The New Army in Training
Guns and Supply
Under all and after all the Wheel carries everything. - Proverb.
ONE had known the place for years as a picturesque old house, standing in a peaceful park; had watched the growth of certain young oaks along a new-laid avenue, and applauded the owner’s enterprise in turning a stretch of pasture to plough. There are scores of such estates in England which the motorist, through passing so often, comes to look upon almost as his own. In a single day the brackened turf between the oaks and the iron road-fence blossomed into tents, and the drives were all cut up with hoofs and wheels. A little later, one’s car sweeping home of warm September nights was stopped by sentries, who asked her name and business; for the owner of that retired house and discreetly wooded park had gone elsewhere in haste, and his estate was taken over by the military.
Later still, one met men and horses arguing with each other for miles about that country-side; or the car would be flung on her brakes by artillery issuing from cross-lanes clean batteries jingling off to their work on the Downs, and hungry ones coming back to meals. Every day brought the men and the horses and the weights behind them to a better understanding, till in a little while the car could pass a quarter of a mile of them without having to hoot more than once.
‘Why are you so virtuous?’ she asked of a section encountered at a blind and brambly corner. ‘Why do you obtrude your personality less than an average tax-cart?’
‘Because,’ said a driver, his arm flung up to keep the untrimmed hedge from sweeping his cap off. ‘because those are our blessed orders. We don’t do it for love.’
No one accuses the Gunner of maudlin affection for anything except his beasts and his weapons. He hasn’t the time. He serves at least three jealous gods—his horse and all its saddlery and harness; his gun, whose least detail of efficiency is more important than men’s lives; and, when these have been attended to, the never-ending mystery of his art commands him.
It was a wettish, windy day when I visited the so-long-known house and park. Cock pheasants ducked in and out of trim rhododendron clumps, neat gates opened into sacredly preserved vegetable gardens, the many-coloured leaves of specimen trees pasted themselves stickily against sodden tent walls, and there was a mixture of circus smells from the horse-lines and the faint, civilised breath of chrysanthemums in the potting sheds. The main drive was being relaid with a foot of flint; the other approaches were churned and pitted under the gun wheels and heavy supply wagons. Great breadths of what had been well-kept turf between unbrowsed trees were blanks of slippery brown wetness, dotted with picketed horses and field-kitchens. It was a crazy mixture of stark necessity and manicured luxury, all cheek by jowl, in the undiscriminating rain.
The cook Chouses, store-rooms, forges, and workshops were collections of tilts, poles, rick-cloths, and odd lumber, beavered together as on service. The officers’ mess was a thin, soaked marquee.
Less than a hundred yards away were dozens of vacant, well-furnished rooms in the big brick house, of which the Staff furtively occupied one corner. There was accommodation for very many men in its stables and out-houses alone; or the whole building might have been gutted and rearranged for barracks twice over in the last three months.
Scattered among the tents were rows of half-built tin sheds, the ready-prepared lumber and the corrugated iron lying beside them, waiting to be pieced together like children’s toys. But there were no workmen. I was told that they had come that morning, but had knocked off because it was wet.
‘I see. And where are the batteries?” I demanded.
‘Out at work, of course. They’ve been out since seven.’
‘How shocking! In this dreadful weather, too!’
‘They took some bread and cheese with them. They’ll be back about dinner-time if you care to wait. Here’s one of our field-kitchens.’
Batteries look after their own stomachs, and are not catered for by contractors. The cook-house was a wagon-tilt. The wood, being damp, smoked a good deal. One thought of the wide, adequate kitchen ranges and the concrete passages of the service quarters in the big house just behind. One even dared to think Teutonically of the perfectly good panelling and the thick hard-wood floors that could——
‘Service conditions, you see,’ said my guide, as the cook inspected the baked meats and the men inside the wagon-tilt grated the carrots and prepared the onions. It was old work to them after all these months done swiftly, with the clean economy of effort that camp life teaches.
‘What are these lads when they’re at home?’ I inquired.
‘Londoners chiefly—all sorts and conditions.’
