The Territorial Force had been on the move for months and where they ended up depended on the luck of the draw. Some people in the higher echelons of the War Office would have preferred to keep the Territorials at home to act as a foundation on which new armies of raw volunteers could be built. But it was not to be thought of while there were trained Regulars, fit and ready to fight, now kicking their heels in foreign stations round the Empire. The first priority was to bring them home again and to send the Territorials to protect Great Britain’s interests in their place. So the grand reshuffle began, troopships set sail, and the Terriers were packed off to Ireland, to Egypt, to South Africa. More than thirty battalions embarked on the long voyage to India but the optimists who had expected something resembling a holiday cruise were doomed to disappointment. The ships were packed and the accommodation was basic, particularly in vessels that had been hastily requisitioned and refitted. There were up to four ‘sittings’ for meals which the men ate catch-as-catch-can, squatting wherever they could find a space on a crowded deck or narrow passageway. But deck space was hard to find, for at any hour of the day there was hardly a corner that was not occupied by some sweating platoon drilling or practising musketry or signalling at the insistence of an NCO or officer who was anxious to make the most of the allotted time before the precious space must be surrendered to the next platoon on the rota. Throughout the voyage, from dawn to nightfall, the men were kept hard at it in a rigorous programme of lectures and physical training to keep them alert and fit for duty at the other end. At least there were no route-marches.
The same could not be said for the Territorials in Malta where the luck of the draw had taken Arthur Agius and his battalion as part of the 1st London Infantry Brigade which was detailed to carry out garrison duties while training at the same time for the war. They were fitter than most of the raw recruits now endlessly tramping the roads of Great Britain, footsore in civilian shoes, and the two companies that marched every four days by the coast road to the ninth milestone rather enjoyed the exercise in the mild Mediterranean climate. Their duties were important but hardly onerous, for they amounted to little more than manning the coastline in the unlikely event of an enemy attack, and keeping a sharp look-out for submarines that might threaten the sealanes and the ships of the Royal Navy.
The Londons camped under canvas and they looked forward to their four-day stints away from barracks, much as they had looked forward in peacetime to getting away from the office to the summer camp. Like life in the office, the routine at Imtarfa Barracks kept every nose to the grindstone. There were drills and lectures all day long to keep the men busy and bring the Battalion up to scratch for active service. The Londons pounded the barrack square, drilling by platoons, by companies and eventually joining up with sister battalions to drill and manoeuvre as a brigade. There were extra sessions, mostly early in the morning, for the specialist sections, the signallers, the machine-gunners, the scouts – even the band was detailed for stretcher-bearing practice from 6 to 7.30 every morning except Sundays. It was hardest of all on the officers who not only had to supervise the training of the men but had to be trained themselves in the finer arts of war. Officers’ lectures were held literally at crack of dawn in the two hours before the battalion day officially began with breakfast at 8 and first parade at 8.30. There were more lectures for the officers at 5.30 p.m. while the men were enjoying tea at the end of an arduous day, and later, after dinner in the mess, the officers were obliged to write up notes and clarify their own thoughts on such matters as ‘Esprit de Corps’, ‘March Discipline’, ‘Personal Hygiene’, ‘The Origin of the War’ and ‘Malta’ so that they in turn could deliver lectures on these topics to their men. ‘Personal Hygiene’ was the source of deep embarrassment to younger officers afflicted with shyness. It was true that the lecture gave useful advice on the inadvisability of eating unwashed fruit and drinking unboiled goats’ milk or water, but its real purpose was to warn adventurous soldiers of the dire consequences likely to befall any who succumbed to the wiles of prostitutes plying their trade in the back streets of Valletta. Some officers delivered this information in a manner so obscure and so ambiguous that some youthful innocents were led to believe that all feminine society was to be avoided, from the vendors who sold grapes and apples outside the barracks to the refined lady volunteers who doled out books, writing paper and cups of tea at the Floriana Soldiers’ Club.
