Where are our uniforms?
Far, far away.
When will our rifles come?
P’raps, p’raps some day.
All we need is just a gun
For to chase the bloody Hun
Think of us when we are gone
Far, far away.
On the first day of spring the weather rose to the occasion and 21 March was bright and warm enough to bring out droves of Sunday strollers. They thronged into the parks to enjoy the sunshine, the early spring flowers, and the sight of young soldiers on weekend leave, swaggering self-consciously in stiff new khaki, accompanied by proud mothers or sweethearts in whose eyes they were already heroes. In parks near military hospitals there was the added attraction of genuine wounded heroes to be smiled at sympathetically as they took the air in suits of convalescent blue. Anything military was a draw. In London crowds streamed down the Mall to Buckingham Palace where the King was taking the salute at a march-past of newly fledged Battalions and, when it was over and the stirring music of the band had faded in the distance, hundreds of people flocked into St James’s Park and across Horseguards Parade to Whitehall to linger outside the War Office. There was nothing to be seen except the sentries guarding its austere walls, but the sightseers were satisfied with a fleeting sense of proximity to the seat of great events.
At Knowsley Hall, near Liverpool, where the weather was equally kind, it was the day of days for Lord Derby, for his own troops were on parade. By his own efforts and the expenditure of a considerable sum of money, he had raised and equipped no fewer than four Battalions and earned the title of ‘England’s best recruiting sergeant’. The locals knew them as ‘The Derby Comrades Brigade’, their solid silver cap-badges – provided personally by their patron – represented the Stanley family crest and, although some hundreds of admiring friends and relatives were there to cheer as they marched past, no one was prouder than Lord Derby. Lord Kitchener himself was there to take the salute from the steps of Knowsley Hall. It took fully forty minutes for twelve thousand soldiers to pass the saluting base and Lord Derby’s own recruiting band was there to play them past. Lord Kitchener was full of compliments. Lord Derby was delighted.
But if the Derby Comrades Brigade drew the loudest cheers of the day, the 15th and 16th Cheshires ran them a close second. They came from Birkenhead and not a man among them was taller than five feet two inches. They were the Bantams, small volunteers who had been thwarted by army regulations in their efforts to join up at the start of the war. When it struck those in authority, aghast at the numbers of would-be recruits rejected on grounds of height, that even diminutive soldiers could be useful, they had been only too glad to volunteer. There was a score of bantam Battalions now, and the Birkenhead boys marching past Lord Kitchener cared not a jot if they raised a laugh as well as a cheer. ‘All they’d be good for,’ remarked one unkind onlooker, ‘is to run round the back of a German, bite him in the arse, and make him run.’
Lord Kitchener was having a busy day. He had stayed overnight at Knowsley Hall, where the four thousand men of the Derby Comrades Brigade were encamped in the park, and now, without stopping for lunch, he set off by train to Manchester to take the salute for a second time as thirteen thousand men of the Manchester Regiment and Lancashire Fusiliers marched through Albert Square. The sun shone well into the afternoon, and the crowds cheered as lustily as they had cheered in Liverpool earlier in the day.
The brilliant weather over most of the country came as a tonic, for the euphoria and rejoicing that had greeted early reports of the victorious outcome of the British Army’s first successful offensive was tempered now with disquiet. The casualty lists, trickling through to a public encouraged by gloating reports of vast numbers of enemy soldiers killed and captured, were manifest evidence that the cost had been enormous. Sir John French’s dispatch had also been published and from his account of Neuve Chapelle, people could judge for themselves that the gains had been far, far less than the first published communiqués had led them to suppose. There was downright fury in some quarters of the press itself and the war correspondent of the Daily Mail launched into the attack with all guns blazing:
Sir John French’s despatch on the fighting at Neuve Chapelle is the one topic of conversation. On March 10th an official statement was issued that the British Army had taken the important village of Neuve Chapelle and had captured a thousand prisoners and some machine-guns. Two days afterwards a British official despatch described the magnitude of the victory, the effectiveness of our heavy artillery, and the defeat and heavy loss of the Germans when they attempted counterattacks.
The enemy for the time being was ‘beaten and on the run’. The whole incident was painted in couleur de rose. There was an outburst of national rejoicing. Then suddenly the rejoicing paused. Casualty figures were published in daily instalments, and were surprisingly heavy. Rumours spread from mouth to mouth. Every man one met had some fresh story to tell, stories not in keeping with the official description. Many of them were false – but they fell like a pall on the public mind.
Now Sir John French has given us the real story, and not before it was time. His long despatch is a splendid tribute to the courage and devotion of the British Army, and it records a real victory. But it is very different from the tale told in the first accounts.
The advance was a success. The Germans were, for the moment, overwhelmed. We might have swept right through, far on the road to Lille. It was clearly Sir John French’s intention that the Cavalry Brigade should pour through the breach in the German lines and get the enemy on the run. But our reserves were not brought up in time. The net result was that our real gain – a very important gain – was made during the first three hours of the three days’ battle. We did splendidly. But anyone who studies Sir John French’s despatch with insight can see that his aim was not to capture a village, but to advance on Lille itself. And, but for the unfortunate mist, he would probably have done so.
WHY NOT TRUST THE PEOPLE? Had the real story been told to us at the beginning, all would have been much better.
When the big advance comes, the big advance that would have started at Neuve Chapelle had things gone as well as was hoped, losses will be much greater. The nation will not shrink back. But our authorities would be well advised not to try to blind the public, even for a time, by telling of the victories and glossing over reverses.
