But now he had come back.
‘Are you still a Tynesider?’ I asked.
‘I command the Imperial Guard Battalion of the old regiment, my son,’ he replied.
‘Guard which? They’ve been Fusiliers since Fontenoy. Don’t pull my leg, Boy.’
‘I said Guard, not Guard-s. The I.G. Battalion of the Tail-twisters. Does that make it any clearer?’
‘Not in the least.’
‘Then come over to mess and see for yourself. We aren’t a step from barracks. Keep on my right side. I’m—I’m a bit deaf on the near.’
We left the Club together and crossed the street to a vast four-storied pile, which more resembled a Rowton lodging-house than a barrack. I could see no sentry at the gates.
‘There ain’t any,’ said the Boy lightly. He led me into a many-tabled restaurant full of civilians and grey-green uniforms. At one end of the room, on a slightly raised dais, stood a big table.
‘Here we are! We usually lunch here and dine in mess by ourselves. These are our chaps—but what am I thinking of? You must know most of ’em. Devine’s my second in command now. There’s old Luttrell—remember him at Cherat?—Burgard, Verschoyle (you were at school with him), Harrison, Pigeon, and Kyd.’
With the exception of the last I knew them all, but I could not remember that they had all been Tynesiders.
‘I’ve never seen this sort of place,’ I said, looking round. ‘Half the men here are in plain clothes, and what are those women and children doing?’
‘Eating, I hope,’ Boy Bayley answered. ‘Our canteens would never pay if it wasn’t for the Line and Militia trade. When they were first started people looked on ’em rather as catsmeat-shops; but we got a duchess or two to lunch in ’em, and they’ve been grossly fashionable since.’
‘So I see,’ I answered. A woman of the type that shops at the Stores came up the room looking about her. A man in the dull-grey uniform of the corps rose up to meet her, piloted her to a place between three other uniforms, and there began a very merry little meal.
‘I give it up,’ I said. ‘This is guilty splendour that I don’t understand.’
‘Quite simple,’ said Burgard across the table. ‘The barrack supplies breakfast, dinner, and tea on the Army scale to the Imperial Guard (which we call I.G.) when it’s in barracks as well as to the Line and Militia. They can all invite their friends if they choose to pay for them. That’s where we make our profits. Look!’
Near one of the doors were four or five tables crowded with workmen in the raiment of their callings. They ate steadily, but found time to jest with the uniforms about them; and when one o’clock clanged from a big half-built block of flats across the street, filed out.
‘Those,’ Devine explained, ‘are either our Line or Militia men, as such entitled to the regulation whack at regulation cost. It’s cheaper than they could buy it; an’ they meet their friends too. A man’ll walk a mile in his dinner-hour to mess with his own lot.’
‘Wait a minute,’ I pleaded. ‘Will you tell me what those plumbers and plasterers and bricklayers, that I saw go out just now, have to do with what I was taught to call the Line?’
‘Tell him,’ said the Boy over his shoulder to Burgard. He was busy talking with the large Verschoyle, my old schoolmate.
‘The Line comes next to the Guard. The Linesman’s generally a town-bird who can’t afford to be a Volunteer. He has to go into camp in an Area for two months his first year, six weeks his second, and a month the third. He gets about five bob a week the year round for that and for being on duty two days of the week, and for being liable to be ordered out to help the Guard in a row. He needn’t live in barracks unless he wants to, and he and his family can feed at the regimental canteen at usual rates. The women like it.’
‘All this,’ I said politely, but intensely, ‘is the raving of delirium. Where may your precious recruit who needn’t live in barracks learn his drill?’
‘At his precious school, my child, like the rest of us. The notion of allowing a human being to reach his twentieth year before asking him to put his feet in the first position was raving lunacy if you like!’ Boy Bayley dived back into the conversation.
‘Very good,’ I said meekly. ‘I accept the virtuous plumber who puts in two months of his valuable time at Aldershot——’
‘Aldershot!’ The table exploded. I felt a little annoyed.
‘A camp in an Area is not exactly Aldershot,’ said Burgard. ‘The Line isn’t exactly what you fancy. Some of them even come to us!’
‘You recruit from ’em?’