The cook in shirt sleeves made another investigation, and sniffed judicially. He might have been cooking since the Peninsular. He looked at his watch and across towards the park gates. He was responsible for one hundred and sixty rations, and a battery has the habit of saying quite all that it thinks of its food.
‘How often do the batteries go out?’ I continued.
‘’Bout five days a week. You see, we’re being worked up a little.’
‘And have they got plenty of ground to work over?’
‘What’s the difficulty this time? Birds?’
‘No; but we got orders the other day not to go over a golf-course. That rather knocks the bottom out of tactical schemes.’
Perfect shamelessness, like perfect virtue, is impregnable; and, after all, the lightnings of this war, which have brought out so much resolve and self-sacrifice, must show up equally certain souls and institutions that are irredeemable.
The weather took off a little before noon. The carpenters could have put in a good half-day’s work on the sheds, and even if they had been rained upon they had roofs with fires awaiting their return. The batteries had none of these things.
They came in at last far down the park, heralded by that unmistakable half-grumble, half-grunt of guns on the move. The picketed horses heard it first, and one of them neighed long and loud, which proved that he had abandoned civilian habits. Horses in stables and mews seldom do more than snicker, even when they are halves of separated pairs. But these gentlemen had a corporate life of their own now, and knew what ‘pulling together’ means.
When a battery comes into camp it ‘parks’ all six guns at the appointed place, side by side in one mathematically straight line, and the accuracy of the alignment is, like ceremonial-drill with the Foot, a fair test of its attainments. The ground was no treat for parking. Specimen trees and draining ditches had to be avoided and circumvented. The gunners, their reins, the guns, the ground, were equally wet, and the slob dropped away like gruel from the brake-shoes. And they were Londoners—clerks, mechanics, shop assistants, and delivery men—anything and everything that you please. But they were all home and at home in their saddles and seats. They said nothing; their officers said little enough to them. They came in across what had once been turf; wheeled with tight traces; halted, unhooked; the wise teams stumped off to their pickets, and, behold, the six guns were left precisely where they should have been left to the fraction of an inch. You could see the wind blowing the last few drops of wet from each leather muzzle-cover at exactly the same angle. It was all old known evolutions, taken unconsciously in the course of their day’s work by men well abreast of it.
‘Our men have one advantage,’ said a voice. ‘As Territorials they were introduced to unmade horses once a year at training. So they’ve never been accustomed to made horses.’
‘And what do the horses say about it all?’ I asked, remembering what I had seen on the road in the early days.
‘They said a good deal at first, but our chaps could make allowances for ’em. They know now.’
Allah never intended the Gunner to talk. His own arm does that for him. The batteries off-saddled in silence, though one noticed on all sides little quiet caresses between man and beast—affectionate nuzzlings and nose-slappings. Surely the Gunner’s relation to his horse is more intimate even than the cavalryman’s; for a lost horse only turns cavalry into infantry, but trouble in a gun team may mean death all round. And this is the Gunner’s war. The young wet officers said so joyously as they passed to and fro picking up scandal about breast-straps and breechings, examining the collars of ammunition-wagon teams, and listening to remarks on shoes. Local blacksmiths, assisted by the battery itself, do the shoeing. There are master smiths and important farriers, who have cheerfully thrown up good wages to help the game, and their horses reward them by keeping fit. A fair proportion of the horses are aged—there was never a Gunner yet satisfied with his team or its rations till he had left the battery—but they do their work as steadfastly and whole-heartedly as the men. I am persuaded the horses like being in society and working out their daily problems of draught and direction. The English, and Londoners particularly, are the kindest and most reasonable of folk with animals. If it were not our business strictly to underrate ourselves for the next few years, one would say that the Territorial batteries had already done wonders. But perhaps it is better to let it all go with the grudging admission wrung out of a wringing wet bombardier, ‘Well, it isn’t so dam’ bad—considering’.’
I left them taking their dinner in mess tins to their tents, with a strenuous afternoon’s cleaning-up ahead of them. The big park held some thousands of men. I had seen no more than a few hundreds, and had missed the howitzer-batteries after all.