The Commanding Officer, Colonel Howells, was ultimately responsible for the whole complicated training programme and no one in the Battalion worked harder. His most exacting task – and it seemed at times to be never ending – was to instil the idea that theBattalion was now on a war footing. The men were no longer ‘Saturday Afternoon Soldiers’ and the happy-go-lucky attitude, the spirit of friendly bonhomie that had bonded the battalion in peacetime simply would not do in time of war. It was a difficult message to get across. For all their enthusiasm and goodwill the Territorials were independent spirits and despite their rapidly improving skills as soldiers their attitudes were still those of civilians. The Army frowned on ‘conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline’ and it was the Colonel’s duty to put aside his personal feelings and crack down hard.
In every Territorial battalion it was a time-honoured custom after drills, and sometimes before them, for its members to repair to the local pub for a beer with their mates, and frequently with an officer. Pubs in the vicinity of a drill-hall did good trade on Wednesdays and Saturdays – the Lilliput in Bermondsey had even given its name to the local Territorial battalion, the 12th East Surreys, universally known as ‘The Lilliput Lancers’. It was too much to expect that such men would take kindly to the army regulation that sergeants might not walk out in the company of corporals when off-duty, and that corporals and lance-corporals might not walk out with privates. Colonel Howells was not the only Commanding Officer of a Territorial battalion who was having difficulty in getting this message across to his men.
But if the order was flagrantly breached, it was not because the men were insubordinate, but because they were genuinely unable to see the sense of it and could not believe that the Colonel was serious. ‘But sir,’ blurted one aggrieved soldier, marched into Captain Agius’s company orderly room on the heinous charge of strolling out of barracks with his brother, ‘we sleep in the same bed at home!’ He was perhaps the sixth man who had been hauled up on the same charge at company office that morning, and Agius was weary. ‘Seven days confined to barracks,’ he rapped. But he saw the point. It so happened that his own brother, Richard, was an officer in the battalion.
Many had been workmates in civvy street. There was almost a whole platoon from Brooks’ Piano Manufacturers, a contingent from Holt’s Bank, a happy band of dustmen and roadsweepers from Westminster Cleansing Department, and groups of friends or colleagues from a score of sports clubs and business concerns were scattered through the battalion. In a Territorial battalion rank was something to be observed within the bounds of the drill-hall and parade-ground and in peacetime a Terrier would no more have thought of walking ten paces behind a workmate who happened to be a sergeant than of saluting the lady at the breakfast table who happened to be his mother. All ranks enjoyed the social life, mixing in free-and-easy comradeship at the ‘family hops’ held once a month in the drill-hall, and at the children’s parties and smoking concerts at Christmas. How could they be expected to take kindly to being split up now according to the number of stripes a friend might sport on his arm?
In peacetime this camaraderie had been the strength of the Battalion – but it could be a fatal weakness on the battlefield where authority and discipline might tip the balance between failure and success. The real headache, when the Colonel clamped down, was that the NCOs, who were the backbone of the Battalion, resigned en masse rather than give in. Day after day Battalion Orders contained lists of NCOs – many recently promoted – followed by the ominous words ‘reverted to private at his own request’. In the face of the Colonel’s displeasure the officers detailed to supply replacements from the ranks were forced to resort to stratagems ranging from flattery to near-bribery, in their efforts to persuade men to accept a stripe. Most refused. Colonel Howells, now thoroughly exasperated and well aware that the efficiency of his Battalion could be at stake, ordered that henceforth any man ‘desiring to relinquish rank’ must first be interviewed by himself. But that was as far as he could insist. The men knew their rights and if persuasion didn’t work there was nothing the Colonel could do but acquiesce.
