On a rainy day on a recent seaside holiday, various members of my family booked in for a ‘paint your own ceramics’ workshop for a couple of hours including tea and cake.
As the only man there that afternoon amongst assorted female holidaymakers of all ages, I declined the more floral patterns and the seaside inspired designs to design and paint my very own ceramic toy soldier parade on a plate.
Thinking of those wonderful Herald plastic toy soldier guardsmen or the Britain’s hollowcast lead bands and parades, the Airfix Guards Colour Party set amongst others, I sketched these figures freehand out on an unfired ceramic plate in pencil.
I wanted a 1950s / 1960s nursery tea set ceramics feel, so kept the design nice and loose.
What was so different from painting real toy soldiers with acrylic or enamel model paints, matt or gloss, is that ceramic paints are a different colour (almost pastel and chalky) from how they appear on ceramics when fired.
With ceramic paints you have no strong idea how the design will look when finished, other than the helpful colour range plates to look at when choosing paints. These have the final fired colour and paint name marked on, which gives you some idea which ceramic red paint is closest to a Guardsman’s scarlet jacket for example.
The eventual fired richness of colour and coverage were not always in places (such as deep blue trousers) what I had envisaged or was used to from a model paint tin but I was still very happy with my first attempt.
Several days later, the collection and reveal of the fired plate was quite exciting, wondering – Had it survived firing? Would it look alright?
The original light touch pencil sketch marks are burnt off in firing, which makes outlining the fine detail difficult on faces for example. You cant see where you have outlined in paint and what is pencil. None of yer fine finicky model paint brushes here either!
As well as painted detail, you can scratch lines into the ceramic paint to create the shiny white dot of well polished black boots or a line of braid, then picked out with yellow paint.
Two to three hours of design and paint, tea and cake, quickly shoot by, so you have to restrict the complexity of your design to what can be finished in the time. This is why I kept the toy fort sketchy in outline.
The whole circular parade on a plate design started with this rushing private soldier, who has either just slipped or is rushing to catch up the others. He has earned a suitable glare from a stern looking Sergeant Major.
The toy soldier plate will eventually be framed and hung above my work desk at home as part of my toy soldier collection.
I enjoyed the experience very much. I hope one day to do another session and paint a toy soldier design on a different object such as a mug to store my paintbrushes and pencils in.
I recall seeing the shapeless uniform and beret of a National Serviceman in the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry Museum at Bodmin and on visits with my Dad to the National Army Museum in Chelsea.
Dad told me how itchy this battle dress was and how they used to soap the insides to reduce this itchiness. It’s true – having worn battle dress trousers for a re-enactment event a couple of years ago, scratchy they certainly are! Boots were softened and broken in by peeing in them, leaving it overnight. How fragrant they must have smelt.
My late Dad as a lowly private was pretty philosophical about his National Service, talking about it 25 to 30 years after the event. He understood that what they were doing by keeping you away from family, shouting at you, making you work or fail as a platoon, not wanting to be the weakest link etc. It was all about “breaking you down as a civilian” to build you up as a soldier who follows orders without question – he understood the cult psychology of training, which somehow made it easier.
One day he was up on a charge. His crime? Having his back pocket undone, whilst lying down on rifle firing practice at targets. Why? Next time, he was told, it could be an undischarged round in your rifle when cleaning. Attention to detail.
This photo from the IWM’s National Service collection reminds me of this training story and of my Herald British Infantry figures.
It’s odd how some of these wartime or army sayings make it into family life including from someone my family their WW2 maxim that “Time spent on Reconnaissance is rarely wasted” (or “seldom wasted”).
Dad told me lots of stories of his National Service Days, but sadly I can’t remember them all now, as he died almost 20 years ago. He never wrote them down or recorded them.
Stories of navigation training and map reading, involving an army lorry drop off in the middle of nowhere, tasked to find your way home using a compass and map. Who would be home first? He seemed to enjoy this as a bit of a country lark.
Stories of sleepwalking squaddies found by civil or military police wandering naked in the centre of Aldershot, having climbed over a barbed wire fence to get out of camp unobserved – the sentries on duty that evening got a rocket for that one.
Guarding the gatehouse and camp armoury against arms theft (by the 1950s IRA?) Cycling back from leave, Dad said that you could wake the sentries up by holding your bike pump out and rattling it along the camp railings so that it sounded like a machine gun. That put the wind up the sentries!
Being in a technical trade (REME), Dad reckoned he could still strip down and reassemble a Bren Gun with his eyes closed in a remarkably short time of a few minutes. One day in the mid 1990s I saw a Bren Gun still crated, greased but deactivated. I was tempted for a few moments to buy it as an unusual retirement present. Similarly he could rattle off his National Service number many years later.
Wise words from my Dad’s National Service days
Wearing boots all the time will apparently give you weak ankles.
“Get a trade or a certificate so you have something to fall back on”, said this former REME Craftsman.