‘I beg your pardon,’ said Devine with mock solemnity. ‘The Guard doesn’t recruit. It selects.’
‘It would,’ I said, ‘with a Spiers and Pond restaurant; pretty girls to play with; and——’
‘A room apiece, four bob a day and all found,’ said Verschoyle. ‘Don’t forget that.’
‘Of course!’ I said. ‘It probably beats off recruits with a club.’
‘No, with the ballot-box,’ said Verschoyle, laughing. ‘At least in all R.C. companies.’
‘I didn’t know Roman Catholics were so particular,’ I ventured.
They grinned. ‘R.C. companies,’ said the Boy, ‘mean Right of Choice. When a company has been very good and pious for a long time it may, if the C.O. thinks fit, choose its own men—all same one-piecee Club. All our companies are R.C.’s, and, as the battalion is making up a few vacancies ere starting once more on the wild and trackless “heef” into the Areas, the Linesman is here in force to-day sucking up to our non-coms.’
‘Would some one mind explaining to me the meaning of every other word you’ve used,’ I said. ‘What’s a trackless “heef”? What’s an Area? What’s everything generally?’ I asked.
‘Oh, “heef’s” part of the British Constitution,’ said the Boy. ‘It began long ago when they first mapped out the big military manoeuvring grounds—we call ’em Areas for short—where the I.G. spend two-thirds of their time and the other regiments get their training. It was slang originally for beef on the hoof, because in the Military Areas two-thirds of your meat-rations at least are handed over to you on the hoof, and you make your own arrangements. The word “heef” became a parable for camping in the Military Areas and all its miseries. There are two Areas in Ireland, one in Wales for hill-work, a couple in Scotland, and a sort of parade-ground in the Lake District; but the real working Areas are in India, Africa, and Australia, and so on.’
‘And what do you do there?’
‘We “heef” under service conditions, which are rather like hard work. We “heef” in an English Area for about a year, coming into barracks for one month to make up wastage. Then we may “heef” foreign for another year or eighteen months. Then we do sea-time in the war boats——’
‘What-t?’ I said.
‘Sea-time,’ Bayley repeated. ‘Just like Marines, to learn about the big guns and how to embark and disembark quick. Then we come back to our territorial headquarters for six months, to educate the Line and Volunteer camps, to go to Hythe, to keep abreast of any new ideas, and then we fill up vacancies. We call those six months “Schools.” Then we begin all over again, thus: Home “heef,” foreign “heef,” sea-time, schools. “Heefing” isn’t precisely luxurious, but it’s on “heef” that we make our head-money.’
‘Or lose it,’ said the sallow Pigeon, and all laughed, as men will, at regimental jokes.
‘The Dove never lets me forget that,’ said Boy Bayley. ‘It happened last March. We were out in the Second Northern Area at the top end of Scotland where a lot of those silly deer-forests used to be. I’d sooner “heef” in the middle of Australia myself—or Athabasca, with all respect to The Dove; he’s a native of those parts. We were camped somewhere near Caithness, and the Armity (that’s the combined Navy and Army Board which runs our show) sent us about eight hundred raw remounts to break in to keep us warm.?’
‘Why horses for a foot regiment?’
‘I.G.’s don’t foot it unless they’re obliged to. No have gee-gee how can move? I’ll show you later. Well, as I was saying, we broke those beasts in on compressed forage and small boxspurs, and then we started across Scotland to Applecross to hand ’em over to a horse-depot there. It was snowing cruel, and we didn’t know the country overmuch. You remember the 30th—the old East Lancashire—at Mian Mir? Their Guard Battalion had been “heefing” round those parts for six months. We thought they’d be snowed up all quiet and comfy, but Burden, their C.O., got wind of our coming, and sent spies in to Eshcol.’
‘Confound him!’ said Luttrell, who was fat and well-liking. ‘I entertained one of ’em—in a red worsted comforter—under Bean Derig. He said he was a crofter. ’Gave him a drink too.’
‘I don’t mind admitting,’ said the Boy, ‘that, what with the cold and the remounts, we were moving rather base-over-apex. Burden bottled us under Sghurr Mhor in a snowstorm. He stampeded half the horses, cut off a lot of us in a snowbank, and generally rubbed our noses in the dirt.’
