|Company Sergeant Major Charles Sharp
Could we just go back and could you explain what the living conditions were like living in the jungle with the diseases and…
Well the living conditions were, in the hot weather water was a great problem, you got to periods in time when there was no guarantee you were going to get your bottle filled once a day. Very often when the water did appear it was always very murky, had bits of something or other floating about in it, it was very heavily chlorinated to kill any bugs in it, and really it burnt your throat when you drank it, or you didn’t drink. You could not afford to drink it, commonly known as sippers. You had to economise and sometimes we were issued with something made of canvas called a [chugal] and any spare water, if possible, could be put in there and very often for some mysterious reason they used to leak and so you could feel it dripping down your back or leg and the point was to drink that first and not have the bottle. At night in the hills it used to get quite chilly and the sergeant would come around with a bottle of rum where you could have a tot but only if you were going to drink it, you were not allowed to give that to anyone else and some people used to drink it right down. Myself I used to pour it into my water bottle to try and camouflage it a bit against the taste and when it came to food it basically landed up with bully beef, of course, the British Army survived on that, always had. We used to get these small tins of cheese which was about 4 slices if I remember rightly and we used to get these oval tins of pilchards as well and then we used to get a thing of [Shaklepurra] biscuits and the only way I can say about them was that I like a lot of other people thought it was a by-product of an Indian saw mill and that is exactly what they tasted like. You could not really eat them dry as they turned to dust in your mouth but sometimes what we used to do is put some of these in a mess tin and you and your mucker, as your mate was called, would pour a drop of water in and that would soak in and then in the morning we used to get some glorious tins of Australian jam, they were more like tins of fruit, you could put that in and mix it up and make some sort of breakfast. On top of that used to get porridge called [Burgo] which was, I suppose, you could use it to paste up your wallpaper. That is exactly what it tasted like, that is what it looked like. Sometimes we got [soya leaks], sometimes American tinned bacon. When you opened the tin it was all wrapped in paper, greaseproof paper and it was basically fat, I think it was made for the infantry because it had a thin red line through it which was the bacon. When you put it on the dixie lid on the fire, that used to melt down and it looked like little worms floating about in it and if you were lucky enough for bread to come up, which was usually stale anyway, you could put that in and have fried bread which made quite a treat. Sometimes the word went around that everybody thought it was Christmas, tin of [maconic] used to come up or m and v [meat and veg] which was a treat. Then we did have an improvement again, we had rations came up in tins which I think was for a section for a day and they used to have a few cigarettes in as well as different types of food. Also used to have green camouflaged toilet paper in among other things and later we started getting big boxes they were called [Pacific Combo] they were called. They were much better. One of the delights of those was the tins of Huntley and Palmers fruit cake which was a great favourite. There were times when I can remember going out on patrol and we come back with a goat and we had fresh meat, we hung it up by its back legs and we had a butcher in the company who slit it down and all the guts dropped out into the hole and we were able to have fresh meat and what surprised us is that the natives locally must have liked it because when we started to move they were digging up the earth and getting all the gut out and washing it, much to our amusement, but I suppose anything was better than nothing you know.
Yes, leeches were a curse because they were, in the monsoons you could be up to your ankles at least in mud and water very often up to your neck. You could see, sometimes they were hanging down from wet trees and bushes and you sometimes when you were going through the water you could actually see them coming, they looked like a little bit of black boot lace and you could see people sweeping their arms to sweep them away which was not much good because you could not see the ones under the water and it was only when you came out into dry land you could strip off and you could be responsible for your front and one of the boys behind could be responsible for your back. This is where the cigarette smokers came in handy because they could burn them off. I think in the early days from what I was told a lot of people, a lot of soldiers, were so shocked at getting these on them they were sweeping them off but in fact breaking their head of and in fact the little prongs which turned into ulcers which could in my experience get as big as saucers sometimes. You could actually spoon the pus out and so it became a thing really that you did not panic, you relied on the cigarette smokers to burn them off and then once they dropped on the floor they were much larger by this time, probably like the size of a chipolata, especially if you had been up all night laying up in water where they had time to suck, and then once they had dropped on the floor you could use a machete and cut them in half and the floor was absolutely covered in blood.
