Last One Over the Top ...

Donnelly: the Batman


The retreat from Mons, 1914. (From First World War Hidden History

Donnelly was Bertie's orderly - or batman, if you will - and provided him with moral, ethical and, indeed, literary support during the early weeks of the war. The fact that Bertie was as thick as an elephant sandwich, and that Donnelly - a farmer's son from County Tyrone - was able to quote Shakespeare and construe in Greek, would have been a source of great chagrin to Bertie ... if, indeed, he had known what "construe" meant. Or "chagrin", for that matter.  Still, as Bertie says himself, if he didn't know enough to come in out of the rain, at least he could depend on Donnelly to fetch the umbrella.

Now read on ...

However, all of this was happening in the background as I motored down to Tidworth, my mother’s tears still bedewing my lapel, and I ambled easily into barracks to pack my chattels and movables in preparation for embarkation. Or more precisely, to sit and jaw and smoke as my orderly packed up everything. Good old Donnelly, I thought, as I arrived into my quarters with a bright halloo on my lips.

“Pip-pip, Donners,” I yodelled. “Brigadier not around?”

“No, Sir,” says Donnelly. “He’s gone doyn to the toyn, Sir.”

“Ah, does he really?” I answered vaguely. That was the problem with having an Irish orderly. Dashed fine chap, don’t get me wrong, one of the best, in fact, but one did rather tend to need an interpreter. “Still, nice weather for it, eh?” I finished, hoping somewhere in the linguistic mêlée to have hit the right tone. I ducked behind the paper, my feet up on the bed as Donnelly packed the last of the entrechats au feuilles garnis.

“D’you really think we’ll need all this shite, Sir?” says he, waving a bottle red wine. I glanced up from the cricket scores in horror.

“My God, Donnelly!” I croaked. “That’s the Montrachet ’97! How dare you even think of leaving it behind! I’m surprised at you!” He gave me a raised eyebrow, and continued to pack my various tinned, bottled and potted comestibles.

“Well, God only knows where we’re goin’ to put it all,” says he, shooting me a filthy. “If the Major finds oyt aboyt it – “

“ – we’ll invite him to supper!” I interrupted, rudely. “Yes, I know all that, Donners, but I believe that one should have every type of convenience available if one is to go to war.” Lord bless us and save us, to this day, I still have no idea how he didn’t take a swing at me for my purblind arrogance. Here was Donnelly, a farmer’s son from Ulster, as far as I could gather, a career soldier for some years now, who had an infinitely more realistic concept of campaigning than I, being lectured to about the relative merits of asparagus potted in aspic and entrecote de veau gratinée. Still, he was jolly loyal (must have been, not to flatten me, shouldn’t wonder) and a wonderful organiser. When we finally lined up in ranks at midnight on the little platform at Tidworth to take the train to Southampton, it was he who barged onto the train like a snowplough, pushing aside khaki bodies to beat a passage through to a compartment. He then slammed down the window and stuck his head out to holler at me through the clouds of steam, over the troops lined up, four deep, waiting for the order to board.

“Over here, Sir!” he shouted. “ ‘ve got yees a seat!”

“Ah!” I said brightly to a belligerent Transport Officer who had shoved his red and sweating face into mine, demanding why-in-the-name-of-the-devil-did-I-think-I-could-board-before-everybody-else-so-just-line-up-shut-up-and-wait-your-turn-like-everybody-bloody-else. Well, I knew that Transport Officers like him outranked absolutely everybody, but only at times of entraining and embarkation, so this chap was going to make the most of his brief spell of power. “Ah!” I repeated, glancing past his puffing cheeks. “That’ll be for me. If you don’t mind, old chap – “ I edged past him, and just for badness, handed him my valise to carry. He took it, as well, which only goes to show. I think he felt as if he was in a dream as he elbowed me in to my compartment, which Donnelly was already laying claim to, threatening with fists and boots anyone who looked like coming near.

“Clear oyt!” he yelled to one such invader. “This compartment’s for afficers only. Get oyt! Noy!” The fellow blanched and staggered backwards, clutching his sheathed sabre and assorted equipment to his chest, and grudgingly struggled through the now-crowded side-corridor to the next compartment along.