‘Was he allowed to do that?’ I said.
‘There is no peace in a Military Area. If we’d beaten him off or got away without losing anyone, we’d have been entitled to a day’s pay from every man engaged against us. But we didn’t. He cut off fifty of ours, held ’em as prisoners for the regulation three days, and then sent in his bill-three days’ pay for each man taken. Fifty men at twelve bob a head, plus five pounds for the Dove as a captured officer, and Kyd here, his junior, three, made about forty quid to Burden and Co. They crowed over us horrid.’
‘Couldn’t you have appealed to an umpire or—or something?’
‘We could, but we talked it over with the men and decided to pay and look happy. We were fairly had. The 30th knew every foot of Sghurr Mhor. I spent three days huntin’ ’em in the snow, but they went off on our remounts about twenty mile that night.’
‘Do you always do this sham-fight business?’ I asked.
‘Once inside an Area you must look after yourself; but I tell you that a fight which means that every man-Jack of us may lose a week’s pay isn’t so dam-sham after all. It keeps the men nippy. Still, in the long run, it’s like whist on a P. and O. It comes out fairly level if you play long enough. Now and again, though, one gets a present—say, when a Line regiment’s out on the “heef,” and signifies that it’s ready to abide by the rules of the game. You mustn’t take head-money from a Line regiment in an Area unless it says that it’ll play you; but, after a week or two, those clever Linesmen always think they see a chance of making a pot, and send in their compliments to the nearest I.G. Then the fun begins. We caught a Line regiment single-handed about two years ago in Ireland—caught it on the hop between a bog and a beach. It had just moved in to join its brigade, and we made a forty-two-mile march in fourteen hours, and cut it off, lock, stock, and barrel. It went to ground like a badger—I will say those Line regiments can dig—but we got out privily by night and broke up the only road it could expect to get its baggage and company-guns along. Then we blew up a bridge that some Sappers had made for experimental purposes (they were rather stuffy about it) on its line of retreat, while we lay up in the mountains and signalled for the A.C. of those parts.’
‘Who’s an A.C.?’ I asked.
‘The Adjustment Committee—the umpires of the Military Areas. They’re a set of superannuated old aunts of colonels kept for the purpose, but they occasionally combine to do justice. Our A.C. came, saw our dispositions, and said it was a sanguinary massacree for the Line, and that we were entitled to our full pound of flesh—head-money for one whole regiment, with equipment, four company-guns, and all kit! At Line rates this worked out as one fat cheque for two hundred and fifty. Not bad!’
‘But we had to pay the Sappers seventy-four quid for blowing their patent bridge to pieces,’ Devine interpolated. ‘That was a swindle.’
‘That’s true,’ the Boy went on, ‘but the Adjustment Committee gave our helpless victims a talking-to that was worth another hundred to hear.’
‘But isn’t there a lot of unfairness in this head-money system?’ I asked.
‘’Can’t have everything perfect,’ said the Boy. ‘Head-money is an attempt at payment by results, and it gives the men a direct interest in their job. Three times out of five, of course, the A.C. will disallow both sides’ claim, but there’s always the chance of bringing off a coup.’
‘Do all regiments do it?’
‘Heavily. The Line pays a bob per prisoner and the Militia ninepence, not to mention side-bets which are what really keep the men keen. It isn’t supposed to be done by the Volunteers, but they gamble worse than anyone. Why, the very kids do it when they go to First Camp at Aldershot or Salisbury.’
‘Head-money’s a national institution—like betting,’ said Burgard.
‘I should say it was,’ said Pigeon suddenly. ‘I was roped in the other day as an Adjustment Committee by the Kemptown Board School. I was riding under the Brighton racecourse, and I heard the whistle goin’ for umpire—the regulation, two longs and two shorts. I didn’t take any notice till an infant about a yard high jumped up from a furze-patch and shouted: “Guard! Guard! Come ’ere! I want you per-fessionally. Alf says ’e ain’t outflanked. Ain’t ’e a liar? Come an’ look ’ow I’ve posted my men.” You bet I looked! The young demon trotted by my stirrup and showed me his whole army (twenty of ’em) laid out under cover as nicely as you please round a cowhouse in a hollow. He kept on shouting: “I’ve drew Alf into there. ’Is persition ain’t tenable. Say it ain’t tenable, Guard!” I rode round the position, and Alf with his army came out of his cowhouse an’ sat on the roof and protested like a—like a Militia Colonel; but the facts were in favour of my friend and I umpired according. Well, Alf abode by my decision. I explained it to him at length, and he solemnly paid up his head-money—farthing points if you please!’
