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The First Hunger March

The first national march, organised in the winter of 1922, found the unemployed with barely enough cash to pay the preliminary postages of active branches up and down the country.
The money collected at each stopping-place was only sufficient to pay for an occasional sandwich, first-aid requisites, and bundles of boot leather. Cigarettes, too, had to be provided; smokes being indispensable to meals and morale.
     The men responsible for the initial organisation of the march, having learned much from capitalist warfare, vested leadership in those who as non-commissioned officers had handled men in the army. Their actions were checked by the watchful marchers' council who regularly sat up each night to discuss the next day's activities. On account of spies, important decisions were occasionally withheld from the body of the marchers.
     Most of them understood why, having walked in local street demonstrations where a dirty-dungareed stranger was probably a member of the C.I.D. or else a paid tout. Secrecy was therefore accepted when the circumstances warranted. All recognized the need for discipline in their determination to reach London. From field, factory, mine, and dockyard they had gathered; a miniature army with a purpose, not a rabble cadging for bread.
Marching four abreast they may have appeared so. Some wore Australian dinkum hats. All shouldered haversacks. Their khaki puttees revived their recent military training. Many a shabby overcoat hid a bare backside. One constant trouble was bad boots. Men down at heel are down at heart. The old campaigners knew this and kept the cobblers in the contingent busy with hammers and lasts.
     This was their special job, but every man had something to do. Only the sick, or those with very sore feet were excused. The leaders taking their turn at the pull-ropes of the trek-carts, and also at washing dishes, sustained a morale that debarred favouritism or differentiation of any kind.
     The fifes and drums of the bandsmen quickened many a lagging footstep along the narrow country lanes. Two tunes mingled strangely as expressions of contempt for a hypocritical social system: 'Colonel Bogey,' and 'The Red Army March.' There was inspiration in this song of the Russian Revolution.
     On leaving a town, especially an inhospitable one, 'Rulers who sit in High Places' was played and sung through bourgeois residential districts. As windows and doors shot open, the scornful refrain of 'Colonel Bogey' quickly slammed them shut again. 'And the same to you!' was a parting retort.
The bandsmen, as much part of the morale as the food the marchers ate, were exempt from the ordinary routine work of the contingent. Relays of men took turns-about in dragging the loaded trek-carts with their bulgy canvas coverings. Hidden beneath, according to newspaper know-alls, were spare parts of machine-guns. The marchers enjoyed that story enough to mischievously keep it alive.
At each stopping-place, selected men stood guard over the carts to make sure the covers were never untied in the presence of strangers. Suspicious loiterers, usually news-hawks, were referred to the marchers' council and beckoned aside while the machine-gun story was solemnly whispered into their ears. Always they swore to respect it as a confidence, then would dash off to scribble it down for immediate publication. What a scoop!
     Even the police knew it was a hoax for the trek-carts merely contained the usual odds and ends of camping equipment; spare cooking-utensils, cobblers' tools, shaving-gear, portable tents, and a few battered storm-lamps for night use on the dark roads.
     During daytime rests in the country lanes, the marchers would have an impromptu snack; the leaders, an inspection. Out would come the cobblers' tools, while the barbers cut hair. First-aid men were quickly on their knees dressing sore heels and swollen ankles. Men unfit to walk further were sent on in a friendly vehicle to the nearest hospital. But the march was in their blood and they caught up the contingent a few days later.
     Faced with such enthusiasm, the leaders dare not accept a scanty food allowance from any workhouse. It required tact to know how to refuse it. This enabled the chief marshal to avert a nasty riot in a big, wealthy industrial town. Two of the bicycle scouts had gone ahead of the contingent to say the marchers would arrive late that night. Close on ten o'clock, two hundred of them, representing six or seven towns, limped through the workhouse gates into a dimly lit high-walled yard. At the top end, sixty hefty policemen were lined up, their helmets bobbing provokingly. The slightest mistake might easily start a slaughter. The marchers, hungry and sore-footed, felt they had been walked into a trap. The police inspector's sneering face seemed to confirm it.
