Giving History an Airing

Hostess Revisiting Brideshead

As an acknowledged ‘squirrel’ with an interest in history, I have accumulated over the years a  number of artefacts and items with historical connections – indeed I am loth to let anything go. Very much in the mode of the Victorians who seemed to be comfortable in clutter, unlike modern generations of minimalists. Some of the items I have acquired and held onto, often in the face of criticism and feminine pressure to ‘declutter’ include much of my previous military equipment, including uniforms, and some of my father’s before me. In particular I had his final battledress (BD) khaki drill (KD) blouse as well as some pieces of his 1944 pattern webbing, which I used myself for the duration of my own military career, finding it superior in quality to much of the then modern (1958 pattern) equipment I was issued with.

Within the family, Veronica’s eldest son was approaching his 40th birthday, which was to be celebrated with a ‘surprise’ fancy dress party at the 4 Spires Hotel on Abingdon Road in Oxford, arranged by his wife Gale. Given plenty of notice of dressing up in an ‘approximately’ 1980’s movie theme character, I thought this was an opportunity to dig out some of the redundant items of militaria, give them an airing and a purpose again, and so fought of suggestions of going as Batman (although I suppose I could have gone as a military batman of the officer’s servant type typical until the demise of National Service) or Superman etc.  I thought that, given limitations of middle-aged spread, I could still squeeze into my father’s WWII style battledress and I might go as Anthony Hopkins or Sean Connery from ‘A Bridge Too Far’ (also given that it was actually a late ’70s movie) or as Captain Charles Ryder from ‘Brideshead Revisited’ (also late ’70s and TV to boot).  Digging deep into my storage boxes, I recovered the BD, plus some unworn BD trousers I had been given at the old Base Ordnance Depot Bicester when they had been consigned for disposal, my old Sandhurst anklets (which had become obsolete soon after my arrival there in 1970), DMS boots (rubber-soled not studded) which had been regular issue until found wanting during the Falklands campaign and replaced by Boots Combat High (BCH) (which were at least waterproof), and pieces of the ’44 webbing including belt and pistol holster.

WWII KD Battledress with '44 Pattern Webbing

1944 pattern webbing is now almost a collector’s item and is robust and lightweight. The standard Army webbing until replaced in 1958 had been the 1937 pattern, produced just in time for WWII and used widely throughout the British (and Empire/Commonwealth) armed forces. In 1944, a new pattern had been introduced, primarily for airborne forces and commandos, but was not issued until late that year and early 1945 in preparation for the invasion of Japan. My father had been issued his ’44 pattern on his return from German POW camp in early 1945 in preparation for Japan, and when the Atom bomb ended that, his deployment to Palestine, and had subsequently retained it. However some items were missing, but fortunately I was able to remedy that through the auspices of eBay. Consequently on the night of the party, I was able to (with a bit of a struggle with stiff BD flybuttons) to don my 1940’s gear, stick on a false moustache, and attend the party as Charles Ryder.

During a hectic evening with much time on the dance floor, I was pleasantly surprised that the KD battledress and the relatively lightweight DMS boots didn’t cause any sweating and clearly the high quality wool content of the former (which wool moths have taken a shine to) allowed free breathing and no build up of condensation etc. Veronica, rather more sensibly perhaps had gone in 1920’s ‘flapper’ gear as a young Lady Marchmain, also from ‘Brideshead’ and we, I would like to think, made an excellent pairing.  I think on the whole, we did our generation proud on the night, which was packed with the next generation down and their friends, Veronica and I being the last (together with the birthday boy and Gale) on the dance floor at the conclusion of activities.

Of my own pieces of slightly more modern military kit and uniforms, there probably will be little chance of airing it in a similar way for the foreseeable future, although a year or two ago, Veronica and I had a WWII Day on the Severn Valley heritage railway with many other military enthusiasts (but that’s another story) when I was able to wear my Tropical Service Dress with Sam Browne belt and Side Hat, looking very much like uniform worn during WWII in the Middle East.

Enthused by the Christopher’s 40th birthday party, perhaps one day we’ll have a historically-themed party at Hanover House (www.hanoverhouse.org) , considering that many people from all eras of history since the early Victorian colonial days, including military and colonial administrators have lived in it and/or passed through its portals…

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