The New Army in Training
Iron Into Steel
Thanda lohã garam lohe ko maria hai (Cold iron will cut hot iron).
AT the next halt I fell into Scotland—blocks and blocks of it—a world of precise-spoken, thin-lipped men, with keen eyes. They gave me directions which led by friendly stages to the heart of another work of creation and a huge drill-shed where the miniature rifles were busy. Few things are duller than Morris-tube practice in the shed, unless it be judging triangles of error against blank-walls. I thought of the military policeman with the sore toe; for these ‘innocents’ were visibly enjoying both games. They sighted over the sand-bags with the gravity of surveyors, while the instructors hurled knowledge at them like sling-stones.
‘Man, d’ye see your error? Step here, man, and I’ll show ye,’ Teacher and taught glared at each other like theologians in full debate; for this is the Scot’s way of giving and getting knowledge.
At the miniature targets squad after squad rose from beside their deadly-earnest instructors, gathered up their target-cards, and whisperingly compared them, five heads together under a window.
‘Aye, that was where I loosed too soon,’ ‘I misdoubt I took too much o’ the foresight.’ Not a word of hope and comfort in their achievements. Nothing but calvinistic self-criticism.
These men ran a little smaller than the North-country folk down the road, but in depth of chest, girth of fore-arm, biceps, and neck-measurement they were beautifully level and well up; and the squads at bayonet-practice had their balance, drive, and recover already. As the light failed one noticed the whites of their eyes turning towards their instructors. It reminded one that there is always a touch of the cateran in the most docile Scot, even as the wolf persists in every dog.
‘And what about crime?’ I demanded.
There was none. They had not joined to play the fool. Occasionally a few unstable souls who have mistaken their vocation try to return to civil life by way of dishonourable discharge, and think it ‘funny’ to pile up offences. The New Army has no use for those people either, and attends to them on what may be called ‘democratic lines,’ which is all the same as the old barrack-room court- martial. Nor does it suffer fools gladly. There is no time to instruct them. They go to other spheres.
There was, or rather is, a man who intends to join a certain battalion. He joined it once, scraped past the local doctor, and was drafted into the corps, only to be hove out for varicose veins. He went back to his accommodating doctor, repeated the process, and was again rejected. They are waiting for him now in his third incarnation; both sides are equally determined. And there was another Scot who joined, served awhile, and left, as he might have left a pit or a factory. Somehow it occurred to him that explanations were required, so he wrote to his commanding officer from his home address and asked him what he recommended him to do. The C.O., to his infinite credit, wrote back: ‘Suppose you rejoin,’ which the man did, and no more said. His punishment, of course, will come to him when he realises what he has done. If he does not then perish in his self-contempt (he has a good conceit of himself) he will make one first-rate non-commissioned officer.
I had the luck to meet a Sergeant-Major, who was the Sergeant-Major of one’s dreams. He had just had sure information that the kilts for his battalion were coming in a few days, so, after three months’ hard work, life smiled upon him. From kilts one naturally went on to the pipes. The battalion had its pipes—a very good set. How did it get them? Well, there was, of course, the Duke. They began with him. And there was a Scots lord concerned with the regiment And there was a leddy of a certain clan connected with the battalion. Hence the pipes. Could anything be simpler or more logical? And when the kilts came the men would be different creatures. Were they good men, I asked. ‘Yes. Verra good. Wha’s to mislead ’em?’ said he.
‘Old soldiers?’ I suggested, meanly enough. ‘Rejoined privates of long ago.’
‘Ay, there might have been a few such in the beginning, but they’d be more useful in the Special Reserve Battalions. Our boys are good boys, but, ye’ll understand, they’ve to be handled just handled a little.’ Then a subaltern came in, loaded with regimental forms, and visibly leaning on the Sergeant-Major, who explained, clarified, and referred them on the proper quarters.
‘Does the work come back to you?’ I asked, for he had been long in pleasant civil employ.
‘Ay. It does that. It just does that.’ And he addressed the fluttering papers, lists, and notes, with the certainty of an old golfer on a well-known green.
Squads were at bayonet practice in the square. (They like bayonet practice, especially after looking at pictures in the illustrated dailies.) A new draft was being introduced to its rifles. The rest were getting ready for evening parade. They were all in khaki, so one could see how they had come on in the last ten weeks. It was a result the meekest might have been proud of, but the New Army does not cultivate useless emotions. Their officers and their instructors worked over them patiently and coldly and repeatedly, with their souls in the job: and with their soul, mind, and body in the same job the men took—soaked up—the instruction. And that seems to be the note of the New Army.
They have joined for good reason. For that reason they sleep uncomplainingly double thick on barrack floors, or lie like herrings in the tents and sing hymns and other things when they are flooded out. They walk and dig half the day or all the night as required; they wear—though they will not eat—anything that is issued to them; they make themselves an organised and kindly life out of a few acres of dirt and a little canvas; they keep their edge and anneal their discipline under conditions that would depress a fox-terrier and disorganise a champion football team. They ask nothing in return save work and equipment. And being what they are, they thoroughly and unfeignedly enjoy what they are doing; and they purpose to do much more,
But they also think. They think it vile that so many unmarried young men who are not likely to be affected by Government allowances should be so shy about sharing their life. They discuss these young men and their womenfolk by name, and imagine rude punishments for them, suited to their known characters. They discuss, too, their elders who in time past warned them of the sin of soldiering. These men, who live honourably and simply under the triple vow of Obedience, Temperance, and Poverty, recall, not without envy, the sort of life which well-kept moralists lead in the unpicketed, unsentried towns; and it galls them that such folk should continue in comfort and volubility at the expense of good men’s lives, or should profit greasily at the end of it all. They stare hard, even in their blue slops, at white-collared, bowler-hatted young men, who, by the way, are just learning to drop their eyes under that gaze. In the third-class railway carriages they hint that they would like explanations from the casual ‘nut,’ and they explain to him wherein his explanations are unconvincing. And when they are home on leave, the slack-jawed son of the local shop-keeper, and the rising nephew of the big banker, and the dumb but cunning carter’s lad receive instruction or encouragement suited to their needs and the nation’s. The older men and the officers will tell you that if the allowances are made more liberal we shall get all the men we want. But the younger men of the New Army do not worry about allowances—or, for that matter, make ’em!
There is a gulf already opening between those who have joined and those who have not; but we shall not know the width and the depth of that gulf till the war is over. The wise youth is he who jumps it now and lands in safety among the trained and armed men.