Noel Downing to Mary Letter, Jun 1915

Letter from Noel Downing to his sister, Mary Downing from Clipstone Camp –  Jun 1915. This letter describes Noel’s taking part in a firing party at a funeral in Worksop. 

21st Battalion (4th Public Schools) Royal Fusiliers, Clipstone Camp, Mansfield, Jun 1915. Noel is fifth on the left

21st Battalion (4th Public Schools) Royal Fusiliers, Clipstone Camp, Mansfield, Jun 1915. Noel is fifth on the left

Clipstone Camp
Mansfield
24/6/15

My Dear Mary,

I hope you are getting on all right now you have returned to the hospital. Mother wrote to say you had had a scrap with matron but trust it was nothing serious and that none of the wounded were killed during the ‘fray’.

How very ‘tragic’ about Tom Salter, what an awful blow it will be to them. How splendid for Wilmot being mentioned in dispatches and getting the Military Cross. I wrote to him yesterday. To hear him talk you would think he had never done anything. I hope he does not have to go back again after the end of his extra month.

I had a most extraordinary experience yesterday. I was chosen to form one of a firing party sent by the batt. to the funeral of a soldier. There is any amount of ceremonial drill connected with the performance & as we only knew the evening before we had to work hard to learn it. Before we got there I was simply dreading it, but as it turned out it was one of the most entertaining afternoons I’ve ever spent. We set off at 1.30 in two brakes 12 of the firing party and 6 pall bearers and 1 sergeant. We arrived at the house “where the body lay” well up to time & found it was in the poorest part of Worsop(sic), fat old women carrying babies & wiping  their eyes with the corners of their aprons. We line up outside to wait for the hearse & drank whisky in the presence of the corpse. From that point six of our men had to take the place of the undertakers & right through they did everything without a hitch. They hadn’t the least idea what they ought to do but somehow they managed to do the right thing every time. The firing party then reversed arms and slow marched through the streets to the church, vast crowds & much weeping with here and there the ‘glad eye’ from some fair maiden. We waited outside the church while a service was held inside. The unhappy bearers had to carry the coffin inside up a steep and slippery path. We then proceeded to the grave, where the bearers nearly made their one mistake by nearly letting the coffin slip head first into the grave. Another service was read etc. while we “rested on our arms reversed”, most impressive I can assure you. We then presented arms and fired 3 volleys – at each volley the choir boys jumped higher into the air & babies yelled. Next our right marker stepped out to give us the time for fixing bayonets and when he flashed his bayonet out the parson, who was standing very close (not knowing what was going to happen next) jumped back with a start and nearly tripped into the grave. We presented arms and the bugler blew the last post & all was over. Although it was a most serious occasion it was awfully hard to keep a straight face as everyone forgot the funeral and watched us. We were then divided into twos and taken to various houses for tea. I was conducted to a small villa and welcomed by a very bumptious little man with a large Geo Morrow head and a very shy wife. You should have seen the tea! Cold salmon, eggs, jam, cakes, pies & strawberries & cream. He was simply Lower Hagley all over. “Make yourselves at ‘ome. Dont wait on ceremony ‘ere. ‘elp yourselves.” You cant think how anxious they were to overfeed us. It was awfully good of them as it must have cost them quite a lot & they had nothing to do with the corpse. We then set out to rejoin our party after being invited to look in at any time.  All the others had been done just as well, some even better having had port and cigars. A vast crowd assembled to see us off and nothing more unlike a funeral party I have ever seen. The sergeant had found more whisky and was in great form. We entered the brakes & drove back all hoping we will get the job again when the next firing party is required.

There are some new arrivals at the camp now, the advance parties of four battalions coming in next week. The Sportsmen and Empire Battalions being two of them. I am afraid they will have a wet reception like we did as it has at last started to rain today & is very cold.

We have got a piano in the hut now that makes things very cheery – two or three of the men can play very well. I had a letter from Tom Flynn the other day. He is still in India and getting very bored with life. I have also heard from Bots. Haworth Burne is bad & has to go to Harrogate for a cure.

With love to all,
Yrs ever,
Noel

P.S. Please thank father for his letter which has just arrived.