THE FIRST HUNDRED THOUSAND
Being the Unofficial Chronicle of a Unit of "K(1)"
By Ian Hay
PIP: A ROMANCE OF YOUTH. GETTING TOGETHER. THE FIRST HUNDRED THOUSAND. SCALLY: THE STORY OF A PERFECT GENTLEMAN. With Frontispiece. A KNIGHT ON WHEELS. HAPPY-GO-LUCKY. Illustrated by Charles E. Brock. A SAFETY MATCH. With frontispiece. A MAN'S MAN. With frontispiece. THE RIGHT STUFF. With frontispiece.
TO MY WIFE
The "Junior Sub," who writes the following account of the experiences of some of the first hundred thousand of Kitchener's army, is, as the title-page of the volume now reveals, Ian Hay Beith, author of those deservedly popular novels, The Right Stuff, A Man's Man, A Safety Match, and Happy-Go-Lucky.
Captain Beith, who was born in 1876 and therefore narrowly came within the age limit for military service, enlisted at the first outbreak of hostilities in the summer of 1914, and was made a sub-lieutenant in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. After training throughout the fall and winter at Aldershot, he accompanied his regiment to the front in April, and, as his narrative discloses, immediately saw some very active service and rapidly rose to the rank of captain. In the offensive of September, Captain Beith's division was badly cut up and seriously reduced in numbers. He has lately been transferred to a machine-gun division, and "for some mysterious reason"—as he characteristically puts it in a letter to his publishers,—has been recommended for the military cross.
The story of The First Hundred Thousand was originally contributed in the form of an anonymous narrative to Blackwood's Magazine. Writing to his publishers, last May, Captain Beith describes the circumstances under which it was written:—
"I write this from the stone floor of an outhouse, where the pig meal is first accumulated and then boiled up at a particularly smelly French farm, which is saying a good deal. It is a most interesting life, and if I come through the present unpleasantness I shall have enough copy to last me twenty years. Meanwhile, I am using Blackwood's Magazine as a safety-valve under a pseudonym."
It is these "safety-valve" papers that are here offered to the American public in their completeness,—a picture of the great struggle uniquely rich in graphic human detail.
4 PARK STREET
BOOK ONE BLANK CARTRIDGES
I. AB OVO II. THE DAILY GRIND III. GROWING PAINS IV. THE CONVERSION OF PRIVATE M'SLATTERY V. "CRIME" VI. THE LAWS OF THE MEDES AND PERSIANS VII. SHOOTING STRAIGHT VIII. BILLETS IX. MID-CHANNEL X. DEEDS OF DARKNESS XI. OLYMPUS XII. ... AND SOME FELL BY THE WAYSIDE XIII. CONCERT PITCH
BOOK TWO LIVE ROUNDS
XIV. THE BACK OF THE FRONT XV. IN THE TRENCHES—AN OFF-DAY XVI. "DIRTY WORK AT THE CROSS-ROADS TO-NIGHT" XVII. THE NEW WARFARE XVIII. THE FRONT OF THE FRONT XIX. THE TRIVIAL ROUND XX. THE GATHERING OF THE EAGLES XXI. THE BATTLE OF THE SLAG-HEAPS
_We do not deem ourselves A 1, We have no past: we cut no dash: Nor hope, when launched against the Hun, To raise a more than moderate splash.
But yesterday, we said farewell To plough; to pit; to dock; to mill. For glory? Drop it! Why? Oh, well— To have a slap at Kaiser Bill.
And now to-day has come along. With rifle, haversack, and pack, We're off, a hundred thousand strong. And—some of us will not come back.
But all we ask, if that befall, Is this. Within your hearts be writ This single-line memorial_:— He did his duty—and his bit!
The reader is hereby cautioned against regarding this narrative as an official history of the Great War.
The following pages are merely a record of some of the personal adventures of a typical regiment of Kitchener's Army.
The chapters were written from day to day, and published from month to month. Consequently, prophecy is occasionally falsified, and opinions moderated, in subsequent pages.
The characters are entirely fictitious, but the incidents described all actually occurred.
The First Hundred Thousand
"Squoad—'Shun! Move to the right in fours. Forrm—fourrrs!"
The audience addressed looks up with languid curiosity, but makes no attempt to comply with the speaker's request.
"Come away now, come away!" urges the instructor, mopping his brow. "Mind me: on the command 'form fours,' odd numbers will stand fast; even numbers tak' a shairp pace to the rear and anither to the right. Now—forrm fourrs!"
The squad stands fast, to a man. Apparently—nay, verily—they are all odd numbers.
The instructor addresses a gentleman in a decayed Homburg hat, who is chewing tobacco in the front rank.
"Yous, what's your number?"
The ruminant ponders.
"Seeven fower ought seeven seeven," he announces, after a prolonged mental effort.
The instructor raises clenched hands to heaven.
"Man, I'm no askin' you your regimental number! Never heed that. It's your number in the squad I'm seeking. You numbered off frae the right five minutes syne."
Ultimately it transpires that the culprit's number is ten. He is pushed into his place, in company with the other even numbers, and the squad finds itself approximately in fours.
"Forrm—two deep!" barks the instructor.
The fours disentangle themselves reluctantly, Number Ten being the last to forsake his post.
"Now we'll dae it jist yince more, and have it right," announces the instructor, with quite unjustifiable optimism. "Forrm—fourrs!"
This time the result is better, but there is confusion on the left flank.
"Yon man, oot there on the left," shouts the instructor, "what's your number?"
Private Mucklewame, whose mind is slow but tenacious, answers—not without pride at knowing—
(Thank goodness, he reflects, odd numbers stand fast upon all occasions.)
"Weel, mind this," says the sergeant—"Left files is always even numbers, even though they are odd numbers."
This revelation naturally clouds Private Mucklewame's intellect for the afternoon; and he wonders dimly, not for the first time, why he ever abandoned his well-paid and well-fed job as a butcher's assistant in distant Wishaw ten long days ago.
And so the drill goes on. All over the drab, dusty, gritty parade-ground, under the warm September sun, similar squads are being pounded into shape. They have no uniforms yet: even their instructors wear bowler hats or cloth caps. Some of the faces under the brims of these hats are not too prosperous. The junior officers are drilling squads too. They are a little shaky in what an actor would call their "patter," and they are inclined to lay stress on the wrong syllables; but they move their squads about somehow. Their seniors are dotted about the square, vigilant and helpful—here prompting a rusty sergeant instructor, there unravelling a squad which, in a spirited but misguided endeavour to obey an impossible order from Second Lieutenant Bobby Little, has wound itself up into a formation closely resembling the third figure of the Lancers.
Over there, by the officers' mess, stands the Colonel. He is in uniform, with a streak of parti-coloured ribbon running across above his left-hand breast-pocket. He is pleased to call himself a "dug-out." A fortnight ago he was fishing in the Garry, his fighting days avowedly behind him, and only the Special Reserve between him and embonpoint. Now he finds himself pitchforked back into the Active List, at the head of a battalion eleven hundred strong.
He surveys the scene. Well, his officers are all right. The Second in Command has seen almost as much service as himself. Of the four company commanders, two have been commandeered while home on leave from India, and the other two have practised the art of war in company with brother Boer. Of the rest, there are three subalterns from the Second Battalion—left behind, to their unspeakable woe—and four from the O.T.C. The juniors are very junior, but keen as mustard.
But the men! Is it possible? Can that awkward, shy, self-conscious mob, with scarcely an old soldier in their ranks, be pounded, within the space of a few months, into the Seventh (Service) Battalion of the Bruce and Wallace Highlanders—one of the most famous regiments in the British Army?
The Colonel's boyish figure stiffens.
"They're a rough crowd," he murmurs, "and a tough crowd: but they're a stout crowd. By gad! we'll make them a credit to the Old Regiment yet!"
THE DAILY GRIND
We have been in existence for more than three weeks now, and occasionally we are conscious of a throb of real life. Squad drill is almost a thing of the past, and we work by platoons of over fifty men. To-day our platoon once marched, in perfect step, for seven complete and giddy paces, before disintegrating into its usual formation—namely, an advance in irregular echelon, by individuals.
Four platoons form a company, and each platoon is (or should be) led by a subaltern, acting under his company commander. But we are very short of subalterns at present. (We are equally short of N.C.O.'s; but then you can always take a man out of the ranks and christen him sergeant, whereas there is no available source of Second Lieutenants save capricious Whitehall.) Consequently, three platoons out of four in our company are at present commanded by N.C.O.'s, two of whom appear to have retired from active service about the time that bows and arrows began to yield place to the arquebus, while the third has been picked out of the ranks simply because he possesses a loud voice and a cake of soap. None of them has yet mastered the new drill—it was all changed at the beginning of this year—and the majority of the officers are in no position to correct their anachronisms.
Still, we are getting on. Number Three Platoon (which boasts a subaltern) has just marched right round the barrack square, without—
(1) Marching through another platoon.
(2) Losing any part or parts of itself.
(3) Adopting a formation which brings it face to face with a blank wall, or piles it up in a tidal wave upon the verandah, of the married quarters.
They could not have done that a week ago.
But stay, what is this disturbance on the extreme left? The command "Right form" has been given, but six files on the outside flank have ignored the suggestion, and are now advancing (in skirmishing order) straight for the ashbin outside the cookhouse door, looking piteously round over their shoulders for some responsible person to give them an order which will turn them about and bring them back to the fold. Finally they are rounded up by the platoon sergeant, and restored to the strength.
