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Reminiscences of a London Irishman.

Memories of Sydney M Stadler KBE

Sydney Stadler joined the London Irish Rifles at their headquarters in Duke Street during 1908 before serving with them for seven years. In 1910 Sydney was a member of the specially selected composite Company from the Regiment, which attended the Coronation of King George V and he took part in the parade in 1913 when the Regiment, led by the Honorary Colonel, Field Marshal, the Duke of Connaught marched past King George.

At the outbreak of the Great War, Sydney was embodied and after two weeks at Headquarters left with the 1st Bttn for St Albans.

Mobilisation came and, with it, the hard floors at the Duke of York’s on which we slept for two weeks until it was “Goodbye Piccadilly, and farewell, Leicester Square.” The great invasion of St Albans – not the first time in history was on. After the bivouac at Edgware, we finally arrived in St Albans on a Sunday evening, to be billeted in the homes of the citizenry of the city. On arrival, there was a foot inspection and our sergeant was requested by Captain Spooner, the medical officer, to give the order to remove puttees, boots and socks. The sergeant responded with, “Yes, Doctor.” I pricked up my ears and waited for Captain Spooner’s reaction. I heard, “Sergeant, just a moment,” then, an aside, “Sergeant, remember! There are no doctors in the Army!”

I had then become a corporal and severe training commenced. Colour Sergeant Slattery of H Company was a school teacher and thus knew the rudiments of callisthenics. He picked Jimmy James, a fellow corporal and my good friend, for H Company, and myself. Every night at 7 o’clock, we joined him for training and we two, Jimmy and I, had to put whole single companies; every morning, through physical jerks. It was an amazing experience and gave us tremendous confidence in ourselves, particularly as we had never had any training. At least once a week, our Brigadier, Brevet Colonel Nugent, of the Irish Guards rode around and we had to be at our very best.

Training was hard, but there was time for play. I remember being invited to accompany a charming lady friend, of uncertain age, to sing to patients at an infirmary somewhere near St Peter’s Church. I had to present myself at the residence of the lady’s parents at Clarence Road at 530pm. From there, we were driven in an open one-horse invalid Victoria to the institution in question. On the way, the lady friend confided that the musical evening was for the mental cases. She called me her “little sergeant”. On entering the room that had a stage and upright piano, I scanned the feminine audience but failed to detect sympathetic responses. My friend played an overturn and then came the critical moment when two voices – youth and age – should have synchronised in the inspiring song, “A Perfect Day,” published just before the war. Needless to say, there was no applause. My friend followed with a throaty voice – I think it was “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” then came “Asleep in the Dark” from me; when I had reached the deep notes, there came a howl from a member of the audience.  Then my friend insisted on a “Thora” as a duet, which caused the howling patient to start again, this time followed by another. I have since wondered whether those patients had a sense of humour. The evening finished after three further selections. My friend gushingly considered the performance a success, but I was non committal and so, the two performers, drove back to Clarence Road for supper.

I was billeted with my good friend and contemporary, Sergeant Jimmy James, at two different addresses at Hatfield Road and, at the second move, we had Colour Sergeant Slattery with us. The final move to Beaumont Road (Mrs Oxley), where we were very happy, all four of us, Corporal Jack Willis (killed at Loos), his friend Barnes, Cyril Jay (later, he received a commission with the Divisional Cyclists) and myself. However, in between Hatfield Road and Beaumont Road, there was a move to Braintree for instruction in trench digging and barbed wire defence. I revelled in the latter, but when it came to trying it out in No Man’s Land, it was not so easy; the soft earth of Essex was the opposite of Vermelles and Hill 70, both of which had chalk formations and the wretched posts, which were not pointed, resisted to force and would not take it. Each morning, we entrained for Witham, returning in the afternoon. At Braintree, we were billeted four together; Sergeant King (a school teacher), Humphrey Forman (a prep school teacher), who later applied for a commission. Corporal Jones (a huge jolly fellow with the Westminster City Council with a terrific laugh) and myself. Every evening, after high tea, lots of jam and butter provided by Jones (he had something to do with the Quartermaster’s stores), the four of us sat around the fire with our billet people and remarkable stories were told. One, I recall, by Humphrey Forman (he was a nephew of Sir Oliver Lodge) concerned the time he shared a room with his cousin Lodge in the Haunted Chamber of the Priory and it so happened that the ghost was active that night. Cousin Lodge awakened with shrieks, almost strangled. Forman claimed the impression of the fingers on his cousin’s throat showed clearly.

