THIS was a cantonment one had never seen before, and the grey-haired military policeman could give no help.
‘My experience’ he spoke detachedly, ‘is that you'll find everything everywhere. Is it any particular corps you're looking for?’
‘Not in the least,’ I said.
‘Then you're all right. You can't miss getting something.’ He pointed generally to the North Camp. It's like floods in a town, isn't it? ‘
He had hit the just word. All known marks in the place were submerged by troops. Parade- grounds to their utmost limits were crowded with them; rises and sky-lines were furred with them, and the length of the roads heaved and rippled like bicycle-chains with blocks of men on the move.
The voice of a sergeant in the torment reserved for sergeants at roll-call boomed across a bunker. He was calling over recruits to a specialist corps,
‘But I've called you once!’ he snapped at a man in leggings,
‘But I'm Clarke Two,’ was the virtuous reply.
'Oh, you are, are you?' He pencilled the correction with a scornful mouth, out of one corner of which he added, '"Sloppy" Clarke! You're all Clarkes or Watsons to-day. You don't know your own names. You don't know what corps you're in, (This was bitterly unjust, for they were squinting up at a biplane.) You don't know anything.'
‘Mm!’ said the military policeman. ‘The more a man has in his head, the harder it is for him to manage his carcass at first. I'm glad I never was a sergeant. Listen to the instructors! Like rooks, ain't it?’
There was a mile of sergeants and instructors, varied by company officers, all at work on the ready material under their hands. They grunted, barked, yapped, expostulated, and, in rare cases, purred, as the lines broke and formed and wheeled over the vast maidan. When companies numbered off one could hear the tone and accent of every walk in life, and maybe half the counties of England, from the deep-throated ‘Woon’ of the north to the sharp, half -whistled Devonshire ‘Tu.’ And as the instructors laboured, so did the men, with a passion to learn as passionately as they were taught.
Presently, in the drift of the foot-traffic down the road, there came another grey-haired man, one foot in a bright slipper, which showed he was an old soldier cherishing a sore toe. He drew alongside and considered these zealous myriads,
‘Good?’ said I, deferentially,
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘Very good’ - then, half to himself: ‘Quite different, though.’ A pivot-man near us had shifted a little, instead of marking time on the wheel. His face clouded, his lips moved. Obviously he was cursing his own clumsiness,
‘That's what I meant,’ said the veteran,
‘Innocent ! Innocent ! Mark you, they ain't doin’ it to be done with it and get off. They're doin’ it because - because they want to do it.’
‘Wake up! Wake up there, Isherwood !’ This was a young subaltern's reminder flung at a back which straightened itself. That one human name coming up out of all that maze of impersonal manoeuvring stuck in the memory like wreckage on the ocean,
‘An’ it wasn't ‘ardly even necessary to caution Mister Isherwood,’ my companion commented.
‘Prob'ly he's bitterly ashamed of 'imself.’
I asked a leading question because the old soldier told me that when his toe was sound, he, too, was a military policeman.
‘Crime ? Crime ?’ said he. ‘ They don't know what crime is - that lot don't - none of 'em!’ He mourned over them like a benevolent old Satan looking into a busy Eden, and his last word was ‘Innocent!’
The car worked her way through miles of men - men route-marching, going to dig or build bridges, or wrestle with stores and transport - four or five miles of men, and every man with eager eyes. There was no music not even drums and fifes. I heard nothing but a distant skirl of the pipes. Trust a Scot to get his national weapon as long as there is a chief in the North! Admitting that war is a serious business, specially to the man who is being fought for, and that it may be right to carry a long face and contribute to relief funds which should be laid on the National Debt, it surely could do no harm to cheer the men with a few bands. Half the money that has been spent in treating, for example . . . .
There was a moor among woods with a pond in a hollow, the centre of a world of tents whose population was North-Country. One heard it from far off.
‘Yo’ mun trail t’ pick an’ t’ rifle at t’ same time. Try again,’ said the instructor.
An isolated company tried again with set seriousness, and yet again. They were used to the pick - won their living by it, in fact - and so, favoured it more than the rifle; but miners don't carry picks at the trail by instinct, though they can twiddle their rifles as one twiddles walking-sticks.
