Fascinating man from Eshowe who left a large legacy

2013-09-10 00:00

WHEN moving home, as I have done recently, relocating from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, items you had forgotten about have a habit of turning up. One such that I became reacquainted with was a 64-page green soft-cover A6-size pamphlet titled How to Stalk — A Practical Manual for Home Guards by Major John Langdon-Davies.

I purchased it many decades ago at an army surplus store prior to embarking on a hiking holiday. Maybe I thought it would come in useful.

Published in 1944, at first glance it is a blend of Monty Python and Dad’s Army, with photographs of “half-men” — half in uniform and half in twig-and-leaf camouflage — in the section The Science of Fooling Your Enemy. Another instruction is “use three yards of string to secure garnishing (leaves, ferns, scrub, rubbish) to your helmet”. Six yards are required “to secure the same sort of garnish to the danger points of your uniform — respirator case, shoulders, knees, seat, etc.”.

It might seem comic now, but then it was for real. The first paragraph asks the reader to “suppose you are member of the Home Guard in a district which has been temporarily overrun by German invaders”. Langdon-Davies outlines duties and the skills to perform them. These include learning how to be a Skilled Hunting Animal, The Proper Way for the Human Hunting Animal to Move, Practical Exercises in Balanced Moving and The Proper Way to Think of Your Rifle. The final section outlines exercises that put these skills to the test, such as Stalking your Neighbour and Sabotaging the Germans.

According to the cover, Langdon-Davies was also author of the Home Guard Training Manual and the Home Guard Fieldcraft Manual. What it doesn’t mention was that he was a conscientious objector in World War 1 and also author of Behind the Spanish Barricades, written from the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. In fact, doing a little desktop research throws up the story of a fascinating and complex man who has left a considerable legacy; what’s more, he was born just up the road from Durban, in Eshowe, in 1897.

Langdon-Davies went to England at the age of six. An essay titled The Hermit Crab was published on the young people’s page of The Lady magazine in 1910. This was followed in 1917 by a volume of poetry, The Dream Splendid. He was called up the same year but declared himself a conscientious objector. As a result, he served a spell in prison and forfeited one of three scholarships to St Johns College, Oxford. His marriage to Constance Scott in 1918 lost him another, conditional on being unmarried, and he subsequently abandoned his studies and became a freelance writer. During the twenties and thirties, he moved between the U.S., Britain and Spain, a country that he came to love, writing several books on politics and science.

Langdon-Davies welcomed the formation of the Second Spanish Republic, but when the civil war broke out he was sent to report on it by the News Chronicle. Out of that experience came his best-known book Behind the Spanish Barricades.

His daughter, Debbie, describes how her father was shocked by what he witnessed during what he always called “the Spanish tragedy”, especially the plight of the thousands of children on the streets of Spanish cities: “orphaned, separated, hungry, cold, frightened. He could not stand seeing their suffering”.

In 1937, Langdon-Davies came up with a plan for the Foster Parents Scheme for Children in Spain.

“His idea was to set up colonies for the children to be looked after, but with the idea of a personal relationship between a child and an English sponsor. As someone said — my father put down his pen, and picked up the child.

“My father’s idea was accepted by the government and two large houses in the Catalan mountains were made available to house as many children as possible. He was joined by Eric Muggeridge, who had been an aid worker and now helped to set up the colonies. Soon they were joined by Esme Odgers, an Australian communist who had come to Spain to help fight fascism, and Nick [Barton] Carter, an American who had come to Spain to drive ambulances.”

Debbie says her father’s aim was to “nurture the child, expand their future through education, safeguard them and celebrate their talents”.

The same vision still informs what grew into a worldwide institution know as Plan, that now operates in 50 countries around the world.

My small pamphlet is evidence of Langdon-Davies’s work as a military instructor for the Home Guard during World War 2, for which he was awarded an MBE. Post-war, he continued writing about European politics. His last book, Spain, was published in the year of his death, 1971.

• feature1@witness.co.za

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