After our sojourn at Braintree, we returned to St Albans, where we were introduced to the double company system. There was a terrific influx from the second battalion, very fine fellows.  My brother, Edward, was there also. My Company, H, and G became one (D Company) in the amalgamation. Colour Sergeant Slattery, became Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant; Sergeant Brooks became Company Sergeant Major; Sergeant Fitzpatrick had platoon thirteen; Sergeant Fairley, fourteen; Jimmy James, fifteen and the writer, sixteen. Captain Trinder was in Command. Captain Harrison second in command. I cannot recall the other officers, only Lieut Pratt, who had platoon fifteen and Lieut Rowe, thirteen, I believe and no one for my platoon.

In December 1914, I prepared application papers for a commission with the First Battalion, Rifle Brigade, Winchester but, whilst waiting at the Orderly Room to see the Commanding Officer, Major Hamilton arrived and, on enquiring the reason for my visit, persuaded me to withdraw my application, indicating that, since I had helped train the battalion, a commission awaited me in the field. This, however, never came about, as an order in the field was decreed a few months later preventing rankers from receiving commissions in the field in their own regiment.

The end of our training period at St Albans was drawing to a close, and suddenly the order came: four days to equip and away. The regiment left St Albans on a Monday morning at 830am and arrived in Southampton around 5pm. The final parade on that March Monday and the march to entrain with the citizens of St Albans (whom we had learned to love and respect) lining the pavement with their silent farewell, was a beautiful memory. We wrote to some of them and some wrote to us, but soon the tear stained post mark of St Albans became stained with the mud of Flanders. I remember talking with Lt Steele, eating ham sandwiches prepared by the same household of Clarence Road. We arrived at Le Havre at dawn, all alive for adventure and proceeded to Harleur on the heights, where the rest camps were.

The departure from Le Havre was chaotic. The whole Regiment had to be packed into one train consisting of three or four coaches, flat car and box cars (the latter were equivalent to the Black Hole of Calcutta). The last piece of rolling stock was a flat car, onto which the last few cases of provisions were thrown and Major Hamilton and I scrambled on as the convoy moved off. The Marchioness of Londonderry, who was presiding over a tea stall waved goodbye. On de-training somewhere near the Belgian frontier, we were transported a distance by London Omnibuses to Winnezele an hour’s walk to Cassel.

Apparently, we were the only reserve (although untried) for the battle of Neuve Chapelle, which was then raging. The Regiment arrived on Saturday afternoon and the following day, we were given permission to wander up the hill to Cassel. Returning at dusk, the flashes of distant artillery fire and Verey lights could be plainly seen. The arrival of our Division, the 2nd London Division, came to the knowledge of General Munro, who had commanded the Division in happier times. At his request, our Division was transferred to his command. So next day, Monday, we moved off by omnibuses to the town of Lilliers and, from there, we marched to Bethune to be billeted in an abandoned orphanage. Bethune was then intact but, later in the war, it was bombed flat. However, in between Winnezele and Bethune, we rushed up in reserve for the battle of Richebourg but, after twelve hours in bivouacs, we were withdrawn. It leaked out later that there had been a mistake. The 2nd Division Regular Army had been called up, not the 2nd London Division. What luck! This is probably why Divisional numbering was altered and our Division became the 47th Division.

We were then moved to Berbure for a month’s training. Officers visited the front line for instructions.