Light and Shade in War: Oak-Apple Day

‘Oak-apple day’ From ‘Light and Shade in War’ (1916)

by Malcolm Ross (1862-1930) and Noel Ross (1890-1917)

Noel Ross, approximately 4 years old, dressed as a mountaineer. He stands on a barrel, holding a pickaxe, and wears climbing boots, gloves, a hat, and goggles. He has a rope wrapped around his chest. Photograph taken circa 1894, probably Noel’s father Malcolm Ross. Copy photograph taken by John Pascoe.

‘The authors of this book, father and son, have seen much of the Light and shade of War during the past two years. the one as a War Correspondent in Egypt, Turkey and France, the other as a soldier, and, afterwards, as one of the staff of The Times.

The day for writing the histories of our different campaigns is not yet. For the purposes of history delay is necessary, even though the gain in perspective may mean loss in colour. But there is a legitimate desire for the intimate and intermediate impressions of the time, written down amid the ever-shifting scenes of the War itself. Such impressions will have some value now, and perhaps also in after years.

Most of these sketches were written down whilst the scenes and incidents they depict were fresh in the mind ; some under fire. The proofs were corrected on the battlefield of the Somme in a tent over which British and German shells were passing at the time. While due allowance will be made for shortcomings owing to the circumstances under which the book was produced, the authors hope that no apology will be needed for presented such pictures of the Light and Shade of War to the English-speaking World.’


YESTERDAY the statue of King Charles at Chelsea Royal Hospital looked out of a bower of greenery at a scene that would have surprised the amiable original of Gibbon’s handiwork if he had been alive.

It was Oak-apple Day, and, as has been the custom for many years past, the effigy of the Royal founder was swathed in oak branches in memory of the occasion on which Charles is supposed to have hid in one of the few hundred oaks in England to which the legend attaches. To the pensioners the day is marked by the fact that the Guards Band plays them past the statue, and there is a large plum pudding given to each inmate. Even those old men have felt the war, and whereas in former times they were wont to get four puddings a year, they now get only two.

The day was a glorious one, and even the oldest and most rheumy warrior was able to come out to sit in the sunshine and hear the old times to which he had once marched. Every man there looked happy, but to me it was the saddest place in the world. These old men marched past the Governor, General Sir Neville Lyttelton, and slowly filed by the statue of the Merry Monarch. If Charles had been looking out from the branches instead of his mere presentiment in metal he would have seen the pathos of the scene. There was one fact above all others that made the sight a sad one and it was this. These old soldiers did not march past to the jaunty quick-step of their more active days, for old limbs and stiffening joints do not permit of undue hurry. They have reached the stage when they do not hurry even for a parade, and the slow time of a waltz is sufficiently fast for their needs. It was to a waltz that they marched past ! And then when they had been inspected by the Governor they gave three cheers for King Charles, their benefactor. They were not the proverbial ringing cheers of the British soldier. After sixty years and more the vocal chords do not respond so readily to the call for three cheers, and more than one pensioner found that he was left coughing after the effort.

There was an interesting group sitting in one corner of the centre quadrangle and the conversation was as interesting as the men who were talking. There were four soldiers there and all were veterans, but there was forty years between their ages and their campaigns. Two of them had got their honourable wounds in Crimea and the other two at Gallipoli. The two old heads under the tricorne caps wagged wisely as tales of Anzac were unfolded. The pensioners knew the Turk, and they agreed with the men who had seen him “at home” forty years later in saying that he fought fair. Tales of the bitter Black Sea winter found their exact parallel when one of the New Zealanders told of the terrible storm that raged over Anzac and all the Ægean. But for the fact that it was a young voice that was speaking one would never have known that it was not still a pensioner narrating his experiences of the winter of 1855.

It was a wonderful little group, symbolical of all that Empire stands for, and when the old men rose to go indoors and the young one-armed soldier from the Antipodes helped them up the steps to the cloisters the symbolism was carried further still. The colouring alone would have justified the attention of a painter. The young men, in their blue hospital kit, the old men in scarlet, the face of the Anzacs bronzed by exposure to the winds and sun of the Gallipoli Peninsula, and the pallor of old age of the Crimean veterans, all made such a contrast as Herkomer would have delighted to paint. In the chapel two more New Zealanders were being shown the banners that were carried before some of the finest troops the world has ever known. They looked at them reverently, for they knew—none better—all the suffering they stood for. The old man thought of comrades left in shallow graves when the ground was too hard with frost to dig deep, and the younger man recalled the still forms that were put overside from from the hospital ships in the Ægean, or buried in their blankets in Shrapnel Gully.

The band outside in the sunshine changed its refrain, and a rattling of side-drums heralded in the best of all marching tunes, “The British Grenadiers,” the pensioner sighed softly as thought of the time when he had been called from his regiment by the Commander-in-Chief and publicly decorated for an act of valour that had won him the most coveted honour that a soldier may win. The march stopped with the same rolling of drums with which it began, and then, as the strains of the National Anthem followed, the trio in the chapel stiffened to attention. Again it was symbolical. Here was one of England’s oldest warriors, and beside him two of her youngest. No one has painted the picture, but let us hope that it will last for all time and that the call will always be answered form overseas. As the younger men stood beside the old soldier, who had long ago laid away his sabre, so will the young Dominions stand beside the land that gave them birth.’


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