The nation as a whole had no intention of shrinking back. It was clear to most people that the war which optimists had predicted would be ‘over by Christmas’ would be no brief affair and that it would take a good deal more than flag-waving enthusiasm to win it. Neuve Chapelle kindled a new spirit of resolve. Many men who had hesitated to join the army now hastened to enlist, and mothers and wives, fathers and sisters, uncles and aunts, redoubled their efforts to find ways of ‘doing their bit’.
The needs of the army were great and the personal columns of local and national newspapers were flooded with appeals. For flint-and-tinder lighters for the troops in the trenches, where smokers were many but matches were scarce and a naked flame might attract the unwelcome attention of the enemy. For dressinggowns, pyjamas, hot-water bottles for the wounded, and gramophones to cheer the lonely vigils of ships’ companies at sea. And for money, money, money. Money to buy stoves and boilers to provide hot baths for troops coming out of the lines. Money for canteens and rest-huts. Money for splints and surgical dressings. Money for comforts of every possible kind. The public were urged to dig so deep and for so many worthy causes that fund-raisers had to exercise a good deal of imagination to make their particular cause stand out among the thousand others that were equally likely to wring cash from a public-spirited citizen’s pocket. The ultimate in personal appeals was directed to the nation’s dogs and cats:
DOGS and CATS of the EMPIRE! The Kaiser said, ‘Germany will fight to last dog and cat.’ Will British dogs and cats give 6d. each to provide Y.M.C.A. Soldiers’ Hut in France?
Lady Bushman, who started an ambulance fund, came up with a winner. Her idea was that every ambulance should be known by a particular feminine Christian name and that every woman of the same name should contribute to its cost. This idea was appealing and it caught on like wildfire.
HILDAS – Miss HILDA WARDELL-YERBURGH, Hoole Hall, Chester, and Miss HILDA SMALLWOOD, 14 Oxford Terrace, Hyde Park, have joined forces in collecting for the HILDA AMBULANCE at Lady Bushman’s suggestion, and will be very grateful if all HILDAS will send donations, however small, to either address.
LOUISA (or LOUISE) MOTOR AMBULANCE – Will each LOUISA or LOUISE send a donation to Miss Louisa Dawson, Woodlands, Crouch End?
AGNES MOTOR AMBULANCE (in connection with Lady Bushman’s scheme) – Will every AGNES HELP? Miss Agnes Randolph, The Almonry, Ely.
All over the country Hildas, Louisas (or Louises!) Agnes’s, Madges, Helens, Dorothys, Marions, and women of every popular Christian name, were inspired to do their bit – opening their purses, importuning friends and relations and collecting cash in every way they could think of for their own particular ambulance. Lady Bushman realised enough money for a whole fleet and soon, to the satisfaction of the donors, Hilda, Louise, Agnes et al. were lurching in the wake of the Tommies along the rough pavé roads of France.
There were some ladies who were keen to do their bit and provide comfort to the troops on a more personal level. One pseudonymous soldier, who published a cri de coeur to a faithless fiancée above a box number, was so inundated by replies that he was forced to expend a further ten shillings on another heartfelt plea, addressed to ladies who were eager to do their bit by consoling him.
KHAKI CLAD, whose message to BROWN EYES appeared here on Tuesday, much regrets that it is impossible for him to answer personally the hundreds of kind people who offer their services in substitution for BROWN EYES.
Some people found even more remarkable ways of doing their bit and Henry Edwards was one of them. He was eighty-five years old, he sported a venerable white beard, and he spent his days waiting outside Lambeth register office. War weddings were the order of the day and business was brisk. This was gratifying to Mr Edwards. Early in the war he had not only seen an opportunity of doing his bit but had spotted the fact that there was a gap in the market.
In many cases, when the soldier-bridegroom expected to be leaving for the front, registry office weddings were hastily arranged, and sometimes with good reason. The licence would be obtained and the ring purchased well in advance, in anticipation of a forty-eight-hour pass, but when the bride and groom appeared for the ceremony itself they frequently forgot to bring along a witness. Henry Edwards, dapper in bowler hat and well-brushed overcoat, a festive flower in his button-hole, was happy to step into the breach and act as best man. Patriotism had its reward. Mr Edwards was not so crass as to demand a fee for his services, but he invariably received a tip ‘commensurate’, as he put it, ‘with the happiness of the bridegroom’. On one occasion this had only amounted to a souvenir fragment of shell from France, but Mr Edwards had not complained. He could afford to be generous for although, on occasion, he received as little as sixpence, he sometimes got as much as ten shillings, and usually not less than five. Since he had done his bit at several hundred military and naval weddings since the war began, he was doing nicely and was as satisfied with his war-work as his grateful clients. It was almost Easter and weddings were all the rage.
CQMS G. Fisher, 1st Bn. Hertfordshire Regt. (TF).
I came home on my first leave and in those days you only got four days and that included getting there and back. When I came home to St Albans they were just beginning to move the 47th London Division Territorials to St Albans for training and they were billeting these chaps in houses in the town. I was going steady with my future wife then, and she was living in a large flat over a shop. There was a regulation that soldiers would not be billeted in the house of the wife of a soldier serving abroad. I said, ‘I think we’d better get married. You won’t have anybody billeted on you then and you’ll get a separation allowance.’ So we decided to get married. We were married in the registry office in St Albans, and I was due to go back to France the next morning. I had to report to Victoria Station at half past four in the morning, so that meant I must be in London the night before, because there was no train from St Albans that early. We were married at three o’clock in the afternoon and in the evening we went up to London.
