The New Army in Training
To excuse oneself to oneself is human: but to excuse oneself to one’s children is Hell. Arabic Proverb. - Hindi Proverb..
BILLETED troops are difficult to get at. There are thousands of them in a little old town by the side of an even older park up the London Road, but to find a particular battalion is like ferreting unstopped burrows.
‘The Umpty-Umpth, were you looking for?’ said a private in charge of a side-car, ‘We’re the Eenty-Eenth. ’Only came in last week, I’ve never seen this place before. It’s pretty. Hold on! There’s a postman. He’ll know,’
He, too, was in khaki, bowed between mail-bags, and his accent was of a far and coaly county,
‘I’m none too sure,’ said he, ‘but I think I saw——’
Here a third man cut in,
‘Yon’s t’ battalion, marchin’ into t’ park now, Roon! Happen tha’ll catch ’em.’
They turned out to be Territorials with a history behind them; but that I didn’t know till later; and their band and cyclists. Very polite were those rear-rank cyclists—who pushed their loaded machines with one vast hand apiece.
They were strangers, they said. They had only come here a few days ago. But they knew the South well. They had been in Gloucestershire, which was a very nice southern place.
Then their battalion, I hazarded, was of northern extraction?
They admitted that I might go as far as that; their speech betraying their native town at every rich word.
‘Huddersfield, of course?’ I said, to make them out with it.
‘Bolton,’ said one at last. Being in uniform the pitman could not destroy the impertinent civilian.
‘Ah, Bolton!’ I returned. ‘All cotton, aren’t you?’
‘Some coal,’ he answered gravely. There is notorious rivalry ’twixt coal and cotton in Bolton, but I wanted to see him practise the self-control that the Army is always teaching.
As I have said, he and his companion were most polite, but the total of their information, boiled and peeled, was that they had just come from Bolton way; might at any moment be sent somewhere else, and they liked Gloucestershire in the south, A spy could not have learned much less.
The battalion halted, and moved off by companies for further evolutions. One could see they were more than used to drill and arms; a hardened, thick-necked, thin-flanked, deep-chested lot, dealt with quite faithfully by their sergeants, and altogether abreast of their work. Why, then, this reticence? What had they to be ashamed of, these big Bolton folk without an address? Where was their orderly-room?
There were many orderly-rooms in the little old town, most of them in bye-lanes less than one car wide. I found what I wanted, and—this was north-country all over—a private who volunteered to steer me to headquarters through the tricky southern streets. He was communicative, and told me a good deal about typhoid-inoculation and musketry practice, which accounted for only six companies being on parade. But surely they could not have been ashamed of that.
I unearthed their skeleton at last in a peaceful, gracious five-hundred-year-old house that looked on to lawns and cut hedges bounded by age-old red brick walls such a perfumed and dreaming place as one would choose for the setting of some even-pulsed English love-tale of the days before the war.
Officers were billeted in the low-ceiled, shiny-floored rooms full of books and flowers,
‘And now,’ I asked, when I had told the tale of the uncommunicative cyclist, ‘what is the matter with your battalion?’
They laughed cruelly at me. ‘Matter!’ said they. ‘We’re just off three months of guarding railways. After that a man wouldn’t trust his own mother. You don’t mean to say our cyclists let you know where we’ve come from last?’
‘No, they didn’t,’ I replied. ‘hat was what worried me. I assumed you’d all committed murders, and had been sent here to live it down.’
Then they told me what guarding a line really means. How men wake and walk, with only express troop-trains to keep them company, all the night long on windy embankments or under still more windy bridges; how they sleep behind three sleepers up-ended or a bit of tin, or, if they are lucky, in a platelayer’s hut; how their food comes to them slopping across the square-headed ties that lie in wait to twist a man’s ankle after dark; how they stand in blown coal-dust of goods-yards trying to watch five lines of trucks at once; how fools of all classes pester the lonely pickets, whose orders are to hold up motors for inquiry, and then write silly letters to the War Office about it. How nothing ever happens through the long weeks but infallibly would if the patrols were taken off. And they had one refreshing story of a workman who at six in the morning, which is no auspicious hour to jest with Lancashire, took a short cut to his work by ducking under some goods-wagons, and when challenged by the sentry replied, posturing on all fours, ‘Boo, I’m a German!’ Whereat the upright sentry fired, unfortunately missed him, and then gave him the butt across his ass’s head, so that his humour, and very nearly his life, terminated. After which the sentry was seldom seen to smile, but frequently heard to murmur, ‘Ah should hev slipped t’ baggonet into him.’
‘So you see,’ said the officers in conclusion, ‘you mustn’t be surprised that our men wouldn’t tell you much.’
‘Ibegin to see,’ I said. ‘How many of you are coal and how many cotton?’
‘Two-thirds coal and one-third cotton, roughly. It keeps the men deadly keen. An operative isn’t going to give up while a pitman goes on; and very much vice versâ?’
‘That’s class-prejudice,’ said I.
‘It’s most useful,’ said they. The officers themselves seemed to be interested in coal or cotton, and had known their men intimately on the civil side, If your orderly-room sergeant, or your quarter-master has been your trusted head clerk or foreman for ten or twelve years, and if eight out of a dozen sergeants have controlled pitmen and machinists, above and below ground, and eighty per cent of these pitmen and machinists are privates in the companies, your regiment works with something of the precision of a big business.