He seemed to spend a lot of his National Service time fixing the electrics of tanks and lorries – it made him very practical around the house, competent with tools and DIY, something that didn’t get passed on to his cack-handed son. He was also pretty keen if any of were thinking of joining the forces to make sure we got a trade certificate for civilian life so we had something to help us bridge life into civilian work. This was probably from his experience of his working generation of former WW2 and National Service conscripts.
As my Dad was called up in the last few years of National Service in Britain and he said that they didn’t really know what to do with them all. He spent as a result a lot of time (once technically proficient at his trade) cycle racing for the British Army and doing the Isle of Man cycle TT, training and racing to the point of boredom for his former much-loved sport. Moral of this lesson, he said: “Never make you hobby your job!”
The endless 1970s sitcoms reliving the war from Dad’s Army to It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, along with National Service RAF comedy Get Some In!, all of these brought back his National Service memories. The early Carry On Sergeant film (1958) and Private’s Progress (1956) also brought back similar memories to be shared.
The youngest photo I have of my Dad is his REME platoon passing out photo, signed by all on the back, along with his discharge papers releasing him as a National Service / Territorial Army Reservist a year or two after his National Service ended.
There are many other interesting books about National Service including:
Brasso, Blanco and Bull by Tony Thorne
730 Days Until Demob! National Service and the Post-1945 British Army by Keith Miller, 2003 (which accompanied the National Army Museum exhibition?)
Shire Books short histories: National Service by Peter Doyle and Paul Evans.
Bring Back National Service?
I have met many older work colleagues about whom you could sometimes tell that they had done their National Service in the 1950s and 1960s. Others you would never have guessed that they once passed muster and the scrutiny of a drill sergeant.
Some told you about it; some indeed thought me a bit scruffy and that I could be much improved by a spell of National Service or time at Sandhurst to smarten both me and my ideas up.
Some had had National Service colleagues injured or killed during overseas National Service. 395 National Servicemen were killed between 1945 and 1963 on active service.
Stranger still, some of my overseas student colleagues during my college days many years later were only a year or two older than me but had done national service and active service in their home countries ranging from the Middle East to southern Africa. They didn’t talk much about it. They were generally happy it was over.
“Demob happy” is still a National Service phrase that gets used 50 / 60 years later by many at work about holiday leave or moving on to a new job. Likewise “Demob Suit” for something a little garish or very old fashioned or “Civvies” as well for your non-work clothes.
In a future part of this National Service Remembered blog post, I’ll show some of the Herald figures that Dad and I used in our under the table floor wars or gardens wars (based on other postwar National Service era 1950s troops).
Many of these Herald figures look posed just like the photos from a 1955 British Army infantry training manual that I have, which no doubt formed the content of my Dad’s rifle training.
Then there’s the story of the sadness or joy of a closing suburban toy shop in the Eighties to boost my childhood Herald plastic soldier armed forces …
Happy Father’s Day!
When the Falklands were invaded, my Dad jumped out of bed convinced like much of the Nation that these Islands were somewhere off the coast of Scotland and probably wondering not only why Argentina was invading Northern Scotland but also if 20 years on he would be recalled as a Reservist for Home Defence. Now where’s that National Service / Territorial Army Discharge Certificate …
Posted by Mr MIN, Man of TIN, on Father’s Day, June 18th 2017.
Close up you might notice a range of Army Blue troop types.
Above: The first two were once Britain’s Redcoat Guards marching with rifles at slope, followed by two Britain’s Redcoat Line infantry, a Fimo base repair to a damaged footless US Marines figure, (Home cast? type) Officer with pistol and one of my recent Home cast infantry.
From the back – The simple white belts, equipment and cross belts show up more than practical black and gives a proper toy soldier look.
Basing and Painting
A variety of basing can be seen, experimenting with bases for these soldiers to be part of future Close Little Wars skirmish games on the games table or in the summer garden.
Four of them are based on 2p coins, although I am still experimenting with the best adhesive. Wood Glue might not be strong enough. Whilst it was still wet and white, I mixed in some flock to see how this worked. Flock basing is not very traditional toy soldier but then the two pence bases are practical, suitably light but weighty enough, inexpensive and more importantly, to hand.
To inspire my home cast and pound store figure painting, I look at toy soldiers in my own collection and others online. What would the simple, standard, mass production figures of the past be like, to inspire my paint upcycling of my pound store warriors?
Instantly you can have two nations, two sides (red and blue) needed for gaming from the same batch, pound store bag or figure mould. Must try this with my guardsman casting mould and vintage Airfix guards colour party OO/HO figures.
2. The red coated machine gunners in the Sanderson collection came from a lady selling her father’s 1920s small childhood collection of very simple, often gilt finish figures and cannons. They all have a much loved and well used patina and Miss Sanderson was very pleased that they are being kept together and treasured.
3. Basic quick past paint finish versus modern deluxe painting on these Britain’s figures.
4. I keep sketchbooks of possible colour schemes for pound store or home cast figures from figures seen online, in museums of toy soldier books. Could a pound store cowboy or confederate become a redcoat?
5. Pinterest and Google image search throws up interesting images like this ‘Little Wars’ style spirited redcoat charging, found on the extensive web archives on the Milihistriot website. Could a pound store WW2 soldier become a redcoat?
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