I had no idea where we could put up for the night. YMCA hostels would take a soldier, but they wouldn’t take a soldier with a lady friend. I was a bit puzzled, so I went up to a policeman outside Victoria Station and I explained the position and that I had to catch a train at 4.30 in the morning to go back to France. I’d got all my kit – rifle, pack and everything. I said, ‘I’ve got my wife with me and we’ve got to get in somewhere for the night. Can you suggest anywhere for me to go?’ So he looked at me and he looked at my wife, and he must have seen that it was all right. He said, ‘Don’t worry, chum. I’ve got a friend just round the corner. I’ll get you fixed up all right.’
He took me to his friend round the corner, knocked on the door, had a chin-wag with him and got us a bedroom. So there we stayed for the night. I was up at four in the morning to get to Victoria and my wife came with me to see me off to France. I didn’t get my honeymoon for two years, because it was two years before I got another leave. So I had my honeymoon two years after I got married, and there’s not many men can say that!
Returning to the front after several months in the trenches, fresh from the subsidiary attack to Neuve Chapelle, Gordon Fisher was an old soldier now. The young soldiers of Kitchener’s Army were still impatiently waiting to go, but there was little sign of their going.
Kitchener’s Mob no longer presented the raggle-taggle appearance of the early months of the war when the word ‘mob’ had all too aptly described them. It could hardly have been otherwise, for the army had been quite unable to clothe the first hundred thousand, let alone the second or the third, and for months they had worn the same civilian clothes they had worn on enlistment. They ranged from natty city suits and bowler hats to flannels worn with blazers and summer boaters, to shabby working clothes worn with mufflers and cloth caps, and even the best of them had long ago worn out and been replaced with uniforms of navy-blue material which frequently led to soldiers being mistaken for guards or even porters at railway stations. The government had placed large orders for khaki, and meanwhile scoured mills and factories all over the country to buy up stocks of whatever cloth was available. The stock of blankets was quickly exhausted and when they ran out Welsh troops were issued with bales of Brethyn Llwyd and Scottish troops with lengths of Harris Tweed to keep them warm. The mills were working overtime, turning out khaki serge by the mile, but buttons were another problem, for most factories which had produced them had now been turned over to the manufacture of munitions, and even working shifts around the clock it was many months before the remaining button manufacturers were able to meet the demand. So Kitchener’s Army had soldiered on, compensated by a clothing allowance of threepence a day, wearing out their own shoe leather for want of army boots, patching, darning, and inexpertly cobbling together holes that inevitably appeared in elbows and knees of suits that had never been intended for wear when crawling about fields and hedges or to come into contact with barbed wire. Now that the hated Kitchener’s blue had given way to soldierly khaki photographers across the country were doing a brisk trade in photos to send home. Many of the soldiers who posed proudly in front of some classical studio backdrop or beside a tasteful marble column supporting a drooping aspidistra, still had no belt or cap, for the equipment arrived in dribs and drabs. They also lacked rifles and, in the army’s view, that was much more serious. It was shortage of rifles that was holding Kitchener’s Army back, for, without them, training could not be completed.
The stock of efficient rifles had long ago been depleted to make up the losses of the early months and to supply the Territorial battalions who had first call on them, and the best that could be done for Kitchener’s Mob was to supply them, if they were lucky, with obsolete practice rifles. They were useless for action, and not much better for training, but they were better than nothing, even if there was no ammunition to go with them. Lacking ammunition, the hard-pressed instructors did their best to carry out such musketry training as could be done without it. The Tommies learned the care of arms, handling of arms, the theory of musketry and the mechanism of the rifle. They did visual training in the open, practised judging distances and drilled for endless hours on fire discipline and control. They did everything that could possibly be done with a rifle except fire it, and when service rifles finally arrived there were usually only enough for one, or, at most, two companies. One by one, after a few days’ serious practice, the companies were sent off to fire a musketry course and, to no one’s astonishment, the results were seldom spectacular. By the end of March not many Battalions had completed musketry training and, until it had, no Battalion had a hope of being pronounced fit for active service.
But the men were fitter than they had been in their lives despite the rigours of training in all weathers, frequently returning to bell tents that were often far from weather-proof. The healthy, outdoor life had hardened them and the drill, the digging, the marches, the football matches and a dozen other kinds of unaccustomed exercise had brought them to a peak of physical fitness. Boys who had enlisted straight from school had broadened out and added inches to their height, pasty-faced office workers were bronzed and hearty, professional men could dig and heave with the best of them, the under-nourished filled out on the plain but plentiful diet, plump sedentary workers became lean and wiry. Even athletes who had prided themselves on their fitness attained greater heights of prowess on army sports fields than they had ever achieved before the war. The scarecrow mob of the previous autumn could now reasonably be described as ‘a fine body of men’.
In the opinion of Kitchener’s Mob, marching occupied the minds of their commanders to an obsessive degree. They had marched for literally hundreds of miles in the course of their training, starting with gentle route-marches of five or six miles, gradually increasing in length and difficulty, carrying more and more equipment, until now they could march for up to twenty miles with a full pack and ‘ammunition’, represented by slabs of lead cut to fit the empty pouches. These were known throughout the army as ‘Kitchener’s Chocolate’ and the passage of a Battalion along a long march was easy to spot by the trail of hated ‘chocolate bars’ discarded by weary Tommies resting at the roadside.
Capt. Sir F. G. Kenyon, KCB, Inns of Court OTC (TF).
