Leslie John Robinson (b.1929): Life and Labour (1/2)

‘you will engage to serve His Majesty as a Soldier in the Regular Forces for such a term as is agreed on Attestation’ (88).

The majority of Leslie John Robinson’s memoir is dedicated to his working life. For part one of this blog post I will focus on researching Leslie’s army career. This is something he writes boastfully about, covering over three chapters with his stories from the Middle East and beyond. After working many unfulfilling jobs, Leslie joins the army and it appears that he finds a real purpose and enjoyment in this job. He recalls ‘the Territorial Army was reforming and 102 Armed Transport Regiment (T.A.) R. A. S. C. at Harrowby Road Drill Hall was recruiting so I went along and was accepted’ (85). After struggling to follow his uncles’ footsteps, he decided ‘if he navy didn’t want me then I would try the army’ (85).

Leslie appears to view his entry into the army as a new way of life as he proudly describes being ‘eighteen years old, going to be a soldier, saying goodbye to a tatty old teddy bear’. He felt sadness as he said goodbye to his ‘old way of life’ (86). However, after arriving at the ‘Depot Company of the South Lancashire Regiment on 24th September 1947’ the sadness dissolves into excitement for this new chapter ahead. He remembers ‘for the first few days we were kitted out, interviewed by the “trick cyclist”, lectured on the evils of drink and loose woman (we should be so lucky!) and the brilliant future that lay before us’ (86). Typically, Leslie satirises the warnings himself and his comrades receive about such distractions, but this does not defer away from the passion and excitement he surely felt about exploring new surroundings. It could be suggested that army propaganda may have brainwashed Leslie, promising him a ‘brilliant future’, which is perhaps why his mother detested his decision. However, reading on, it is clear that Leslie had a real dedication to his role. He notes ‘my parents were totally opposed to me joining the army. Mum felt that I was damned for life as decent people didn’t associate with soldiers’ (87). There was clearly a stereotype of soldiers at this time, but not even his parents’ disappointment could defer Leslie away from enjoying this new path and breaking away from the ‘drunken fornicator’ (93) pigeonhole.

M.V Empire Pride

In his essay The Lost Labour Force: Working- Class Approaches to Military Service During the Great War (2007), Nathan Wise notes that new approaches towards war writing adopt a ‘”culturalist” outlook to understand how soldiers, as people of different social and cultural backgrounds, related to each other’. Focussing on ‘how they worked together, how they spent their leisure time, and how they lived in the environment of war’, (163) Wise suggests that a military career eradicated class- background as every soldier was treated the same, paid the same and men were united in the workforce. This made the military career particularly appealing as men could work without feeling challenged by those in more established jobs. This rings true in relation to Leslie John Robinsons memoir as he relays memories of friends made in the army, but does not mention their background as it becomes clear that in the face of war, solidarity won over divisiveness.

After training, Leslie recalls ‘on 15th November 1947, I was posted to 6 Training Battalion (Driver) R.A.S.C. near Yeovil (88). Here he joined ‘”B” Company, squad 10 under the iron rule of Corporal Turley’ whose unfair leadership had forced two soldiers to go absent. Leslie recalls ‘our spirits dropped to zero’ (90). Explaining the downsides to army life is something that Leslie never shies away from, but coming from a poor, working- class background the wages seemed to be worth the bad days. Excitedly, Leslie notes ‘one day I received a letter from R.A.S.C Records, it contained a cheque for fifty- five pounds which was my pay and a bounty from the T.A. I had never had so much money in my life’ (89). The excitement from having this amount of money shows the step up from his childhood, and it may be that Leslie was relieved he had found a job he loves rather than ending up trapped in the same rigmarole as his father and grandfather had. Leslie declares ‘I hadn’t joined for the money; the posters had said ‘join the Army and see the world!’ (87), and ‘on 3rd March 1948 aboard the M.V Empire Pride’ (91) he was deployed to Egypt.

Fort Perch Rock, New Brighton. 1906.

Leslie John Robinson is proud to share the hidden wonders he saw on his travels to the Arab village of Nefisha. From the view of the ‘Ataka mountains’ (94) to the ‘impressive canal buildings’ and ‘a palm- lined boulevard with horse- drawn gharries’ (92) the exotic surroundings are something that nobody from Leslies family had ever seen before. Having this opportunity gives a sense that he believes he had really achieved something here, despite his parents’ outlook. Serving in many roles throughout his time in the army and ‘visiting Cairo Zoo and the Pyramids’ (109), Leslie does not forget to mention his family or his wife Hazel who he wrote to every week. Therefore, after ‘three years and four days had passed’ he sailed home, and ‘Birkenhead had never looked so inviting’ (117). Leslie appeared thrilled that ‘it was the first view of the River Mersey for many of the lads’ as he got to point out the landmarks such as ‘the Tower, New Brighton and Perch Rock’ (116). It seems that proudly showing off his home town brought more excitement to Leslie than the exotic scenes of Egypt. However, as the memoir goes on, Leslie does not describe any other working experience as passionately as he does the army, suggesting that achieving to gain a career so different to what his background had destined him for, impacted his life greatly.

  • ‘Leslie John Robinson’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:671.
  • Robinson, Leslie John. ‘One Step at a Time’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection. 2:671.
  • Wise, Nathan. The Lost Labour Force: Working- Class Approaches to Military Service During the Great War. Labour History. Issue 93. November 2007. pp.161- 176. Accessed Online 21.02.2019.

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