"What went wrong, Sergeant?" inquires Second Lieutenant Bobby Little. He is a fresh-faced youth, with an engaging smile. Three months ago he was keeping wicket for his school eleven.
The sergeant comes briskly to attention.
"The order was not distinctly heard by the men, sir," he explains, "owing to the corporal that passed it on wanting a tooth. Corporal Blain, three paces forward—march!"
Corporal Blain steps forward, and after remembering to slap the small of his butt with his right hand, takes up his parable—
"I was sittin' doon tae ma dinner on Sabbath, sir, when my front teeth met upon a small piece bone that was stickit' in—"
Further details of this gastronomic tragedy are cut short by the blast of a whistle. The Colonel, at the other side of the square, has given the signal for the end of parade. Simultaneously a bugle rings out cheerfully from the direction of the orderly-room. Breakfast, blessed breakfast, is in sight. It is nearly eight, and we have been as busy as bees since six.
At a quarter to nine the battalion parades for a route-march. This, strange as it may appear, is a comparative rest. Once you have got your company safely decanted from column of platoons into column of route, your labours are at an end. All you have to do is to march; and that is no great hardship when you are as hard as nails, as we are fast becoming. On the march the mental gymnastics involved by the formation of an advanced guard or the disposition of a piquet line are removed to a safe distance. There is no need to wonder guiltily whether you have sent out a connecting-file between the vanguard and the main-guard, or if you remembered to instruct your sentry groups as to the position of the enemy and the extent of their own front.
Second Lieutenant Little heaves a contented sigh, and steps out manfully along the dusty road. Behind him tramp his men. We have no pipers as yet, but melody is supplied by "Tipperary," sung in ragged chorus, varied by martial interludes upon the mouth-organ. Despise not the mouth-organ. Ours has been a constant boon. It has kept sixty men in step for miles on end.
Fortunately the weather is glorious. Day after day, after a sharp and frosty dawn, the sun swings up into a cloudless sky; and the hundred thousand troops that swarm like ants upon, the undulating plains of Hampshire can march, sit, lie, or sleep on hard, sun-baked earth. A wet autumn would have thrown our training back months. The men, as yet, possess nothing but the fatigue uniforms they stand up in, so it is imperative to keep them dry.
Tramp, tramp, tramp. "Tipperary" has died away. The owner of the mouth-organ is temporarily deflated. Here is an opportunity for individual enterprise. It is soon seized. A husky soloist breaks into one of the deathless ditties of the new Scottish Laureate; his comrades take up the air with ready response; and presently we are all swinging along to the strains of "I Love a Lassie,"—"Roaming in the Gloaming" and "It's Just Like Being at Hame" being rendered as encores.
Then presently come snatches of a humorously amorous nature—"Hallo, Hallo, Who's Your Lady Friend?"; "You're my Baby"; and the ungrammatical "Who Were You With Last Night?" Another great favourite is an involved composition which always appears to begin in the middle. It deals severely with the precocity of a youthful lover who has been detected wooing his lady in the Park. Each verse ends, with enormous gusto—
"Hold your haand oot, you naughty boy!"
Tramp, tramp, tramp. Now we are passing through a village. The inhabitants line the pavement and smile cheerfully upon us—they are always kindly disposed toward "Scotchies"—but the united gaze of the rank and file wanders instinctively from the pavement towards upper windows and kitchen entrances, where the domestic staff may be discerned, bunched together and giggling. Now we are out on the road again, silent and dusty. Suddenly, far in the rear, a voice of singular sweetness strikes up "The Banks of Loch Lomond." Man after man joins in, until the swelling chorus runs from end to end of the long column. Half the battalion hail from the Loch Lomond district, and of the rest there is hardly a man who has not indulged, during some Trades' Holiday or other, in "a pleesure trup" upon its historic but inexpensive waters.
"You'll tak' the high road and I'll tak' the low road—"
On we swing, full-throated. An English battalion, halted at a cross-road to let us go by, gazes curiously upon us. "Tipperary" they know, Harry Lauder they have heard of; but this song has no meaning for them. It is ours, ours, ours. So we march on. The feet of Bobby Little, as he tramps at the head of his platoon, hardly touch the ground. His head is in the air. One day, he feels instinctively, he will hear that song again, amid sterner surroundings. When that day comes, the song, please God, for all its sorrowful wording, will reflect no sorrow from the hearts of those who sing it—only courage, and the joy of battle, and the knowledge of victory.
"—And I'll be in Scotland before ye. But me and my true love will never meet again On the bonny, bonny baanks—"
A shrill whistle sounds far ahead. It means "March at Attention." "Loch Lomond" dies away with uncanny suddenness—discipline is waxing stronger every day—and tunics are buttoned and rifles unslung. Three minutes later we swing demurely on to the barrack-square, across which a pleasant aroma of stewed onions is wafting, and deploy with creditable precision into the formation known as "mass." Then comes much dressing of ranks and adjusting of distances. The Colonel is very particular about a clean finish to any piece of work.
Presently the four companies are aligned: the N.C.O.'s retire to the supernumerary ranks. The battalion stands rigid, facing a motionless figure upon horseback. The figure stirs.
"Fall out, the officers!"
They come trooping, stand fast, and salute—very smartly. We must set an example to the men. Besides, we are hungry too.
"Battalion, slope arms! Dis-miss!"
Every man, with one or two incurable exceptions, turns sharply to his right and cheerfully smacks the butt of his rifle with his disengaged hand. The Colonel gravely returns the salute; and we stream away, all the thousand of us, in the direction of the savoury smell. Two o'clock will come round all too soon, and with it company drill and tiresome musketry exercises; but by that time we shall have dined, and Fate cannot touch us for another twenty-four hours.
We have our little worries, of course.
Last week we were all vaccinated, and we did not like it. Most of us have "taken" very severely, which is a sign that we badly needed vaccinating, but makes the discomfort no easier to endure. It is no joke handling a rifle when your left arm is swelled to the full compass of your sleeve; and the personal contact of your neighbour in the ranks is sheer agony. However, officers are considerate, and the work is made as light as possible. The faint-hearted report themselves sick; but the Medical Officer, an unsentimental man of coarse mental fibre, who was on a panel before he heard his country calling, merely recommends them to get well as soon as possible, as they are going to be inoculated for enteric next week. So we grouse—and bear it.
There are other rifts within the military lute. At home we are persons of some consequence, with very definite notions about the dignity of labour. We have employers who tremble at our frown; we have Trades Union officials who are at constant pains to impress upon us our own omnipotence in the industrial world in which we live. We have at our beck and call a Radical M.P. who, in return for our vote and suffrage, informs us that we are the backbone of the nation, and that we must on no account permit ourselves to be trampled upon by the effete and tyrannical upper classes. Finally, we are Scotsmen, with all a Scotsman's curious reserve and contempt for social airs and graces.
But in the Army we appear to be nobody. We are expected to stand stiffly at attention when addressed by an officer; even to call him "sir"—an honour to which our previous employer has been a stranger. At home, if we happened to meet the head of the firm in the street, and none of our colleagues was looking, we touched a cap, furtively. Now, we have no option in the matter. We are expected to degrade ourselves by meaningless and humiliating gestures. The N.C.O.'s are almost as bad. If you answer a sergeant as you would a foreman, you are impertinent; if you argue with him, as all good Scotsmen must, you are insubordinate; if you endeavour to drive a collective bargain with him, you are mutinous; and you are reminded that upon active service mutiny is punishable by death. It is all very unusual and upsetting.
You may not spit; neither may you smoke a cigarette in the ranks, nor keep the residue thereof behind your ear. You may not take beer to bed with you. You may not postpone your shave till Saturday: you must shave every day. You must keep your buttons, accoutrements, and rifle speckless, and have your hair cut in a style which is not becoming to your particular type of beauty. Even your feet are not your own. Every Sunday morning a young officer, whose leave has been specially stopped for the purpose, comes round the barrack-rooms after church and inspects your extremities, revelling in blackened nails and gloating over hammer-toes. For all practical purposes, decides Private Mucklewame, you might as well be in Siberia.
Still, one can get used to anything. Our lot is mitigated, too, by the knowledge that we are all in the same boat. The most olympian N.C.O. stands like a ramrod when addressing an officer, while lieutenants make obeisance to a company commander as humbly as any private. Even the Colonel was seen one day to salute an old gentleman who rode on to the parade-ground during morning drill, wearing a red band round his hat. Noting this, we realise that the Army is not, after all, as we first suspected, divided into two classes—oppressors and oppressed. We all have to "go through it."
Presently fresh air, hard training, and clean living begin to weave their spell. Incredulous at first, we find ourselves slowly recognising the fact that it is possible to treat an officer deferentially, or carry out an order smartly, without losing one's self-respect as a man and a Trades Unionist. The insidious habit of cleanliness, once acquired, takes despotic possession of its victims: we find ourselves looking askance at room-mates who have not yet yielded to such predilections. The swimming-bath, where once we flapped unwillingly and ingloriously at the shallow end, becomes quite a desirable resort, and we look forward to our weekly visit with something approaching eagerness. We begin, too, to take our profession seriously. Formerly we regarded outpost exercises, advanced guards, and the like, as a rather fatuous form of play-acting, designed to amuse those officers who carry maps and notebooks. Now we begin to consider these diversions on their merits, and seriously criticise Second Lieutenant Little for having last night posted one of his sentry groups upon the skyline. Thus is the soul of a soldier born.
