What Do We Think Of The British Soldiers From The Eighth Army?

By Sgt. Burgess Scott

CAIRO–The medium-sized figure of this story is the average buck private I’ve met in the British Desert Army-British in this case meaning the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.  He’s got a sun-browned face and hands, and he comes from England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales.

His speech is naturally the first thing that strikes you, but after a few weeks or a month you’re able to place him, like you place a man from Georgia or Maine. You can walk up and say, “You’re from the Midlands,” or “from Scotland.” You can’t guarantee to be 100 percent right, but it gives you a kick when you are.

You’re just about used to his speech when you realize that he doesn’t speak much. He’s a quiet man. When he says, “I’ll lay on a lorry,” he doesn’t mean he’s going for a nap. That’s his way of saying, “I’ll go rustle up a truck.” He’s pretty good at verbal short cuts.

british eighth army north africa

Soldiers of the Eighth Army on patrol in the Western Desert, 8 October 1942.

After you talk a while you find that, although he’s pretty well up on his British Isles and has a speaking acquaintance with the rest of the Empire, he knows less than a Brooklynite about the outside world. He’s not quite certain whether Alaska is one of the 48 states of the Union or whether the Grand Canyon is the title of a Hollywood film. And he wants to know if all our girls are like movie stars.

You try to learn something about his country and soon find he hasn’t the average American’s yen for politics. He’s just not interested in the doings of his or anybody’s statesmen.

He wants to get on with his job. But he’ll open up on the subject of football or his home town or his neighborhood beer joint.

He’s a good cook. He can take some tin cans, a pile of sand and a pint of gas, and do swell things to a can of bully or M & V. And he is a wow at brewing tea, which he can prepare and drink while you think that there isn’t time.

He’s kind-hearted. He shows that in his dealings with the inhabitants of any country in which war places him. In the desert he’ll take time to give biscuits and bully to a needy Arab, and he’ll take in any pie-dog that hangs around his bivvy.

He won’t take “bastard” from you, not even if you smile. It’s just not done in his Army. But you can call him a “bugger” and he’ll give you no more than a chuck in the ribs or an American “goose” he’s learned to administer.

He’s not worried about sex to the extent of letting it get him down. He hasn’t the Ities’ mobile passion; rather, he’s marking time for better days. Given the chance, he’s handy with his nights off.

For a man who hails from a verdant land, he takes to the desert uncommonly well. A quart of water will if necessary, last him for two days. But even when water is plentiful you never see him take a drink of it straight, no matter how much you watch him. His tea and his beer–when he can get them–evidently provide enough liquid for his system. He can go for hours without sleep and not show it. When he does get a chance for some shuteye, he doesn’t appear really to relish it. He just disappears into his bivvy and emerges several hours later looking no better-or worse-for his rest.

Watching him soak up his arid hardship, you can get an impression that nothing ruffles his military calm.

Which is correct so long as you don’t try to chisel him out of his rights. But try to put anything over on him, and you have a righteous uproar on your hands. In the desert, for example, a man’s bivvy is his castle and shall not be invaded. You can’t turn him out of it, but he’ll step outside any night of the week and give you his bed if you’re in a jam.

He writes reams of bad poetry on two subjects, home and the desert, which he promptly mails to his service paper.

The poems about Britain are noble and nostalgic; the poems about the desert are not usually complimentary to that section of the earth. Both types carry on in a rather bumpy meter guaranteed to leave his editor with a headache. When not writing a poem, he’s writing a letter to find out why his last one wasn’t used.

He’s brave under fire. He doesn’t dash to the top of the rise among the bullets to wave a Union Jack in Jerry’s face. He is a calm valor, as displayed by the member of the Durham Light Infantry who stayed by his gun with one arm blown off and fired on till he fell dead.

He’s brave with a bullet in his gut or a leg left behind. If the pain gets too great, he breaks down like any man will, but you have to lean close to hear it. Recently a hospital orderly picked up a letter to mail for a wounded man. It read: “Dear Dad: I’m knocked about a bit, but I’ll be all right. Don’t worry.” That guy had an arm off and an eye out. Tommy’s like that.

For Further Reading Check Out:

Longest Siege: Tobruk: the Battle That Saved North Africa

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