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Several Brief Encounters

In an occasional series featuring staff members who rarely if ever get a word in edgeways and are in danger of being overlooked completely, today Our Military Correspondent, Canon Graype-Shotte, writes:

I cannot say how refreshing it was to find the esteemed news and information worldwide interweb digi-portal finally turning its attention to the matter of military history. Nor can I express, on a personal level, just how delighted I was to hear the great - if somewhat forgotten - Field Marshal The Duke of Wallisdown "mentioned in dispatches" as it were. It sent me straight to my treasured copy of Montgomery Patton-Custer's 1946 classic Great Battles of Dorset: Definining a Region's History [Allen Iain Publications Ltd]

The masterful article in yesterday's edition quotes the distinguished Dorset military commander's famous observation on the eve of the Battle of Pen Hill, though alas not quite accurately. What the Field Marshall is actually reported as saying [his aide-de-camp was the ever-reliable Wallaston Thrupiece-Fitzsimons*] is: "The trouble with these War Office chappies is they just haven't got a f***king clue what it's like on the field of battle when you're knee-deep in horse-shit, the Froggies have the high ground, its Bank Holiday Monday and you have no f**k-artillery". [The missing phrase, I think you will agree, makes all the difference.]

* often credited with inventing the ball-point pen which was orginally named after him but shortened for convenience first to Beer Oh? [after he had wrongly transcribed an order for liquor in the mess tent] and later Biro [Ed].

What I think we can all agree on is [a] that these are amongst the most stirring words ever uttered by a serving Field Marshall before his assembled and thoroughly demoralised troops and [b] that they have lost none of their potency or relevance over the years. To this I can only add - having researched his life, times and military campaigns quite thoroughly - whereof he spoke, thereof he knew! The Duke of Wallisdown's forces were, as the saying goes, "deep in the doodoo" - a description which the events of the next day emphatically confirmed.

Sworn enemies: so intense was their rivalry that it is impossible, says Montgomery Patton-Custer, to mention the one without imagining the other. Contemporary portraits emphasise the manliness of the Duke in sharp contrast to the somewhat effeminate pose of the General who may or may not have been pregnant at the time.

Surrounded on all sides [as well as from above] by "hostiles" [the assembled might of the French army and an aerial balloon brigade armed with well-stuffed garlic-infused sandbags] the Dorset men were heavily outnumbered, heavily outgunned and - soon enough - heavily defeated. In ordinary circumstances, history might have consigned the whole battle to oblivion were it not for a remarkable feat of heroism in which a seriously worried Wallaston Thrupiece-Fitzsimons crept from the battlefield using a line of twigs for cover [see map]; eventually running away to safety [and the arms of his mistress Sarah Sizemore] and hiding for more than three years disguised as a suitcase-carrying Betterware salesman. Reported at the time as missing from action, his original presence was confirmed only by the discovery in The Duke of Wallisdown's abandoned tent of an early protype military grade fibre-tipped stylus - an improvement on the ball-point on which Thrupiece-Fitzsimons was known to be working at the time.

Battle of Pen Hill: the diagram clearly shows the disposition and superiority of position as well as the hazardous nature of Wallaston Thrupiece Fitzsimon's escape route.

Happily the Battle of Pen Hill was not the end of the story for The Duke of Wallisdown. He went on to lead his constantly replenished troops to a further 14 defeats and two stale-mates. [It was reported at the time that, tired of easy victories, General de Pommes-Frites sent his aerial battalions to Farnborough where they were three-times winners of the the Blue Ribband in the Annual Air Show [1897, 1898, 1899. Their impact of their absence from the field of battle was such that even the Duke of Wallisdown could snatch a stand-off from the jaws of victory.] He retired in 1918 having survived the First World War, 3 wives, 4 mistresses and a brief encounter with a young Noel Coward.*

* The following conversations between the two men was to find its way into one of Coward's better-known plays, Short Meeting:

The play, Short Meeting, was later made into a film in 1945 starring Howard Trebor and Celia Johnson and Johnson. Directed by David Lean-Thiswaye it has - given it's title - proven - ironically persistent

"Could you really say goodbye? Never see me again?

Yes, if you'd help me.

I love you. I shall love you always until the end of my life. I can't look at you now cause I know something. I know that this is the beginning of the end. Not the end of my loving you but the end of our being...”

"You've been a long way away.


Thank you for coming back to me."

Any reader interested in a Battlefield Tour should contact: Canon Graype-Shotte, c/o The Old Rectory, Church Lane, Church Knowle by conventional letter-post. Parties catered for. No school-children. Short Meeting is still showing at the Odeon, Rampisham - continuous performances, no booking required. Patrons are asked to note that a fall off in bookings means that social distancing generally occurs naturally and no special arrangements are in place.

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