The marshal, managing to conceal his anger, addressed the men in a quiet tone.
'Comrades,' he advised. 'Stand easy. Above all, keep your tempers. Be as silent as you possibly can. Our job is to get to London. Don't forget that.'
With two of the marchers' council he was shown into a long drab dining-room. The police-inspector kept hovering near. The workhouse-master, smiling condescendingly, pointed to the tin plates of steaming skilly and hunks of coarse dry bread.
     'Everything's quite ready for you,' he said.
     The marchers' leaders looked at each other. The marshal, veteran of two wars, glanced at the rows of tin plates again.
     'My men won't have that stuff,' he declared.
     The workhouse-master seemed greatly surprised. 'Why? What's wrong with it,' he asked.
     ‘Well, what the - - what the — what am I going to do with it, then?'
      ‘You ought to know,' the marshal politely told him. 'Stick it where you stick your Christmas pudding.'
     The police-inspector shot his face forward threateningly. 'Is that your idea of a joke?' he demanded.
       Nobody answered him. The marshal turned away followed by his two companions. Outside in the yard, the rest of the contingent stood waiting, cold and fidgety. The police had not moved. The marshal ignored them as he walked by. His own men were instantly attentive.
     'Comrades,' he began. 'For obvious reasons we have decided not to stay here to-night. We will manage to stagger on for a few more miles. I have a place in mind.' He glanced sideways at the sneering police-inspector, then continued. 'Remember,' he said, 'you came through that gateway as a disciplined body. I want you to leave in exactly the same manner, and NOT as a disorderly mob. Do you thoroughly understand that? All right, then. Fall in. Everybody ready? By the left. Quick march!'
     Back into the street limped the contingent. The band struck up 'Colonel Bogey.' The big drummer could not resist banging in a few whacks for his own gratification. Far away from the workhouse some of the hungry men broke ranks for chips and fish. On being reprimanded the stragglers moved off in orderly formation again, balling their greasy papers in the roadway.
     Long after midnight, they reached a big field on the outskirts of the town and spotted a dilapidated barn. In here they chucked themselves down on some old straw, huddling close together for warmth and a few hours' sleep. The storm-lamps lined a passage to the exit. Luckily there was no rain.
     The marchers' council, tired as they were, dared not lie down. There was too much for them to worry over. In undertones they discussed the next move. The experience at the last workhouse necessitated a complete change of tactics; stereotyped methods had failed; pauper treatment had to be avoided or the men's morale would weaken; such was the essence of their talk.
     The marshal bore the added strain of controlling the few hotheads who were raving to go back to town and smash the big shop windows in protest. They strongly felt they had been tricked and insulted. But the marshal would stand no talk of going back. When somebody said so outright, he was afraid he lost his temper for once.
     ‘There’ll be no party to any fancy heroics,' he roared. 'These men started out to march to London. And I'm bloody well going to get them there.'
     A few of the marchers raised their heads from the floor. The marshal was himself again.
     'It's all right, comrades,' he said. 'Go to sleep. There's nothing the matter.'
     The quarrel passed over. Different methods of approach were introduced. Lamps were brought nearer, and the maps spread out to decide upon the next stopping-place. A railway time-table proved an asset. Connections between neighbouring towns on the line of march were noted, also the rimes of first and last trains by which extra police might be quickly drafted from one place to another. This danger had to be reckoned with. The marshal pointed out how a blundering skirmish now would drive a proportion of the marchers dribbling back to their homes. His alternative suggestions were approved by a majority vote.
     At six o'clock that morning, the men arose shivering but glad of their water-flasks. After a hasty snack of bread and cheese which had been held in reserve, they were ready to move on. Two cyclists went pedalling ahead of them with sufficient money to buy more bread.
