Memoirs & Diaries - The Best 500 Cockney War Stories - A Voice in the Dark and Other Stories

A Voice in the Dark Published in London in 1921, The Best 500 Cockney War Stories comprised, in the words of its newspaper publisher (The London Evening News) "a remembering and retelling of those war days when laughter sometimes saved men's reason".

The collection of short memoirs, some 500 in total, is divided into five categories - Action, Lull, Hospital, High Seas and Here and There.  This page contains five stories from High Seas, led by A Voice in the Dark.

Other sections within the collection can be accessed using the sidebar to the right.

A Voice in the Dark

Dawn of a day in March 1917 found Submarine F3 on patrol near the Terschelling lightship.

As we broke surface two German destroyers were seen only a few hundred yards away.  We immediately dived again, and shortly afterwards the depth charges began to explode.

Lower and lower we went until we touched the bottom.

Bangs to the right of us, bangs to the left of us, bangs above us - then one glorious big bang and out went the lights.

Deadly silence, and then out of the darkness came the voice of our Battersea bunting-tosser - "Anyone got six pennorth o' coppers?"

Frederick J. H. Alsford, 78 North Street, S.W.4

Why the Stoker Washed

H M. Q ship 18 was sinking sixty miles off the French coast as the result of gunfire, after destroying a German submarine.

After getting away we had a hurried call-over and found that a Cockney fireman was missing.  We hailed the ship which seemed about to take the plunge any minute, and at last the stoker appeared, spotlessly clean and dressed in "ducks."

He had to jump and swim for it.  As we hauled him to our boat we asked him why he had waited to clean himself.

"Well," he explained, "if I am going to hell there's no need to let the blighter know I'm a stoker."

Wm. C. Barnaby (late Chief Coxswain, R.N.), 7 Seville Street, Knightsbridge, S.W.1

"Well, THAT clears up those blessed accounts anyhow." (click to enlarge)

Accounts Rendered

The First-Lieutenant of a warship I was in, though a first-class sailor, had no great liking for clerical work, consequently the ship's store-books were perhaps not quite as they should have been.

He therefore got an Able Seaman (who had been a London clerk in civil life) to give him a hand in his "off watches" in putting the books in order.

Shortly afterwards the ship stopped a torpedo and sank in eight minutes.  Before the First-Lieutenant had very much time to look round he found himself in the "ditch."

As he was clambering out of the water on to the bottom of an upturned boat, he saw his "Chief Accountant" climbing up the other side, and the first thing he did was to reach out and shake hands with the A.B. across the keel of the boat, at the same time remarking, "Well, that clears up those blessed accounts anyhow."

John Bowman (Able Seaman, R.N.V.R.), 19 Handel Mansions, W.C.1

"...To Nurse it Back to 'Ealth and Strength." (click to enlarge)

An Ocean Greyhound

On one occasion when the Diligence was "somewhere in the North Sea," shore leave was granted.  One of the sailors, a Cockney, returned to the ship with his jumper "rather swollen."

The officer of the watch noticed something furry sticking out of the bottom of his jumper, and at once asked where he had got it from, fearing, probably, that he had been poaching.

The Cockney thought furiously for a moment and then said: "I chased it round the Church Army hut, sir, until it got giddy and fell over, and so I picked it up and brought it aboard to nurse it back to 'ealth and strength."

J. S. Cowland, 65 Tylney Road, Forest Gate, E.7

"Wot price this fer Margate?" (click to enlarge)

Margate in Mespot.

OCTOBER 29, 1914 - England declares war on Turkey and transports laden with troops sail from Bombay.  One evening, within a week, these transports anchor off the flat Mesopotamian coast at the top of the Persian Gulf.

In one ship, a county regiment (95 per cent countrymen, the remainder Cockney) is ordered to be the first to land.  H.M.S. Ocean sends her cutters and lifeboats, and into these tumble the platoons at dusk, to be rowed across a shallow "bar."

Under cover of an inky darkness they arrive close to the beach by midnight.  It is very cold, and all feel it the more because the kit worn is shorts and light khaki shirts.

In the stone-cold silence a whisper passes from boat to boat - "Remove puttees; tie boots round the neck; at signal, boats to row in until grounded; platoons to disembark and wade ashore."

So a shadowy line of strange-looking waders is dimly to be seen advancing through the shallow water and up the beach - in extended order, grim and frozen stiff.

As dawn breaks they reach the sandy beach, and a few shots ring out from the distant Fort of Fas - but no one cares.  Each and all are looking amazedly at the grotesque appearance of the line - silent, miserable figures, boots wagging round their necks, shorts rolled as high as possible, while their frozen fingers obediently cling to rifles and ammunition.

It is too much for one soul, and a Cockney voice calls out: "'Ere, wot price this fer Margate?"

The spell is broken.  The Mesopotamian campaign begins with a great laugh!

John Fiton, M.C., A.F.C., 9 High Grove, Welwyn Garden City, Herts

Next - Urgent and Personal! and four other stories

In slang a "beetle" was a landing craft for 200 men.

- Did you know?

Cockney War Stories