March discipline was important. The foundation of steady marching is observing the regulation hundred and twenty paces to the minute. This was practised in company work as well as when the whole Battalion was together and it was kept to, however short the distance. Guides were expected to check their step by looking at their watches at frequent intervals and not to drop the pace more than necessary going up hills. When a company has learnt to keep the regulation rate without distress and as a matter of habit, the foundation of good marching is laid, and the actual distance covered will not matter, provided the men are in reasonably good training.
We also observed march discipline in the matter of regular halts and intervals and, of course, in forming up the column again and keeping to the proper side of the road etc. The men liked to sing but, in that respect, they certainly did not come up to the best standards. The singing was usually spasmodic and none too good! If they had taken the trouble to learn the words of songs, and not merely fragments of choruses, singing on the march would have been far more inspiriting. It was surprising what a large proportion of men could continue to sing contentedly with the beat on the wrong foot, or even attempted to march to rag-time!
But the Tommies were oblivious to such criticisms and carried on singing in their own sweet way. It was their only means of asserting their individual feelings and by now some of the songs were very individual indeed. One Battalion found the tune of ‘Diamonds in Amsterdam’ convenient to march to, but their version, they believed, was an improvement on the original.
I’ve seen maggots in Tickler’s Jam,
Tickler’s Jam, Tickler’s Jam,
I’ve seen maggots in Tickler’s Jam
And if you get some inside your tum
They’ll crawl through
Till they bite your bum,
So watch what you’re sucking
Next time you eat fucking
Old Tickler’s Jam!
It was crude enough to bring a blush to the cheeks of some younger soldiers in whose schoolboy vocabulary ‘Drat it!’ had ranked as a strong expletive. But there was safety in numbers, and with repetition their scruples were gradually overcome until they were singing as lustily as the rest. But the battalion reserved this ditty to enliven marches along quiet country roads where there was little danger of offending the prudish ears of civilians who chanced to be in earshot.
The Tommies of Kitchener’s Army were popular with civilians. They cheered them as they marched in interminable columns through country towns and villages. They hung around camps watching them at drill, at bayonet practice or marching in formation, and on open land and commons the sight of Tommies digging and revetting trench systems was a popular spectator sport. They dug trenches the length and breadth of the country and they had been digging them for months. By spring there were eight miles of trenches on Berkhamsted Common alone, and it was rumoured that there were more trenches in Great Britain than there were in France.
The civilian population took the Tommies to their hearts and, whenever they got the chance, showered them with kindnesses.
Pte. A. Simpson, 5th Bn. (TF), Yorkshire Regt.
As we got our khaki we became available for guard duties outside our billets. I did one outside the Beechwood Hotel, and a few days later I was detailed for another one. We were only supposed to do one guard a week, so I saw the sergeant-major and told him I’d already done one guard that week. ‘What!’ he said ‘And you’ve been selected again?’ ‘Yes, sir,’ I said. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you must be extra good! Do this one and then I’ll see you get another.’ That was the beginning and end of complaining in the army for me!
If it had been a guard on the big house in Cold Bath Road I wouldn’t have complained – no one did! The house was used for isolating new recruits who arrived suffering from scabies, and an old lady in a very large house opposite used to send a servant to a fish and chip shop every night for four fish and chip suppers for the guard corporal and three men. On Sundays when the shop was closed she sent sandwiches across, and often there was a brand new pair of socks for each man. No, we didn’t mind a bit doingthatguard.
Every night some Harrogate churches put on free suppers and provided free writing materials and rest-rooms for the troops, and there were no inquiries about your religion, if any. These kindnesses were particularly welcome to chaps like myself because I made an allotment to my mother which left me with only sixpence a day to provide Blanco, postage stamps, razor blades, and so on.
2nd Lt. W. Cushing, 9th Bn., Norfolk Regt.
In May we went by train to Reigate and spent a most delightful fortnight digging trenches on the hill outside the town. We were under the impression that they were for the defence of London, and a sorry bulwark they would have been! But the whole exercise was an excuse for a good time. We were billeted most comfortably, the men in good houses and the officers with the high society of the town. Two of my colleagues, Glanfield and Everett, were billeted with some well-to-do people in a fine house, really a mansion, and I was invited to dine there one evening. I can’t remember their name, but I do remember their lavish hospitality! Champagne, port, liqueurs, and goldfinger bowls. My God, those gold finger bowls! I stared helplessly at mine, wondering what they were and what we were supposed to do with them. (Glanfield and Everett were equally at a loss, because usually we all dined in the mess.) We were saved by the charming daughter of the house. She must have seen that we were embarrassed, because she whispered to a servant and had them quietly removed.
Rfn. W. Worrell, 12th Bn., Rifle Brig.
People were awfully kind. I was invited to tea with Lady Haliburton, but I’ve never had such an awkward afternoon in my life. I’d thought to get a good tuck-in and that there would be other people there, but I was all on my own in this fancy drawing room, and there was even a footman serving out the tea. I sat on the edge of a little chair trying to balance a tea-cup and eat these dainty little sandwiches, with a lady old enough to be my grandmother asking me questions and me trying to make polite replies and not to talk with my mouth full. I thought, ‘No more of this for me!’ But as I was going out Lady Haliburton said, ‘I don’t think you’ve enjoyed yourself, have you?’ I said, ‘Oh yes I have, and thank-you-very-much-for-having-me’ – like a well brought up lad. She gave a half-smile and said, ‘Perhaps you’d like to come back next Sunday and have tea with the servants?’ So out of politeness I had to say yes, and out of politeness I had to go back the next week.
