"IF I CAN HELP SOMEBODY . . ."

By Willie Keays.

You may have seen my references in our Journal to the Forced March to Talavera de la Reina, a recreational expedition I organised in 1985 for some enthusiasts I had met during Nijmegen Marches in 1983 and 1984. You may have gathered from Journal 43 that I was fascinated by the Peninsular War. My story of that gruelling effort can be read on a Spanish website, in English, by googling ‘Forced March to Talavera de la Reina’. (The young Spanish lady in one of the photos sitting by the swimming pool wearing my beret but not much else, has been Photo-shopped out; however, if there is sufficient demand on Feedback . . .?
     After Mastermind and its 19th Century British Army campaigns, I got interested in the US Civil War. With the background of the Forced March I was drawn to the story of the Stonewall Brigade, a Confederate unit commanded by Thomas J Jackson, a professor at the Virginia Military Institute. Well-commanded, it gained a reputation as the fastest marching unit in the Civil War. After the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas) where its line had resisted all attacks by the Federal forces, Jackson became known as “Stonewall” Jackson. Another Rebel General is reputed to have declared, ‘There stands Jackson! Like a stone wall!’. The Brigade was made up of a number of infantry regiments recruited from many parts of old Virginia. One of these areas was the Shenandoah Valley. The Brigade’s ability to rapidly march and manoeuvre resulted in it becoming known as “The Foot Cavalry” - quite a target to emulate.

    In 1985 I was a Sqn Ldr Scientific Lecturer at the Department of Specialist Ground Training at Cranwell. With four hours of lectures per week at Master’s level with students of the advanced Aerosystems Engineering Course (ASEC) I had plenty of playtime. I had the option to leave in June 1987 after three years as a Sqn Ldr so I decided to organise another foreign-going expedition before I handed in my F1250. This would be “The Shenandoah Trek”. The routes of many of the forced marches of the Stonewall Brigade in the Shenandoah Valley in the 1862 campaign would be followed. With the previous experience of the Spanish march I was aware of the obstacles that Command HQ would put in our way. The purple prose in my application convinced them that this would be a physically-challenging undertaking and no joy-ride for three officers and nine airmen who would take part. I didn’t mention that I saw this expedition as a completely enjoyable reward for those who had endured the rigours of the Talavera March. For example, the application included ‘Descent into karst limestone caverns in the Massanutton Mountains’; I omitted to say we would go down in a lift.
   On 23nd April 1987 the team gathered together at RAF Brize Norton. A RAF VC10 took us to Dulles Airport in Washington DC.  There we fell under the baleful glare of a civilian RAF Movement Officer, a “Mover”, who distinguished himself by being singularly unhelpful in recovering our baggage that was about to depart for Belize still in the hold of the VC10. Despite this we eventually entered the “Land of the Free”. A Dodge Club Wagon had been booked and, after a courtesy call to the Air Attaché in the British Embassy, we set off for the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. We stayed that night in the Bear’s Den Youth Hostel next to the Appalachian Trail. We ate and drank at the Horseshoe Bar where we met some great people including a Mustang pilot from WW2 and Claude, a bulldozer driver. The next day we got on to Interstate 81 heading for the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington Va.
  Colonel Harbach, Commandant of VMI, had provided valuable guidance prior to our expedition. He welcomed us to the Institute with a splendid lunch. We then visited an impressive Stonewall monument and viewed his stuffed horse, Little Sorrel, in the VMI Museum. Cadets of the Institute then invited us to Spanky’s Bar in Lexington where for the first time, but not the last, we ran across the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC).  In sporting tradition we had challenged our American hosts to a “Schooner Race”. The Brits were well ahead when the game was interrupted by the landlady.

‘Ya cain’t do that here!’ she yelled. ‘The ABC will take mah licence. Alcoholic games are illegal!’

‘Shit! We would have won easily!’ we collectively thought. Together we all drank many pitchers of beer anyway. Surprisingly our hosts didn’t know all the words of Dixie so we helped them out.  After these high-jinks we went off to our campsite at Harrisonburg.

  The Trek really started on 24th April following the Stonewall Brigade’s manoeuvres towards Port Republic where we camped. The next day we turned north along the western flank of the Massanutton Mountains. We were accompanied by a reporter from the local newspaper who was instrumental in introducing the team to Mrs Beauregard, owner of the Endless Caverns holiday complex near New Market. We had fallen on our feet. She offered us the use of holiday cabins free of charge. We used these as a base continuing to parallel Stonewall’s daily movement for the next five days, returning to the Caverns for each night’s rest. The Beauregard family treated us to wonderful meals of bear steaks. Her sons took me and three others of our team “spelunking” (the exploration of caves, especially as a hobby. Brian) Although many spectacular caves are open to the public, accessible by lift, there are many more huge karst cathedrals, requiring skill in rope descents and ascents, also underground rivers and waterfalls. Those of our team who did not fancy combating stalactites, stalagmites and bats went off to do other things; some were invited to view the Shenandoah Valley by Cessna. Our Marching Captain, Flt Lt Sherwood Moore of No 2 S of TT RAF Cosford, was interviewed by a TV station.

