marches, musketry and guard duty, – all during the first three weeks spent at Gibraltar Barracks, Leeds.     A preliminary musketry course at Strensall Camp, York, and two inoculations preceded our departure for Biggleswade, Bedfordshire.

Biggleswade, May to September, 1915

At Biggleswade the Company were billetted in private houses, and “The Peacock Inn” Landlord – Old Kiff) was our first army domicile. I need only state that The Peacock Inn had the undisputed reputation as the vilest dirtiest hole in the town, as we soon found out: and that Arthur’s main pastime was swatting bugs on the bedroom walls. Our meals were served us in the bar parlour amongst the smoke, beer, language, and – ladies! Needless to say we thought we had started badly, yet in after times, of which we then had no inkling, I have often remembered “Old Kiffs” and by comparison, it was a jolly fine place!

The Northern Signal Coy, with the Westerns, Southerns, Scottish and London Signal Coys, paraded on the town cricket ground, under RSM Blackburn. Here for a few months I was mainly occupied on stable duties – grooming, feeding and watering – and polishing harness. It doesn’t sound inspiring but we were a happy crowd and I became hardy and full of health, feeling particularly fit and well. The riding school was a bit strenuous and I almost broke my neck by a nasty fall over my horse’s head. This was a good thing really, for I was transferred from Camp duties to the Headquarters Section. “Schemes” were inaugurated by Major Stott, and the various Cable Sections and HQ left Biggle each week on cable laying expeditions all over Bedfordshire, spending 2,3, or 4 nights away from billet. These were happy days, travelling sometimes on horseback, at others on cable-wagons, or motor-lorries, sleeping in fields, barns, or schoolrooms.

Several times I was loaned from HQ to the Scottish and London Signal Coys, as they were short of skilled Telegraph Operators*, and I gained cable experience which afterwards stood in good stead in East Africa. In fine weather especially these outings were ideal as we lived entirely in the open air, visiting fresh villages daily. The most interesting places we linked up by cable were: Broom. Southill, Northill, Blunham, Ockwell Green, Sandy, Potton, Hitchin, Gamlingay, Letchworth, Hatley St George, Eyeworth, Hinksworth, Haynes Park, Northend, Littleington (sic), Old Warden [and the editor has been there lots of times], Ashwell, Steeple Morden, Codicote, Gt Offley, Tempsford, Highworth, Welwyn, St Albans, Harpenden, etc.


Saturday afternoons were pleasantly passed bathing or boating, walks by the river (Ivel), “pictures”, or cycling to Bedford, Cambridge, Letchworth, etc. We were especially a musical crowd and evening concerts, dances, etc were well patronised. Private musical evenings were enjoyed at Mrs Chews, Mrs Gees, Mrs Taylors and at other friends made in the town.    At Mrs Chews especially Arthur and I spent many happy Sundays in their fine garden and orchard. After changing our billet from the Peacock Inn to a private house (Mrs Green) we were very happy at Biggleswade.

Freda, born 1915, pictured later

Freda, born 1915, pictured later

Orders were received for our company to proceed to Watton, Norfolk, and we were inspected by General Smith Dorien, after which I obtained “special leave” home to inspect the new arrival there. [Editor’s note: 29 August 1915 Freda Margaret was born, Ernest Dockray’s second daughter, and later to be my mum].

The Northern and Western Signal Companies left ‘Biggle’ by motor lorries for Watton.

*Ernest was born 1881, so by 1915 he was 34 years old, and had been working in the post office for some time. I assume he was a qualified telegraph operator for at least part of that time, and this skill was to get him separated from the rest at several occasions.