The Runaway Wagon
Narrow Neck Camp (Fort Cautley) 1930s
by Les Kitney
The new barrack block was situated on the main road, the erection of it being of great interest to the public passing by. Unfortunately it was not complete and therefore not in use. (The RNZA Barracks were not completed until 1937.) There wasn't a war in the offing but for some reason the army had expanded, the new barracks would be necessary to house the new troops, and it would be the biggest building on that side of the road. The main road continued down past the barracks, on a down hill curving run with a right hand turn about half way down.
There was a dip at the bottom followed by a slight rise to a shopping area where it forked left and right. The right fork led to the Devonport Council Yard, the "Foreign Office" (or Local pub) and the centre of the town, about three miles away. If, by any chance one had taken the left fork, houses, parks, the beach, more houses and shops were passed, until finally with twists and turns and bends, it rejoined the right fork in the town centre.
Such was the setting for the drama on the first Monday in December of that year in the early days of my career as a regular soldier. The loaded night soil wagon, drawn by Old Darkie and Barbara, moved out from the barracks, turned left and proceeded down the hill. It was a pleasant morning, with every promise of a lovely summer day to follow. No cares, I was not driving, I sat beside Bill, and took in the beauty around me. As we approached the bend there was a terrific bang from our right, a sound as though a gas line had exploded. Neither of the horses waited to find out the cause or reason. They jumped into the traces and raced for the curve in the road to the right, while I clung to whatever handholds were available. Unfortunately, Bill could not use his hands to hang on to anything but the reins. He tried to halt the mad rush of the frightened horses, but this he could not do. Their combined strength was greater than his, and with the bits between their teeth and perhaps thoughts of their ancestors drawing chariots in the arenas of ancient Rome they were not to be checked or consoled in their fright. They wouldn't even be diverted in their headlong dash but charged the kerb of the footpath as we dropped down to the bottom of the dip.
That piece of road provided a thrill for us if we rode bicycles. We would race down the hill with sufficient speed on to stop pedalling, race up the incline after the dip and glide along either the left fork or the right. Not at all recommended for a wagon loaded with night soil. The wheels on the off side hit the kerb and being wood sheathed with metal, crushed the wood so that they were no longer their spherical shape, thus producing a drag on that side. The wagon, hindered by that drag and helped by the resultant fall to that side as well as the lift from the on side, turned over. Luckily, perhaps, the Council had erected a ventilator pipe at that point, and the wagon striking it in full flight, fell back on to the roadway in a heap of debris and effluent. Drums flew, of course. So did the contents, so too the driver and his assistant. Everything seemed to be moving.
"Race back to the barracks", shouted Bill. Ring the fire brigade and ask them if they could possibly come and help. They could wash down the road with their high powered hoses."
I raced. I also stank to high heaven, and I suppose Bill did too. I didn't wait to find out. I daren't go into the new barracks where the telephones were located. There was a hose outside the kitchen which "Greasy Bitch" used when cleaning any containers he had emptied into the pig swill. I turned the water full on and washed myself as best I could, tore off my denims, boots and socks, and in my underpants raced into the 'phone. "Ivan Bernasconi", I prayed, "be on duty this morning." He and I played hockey against each other, he being in the fire brigade team. My call went through and joy! oh! joy, Ivan answered.
My request, at first, must have sounded like a joke because he burst out laughing when I related my woes.
"You really are in it, aren't you?" he chortled. There was great rivalry on the sports fields between the various branches of the services. With Navy, Army, Air Force and Fire Brigade having teams in the winter and summer sports there was never a dull moment in the Wednesday and Saturday service matches. Ivan must have channelled my call to the right people because, as I collected my gear to be washed properly at a more convenient date, I heard the scream of the siren as the fire brigade came to a halt at the scene of the accident. I hurried along to the Orderly Sergeant, explained what had happened and asked for a relief wagon, horses and work party to help in the clean up. I hastily pulled on clean denims, socks and boots, then ran back to see if I could be of any help to Bill.
He was still at his "smelly" best, although the firemen had washed him down, and was directing operations in the grand manner. The hoses from the fire engine had made short work of washing down the mess. The drums had been cleaned by the powerful jets, and loaded onto the relief wagon with the debris from the broken one. The horses, still gasping for breath and with heads hanging down, stood quietly on the footpath with a soldier in attendance, and in very short order we were ready to return to the barracks. No one could have said we made a triumphal entry as we passed through the main gates that morning. We brought the "spoils" with us as well as some of the stench, for it lingered in the air for many days.
What the people down the road thought about the incident we never heard. The firemen who came to our aid did a sterling job with their hoses. They had cleaned fences, curbs, footpath and roadway. Apart from a slight smell in the air and the wetness of the tar sealing, no one would have suspected there had been an accident of some magnitude.
Our problem on our return to barracks was to off load the "goods". Some of the drums were dented, the first wagon was a wreck and we both felt as though we had been dragged through a sewer. Mind you, I think we smelt like it, too. At least Bill did. I wasn't quite so bad, but felt a good shower might make me feel better. We prepared the wreck for a review by our Commanding Officer, when he came on duty later in the morning, raced away to clean ourselves up and went in to breakfast. Despite our adventure, or because of it, we were hungry. The four chaps who helped us joined us at the table where thay had a great deal of crude fun at our expense.
Life, fatigues, and barrack cleanliness advanced rapidly from the day the new barracks opened. Our new "hall of residence" was linked to the town drainage system which meant we could flush everything away in the same manner as our neighbours. Our horses were either sold or died of old age, we became mechanised, and our vehicles (with rubber tyres) were much easier cared for than the horse drawn ones. Life changed in many ways. There was a war, some of us were promoted, sent on overseas service, some of our comrades departing forever, even to lie in foreign soil. But those left love to get together and talk of old times.
From a story by Les Kitney. See also Part 1: Fatigues.