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Kitchener's Mob: Adventures of an American in the British Army By James Norman Hall Characters: 23594

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

The Nth Service Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, on the march was a sight not easily to be forgotten. To the inhabitants of Colchester, Folkestone, Shorncliffe, Aldershot, and other towns and villages throughout the south of England, we were well known. We displayed ourselves with what must have seemed to them a shameless disregard for appearances. Our approach was announced by a discordant tumult of fifes and drums, for our band, of which later, we became justly proud, was a newly fledged and still imperfect organization. Windows were flung up and doors thrown open along our line of march; but alas, we were greeted with no welcome glances of kindly approval, no waving of handkerchiefs, no clapping of hands. Nursemaids, who are said to have a nice and discriminating eye for soldiery, gazed in amused and contemptuous silence as we passed. Children looked at us in wide-eyed wonder. Only the dumb beasts were demonstrative, and they in a manner which was not at all to our liking. Dogs barked, and sedate old family horses, which would stand placidly at the curbing while fire engines thundered past with bells clanging and sirens shrieking, pricked up their ears at our approach, and, after one startled glance, galloped madly away and disappeared in clouds of dust far in the distance.

We knew why the nursemaids were cool, and why family horses developed hysteria with such startling suddenness. But in our pride we did not see that which we did not wish to see. Therefore we marched, or, to be more truthful, shambled on, shouting lusty choruses with an air of boisterous gayety which was anything but genuine.

"You do as I do and you'll do right,

Fall in and follow me!"

was a favorite with number 12 platoon. Their enthusiasm might have carried conviction had it not been for their personal appearance, which certainly did not. Number 15 platoon would strive manfully for a hearing with

"Steadily, shoulder to shoulder,

Steadily, blade by blade;

Marching along,

Sturdy and strong,

Like the boys of the old brigade."

As a strictly accurate historian I must confess that none of these assertions were quite true. We marched neither steadily, nor shoulder to shoulder, nor blade by blade. We straggled all over the road, and kept step only when the sergeant major doubled forward, warning us, with threats of extra drills, to keep in our fours or to "pick it up!" In fact, "the boys of the old brigade," whoever they may have been, would have scornfully repudiated the suggestion that we resembled them in any respect.

They would have been justified in doing so had any of them seen us at the end of six weeks of training. For, however reluctantly, we were forced to admit that Sergeant Harris was right when he called us "a raw batch o' rookies." Unpromising we were not. There was good stuff in the ranks, the material from which real soldiers are made, and were made; but it had not yet been rounded into shape. We were still nothing more than a homogeneous assembly of individuals.

We declined to accept the responsibility for the seeming slowness of our progress. We threw it unhesitatingly upon the War Office, which had not equipped us in a manner befitting our new station in life. Although we were recruited immediately after the outbreak of war, less than half of our number had been provided with uniforms. Many still wore their old civilian clothing. Others were dressed in canvas fatigue suits, or the worn-out uniforms of policemen and tramcar conductors. Every old-clothes shop on Petticoat Lane must have contributed its allotment of cast-off apparel.

Our arms and equipment were of an equally nondescript character. We might easily have been mistaken for a mob of vagrants which had pillaged a seventeenth-century arsenal. With a few slight changes in costuming for the sake of historical fidelity, we would have served as a citizen army for a realistic motion-picture drama depicting an episode in the French Revolution.

We derived what comfort we could from the knowledge that we were but one of many battalions of Kitchener's first hundred thousand equipped in this same makeshift fashion. We did not need the repeated assurances of cabinet ministers that England was not prepared for war. We were in a position to know that she was not. Otherwise, there had been an unpardonable lack of foresight in high places. Supplies came in driblets. Each night, when parades for the day were over, there was a rush for the orderly room bulletin board, which was scanned eagerly for news of an early issue of clothing. As likely as not we were disappointed, but occasionally jaded hopes revived.

"Number 15 platoon will parade at 4 P.M. on Thursday, the 24th, for boots, puttees, braces, and service dress caps."

Number 15 is our platoon. Promptly at the hour set we halt and right-turn in front of the Quartermaster Stores marquee. The quartermaster is there with pencil and notebook, and immediately takes charge of the proceedings.

"All men needing boots, one pace step forward, March!"

The platoon, sixty-five strong, steps forward as one man.

"All men needing braces, one pace step back, March!"

Again we move as a unit. The quartermaster hesitates for a moment; but he is a resourceful man and has been through this many times before. We all need boots, quite right! But the question is, Who need them most? Undoubtedly those whose feet are most in evidence through worn soles and tattered uppers. Adopting this sight test, he eliminates more than half the platoon, whereupon, by a further process of elimination, due to the fact that he has only sizes 7 and 8, he selects the fortunate twelve who are to walk dry shod.