We are getting less individualistic, too. We are beginning to think more of our regiment and less of ourselves. At first this loyalty takes the form of criticising other regiments, because their marching is slovenly, or their accoutrements dirty, or—most significant sign of all—their discipline is bad. We are especially critical of our own Eighth Battalion, which is fully three weeks younger than we are, and is not in the First Hundred Thousand at all. In their presence we are war-worn veterans. We express it as our opinion that the officers of some of these battalions must be a poor lot. From this it suddenly comes home to us that our officers are a good lot, and we find ourselves taking a queer pride in our company commander's homely strictures and severe sentences the morning after pay-night. Here is another step in the quickening life of the regiment. Esprit de corps is raising its head, class prejudice and dour "independence" notwithstanding.
Again, a timely hint dropped by the Colonel on battalion parade this morning has set us thinking. We begin to wonder how we shall compare with the first-line regiments when we find ourselves "oot there." Silently we resolve that when we, the first of the Service Battalions, take our place in trench or firing line alongside the Old Regiment, no one shall be found to draw unfavourable comparisons between parent and offspring. We intend to show ourselves chips of the old block. No one who knows the Old Regiment can ask more of a young battalion than that.
THE CONVERSION OF PRIVATE M'SLATTERY
One evening a rumour ran round the barracks. Most barrack rumours die a natural death, but this one was confirmed by the fact that next morning the whole battalion, instead of performing the usual platoon exercises, was told off for instruction in the art of presenting arms. "A" Company discussed the portent at breakfast.
"What kin' o' a thing is a Review?" inquired Private M'Slattery.
Private Mucklewame explained. Private M'Slattery was not impressed, and said so quite frankly. In the lower walks of the industrial world Royalty is too often a mere name. Personal enthusiasm for a Sovereign whom they have never seen, and who in their minds is inextricably mixed up with the House of Lords, and capitalism, and the police, is impossible to individuals of the stamp of Private M'Slattery. To such, Royalty is simply the head and corner-stone of a legal system which officiously prevents a man from being drunk and disorderly, and the British Empire an expensive luxury for which the working man pays while the idle rich draw the profits.
If M'Slattery's opinion of the Civil Code was low, his opinion of Military Law was at zero. In his previous existence in his native Clydebank, when weary of rivet-heating and desirous of change and rest, he had been accustomed to take a day off and become pleasantly intoxicated, being comfortably able to afford the loss of pay involved by his absence. On these occasions he was accustomed to sleep off his potations in some public place—usually upon the pavement outside his last house of call—and it was his boast that so long as nobody interfered with him he interfered with nobody. To this attitude the tolerant police force of Clydebank assented, having their hands full enough, as a rule, in dealing with more militant forms of alcoholism. But Private M'Slattery, No. 3891, soon realised that he and Mr. Matthew M'Slattery, rivet-heater and respected citizen of Clydebank, had nothing in common. Only last week, feeling pleasantly fatigued after five days of arduous military training, he had followed the invariable practice of his civil life, and taken a day off. The result had fairly staggered him. In the orderly-room upon Monday morning he was charged with—
(1) Being absent from Parade at 9 A.M. on Saturday.
(2) Being absent from Parade at 2 P.M. on Saturday.
(3) Being absent from Tattoo at 9.30 P.M. on Saturday.
(4) Being drunk in High Street about 9.40 P.M. on Saturday.
(5) Striking a Non-Commissioned Officer.
(6) Attempting to escape from his escort.
(7) Destroying Government property. (Three panes of glass in the guard-room.)
Private M'Slattery, asked for an explanation, had pointed out that if he had been treated as per his working arrangement with the police at Clydebank, there would have been no trouble whatever. As for his day off, he was willing to forgo his day's pay and call the thing square. However, a hidebound C.O. had fined him five shillings and sentenced him to seven days' C.B. Consequently he was in no mood for Royal Reviews. He stated his opinions upon the subject in a loud voice and at some length. No one contradicted him, for he possessed the straightest left in the company; and no dog barked even when M'Slattery said that black was white.
"I wunner ye jined the Airmy at all, M'Slattery," observed one bold spirit, when the orator paused for breath.
"I wunner myself," said M'Slattery simply. "If I had kent all aboot this 'attention,' and 'stan'-at-ease,' and needin' tae luft your hand tae your bunnet whenever you saw yin o' they gentry-pups of officers goin' by,—dagont if I'd hae done it, Germans or no! (But I had a dram in me at the time.) I'm weel kent in Clydebank, and they'll tell you there that I'm no the man to be wastin' my time presenting airms tae kings or any other bodies."
However, at the appointed hour M'Slattery, in the front rank of A Company, stood to attention because he had to, and presented arms very creditably. He now cherished a fresh grievance, for he objected upon principle to have to present arms to a motor-car standing two hundred yards away upon his right front.
"Wull we be gettin' hame to our dinners now?" he inquired gruffly of his neighbour.
"Maybe he'll tak' a closer look at us," suggested an optimist in the rear rank. "He micht walk doon the line."
"Walk? No him!" replied Private M'Slattery. "He'll be awa' hame in the motor. Hae ony o' you billies gotten a fag?"
There was a smothered laugh. The officers of the battalion were standing rigidly at attention in front of A Company. One of these turned his head sharply.
"No talking in the ranks there!" he said. "Sergeant, take that man's name."
Private M'Slattery, rumbling mutiny, subsided, and devoted his attention to the movements of the Royal motor-car.
Then the miracle happened.
The great car rolled smoothly from the saluting-base, over the undulating turf, and came to a standstill on the extreme right of the line, half a mile away. There descended a slight figure in khaki. It was the King—the King whom Private M'Slattery had never seen. Another figure followed, and another.
"Herself iss there too!" whinnied an excited Highlander on M'Slattery's right. "And the young leddy! Pless me, they are all for walking town the line on their feet. And the sun so hot in the sky! We shall see them close!"
Private M'Slattery gave a contemptuous sniff.
The excited battalion was called to a sense of duty by the voice of authority. Once more the long lines stood stiff and rigid—waiting, waiting, for their brief glimpse. It was a long time coming, for they were posted on the extreme left.
Suddenly a strangled voice was uplifted—"In God's name, what for can they no come tae us? Never heed the others!"
Yet Private M'Slattery was quite unaware that he had spoken.
At last the little procession arrived. There was a handshake for the Colonel, and a word with two or three of the officers; then a quick scrutiny of the rank and file. For a moment—yea, more than a moment—keen Royal eyes rested upon Private M'Slattery, standing like a graven image, with his great chest straining the buttons of his tunic.
Then a voice said, apparently in M'Slattery's ear—
"A magnificent body of men, Colonel. I congratulate you."
A minute later M'Slattery was aroused from his trance by the sound of the Colonel's ringing voice—
"Highlanders, three cheers for His Majesty the King!"
M'Slattery led the whole Battalion, his glengarry high in the air.
Suddenly his eye fell upon Private Mucklewame, blindly and woodenly yelling himself hoarse.
In three strides M'Slattery was standing face to face with the unconscious criminal.
"Yous low, lousy puddock," he roared—"tak' off your bonnet!" He saved Mucklewame the trouble of complying, and strode back to his place in the ranks.
"Yin mair, chaps," he shouted—"for the young leddy!"
And yet there are people who tell us that the formula, O.H.M.S., is a mere relic of antiquity.
"Bring in Private Dunshie, Sergeant-Major," says the Company Commander.
The Sergeant-Major throws open the door, and barks—"Private Dunshie's escort!"
The order is repeated fortissimo by some one outside. There is a clatter of ammunition boots getting into step, and a solemn procession of four files into the room. The leader thereof is a stumpy but enormously important-looking private. He is the escort. Number two is the prisoner. Numbers three and four are the accuser—counsel for the Crown, as it were—and a witness. The procession reaches the table at which the Captain is sitting. Beside him is a young officer, one Bobby Little, who is present for "instructional" purposes.
"Mark time!" commands the Sergeant-Major. "Halt! Right turn!"
This evolution brings the accused face to face with his judge. He has been deprived of his cap, and of everything else "which may be employed as, or contain, a missile." (They think of everything in the King's Regulations.)
"What is this man's crime, Sergeant-Major?" inquires the Captain.
"On this sheet, sir," replies the Sergeant-Major....
By a "crime" the ordinary civilian means something worth recording in a special edition of the evening papers—something with a meat-chopper in it. Others, more catholic in their views, will tell you that it is a crime to inflict corporal punishment on any human being; or to permit performing animals to appear upon the stage; or to subsist upon any food but nuts. Others, of still finer clay, will classify such things as Futurism, The Tango, Dickeys, and the Albert Memorial as crimes. The point to note is, that in the eyes of all these persons each of these things is a sin of the worst possible degree. That being so, they designate it a "crime." It is the strongest term they can employ.
But in the Army, "crime" is capable of infinite shades of intensity. It simply means "misdemeanour," and may range from being unshaven on parade, or making a frivolous complaint about the potatoes at dinner, to irrevocably perforating your rival in love with a bayonet. So let party politicians, when they discourse vaguely to their constituents about "the prevalence of crime in the Army under the present effete and undemocratic system," walk warily.
