Bolton School Former Pupils

Robin (R J M) Howarth (1951-1962)

Thanks, Roy Battersby: your Welcome Message in the Spring 2022 edition of The Bugle prompted a deep-dive into my memory-vault to blow off the dust of any recollections which may still be lingering of that Wiltz (with-a-V) venture celebrating 40 years of the 19th Bolton Troop.

If you will excuse an old nostalgic's perambulations down memory’s meandering lane, let us briefly time-warp to paint a picture of a different era, the post-war 50s when this venture took place – to monochrome Bolton with height-fearless steeple-jacks on sky-scraping stacks; of wooden clothes pegs and soot-speckled washing on lines; of battalions of bobbins spinning the world’s finest thread; of steam-rollers flattening hot tarmac to level the road; of Dandy and The Beano and Eagle’s Dan Dare; of sack-hauling coal-men and smoke-belching fires; of collar studs and cufflinks and starched ironed shirts; of floppy-bottomed trousers and gaberdine "macks"; of cobblers with lasts to replace worn-out soles; of "windjammers" and sou’westers to combat the rain; of rag’n-bone men with pummy-stones to whiten front steps; of one-penny bus fares and "trollies" to Leigh; of the Wanderers at Wembley and Nat Lofthouse to score; of Penguins to read and Penguins to eat; of cobbles, flagstones and lamps lit by gas to light gloomy streets; of phones nestled on cradles and operators for calls; of charabancs to Blackpool in the silence of mills; of car number-plates with letters WH and BN; of ear-aches, adenoids and nose full of snot from bone-chilling damp and smog-laden air; of brass bands and concerts in flower-blooming parks; of six-penny seats at the Lido and Queens; of fifty-shilling tailors and UCP tripe; of Long Wave and Medium Wave on a "wireless" with dials; of news read with plum voice and weekly madness with Goons; of Bakelite records, loose needles and 78 speed; of Fairs on Moore Lane and dodgems to ride; of School’s mighty organ with diapason on full stop; of shoulder-borne satchels and bottle-filled pens; of our Tuck Shop with sweets weighed on scales, penny gob-stoppers and dandelion and burdock in heavy stone jars; of Aults for school uniform with grey shirts and caps "must be worn"; of "God in our hearts and understanding" at week-ending prayers; of School Scouts in short pants and big hats at Woodlands HQ.


This was the Bolton of nearly seven-decades ago when the School’s east and north wings had yet to be completed and we 3rd formers were taught in quadrangle-located "huts" built with lung-penetrating asbestos walls. This was the Bolton of yesteryear and, by the way, School uniform expeditiously required wearing of grey shirts to hide the grime on collars and cuffs. So, let’s return to the nub of my message.

To begin at the beginning. July 1955. Under the soot-encrusted roof of Trinity Street Station the massed ranks of 19th Bolton Junior and Senior Troops are assembled for the first leg of the Wiltz-with-a -V venture. "Pip-of-the-pipe" Porter, “Bill” Brookes, "FR" Poskitt, "Ressie" Kirk et alia are leading the exodus. The phlegmatic "Pip" is marshalling 120 Scouts and allocating supervision of tents, baggage, equipment, cooking paraphernalia and the not-to-be-forgotten two-wheeled trek-cart - humans and impedimenta all to be hauled on and off buses, lorries, cross-channel ferries and Belgian bum-numbing wooden-seated trains en-route to the sleepy town of Wiltz-with-a-V. In long-distant retrospect the mind boggles at the bravura of "Pip" et alia for acting in loco parentis to this motley mélange of treble-toned pre-pubescents and basso-profundo testosterone-loaded adults-in-waiting - plus all hormonal points in between.

The two-day marathon journey over, and numb bums back in circulation, camp is pitched amidst rolling fields of the Ardennes and lingering ghosts of the Battle of the Bulge. Heavy canvas tents are erected in four groups of three, a patrol in each. As far as I recall the Senior scouts were in smaller, more portable, tents ready for left-to-their-own-devices-no-questions-asked jaunts around the region. Larger, open-sided tents were for dining areas and "kitchens" set up to accommodate these patrol groups. No gas cylinders or other such fuel. This is back-to-basics, open-wood-fire cooking taken in rotation by each of the three patrols, with cloggy porridge in the morning and over-cooked spuds in the evening being the core of the diet. The rest of the "cuisine" is based on whatever can be thrown into the large "billy-can" and hung over the fire and, with luck, rescued before congealing into a blackened mass at the bottom of the pan. Eggs, as in "hard-boiled", have a propensity to remain forgotten in the boiling water. Consequently, their molecular realignment produces something more akin to weapons of mass destruction as jaws and teeth enter into military conflict with the fossil-textured egg and yolk. It is soon evident that the safest culinary recourses are Spam and Corned Beef as their journey to the plate circumvents need for residence within the dangerous confines of those billy-cans.

