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   Chapter 1 JOINING UP

Kitchener's Mob: Adventures of an American in the British Army By James Norman Hall Characters: 7601

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

"Kitchener's Mob" they were called in the early days of August, 1914, when London hoardings were clamorous with the first calls for volunteers. The seasoned regulars of the first British expeditionary force said it patronizingly, the great British public hopefully, the world at large doubtfully. "Kitchener's Mob," when there was but a scant sixty thousand under arms with millions yet to come. "Kitchener's Mob" it remains to-day, fighting in hundreds of thousands in France, Belgium, Africa, the Balkans. And to-morrow, when the war is ended, who will come marching home again, old campaigners, war-worn remnants of once mighty armies? "Kitchener's Mob."

It is not a pleasing name for the greatest volunteer army in the history of the world; for more than three millions of toughened, disciplined fighting men, united under one flag, all parts of one magnificent military organization. And yet Kitchener's own Tommies are responsible for it, the rank and file, with their inherent love of ridicule even at their own expense, and their intense dislike of "swank." They fastened the name upon themselves, lest the world at large should think they regarded themselves too highly. There it hangs. There it will hang for all time.

It was on the 18th of August, 1914, that the mob spirit gained its mastery over me. After three weeks of solitary tramping in the mountains of North Wales, I walked suddenly into news of the great war, and went at once to London, with a longing for home which seemed strong enough to carry me through the week of idleness until my boat should sail. But, in a spirit of adventure, I suppose, I tempted myself with the possibility of assuming the increasingly popular alias, Atkins. On two successive mornings I joined the long line of prospective recruits before the offices at Great Scotland Yard, withdrawing each time, after moving a convenient distance toward the desk of the recruiting sergeant. Disregarding the proven fatality of third times, I joined it on another morning, dangerously near to the head of the procession.

"Now, then, you! Step along!"

There is something compelling about a military command, given by a military officer accustomed to being obeyed. While the doctors were thumping me, measuring me, and making an inventory of "physical peculiarities, if any," I tried to analyze my unhesitating, almost instinctive reaction to that stern, confident "Step along!" Was it an act of weakness, a want of character, evidenced by my inability to say no? Or was it the blood of military forebears asserting itself after many years of inanition? The latter conclusion being the more pleasing, I decided that I was the grandson of my Civil War grandfather, and the worthy descendant of stalwart warriors of a yet earlier period.

I was frank with the recruiting officers. I admitted, rather boasted, of my American citizenship, but expressed my entire willingness to serve in the British army in case this should not expatriate me. I had, in fact, delayed, hoping that an American legion would be formed in London as had been done in Paris. The announcement was received with some surprise. A brief conference was held, during which there was much vigorous shaking of heads. While I awaited the decision I thought of the steamship ticket in my pocket. I remembered that my boat was to sail on Friday. I thought of my plans for the future and anticipated the joy of an early home-coming. Set against this was the prospect of an indefinite period of soldiering among strangers. "Three years or the duration of the war" were the terms of the enlistment contract. I had visions of bloody engagements, of feverish nights in hospital, of endless years in a home for disabled soldiers. The conference was over, and the recruiting officer returned to h

is desk, smiling broadly.

"We'll take you, my lad, if you want to join. You'll just say you are an Englishman, won't you, as a matter of formality?" Here was an avenue of escape, beckoning me like an alluring country road winding over the hills of home. I refused it with the same instinctive swiftness of decision that had brought me to the medical inspection room. And a few moments later, I took "the King's shilling," and promised, upon my oath as a loyal British subject, to bear true allegiance to the Union Jack.

During the completion of other, less important formalities, I was taken in charge by a sergeant who might have stepped out of any of the "Barrack-Room Ballads." He was true to type to the last twist in the s of Atkins. He told me of service in India, Egypt, South Africa. He showed me both scars and medals with that air of "Now-I-would-n't-do-this-for-any-one-but-you" which is so flattering to the novice. He gave me advice as to my best method of procedure when I should go to Hounslow Barracks to join my unit.

"'An 'ere! Wotever you do an' wotever you s'y, don't forget to myke the lads think you're an out-an'-outer, if you understand my meaning,-a Britisher, you know. They'll tyke to you. Strike me blind! Be free an' easy with 'em,-no swank, mind you!-an' they'll be downright pals with you. You're different, you know. But don't put on no airs. Wot I mean is, don't let 'em think that you think you're different. See wot I mean?"

I said that I did.

"An' another thing; talk like 'em."

I confessed that this might prove to be rather a large contract.

"'Ard? S'y! 'Ere! If I 'ad you fer a d'y, I'd 'ave you talkin' like a born Lunnoner! All you got to do is forget all them aitches. An' you don't want to s'y 'can't,' like that. S'y 'cawrn't.'"

I said it.

"Now s'y, 'Gor blimy, 'Arry, 'ow's the missus?'"

I did.

"That's right! Oh, you'll soon get the swing of it."

There was much more instruction of the same nature. By the time I was ready to leave the recruiting offices I felt that I had made great progress in the vernacular. I said good-bye to the sergeant warmly. As I was about to leave he made the most peculiar and amusing gesture of a man drinking.

"A pint o' mild an' bitter," he said confidentially. "The boys always gives me the price of a pint."

"Right you are, sergeant!" I used the expression like a born Englishman. And with the liberality of a true soldier, I gave him my shilling, my first day's wage as a British fighting man.

The remainder of the week I spent mingling with the crowds of enlisted men at the Horse Guards Parade, watching the bulletin boards for the appearance of my name which would mean that I was to report at the regimental depot at Hounslow. My first impression of the men with whom I was to live for three years, or the duration of the war, was anything but favorable. The newspapers had been asserting that the new army was being recruited from the flower of England's young manhood. The throng at the Horse Guards Parade resembled an army of the unemployed, and I thought it likely that most of them were misfits, out-of-works, the kind of men who join the army because they can do nothing else. There were, in fact, a good many of these. I soon learned, however, that the general out-at-elbows appearance was due to another cause. A genial Cockney gave me the hint.

"'Ave you joined up, matey?" he asked.

I told him that I had.

"Well, 'ere's a friendly tip for you. Don't wear them good clo'es w'en you goes to the depot. You won't see 'em again likely, an' if you gets through the war you might be a-wantin' of 'em. Wear the worst rags you got."

I profited by the advice, and when I fell in, with the other recruits for the Royal Fusiliers, I felt much more at my ease.

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