Every private in the Army possesses what is called a conduct-sheet, and upon this his crimes are recorded. To be precise, he has two such sheets. One is called his Company sheet, and the other his Regimental sheet. His Company sheet contains a record of every misdeed for which he has been brought before his Company Commander. His Regimental sheet is a more select document, and contains only the more noteworthy of his achievements—crimes so interesting that they have to be communicated to the Commanding Officer.
However, this morning we are concerned only with Company conduct-sheets. It is 7.30 A.M., and the Company Commander is sitting in judgment, with a little pile of yellow Army forms before him. He picks up the first of these, and reads—
"Private Dunshie. While on active service, refusing to obey an order. Lance-Corporal Ness!"
The figure upon the prisoner's right suddenly becomes animated. Lance-Corporal Ness, taking a deep breath, and fixing his eyes resolutely on the whitewashed wall above the Captain's head, recites—
"Sirr, at four P.M. on the fufth unst. I was in charge of a party told off for tae scrub the floor of Room Nummer Seeventeen. I ordered the prisoner tae scrub. He refused. I warned him. He again refused."
Click! Lance-Corporal Ness has run down. He has just managed the sentence in a breath.
The figure upon Lance-Corporal Ness's right stiffens, and inflates itself.
"Sirr, on the fufth unst. I was Orderly Sergeant. At aboot four-thirrty P.M., Lance-Corporal Ness reported this man tae me for refusing for tae obey an order. I confined him."
The Captain turns to the prisoner.
"What have you to say, Private Dunshie?"
Private Dunshie, it appears, has a good deal to say.
"I jined the Airmy for tae fight they Germans, and no for tae be learned tae scrub floors—"
"Sirr!" suggests the Sergeant-Major in his ear.
"Sirr," amends Private Dunshie reluctantly. "I was no in the habit of scrubbin' the floor mysel' where I stay in Glesca'; and ma wife would be affronted—"
But the Captain looks up. He has heard enough.
"Look here, Dunshie," he says. "Glad to hear you want to fight the Germans. So do I. So do we all. All the same, we've got a lot of dull jobs to do first." (Captain Blaikie has the reputation of being the most monosyllabic man in the British Army.) "Coals, and floors, and fatigues like that: they are your job. I have mine too. Kept me up till two this morning. But the point is this. You have refused to obey an order. Very serious, that. Most serious crime a soldier can commit. If you start arguing now about small things, where will you be when the big orders come along—eh? Must learn to obey. Soldier now, whatever you were a month ago. So obey all orders like a shot. Watch me next time I get one. No disgrace, you know! Ought to be a soldier's pride, and all that. See?"
"Yes—sirr," replies Private Dunshie, with less truculence.
The Captain glances down at the paper before him.
"First time you have come before me. Admonished!"
"Right turn! Quick march!" thunders the Sergeant-Major.
The procession clumps out of the room. The Captain turns to his disciple.
"That's my homely and paternal tap," he observes. "For first offenders only. That chap's all right. Soon find out it's no good fussing about your rights as a true-born British elector in the Army. Sergeant-Major!"
After the usual formalities, enter Private McNulty and escort. Private McNulty is a small scared-looking man with a dirty face.
"Private McNulty, sirr!" announces the Sergeant-Major to the Company Commander, with the air of a popular lecturer on entomology placing a fresh insect under the microscope.
Captain Blaikie addresses the shivering culprit—
"Private McNulty; charged with destroying Government property. Corporal Mather!"
Corporal Mather clears his throat, and assuming the wooden expression and fish-like gaze common to all public speakers who have learned their oration by heart, begins—
"Sirr, on the night of the sixth inst. I was Orderly Sergeant. Going round the prisoner's room about the hour of nine-thirty I noticed that his three biscuits had been cut and slashed, appariently with a knife or other instrument."
"What did you do?"
"Sirr, I inquired of the men in the room who was it had gone for to do this. Sirr, they said it was the prisoner."
Two witnesses are called. Both, certify, casting grieved and virtuous glances at the prisoner, that this outrage upon the property of His Majesty was the work of Private McNulty.
To the unsophisticated Bobby Little this charge appears rather a frivolous one. If you may not cut or slash a biscuit, what are you to do with it? Swallow it whole?
"Private McNulty?" queries the Captain.
Private McNulty, in a voice which is shrill with righteous indignation, gives the somewhat unexpected answer—
"Sirr, I plead guilty!"
"Guilty—eh? You did it, then?"
This is what Private McNulty is waiting for.
"The men in that room, sirr," he announces indignantly, "appear tae look on me as a sort of body that can be treated onyways. They go for tae aggravate me. I was sittin' on my bed, with my knife in my hand, cutting a piece bacca and interfering with naebody, when they all commenced tae fling biscuits at me. I was keepin' them off as weel as I could; but havin' a knife in my hand, I'll no deny but what I gave twa three of them a bit cut."
"Is this true?" asks the Captain of the first witness, curtly.
"You saw the men throwing biscuits at the prisoner?"
"He was daen' it himsel'!" proclaims Private McNulty.
The Captain addresses the other witness.
"You doing it too?"
The Captain turns again to the prisoner.
"Why didn't you lodge a complaint?" (The schoolboy code does not obtain in the Army.)
"I did, sir. I tellt"—indicating Corporal Mather with an elbow—"this genelman here."
Corporal Mather cannot help it. He swells perceptibly. But swift puncture awaits him.
"Corporal Mather, why didn't you mention this?"
"I didna think it affected the crime, sir."
"Not your business to think. Only to make a straightforward charge. Be very careful in future. You other two"—the witnesses come guiltily to attention—"I shall talk to your platoon sergeant about you. Not going to have Government property knocked about!"
Bobby Little's eyebrows, willy-nilly, have been steadily rising during the last five minutes. He knows the meaning of red tape now!
Then comes sentence.
"Private McNulty, you have pleaded guilty to a charge of destroying Government property, so you go before the Commanding Officer. Don't suppose you'll be punished, beyond paying for the damage."
"Right turn! Quick march!" chants the Sergeant-Major.
The downtrodden McNulty disappears, with his traducers. But Bobby Little's eyebrows have not been altogether thrown away upon his Company Commander.
"Got the biscuits here, Sergeant-Major?"
The Sergeant-Major dives into a pile of brown blankets, and presently extracts three small brown mattresses, each two feet square. These appear to have been stabbed in several places with a knife.
Captain Blaikie's eyes twinkle, and he chuckles to his now scarlet-faced junior—
"More biscuits in heaven and earth than ever came out of Huntley and Palmer's, my son! Private Robb!"
Presently Private Robb stands at the table. He is a fresh-faced, well-set-up youth, with a slightly receding chin and a most dejected manner.
"Private Robb," reads the Captain. "While on active service, drunk and singing in Wellington Street about nine p.m. on Saturday, the sixth. Sergeant Garrett!"
The proceedings follow their usual course, except that in this case some of the evidence is "documentary"—put in in the form of a report from the sergeant of the Military Police who escorted the melodious Robb home to bed.
The Captain addresses the prisoner.
"Private Robb, this is the second time. Sorry—very sorry. In all other ways you are doing well. Very keen and promising soldier. Why is it—eh?"
The contrite Robb hangs his head. His judge continues—
"I'll tell you. You haven't found out yet how much you can hold. That it?"
The prisoner nods assent.
"Well—find out! See? It's one of the first things a young man ought to learn. Very valuable piece of information. I know myself, so I'm safe. Want you to do the same. Every man has a different limit. What did you have on Saturday?"
Private Robb reflects.
"Five pints, sirr," he announces.
"Well, next time try three, and then you won't go serenading policemen. As it is, you will have to go before the Commanding Officer and get punished. Want to go to the front, don't you?"
"Yes, sirr." Private Robb's dismal features flush.
"Well, mind this. We all want to go, but we can't go till every man in the battalion is efficient. You want to be the man who kept the rest from going to the front—eh?"
"No, sirr, I do not."
"All right, then. Next Saturday night say to yourself: 'Another pint, and I keep the Battalion back!' If you do that, you'll come back to barracks sober, like a decent chap. That'll do. Don't salute with your cap off. Next man, Sergeant-Major!"
"Good boy, that," remarks the Captain to Bobby Little, as the contrite Robb is removed. "Keen as mustard. But his high-water mark for beer is somewhere in his boots. All right, now I've scared him."
"Last prisoner, sirr," announces the Sergeant-Major.
"Glad to hear it. H'm! Private M'Queen again!"
Private M'Queen is an unpleasant-looking creature, with a drooping red moustache and a cheese-coloured complexion. His misdeeds are recited. Having been punished for misconduct early in the week, he has piled Pelion on Ossa by appearing fighting drunk at defaulters' parade. From all accounts he has livened up that usually decorous assemblage considerably.
After the corroborative evidence, the Captain asks his usual question of the prisoner—
"Anything to say?"
"No," growls Private M'Queen.
The Captain takes up the prisoner's conduct-sheet, reads it through, and folds it up deliberately.
"I am going to ask the Commanding Officer to discharge you," he says; and there is nothing homely or paternal in his speech now. "Can't make out why men like you join the Army—especially this Army. Been a nuisance ever since you came here. Drunk—beastly drunk—four times in three weeks. Always dirty and insubordinate. Always trying to stir up trouble among the young soldiers. Been in the army before, haven't you?"
"That's not true. Can always tell an old soldier on parade. Fact is, you have either deserted or been discharged as incorrigible. Going to be discharged as incorrigible again. Keeping the regiment back, that's why: that's a real crime. Go home, and explain that you were turned out of the King's Army because you weren't worthy of the honour of staying in. When decent men see that people like you have no place in this regiment, perhaps they will see that this regiment is just the place for them. Take him away."