‘Did they pay you umpire’s fee?’ said Kyd. ‘I umpired a whole afternoon once for a village school at home, and they stood me a bottle of hot ginger beer.’
‘I compromised on a halfpenny—a sticky one—or I’d have hurt their feelings,’ said Pigeon gravely. ‘But I gave ’em sixpence back.’
‘How were they manœuvring and what with?’ I asked.
‘Oh, by whistle and hand-signal. They had the dummy Board School guns and flags for positions, but they were rushing their attack much too quick for that open country. I told ’em so, and they admitted it.’
‘But who taught ’em?’ I said.
‘They had learned in their schools, of course, like the rest of us. They were all of ’em over ten; and squad-drill begins when they’re eight. They knew their company-drill a heap better than they knew their King’s English.’
‘How much drill do the boys put in?’ I asked.
‘All boys begin physical drill to music in the Board Schools when they’re six; squad-drill, one hour a week, when they’re eight; company-drill when they’re ten, for an hour and a half a week. Between ten and twelve they get battalion-drill of a sort. They take the rifle at twelve and record their first target-score at thirteen. That’s what the Code lays down. But it’s worked very loosely so long as a boy comes up to the standard of his age.’
‘In Canada we don’t need your physical-drill. We’re born fit,’ said Pigeon, ‘and our ten-year-olds could knock spots out of your twelve-year-olds.’
‘I may as well explain,’ said the Boy, ‘that The Dove is our “swop” officer. He’s an untamed Huskie from Nootka Sound when he’s at home. An I.G. Corps exchanges one officer every two years with a Canadian or Australian or African Guard Corps. We’ve had a year of our Dove, an’ we shall be sorry to lose him. He humbles our insular pride. Meantime, Morten, our “swop” in Canada, keeps the ferocious Canuck humble. When Pij goes we shall swop Kyd, who’s next on the roster, for a Cornstalk or a Maori. But about the education-drill. A boy can’t attend First Camp, as we call it, till he is a trained boy and holds his First Musketry certificate. The Education Code says he must be fourteen, and the boys usually go to First Camp at about that age. Of course, they’ve been to their little private camps and Boys’ Fresh Air Camps and public-school picnics while they were at school, but First Camp is where the young drafts all meet—generally at Aldershot in this part of the world. First Camp lasts a week or ten days, and the boys are looked over for vaccination and worked lightly in brigades with lots of blank cartridge. Second Camp—that’s for the fifteen to eighteen-year-olds—lasts ten days or a fortnight, and that includes a final medical examination. Men don’t like to be chucked out on medical certificate much—nowadays. I assure you Second Camp, at Salisbury, say, is an experience for a young I.G. Officer. We’re told off to ’em in rotation. A wilderness of monkeys isn’t in it. The kids are apt to think ’emselves soldiers, and we have to take the edge off ’em with lots of picquet-work and night attacks.’
‘And what happens after Second Camp?’
‘It’s hard to explain. Our system is so illogical. Theoretically, the boys needn’t show up for the next three or four years after Second Camp. They are supposed to be making their way in life. Actually, the young doctor or lawyer or engineer joins a Volunteer battalion that sticks to the minimum of camp—ten days per annum. That gives him a holiday in the open air, and now that men have taken to endowing their Volunteer drill-halls with baths and libraries he finds, if he can’t run to a Club, that his own drill-hall is an efficient substitute. He meets men there who’ll be useful to him later, and he keeps himself in touch with what’s going on while he’s studying for his profession. The town-birds—such as the chemist’s assistant, clerk, plumber, mechanic, electrician, and so forth—generally put in for their town Volunteer corps as soon as they begin to walk out with the girls. They like takin’ their true-loves to our restaurants. Look yonder!’ I followed his gaze, and saw across the room a man and a maid at a far table, forgetting in each other’s eyes the good food on their plates.