They were clad in a blue garb that disguised all contours; yet their shoulders, backs, and loins could not altogether be disguised, and these were excellent. Another company, at physical drill in shirt and trousers, showed what superb material had offered itself to be worked upon, and how much poise and directed strength had been added to that material in the past few months. When the New Army gets all its new uniform, it will gaze at itself like a new Narcissus. But the present kit is indescribable. That is why, English fashion, it has been made honourable by its wearers; and our world in the years to come will look back with reverence as well as affection on those blue slops and that epileptic cap. One far-seeing commandant who had special facilities has possessed himself of brass buttons, thousands of ’em, which he has added to his men's outfit for the moral effect of (a) having something to clean, and (b) of keeping it so. It has paid.
The smartest regiment in the Service could not do itself justice in such garments, but I managed to get a view of a battalion, coming in from a walk, at a distance which more or less subdued the - er - uniform, and they moved with the elastic swing and little quick ripple that means so much’ A miner is not supposed to be as good a marcher as a townsman, but when he gets set to time and pace and learns due economy of effort, his developed back and shoulder muscles take him along very handsomely. Another battalion fell in for parade while I watched, again at a distance. They came to hand quietly and collectedly enough, and with only that amount of pressing which is caused by fear of being late, A platoon - or whatever they call it - was giving the whole of its attention to its signalling instructors, with the air of men resolved on getting the last flicker of the last cinema-film for their money. Crime in the military sense they do not know any more than their fellow-innocents up the road. It is hopeless to pretend to be other than what one is, because one's soul in this life is as exposed as one's body. It is futile to tell civilian lies - there are no civilians to listen - and they have not yet learned to tell Service ones without being detected. It is useless to sulk at any external condition of affairs, because the rest of the world with which a man is concerned is facing those identical conditions. There is neither poverty nor riches, nor any possibility of pride, except in so far as one may do one's task a little better than one's mate.
In the point of food they are extremely well looked after, quality and quantity, wet canteen and dry. Drafts come in all round the clock, and they have to be fed; late guards and sentries want something hot at odd times, and the big marquee- canteen is the world's gathering-place, where food, life's first interest to man in hard work, is thoroughly discussed. They can get outside of a vast o’ vittles. Thus, a contractor who delivers ten thousand rations a day stands, by deputy at least, in the presence of just that number of rather fit, long, deep men. They are what is called ‘independent’ - a civilian weakness which they will learn to blush over in a few months, and to discourage among later recruits; but they are also very quick to pick up dodges and tricks that make a man more com- fortable in camp life, and their domestic routine runs on wheels. It must have been hard at first for civilians to see the necessity for that continuous, apparently pernickity, house-maiding and ‘follow- ing-up’ which is vital to the comfort of large bodies of men in confined quarters. In civil life men leave these things to their womenfolk, but where women are not, officers, inspecting tents, feet, and such-like, develop a she-side to their head, and evidently make their non-commissioned officers and men develop it too. A good soldier is always a bit of an old maid. But, as I heard a private say to a sergeant in the matter of some kit chucked into a corner : ‘Yo’ canna keep owt redd up ony proper gate on a sand-hill’ To whom his superior officer : ‘Ah know yo’ canna’, but yo’ mun try, Billy.’
And Heaven knows they are trying hard enough - men, n.c.o.’s, and officers with all the masked and undervoiced effort of our peoples when we are really at work. They stand at the very be- ginning of things; creating out of chaos, meeting emergencies as they arise; handicapped in every direction, and overcoming every handicap by simple goodwill, humour, self-sacrifice, common-sense, and such trumpery virtues. I watched their faces in the camp, and at lunch looked down a line of some twenty men in the mess-tent, wondering how many would survive to see the full splendour and significance of the work here so nobly begun. But they were not interested in the future beyond their next immediate job. They ate quickly and went out to it, and by the time I drove away again I was overtaking their battalions on the road. Not un-related units lugged together for foot-slogging, but real battalions, of a spirit in themselves which defied even the blue slops - wave after wave of proper men, with undistracted eyes, who never talked a word about any war. But not a note of music and they North-countrymen !