Private M'Queen shambles out of the room for the last time in his life. Captain Blaikie, a little exhausted by his own unusual loquacity, turns to Bobby Little with a contented sigh.
"That's the last of the shysters," he says. "Been weeding them out for six weeks. Now I have got rid of that nobleman I can look the rest of the Company in the face. Come to breakfast!"
THE LAWS OF THE MEDES AND PERSIANS
One's first days as a newly-joined subaltern are very like one's first days at school. The feeling is just the same. There is the same natural shyness, the same reverence for people who afterwards turn out to be of no consequence whatsoever, and the same fear of transgressing the Laws of the Medes and Persians—regimental traditions and conventions—which alter not.
Dress, for instance. "Does one wear a sword on parade?" asks the tyro of himself his first morning. "I'll put it on, and chance it." He invests himself in a monstrous claymore and steps on to the barrack square. Not an officer in sight is carrying anything more lethal than a light cane. There is just time to scuttle back to quarters and disarm.
Again, where should one sit at meal-times? We had supposed that the C.O. would be enthroned at the head of the table, with a major sitting on his right and left, like Cherubim and Seraphim; while the rest disposed themselves in a descending scale of greatness until it came down to persons like ourselves at the very foot. But the C.O. has a disconcerting habit of sitting absolutely anywhere. He appears to be just as happy between two Second Lieutenants as between Cherubim and Seraphim. Again, we note that at breakfast each officer upon entering sits down and shouts loudly, to a being concealed behind a screen, for food, which is speedily forthcoming. Are we entitled to clamour in this peremptory fashion too? Or should we creep round behind the screen and take what we can get? Or should we sit still, and wait till we are served? We try the last expedient first, and get nothing. Then we try the second, and are speedily convinced, by the demeanour of the gentleman behind the screen, that we have committed the worst error of which we have yet been guilty.
There are other problems—saluting, for instance. On the parade ground this is a simple matter enough; for there the golden rule appears to be—When in doubt, salute! The Colonel calls up his four Company Commanders. They salute. He instructs them to carry on this morning with coal fatigues and floor-scrubbing. The Company Commanders salute, and retire to their Companies, and call up their subalterns, who salute. They instruct these to carry on this morning with coal fatigues and floor-scrubbing. The sixteen subalterns salute, and retire to their platoons. Here they call up their Platoon Sergeants, who salute. They instruct these to carry on this morning with coal fatigues and floor-scrubbing. The Platoon Sergeants salute, and issue commands to the rank and file. The rank and file, having no instructions to salute sergeants, are compelled, as a last resort, to carry on with the coal fatigues and floor-scrubbing themselves. You see, on parade saluting is simplicity itself.
But we are not always on parade; and then more subtle problems arise. Some of those were discussed one day by four junior officers, who sat upon a damp and slippery bank by a muddy roadside during a "fall-out" in a route-march. The four ("reading from left to right," as they say in high journalistic society) were Second Lieutenant Little, Second Lieutenant Waddell, Second Lieutenant Cockerell, and Lieutenant Struthers, surnamed "Highbrow." Bobby we know. Waddell was a slow-moving but pertinacious student of the science of war from the kingdom of Fife. Cockerell came straight from a crack public-school corps, where he had been a cadet officer; so nothing in the heaven above or the earth beneath was hid from him. Struthers owed his superior rank to the fact that in the far back ages, before the days of the O.T.C., he had held a commission in a University Corps. He was a scholar of his College, and was an expert in the art of accumulating masses of knowledge in quick time for examination purposes. He knew all the little red manuals by heart, was an infallible authority on buttons and badges, and would dip into the King's Regulations or the Field Service Pocket-book as another man might dip into the "Sporting Times." Strange to say, he was not very good at drilling a platoon. We all know him.
"What do you do when you are leading a party along a road and meet a Staff Officer?" asked Bobby Little.
"Make a point," replied Cockerell patronisingly, "of saluting all persons wearing red bands round their hats. They may not be entitled to it, but it tickles their ribs and gets you the reputation, of being an intelligent young officer."
"But I say," announced Waddell plaintively, "I saluted a man with a red hat the other day, and he turned out to be a Military Policeman!"
"As a matter of fact," announced the pundit Struthers, after the laughter had subsided, "you need not salute anybody. No compliments are paid on active service, and we are on active service now."
"Yes, but suppose some one salutes you?" objected the conscientious Bobby Little. "You must salute back again, and sometimes you don't know how to do it. The other day I was bringing the company back from the ranges and we met a company from another battalion—the Mid Mudshires, I think. Before I knew where I was the fellow in charge called them to attention and then gave 'Eyes right!'"
"What did you do?" asked Struthers anxiously.
"I hadn't time to do anything except grin, and say, 'Good morning!'" confessed Bobby Little.
"You were perfectly right," announced Struthers, and Cockerell murmured assent.
"Are you sure?" persisted Bobby Little. "As I passed the tail of their company one of their subs turned to another and said quite loud, 'My God, what swine!'"
"Showed his rotten ignorance," commented Cockerell.
At this moment Mr. Waddell, whose thoughts were never disturbed by conversation around him, broke in with a question.
"What does a Tommy do," he inquired, "if he meets an officer wheeling a wheelbarrow?"
"Who is wheeling the barrow," inquired the meticulous Struthers—"the officer or the Tommy?"
"The Tommy, of course!" replied Waddell in quite a shocked voice. "What is he to do? If he tries to salute he will upset the barrow, you know."
"He turns his head sharply towards the officer for six paces," explained the ever-ready Struthers. "When a soldier is not in a position to salute in the ordinary way—"
"I say," inquired Bobby Little rather shyly, "do you ever look the other way when you meet a Tommy?"
"How do you mean?" asked everybody.
"Well, the other day I met one walking out with his girl along the road, and I felt so blooming de trop that—"
Here the "fall-in" sounded, and this delicate problem was left unsolved. But Mr. Waddell, who liked to get to the bottom of things, continued to ponder these matters as he marched. He mistrusted the omniscience of Struthers and the superficial infallibility of the self-satisfied Cockerell. Accordingly, after consultation with that eager searcher after knowledge, Second Lieutenant Little, he took the laudable but fatal step of carrying his difficulties to one Captain Wagstaffe, the humorist of the Battalion.
Wagstaffe listened with an appearance of absorbed interest. Finally he said—
"These are very important questions, Mr. Waddell, and you acted quite rightly in laying them before me. I will consult the Deputy Assistant Instructor in Military Etiquette, and will obtain a written answer to your inquiries."
"Oh, thanks awfully, sir!" exclaimed Waddell.
The result of Captain Wagstaffe's application to the mysterious official just designated was forthcoming next day in the form of a neatly typed document. It was posted in the Ante-room (the C.O. being out at dinner), and ran as follows:—
YOUNG OFFICERS, HINTS FOR THE GUIDANCE OF
The following is the correct procedure for a young officer in charge of an armed party upon meeting—
(a) A Staff Officer riding a bicycle.
Correct Procedure.—If marching at attention, order your men to march at ease and to light cigarettes and eat bananas. Then, having fixed bayonets, give the order: Across the road—straggle!
(b) A funeral.
Correct Procedure.—Strike up Tipperary, and look the other way.
(c) A General Officer, who strolls across your Barrack Square precisely at the moment when you and your Platoon have got into mutual difficulties.
Correct Procedure.—Lie down flat upon your face (directing your platoon to do the same), cover your head with gravel, and pretend you are not there.
(a) A soldier, wheeling a wheelbarrow and balancing a swill-tub on his head, meets an officer walking out in review dress.
Correct Procedure.—The soldier will immediately cant the swill-tub to an angle of forty-five degrees at a distance of one and a half inches above his right eyebrow. (In the case of Rifle Regiments the soldier will balance the swill-tub on his nose.) He will then invite the officer, by a smart movement of the left ear, to seat himself on the wheelbarrow.
Correct Acknowledgment.—The officer will comply, placing his feet upon the right and left hubs of the wheel respectively, with the ball of the toe in each case at a distance of one inch (when serving abroad, 2-1/2 centimetres) from the centre of gravity of the wheelbarrow. (In the case of Rifle Regiments the officer will tie his feet in a knot at the back of his neck.) The soldier will then advance six paces, after which the officer will dismount and go home and have a bath.
(b) A soldier, with his arm round a lady's waist in the gloaming, encounters an officer.
Correct Procedure.—The soldier will salute with his disengaged arm. The lady will administer a sharp tap with the end of her umbrella to the officer's tunic, at point one inch above the lowest button.
Correct Acknowledgment.—The officer will take the end of the umbrella firmly in his right hand, and will require the soldier to introduce him to the lady. He will then direct the soldier to double back to barracks.
(c) A party of soldiers, seated upon the top of a transport waggon, see an officer passing at the side of the road.
Correct Procedure.—The senior N.C.O. (or if no N.C.O. be present, the oldest soldier) will call the men to attention, and the party, taking their time from the right, will spit upon the officer's head in a soldier-like manner.
Correct Acknowledgment.—The officer will break into a smart trot.
(d) A soldier, driving an officer's motor-car without the knowledge of the officer, encounters the officer in a narrow country lane.
Correct Procedure.—The soldier will open the throttle to its full extent and run the officer over.
Correct Acknowledgment.—No acknowledgment is required.