They took me down to this big kitchen where there was the cook and the other maids and they made an immense fuss of me. They said, ‘What would you like for tea?’ I said, ‘Can I have anything I like?’ The cook said, ‘Yes, of course you can. What would you like?’ I said, ‘Well, I’d like smoked haddock with an egg on it’ – thinking I’d beat them! – but she said, ‘Yes, certainly.’ So I had poached haddock with an egg on it, and I don’t know what-all after that. We had a very jolly time, and I also had a large bag of home-made cakes to take back with me.
Pte. Η. N. Edwards, 6th (Bristol City) Bn., Gloucester Regt.
When we moved to Danbury in Essex I was billeted with two other blokes on some very nice people called Lancaster. I shared a room with a chap whose father was the man who cleaned out the dustbins in Bristol. You met all sorts in the army. The other chap was a bit of a snob and he rather looked down on this chap, Billy Williams, but I found out that he was as nice a chap under the skin as anybody else and we mucked in together and got on like smoke.
Mrs Lancaster was very good to us and looked after us really well. She always gave us an onion pudding before the main meal on the Sunday. It was a long roly-poly suet pudding with plenty of onion in it. She’d cut you a good thick slice of that and pour gravy on it. It was an old tradition in big families, because if you had that you wouldn’t eat so much meat, but we loved these onion puddings. We thought they were marvellous and, of course, with the exercise and all the fresh air you were getting, you were permanently ravenous. But she’d always put on a meal for us, though the billeting money couldn’t have gone far. Oh, she was good to us! We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves there. When we left we clubbed together to buy Mrs Lancaster a present, just some small thing but she was ever so pleased. Many’s the time when we got to France, sitting in some dirty old trench, nothing but bully beef and biscuits, we’d say, ‘Remember those onion puddings at Mrs Lancaster’s?’ We often used to think of them. We could have done with one then!
If the problem of housing the troops had not been entirely solved it was at least much improved since the chaotic early days of mass enlistment when they had squeezed sardine-like into camps and barracks, town-halls, public houses, even race-courses, sleeping in grandstands, on floors, on billiard tables and occasionally at first in the open. Those who were in private billets usually came off best, and even though the majority had moved into camps and the tents were gradually being replaced by huts, private billets were still in demand as Kitchener’s Mob moved around the country. There were few landladies who failed to give full value for the billeting allowance of seventeen shillings and sixpence a week, supplying hearty meals, washing clothes, darning socks and generally mothering their ‘boys’. Some even rose from their beds in the small hours to brew cocoa or Bovril for a Tommy returning wet and chilled from a night exercise and to stoke up the kitchen fire to dry his clothes for the morning.
Now that Kitchener’s Army had been licked into shape and equipment was trickling through, training was more intensive. There were night exercises at least once a week and they were not beloved by the troops, divided into companies, one to ‘attack’ the other, stumbling across dark countryside to some unknown rendezvous and not infrequently losing their way. The night on which novice guides led them on a compass bearing was not easily forgotten by one half-Battalion for the guides had omitted to allow for the difference between true and magnetic north. It was a night of torrential rain and the unfortunate Tommies were obliged to wait in the inadequate shelter of a hedge until the error was corrected. This took a long, long time and, as one unfortunate observed, ‘It’s hard to say how long we were held up – perhaps an hour, perhaps two – but I do know that, as we stood there in the downpour, everyone had ample time to reflect on how much he was enjoying himself.’ When they finally arrived hours late at the barn they were supposed to ‘capture’, the ‘enemy’ who held it had long ago succumbed to cold and boredom and they were all fast asleep. Their opponents were in no mood to wake them gently and the free-for-all that ensued was not precisely the ‘attack’ their Commanding Officer had had in mind.
But with the arrival of weapons, training was becoming more sophisticated and more interesting.
Pte. Η. N. Edwards 6th (Bristol City) Bn., Gloucester Regt.
I joined the machine-gun section when we were at Danbury. At first we only had two machine-guns, and one of them was an ancient old crock. They reckoned it had been used at the Battle of Omdurman! But it had been converted to fire 303 ammunition and it weighed a ton. We all tried to dodge carrying that one because it weighed at least ten pounds more than the other. That was the worst side of it – humping round and carrying these heavy guns and tripods. The glamour side was firing them and we were very proud of ourselves when we got to that stage. But first we had lectures and we had to study and learn all sorts of things, which was easy enough if you had some knowledge of mathematics. But I always remember one occasion when we were learning the use of the clinometer. Now, this simply means that if you’re carrying out direct fire, you put this thing on the gun, and you move it, and it registers so many degrees up, so then you can work out how far your bullets will go parabolically. So the officer who was instructing us took us through it a few times and then he left us to practise working it out. He said, ‘Carry on, Sergeant, will you?’ And Sergeant Mawley looked absolutely baffled and said, ‘I’m very sorry, sir, I don’t think I can do this. I’m a greengrocer in civil life.’ I always remember him saying that! He didn’t know anything about mathematics at all. Poor chap, we simply roared with laughter.
In the well-organised peacetime army it took three years to train a soldier to the standard of full-fledged efficiency which the men of Kitchener’s armies, grappling with every conceivable shortage and difficulty, were now expected to approach in a mere eight months. But they were men of a very different stamp from most pre-war recruits, drive by poor circumstances or unemployment to enlist. The majority of Kitchener’s men had joined up for very different reasons. They were fitter and stronger, they were enthusiastic and keen to learn, and the standard of intelligence was generally high, for the rank and file was made up of men from every stratum of Britain’s rigidly structured society. And they were doing well.
