Friday 21 November 2014

Man behaving well

I wrote yesterday about two soldiers from yesteryear who managed to save their own skins and in the process allow the men under their command to be slaughtered.  I suggested that you and I should utter only a qualified tsk!  I was only aware of the Siege of Godesberg because of a restless rambling through the murky parts of the interweb. Today it's an antidote to yesterday's story that I came across at about the same time but on completely different threads and also involved an officer and his men.

I wrote in June about the extraordinary situation in which my father found himself at the beginning of WWII - in charge of a fast, dangerous and expensive piece of kit at the age of 22. More importantly he was responsible for the lives and welfare of 12 men under his command in their motor torpedo boat. At the same age, the extent of my other-person responsibilities was a half-share in an infant child.  As I look round the students at The Institute, I sometimes wonder how well any of them would fare if required to step up to the plate of either of those sorts of responsibility.  Across the water Jeremy John Durham Ashdown, Baron Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon GCMG, KBE, PC was born in 1941 at about the time my father crashing his piece of government property into Dover Beach. Ashdown was born in India, but his soldier father retired to Donaghadee in N.Ireland after he was demobbed in 1945. Ashdown Jr, went to school in England and earned the nick-name "Paddy" because he couldn't shake his Nordie accent. In due course, like his father and mine, he joined the services and did 15 years as a Royal Marine Commando.  He acquired a knighthood, a life-peerage, and a couple of honorary degrees for his work in politics and diplomacy and he plans to mastermind the Liberal Democrats strategy in the next UK general election. But I don't want to write about him now, it is rather his father who is to be recognised. You may be sure that this man and his actions would never have come to general notice except for the success or celebrity of his son.

ANNyway, in 1940, Captain John Ashdown, Paddy's father, was serving in the Royal Indian Army Service Corps.  He was ordered to take his platoon of Indian soldiers and their mule-train to France to fetch and carry for the British Expeditionary Force.  They were, along with hundreds and thousands of servicemen in the BEF, entirely wrong-footed by the German advance into France.  In the chaos of the retreat to Dunkirk, Captain Ashdown was ordered to cut loose from his mules and their dusky minders and get himself and other British officers with all haste to the coast for embarkation to England. He could not find it in himself to obey such an order, so he abandonned the mules, formed his men into line and marched them with dispatch to Dunkirk where they all secured space on the last ship to leave the wharf before it was bombed to buggery.  Apparently he was court-martialled but in those desperate times he was cut some slack and the case was thrown out.  Even in the army, which functions only because men are relentlessly trained to obey orders until they will consciously put their lives in extreme peril, some men can't park their native sense of do what is right.

The Indians finished up in North Wales of all places, which caused a bit of a stir because they had never seen such exotica as turbans and chapattis in the valleys.  The Indians and the Welsh children got on pretty well because neither group could speak English every well.  That's a happy ending.

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