One Young Man In Camp
( Originally Published 1917 )
WITHIN a fortnight this one young man was in camp at Crowborough. The contrast to his previous life as a city clerk, where mud was unknown and wet feet a rare occurrence, was marked indeed. The camp was sodden, the mud ankle-deep, and, what with that and the cold November weather, times were pretty stiff. He writes home:
" Our camp is about a foot deep in mud and slosh, and every time you go out your boots are covered and you have to be careful or you slip over.
" Our huts are like Church Missions. There are sixty-one fellows in this one, and all along the sides are our mattresses which we fold up. They are made of straw and are really very comfortable. The only drawback is that in the morning you find your toes sticking out at the other end of the bed. I must tell you how these beds are made. There are three planks about six feet in length, and these are placed side by side on two trestles about ten inches high. They give us three blankets, very thick and warm, and you can roll them round yourself.
" Right down the centre of the room are long trestled tables with forms to sit on, and this is where we feast. We sleep, eat, drink, play games, write letters, and do everything in this room.
" It's very funny to hear the bugle-calls. Everything is done by bugles. At 6.30 in the morning there is the first call and everyone gets up. If you don't—the sergeant comes along and pulls you out. To wash we have to run down to the other end of the camp and fill our buckets. There are only two buckets for sixty chaps, so you can imagine the scramble. For a bathroom we have a large field, and we nearly break our backs bending down over the basins. For about one hour before breakfast we do physical drill with our coats off. And hard work it is. For breakfast we have streaky greasy bacon. Funny —at home, I never ate bacon, I couldn't stick it, but here I walk into it and enjoy it. The tea they give us is not ideal, but so long as it is hot and wet it goes down all right. For dinner it's stew—stew—stew, but it's not bad. Of course, some day I get all gravy and no meat, another day meat and no gravy. Tea is quite all right. We have plenty of bread, butter, jam, and cheese. All food is fetched in dixeys (large boilers), and tea, stew, and bacon are all cooked in turn in these, so if the orderlies don't wash them clean at dinner time we have greasy, stewy tea.
" I am getting a bit used to the marching, especially when there is anyone singing. The favourites are John Peel,' Cock Robin,' Oh, who will o'er the downs so free ? ' John Brown's Body,' Hearts of Oak,' and Annie Laurie.' We all have little books of Camp Songs, and we learn them at night; it makes all the difference to the marching. One of the songs is :—
Oh, Mother is the leader of society, and
You can see her name is in the papers every day.
She was presented at the court
For fighting Mrs. Short
Down our way.
" Not an exactly edifying song, but it goes with a swing. I can hardly keep my eyes open as I write this."
On the whole and considering everything a wide phrase covering many things unspoken Sydney Baxter enjoyed his camp life, but Christmas was certainly a hardship. He writes:
Christmas Day, 1914.
" All day yesterday I was on fatigue work, and did not finish until 7.3o to 8. We started the morning by building a hedge with bushes gathered from the Heath, and then we unloaded trucks of hay and straw and built them in a stack. T got several stray pieces down ray neck. After that we had to unload a traction load of coal in one-cwt. sacks, and oh, they were dirty and awkward too. We had sacks over our heads like ordinary coalmen, and you ought to have seen our hands and faces when we had finished. We could not get any tea, as we were expecting three more trolleys. After about two hours the trolleys came, and we unloaded some meat; it took three of us to lift some of the pieces. Then after that bacon, oats, tea, jam, and about 1,000 loaves of bread. We were proper Jacks-of-all-trades and were thoroughly tired out.
" This seems a funny sort of Christmas Day, but it will be all right after five o'clock. Of course I'd rather be in London and see you all. Still, all the same I'm rather enjoying myself this afternoon. I have a big box of chocs. by the side of me, and they arc gradually diminishing. And now I feel in a better mood."