Many were professional men who had been encouraged to enlist in the first heady wave of recruitment and it was a matter of annoyance to some in authority that there were numbers of men serving in the ranks who might have been more usefully employed as officers and, since Commanding Officers were reluctant to weaken their Battalions by recommending their best men, the pleas of the War Office for suitable candidates fell on deaf ears. The supply of officers was a headache but although they were desperately needed the hierarchy at the War Office was not yet prepared to compromise on the rules that had governed the granting of commissions to career officers of the Regular Army in peacetime. Although a few exceptional men were occasionally commissioned from the ranks, the military authorities held to the belief that, with rare exceptions, the qualities of leadership and refinement required by potential army officers could only be nurtured in the public schools. In the present emergency the War Office was not prepared to grant even temporary commissions to men who had not enjoyed the benefit of a public school education.
2nd Lt. W. Cushing.
I applied for a commission on the strength of three years in the Cambridge OTC and in due course I was appointed Temporary Second Lieutenant in the 9th Service Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment. I joined my unit at the Old Ship Hotel, Brighton. The officers were billeted in the hotel, which also served as Battalion HQ. In the orderly room I found the CO., Colonel Shewen, and also Captain Stracey. They were very official, but very courteous – so courteous that they didn’t even rebuke me when I failed to salute the Colonel – and, what’s more, I even omitted to salute the Brigadier General when I had to report to him. Those officers must have said, ‘Upon my word, that’s a green one!’ Their judgement was true, because the Cambridge Officer Training Corps had not fitted me in any way to be a commissioned officer, and this fact was sharply brought home to me in the following weeks. I got very little training that was of any value.*
True, I shouted words of command at an obedient line of strange faces under the eye of a dear old boy. He was a white-haired superannuated sergeant-major and I suppose he had volunteered to come back to help in training the ‘awkward squad’, for he was far too old to fight. I can still hear him calling to the platoon in his thick Norfolk accent: ‘Give me your attention naow, while the orfcer ‘ere is a-larning of ‘is wark.’
I had no command of my own until I went to France. When I did eventually join the regiment overseas I was given a platoon and was expected not merely to bellow commands on parade, but to know how to feed, clothe and billet sixty men, know all their names and characters, keep a platoon roll, attend to their wants, be responsible for their efficiency and the good order of their arms and equipment – clothing, boots, gas-masks, entrenching-tools and a dozen oddments – and also lead them through the discomforts and dangers of trench warfare. My training fitted me for none of these things.
But the apprentice officers were shaping up and what they lacked in experience they made up for in enthusiastic application. As a matter of course, in the leisurely days of peacetime, army officers in home stations spent almost as much time on leave, on the hunting field and in sporting and social activities as they spent in performing their regimental duties. There was a vast gulf between them and the men they commanded, and the day-to-day running of infantry platoons was, more often than not, left entirely in the hands of an NCO.
These regular officers were not dilettantes, and they were certainly not amateurs. The army picked the cream of all applicants, the entrance examination was stiff, the training at Sandhurst or Woolwich was arduous and, even when a subaltern was commissioned into a regiment, promotion came slowly and had to be worked for. The high standard of professionalism in the Regulars had proved its worth again and again since the start of the war, and the Old Army had been decimated in the course of it. There were few enough Regular officers left to hold the fort at the front. There were certainly none to spare for the New Armies and their lack of trained officers was critical. Old officers, often long into comfortable retirement, had been brought back as Commanding Officers and adjutants of New Army battalions consisting of a thousand men and a dozen or so junior officers, temporarily commissioned, who were as inexperienced as the men themselves. Often they were the sons of family friends or acquaintances, chosen by the Colonel himself who then put their names forward for temporary commissions. On his recommendation they were usually granted.
But the retired Colonels and Majors were often pleasantly surprised. Although the new subalterns could be shockingly ignorant of traditional ‘mess manners’ they took a far closer interest in their men than the remote beings who had officered Battalions in peacetime. Junior officers spent eight hours a day with their platoons, they shared the rigours of route-marches, worked far into the night to master the arts of signalling, of map-reading, of calculating distances, and the manifold skills of soldiering that would enable them to keep at least one step ahead of their men and help them in their labours. They took a personal pride in their platoons and it was every subaltern’s ambition to make his particular platoon the best in his battalion. And if they occasionally made mistakes, if now and again a young officer lost his way and inadvertently trudged his disgruntled platoon round three sides of a sixteen-mile square, if he was slow to report defaulters and inclined to be soft on discipline, these faults would be rectified with experience. Meanwhile, the trust and esprit de corps that was gradually building up between the officers and men of Kitchener’s Army as they trained and worked together made up for a great deal.
Most public schools had Officers’ Training Corps, and they were popular with schoolboys whether or not they intended to make a career in the army. On one or two afternoons a week they marched and stamped and ‘shunned and formed fours, practised elementary rifle drill, and generally played at being soldiers under the instruction of some ex-army sergeant, who usually doubled as the school’s PT instructor. The cadets enjoyed field days and in the summer term weekend ‘army’ camps provided a welcome break from school routine, even though the ‘officers’ were only their own schoolmasters masquerading in khaki. Most men who could claim to have had even such rudimentary training in a public school or university OTC were automatically given commissions.