As we know in matter of digestion, what goes in needs to come out – or should. The perfect storm of cloggy "camp food", a change in bio rhythms from travel and the off-putting environment of earth-dug, fly-buzzing, aromatic latrines has significant impact on campers', by-now, reluctant bowels. Consequently, the air in the tents takes a turn for the worse, but on that matter I will dwell no further. Thankfully the day is saved as "Doctor Pip-of-the-pill" steps up to the proverbial plate with his magic poo-pill and, hey presto, reluctant bowels are encouraged to resume "normal service".

Those with a bent for backwoods engineering vanish into the forests and return with a collection of fallen timber. Dexterous application of rope soon lashes the supporting structure for erection of the camp's centre of focus, the flagpole. Smaller timbers are chopped, spliced and lashed to create slinter-prone seats for dining and/other kitchen equipment. All in all, quite a military operation for one hundred and twenty scouts plus leadership.

Morning starts with evacuation of the tent (weather permitting), ground sheets laid on the grass with sleeping bag and kit laid out neatly (maybe) for inspection. We stand at attention in our khaki shorts (baggy) and shirt (crumpled), scout belt (too slack), long socks (wrinkled) topped with green tabs, boots (cleaned and "dubbined" - maybe), black and not-so-white neckerchief tightened with leather woggle, and Baden Powell hat angled precipitously on head (with varying degrees of wavy brim).

Afternoons would see us on group “marches” on some quiet road and we relieved the boredom with a clumsy routine of not-very synchronized steps as we yelled "eins zwie drei" up to "neun" and "zehn" before launching into reverse-and sideways mock goosestep whilst yelling some fatuous sounding cry to the beat of four steps. Sounds pathetic in retrospect. Other afternoons would include "wide games" such as tracking furtively through the woods to capture another team’s flags or breaking through "defenses" to deliver messages.

We "tenderfoots" are initiated into "Long Camp" traditions of leaky tents, damp sleeping bags and nights on hard ground; of deciphering latitude, longitude and contours on maps; of collecting dry wood for morning-lit fires; of adjusting guys and hammering of pegs; of burned porridge and scrubbing black pans; of First Aid, bandages and stemming of blood: of sheep-shanks and bowlines and lashing of ropes; of earth-dug latrines and washing in streams; of inspections of kit and morning parade; of tricks on us tenderfoots to find bivouac "keys" or for "glass hammers" to bash "rubber nails"; of "Doctor Pip’s" pills for camp constipation; of camp-fires in moonlight with singing of songs; of promises of duty to God and the Queen.


"Sleepy" Wiltz-with-a-V eventually soon awakes to the fact that a phalanx of khaki-clad, black and white scarved invaders has encamped on the fringes of the town. The bush-telegraph hums and soon reaches the ears of Luxemburg TV which launches cameras and crew to film the Troop in action. I think the bike-rider in the attached photo is Patterson. The locals then threw down the proverbial gauntlet for an "hors de combat" with boot and ball. In the name of entente cordiale it is taken up, first verifying the 19th is well primed with First and Second Eleven talent as prestige is at stake. Evacuation of a herd of Friesians creates a hastily improvised pitch where lingering bovine residue requires some additional deft footwork. Somehow FA rules get "lost in translation" and entente begins to lose its cordiale. As to the score, I have no recollection.

In due course the Senior Scouts vacate the Camp and lists of destinations are distributed to us Juniors and groups dispatched on “ventures” to the far corners of Luxemburg and Belgium. No GPS, no "Smart" Phones or even "Dumb" phones. This is the stone-age of crinkly maps, wobbly compasses, optimism and hoped-for sufficient initiative to return within allotted times, give or take a few days and/or personnel. "Risk" and "assessment" are merely two unconnected words in "Pip’s" lexicon though, with entrenching tools primed to excavate latrines, he proves sufficiently risk-averse to warn of lingering 2nd World Ward UXOs in the undergrowth, mindful that the Troop’s first-aid skills lacks capacity to re-attach severed limbs.

I was amongst the ranks of "trekkers" who pushed, shoved and grunted as we hauled the medieval-type two wheeled trek-cart up, down and around the decidedly less-travelled roads of this sleepy corner of the Ardennes. Stopping in a hamlet for refreshments, a local famer must have taken pity on this rag-tag bunch of youngsters as he offered us his hay-filled barn for the night. I can still feel the welcome softness of snuggling into that hay though the dust played havoc with my eyes. The next day we loaded up the trek-cart with our gear and continued on our low-tech trek. Sputnik, Gagarin and Glenn had yet to circle the earth as had eyes-in-the-sky satellites to track our cart. Face-Time and Twitter were the "Dan Dare’s"of science-fiction. Our global access was via snail-mail postcards retrieved from Poste-restante in the sleepy post-office in sleepy Wiltz-with-a-V. Any "real time" was via line-of-sight semaphore signals from hill-tops or the odd foray into morse-code for those with sufficient aural agility to distinguish a dot from a dash and, if all else failed, to launch a lung-filled bellow to pierce the Ardennes tranquility.

Trekking through Luxemburg we were still too young to be fully aware of the bloody brutality of war and, by now, the echo of Panzer Divisions had long faded. We post-war generation re-lived the conflict somewhat vicariously through the exploits of the Dam Busters, the Cockleshell Heroes and Escape from Colditz, but a trip to nearby Bastogne brought us face-to-face with the reality as we posed and smiled around the Sherman tank (seen in the photo) - the icon of the Allies' assault in the Ardennes conflict and now a proud symbol that memories live on even if the brutal face of war has faded.