The matter of rights was the subject of eager discussion in any battalion of Territorials. Most companies in a battalion of Regular soldiers would have a barrack-room lawyer, but in a battalion composed mainly of men drawn from the business and professional world every man knew his rights and saw no reason why he should not avail himself of the privilege he had enjoyed as a private individual of exercising his own judgement. Grievances were not many (the walking-out order had been the most resented) but the Colonel was appalled to receive a curt notice from Brigade. It had travelled down the chain of command from the frosty eminence of Whitehall itself and it conveyed the unwelcome news that a number of his men had complained of minor grievances direct to the War Office. This was not only a breach of military etiquette but was in breach of King’s Regulations.
Wearily the Colonel ordered a special parade of each company for the purpose of hearing paragraph 439 of King’s Regulations read aloud by the Company Commander. He also ordered each officer to confirm in writing that this had been done and that he, personally, was satisfied that the men understood the position. In accordance with the Army Act, complaints must be made through their captain; if the complaint concerned their captain they might approach their commanding officer, and if it concerned the commanding officer they might complain, in the last resort, to the General during the annual inspection. The Londons were not unfamiliar with King’s Regulations, but in their eagerness to inform themselves of a soldier’s rights, they had tended to skim over the sections that set out his obligations.
But by November the Battalion had settled down and, on the whole, Colonel Howells was not displeased with his men. They worked hard, they were cheerful and enthusiastic and they were beginning to understand the necessity of obeying the rules imposed on them by the Army. There were almost sufficient NCOs, some of the originals had even come back to the fold, and the slap-happy chumminess of the early months was giving way to pride in esprit de corps.
Off duty the Londons amused themselves as best they could. Football enthusiasts organised scratch games on the barrack-square, there were swimming parties and at weekends there were passes to Valletta, where the entertainment ranged from quiet afternoons at the Floriana Soldiers’ Home to visits to the cinema, an occasional concert at the theatre, and the rougher attractions of bars and cafes frequently followed by a good deal of horse play on the way home. Monday after Monday a procession of soldiers who were marched into the orderly room on a charge of appearing capless on parade explained with an air of injured innocence that the cap had been ‘knocked off on the last train from Valletta’. Their reward was invariably seven days CB as well as having to stump up for a replacement.
Although Colonel Howells was required to turn these amateur soldiers into professionals, and although he went by the book and doled out punishments as severely as any regimental martinet, he had a sneaking sympathy for the men who had difficulty in adapting to the new regime. Notwithstanding the harsher discipline demanded by the circumstances, the Battalion was still very much a family. Five babies had been born into the Battalion since their fathers had been in Malta and, just as they had in peacetime, these happy events had appeared in Battalion Routine Orders. Officially it was noted that the new arrivals had ‘been taken on strength of the Married Establishment’ and the babies’ heads had been joyously wetted in celebratory pints. But there had been sadness too, and the Battalion mourned two stillborn infants and one young mother who had died in childbirth. It had grieved the Colonel that he had not been able to grant compassionate leave. The distance was too great, and there was neither time nor shipping space to spare. The Royal Navy was stretched to the limit, and the troopships that were passing the shores of Malta every day were crammed to capacity with Regulars on their way to the war. The Londons followed their progress and, watching through binoculars from the guard post at milestone 9, wondered when their own turn would come.
It had come just after Christmas, and the last days of the old year had bustled with preparation, with packing up, with kit inspections, and a grand parade at which the London Infantry Brigade had been inspected by the Governor of Malta who, now that the brigade was on the point of departure, showered them with praise and compliments. Relations between the soldiers and the Maltese had not always been so cordial. The soldiers had been convinced that everyone was out to do them down, from the hawkers of fruit who haunted the barracks to certain strait-laced Maltese ladies who had caused them to be reprimanded for bathing in the nude. Now, all was forgiven and all Valletta turned out to cheer the London Brigade on its way as it mustered on the Custom House Quay. The Grand Harbour was full of ships, dressed overall in honour of the Brigade, and, riding at anchor among them, the Neuralia and the Avon waited to take them on board.
Capt. A. J. Agius, MC, 3rd (City of London) Bn., London Regt., Royal Fusiliers (TF).