But the Officers’ Training Corps of the Inns of Court was different. It was one of the oldest, certainly the most respected, and when the Territorial Force came into being in 1908 the Inns of Court was the only OTC to be recognised officially and embodied ‘on the strength’. For many years after it was formed in 1859 (as the Inns of Court Rifle Volunteers) it was composed entirely of barristers and students at the bar but, of recent years, it had opened its doors to any university graduate. When the war began the Inns of Court OTC was swamped by new applicants and by past members anxious to re-enlist, and for some time was the only military unit devoted full-time to the training of officers. By the end of the war more than ten thousand men had passed through its ranks and been commissioned.
They made excellent officers.
Lt. Col Ε. H. L. Errington, VD, Inns of Court OTC (TF).
Unquestionably our own NCOs did not as a rule have the snap or smartness of the pre-war Regular. Although we tried to keep a certain number rather longer than the usual period, a man generally became an NCO simply as part of his training and, of course, went away as soon as he was fit for a commission. If we had been working on the Sandhurst system, the want of experience in the NCOs might have been a weak point, but our object was not perfect drill, nor were we dealing with boys, or trying to develop a particular type. Our object was a high standard of character. We were dealing with men, and trying to produce officers according to their individual characteristics, and the fact that all of us – officers, NCOs and men – were all of the same class was an enormous asset. The object of an officer’s training must be to equip him mentally and physically to play his part in the realities of war. In the military profession failure is paid for in the lives of others.
If our NCOs were inexperienced in the military sense, they were not inexperienced in life or ignorant of the meaning of true discipline. Above all, they had the unfailing advice and guidance of their Regimental and Company Sergeant-Majors, and the CSMs were all men who had declined to take commissions for the good of the Corps. CSM Walters, for example, was an old and famous ‘Varsity blue. He was also a born soldier and to see him deal with his company was a lesson in the art of training. He was feared by the slackers, adored by every man of backbone, and a constant source of joy to me as Commanding Officer.
There were few other battalions in the British Army which boasted a sergeant who quoted Cato (and in Latin!) to raw recruits on the parade ground or, when they assembled for a night exercise, addressed them in the words of Catullus, ‘Vesper adest, juvenes, consurgite.’* There were not many Battalions who had a quartermaster-sergeant who amused himself off-duty by turning King’s Regulations into perfect iambics, and there was none in which so many legal minds were bent on dissecting these sacrosanct military laws in search of legal niceties that would admit of novel and more advantageous interpretations. There was very little ‘crime’, as the army knew it, but on the rare occasions when some miscreant was brought before the Colonel this added a certain spice to the proceedings.
The fertile minds of the rank and file frequently came up with imaginative explanations to excuse their misdemeanours. Two men charged with over-staying weekend leave could not deny that they had missed the train, for an NCO of the Corps had seen them racing at the last minute towards the buffet, and madly racing back again as the train steamed out taking their kit with it. But their ‘defence’ was original. A band playing on the station had struck up ‘God Save The King’. As soldiers and as patriots they had no alternative but to stop and stand to attention, even if it meant missing the train – which, ‘to their deep regret’, had been the case. The Colonel did not believe a word of it, but he secretly admired their ingenuity, and let them off with a warning.
There was one member of the Corps with whom neither excuses nor legal falderols would wash, and only the most foolhardy private would have thought of trying it on. Regimental Sergeant-Major Burns was a Regular soldier of the Scots Guards, who had been appointed to the Corps a year earlier. His job was to lick the embryonic officers into shape and, barristers or not, he would stand no nonsense from anyone if he was the Lord Chief Justice himself. No one, from the Colonel downwards, ever dreamed of questioning his judgement or his authority. RSM Burns was an awesome figure, and well he knew it.
Lt. T. S. Wynn, 2nd Bn., Suffolk Regt.
The dominating character for the rank and file was undoubtedly the Regimental Sergeant-Major. Burns was everywhere. From the outset he gave us raw recruits a precise idea of our unworthiness to be members of the Corps, and of his great and singular condescension in instructing us. It was he who first expounded to us the great truth that although we might, by some fluke of fate, become lieutenants, or even captains and majors, we should not – we could not – become a real RSM. His voice spread desolation all over the parade ground. His eye always seemed to light on us cowering in the rear ranks and spotted a chilled hand straying into a greatcoat pocket. He was the best representative of the Regular Army that some of us ever met either before, during or after the war. It was even rumoured among gullible privates that RSM Burns was a member of the Army Council, and some of us could well believe it!
Capt. Sir F. G. Kenyon.
Every man entered the Corps as a private, and learned his recruit, squad and company drill as such. What differentiated the Corps from an ordinary infantry battalion came at a later stage in their training when the men began to learn to drill others, so the handling of sections and platoons, and even companies, was not confined to NCOs but given to every man in turn. They were never allowed to forget that they were learning to be privates so that they might learn to be officers. And as the NCOs gained experience they were given command of platoons and half companies in field exercises, with officers accompanying them to observe and assist or criticise later.
Lt. C. S. Wynn.
Battalion field days were an adventure, and if you had a motor cycle and a job as an orderly, it was a joyous adventure. But even lacking this, there were all kinds of possibilities. For instance, you might find yourself suddenly placed in command of a section or a platoon or even of a company. Then you learned in the bitter school of experience why things went wrong in a battle. You learned the importance of information (even ‘negative’ information) and of ‘keeping in touch’, and you learned from your own experience how terribly exhausting a ten-mile rearguard action can be to heavily laden men, sustained on bread and cheese. And I recall the Company Sergeant-Major pointing out very effectively that ‘fire orders’ lustily given and quickly carried out were not likely to produce good results if the sights were not adjusted! Of course you might more often be a mere ‘man’ (as distinct from an ‘officer’) and your lot might be to tramp round the Beacon in the snow, or attack it on a boiling hot day. But here again the gods might be kind, and there were worse things in life than being ‘reserves’ behind a sunny hedge for hours on end, knowing (without much sense of loss!) that you probably wouldn’t share in the glory of the battle. These excursions gave us heaps of practice in comparing the ground with the map, which can’t possibly be taught by lectures, and later on at the Somme, or at Arras or up the Menin Road, there was many an officer who was able to apply the lessons he’d learned with the Inns of Court, and was thankful that he had.