‘So it is,’ said I. ‘Go ahead.’
‘Then, too, we have some town Volunteer corps that lay themselves out to attract promising youths of nineteen or twenty, and make much of ’em on condition that they join their Line battalion and play for their county. Under the new county qualifications—birth or three years’ residence—that means a great deal in League matches, and the same in County cricket.’
‘By Jove, that’s a good notion,’ I cried. ‘Who invented it?’
‘C.B. Fry—long ago. He said, in his paper, that County cricket and County volunteering ought to be on the same footing—unpaid and genuine. “No cricketer no corps. No corps no cricketer” was his watchword. There was a row among the pro’s at first, but C.B. won, and later the League had to come in. They said at first it would ruin the gate; but when County matches began to be pukka county, plus inter-regimental, affairs the gate trebled, and as two-thirds of the gate goes to the regiments supplying the teams some Volunteer corps fairly wallow in cash. It’s all unofficial, of course, but League Corps, as they call ’em, can take their pick of the Second Camper. Some corps ask ten guineas entrance-fee, and get it too, from the young bloods that want to shine in the arena. I told you we catered for all tastes. Now, as regards the Line proper, I believe the young artisan and mechanic puts in for that before he marries. He likes the two months’ “heef” in his first year, and five bob a week is something to go on with between times.’
‘Do they follow their trade while they’re in the Line?’ I demanded.
‘Why not? How many well-paid artisans work more than four days a week anyhow? Remember a Linesman hasn’t to be drilled in your sense of the word. He must have had at least eight years’ grounding in that, as well as two or three years in his Volunteer battalion. He can sleep where he pleases. He can’t leave town-limits without reporting himself, of course, but he can get leave if he wants it. He’s on duty two days in the week as a rule, and he’s liable to be invited out for garrison duty down the Mediterranean, but his benefit societies will insure him against that. I’ll tell you about that later. If it’s a hard winter and trade’s slack, a lot of the bachelors are taken into the I.G. barracks (while the I.G.) is out on the “heef”) for theoretical instruction. Oh, I assure you the Line hasn’t half a bad time of it.’
‘Amazing!’ I murmured. ‘And what about the others?’
‘The Volunteers? Observe the beauty of our system. We’re a free people. We get up and slay the man who says we aren’t. But as a little detail we never mention, if we don’t volunteer in some corps or another—as combatants if we’re fit, as non-combatants if we ain’t—till we’re thirty-five—we don’t vote, and we don’t get poor-relief, and the women don’t love us.’
‘Oh, that’s the compulsion of it?’ said I.
Bayley inclined his head gravely. ‘That, Sir, is the compulsion. We voted the legal part of it ourselves in a fit of panic, and we have not yet rescinded our resolution! The women attend to the unofficial penalties. But being free British citizens——’
‘And snobs,’ put in Pigeon.
‘The point is well taken, Pij—we have supplied ourselves with every sort and shape and make of Volunteer corps that you can imagine, and we’ve mixed the whole show up with our Oddfellows and our I.O.G.T.’s and our Buffaloes, and our Burkes and our Debretts, not to mention Leagues and Athletic Clubs, till you can’t tell t’other from which. You remember the young pup who used to look on soldiering as a favour done to his ungrateful country—the gun-poking, ferret-pettin’, landed gentleman’s offspring—the suckin’ Facey Romford? Well, he generally joins a Foreign Service Corps when he leaves college.’
‘Can Volunteers go foreign then?’
‘Can’t they just, if their C.O. or his wife has influence! The Armity will always send a well-connected F.S. corps out to help a Guard battalion in a small campaign. Otherwise F.S. corps make their own arrangements about camps. You see, the Military Areas are always open. They can “heef” there (and gamble on head-money) as long as their finances run to it; or they can apply to do sea-time in the ships. It’s a cheap way for a young man to see the world, and if he’s any good he can try to get into the Guard later.’
‘The main point,’ said Pigeon, ‘is that F.S. corps are “swagger”—the correct thing. It ’ud never do to be drawn for the Militia, don’t you know,’ he drawled, trying to render the English voice.
