For those who might not know, the Parthians were a people from what is now called Iran who were expert horseman. Their specialty was to pretend defeat by retreating then turning round in the saddle and shooting a shower of arrows back at the enemy. This manoeuvre was made possible by the invention of the stirrup.
The technique became known as the Parthian shot often mistakenly referred to as a parting shot.
The Parthian Shot
Lieutenant Gervase Tourville de Mowbray came from a distinguished family. An ancestor had come over with William the Conqueror but from the way Gervase boasted one might be forgiven for imagining that the Norman invaders consisted only of himself and Duke William – in that order of precedence. His grandfather, Sir John, had been a British officer in the 2nd Gurkha Rifles. His father had given sterling army service in India. The Norman family name was a source of overweening pride for him coupled with a disdain for all things Anglo-Saxon.
His mother had been an opera singer and early discovered that her son had inherited her singing talent. Much against her husband’s wishes she had enrolled Gervase at the famous St Thomas Choir School before she went off to die in India. After Gervase left school his father, Sir Mortmain pulled a few strings and eventually Gervase had his interview for a cadetship in the army. After keeping up an intermittent correspondence with his son Sir Mortmain died in India shortly before Gervase was commissioned.
The second lieutenant was less than pleased to become a General Duties Administrative Officer posted to Paderborn in Germany where he lived a life of quiet desperation as second in command of pay accounts.
He had a wife, Sylvia, who quietly seethed with resentment over his lack of marital affection and understanding. She supported him but in such a way as to leave his ego a little more punctured on every occasion. ‘Oh, poor darling’ she would say ‘So, they’ve passed you over for promotion………….again’. Over the years she had become an expert in the use of the Parthian shot.
His chance came from a conversation in the officers’ mess one evening when the Director of Music for the station band told him he was retiring from the service. Lieutenant de Mowbray made it clear to those that mattered that he would like this job.
After leaving no lobbying stone unturned and with the enthusiastic backing of his superior officer in accounts, who wished to be rid of him, he was appointed Director of Music and promoted to First Lieutenant.
Bearing in mind his character it was only to be expected that he would have staff difficulties. In a short time he went through a number of bandmasters who found their love of music severely compromised by his acerbic manner. Lieutenant de Mowbray was a master of the highly honed insult where you didn’t know you had cause for offence until you came to think about it later.
In response to de Mowbray’s request for a yet another replacement bandmaster he was given the afternoon services of Sergeant Hodgkinson. The NCO, who was an instructor in small arms, had recently been transferred from Gutersloh to build up the weapon skills of the regiment at Paderborn. However he was quite pleased to be given the part time band assignment.
The lieutenant was a little cynical about the glowing reports from the musical director at Gutersloh and speedily arranged to interview the sergeant in the band hut, the nerve centre of his little empire. ‘So where did you go to school, Sergeant?’ This was always an important question to an ex- public schoolboy.
‘Barnsley Grammar School, sir.’
The director had a profound dislike of the grammar school system.
‘Ah, yes. The local boy made good. And where did you learn your music?’
‘With the Salvation Army, sir.’
‘Oh dear me! Religious as well. The local boy made even better.’
The Sergeant was becoming a little irked by now but had to be careful with an officer. ‘No sir, not religious but I have the greatest respect for the Salvation Army.’
‘Well now, with the greatest respect, why?’
‘They taught boys to play instruments for nothing, sir, just to rope you in.
Made you into a musical Anglo-Saxon, eh’ Gervase chortled.
‘I notice you have a campaign ribbon. Did the Salvation Army give you that?’
Lieutenant de Mowbray had never been in a theatre of operations. The deadliest thing he had handled during his military career was a conductor’s baton. To put it plainly he was jealous.
‘No! Cyprus, EOKA Campaign, 1958, Sir!
At this point the lieutenant knew that he was verging on military contempt for medal awards and changed his tactics.
‘I see you played in the station band at Gutersloh, Sergeant ….er…Hodgkinson, isn’t it. He could hardly bear to speak his name.
‘Oh yes! Johnson’s lot’.
‘It’s a good band, sir.’
‘Sergeant Hodgkinson, you can rely on me to know a good band when I hear one. Let’s hear you play something’.