It was all new talk to me, for I had not yet met a Northern Territorial battalion with the strong pride of its strong town behind it. Where were they when the war came? How had they equipped themselves? I wanted to hear the tale. It was worth listening to as told with North-Country joy of life and the doing of things in that soft down-country house of the untroubled centuries. Like every one else, they were expecting anything but war. ‘Hadn’t even begun their annual camp. Then the thing came, and Bolton rose as one man and woman to fit out its battalion. There was a lady who wanted a fairly large sum of money for the men’s extra footgear. She set aside a morning to collect it, and inside the hour came home with nearly twice her needs, and spent the rest of the time trying to make people take back fivers, at least, out of tenners. And the big hauling firms flung horses and transport at them and at the Government, often refusing any price, or, when it was paid, turning it into the war funds. What the battalion wanted it had but to ask for. Once it was short of, say, towels. An officer approached the head of a big firm, with no particular idea he would get more than a few dozen from that quarter.
‘And how many towels d’you want?’ said the head of the firm. The officer suggested a globular thousand.
‘I think you’ll do better with twelve hundred,’ was the curt answer. ‘They’re ready out yonder. Get ’em.’
And in this style Bolton turned out her battalion. Then the authorities took it and strung it by threes and fives along several score miles of railway track: and it had only just been reassembled, and it had been inoculated for typhoid. Consequently, they said (but all officers are like mothers and motorcar owners), it wasn’t up to what it would be in a little time. In spite of the cyclist, I had had a good look at the deep chested battalion in the park, and after getting their musketry figures,1 it seemed to me that very soon it might be worth looking at by more prejudiced persons than myself.
The next day I read that this battalion’s regular battalion in the field had distinguished itself by a piece of work which, in other wars, would have been judged heroic, Bolton will read it, not without remarks, and other towns who love Bolton, more or less, will say that if all the truth could come out their regiments had done as well. Anyway, the result will be more men—pitmen, mill-hands, clerks, checkers, weighers, winders, and hundreds of those sleek, well-groomed business-chaps whom one used to meet in the big Midland hotels, protesting that war was out of date. These latter develop surprisingly in the camp atmosphere. I recall one raging in his army shirt-sleeves at a comrade who had derided his principles. ‘I am a blanky pacificist,’ he hissed, ‘and I’m proud of it, and—and I’m going to make you one before I’ve finished with you!’
Pride of city, calling, class, and creed imposes standards and obligations which hold men above themselves at a pinch, and steady them through long strain. One meets it in the New Army at every turn, from the picked Territorials who slipped across Channel last night to the six-week-old Service battalion maturing itself in mud. It is balanced by the ineradicable English instinct to understate, detract, and decry—to mask the thing done by loudly drawing attention to the things undone. The more one sees of the camps the more one is filled with facts and figures of joyous significance, which will become clearer as the days lengthen; and the less one hears of the endurance, decency, self-sacrifice, and utter devotion which have made, and are hourly making, this wonderful new world. The camps take this for granted else why should any man be there at all? He might have gone on with his business, or—watched ‘soccer.’ But having chosen to do his bit, he does it, and talks as much about his motives as he would of his religion or his love-affairs. He is eloquent over the shortcomings of the authorities, more pessimistic as to the future of his next neighbour battalion than would be safe to print, and lyric on his personal needs—baths and drying-rooms for choice. But when the grousing gets beyond a certain point—say at three a.m., in steady wet, with the tent-pegs drawing like false teeth—the nephew of the insurance-agent asks the cousin of the baronet to inquire of the son of the fried-fish vendor what the stevedore’s brother and the tutor of the public school joined the Army for. Then they sing ‘Somewhere the Sun is Shining’ till the Sergeant Ironmonger’s assistant cautions them to drown in silence or the Lieutenant Telephone-appliances-manufacturer will speak to them in the morning.
The New armies have not yet evolved their typical private, n.-c.-o., and officer, though one can see them shaping. They are humorous because, for all our long faces, we are the only genuinely humorous race on earth; but they all know for true that there are no excuses in the Service. ‘If there were,’ said a three-month-old under-gardener-private to me, ‘what ’ud become of Discipline? ‘
They are already setting standards for the coming millions, and have sown little sprouts of regimental tradition which may grow into age-old trees. In one corps, for example, though no dubbin is issued a man loses his name for parading with dirty boots. He looks down scornfully on the next battalion where they are not expected to achieve the impossible. In another an ex-Guards sergeant brought ’em up by hand the drill is rather high-class. In a third they fuss about records for route-marching, and men who fall out have to explain themselves to their sweating companions. This is entirely right. They are all now in the Year One, and the meanest of them may be an ancestor of whom regimental posterity will say: ‘There were giants in those days!’
This much we can realise, even though we are so close to it. The old safe instinct saves us from triumph and exultation. But what will be the position in years to come of the young man who has deliberately elected to outcaste himself from this all-embracing brotherhood? What of his family, and, above all, what of his descendants, when the books have been closed and the last balance struck of sacrifice and sorrow in every hamlet, village, parish, suburb, city, shire, district, province, and Dominion throughout the Empire?
1. Thanks to the miniature rifle clubs fostered by Lord Roberts a certain number of recruits in all the armies come to their regiments with a certain knowledge of sighting, rifle-handling, and the general details of good shooting, especially at snap and disappearing work. [back]