We embarked on the SS Avon in two parties. I was in the second lot. The Avon was in mid-harbour and we were taken out in a tug with a lighter on each side and got on board about 12.40 p.m. The Avon was a big ship, about eleven thousand tons, and very comfortable, though the saloon had been spoilt by being divided in two by wooden boarding. The officers feed on the port side and the men in the centre and to starboard. The Smoking Room is the Sergeants’ Mess. Several of the men have 1st Class two-berth cabins temporarily made into four-berth. The 4th Battalion embarked after we did and we sailed about 3.30 p.m. – the Neuralia sailing just before us.
What an impressive scene it was! The Barraccas were crowded with people cheering and waving. All the boats in the harbour hooted. The crew of the French battleship France lined up on deck and cheered us as we went by, and there were two bands, one on the Lower Barracca and one on Fort St Elmo. They played ‘Auld Lang Syne’ as we sailed out of the harbour – and we sang, and they cheered, and the ships’ sirens kept on hooting until we cleared the harbour and turned out to sea. What a send-off!
On 6 January they disembarked at Marseilles to a welcome that almost matched the send-off from Malta, and marched through streets lined with cheering crowds to entrain for the long journey north. It took a good half hour to squeeze the Battalion and its baggage on to the long train. There were two first-class coaches for the officers to share, three to a compartment, but the men came off worse. They looked in dismay at what they took to be cattle trucks – the windowless military rolling-stock designed by the practical French to be equally suitable for the transportation of supplies, ammunition, eight horses or forty men. Even with clean straw on the floor, with warm blankets and kit-bags propped up as makeshift armchairs, this accommodation was a bleak comedown from the soft berths of the Avon. But they were not cast down, and the humorists of the Battalion were soon busily embellishing the wide sliding doors with slogans they considered more suitable than the stencilled notice ‘40 hommes. 8 chevaux’ favoured by the military authorities.Don’t breathe on the windows ran a close second in popularity to Non-stop train to Berlin. Teas were dished out and a generous issue of cheese, bread, jam and bully beef, with the warning that these rations were to last over the two-day journey.
The officers, who were allowed to leave the train in batches in search of dinner, did rather better. Arthur Agius went off with Harry Pulman, Cyril Crichton and Harold Moore to the Hotel Bristol and dined sumptuously on hors d’oeuvre, bouillabaisse, and jambon aux epinards, washed down with Asti Spumante. Then, with appetites whetted by the delicious French food, they skipped cheese and dessert in favour of dashing to the shops in search of something better than army rations to sustain them on the way north.
Capt. A. J. Agius, MC.
We got back to the station at 8 and the train finally left at 8.50 p.m. We settled down very comfortably. We arranged three bunks round the compartment, Edouard and Giles on the seats on either side and I in the middle. I put a packing case in the gap and a long cushion over. In the daytime we put the seats back and we each have a corner. The fourth is our larder – on the rack the bread, cheese, bully beef, jam and water, on the seat bottles of beer and wine, sardines, butter, chocolate and biscuits and, hanging near the window, a very moist chicken and some rather warm cheese. The drawback was that, being a non-corridor coach, there were no conveniences! We washed in our canvas buckets, shaved in water in my mess tin (warmed by being put on the hot radiator) and did our teeth in our cups. We had brekker of bread, cheese, sardines and beer.
It is a most extraordinary journey! Everyone turns out to cheer us and the men are most cheerful. We reached Mâcon at 1 p.m. and stopped for forty-five minutes, so we dashed into the buffet and had a meal – two helpings of steaming omelette, vin ordinaire and cafe au lait. For the rest of the afternoon we had a triumphal progress. Every time the train stops there’s a fearful jolt as it is braked like a goods train. Everywhere we stopped for a few minutes we had a royal reception – vociferous cheers and the men had presents of wine, fruit and cigarettes showered on them, and the donors would insist on signing their autographs in their paybooks. It was rather a wonderful sight.