NOTE.—None of the above compliments will be paid upon active service.
Unfortunately the Colonel came home from dining out sooner than was expected, and found this outrageous document still upon the notice-board. But he was a good Colonel. He merely remarked approvingly—
"H'm. Quite so! Non semper arcum tendit Apollo. It's just as well to keep smiling these days."
Nevertheless, Mr. Waddell made a point in future, when in need of information, of seeking the same from a less inspired source than Captain Wagstaffe.
* * * * *
There was another Law of the Medes and Persians with which our four friends soon became familiar—that which governs the relations of the various ranks to one another. Great Britain is essentially the home of the chaperon. We pride ourselves, as a nation, upon the extreme care with which we protect our young gentlewomen from contaminating influences. But the fastidious attention which we bestow upon our national maidenhood is as nothing in comparison with the protective commotion with which we surround that shrinking sensitive plant, Mr. Thomas Atkins.
Take etiquette and deportment. If a soldier wishes to speak to an officer, an introduction must be effected by a sergeant. Let us suppose that Private M'Splae, in the course of a route-march, develops a blister upon his great toe. He begins by intimating the fact to the nearest lance-corporal. The lance-corporal takes the news to the platoon sergeant, who informs the platoon commander, who may or may not decide to take the opinion of his company commander in the matter. Anyhow, when the hobbling warrior finally obtains permission to fall out and alleviate his distress, a corporal goes with him, for fear he should lose himself, or his boot—it is wonderful what Thomas can lose when he sets his mind to it—or, worst crime of all, his rifle.
Again, if two privates are detailed to empty the regimental ashbin, a junior N.C.O. ranges them in line, calls them to attention, and marches them off to the scene of their labours, decently and in order. If a soldier obtains leave to go home on furlough for the week-end, he is collected into a party, and, after being inspected to see that his buttons are clean, his hair properly cut, and his nose correctly blown, is marched off to the station, where a ticket is provided for him, and he and his fellow-wayfarers are safely tucked into a third-smoker labelled "Military Party." (No wonder he sometimes gets lost on arriving at Waterloo!) In short, if there is a job to be done, the senior soldier present chaperons somebody else while he does it.
This system has been attacked on the ground that it breeds loss of self-reliance and initiative. As a matter of fact, the result is almost exactly the opposite. Under its operation a soldier rapidly acquires the art of placing himself under the command of his nearest superior in rank; but at the same time he learns with equal rapidity to take command himself if no superior be present—no bad thing in times of battle and sudden death, when shrapnel is whistling, and promotion is taking place with grim and unceasing automaticity.
This principle is extended, too, to the enforcement of law and order. If Private M'Sumph is insubordinate or riotous, there is never any question of informal correction or summary justice. News of the incident wends its way upward, by a series of properly regulated channels, to the officer in command. Presently, by the same route, an order comes back, and in a twinkling the offender finds himself taken under arrest and marched off to the guard-room by two of his own immediate associates. (One of them may be his own rear-rank man.) But no officer or non-commissioned officer ever lays a finger on him. The penalty for striking a superior officer is so severe that the law decrees, very wisely, that a soldier must on no account ever be arrested by any save men of his own rank. If Private M'Sumph, while being removed in custody, strikes Private Tosh upon the nose and kicks Private Cosh upon the shin, to the effusion of blood, no great harm is done—except to the lacerated Cosh and Tosh; but if he had smitten an intruding officer in the eye, his punishment would have been dire and grim. So, though we may call military law cumbrous and grandmotherly, there is sound sense and real mercy at the root of it.
* * * * *
But there is one Law of the Medes and Persians which is sensibly relaxed these days. We, the newly joined, have always been given to understand that whatever else you do, you must never, never betray any interest in your profession—in short, talk shop—at Mess. But in our Mess no one ever talks anything else. At luncheon, we relate droll anecdotes concerning our infant platoons; at tea, we explain, to any one who will listen, exactly how we placed our sentry line in last night's operations; at dinner, we brag about our Company musketry returns, and quote untruthful extracts from our butt registers. At breakfast, every one has a newspaper, which he props before him and reads, generally aloud. We exchange observations upon the war news. We criticise von Kluck, and speak kindly of Joffre. We note, daily, that there is nothing to report on the Allies' right, and wonder regularly how the Russians are really getting on in the Eastern theatre.
Then, after observing that the only sportsman in the combined forces of the German Empire is—or was—the captain of the Emden, we come to the casualty lists—and there is silence.
Englishmen are fond of saying, with the satisfied air of men letting off a really excellent joke, that every one in Scotland knows every one else. As we study the morning's Roll of Honour, we realise that never was a more truthful jest uttered. There is not a name in the list of those who have died for Scotland which is not familiar to us. If we did not know the man—too often the boy—himself, we knew his people, or at least where his home was. In England, if you live in Kent, and you read that the Northumberland Fusiliers have been cut up or the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry badly knocked about, you merely sigh that so many more good men should have fallen. Their names are glorious names, but they are only names. But never a Scottish regiment comes under fire but the whole of Scotland feels it. Scotland is small enough to know all her sons by heart. You may live in Berwickshire, and the man who has died may have come from Skye; but his name is quite familiar to you. Big England's sorrow is national; little Scotland's is personal.
Then we pass on to our letters. Many of us—particularly the senior officers—have news direct from the trenches—scribbled scraps torn out of field-message books. We get constant tidings of the Old Regiment. They marched thirty-five miles on such a day; they captured a position after being under continuous shell fire for eight hours on another; they were personally thanked by the Field-Marshal on another. Oh, we shall have to work hard to get up to that standard!
"They want more officers," announces the Colonel. "Naturally, after the time they've been having! But they must go to the Third Battalion for them: that's the proper place. I will not have them coming here: I've told them so at Headquarters. The Service Battalions simply must be led by the officers who have trained them if they are to have a Chinaman's chance when we go out. I shall threaten to resign if they try any more of their tricks. That'll frighten 'em! Even dug-outs like me are rare and valuable objects at present."
The Company Commanders murmur assent—on the whole sympathetically. Anxious though they are to get upon business terms with the Kaiser, they are loath to abandon the unkempt but sturdy companies over which they have toiled so hard, and which now, though destitute of blossom, are rich in promise of fruit. But the senior subalterns look up hopefully. Their lot is hard. Some of them have been in the Service for ten years, yet they have been left behind. They command no companies. "Here," their faces say, "we are merely marking time while others learn. Send us!"
* * * * *
However, though they have taken no officers yet, signs are not wanting that they will take some soon. To-day each of us was presented with a small metal disc.
Bobby Little examined his curiously. Upon the face thereof was stamped, in ragged, irregular capitals—
"What is this for?" he asked.
Captain Wagstaffe answered.
"You wear it round your neck," he said.
Our four friends, once bitten, regarded the humorist suspiciously.
"Are you rotting us?" asked Waddell cautiously.
"No, my son," replied Wagstaffe, "I am not."
"What is it for, then?"
"It's called an Identity Disc. Every soldier on active service wears one."
"Why should the idiots put one's religion on the thing?" inquired Master Cockerell, scornfully regarding the letters "C. of E." upon his disc.
Wagstaffe regarded him curiously.
"Think it over," he suggested.
"What for is the wee felly gaun' tae show us puctures?"
Second Lieutenant Bobby Little, assisted by a sergeant and two unhandy privates, is engaged in propping a large and highly-coloured work of art, mounted on a rough wooden frame and supported on two unsteady legs, against the wall of the barrack square. A half-platoon of A Company, seated upon an adjacent bank, chewing grass and enjoying the mellow autumn sunshine, regard the swaying masterpiece with frank curiosity. For the last fortnight they have been engaged in imbibing the science of musketry. They have learned to hold their rifles correctly, sitting, kneeling, standing, or lying; to bring their backsights and foresights into an undeviating straight line with the base of the bull's-eye; and to press the trigger in the manner laid down in the Musketry Regulations—without wriggling the body or "pulling-off."
They have also learned to adjust their sights, to perform the loading motions rapidly and correctly, and to obey such simple commands as—
"At them two, weemen"—officers' wives, probably—"proceeding from left tae right across the square, at five hundred yairds"
—they are really about fifteen yards away, covered with confusion—"five roonds, fire!"
But as yet they have discharged no shots from their rifles. It has all been make-believe, with dummy cartridges, and fictitious ranges, and snapping triggers. To be quite frank, they are getting just a little tired of musketry training—forgetting for the moment that a soldier who cannot use his rifle is merely an expense to his country and a free gift to the enemy. But the sight of Bobby Little's art gallery cheers them up. They contemplate the picture with childlike interest. It resembles nothing so much as one of those pleasing but imaginative posters by the display of which our Railway Companies seek to attract the tourist to the less remunerative portions of their systems.
"What for is the wee felly gaun' tae show us puctures?"
Thus Private Mucklewame. A pundit in the rear rank answers him.
"Gairmany ma auntie!" retorts Mucklewame. "There's no chumney-stalks in Gairmany."
"Maybe no; but there's wundmulls. See the wundmull there—on yon wee knowe!"
"There a pit-held!" exclaims another voice. This homely spectacle is received with an affectionate sigh. Until two months ago more than half the platoon had never been out of sight of at least half a dozen.
"See the kirk, in ablow the brae!" says some one else, in a pleased voice. "It has a nock in the steeple."