The same method of procedure is carried out in selecting the braces. Private Reynolds, whose trousers are held in place by a wonderful mechanism composed of shoe-laces and bits of string, receives a pair; likewise, Private Stenebras, who, with the aid of safety pins, has fashioned coat and trousers into an ingenious one-piece garment. Caps and puttees are distributed with like impartiality, and we dismiss, the unfortunate ones growling and grumbling in discreet undertones until the platoon commander is out of hearing, whereupon the murmurs of discontent become loudly articulate.

"Kitchener's Rag-Time Army I calls it!" growls the veteran of South African fame. "Ain't we a 'andsome lot o' pozzie wallopers? Service? We ain't never a-go'n' to see service! You blokes won't, but watch me! I'm a-go'n' to grease off out o' this mob!"

No one remonstrated with this deservedly unpopular reservist when he grumbled about the shortage of supplies. He voiced the general sentiment. We all felt that we would like to "grease off" out of it. Our deficiencies in clothing and equipment were met by the Government with what seemed to us amazing slowness. However, Tommy is a sensible man. He realized that England had a big contract to fulfill, and that the first duty was to provide for the armies in the field. France, Russia, Belgium, all were looking to England for supplies. Kitchener's Mob must wait, trusting to the genius for organization, the faculty for getting things done, of its great and worthy chief, K. of K.

* * *

Our housing accommodations, throughout the autumn and winter of 1914-15, when England was in such urgent need of shelter for her rapidly increasing armies, were also of the makeshift order. We slept in leaky tents or in hastily constructed wooden shelters, many of which were afterward condemned by the medical inspectors. St. Martin's Plain, Shorncliffe, was an ideal camping-site for pleasant summer weather. But when the autumnal rains set in, the green pasture land became a quagmire. Mud was the great reality of our lives, the malignant deity which we fell down (in) and propitiated with profane rites. It was a thin, watery mud or a thick, viscous mud, as the steady downpour increased or diminished. Late in November we were moved to a city of wooden huts at Sandling Junction, to make room for newly recruited units. The dwellings were but half-finished, the drains were open ditches, and the rains descended and the floods came as usual. We lived an amphibious and wretched existence until January, when, to our great joy, we were transferred to billets in the Metropole, one of Folkestone's most fashionable hotels. To be sure, we slept on bare floors, but the roof was rainproof, which was the essential thing. The ?sthetically inclined could lie in their blankets at night, gazing at richly gilded mirrors over the mantelpieces and beautifully frescoed ceilings refurnishing our apartments in all their former splendor. Private Henry Morgan was not of this type. Henry came in one evening rather the worse for liquor and with clubbed musket assaulted his unlovely reflection in an expensive mirror. I believe he is still paying for his lack of restraint at the rate of a sixpence per day, and will have canceled his obligation by January, 1921, if the war continues until that time.

* * *

Although we were poorly equipped and sometimes wretchedly housed, the commissariat was excellent and on the most generous scale from the very beginning. Indeed, there was nearly as much food wasted as eaten. Naturally, the men made no complaint, although they regretted seeing such quantities of food thrown daily into the refuse barrels. I often felt that something should be done about it. Many exposés were, in fact, written from all parts of England. It was irritating to read of German efficiency in the presence of England's extravagant and unbusinesslike methods. Tommy would say, "Lor, lummy! Ain't we got no pigs in England? That there food won't be wasted. We'll be eatin' it in sausages w'en we goes acrost the Channel"; whereupon he dismissed the whole question from his mind. This seemed to me then the typical Anglo-Saxon attitude. Everywhere there was waste, muddle-headedness, and apparently it was nobody's business, nobody's concern. Camps were sited in the wrong places and buildings erected only to be condemned. Tons of food were purchased overseas, transported across thousands of miles of ocean, only to be thrown into refuse barrels. The Government was robbed by avaricious hotel-keepers who made and were granted absurd claims for damages done to their property by billeted troops. But with vast new armies, recruited overnight, it is not strange that there should be mismanagement and friction at first. As the months passed, there was a marked change for the better. British efficiency asserted itself. This was made evident to us in scores of ways-the distribution of supplies, the housing and equipping of troops, their movements from one training area to another. At the last, we could only marvel that a great and complicated military machine had been so admirably and quickly perfected.

