Read CHAPTER XXV - JOHN WILLIAMS, TRAMP AND SOLDIER of Mud and Khaki Sketches from Flanders and France , free online book, by Vernon Bartlett, on

On a wet and cheerless evening in September 1914, John Williams, tramp, sat in the bar of the Golden Lion and gazed regretfully at the tankard before him, which must of necessity remain empty, seeing that he had just spent his last penny. To him came a recruiting sergeant.

“Would you like a drink, mate?” he asked.

John Williams did not hesitate.

“You ought to be in the Army,” said the sergeant, as he put down his empty tankard, “a fine great body of a man like you. It’s the best life there is.”

“I bean’t so sartain as I want to be a sojer. I be a hindependent man.”

“It’s a good life for a healthy man,” went on the sergeant. “We’ll talk it over,” and he ordered another drink apiece.

John Williams, who had had more than enough before the sergeant had spoken to him, gazed mistily at his new acquaintance. “Thee do seem to have a main lot o’ money to spend.”

The sergeant laughed. “It’s Army pay, mate, as does it. I get a fine, easy life, good clothes and food, and plenty of money for my glass of beer. Where did you sleep last night?” he asked suddenly.

“If I do mind me right,” said John Williams, “it were in a leaky barn, over Newton way.”

“Where are you going to sleep to-night?” asked the sergeant again.

Williams remembered his empty pocket. “I doan’t know,” he said with regret. “Most likely on some seat in the park.”

“Well, you come along o’ me, and you’ll get a comfortable barricks to sleep in, a life as you likes, and a bob a day to spend on yourself.”

John Williams listened to the dripping of the rain outside. To his bemused brain the thought of a “comfortable barricks” was very, very tempting. “Blame me if I doan’t come along o’ thee,” he said at length.

In wartime a medical examination is soon over and an attestation paper filled up. “There’s nothing wrong with you, my man,” said the Medical Officer, “except that you’re half drunk.”

“I bean’t drunk, mister,” protested Williams sleepily.

“We’ll take you at your word, anyhow,” said the doctor. “You’re too good a man physically to lose for the Army.”

Thus it was that John Williams took the King’s Shilling, and swore to serve his country as a soldier should.

One of the most wonderful things about the British Army is the way that recruits are gradually fashioned into soldiers. There are thousands of men fighting on our different fronts who, a year ago, hated the thought of discipline and order; they are now amongst the best soldiers we have. But there are exceptions Private John Williams was one. In a little over a year of military service, he had absented himself without leave no fewer than eleven times, and the various punishments meted out to him failed signally in their object to break him of his habit. In every respect save one he was a good soldier, but, do what it would, the Army could not bring him to see the folly of repeated desertion; the life in the Army is not the life for a man with the wander thirst of centuries in his blood. Williams had all the gipsy’s love of wandering and solitude, and not even a threatened punishment of death will cure a man of that.

So it came about that John Williams sat outside his billet one September evening, and watched the white chalk road that ran over the hill towards Amiens. After the flat and cultivated country of Flanders, the rolling hills called with an unparalleled insistence, and the idea of spending the two remaining days before the battalion went back to the trenches in company with sixty other men in a barn grew more and more odious. If he were to go off even for twenty-four hours, he would receive, on return, probably nothing more than a few days Field Punishment, which, after all, was not so bad when one grew used to it. He was sick of the life of a soldier, sick of obeying officers half his age, sick of being ordered to do things that seemed senseless to him; he would be quit of it all for twenty-four hours.

John Williams went to the only shop in the village to buy food, with the aid of fifty centimes and a wonderful Lingua Franca of his own, and when his companions collected in their billet that night he was already far away on the open road. He walked fast through the still September evening, and as he walked he sang, and the woods echoed to the strange songs that gipsies sing to themselves as they squat round their fires at night. When at last he came to a halt he soon found sleep, and lay huddled up in his greatcoat at the foot of a poplar tree, until the dawn awoke him.

All through the summer day he walked, his Romany blood singing in his veins at the feel of the turf beneath his feet, and evening found him strolling contentedly through the village to his billet. Suddenly a sentry challenged: “’Alt! who goes there?”

“Downshires,” came the reply.

“Well, what the ‘ell are you doin’ of ’ere?”

“I be going back to my regiment.”

“Well, your regiment’s in the trenches. They relieved us sudden like last night, owing to us getting cut up. You see, they Germans attacked us and killed a good few of our chaps before we drove ’em out again, so the Downshires ’ad to come up and relieve us late; somewhere about eleven o’clock they must ’ave left ’ere. What are you doing of, any’ow?” he asked jokingly. “Are you a bloomin’ deserter what’s come to be arrested?” But he posed the question to empty air, for Williams was retracing his steps at a steady double.

“Seems to me that bloke ’ll get hisself inter trouble,” said the sentry of the Westfords as he spat in disgust. Then he forgot all about it, and fell to wondering what the bar of the Horse and Plough must be looking like at the moment.

John Williams knew that he had burnt his boats, and he became a deserter in real earnest. For several weeks he remained at large, and each day made the idea of giving himself up of his own accord more difficult to entertain; but at last he was singled out from among the many men who wander about behind the firing line, and was placed under a guard that put hope of escape out of the question. Not even the wander thirst in his gipsy blood could set his feet on the wide chalk road again, or give him one more night of freedom.

“He might have a long term of imprisonment, mightn’t he, sir?” asked the junior member of the Court Martial. “He could have no idea that his regiment was suddenly warned for the trenches when he deserted. Besides, the man used to be a tramp, and it must be exceptionally hard for a man who has led a wandering life to accustom himself to discipline. It must be in his blood to desert.” And he blushed slightly, for he sounded sentimental, and there is little room for sentiment in an army on active service.

The President of the Court was a Major who liked his warm fire and his linen sheets, which, with the elements of discipline and warfare, occupied most of his thoughts. “I fear you forget,” he said rather testily, “that this is the twelfth occasion on which this man has made off. I have never heard of such a case in my life. Besides, on this occasion he was warned that the Downshires were in the trenches by the sentry of the Westfords, and, instead of giving himself up, he deliberately turned round and ran off, so that the excuse of ignorance does not hold water. That the man was a tramp is, to my mind, no excuse either the army is not a rest home for tired tramps. The man is an out-and-out scoundrel.”

So the junior member, fearful of seeming sentimental and unmilitary, timidly suggested the sentence of death, to which the other two agreed.

“We must make an example of these fellows. There are far too many cases of desertion,” said the Major, as he lit his pipe and hurried off to his tea.

Thus ended the career of N Pte. John Williams, formerly a tramp in the west of England, unmourned and despised.

On the morning after he had been shot, his platoon sergeant sat before a brazier and talked to a corporal. “‘E ain’t no bloomin’ loss, ’e ain’t. ’E gave me too much trouble, and I got fair sick of ’aving to report ’im absent. It serves ’im blamed well right, that’s what I say.”

The corporal sipped his tea out of an extremely dirty canteen. “Well,” he said at length, “I ’ope as the poor devil don’t find it so warm where ’e’s gone as what it is ’ere. I quite liked un, though ’e were a bit free with ‘is fists, and always dreamin’ like,” which was probably the only appreciation ever uttered in memory of John Williams, tramp and soldier.