At 7.15 p.m. we made a stop of nearly an hour at a place called Les Laumes Alesia where we took the opportunity of getting a meal in the local inn, very simple, but very good – soup, peas, omelette and beef as four separate courses – 2 francs 50, washed down by vin ordinaire. The men had hot coffee, over which I presided as orderly officer. We left Les Laumes about ten past eight. It was a very cold night, and when they changed engines they forgot to attach the heating pipe! I slept like a rock, however.
Trundling through the January night the thousand men in the wagons behind the first-class coaches that contained their officers did not notice the loss of heating since they had not enjoyed this amenity in the first place, but everyone, from the Colonel downwards, noticed that it was getting colder and colder as the train travelled north. When they woke, cramped and chilled, they were well north of Paris. There was snow on the ground and the train had swung on to the Calais line that would take them on up to Flanders. And if the freezing winter weather was hard to take after the balmy Mediterranean, if the home leave they had been hoping for was clearly not to be, it was at least some consolation that they were on their way to the real war.
In fact, they were on their way to Etaples, and when they reached there it was not much to their liking. Even in far-off Malta the troops had heard of the legendary Flanders mud, but they had hardly expected to meet it, ankle deep, as they stepped in pitch darkness on to the station platform. The passage of two battalions and numerous teams of horses coming in from the country roads had churned the snow into a mess of slush and slime and the Battalion, weighed down by heavy kit-bags, slipped and slithered and swore as they struggled to keep their footing and form up by companies in the street outside. It took the best part of an hour before they could set off in the teeth of a hail-storm to march to the camp and, although it was only three-quarters of a mile away, it was almost another hour before they reached it.
In due course the camp at Etaples would be one of the largest base camps in France, but in January of 1915 it was in its infancy, a makeshift affair scarcely large enough to hold the three battalions of the London Infantry Brigade whose unhappy lot it was to inhabit the sagging tents pitched across open country beyond the sand dunes on a desolate coast. Behind them a belt of trees and the slopes of more fertile farmland gave a certain amount of shelter, but the tent lines had been badly placed with the openings towards the sea and all night they flapped and ballooned in the icy wind that whistled through every fold and crevice. With fifteen men jammed into tents meant for twelve nobody got much sleep.
Next morning, their labours cheered on by frequent showers of sleet, all three battalions spent three hours striking camp and re-positioning the lines and re-pitching the tents to face inland while company cooks, working under difficulties to keep the fires going, contrived to brew endless supplies of tea and cook hot dinners at the same time. At the end of the day the camp was much improved, and it was all to the good for, as everyone knew, they were likely to be there for some time.
There was much to be done, and it could not be done in a day. The most welcome event was the issue of warm clothing, mufflers, cardigans, caps with ear-flaps to let down against the cold, serge uniforms to replace thin khaki drill and, best of all, warm overcoats. Packs were issued to replace the peacetime kit-bags which were packed with superfluous kit and sent home. The officers’ tin trunks went too, and with them the blue patrol dress worn as mess-kit in the palmy days in Malta, the Sam Browne belts of shining leather, and the swords which were now deemed by the Army to be surplus to the requirements of trench warfare. The officers were issued with revolvers instead (they had to pay for them) and from now on were to carry haversacks and wear practical webbing straps and equipment like the men. Personal kits were issued in dribs and drabs – but the battalion equipment was another matter. Day after day they waited for the transport – the general service wagons to carry rations and forage, the water-carts, the cooks’ wagons, the tool-carts, the carts for small-arms ammunition, and the horses that would pull them all.