* * *

Meanwhile our rigorous training continued from week to week in all weathers, even the most inclement. Reveille sounded at daybreak. For an hour before breakfast we did Swedish drill, a system of gymnastics which brought every lazy and disused muscle into play. Two hours daily were given to musketry practice. We were instructed in the description and recognition of targets, the use of cover, but chiefly in the use of our rifles. Through constant handling they became a part of us, a third arm which we grew to use quite instinctively. We fired the recruit's, and later, the trained soldier's course in musketry on the rifle ranges at Hythe and Aldershot, gradually improving our technique, until we were able to fire with some accuracy, fifteen rounds per minute. When we had achieved this difficult feat, we ceased to be recruits. We were skilled soldiers of the proud and illustrious order known as "England'

s Mad-Minute Men." After musketry practice, the remainder of the day was given to extended order, company, and battalion drill. Twice weekly we route-marched from ten to fifteen miles; and at night, after the parades for the day were finished, boxing and wrestling contests, arranged and encouraged by our officers, kept the red blood pounding through our bodies until "lights out" sounded at nine o'clock.

The character of our training changed as we progressed. We were done with squad, platoon, and company drill. Then came field maneuvers, attacks in open formation upon intrenched positions, finishing always with terrific bayonet charges. There were mimic battles, lasting all day, with from ten to twenty thousand men on each side. Artillery, infantry, cavalry, air craft-every branch of army service, in fact-had a share in these exciting field days when we gained bloodless victories or died painless and easy deaths at the command of red-capped field judges. We rushed boldly to the charge, shouting lustily, each man striving to be first at the enemy's position, only to be intercepted by a staff officer on horseback, staying the tide of battle with uplifted hand.

"March your men back, officer! You're out of action! My word! You've made a beastly mess of it! You're not on church parade, you know! You advanced across the open for three quarters of a mile in close column of platoons! Three batteries of field artillery and four machine guns have blown you to blazes! You haven't a man left!"

Sometimes we reached our objective with less fearful slaughter, but at the moment when there should have been the sharp clash and clang of steel on steel, the cries and groans of men fighting for their lives, we heard the bugles from far and near, sounding the "stand by," and friend and enemy dropped wearily to the ground for a rest while our officers assembled in conference around the motor of the divisional general.

All this was playing at war, and Tommy was "fed up" with play. As we marched back to barracks after a long day of monotonous field maneuvers, he eased his mind by making sarcastic comments upon this inconclusive kind of warfare. He began to doubt the good faith of the War Office in calling ours a "service" battalion. As likely as not we were for home defense and would never be sent abroad.

"Left! Right! Left! Right!

Why did I join the army?

Oh! Why did I ever join Kitchener's Mob?

Lor lummy! I must 'ave been balmy!"-

became the favorite, homeward-bound marching song. And so he "groused" and grumbled after the manner of Tommies the world over. And in the mean time he was daily approaching more nearly the standard of efficiency set by England's inexorable War Lord.

* * *

It was interesting to note the physical improvement in the men wrought by a life of healthy, well-ordered routine. My battalion was recruited largely from what is known in England as "the lower middle classes." There were shop assistants, clerks, railway and city employees, tradesmen, and a generous sprinkling of common laborers. Many of them had been used to indoor life, practically all of them to city life, and needed months of the hardest kind of training before they could be made physically fit, before they could be seasoned and toughened to withstand the hardships of active service.

Plenty of hard work in the open air brought great and welcome changes. The men talked of their food, anticipated it with a zest which came from realizing, for the first time, the joy of being genuinely hungry. They watched their muscles harden with the satisfaction known to every normal man when he is becoming physically efficient. Food, exercise, and rest, taken in wholesome quantities and at regular intervals, were having the usual excellent results. For my own part, I had never before been in such splendid health. I wished that it might at all times be possible for democracies to exercise a beneficent paternalism over the lives of their citizenry, at least in matters of health. It seems a great pity that the principle of personal freedom should be responsible for so many ill-shaped and ill-sorted physical incompetents. My fellow Tommies were living, really living, for the first time. They had never before known what it means to be radiantly, buoyantly healthy.

There were, as well, more profound and subtle changes in thoughts and habits. The restraints of discipline and the very exacting character of military life and training gave them self-control, mental alertness. At the beginning, they were individuals, no more cohesive than so many grains of wet sand. After nine months of training they acted as a unit, obeying orders with that instinctive promptness of action which is so essential on the field of battle when men think scarcely at all. But it is true that what was their gain as soldiers was, to a certain extent, their loss as individuals. When we went on active service I noted that men who were excellent followers were not infrequently lost when called upon for independent action. They had not been trained to take the initiative, and had become so accustomed to having their thinking done for them that they often became confused and excited when they had to do it for themselves.