     There were four other bicycle scouts in this particular contingent. Two, with a printed card 'NATIONAL UNEMPLOYED MARCH' strung to their handlebars, were sent on to a town the marchers were deliberately avoiding, to notify the local authorities that the contingent would arrive there at a late hour that night. By contact or examination of a directory the numerical strength of the police was sought. This was reported back when the cyclists rejoined the contingent at an agreed spot on a fork-road at noon. Meantime, the remaining two cyclists with no identification cards rode on to a town the leaders considered more suitable as a stopping-place; there to seek contacts, find exactly whether the workhouse was situated in a back street or main road, and if any police were being drafted in or out.
     Long before dusk the band was ordered to stop playing. Just the single tap of a drum kept the contingent in step. The night grew very dark. In the narrow country lanes the men stumbled blindly along, bumping into hedges and each other, and cursing in spasms as the trek-carts wobbled awkwardly over the humpy roadway. Two storm-lamps were carried at the front and tail-end of the contingent in case of accident from onrushing motor-cars that occasionally whizzed close and vanished in the dark again.
     At half-past ten, the marchers limped into the town least expected. The sleepy inhabitants wondered what had happened. So did the astonished chief constable. He might have been a kind man. He was certainly a wise one. He was told the men were ravenous and wild and could not be restrained for long. It was even hinted they might help themselves from the shop windows. There was not enough police in that small town to prevent them.
      The chief constable was obviously uneasy. 'What can I get them at this time of night,' he asked.  
     'They want eggs and bacon.'
     'Eggs and bacon! My God! That's impossible. I'd better see what the chairman of the guardians has to say.'
     The latter, a bearded old man, was also afraid of the marchers looting, but saw no way of providing such a large order of eggs and bacon at that unusual hour. The marchers' council knew that to accept eggs for some and none for others was inadvisable. A compromise was arrived at; cold meat, cheese and pickles for all, with heaps of bread and butter and plenty of tea. This would be served in a spare ward in the hospital. The marchers, as instructed, tiptoed through the grounds. Special care was taken to lessen the squeaking of the trek-carts.
     The sleeping day-staff were left undisturbed. At the suggestion of the marshal, a party of marchers was put in charge of a night matron to help prepare the meal. She was genuinely relieved to find they were flesh-and-blood beings who actually spoke English and had never been in Russia or worn ferocious whiskers.
     The meal over, all the crockery was washed and noiselessly replaced on the kitchen shelves. Tables were lifted back against the walls, and the men bedded down for the night. Though the beds were on the floor, the floor was scrupulously clean, and the ward comfortably heated. Soon all hands were asleep.
Before seven next morning, blankets were neatly folded, beds rolled up, and all returned to the hospital storeroom. The chief constable seemed impressed by the discipline. Maybe it did not coincide with what he had heard or read. Besides, there was something kindly in his bearing. He stood by as the marchers filed in for their breakfast.
'There's your eggs and bacon, boys,' he said. 'I hope you enjoy them.'
They did. The next party of men on the rota were detailed off to wash dishes. The remainder smartened themselves up, then cheery and refreshed, mustered in the hospital grounds. Cart-ropes were grabbed in readiness.
The satisfied marshal strapped on his haversack. The men's chatter ceased as he held his hands up appealingly.
'Hush, comrades. Please,' he cried. 'Don't forget where you are. There must be no band, nor no noise of any description until we are well clear of this building. Don't spoil things. Everybody here has been really decent to us. I have already thanked them on your behalf A chorus of 'hear-hear's' brought his hands up again. 'Shush. The whole bunch of you.' He looked them over. 'Come on. Are you all set? Good! Quietly now. Quick march!
The chief constable, stationed at the gate, wished them luck. They saluted briskly and wheeled past smiling into the street. At a safe distance from the hospital, the bandsmen searched their music, then led the contingent out of town to a rollicking Irish jig.