Without its wheels the Battalion was useless. Without weapons it could do nothing at all, and the few rifles that had been required for garrison duties had been left behind in Malta. It was all very well for the Colonel to receive instructions that ‘training will continue’ but lacking weapons, in the absence of a parade ground or even of fields that were firm underfoot, with no dry huts or marquees where the men could be assembled, and since it only stopped raining in order to snow, it was difficult to keep the men occupied let alone train them. There was nothing for it but to route-march them round the country roads hour after dreary hour, to go through the motions of practising ‘company attacks’ with sticks to represent rifles, flags to represent the enemy, and string to represent the trenches which, for lack of spades and shovels, they were unable to practise digging in the sodden ground. As often as possible, as a welcome diversion, the men were marched to Etaples in mud-spattered batches to wash in hot water at the fishmarket or at the gasworks. Every day brought fresh rumours and expectations but it was more than two weeks before the tools and the transport finally arrived. Last of all came the rifles.
The machine-guns arrived too, to the profound relief of Arthur Agius who had been endeavouring to train a machine-gun section without the benefit of guns to train them on. He had managed to commandeer a freezing leaky shed where he expounded as much of the theory as was possible with the aid of diagrams, but when they had gone over it a hundred times in wearisome detail and inspiration had long run out, he was reduced to sending the men off to ‘practise reconnoitring’. By the alacrity with which they set off Agius had a shrewd suspicion that their intention was to reconnoitre some warm farmhouse kitchen where eggs and hot coffee could be obtained, and judiciously refrained from questioning them too closely on their return.
But now that the weapons had arrived there was plenty to do and his command was a machine-gun section in more than name. They had 4 guns, 4 wagons, 12 horses and 36 men. At last, the Battalion was ready and on 25 January they received orders to move the following day.
Capt. A. J. Agius.
We got up at 3.30. It was a beautiful night and just on freezing point. I struggled with a cold-water shave of which I felt rather proud considering the hour and the dark and the temperature. We finally paraded at 6.30 – there had been a lot to do in the meantime and it was not very easy to get it all done in the dark.
We got clear after having had quite a decent meal of bread and butter, cold bacon and tea. We reached the station about 7. The train was due to start at 8.25, though by the time we had packed in all our transport (some thirteen wagons and fifty-eight horses) it was about 8.50 before we got off. We officers were eight in a compartment and we entrained just in time, for we had only been in the train a few minutes when it began to sleet and finally turned into snow. The carriage was pretty cold.
It was pretty slow going as our speed wasn’t by any means fast and we made several short stops. The distance to GHQ at St Omer is only thirty or forty kilometres, but we didn’t arrive until 3 p.m. We detrained and paraded in the station which took some time. We moved off at last and marched out to our billets at Tatinghem. It is about three miles out of St Omer, which is GHQ. All the roads are paved, but as they are paved with cobblestones marching is rather uncomfortable. We reached billets after about an hour’s march feeling a bit tired. We were wearing equipment for the first time, including a large pack in which the men carry their worldly belongings. It feels a bit heavy on one’s back. The village looks a bit desolate and a lot of the inhabitants have gone. We were a very long time getting settled and getting the men into billets. Most of them are in barns and very comfortable. My sleeping quarters are only fairly comfortable – the place is, alas, the quartermaster’s stores. I have a large room which, when I arrived, contained little furniture but I managed to scrounge a washing cabinet, a chair and a table. There is a bed of sorts.
We are not yet assigned to any brigade or division and are Army Troops. We are apparently to continue training until the advance, which people say is to be in April.
But even ‘a bed of sorts’ and a roof overhead was a welcome improvement on the tented camp at Etaples where, since their camp beds had been sent back as ‘superfluous kit’, the officers’ sleeping bags had rested on hard tent boards. And the men, deep-bedded on straw in barns that were dry if not warm, had no complaints. The wind was blowing from the east and from time to time they could hear a gentle thudding in the distance. It was the sound of the guns at the front, now barely thirty miles away. The men nudged each other, listened, and were thrilled. But, as they burrowed into nests of warm rustling straw, pulling rough blankets over limbs wearied by the long march, and settled themselves contentedly to sleep, not many soldiers were inclined to give much serious thought to the future.