Discipline was an all-important factor in the daily grind. At the beginning of their training, the men of the new armies were gently dealt with. Allowances were made for civilian frailties and shortcomings. But as they adapted themselves to changed conditions, restrictions became increasingly severe. Old privileges disappeared one by one. Individual liberty became a thing of the past. The men resented this bitterly for a time. Fierce hatreds of officers and N.C.O.s were engendered and there was much talk of revenge when we should get to the front. I used to look forward with misgiving to that day. It seemed probable that one night in the trenches would suffice for a wholesale slaughtering of officers. Old scores were to be paid off, old grudges wiped out with our first issue of ball ammunition. Many a fist-banged board at the wet canteen gave proof of Tommy's earnestness.

"Shoot 'im?" he would say, rattling the beer glasses the whole length of the table with a mighty blow of his fist. "Blimy! Wite! That's all you got to do! Just wite till we get on the other side!"

But all these threats were forgotten months before the time came for carrying them out. Once Tommy understood the reasonableness of severe discipline, he took his punishment for his offenses without complaint. He realized, too, the futility of kicking against the pricks. In the army he belonged to the Government body and soul. He might resent its treatment of him. He might behave like a sulky school-boy, disobey order after order, and break rule after rule. In that case he found himself check-mated at every turn. Punishment became more and more severe. No one was at all concerned about his grievances. He might become an habitual offender from sheer stupidity, but in doing so, he injured no one but himself.

A few of these incorrigibles were discharged in disgrace. A few followed the lead of the Boer warrior. After many threats which we despaired of his ever carrying out, he finally "greased off." He was immediately posted as a deserter, but to our great joy was never captured. With the disappearance of the malcontents and incorrigibles the battalion soon reached a high grade of efficiency. The physical incompetents were likewise ruthlessly weeded out. All of us had passed a fairly thorough examination at the recruiting offices; but many had physical defects which were discovered only by the test of actual training. In the early days of the war, requirements were much more severe than later, when England learned how great would be the need for men. Many, who later re?nlisted in other regiments, were discharged as "physically unfit for further military service."

If the standard of conduct in my battalion is any criterion, then I can say truthfully that there is very little crime in Lord Kitchener's armies either in England or abroad. The "jankers" or defaulters' squad was always rather large; but the "jankers men" were offenders against minor points in discipline. Their crimes were untidy appearance on parade, inattention in the ranks, tardiness at roll-call, and others of the sort, all within the jurisdiction of a company officer. The punishment meted out varied according to the seriousness of the offense, and the past-conduct record of the offender. It usually consisted of from one to ten days, "C.B."-confined to barracks. During the period of his sentence the offender was forbidden to leave camp after the parades for the day were ended. And in order that he might have no opportunity to do so, he was compelled to answer his name at the guard-room whenever it should be sounded.

Only twice in England did we have a general court-martial, the offense in each case being assault by a private upon an N.C.O., and the penalty awarded, three months in the military prison at Aldershot. Tommy was quiet and law-abiding in England, his chief lapses being due to an exaggerated estimate of his capacity for beer. In France, his conduct, in so far as my observation goes, has been splendid throughout. During six months in the trenches I saw but two instances of drunkenness. Although I witnessed nearly everything which took place in my own battalion, and heard the general gossip of many others, never did I see or hear of a woman treated otherwise than courteously. Neither did I see or hear of any instances of looting or petty pilfering from the civilian inhabitants. It is true that the men had fewer opportunities for misconduct, and they were fighting in a friendly country. Even so, active service as we found it was by no means free from temptations. The admirable restraint of most of the men in the face of them was a fine thing to see.

Frequent changes were made in methods of training in England, to correspond with changing conditions of modern warfare as exemplified in the trenches. Textbooks on military tactics and strategy, which were the inspired gospel of the last generation of soldiers, became obsolete overnight. Experience gained in Indian Mutiny wars or on the veldt in South Africa was of little value in the trenches in Flanders. The emphasis shifted from open fighting to trench warfare, and the textbook which our officers studied was a typewritten serial issued semiweekly by the War Office, and which was based on the dearly bought experience of officers at the front.

We spent many a starry night on the hills above Folkestone digging trenches and building dug-outs according to General Staff instructions, and many a rainy one we came home, covered with mud, but happy in the thought that we were approximating, as nearly as could be, the experience of the boys at the front. Bomb-throwing squads were formed, and the best shots in the battalion, the men who had made marksmen's scores on the rifle ranges, were given daily instruction in the important business of sniping. More generous provision for the training of machine-gun teams was made, but so great was the lack in England of these important weapons, that for many weeks we drilled with wooden substitutes, gaining such knowledge of machine gunnery as we could from the study of our M.G. manuals.

These new duties, coming as an addition to our other work, meant an increased period of training. We were impatient to be at the front, but we realized by this time that Lord Kitchener was serious in his demand that the men of the new armies be efficiently trained. Therefore we worked with a will, and at last, after nine months of monotonous toil, the order came. We were to proceed on active service.

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