As time-honoured Lancasters born in times of war, we Wiltz generation have been making our various exits and entrances on the world stage since our shining morning faces graced Bolton School. We were growing up amidst the chill of the emerging Cold War, the Red Menace, the descending Iron Curtain, the suppression of Hungary (the year after Wiltz), the Berlin Wall with Check-point Charlie, the Cuban crisis and more. Spies and counter-spies "coming in from the cold" to play their roles in the new Great Game as iterations of George Smileys sought moles within the porous corridors of MI6’s "Circus". In due course we began to witness the emergence of stronger alliances through NATO, a consolidating Union of Western Europe, expansion of trade and economies, the growth of communication, Solidarity’s rise in Poland – which, assisted by growth of global communication, evolved as the proverbial thin-edge of the geo-political wedge to open the doors to perestroika, glasnost and the end of the "Wall" with its repercussions. Optimism flowed for a new and more stable World Order via strategic and economic alliances with belief that expansion of “inter-connectivity” would serve as a uniting force for the coming millennium. This changed as those Towers fell and the ugly head of war re-surfaced.

As this new millennium dawns, we see a re-aligning of emerging national power-bases with growth of autocracies, other "ocracies", religious alliances and fragmented ranks of extremism. The voice of the West is now in diminuendo as the sounds of these emerging voices swell in discordant crescendo within the growing global choir and the emerging clash of civilizations.

Hauling that trek-carting around those sleepy fields and peaceful roads of Luxembourg our young lives had barely entered their first act with full script yet to be drafted, so little could I foresee a scene, far into the future, when I would be facing this "ugly head of war" as rivers of blood flowed around me in the dusty streets of Afghanistan’s Kabul. Within this conflict, with best intentions, we all made efforts for peace, stability and for the voice of freedom and semblance of democracy to be heard. Waving their black-marked finger one day, my staff proudly showed proof of their vote for the President, a land-mark moment with hope for a new future. Sadly, their aspirations were short-lived.

As a veteran of Wiltz-with-a-V, penning my thoughts from the safe haven (or is it?) of my home in the USA to-day, I see the threads of the Founding Fathers’ Constitution begin to fray as deniers conspire against governance "for the people" and "by the people". However, as an optimist, metaphorically mindful of our backwoodsman scouting skills, I believe that these fragile, fraying threads of democracy, at home and elsewhere, can be (and must be) spliced back together to create an even stronger cord of unity to ensure our freedoms and, most of all, to show that the shedding of blood in those Ardennes forests has not been in vain. As I look at my photo of the Sherman tank in Bastogne, it is with a sad heart to know that we are still living, six decades later, in an even more precarious world as Freedoms are under attack once again as a rogue, pariah nation attacks its neighbour, creating a bloody conflagration on a scale never seen since the dark days of World War II and its thunderous roar of battle in those deep, dark forests of the Ardennes.

So, having perambulated through the post-Wiltz-with-a-V acts and interludes, I will return to end at the beginning. It is now August in 1955 in chimney-stacked, internet-free Bolton. Three weeks have now passed. A squeal of brakes reverberates around the soot-encrusted walls of Trinity Street Station. A train grinds to a brake-squealing stop amidst a vaporous cloud of smoke. There is the clatter of opening doors. A somewhat malodourous, motley mélange of travel-weary, black-and-white-scarved Scouts emerges through this vaporous cloud where the lone figure of “Pip” Porter stands, emersed in his own pipe-infused vaporous cloud. Having "counted them out" three weeks earlier he is now "counting them back in again" before dispatch into the hands of expectant families ... One hundred and nineteen ... one hundred and twenty. Mirabile dictu!

Epilogue:

To conclude my brief homage to Wiltz:

I am standing with my Badger Patrol amidst the massed ranks of the 19th Bolton Troop, now solemnly assembled in that well-trodden field near "sleepy" Wiltz-with-a-V, surrounded by the dark and silent sentinels of the Ardennes Forest. As the evening light fades, we all stand to attention on "Pip’s" command. A patrol leader steps forward. He carefully unhitches the rope attached to the Union Jack fluttering high on our carefully fabricated flag-pole; collective arms rise respectfully in the Scout salute. We watch the flag’s descent as it is slowly lowered to be furled, tied and stowed for the night. Our world stands still in the tranquility of that moment. Then, from amidst that tranquility, the sound of our 120 voices (bass, treble and all points between) soars gently upwards to float over those silent sentinels of the Ardennes before fading slowly into that good night:

"Day is done: gone the sun;
From the lakes; from the hills, from the sky.
All is well safely rest.
God is nigh."

Thank you “Pip” et alia. I salute you.

Robin (R J M) Howarth (1951-1962)

Footnote:
Having just drafted this memoire – how sad to hear of the passing of that brave visionary, Gorbachev, whom we all admired for his understanding that time and circumstance required change and the creation of a “new order” in a rapidly changing world.

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