Thursday 31 May 2018

On the command ‘Fix!’ you’d all fix, but then you’d get your old dummy, your sacks o’ straw – ‘Grrrr…!’ Make all the noise you could…

Huge numbers of men who signed up to fight for their country in the summer of 1914 had never been in military service before. They had to be trained. For these new recruits, the schedule could be tough, as George Wray of the Royal Naval Division – stationed at Crystal Palace – witnessed.

We used to do jogging before breakfast. And there was a commander who used to take us out, a company of us, and we used to go jogging right round the environs as it were of the palace itself.  Then we’d come back, fall in, then be dismissed in the usual way and then go to breakfast. What I was a little bit, if it could be called, disturbed about that was that some men who hadn’t been accustomed to getting up early in the morning used to faint while they were standing in the line.

There was an equally exhausting regime for those who joined the Royal Flying Corps. S Saunders’ day began with parade duties at 6 a.m.

After breakfast then we had some more drill and then we had a bit of a break, we could get a cup of cocoa or something like that, and then we went off on a route march and come back in time for dinner at one o’clock. Well this was a general scramble, and then at half-past two we were drilling again. We knocked off then about four-thirty to five-thirty, then there was tea, and then sometimes we would be detailed for guard, which was a farce more than anything else, just to keep us awake. But if we weren’t on guard we just went into the barrack-room and just fell asleep ’til six o’clock next morning.

Some did their best to avoid these punishing work outs. King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry soldier Donald Murray explains how:

And then it really started. We were all in civilian clothes – there were no uniforms or anything like that. We had pieces of wood for rifles, shaped like a rifle. We all got wise to the fact that if you was ragged enough you wouldn’t have to go on the route marches because you went through a town, you see. So we used to tear our trousers in the worse possible place we could tear it so that we could get out of this route marching! So they decided we’d have to have uniforms. You’ve never seen Kitchener’s uniforms, you should have seen it. It was blue serge with blue bone buttons down the front, for all the world like a convict.

Undergoing training meant an adjustment to military discipline. Some – such as William Taylor – had no trouble in doing this.

I didn’t resent being ordered about because I think all the time we were competing with other platoons to be the best drilled and the smartest soldiers and I quite enjoyed the life – it was such a change from working in an office.

For others, like Private F Vaughan, it was a bit more of a challenge.

So far we’d been individualists; so far we’d been mummy’s pet. We had a will of our own and it came rather hard to start with to obey commands, but gradually we knew how to form fours, right wheel, left wheel, halt and all the rest of them. We became in other words a disciplined body of men. Something else to contend with was the often less than luxurious accommodation. William Shipway, a private in the Gloucestershire Regiment, was posted to Essex. Our company was billeted in the parish hall. A company by the way was 100, eight companies to a battalion when we joined up. And, you slept on the floor, on the boards, two blankets and a ground sheet. No pillow. My pillow was my boots in a haversack. And it’s amazing what you get used to.

Cheerful troops of the German Landsturm (still in civilian cloths) departing for a training camp in a train covered with slogans i.e. "Auf zum Preisschiessen nach Paris - Sent on the Price Shooting to Paris"
Cheerful troops of the German Landsturm (still in civilian cloths) departing for a training camp in a train covered with slogans i.e. "Auf zum Preisschiessen nach Paris - Sent on the Price Shooting to Paris". © IWM (Q 57096)

In Germany, equally demanding training programmes were underway. Paul Kane had enlisted in the 5th Telegraph Battalion Signal Service.

Well my routine was every other night, stable watch. By six o’clock I could go back to my room because the others were woken up. And then, what do you call, barrack yard training started, exercise, marching and so on. We were completely untrained. Like here, at a public school you have Officers Training Corps, there isn’t anything like that. I mean, at school, being a strong boy I was very good at gym although I was fat and overweight, I was very good at gym.

Those instructing the trainees had to meet certain standards. Norman Dillon was in command of a company of the 14th Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers.

One of the things on which great stress was always laid was steadiness on parade. When an inspecting officer came and saw you he always used to say ‘I much admire the steadiness on parade of your men,’ which meant they didn’t move about in the ranks or scratch their noses.

Also finding themselves under scrutiny were members of the newly-formed Women’s Emergency Corps, such as Dolly Shepherd.

And then we had a route march. We had a route march and we went to the Mansion House – and had to drill them. And of course people were all giggling and laughing and saying ‘Women soldiers! Just imagine having women soldiers. Whoever thought of such a thing?!’ And they used to sneer at us and all kinds of things.

The huge swell in army numbers resulted in a shortage of equipment, as Irving Jones of the Welch Regiment discovered.

We were all so glad when we had the proper thing. We could all drill properly with the correct Lee Enfield rifle. But before that it was sticks we started off with: then we had dummy rifles. But then after about 3 or 4 months we had the correct rifles. The training was haphazard I think, not much cohesion with it, but the main thing was to keep you fit. Cos we’d been miners, biggest part of the battalion or the division were miners, the majority. So it was a case of discipline, they had to instil discipline. You know, you were leading a different life.

Troops of the 1st Battalion, County of London Volunteers (United Arts Volunteer Rifles) at physical exercise and rifle drill. Green Park, October-November 1914.
Troops of the 1st Battalion, County of London Volunteers (United Arts Volunteer Rifles) at physical exercise and rifle drill. Green Park, October-November 1914. © IWM (Q 23530)

Some new soldiers found the training a bit outdated. James Pratt served with the Gordon Highlanders.

The training we had at Bedford was chiefly drilling and marching and a certain amount of open warfare skirmishing. By the skirmishing I mean you advanced by spread out in a line with five or ten yards between you. You advanced by rushes 20 or 30 yards, flopped down into a bit of cover and then supposed to go on firing from there. But it wasn’t very popular particularly when you had to do it over a ploughed field in the winter time when you got your clothing and your rifle all thoroughly messed up. And that was the type of training based entirely on what had happened in the Boer War.

Others, like Harry Smith, simply hoped they would never have to use what they had learned.

Of course, your fixing bayonets, was part of your rifle drill. On the command ‘Fix!’ you’d all fix, but then you’d get your old dummy, your sacks o’ straw – ‘Grrrr…!’ – make all the noise you could, and that was part of the training. I’ve never known anyone hurt through it – I don’t think there was, but I can’t say it ever stood me in good stead; I never did, and I’m glad – I’m pleased to say – I never had any call to stick a bayonet in a body. We used to do it and enjoy it really – make a lot o’ noise about sticking it in, but we used to say ‘Wonder what the hell we shall feel like if we have to do it to a Jerry?’

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

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