But, as I say, you carried plenty of ammunition, you had hand grenades, you had all that loose ammunition with you. The hand grenades were either in your pockets or stuck on your webbing. You had your pouches of course, you had a machete, a rifle man had a bayonet, you had your trenching tool on your back, you had your water bottle and then your big pack, I don’t think many carried a small pack as I remember, you had a big pack, you had your mess tins in there, a spoon, that is all you needed, you did not need a knife and fork. Possibly a mug and your monsoon cape and I think a spare pair of socks. I think that was it. When you had been in the mud and water, if you did manage to take your boots off, it was rather funny to see your toes and that because they were all soft and crinkly and all you could do was to wring your socks out and put them back on. You can quite understand why people said about the 1914 war with the trench foot and things like that. You could really understand what it was all about then to hold it all together, you know. I know when we went on patrol or may be, we took tons of ammunition, we never had anything else, we just took ammunition and a bit of food. We never took any shaving kit, towels, anything like that. We just carried ammunition because, as I say, we were just going across the river for three days. A bit of an unknown effort so that was the main thing, to have ammunition and a drop of water of course and then of course we did use to have these tins of pills so if we did get any wild water you could just drop this blue pill in and then a white one which were supposed to take the taste off, but it never did of course, but it was just a matter of taking out orders [of the sap]. The comradeship, I must say, was absolutely out of this world. Everybody looked out for everyone else. If somebody was ailing a bit somebody would carry a bit of equipment. People would take turns carrying a machine gun if it came to it when you were on a march. That sort of thing went on all the time. If somebody was taking tablets and running short of water somebody would help in have a little drop here, little drop there to help out - it was absolutely fantastic. It was the greatest thing I remember, and I will always remember. In fact some of those boys you were with, you knew them better than you did some of your relations and you still do, you still do…..
That was the order of the day and you should never shoot anyone over 30 feet away especially in the Arakan, that was absolutely thick bamboo. I mean you could actually get into some bamboo and squat down and nobody would see you. They would pass by. It was absolutely fabulous that bamboo. Bamboo jungle. You know people talk about the bamboo now, some of the cane is like that. When the natives built their houses they split that bamboo down, flatten it out and put up a wall. It was fabulous to see them build a house out of bamboo. You could also build a bicycle out of bamboo believe it or not. There used to be a bamboo bicycle company in this country. Chairs and tables, dinking vessels all made out of bamboo. Nothing you could not do with bamboo. Absolutely fantastic, if you wanted to flow anything across the river you could cut it up quick and make yourself a pontoon, put your equipment in it and float across. That was another bugbear of course, when the monsoons were coming on, because you could be in absolute dust and the river beds were just dust and sand and the monsoons coming on and of course coming up on the hills first and you could go across that on patrol and just walk across a trickle or perhaps sand and come back and there was a 6 feet raging torrent. You could not get back. That was how it was. You would have someone put a line across, get a line across and hold the line and pull across a lot of people could not swim. With the bloody load you were carrying you probably wouldn't swim anyway. If you could keep yourself up you might hit a sandbar somewhere down the river as it dropped off a bit but mules they used to go and end up 2 miles down the river. Nobody ever found them and they would have a load of ammunition on them and food or blankets and anything like that. The blankets were no good, I mean I felt sorry for the mules because I mean in the monsoons, it is all mud and water. I mean you take the cradles off just drop them in the mud. There was no point in putting them on, the blankets, well just find a bush or down the trench and sit on an ammunition box or a big rock and put the monsoon cape around you and sit in that and then the monsoon use to come down the hill, use to rise and go over the top in somebody else's so you were sitting in water all night.