‘That’s what happens to a chap who doesn’t volunteer,’ said Bayley. ‘Well, after the F.S. corps (we’ve about forty of ’em) come our territorial Volunteer battalions, and a man who can’t suit himself somewhere among ’em must be a shade difficult. We’ve got those “League” corps I was talking about; and those studious corps that just scrape through their ten days’ camp; and we’ve crack corps of highly-paid mechanics who can afford a two months’ “heef” in an interesting Area every other year; and we’ve senior and junior scientific corps of earnest boilermakers and fitters and engineers who read papers on high explosives, and do their “heefing” in a wet picket-boat—mine-droppin’—at the ports. Then we’ve heavy artillery—recruited from the big manufacturing towns and ship-building yards—and ferocious hard-ridin’ Yeomanry (they can ride—now), genteel, semi-genteel, and Hooligan corps, and so on and so forth till you come to the Home Defence Establishment—the young chaps knocked out under medical certificate at the Second Camp, but good enough to sit behind hedges or clean up camp, and the old was-birds who’ve served their time but don’t care to drop out of the fun of the yearly camps and the halls. They call ’emselves veterans and do fancy shooting at Bisley, but, between you and me, they’re mostly Fresh Air Benefit Clubs. They contribute to the Volunteer journals and tell the Guard that it’s no good. But I like ’em. I shall be one of ’em some day—a copper-nosed was-bird . . . So you see we’re mixed to a degree on the Volunteer side.’
‘It sounds that way,’ I ventured.
‘You’ve overdone it, Bayley,’ said Devine. ‘You’ve missed our one strong point.’ He turned to me and continued: ‘It’s embarkation. The Volunteers may be as mixed as the Colonel says, but they are trained to go down to the sea in ships. You ought to see a big Bank Holiday roll-out! We suspend most of the usual railway traffic and turn on the military time-table—say on Friday at midnight. By 4 a.m. the trains are running from every big centre m England to the nearest port at two-minute intervals. As a rule, the Armity meets us at the other end with shipping of sorts—Fleet Reserves or regular men-of-war or hulks—anything you can stick a gang-plank to. We pile the men on to the troop-decks, stack the rifles in the racks, send down the sea-kit, steam about for a few hours, and land ’em somewhere. It’s a good notion, because our army to be any use must be an army of embarkation. Why, last Whit Monday we had—how many were down at the dock-edge in the first eight hours? Kyd, you’re the Volunteer enthusiast last from school.’
‘In the first ten hours over a hundred and eighteen thousand,’ said Kyd across the table, ‘with thirty-six thousand actually put in and taken out of ship. In the whole thirty-six hours we had close on ninety thousand men on the water and a hundred and thirty-three thousand on the quays fallen in with their sea-kit.’
‘That must have been a sight,’ I said.
‘One didn’t notice it much. It was scattered between Chatham, Dover, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Bristol, Liverpool, and so on, merely to give the inland men a chance to get rid of their breakfasts. We don’t like to concentrate and try a big embarkation at any one point. It makes the Continent jumpy. Otherwise,’ said Kyd, ‘I believe we could get two hundred thousand men, with their kits, away on one tide.’
‘What d’you want with so many?’ I asked.
‘We don’t want one of ’em; but the Continent used to point out, every time relations were strained, that nothing would be easier than to raid England if they got command of the sea for a week. After a few years some genius discovered that it cut both ways, an’ there was no reason why we, who are supposed to command the sea and own a few ships, should not organise our little raids in case of need. The notion caught on among the Volunteers—they were getting rather sick of manœuvres on dry land—and since then we haven’t heard so much about raids from the Continent,’ said Bayley.
‘It’s the offensive-defensive,’ said Verschoyle, ‘that they talk so much about. We learned it all from the Continent—bless ’em! They insisted on it so.’
‘No, we learned it from the Fleet,’ said Devine. ‘The Mediterranean Fleet landed ten thousand marines and sailors, with guns, in twenty minutes once at manœuvres. That was long ago. I’ve seen the Fleet Reserve, and a few paddle-steamers hired for the day, land twenty-five thousand Volunteers at Bantry in four hours—half the men sea-sick too. You’ve no notion what a difference that sort of manœuvre makes in the calculations of our friends on the mainland. The Continent knows what invasion means. It’s like dealing with a man whose nerve has been shaken. It doesn’t cost much after all, and it makes us better friends with the great European family. We’re as thick as thieves now.’