A cock pheasant chaperoned me down the drive, complaining loudly that where he was used to walk with his ladies under the beech trees, some unsporting people had built a miniature landscape with tiny villages, churches, and factories, and came there daily to point cannon at it.
‘Keep away from that place,’ said I, ‘or you’ll find yourself in a field-kitchen.’
‘Not me!’ he crowed. ‘I’m as sacred as golf-courses.’
There was a little town a couple of miles down the road where one used to lunch in the old days, and had the hotel to oneself. Now there are six ever-changing officers in billet there, and the astonished houses quiver all day to traction engines and high-piled lorries. A unit of the Army Service Corps and some mechanical transport lived near the station, and fed the troops for twenty miles around.
‘Are your people easy to find?’ I asked of a wandering private, with the hands of a sweep, the head of a Christian among lions, and suicide in his eye.
‘Well, the A.S.C. are in the Territorial Drill Hall for one thing; and for another you’re likely to hear us! There’s some motors come in from Bulford.’ He snorted and passed on, smelling of petrol.
The drill-shed was peace and comfort. The A.S.C, were getting ready there for pay-day and for a concert that evening. Outside in the wind and the occasional rain-spurts, life was different. The Bulford motors and some other crocks sat on a side-road between what had been the local garage and a newly-erected workshop of creaking scaffold-poles and bellying slatting rick-cloths, where a forge glowed and general repairs were being effected. Beneath the motors men lay on their backs and called their friends to pass them spanners, or, for pity’s sake, to shove another sack under their mud-wreathed heads.
A corporal, who had been nine years a fitter and seven in a city garage, briefly and briskly outlined the more virulent diseases that develop in Government rolling-stock. (I heard quite a lot about Bulford.) Hollow voices from beneath eviscerated gear-boxes confirmed him. We with-drew to the shelter of the rick-cloth workshop—that corporal; the sergeant who had been a carpenter, with a business of his own, and, incidentally, had served through the Boer War; another sergeant who was a member of the Master Builders’ Association; and a private who had also been fitter, chauffeur, and a few other things. The third sergeant, who kept a poultry-farm in Surrey, had some duty elsewhere.
A man at a carpenter’s bench was finishing a spoke for a newly-painted cart. He squinted along it.
‘That’s funny,’ said the master builder, ‘Of course in his own business he’d chuck his job sooner than do wood” work. But it’s all funny.’
‘What I grudge,’ a sergeant struck in, ‘is havin’ to put mechanics to loading and unloading beef. That’s where modified conscription for the beauties that won’t roll up ’Id be useful to us. We want hewers of wood, we do. And I’d hew ‘em!’
‘I want that file.’ This was a private in a hurry, come from beneath an unspeakable Bulford. Some one asked him musically if he ‘would tell his wife in the morning who he was with to-night.’
‘You’ll find it in the tool-chest,’ said the sergeant. It was his own sacred tool-chest which he had contributed to the common stock.
‘And what sort of men have you got in this unit?’ I asked.
‘Every sort you can think of. There isn’t a thing you couldn’t have made here if you wanted to. But—’ the corporal, who had been a fitter, spoke with fervour —‘you can’t expect us to make big-ends, can you? That five-ton Bulford lorry out there in the wet——’
‘And she isn’t the worst,’ said the master builder. ‘But it’s all part of the game. And so funny when you come to think of it. Me painting carts, and certificated plumbers loading frozen beef!’
‘What about the discipline?’ I asked.
The corporal turned a fitter’s eye on me. ‘The mechanism is the discipline,’ said he, with most profound truth. ‘Jockeyin’ a sick car on the road is discipline, too. What about the discipline?’ He turned to the sergeant with the carpenter’s chest. There was one sergeant of Regulars, with twenty years’ service behind him and a knowledge of human nature. He struck in.
‘You ought to know. You’ve just been made corporal.’ said that sergeant of Regulars.
‘Well, there’s so much which everybody knows has got to be done that—that—why, we all turn in and do it,’ quoth the corporal. ‘I don’t have any trouble with my lot.’