The distance to the next intended stop was less than eighteen miles. Half-way, the contingent was joined by a small body of twenty. Each carried a strong reliable walking-stick. The night previous they had attended a large indoor meeting, where the chief speaker, a parliamentary candidate, was also a very prominent barrister. The leader of the small group, having once been sentenced in a court where the barrister practised, saw an opportunity of pocketing a good collection for his men's immediate needs. From the body of the hall he put a question which left the platform no option of refusing. The collection was a substantial one. The barrister in handing it over hoped that wherever the marchers went they would always behave as gentlemen.
In promising to do so they had no thought of walking-sticks. That only occurred to them the next morning when buying cigarettes at a small general shop. The sticks were hanging in the doorway. The men with badly blistered feet recognized their immediate value and twenty were bought at a reduced price. As they limped along, the desire to act as gentlemen grew stronger in their minds. They visualized the advantages of walking-sticks in an emergency, having long since been taught that it was the privilege of English gentlemen to defend themselves against attacks.

Members of the main contingent soon grasped the idea. During rest-halts in country lanes, those familiar with trees cut their own sticks, trying them first to make sure they were serviceable enough to lean on. The next town was reached in the evening. Tea was in readiness at the local workhouse. The hospitality here was fairly satisfying, there being no need for veiled threats or bluff. Perhaps a timely word had come over the phone from the last place of call.
Despite this apparent goodwill, a startling discover}' was made. Local families whose home-life had been broken up on entering the workhouse were now compelled as inmates to live separate existences. A high wire netting divided the workhouse grounds into sections. Through this, wives conversed with husbands, and children with their fathers. Some of the marchers stared in amazement as little tots pressed their lips to the wire in awkward kisses for their fathers, stooped low on the opposite side of the netting. An explanation was asked for. The fathers complained that they only saw their children for an hour or so in the evening.
A marchers' deputation immediately tackled the workhouse-master. He could see nothing wrong in the wire-netting arrangement. It had been the rule long before his time. So coolly was this said that the angry deputation threatened to pull down the wire netting, and perhaps wreck the institution unless the father-inmates and their wives and children were allowed to fraternize in the common-room that night. The workhouse-master gave way.
The common-room was soon crowded. A marcher-pianist pounced on the harmonium to play those hymns whose parodied words had often roused the American I.W.W. to action. Ex-members of that organization led the rest of the marchers in singing 'Pie in the sky,' 'Dump the bosses off your back,' and 'There is power, there is power, in a band of working-men.' The choruses were repeated with gusto, particularly: 'You will eat in the sweet bye and bye.'
     As the night wore on, interested groups ringed around talkative enthusiasts were urgently advised to read this book, that book, and the other book to help understand the implications of warships and workshops, workless and workhouses, and the reason for the unemployed march to London. The names of Dietzkin, Lenin, and Marx cropped up, also the usual interruptions on the correct interpretation of a paragraph from Das Kapital. The bewildered inmates were entirely flabbergasted by the continuous rush of strange phrases that poured down their ears. Whatever they thought, the privilege of sitting up late and the solace of a welcome cigarette was due to the marchers' intervention.
   How long the concession was to last nobody could tell. It had temporarily weakened the authority of the workhouse-master, and he was much relieved to see the marchers depart the following morning. The next workhouse was a gloomy and forbidding hole, both outside and in. The master, truly reflecting its atmosphere, demanded test-work; some stone-breaking as per regulation. On being informed that the marchers were not prepared to break stones except for their own use, he threatened to call in the police.
     The chief marshal soon stopped that move by pointing out the considerable number of police that would be needed to frighten a disciplined body of two hundred and twenty men who had spent a couple of years in the trenches and returned with plenty of grievances. The economic aspect, too, was detailed: the cost of extra police to the local ratepayers, the damage the marchers might do, the publicity it would get in the newspapers, and its bad effect on people throughout the country; all of which could be avoided by a little common sense. He also mentioned how the marchers at all times could act like gentlemen. That's why they were carrying walking-sticks.