‘Where does the Imperial Guard come in in all this gorgeousness?’ I asked. ‘You’re unusual modest about yourselves.’
‘As a matter of fact, we’re supposed to go out and stay out. We’re the permanently mobilised lot. I don’t think there are more than eight I.G. battalions in England now. We’re a hundred battalions all told. Mostly on the “heef” in India, Africa, and so forth.’
‘A hundred thousand. Isn’t that small allowance?’ I suggested.
‘You think so? One hundred thousand men, without a single case of venereal, and an average sick list of two per cent, permanently on a war footing? Well, perhaps you’re right, but it’s a useful little force to begin with while the others are getting ready. There’s the native Indian Army also, which isn’t a broken reed, and, since “no Volunteer no Vote” is the rule throughout the Empire, you will find a few men in Canada, Australia, and elsewhere, that are fairly hefty in their class.’
‘But a hundred thousand isn’t enough for garrison duty,’ I persisted.
‘A hundred thousand sound men, not sick boys, go quite a way,’ said Pigeon.
‘We expect the Line to garrison the Mediterranean Ports and thereabouts,’ said Bayley. ‘Don’t sneer at the mechanic. He’s deuced good stuff. He isn’t rudely ordered out, because this ain’t a military despotism, and we have to consider people’s feelings. The Armity usually brackets three Line regiments together, and calls for men for six months or a year for Malta, Gib, or elsewhere, at a bob a day. Three battalions will give you nearly a whole battalion of bachelors between ’em. You fill up deficiencies with a call on the territorial Volunteer battalion, and away you go with what we call a Ports battalion. What’s astonishing in that? Remember that in this country, where fifty per cent of the able-bodied males have got a pretty fair notion of soldiering, and, which is more, have all camped out in the open, you wake up the spirit of adventure in the young.’
‘Not much adventure at Malta, Gib, or Cyprus,’ I retorted. ‘Don’t they get sick of it?’
‘But you don’t realise that we treat ’em rather differently from the soldier of the past. You ought to go and see a Ports battalion drawn from a manufacturing centre growin’ vines in Cyprus in its shirt sleeves; and at Gib, and Malta, of course, the battalions are working with the Fleet half the time.’
‘It seems to me,’ I said angrily, ‘you are knocking esprit de corps on the head with all this Army-Navy fumble. It’s as bad as——’
‘I know what you’re going to say. As bad as what Kitchener used to do when he believed that a thousand details picked up on the veldt were as good as a column of two regiments. In the old days, when drill was a sort of holy sacred art learned in old age, you’d be quite right. But remember our chaps are broke to drill from childhood, and the theory we work on is that a thousand trained Englishmen ought to be about as good as another thousand trained Englishmen. We’ve enlarged our horizon, that’s all. Some day the Army and the Navy will be interchangeable.’
‘You’ve enlarged it enough to fall out of, I think. Now where in all this mess of compulsory Volunteers——?’
‘My dear boy, there’s no compulsion. You’ve got to be drilled when you’re a child, same as you’ve got to learn to read; and if you don’t pretend to serve in some corps or other till you’re thirty-five or medically chucked, you rank with lunatics, women, and minors. That’s fair enough.’
‘Compulsory conscripts,’ I continued. ‘Where, as I was going to say, does the Militia come in?’
‘As I have said—for the men who can’t afford volunteering. The Militia is recruited by ballot—pretty comprehensively too. Volunteers are exempt, but most men not otherwise accounted for are bagged by the Militia. They have to put in a minimum three weeks’ camp every other year, and they get fifteen bob a week and their keep when they’re at it, and some sort of a yearly fee, I’ve forgotten how much. ’Tisn’t a showy service, but it’s very useful. It keeps the mass of the men between twenty-five, say, and thirty-five moderately fit, and gives the Armity , an excuse for having more equipment ready—in case of emergencies.’