"I hear they Gairmans send signals wi' their kirk-nocks," remarks Private M'Micking, who, as one of the Battalion signallers—or "buzzers," as the vernacular has it, in imitation of the buzzing of the Morse instrument—regards himself as a sort of junior Staff Officer. "They jist semaphore with the haunds of the nock—"
"I wonder," remarks the dreamy voice of Private M'Leary, the humorist of the platoon, "did ever a Gairman buzzer pit the ba' through his ain goal in a fitba' match?"
This irrelevant reference to a regrettable incident of the previous Saturday afternoon is greeted with so much laughter that Bobby Little, who has at length fixed his picture in position, whips round.
"Less talking there!" he announces severely, "or I shall have to stand you all at attention!"
There is immediate silence—there is nothing the matter with Bobby's discipline—and the outraged M'Micking has to content himself with a homicidal glare in the direction of M'Leary, who is now hanging virtuously upon his officer's lips.
"This," proceeds Bobby Little, "is what is known as a landscape target."
He indicates the picture, which, apparently overcome by so much public notice, promptly falls flat upon its face. A fatigue party under the sergeant hurries to its assistance.
"It is intended," resumes Bobby presently, "to teach you—us—to become familiar with various kinds of country, and to get into the habit of picking out conspicuous features of the landscape, and getting them by heart, and—er—so on. I want you all to study this picture for three minutes. Then I shall face you about and ask you to describe it to me."
After three minutes of puckered brows and hard breathing the squad is turned to its rear and the examination proceeds.
"Lance-Corporal Ness, what did you notice in the foreground of the picture?"
Lance-Corporal Ness gazes fiercely before him. He has noticed a good deal, but can remember nothing. Moreover, he has no very clear idea what a foreground may be.
Again silence, while the rotund Mucklewame perspires in the throes of mental exertion.
The "buzzer" smiles feebly, but says nothing.
"Well,"—desperately—"Sergeant Angus! Tell them what you noticed in the foreground."
Sergeant Angus (floruit A.D. 1895) springs smartly to attention, and replies, with the instant obedience of the old soldier—
"The sky, sirr."
"Not in the foreground, as a rule," replies Bobby Little gently. "About turn again, all of you, and we'll have another try."
In his next attempt Bobby abandons individual catechism.
"Now," he begins, "what conspicuous objects do we notice on this target? In the foreground I can see a low knoll. To the left I see a windmill. In the distance is a tall chimney. Half-right is a church. How would that church be marked on a map?"
"Well," explains Bobby, anxious to parade a piece of knowledge which he only acquired himself a day or two ago, "churches are denoted in maps by a cross, mounted on a square or circle, according as the church has a square tower or a steeple. What has this church got?"
"A nock!" bellow the platoon, with stunning enthusiasm. (All but Private M'Micking, that is.)
"A clock, sir," translates the sergeant, sotto voce.
"A clock? All right: but what I wanted was a steeple. Then, farther away, we can see a mine, a winding brook, and a house, with a wall in front of it. Who can see them?"
To judge by the collective expression of the audience, no one does. Bobby ploughs on.
"Upon the skyline we notice—Squad, 'shun!"
Captain Wagstaffe has strolled up. He is second in command of A Company. Bobby explains to him modestly what he has been trying to do.
"Yes, I heard you," says Wagstaffe. "You take a breather, while I carry on for a bit. Squad, stand easy, and tell me what you can see on that target. Lance-Corporal Ness, show me a pit-head."
Lance-Corporal Ness steps briskly forward and lays a grubby forefinger on Bobby's "mine."
"Private Mucklewame, show me a burn."
The brook is at once identified.
"Private M'Leary, shut your eyes and tell me what there is just to the right of the windmill."
"A wee knowe, sirr," replies M'Leary at once. Bobby recognises his "low knoll"—also the fact that it is no use endeavouring to instruct the unlettered until you have learned their language.
"Very good!" says Captain Wagstaffe. "Now we will go on to what is known as Description and Recognition of Targets. Supposing I had sent one of you forward into that landscape as a scout.—By the way, what is a scout?"
Dead silence, as usual.
"Come along! Tell me, somebody! Private Mucklewame?"
"They gang oot in a procession on Setter-day efternoons, sirr, in short breeks," replies Mucklewame promptly.
"A procession is the very last thing a scout goes out in!" raps Wagstaffe. (It is plain to Mucklewame that the Captain has never been in Wishaw, but he does not argue the point.) "Private M'Micking, what is a scout?"
"A spy, sirr," replies the omniscient one.
"Well, that's better; but there's a big difference between the two. What is it?"
This is a poser. Several men know the difference, but feel quite incapable of explaining it. The question runs down the front rank. Finally it is held up and disposed of by one Mearns (from Aberdeen).
"A spy, sirr, gets mair money than a scout."
"Does he?" asks Captain Wagstaffe, smiling. "Well, I am not in a position to say. But if he does, he earns it! Why?"
"Because if he gets catched he gets shot," volunteers a rear-rank man.
"Right. Why is he shot?"
This conundrum is too deep for the squad. The Captain has to answer it himself.
"Because he is not in uniform, and cannot therefore be treated as an ordinary prisoner of war. So never go scouting in your nightshirt, Mucklewame!"
The respectable Mucklewame blushes deeply at this outrageous suggestion, but Wagstaffe proceeds—
"Now, supposing I sent you out scouting, and you discovered that over there—somewhere in the middle of this field"—he lays a finger on the field in question—"there was a fold in the ground where a machine-gun section was concealed: what would you do when you got back?"
"I would tell you, sirr," replied Private M'Micking politely.
"Tell me what?"
"That they was there, sirr."
"In yon place."
"How would you indicate the position of the place?"
"I would pint it oot with ma finger, sirr."
"Invisible objects half a mile away are not easily pointed out with the finger," Captain Wagstaffe mentions. "Lance-Corporal Ness, how would you describe it?"
"I would tak' you there, sirr."
"Thanks! But I doubt if either of us would come back! Private Wemyss?"
"I would say, sirr, that the place was west of the mansion-hoose."
"There's a good deal of land west of that mansion-house, you know," expostulates the Captain gently; "but we are getting on. Thompson?"
"I would say, sir," replies Thompson, puckering his brow, "that it was in ablow they trees."
"It would be hard to indicate the exact trees you meant. Trees are too common. You try, Corporal King."
But Corporal King, who earned his stripes by reason of physical rather than intellectual attributes, can only contribute a lame reference to "a bit hedge by yon dyke, where there's a kin' o' hole in the tairget." Wagstaffe breaks in—
"Now, everybody, take some conspicuous and unmistakable object about the middle of that landscape—something which no one can mistake. The mansion-house will do—the near end. Now then—mansion-house, near end! Got that?"
There is a general chorus of assent.
"Very well. I want you to imagine that the base of the mansion-house is the centre of a great clock-face. Where would twelve o'clock be?"
The platoon are plainly tickled by this new round-game. They reply—
"Right. Where is nine o'clock?"
"Over tae the left."
"Very good. And so on with all the other hours. Now, supposing I were to say, End of mansion-house—six o'clock—white gate—you would carry your eye straight downward, through the garden, until it encountered the gate. I would thus have enabled you to recognise a very small object in a wide landscape in the quickest possible time. See the idea?"
"All right. Now for our fold in the ground. End of mansion-house—eight o'clock—got that?"
There is an interested murmur of assent.
"That gives you the direction from the house. Now for the distance! End of mansion-house—eight o 'clock—two finger-breadths—what does that give you, Lance-Corporal Ness?"
"The corrner of a field, sirr."
"Right. This is our field. We have picked it correctly out of about twenty fields, you see. Corner of field. In the middle of the field, a fold in the ground. At nine hundred—at the fold in the ground—five rounds—fire! You see the idea now?"
"Very good. Let the platoon practise describing targets to one another, Mr. Little. Don't be too elaborate. Never employ either the clock or finger method if you can describe your target without. For instance: Left of windmill—triangular cornfield. At the nearest corner—six hundred—rapid fire! is all you want. Carry on, Mr. Little."
And leaving Bobby and his infant class to practise this new and amusing pastime, Captain Wagstaffe strolls away across the square to where the painstaking Waddell is contending with another squad.
They, too, have a landscape target—a different one. Before it half a dozen rifles stand, set in rests. Waddell has given the order: Four hundred—at the road, where it passes under the viaduct—fire! and six privates have laid the six rifles upon the point indicated. Waddell and Captain Wagstaffe walk down the line, peering along the sights of the rifles. Five are correctly aligned: the sixth points to the spacious firmament above the viaduct.
"Hallo!" observes Wagstaffe.
"This is the man's third try, sir," explains the harassed Waddell. "He doesn't seem to be able to distinguish anything at all."
"So he says, sir."
"Been a long time finding out, hasn't he?"
"The sergeant told me, sir," confides Waddell, "that in his opinion the man is 'working for his ticket.'"
"I did not quite understand the expression, sir," continues the honest youth, "so I thought I would consult you."
"It means that he is trying to get his discharge. Bring him along: I'll soon find out whether he is skrim-shanking or not."
Private M'Sweir is introduced, and led off to the lair of that hardened cynic, the Medical Officer. Here he is put through some simple visual tests. He soon finds himself out of his depth. It is extremely difficult to feign either myopia, hypermetria, or astigmatism if you are not acquainted with the necessary symptoms, and have not decided beforehand which (if any) of these diseases you are suffering from. In five minutes the afflicted M'Sweir is informed, to his unutterable indignation, that he has passed a severe ocular examination with flying colours, and is forthwith marched back to his squad, with instructions to recognise all targets in future, under pain of special instruction in the laws of optics during his leisure hours. Verily, in K (1)—that is the tabloid title of the First Hundred Thousand—the way of the malingerer is hard.