     The master did provide a warm and satisfying meal of roast and veg. The same could not be said of the sleeping accommodation. It was horrible; a row of crypt-like stone-floored openings off a passage, dark and musty. The rickety old building could offer no better. The rough smelly horse-blankets must have been stored in a damp cellar for months.
     In the morning they were piled in the yard to air. They needed airing; so did the marchers after one night under them. It almost spoilt their appetites for the breakfast of ham and eggs which had been insisted upon, and was now the mainstay of their diet.
As they were assembling to move off, a husky voice bawled from a white-washed outhouse: 'Get out, you gang of Bolsheviks. You ought to be bloody well shot.'
     A few of the marchers darted across to the half-opened doorway. Inside was a ragged unshaven fellow working his feet on a treadmill and not daring to stop. Between scowls and mutterings he wanted to know why the marchers should escape test-work while he had to stay behind. They ignored his insults and invited him to come with them. But he persisted in shouting out at the top of his voice that he was no bloody Bolshevik. The marchers could waste no further time convincing him that they were genuine Britishers. They were too eager to move on to a place with decent baths. The blankets had made them lousy.
     At a main-street propaganda meeting, hoarse speakers who taunted the inhabitants about their horrible workhouse did not deter collectors from raiding their boxes in the faces of hesitant givers. Within an hour the meeting had closed and the contingent was on its way again.
     Just outside the town they met a meandering group of thirty. These men had decided to march at the very last minute. One of them, a tall gawky chap looked like a superintendent in charge of a Sunday school treat. He was at least six foot six in height, wore a new bowler hat, and carried an umbrella. This he swung around in grand style as he jogged along, chest stuck out, humming gaily to himself. Probably he was unaware of the interest he was causing. It came out by mere chance that under his bowler hat lay plenty of romance. On overhearing the ex-I.W.W.'s talking of America he sidled over to one of them. 'Have you really been in America, Mr B.,' he asked. 'Why, sure. I was there for twenty years. I tackled everything from steamboats to ranches.'
     The big gawky chap shook his head enviously. 'God, you're lucky,' he sighed. 'Really you are. I wish I could go there. I'd love to be a cowboy.' Though the next town was a small one the general atmosphere was sociable and kindly. The two hundred and fifty marchers were allowed the free use of the baths. On top of this the manager of a variety theatre offered a hundred free admission tickets for the second evening performance. The men's council, chary of accepting, were persuaded to do so by the rest of the contingent who drew lots to obviate grumbling. It was agreed that should a similar offer be repeated elsewhere, the first hundred men would automatically be passed over. The cobbly condition of the roads in this area blistered their feet terribly. The pace had to be slowed down and the daily mileage reduced from twenty' to twelve. It was this and a heavy drenching rainfall that compelled the contingent to diverge on a small town renowned for its schools and culture.
       As usual, two cyclists were sent ahead. They returned to report there was no big workhouse in the locality, but that suitable premises would be in readiness to lodge the marchers on their arrival. The men's council had visions of the celebrated school buildings being placed at their disposal.
     At eight o'clock that evening they were greatly surprised to be directed to a big tin-roofed barrack drill-hall. On sitting down at the bare tables they were more surprised still to have dished before them that eternal soldier feed, bully beef. Most of them thought they had finished with this particular diet on being demobbed from the army. Yet here it was once more whether they liked it or not.
       They could only sit and stare at it in silence. Though hungry, they were soaked to the skin and all too lame to start a rumpus. Reluctantly they ate what they could. It was as much as the marshal was able to do to scrounge a few pickles.
     The marchers' council sat up that night to devise an effective protest that would give this reputed home of culture the horse-laugh. A mock military funeral was decided upon.
The corpse, a seven-pound tin of bully beef, was saved for the purpose. Not a word was broached to the body of the marchers. The 'funeral' could only be a success if they were made to believe that one of their comrades had actually died overnight. As soon as they were asleep, no time was lost in laying out the 'corpse.'