The Y.M., as it is now always called by the men at and from the front, played a very important part, an invaluable part, in Sydney Baxter's camp life. He writes:
" We were about twenty minutes' walk from the village, and at first there was absolutely nothing there to go down for, and we seemed doomed to a very uncomfortable winter. However, the words of a well-known war song, Every cloud is silver lined,' are very true_ Our cloud was soon brightly lined by the Y.M. people, Who discovered the best way to do it in no time. A hall was acquired in the village for the sale of tea and eatables, and for facilitating writing and reading for the troops in camp. It was staffed by ladies in the locality and was a real Godsend to us all. Picture us from 6.30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on and off parade, in a muddy camp, without even a semblance of a canteen or writing-hut, always within sound of the bugle with its ever-recurring call for Orderly Sergeants, tired out and wet through and inwardly chafing at the unaccustomed discipline. Our spirits were on a par with Bairnsfather's Fed-up one.' At the last note of the Retreat we were free. Without the Y.M. touch we should have had to stay in our bleak huts, constantly reminded of our -surroundings and discomforts. But these Y.M. people had provided a comfortable, well-lighted, and, above all, warm room, with plenty of books .and papers and any amount of grub and unlimited tea to wash it down. Isn't it wonderful how many sorrows the British army can drown in a cup of tea ?
" Apparently there's no need to tell the Y.M. people to get a move on,' for before two months had elapsed they installed in the very centre of the camp a large canteen, with a reading and writing room_ It made a big difference to us, as we had the advantage of procuring a midday cup of tea, coffee, or cocoa, and such luxuries as biscuits and chocolate, also an evening's enjoyment, without the weary trudge to and from the village. As the vaccinations and inoculations were in progress at that time, the warm room was a blessing and eased the wearisome day which would have had to be spent in camp. More and more huts were erected, and more and more men occupied them; so a very large new Y.M. hut was quickly built near the camps and was opened in state, some fifty of us forming a Guard of Honour. It was a spendid its greatest attraction the billiard tables_ Night after night we waited our turn for a game. At the long counter were a library and post office; the latter was most useful, for a letter could be written and posted without any delay whatever_ Refreshments were, as usual, obtained at any time. There was not the slightest fuss; anyone could enter and do exactly as he wished. There is a genuine Y.M. atmosphere which makes a fellow feel at home.' ft says, We are here because we feel we are " kind of wanted " here for your individual comfort: this is your show, and we are happy and anxious to do all we can for you. Come at any time and bring all your chums.' "
Sydney Baxter's chief saw him once or twice during these camp days. And he marvelled.
The spectacles had gone. The lank, round-shouldered figure had filled and straightened.
Suddenly a man had been born. A soldier, too. This fellow of the pen and ledger, this very type of the British clerk who had never handled a rifle in his life and didn't know the smell of powder from eau de Cologne, who had never experienced anything of hardship or even discomfort; whose outlook in life had hitherto never stretched beyond a higher seat at the office desk, to whom the great passions of life were a sealed book—this fellow passed his shooting and other tests in record time.
He was in France within sixteen weeks of joining the army.
Those were very dark days in England, but the sight of this one young man cheered the chief. We were arrayed in battle against men who had been trained through all the years of their manhood, the whole course of whose lives had been shaped for this Day. And we had to meet them with—clerks It seemed hopeless and a mockery. But when he saw Sydney Baxter the chief realised that often when the spirit is willing the flesh becomes strong; that the British fighting breed was not dead, though the black office coat had misled the German.
How many times have you and I said " he was the last man I should have thought would have made a soldier." Well, Sydney Baxter was that last man. And he made a first-class soldier. Let this country never forget it. He, and the thousands like him, outnumbered and outgunned, fought the Prussian Guard, the most finished product of the German military machine, and halted them, held them, beat them. In equal fight they thrashed them.
Think of it in the light of history. The greatest and most wonderfully equipped and trained army the world has ever known beaten in fair fight by an army of clerks, schoolmasters, stockbrokers, University men, street waifs, shopkeepers, labourers, counter-jumpers, most of whom did not know one end of a rifle from the other when war was declared. Sydney Baxter was one of that army. That is why I am telling his story. It will make strange and very salutary reading for Prussian arrogance some day.