The War Office looked kindly on the Inns of Court and gave them a free hand. Theirs was not only the most effective means of training officers, it was also the most economical. Until they were commissioned, the men trained and were paid as rankers, and the cost of training a private on a three-month intensive course was a fraction of the cost of training temporarily commissioned officers who went straight into service Battalions to pick up such training as they could from their overworked Colonels and Adjutants.
If the OTC was in favour with the War Office, it was even more popular with distracted Commanding Officers trying to build up Battalions of the New Army with a sadly deficient complement of subalterns to assist them. Week after week, as recruits became efficient and progressed to the ‘special instruction class’, harassed Colonels travelled down to their training ground at Berkhamsted to look them over and pick out likely candidates as officers for their battalions. The demand was huge and even though the Inns of Court was constantly recruiting, it was hard to keep up with it.
Kitchener’s Army was not quite ready to go to war, but it soon would be and the War Office was already looking ahead. It was evident that many more men would be needed, recruiting figures had been tending to tail off, and at the end of March the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee launched a National Patriotic Campaign to bring laggards into the ranks. There were public meetings and special appeals during patriotic shows at cinemas and theatres where some soldiers even appeared on stage in rousing flag-waving finales. Kitchener’s Army, which now, in its own view, was fine-honed to military perfection and was sick of kicking its heels, was only too happy to help, and when battalions in training were canvassed for volunteers they were seldom slow to come forward. Recruiting made a welcome change from drills and parades and successful ‘recruiters’ were given small cash rewards and sometimes privilege leave, but it was not always a sinecure. The fledgling soldiers were immaculately turned out in new unblemished khaki, and when they knocked on doors to inquire if the household included a man of military age they sometimes received a dusty answer from the lady of the house. ‘My boy is already out in France. When are you going?’ It was a sore point.
Cpl. G. R. Daniels, 12th (Bermondsey) Bn., East Surrey Regt.
I had just attained the rank of corporal and one day the RSM on the parade ground said to me, ‘I hear you can do a bit of spouting.’ I assured him that I was never lost for a word or two and he promptly detailed me the following morning to march with thirty men led by the recruiting band from the town-hall and halt at various points in the district. When people stopped to listen to the music I was to address the crowd in general about the need for men and at the same time my men were to go round individually and tackle likely recruits. I felt extremely cocky leading my contingent at the head of a first-rate military band as we proudly marched up Jamaica Road, but my return to quarters was a different matter. I had lost no less than twenty-five of my thirty men. They’d had the nifty idea that they could best find suitable recruits in public houses and they had fallen by the wayside!
However we did have some successes. We were all well used to wearing our khaki uniforms and puttees by now, except for one poor chap called Ben Pendry. He was a stocky little man with extremely broad shoulders and a torso that by rights should have been attached to much longer legs and nothing had been found to fit him in all the stock of clothing we’d received. Poor old Pendry had to parade every day in a black suit and bowler hat, but we even managed to turn this to advantage. We used to volunteer to attend evening recruiting drives where people made rousing speeches and lads who were willing to join up were invited to mount the platform and do it there and then. Pendry used to go along in his civvies and mingle as one of the crowd and when the speaker asked for volunteers, he would dramatically rush forward up to the platform to set an example. I can’t say how often Pendry enlisted in the army before he got his khaki. It must have been a dozen times!
Now that they felt sure that their long delayed departure for France must be fast approaching some soldiers found other constructive ways of passing their leisure hours. Several men of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders took advantage of a local schoolmaster’s offer to teach themselves simple French. He believed in learning by rote and he favoured kindergarten methods. He did not trouble these awkward pupils with the complicated rules of grammar and construction, nor did he confuse them with French spelling. He chalked up useful phrases in phonetics on the blackboard and the soldiers laboriously printed them into notebooks and learned them by heart to recite in ‘class’. It was quite a sight to see the husky Highlanders squeezed into desks designed for ten-year-olds and earnestly chanting parrot-wise:
Ji sweez onglay
kelki shows a mongjay
They rather enjoyed it until they discovered that Onglay’ meant English, and took offence. There were a few other difficulties for the teacher found it almost impossible to understand the Scottish tongue of his pupils, and this problem was mutual. One of the soldiers remarked, ‘I can manage the French all right. It’s the English the master talks I canna understand!’
The soldiers were hoping very soon to be able to put their newly acquired linguistic skills into action, and to get into action themselves. As the spring days lengthened and there was still no sign of marching orders, impatience mounted. The 10th Royal Fusiliers invented a sarcastic parody of a popular recruiting song.
On Sunday they say we’ll go to Flanders,
On Monday we’re down for Nice or Cannes
On Tuesday we smile
When they hint at the Nile,
On Wednesday the Sudan.
On Thursday it’s Malta or Gibraltar,
On Friday they’ll send us to Lahore,
But on Saturday we’re willing
To bet an even shilling
We’re here for the duration of the war!
It brought the house down at camp concerts and it reflected the sentiments of virtually every Tommy in Kitchener’s Army.