     A dozen men, specially picked, were sworn to secrecy. All had had experience of military funerals in France. They went prowling around the drill-hall for the necessary props. A stretcher was found and taken to the bottom corner of the long shed. It was easy to smuggle a couple of white sheets and two pillows. The pillows were laid lengthwise on the stretcher, the tin of bully beef placed in the middle and the sheets spread on top, ends tucked in. Before daybreak, a large-sized Union Jack had been draped over all.
     Four of the tallest marchers mounted guard, leaning piously on their walking-sticks. One of the cyclists, a florist, rose early, and sneaked out to gather some flowers and foliage for making a wreath. There were a number of private gardens close by to select from.
     The awakening marchers sat up, heard the whisperings, gazed down the long shed, and were dumbfounded. On tiptoes they approached the supposed corpse. Alert guards motioned the over-curious away.
     During a bully-beef breakfast, gloomy guesses as to the identity of the 'dead man' were proved incorrect by glances across the tables. It was finally agreed that the 'corpse' was a little fellow left in hospital three days before. Having died, his body had been sent on. Everybody murmured 'Poor beggar.' The worst had happened. It became more convincing when the cyclist appeared with his wreath. There was silence as the marshal laid it tenderly on the Union Jack. He particularly, seemed to be taking the 'death' to heart.
     Everything was now almost ready for the 'funeral': stretcher-bearers, an experienced firing-squad, a band to play the 'Dead March,' and a bugler to sound the 'Last Post'; everything except a clergyman.
     Two of the marchers' council were ex-Roman Catholics. Both could gabble Latin in pagefuls. One had been a serving altar boy; the other, a chaplain's clerk in the navy. Both had travelled around the world in ships, and knew how to wangle in a fix. The first had a blubbery priest's face; the second, the ascetic drawn features of a fasting saint. Though they fitted naturally into their respective parts, neither owned a prayer-book. The 'priest' said he must borrow one from somewhere if the 'service' was to appear real.
       Arranging to meet the 'funeral' procession in the centre of the town, he slipped out of the barracks on his strange errand. It would have been easier to ask for money. Busy housewives jerked open their doors to the most absurd request ever made on a front step: 'Can you lend me a prayer-book, missus, please.' Thinking the man was a lunatic the women dashed in with fright.
       Shops were now opening. Amongst them was a dirty-looking secondhand store. The contents of an attic had evidently been dumped into the window. The 'priest' spotted a bundle of broad linen collars and bought one for a penny. In a pile of rubbish on the floor he found an aged Bible with a clasp. This cost threepence. More eager now to complete his clerical 'rig-out,' he rummaged about for a bowler hat that could be cut down to resemble a clergyman's. The few bowlers in the shop were on the small side. He suddenly became ambitious. Why not a tall silk hat? Church dignitaries wore them. The old woman shopkeeper had none in the place. She mentioned an undertaker's where an old one might be bought cheap from one of the coachmen.
     'Is it for a concert?' she asked. The 'priest' nodded his head and hurried out.
     The undertaker's yard was not far away. A cheery-faced stableman was rubbing a horse down. His forearms were tattooed. This served as a helpful introduction. In a moment he was quite pally. The 'priest' in confidence explained what the hat was really for.
     The stableman's round face spread in a grin. 'That's a good one, sailor,' he said. 'A right good one. Now just half a mo.’ He scratched his head while he pondered. ‘Yes. I can do it. Come on over to the harness room.'
     Very quickly the 'priest' was dressed: collar back to front; a piece of black sleeve-lining down his chest, and a silk hat on his head. The coachman next brought out a mournful-looking overcoat, buttoned it on the 'priest' then stood away a few paces. While flicking off some pieces of chaff he burst out laughing.
     You look the real McCoy, now,' he said. 'By Jeese, you do.' The road being clear, the 'priest' in his anxiety not to miss the procession went to run out of the yard. The stableman slowed him down to a correct funeral stride.