  We took our leave of her wonderful hospitality by presenting Mrs Beauregard with our Union Flag; not one of the cheapo printed ones. It was a proper one with all its constituent elements sewn together. We headed off to meet the challenge of the Class 2 Compton Rapids on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River near the town of Luray. We had hired Canadian canoes.  My brother officers had given spelunking a miss and weren’t keen to get wet either but the rest of us took to the water like ducks. We all went through the rapids first time but having taken the canoes back upstream by porterage and coming down a second time, the motion of the canoe I was in was out of synch with the waves and we dug our bow in and capsized. I’m a hopeless swimmer but with foresight I had picked as my paddling mate Jnr Tech Phil Cockram, known to be

  ‘Eh?’ says I looking around anxiously, remembering Burt Reynolds in “Deliverance”and listening for duelling banjos.

 ‘You gotta keep covered up!’

  We were in shorts and T-shirts. Maybe he was a Puritan, not keen on naked limbs even if they were hairy.

   ‘Tick-fever! Keep covered up!’ He moseyed on.

    Virginia Lyme disease is endemic many parts of the state. We covered up.

We again ran foul of the ABC when we all went off to a big bar that had Country and Western music. We were asked for our IDs at the door. Four of our guys were under 21. They were barred from entering. Virginia law, maybe US law, prohibits those under 21 from consuming alcohol. Time for a strong lead; I asked to see the Manager. I explained that we were Royal Air Force from the UK, the finest and firmest ally that the US had. He thought for a bit.
a champion swimmer; he dragged me to the bank. Well done that man!

  We were given a sharp reminder of local dangers one rest morning when a little old wizened guy, not unlike I am now, moseyed up to our tents next to the river.
 
‘Y’guys ur esking fo big big trouble!’ he twanged.
 ‘Well if those underage are in the care of a guardian they can drink . . .’

  I interrupted. ‘Well, let me assure you that I hold the rank of Major, officially the guardian of these chaps, personally commanded by the Queen of England to keep them in good order and discipline.’ I was quoting the wording of my commission.
He thought for a bit more.

‘Queen of England? You guys got a Queen? Okay, but don’t let them start any fights or you’ll answer to the Sheriff.’

 Wow! “Answer to the Sheriff”?  I nearly asked him to say it again.

‘Don’t worry,’ I said.   We did have a couple of Jocks with us but I had a quiet word with them.
We had some difficulty with making phone calls to the Embassy, or to the RAF Movers at Dulles. When trying to make reverse charge calls, as advised we could do by the Air Attaché, we received short shrift from the “jobsworths” at the other end. That necessitated gathering together a satchel full of shrapnel to continuously feed the phone any time we needed info or advice.

On some days, rather than pound along modern tarmac, we took to mountain trails. The terrain was very difficult with heaps of rocks and fallen trees to be tackled. We didn’t think about snakes. Later we were told that we could have encountered copperheads and timber rattlesnakes, both venomous. What the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t grieve!

On the last marching day the 25 miles from Front Royal to Winchester was covered within 5½ hours carrying 10kg. We had invited staff and cadets from VMI to accompany us but we had no takers. It was from Front Royal that the Stonewall Brigade pursued the outmanoeuvred Federals under General Banks through Winchester to the Potomac. Our march ended at the untended Cemetery where many of the Brigade lie. Next to this cemetery is the pristine Federal one. Winchester changed hand 72 times during the Civil War and is also famous as the birthplace of Patsy Cline.

  We were received most graciously by the staff of the Civil War Museum who were intrigued, indeed gratified, by our interest in the War. It was an important weekend for the citizens of the City; Apple Blossom Day. We were invited to watch a parade with bands, pretty leggy cheer-leaders and the great and the good of the surrounding area.
 
 On our last day we visited Washington. We saw the White House, the Capitol and various monuments. The National Air and Space Museum occupied most of our time. We stayed again to the Bear’s Den Youth Hostel on our last night. The Warden was unhappy with the empty beer-can evidence we had previously left in the trash; alcohol is not allowed. Off we went to the Horseshoe Bar when we had a great evening with our old friends, lots of cheer and beer, schooner racing, music and singing with delightful Tracy Lee.  It seemed as if the remit of the ABC did not run in this part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We presented the bulldozer driver Claude with a commemorative plaque. Here he is:


 Next day we once more met the RAF Movers at Dulles.  In preparation for the expedition I had written an Operation Order. Under “Enemy Forces” I had put “Nil”. I should have put “RAF Movers”. We eventually got back to Brize on5th May. Aged 47¼, I had three weeks left to do in a blue suit with brass buttons.

Did you have a Swan Song? If you did, tell us!