‘I don’t think you’re quite fair on the Militia,’ drawled Verschoyle. ‘They’re better than we give ’em credit for. Don’t you remember the Middle Moor Collieries strike?’
‘Tell me,’ I said quickly. Evidently the others knew.
‘We-ell, it was no end of a pitmen’s strike about eight years ago. There were twenty-five thousand men involved—Militia, of course. At the end of the first month—October—when things were looking rather blue, one of those clever Labour leaders got hold of the Militia Act and discovered that any Militia regiment could, by a two-thirds vote, go on “heef” in a Military Area in addition to its usual biennial camp. Two-and-twenty battalions of Geordies solemnly applied, and they were turned loose into the Irish and Scotch Areas under an I.G. Brigadier who had private instructions to knock clinkers out of ’em. But the pitman is a strong and agile bird. He throve on snowdrifts and entrenching and draggin’ guns through heather. He was being fed and clothed for nothing, besides having a chance of making head-money, and his strike-pay was going clear to his wife and family. You see? Wily man. But wachtabittje! When that “heef” finished in December the strike was still on. Then that same Labour leader found out, from the same Act, that if at any time more than thirty or forty men of a Militia regiment wished to volunteer to do sea-time and study big guns in the Fleet they were in no wise to be discouraged, but were to be taken on as opportunity offered and paid a bob a day. Accordingly, about January, Geordie began volunteering for sea-time—seven and eight hundred men out of each regiment. Anyhow it made up seventeen thousand men! It was a splendid chance and the Armity jumped at it. The Home and Channel Fleets and the North Sea and Cruiser Squadrons were strengthened with lame ducks from the Fleet Reserve, and between ’em with a little stretching and pushing they accommodated all of that young division.’
‘Yes, but you’ve forgotten how we lied to the Continent about it. All Europe wanted to know what the dooce we were at,’ said Boy Bayley, ‘and the wretched Cabinet had to stump the country in the depths of winter explaining our new system of poor-relief. I beg your pardon, Verschoyle.’
‘The Armity improvised naval manœuvres between Gib and Land’s End, with frequent coalings and landings; ending in a cruise round England that fairly paralysed the pitmen. The first day out they wanted the Fleet stopped while they went ashore and killed their Labour leader, but they couldn’t be obliged. Then they wanted to mutiny over the coaling—it was too like their own job. Oh, they had a lordly time! They came back—the combined Fleets anchored off Hull—with a nautical hitch to their breeches. They’d had a free fight at Gib with the Ports battalion there; they cleared out the town of Lagos; and they’d fought a pitched battle with the dockyard-mateys at Devonport. So they’d done ’emselves well, but they didn’t want any more military life for a bit.’
‘And the strike?’
‘That ended, all right enough, when the strike-money came to an end. The pit-owners were furious. They said the Armity had wilfully prolonged the strike, and asked questions in the House. The Armity said that they had taken advantage of the crisis to put a six months’ polish on fifteen thousand fine young men, and if the masters cared to come out on the same terms they’d be happy to do the same by them.’
‘Palaver done set,’ said Bayley. ‘Everybody laughed.’
‘I don’t quite understand about this sea-time business,’ I said. ‘Is the Fleet open to take any regiment aboard?’
‘Rather. The I.G. must, the Line can, the Militia may, and the Volunteers do put in sea-time. The Coast Volunteers began it, and the fashion is spreading inland. Under certain circumstances, as Verschoyle told you, a Volunteer or Militia regiment can vote whether it “heefs” wet or dry. If it votes wet and has influence (like some F.S. corps), it can sneak into the Channel or the Home Fleet and do a cruise round England or to Madeira or the North Sea. The regiment, of course, is distributed among the ships, and the Fleet dry-nurse ’em. It rather breaks up shore discipline, but it gives the inland men a bit of experience and, of course, it gives us a fairish supply of men behind the gun, in event of any strain on the Fleet. Some coast corps make a speciality of it, and compete for embarking and disembarking records. I believe some of the Tyneside engineerin’ corps put ten per cent of their men through the Fleet engine-rooms. But there’s no need to stay talking here all the afternoon. Come and see the I.G. in his lair—the miserable conscript driven up to the colours at the point of the bayonet.’