     Crowds of wondering people were already squeezed on the narrow sidewalks. Others gazed down from open windows. The police had stopped all traffic. There was a tense silence as the procession slowly approached; the band playing the 'Dead March'; the stretcher-bearers, heads bent, crawling just behind; while the rest of the marchers followed, their walking-sticks reversed. The six kettle-drums were covered in black crepe paper.
     The 'priest' watched for an opportunity to step into line. A section of the crowd respectfully eased a passage to let him through. Looking very downcast he joined in behind the 'corpse.'
The saintly ex-navy clerk lifted his eyes, gaped at the silk hat, and blurted out: 'A tall shiner! Gawdblime! That's the limit.'
     Men on the kerb doffed their hats and stood bareheaded. Women grouped together were bitter in their denunciation of the government. 'Imagine poor lads coming home to that after fighting for their country,' said one. Some of her neighbours were crying. Even a few of the marchers were unable to hold back their tears. The 'priest' was compelled to keep his eyes to the ground. By his side walked the ascetic-looking clerk, his hands joined in prayer like a church-window figure. As they drew near, a stern-faced policeman shook his finger warningly at some squabbling children.
     The procession passed slowly by the famous college and halted a short distance away by a double-sized pillar-box that stood on a traffic island in the centre of the main street. The flag-covered stretcher was lowered gently to the ground. The 'priest' solemnly handed his hat to the clerk, then stepped across to deliver a short oration. His head was still bowed. With an effort he raised it.
     'Friends,' he began with an ecclesiastical drawl. 'We are gathered here to pay a last tribute to our dearly departed comrade, B.B. The greatness of our empire is in no mean measure due to him. He served on all fronts in the last war. A very old soldier, he saw service in the Boer War. He was always at hand, and could be rushed anywhere in an emergency. We are mindful of the praise lavished on prominent generals; and begrudge not the fame of two other names, none of us are likely to forget, Tickler and Maconachie; but with all due respect to them, our late comrade B.B. was the real backbone of the British army.14 The song says, 'Old soldiers never die,' but like everything else they must die eventually. And comrade B.B. has ended his days with us. May he rest in peace.'
     Solemnly the 'priest' fingered the pages of the open Bible. The ascetic clerk moved nearer to mouth the response. The 'priest' mumbled a few sentences in Latin, then raised his right hand piously for the blessing.
     'Dominus vobiscum,' he chanted.
     'Et cum spiritu tuo,' responded the clerk.
     'Requiescat in pace.'
     The Bible was snapped to. At a signal from the marshal, the firing squad closed in on both sides of the stretcher. On the command 'Fire!' they cocked their sticks skyward. Six muffled kettle-drums rumbled through the stilly silence. As the air vibrated, broken sobs spread contagiously.
     Three times the sticks were cocked, and three times the muffled drums rattled off a long-drawn-out tattoo. Then the bugler stepped forward to sound the 'Last Post.' The large crowd could no longer hide its emotion. Men and women wept openly.
     The ascetic-looking clerk slyly nudged the 'priest.' 'Hey, Joe,' he whispered. 'Take a peep around. Some of our bloody fellers have gone wet-eye too.'
     The 'priest' dared not look around. As the last lingering notes of the bugle died away he stooped over the stretcher and lifted the wreath aside. The Union Jack was thrown quickly over the pillar-box and after it the white sheets. The tin of bully beef was then set in the middle, and the wreath hung on top like a crowning laurel.
     The vast crowd stared and blinked. They were still uncertain of what had actually taken place. So were the marchers in the rear.
     Their doubts were soon settled by the marshal. Barking out 'Attention!' he ran his eyes over the bewildered men as they straightened up and reversed their sticks. Shouting to them to 'Be lively,' he gave the order 'Quick march!'
     The band struck up 'Colonel Bogey.' The contingent immediately swung into stride, and into song against bully beef culture. 'And the same to you!' was the roaring challenge that reached the college roof-tops.

First published in Spring 1937 issue of New Writing III Magazine.