‘Yes; that’s how the case stands,’ said the sergeant of Regulars. ‘Come and see our stores.’
They were beautifully arranged in a shed which felt like a monastery after the windy, clashing world without; and the young private who acted as checker—he came from some railway office—had the thin, keen face of the cleric.
‘We’re in billets in the town,’ said the sergeant who had been a carpenter. ‘But I’m a married man. I shouldn’t care to have men billeted on us at home, an’ I don’t want to inconvenience other people. So I’ve knocked up a bunk for myself on the premises. It’s handier to the stores, too.’
We entered what had been the local garage. The mechanical transport were in full possession, tinkering the gizzards of more cars. We discussed chewed’up gears (samples to hand), and the civil population’s old-time views of the military. The corporal told a tale of a clergyman in a Midland town who, only a year ago, on the occasion of some manœuvres, preached a sermon warning his flock to guard their womenfolk against the soldiers,
‘And when you think—when you know,’ said the corporal, ‘what life in those little towns really is! ‘ He whistled.
‘See that old landau,’ said he, opening the door of an ancient wreck jammed against a wall. ‘That’s two of our chaps’ dressing-room. They don’t care to be billeted, so they sleep ’tween the landau and the wall. It’s handier for their work, too. Work comes in at all hours. I wish I was cavalry. There’s some use in cursing a horse.’
Truly, it’s an awful thing to belong to a service where speech brings no alleviation.
‘You!’ A private with callipers turned from the bench by the window. ‘You’d die outside of a garage. But what you said about civilians and soldiers is all out of date now.’
The sergeant of Regulars permitted himself a small, hidden smile. The private with the callipers had been some twelve weeks a soldier.
‘I don’t say it isn’t,’ said the corporal, ‘I’m saying what it used to be.’
‘We-ell,’ the private screwed up the callipers, ‘didn’t you feel a little bit that way yourself—when you were a civilian?’
‘I—I don’t think I did.’ The corporal was taken aback. ‘I don’t think I ever thought about it.—
‘Ah! There you are!’ said the private, very drily.
Some one laughed in the shadow of the landau dressing-room. ‘Anyhow, we’re all in it now, Private Percy,’ said a voice.
There must be a good many thousand conversations of this kind being held all over England nowadays. Our breed does not warble much about patriotism or Fatherland, but it has a wonderful sense of justice, even when its own shortcomings are concerned.
We went over to the drill-shed to see the men paid.
The first man I ran across there was a sergeant who had served in the Mounted Infantry in the South African picnic that we used to call a war. He had been a private chauffeur for some years long enough to catch the professional look, but was joyously reverting to service type again.
The men lined up, were called out, saluted emphatically at the pay-table, and fell back with their emoluments. They smiled at each other.
‘An’ it’s all so funny,’ murmured the master builder in my ear. ‘About a quarter—no, less than a quarter—of what one ‘ud be making on one’s own!’
‘Fifty bob a week, cottage, and all found, I was. An’ only two cars to look after,’ said a voice behind. ‘An’ if I’d been asked—simply asked—to lie down in the mud all the afternoon——!’ The speaker looked at his wages with awe. Some one wanted to know, sotto voce, if ‘that was union rates,’ and the grin spread among the uniformed experts. The joke, you will observe, lay in situations thrown up, businesses abandoned, and pleasant prospects cut short at the nod of duty.
‘Thank Heaven!’ said one of them at last, ‘it’s too dark to work on those blessed Bulfords any more to-day. We’ll get ready for the concert.’
But it was not too dark, half an hour later, for my car to meet a big lorry storming back in the wind and the wet from the northern camps. She gave me London allowance—half one inch between hub and hub—swung her corner like a Brooklands professional, changed gear for the uphill with a sweet click, and charged away. For aught I knew, she was driven by an ex-‘fifty-bob-a-week-axcottage-and-all-found’-er, who next month might be dodging shells with her and thinking it ‘all so funny,’
Horse, Foot, even the Guns may sometimes get a little rest, but so long as men eat thrice a day there is no rest for the Army Service Corps. They carry the campaign on their all-sustaining backs.