Still, the seed does not always fall upon stony ground. On his way to inspect a third platoon Captain Wagstaffe passes Bobby Little and his merry men. They are in pairs, indicating targets to one another.
Says Private Walker (oblivious of Captain Wagstaffe's proximity) to his friend, Private M'Leary—in an affected parody of his instructor's staccato utterance—
"At yon three Gairman spies, gaun' up a close for tae despatch some wireless telegraphy—fufty roonds—fire!"
To which Private M'Leary, not to be outdone, responds—
"Public hoose—in the baur—back o' seeven o'clock—twa drams—fower fingers—rapid!"
From this it is a mere step to—
"Butt Pairty, 'shun! Forrm fourrs! Right! By your left, quick marrch!"
—on a bleak and cheerless morning in late October. It is not yet light; but a depressed party of about twenty-five are falling into line at the acrid invitation of two sergeants, who have apparently decided that the pen is mightier than the Lee-Enfield rifle; for each wears one stuck in his glengarry like an eagle's feather, and carries a rabbinical-looking inkhorn slung to his bosom. This literary pose is due to the fact that records are about to be taken of the performances of the Company on the shooting-range.
A half-awakened subaltern, who breakfasted at the grisly hour of a quarter-to-six, takes command, and the dolorous procession disappears into the gloom.
Half an hour later the Battalion parades, and sets off, to the sound of music, in pursuit. (It is perhaps needless to state that although we are deficient in rifles, possess neither belts, pouches, nor greatcoats, and are compelled to attach, our scanty accoutrements to our persons with ingenious contrivances of string, we boast a fully equipped and highly efficient pipe band, complete with pipers, big drummer, side drummers, and corybantic drum-major.)
By eight o'clock, after a muddy tramp of four miles, we are assembled at the two-hundred-yards firing point upon Number Three Range. The range itself is little more than a drive cut through, a pine-wood. It is nearly half a mile long. Across the far end runs a high sandy embankment, decorated just below the ridge with, a row of number-boards—one for each target. Of the targets themselves nothing as yet is to be seen.
"Now then, let's get a move on!" suggests the Senior Captain briskly. "Cockerell, ring up the butts, and ask Captain Wagstaffe to put up the targets."
The alert Mr. Cockerell hurries to the telephone, which lives in a small white-painted structure like a gramophone-stand. (It has been left at the firing-point by the all-providing butt-party.) He turns the call-handle smartly, takes the receiver out of the box, and begins....
There is no need to describe the performance which ensues. All telephone-users are familiar with it. It consists entirely of the word "Hallo!" repeated crescendo and furioso until exhaustion supervenes.
Presently Mr. Cockerell reports to the Captain—
"Telephone out of order, sir."
"I never knew a range telephone that wasn't," replies the Captain, inspecting the instrument. "Still, you might give this one a sporting chance, anyhow. It isn't a wireless telephone, you know! Corporal Kemp, connect that telephone for Mr. Cockerell."
A marble-faced N.C.O. kneels solemnly upon the turf and raises a small iron trapdoor—hitherto overlooked by the omniscient Cockerell—revealing a cavity some six inches deep, containing an electric plug-hole. Into this he thrusts the terminal of the telephone wire. Cockerell, scarlet in the face, watches him indignantly.
Telephonic communication between firing-point and butts is now established. That is to say, whenever Mr. Cockerell rings the bell some one in the butts courteously rings back. Overtures of a more intimate nature are greeted either with stony silence or another fantasia on the bell.
Meanwhile the captain is superintending firing arrangements.
"Are the first details ready to begin?" he shouts.
"Quite ready, sir," runs the reply down the firing line.
The Captain now comes to the telephone himself. He takes the receiver from Cockerell with masterful assurance.
"Hallo, there!" he calls. "I want to speak to Captain Wagstaffe."
"Honkle yang-yang?" inquires a ghostly voice.
"Captain Wagstaffe! Hurry up!"
Presently the bell rings, and the Captain gets to business.
"That you, Wagstaffe?" he inquires cheerily. "Look here, we're going to fire Practice Seven, Table B,—snap-shooting. I want you to raise all the targets for six seconds, just for sighting purposes. Do you understand?"
Here the bell rings continuously for ten seconds. Nothing daunted, the Captain tries again.
"That you, Wagstaffe? Practice Seven, Table B!"
"T'chk, t'chk!" replies Captain Wagstaffe.
"Begin by raising all the targets for six seconds. Then raise them six times for five seconds each.—no, as you were! Raise them five times for six seconds each. Got that? I say, are you there? What's that?"
"Przemysl" replies the telephone—or something to that effect. "Czestochowa! Krsyszkowice! Plock!"
The Captain, now on his mettle, continues:—
"I want you to signal the results on the rear targets as the front ones go down. After that we will fire—oh, curse the thing!"
He hastily removes the receiver, which is emitting sounds suggestive of the buckling of biscuit-tins, from his ear, and lays it on its rest. The bell promptly begins to ring again.
"Mr. Cockerell," he says resignedly, "double up to the butts and ask Captain Wagstaffe—"
"I'm here, old son," replies a gentle voice, as Captain Wagstaffe touches him upon the shoulder. "Been here some time!"
After mutual asperities, it is decided by the two Captains to dispense with the aid of the telephone proper, and communicate by bell alone. Captain Wagstaffe's tall figure strides back across the heather; the red flag on the butts flutters down; and we get to work.
Upon a long row of waterproof sheets—some thirty in all—lie the firers. Beside each is extended the form of a sergeant or officer, tickling his charge's ear with incoherent counsel, and imploring him, almost tearfully, not to get excited.
Suddenly thirty targets spring out of the earth in front of us, only to disappear again just as we have got over our surprise. They are not of the usual bull's-eye pattern, but are what is known as "figure" targets. The lower half is sea-green, the upper, white. In the centre, half on the green and half on the white, is a curious brown smudge. It might be anything, from a splash of mud to one of those mysterious brown-paper patterns which fall out of ladies' papers, but it really is intended to represent the head and shoulders of a man in khaki lying on grass and aiming at us. However, the British private, with his usual genius for misapprehension, has christened this effigy "the beggar in the boat."
With equal suddenness the targets swing up again. Crack! An uncontrolled spirit has loosed off his rifle before it has reached his shoulder. Blistering reproof follows. Then, after three or four seconds, comes a perfect salvo all down the line. The conscientious Mucklewame, slowly raising his foresight as he has been taught to do, from the base of the target to the centre, has just covered the beggar in the boat between wind and water, and is lingering lovingly over the second pull, when the inconsiderate beggar (and his boat) sink unostentatiously into the abyss, leaving the open-mouthed marksman with his finger on the trigger and an unfired cartridge still in the chamber. At the dentist's Time crawls; in snap-shooting contests he sprints.
Another set of targets slide up as the first go down, and upon these the hits are recorded by a forest of black or white discs, waving vigorously in the air. Here and there a red-and-white flag flaps derisively. Mucklewame gets one of these.
The marking-targets go down to half-mast again, and then comes another tense pause. Then, as the firing-targets reappear, there is another volley. This time Private Mucklewame leads the field, and decapitates a dandelion. The third time he has learned wisdom, and the beggar in the boat gets the bullet where all mocking foes should get it—in the neck!
Snap-shooting over, the combatants retire to the five-hundred-yards firing-point, taking with them that modern hair-shirt, the telephone.
Presently a fresh set of targets swing up—of the bull's-eye variety this time—and the markers are busy once more.
The interior of the butts is an unexpectedly spacious place. From the nearest firing-point you would not suspect their existence, except when the targets are up. Imagine a sort of miniature railway station—or rather, half a railway station—sunk into the ground, with a very long platform and a very low roof—eight feet high at the most. Upon the opposite side of this station, instead of the other platform, rises the sandy ridge previously mentioned—the stop-butt—crowned with its row of number-boards. Along the permanent way, in place of sleepers and metals, runs a long and narrow trough, in which, instead of railway carriages, some thirty great iron frames are standing side by side. These frames are double, and hold the targets. They are so arranged that if one is pushed up the other comes down. The markers stand along the platform, like railway porters.
There are two markers to each target. They, stand with their backs to the firers, comfortably conscious of several feet of earth and a stout brick wall, between them and low shooters. Number one squats down, paste-pot in hand, and repairs the bullet-holes in the unemployed target with patches of black or white paper. Number two, brandishing a pole to which is attached a disc, black on one side and white on the other, is acquiring a permanent crick in the neck through gaping upwards at the target in search of hits. He has to be sharp-eyed, for the bullet-hole is a small one, and springs into existence without any other intimation than a spirt of sand on the bank twenty yards behind. He must be alert, too, and signal the shots as they are made; otherwise the telephone will begin to interest itself on his behalf. The bell will ring, and a sarcastic voice will intimate—assuming that you can hear what it says—that C Company are sending a wreath and message of condolence as their contribution to the funeral of the marker at Number Seven target, who appears to have died at his post within the last ten minutes; coupled with a polite request that his successor may be appointed as rapidly as possible, as the war is not likely to last more than three years. To this the butt-officer replies that C Company had better come a bit closer to the target and try, try again.