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Kitchener's Mob: Adventures of an American in the British Army By James Norman Hall Characters: 7932

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"A mob" is genuinely descriptive of the array of would-be soldiers which crowded the long parade-ground at Hounslow Barracks during that memorable last week in August. We herded together like so many sheep. We had lost our individuality, and it was to be months before we regained it in a new aspect, a collective individuality of which we became increasingly proud. We squeak-squawked across the barrack square in boots which felt large enough for an entire family of feet. Our khaki service dress uniforms were strange and uncomfortable. Our hands hung limply along the seams of our pocketless trousers. Having no place in which to conceal them, and nothing for them to do, we tried to ignore them. Many a Tommy, in a moment of forgetfulness, would make a dive for the friendly pockets which were no longer there. The look of sheepish disappointment, as his hands slid limply down his trouser-legs, was most comical to see. Before many days we learned the uses to which soldiers' hands are put. But for the moment they seemed absurdly unnecessary.

We must have been unpromising material from the military point of view. That was evidently the opinion of my own platoon sergeant. I remember, word for word, his address of welcome, one of soldier-like brevity and pointedness, delivered while we stood awkwardly at attention on the barrack square.

"Lissen 'ere, you men! I've never saw such a raw, roun'-shouldered batch o' rookies in fifteen years' service. Yer pasty-faced an' yer thin-chested. Gawd 'elp 'Is Majesty if it ever lays with you to save 'im! 'Owever, we're 'ere to do wot we can with wot we got. Now, then, upon the command, 'Form Fours,' I wanna see the even numbers tyke a pace to the rear with the left foot, an' one to the right with the right foot. Like so: 'One-one-two!' Platoon! Form Fours! Oh! Orful! Orful! As y' were! As y' were!"

If there was doubt in the minds of any of us as to our rawness, it was quickly dispelled by our platoon sergeants, regulars of long standing, who had been left in England to assist in whipping the new armies into shape. Naturally, they were disgruntled at this, and we offered them such splendid opportunities for working off overcharges of spleen. We had come to Hounslow, believing that, within a few weeks' time, we should be fighting in France, side by side with the men of the first British expeditionary force. Lord Kitchener had said that six months of training, at the least, was essential. This statement we regarded as intentionally misleading. Lord Kitchener was too shrewd a soldier to announce his plans; but England needed men badly, immediately. After a week of training, we should be proficient in the use of our rifles. In addition to this, all that was needed was the ability to form fours and march, in column of route, to the station where we should entrain for Folkestone or Southampton, and France.

As soon as the battalion was up to strength, we were given a day of preliminary drill before proceeding to our future training area in Essex. It was a disillusioning experience. Equally disappointing was the undignified display of our little skill, at Charing Cross Station, where we performed before a large and amused London audience. For my own part, I could scarcely wait until we were safely hidden within the train. During the journey to Colchester, a re-enlisted Boer War veteran, from the inaccessible heights of South African experience, enfiladed us with a fire of sarcastic comment.

"I'm a-go'n' to transfer out o' this 'ere mob, that's wot I'm a go'n' to do! Soldiers! S'y! I'll bet a quid they ain't a one of you ever saw a rifle before! Soldiers? Strike me pink! Wot's Lord Kitchener a-doin' of, that's wot I want to know!"

The rest of us smoked in wrathful silence, until one of the boys demonstrated to the Boer War veteran that he knew, at least, how to use his fists. There was some bloodshed, followed by reluctant apologies on the part of the Boer wa

rrior. It was one of innumerable differences of opinion which I witnessed during the months that followed. And most of them were settled in the same decisive way.

Although mine was a London regiment, we had men in the ranks from all parts of the United Kingdom. There were North-Countrymen, a few Welsh, Scotch, and Irish, men from the Midlands and from the south of England. But for the most part we were Cockneys, born within the sound of Bow Bells. I had planned to follow the friendly advice of the recruiting sergeant. "Talk like 'em," he had said. Therefore, I struggled bravely with the peculiarities of the Cockney twang, recklessly dropped aitches when I should have kept them, and prefixed them indiscriminately before every convenient aspirate. But all my efforts were useless. The imposition was apparent to my fellow Tommies immediately. I had only to begin speaking, within the hearing of a genuine Cockney, when he would say, "'Ello! w'ere do you come from? The Stites?" or, "I'll bet a tanner you're a Yank!" I decided to make a confession, and I have been glad, ever since, that I did. The boys gave me a warm and hearty welcome when they learned that I was a sure-enough American. They called me "Jamie the Yank." I was a piece of tangible evidence of the bond of sympathy existing between the two great English-speaking nations. I told them of the many Americans of German extraction, whose sympathies were honestly and sincerely on the other side. But they would not have it so. I was the personal representative of the American people. My presence in the British army was proof positive of this.

Being an American, it was very hard, at first, to understand the class distinctions of British army life. And having understood them, it was more difficult yet to endure them. I learned that a ranker, or private soldier, is a socially inferior being from the officer's point of view. The officer class and the ranker class are east and west, and never the twain shall meet, except in their respective places upon the parade-ground. This does not hold good, to the same extent, upon active service. Hardships and dangers, shared in common, tend to break down artificial barriers. But even then, although there was good-will and friendliness between officers and men, I saw nothing of genuine comradeship. This seemed to me a great pity. It was a loss for the officers fully as much as it was for the men.

I had to accept, for convenience sake, the fact of my social inferiority. Centuries of army tradition demanded it; and I discovered that it is absolutely futile for one inconsequential American to rebel against the unshakable fortress of English tradition. Nearly all of my comrades were used to clear-cut class distinctions in civilian life. It made little difference to them that some of our officers were recruits as raw as were we ourselves. They had money enough and education enough and influence enough to secure the king's commission; and that fact was proof enough for Tommy that they were gentlemen, and, therefore, too good for the likes of him to be associating with.

"Look 'ere! Ain't a gentleman a gentleman? I'm arskin' you, ain't 'e?"

I saw the futility of discussing this question with Tommy. And later, I realized how important for British army discipline such distinctions are.

So great is the force of prevailing opinion that I sometimes found myself accepting Tommy's point of view. I wondered if I was, for some eugenic reason, the inferior of these men whom I had to "Sir" and salute whenever I dared speak. Such lapses were only occasional. But I understood, for the first time, how important a part circumstance and environment play in shaping one's mental attitude. How I longed, at times, to chat with colonels and to joke with captains on terms of equality! Whenever I confided these aspirations to Tommy he gazed at me in awe.

"Don't be a bloomin' ijut! They could jolly well 'ang you fer that!"

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