The sergeant opened up his case to remove a brass trumpet, held it upside down and gently blew down the mouthpiece and warmed it between his hands. The officer waited with a resigned impatience giving way to astonishment as the sergeant proceeded to give a virtuoso performance of the triple tonguing from Carnival of Venice.
Lieutenant de Mowbray had a weak spot in his musical armoury. Yes, he knew his augmented fifth from a diminished seventh but he didn’t play any musical instrument; however he did have had a superb ear. And of course he sang well but had never given a public performance since giving a recital when his top set of teeth dropped down on the penultimate line of Nymphs and Shepherds.
‘Mmm! I notice you didn’t bring along the sheet music, sergeant’.
The implication being that had he done so, the officer would have been able to spot any wrong notes played by the sergeant.
Thereafter the relationship followed a stormy path. The sergeant was a good deal younger and wanted to introduce more modern marches but to no avail. When he suggested that they could earn money for band funds by playing at civilian events, lieutenant de Mowbray exploded in anger at what he called musical prostitution. Sergeant Hodgkinson knew that as an NCO he couldn’t argue on equal terms with an officer. He wisely held his peace and thought that one day perhaps his chance might come. He’d let things take their course.
Meanwhile Lieutenant de Mowbray’s wife was having a problem. Well, their daughter, Alice, was. She was a teacher at the British Army School in Cologne and she commuted by train every day. Unfortunately the engineers of the Deutsche Bahn were on strike.
Sylvia couldn’t drive a car so she approached her husband. ‘Darling, you know that railway strike, well, Alice can’t get to work.’
‘Can’t take her, too busy. Sorry’.
‘Well, you don’t sound sorry! You know how hard it was for her to get this job. Surely you could arrange something. I mean can’t you get her a lift from somebody?’
Lieutenant de Mowbray, interrupted in the middle of a new musical arrangement of an old march, was testy.
‘Look, get Hodgkinson to take her in my car. He’ll do anything for a skive.’
Sylvia thought this a wonderful solution. She rarely went anywhere and the thought occurred to her that she could go with them once a week to do a little shop window shopping.
The strike remained in progress for a further two months during which time Lieutenant de Mowbray became aware increasingly aware that his wife had never looked as happy as lately. She had lost weight, bought new clothes, had a new hair style and hummed unfamiliar tunes around the house. And it was ‘Sergeant Hodgkinson said this and Sergeant Hodgkinson said the other’ and he decided he would have to keep a watchful eye open.
‘Enjoying your shopping trips, Sylvia?’ asked de Mowbray.
‘Oh, yes, Cologne in the spring is so beautiful. I don’t know what I’ll do when the strike ends.’
Gervase resolved it was high time to terminate this dubious travelling arrangement. And as for Alice, it was time she learned to solve her own problems, he told his wife.
‘Perhaps she is already doing that. I meant to tell you, she’s pregnant.’
‘Pregnant! How do you mean pregnant?
‘Pregnant, having a baby, knocked up. Call it what you like.’
Lieutenant de Mowbray went white with anger.
‘Who is the father?
‘Can’t you guess?’
‘I’m in no mood for guessing games. Who is the father?’
‘Sergeant Hodgkinson, of course.’
‘I’ll ruin him! He’ll get nowhere in the army from now on, I tell you’.
‘If you want to spoil your future son in law’s career that’s up to you’.
‘What do you mean – future son in law?’
‘They want to get married.’
‘They can’t. I forbid it.’
‘She’s twenty three, there’s nothing you can do about it’.
‘It may be very condescending for a sergeant to marry her but they’ll not get a penny for the wedding from me.’
Sylvia had a sublime look on her face. The look of a woman with a plain daughter who had until a few weeks ago given up all hope of ever becoming a grandmother.
‘You needn’t worry. I’m going to pay for it.’
‘You! How the bloody hell can you pay for it?’
‘I’ve cashed in my endowment policy and guess what. There’s enough money to pay for the wedding and a little left over to pay for the education of your grandchild. I can only afford the grammar School but it’ll all turn out right.
Oh, I can’t wait. Just think Baby Hodgkinson’.
The little world of Lieutenant Gervase Tourville de Mowbray was falling apart.