The Autobiography of a First World War Soldier - Training

A.J King

I was just eighteen years of age when I received notice of “call up” to report to the War Office, Whitehall at 9 a.m. on March 22, 1918.  Attempts by Professor H.M. Turnbull1 to get me exempted failed, due to me being found ‘A1’ and fit for active service with the armed forces; a previous Medical examination giving proof of this.

The very warm and sunny March morning saw me lined up on Horse Guards Parade  together with roughly one hundred others of a similar age all ready to entrain for Hounslow Barracks.

Upon arrival there we were immediately interviewed by an officer seated at a table on the parade ground and forthwith allocated to the Kings Royal Rifle Corps at Sheerness, isle of Sheppey.  The stay overnight at Hounslow Barracks was uneventful and the following morning we entrained for Sheerness.  Upon arrival there, a brisk foul-mouthed sergeant told us to wake up and look sharp and fill up with straw our palliasses and collect two sanguinary blankets apiece.  This done we went off to collect our uniforms, which appeared to be second hand, and our army boots.  We were allocated to wooden huts and then left to ourselves to find our own way about the camp site.

The weather changed almost immediately to cold and frosty snow, a condition that lasted the two weeks or more we were there.  Vaccination, inoculation, lectures upon the luck of having been selected for the K.R.R.’s etc. together with occasional marches around the countryside constituted what turned out to be our short stay.

Suddenly one morning we were lined up and told to pack as we were being transferred to the Hertfordshire Yeomanry at Colchester.  Entraining next day with the cheerful thoughts of a possibly mounted regiment etc., etc.  The sun arrived and eventually wee arrived at Colchester Station.

Outside the station a smiling captain greeted us and with their Yeomanry band playing a lively march we trooped off through the Town to the Barracks.  There we were housed in Married Quarters of Assaye Barracks2.  The usual three boards and wooden tressels with straw paliasses were allocated.  We discovered a much better type of staff with pleasant looking officers and cheerful friendly type sergeants.

Having been allocated to A, B, C Companies and housed in roomed houses we were then instructed to collect missing parts of uniforms and yeomanry badges and advice with regard to wearing of white lanyards and use of swagger canes, not forgetting that puttees were to start under the knee and the tapes finally around the ankles. – a la trooper or artillery style.

The 1st Herts Yeo. were horse mounted and in Egypt.

The 2nd/1st Herts Yeo. were mounted on B.S.A. bicycles with leather fittings to take Lea Enfield rifles and as well for some The Hodgkiss light machine gun.

The first few weeks were given over to square bashing and rifle drill inter landed with the usual lectures upon Mill’s grenades and knowledge of rifle parts and assembly.

Guard duties were not too frequent.  I was warned for just three duties only one of which I did, the remaining two found me selected as Colonel’s orderly just for the day.

This favour was given to the smartest man selected for guard-duty.  I suppose I was found the most polished and clean looking type.   Leave came after six weeks with free pass home for seven days which I shared with my sister Ethel whose husband had been killed in the battle at Paschendael in 1917.

We had been told that we were training as part of a very special brigade, until the day after St. George’s Day in 1918 when we were then informed by the Colonel that the attack by volunteer Marines on Zeebruggie [Zebrugge]3 the day before had been intended for us but the authorities changed their minds and brought the action earlier and with volunteer marines.  Having learnt of the casualties and deaths [ around 200 men died in the raid] we were not sorry, though future events in France were just as bad as those suffered at Zeebruggie.

May had gone.  Rifle range, gas mask drill, grenade throwing, barbed wire manipulation and so forth was the daily practice.  My Lea Enfield firing was considered very good.  One evening three or four of us went to an elderly rifle range sergeant who let us enjoy some small bore rifle shooting (? .25).  this was for us an entertainment.  (Our little group from the same hut found our pleasures in the Y.M.C.A. or chasing around in beautifully constructed trenches – vastly different from those we saw or inhabited in France, rather than mooching or pub-crawling in Colchester).

Having just finished our small gun firing, our Captain and another officer happened to stroll up and enquire of the sergeant our interest in shooting.  He told them of our enthusiasm for the sport, upon which the captain told us to report on the morrow and claim a weekend pass as a reward.  This keenness for firing brought we another reward a few weeks later.  All had to take a final test on the indoor range (? .25).  We went in groups of ½ doz. A rich young officer was in charge there.  He said we were to make a ‘group’ of shots and he would reward the best.  Naturally, I steadied my aim and got an ½” group.  The officer congratulated me and handed over a 10£ note (more than a week’s pay).  One or two fellows complained that they did not hear of the reward – the officer retorted “that that should have made no difference as they were there for the purpose of securing the smallest group – reward or otherwise.”

Our Captain having learnt of the rewards for our Coy B gave the winners a further free pass and a week-end home.

In June many of us went down with the ‘Flu’ epidemic of 1918 that was to kill more people of the world than those who suffered death due to the war.  I recovered quickly and spent a week’s so called idle convalescence in the sun but was able to print many photographs I had taken previously (sunlight paper) of fellows whose photographs I had taken previously (6d per print)  The glass ¼ plates were developed for me by a Colchester Chemist.  Chemists were the usual processors in those early days.

In July we were warned for France and given new identity discs and to be transferred to the 18th Hussars.

A final night march in gas masks was performed and finished up at Colchester Station for us to entrain home for the last 10 days over-sees leave.  I arrived home at 5a.m.at my sister’s flat and the next day we both went to Brighton for a short 7 day holiday.  We stayed with some so called actresses – two of which eventually became famous as such.  They gave me a lovely farewell party and later sent parcels to me in France, which unfortunately came after we had left Le Havre.

Whilst at Brighton, two bodies were being washed ashore during a day of rough weather – the beach suddenly became deserted but I began to try and bring the bodies in, but two young boys protested and rescued them and more or less told me to ‘hop it’.  The coast guards arrived and disposed of the cadavers and apparently awarded the boys 5/- for each body recovered.

My leave over and back in Colchester ready for entraining to Dover within a day or so.  A Herts. Yeo. band headed our draft of about 100 to the station.  The young rich officer had tears in his eyes when he shook hands with the 20 or so of our B. Coy that was included in the draft.  He wished us good luck and told us he was for Egypt later on.  We never learnt if he got there but we wished him good luck.

Notes:

1 Presumably this was at Repton School where Herbert Westron Turnbull taught from 1915 to 1918, cf. http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Biographies/Turnbull.html

2 Assaye barracks was named after the Battle of Assaye, which occurred on 23 September, 1803 near the village of Assaye in south-central India.

3 The raid on Zebrugge was aimed  at destroying the port and so denying its use to German submarines, cf. The raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend – History of government (blog.gov.uk)

This page was added on 15/12/2016.

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