“Jolly well done, Donnelly,” I nodded to him, looking round the compartment and unplugging the lid. “Keep the bounders out. But I think that last chap was Captain Hornby.”

“Yes, Sir,” says he. “I know, Sir.”

“Ah, right - ,” I said. Remind me not to get on your wrong side, Donners, I thought. I suddenly remembered the pink and still puffing Transport Officer, gripping my valise with a look of ruptured outrage on his face. I made all sorts of conciliatory mewing noises, thanking him profusely for his help, and digging in the trouser pocket for a little loose change. I thought I could push it up to threepence for the occasion. Chap was an officer, after all. He gripped the coin in a disgusted pincer of finger and thumb, as if I had passed him a slug, and he disappeared immediately, no doubt in the hope that no-one had seen the transaction take place.

I had to hand it to Donnelly, he repelled boarders as the train filled with the regiment, and it was only when the carriages clanked together, in a billowing cloud of steam, and the whistle announced our imminent departure for Southampton that he relaxed, and like me, lay full length across the seats with his greatcoat rolled in a bundle under his head. I felt a little guilty about the troopers and various other ranks piled together in a great clot of men and equipment in the side-corridor outside our compartment. One chap with his face plastered up against the glass gave us a filthy stare until we were well out of Wiltshire, before everyone settled down to get some shut-eye at about one o’clock. There was no room in our compartment, anyway; even though it was only Donnelly and me, the floors, luggage nets and every available inch of seating or wall space were all taken up with my gear. Mostly food and wine, I thought, with a little tinge of guilt. Two guilt episodes in one day, I thought; must be catching it off the Catholics.

I relaxed into a lazy half dose as the train rattled through the fields. The moon was full and plump, squatting low in the sky and spreading moonlight like butter over the rolling fields and hedgerows of Salisbury Plain. I lay on my back, knees cocked and legs crossed, dandling my cap at the end of my boot and grumping to Donnelly, who was lying reading in the light of a single bulb sticking out of the wall of the compartment.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Donnelly,” I groaned. “will you put that ruddy light out! It must be – “ I checked my watch in the dim glow from Donnelly’s light. My God! “ – two o’clock!” He gave me a look, placed a bookmark carefully in the volume he was reading and went to pull at the little cord that turned off the light, but I stopped him and made a grab for the volume.

“Let’s see what’s so ruddy fascinating that it keeps you riveted in the early hours of the morning,” I mumbled, turning the book over in my hand. A thick volume in soft leather, like a hymnal (or so I’m told, hem-hem), with the title in faded gold leaf on the spine. I squinted to read in the half-light. “’Paradise Lost,’ eh?” I said, nodding. “Impressive.” He barely acknowledged my interest, just waiting patiently to turn out the light. I flipped open the fly leaf, to see his name written in beautiful script: Gerard Pius Donnelly; Christmas 1911.

It comes as something of a shock to one to realise that one’s orderly has a first name. And in Donnelly’s case, a second one, seemingly. I struggled to pronounce it.

“Hmm. Gerard P – Pie – Puce - ?” I gargled.

“Gerard Pius,” he corrected, gently, reaching over to me and folding the soft volume in his enormous hand. “Pius,” he repeated. “I was named after me fa’er; me fa’er was named after the Pope.”

“Ah – after your pater, really?” says I, politely. “And who - or, indeed what - is the Poke?”

He gave me a long slow look, and I could feel the gears turning in his mind. Where do I start? said his eyebrows, but when he spoke, it was with a note of kindness in his voice.

“It’s – it’s,” he paused. “Nothin’, Sir. Never mind.”

“Ah!” I said, brightly, rolling over to put my back to him. “Need to know basis, what? Eyes only, hmm?” I heard him give a little chuckle. “Think I’ll get up early tomorrow, Donnelly,” I quipped. “Have the bath ready for eleven.” A little light persiflage before sleep, you understand. “Goodnight!”

“Goodnight,” came the response as the light clicked off. At least, I think it was goodnight. Thinking back on it now, it could have been gobshite, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt, and lulled into cosy drowsiness by the lateness of the hour and the rhythm of the train, I slipped into a deep and dreamless sleep.