First World War Poetry Digital Archive

Memoir of George Holloway describing army training

We now got down to some real training most of this we did in the local park.
It was not long before the instructors made soldiers of us, the physical drill instructor used to put us in a line, then get a few yards away and say, when I clap my hands I want you to fall in near me and all I want to see is a cloud of dust and 12 living statues, so two ranks round me nip. At bayonet fighting, every time we saw a bayonet we were supposed to see blood, and for all this I used to get 2/- a week. Every third week I used to receive 3/-.
Out of my 2/- I used to give Mrs Luck 1/6 a week because she used to give me a cup of cocoa and a biscuit for my supper every night.

With the 6d I had left I had to buy toothpaste. soap, soldier's friend for cleaning my buttons, dubbin for my boots and kiwi polish for my equipment etc. so I never had much money left for any luxuries. If it had not been for my sister Alice sending me a few postage stamps I would not have been able to write home

My father had to pack up the decorating business now that I had left home for without me he did not seem able to manage by himself so he got a job driving a horse and cart delivering hardware goods for Mr Len Hastings, the Kettle King at Staines.

About April I think that the powers to be were expecting some trouble in Ireland, for while out in the town one Saturday night we were all rounded up and told to get into full marching order and fall in outside the Corn Exchange which was our Batt HQ. I went to my billet and got my equipment, not quite knowing what was going to take place I put as much of my kit into my pack, even my heavy spare pair of boots. By the time I got my equipment ready it must have weighed nearly a cwt. To make matters worse when I got to the corn Exchange I was issued with two bandoliers of live ammunition to add to my load.

About 10 p.m. the Battalion was ready to march off. We got underway but after we had been marching for about an hour orders came for us to return to the Corn Exchange as the higher command did not think it was right to march young soldiers all through the night, When we arrived back at Maidstone it was too late to return to our billets so we had to lay down on the bare boards in the Corn Exchange. I tried to sleep on the floor but it was no use so I spent most of the night walking about the building.

The following morning, Sunday we fell in and marched off again. It was a lovely day and the countryside looked very nice which we were passing through. After marching all day we arrived at a camp in Sittingbourne where we put up in bell tents. I felt quite fit on arrival after the march but the next morning I was too stiff to move, I could not understand why the physical drill instructors were able to jump about like they were but it was not long before they got me fit again. This must have been my baptism for marching for I never got stiff on any other march , I never ever fell out on any march all the time I was in the Army which must have been a record for during my service on active service in France and Belgium I must have marched several hundred miles, during which I have see many a man fall out and unable to carry on.

We stayed in Sittingbourne about four days then we got orders to march back to Maidstone, I was getting a little tired just before reaching Maidstone and began to think that I would never make it then the band started to play which seemed to put fresh life into me for all the Battalion seemed to suddenly wake up, every man got into step and arms began to swing. I don't know what came over me for I felt like marching miles and I would have done if we had to.

On reaching Maidstone we went into the Corn Exchange and were given a meal of tea and bread and jam, I was so hungry that our two slices did not satisfy my hunger so I took a chance and asked the messing corporal for more. he looked at me and said that what I wanted was a truss of hay to eat, any way to my surprise he gave me two more slices of bread and jam. After the meal the Battalion was dismissed and we returned to our billets where a good home made bed was waiting for me.

A few weeks later we marched back to the camp in Sittingbourne never to return to Maidstone again for in Sittingbourne we went through our final stages of training which included firing a rifle course on the ranges at Merston, bombing course, throwing mills bombs and bayonet fighting, also a course on the lewis gun. After rushing me all through this they were going to transfer me to the Queens Regiment who were stationed in Sittingbourne.
We had heard some very bad accounts of this Regiment so I decided that I would not join it and I knew that they could not send me to it for I was not yet nineteen years of age. So when I told the Sergeant this he said that by my army age I was 19. I told him that I was not, he then said that you tell so many lies when you join up that you don't know how old you are, I said I do know how old I am, so at that he told me to send home for my birth certificate. This I did hoping that the one that I had sent for months before would be at home but it still had not arrived so my father went up to Somerset House himself and got one. A few months later the certificate arrived that I had sent for. On showing the Sergeant the certificate he had to stop the transfer of me to the Queens Regiment.

It was while in this camp that I did my first Army Boxing. It all started over a lad who had been home for the day and arriving back in camp having rather a bad time at home and feeling a bit fed up got rather annoyed when he looked into the tent and saw a football in the place left in the tent for him. At the time we were all singing ' When you're a long way from home'.
We had got up to the part which was 'It makes you feel that you are all alone' when he picked up the football and threw it down right on my face, although I did not have any trousers on I got up to go for him. At that he started to run away so I gave chase. I ran him out and back into the camp again before I got him and started hitting him. By now half the company had turned out to see the fight. The NCOs had seen it so now we had to have a real fight with the boxing gloves on, so the lads formed a square and we had to box properly this I could not do for I wanted to give him a good hiding.
After a few rounds the Sergeant stopped the fight, he said I told you to box not kill one another. What made the fight look worse than it was the blood from my nose, for in those days one had only to look at it and it would start to bleed. Anyway I must have made a good fight of it for my name was taken for boxing and the following night I had to fight a lad, I won the fight but I had to pack up boxing over my nose bleeding so easy so I took up bayonet fighting instead, this I got quite good at.

After a few months at Sittingbourne I got transferred to the 30th TR Batt.
the late 10th East Surrey Regiment who were stationed in Dover. Their march pass was ' To be a Farmers Boy' but it was not a farm where I found them for they were in tents at the side of the main Dover and Folkstone Road and when it rained the water used to flow down from the road and flood the camp. To stop it getting into the tents we used to dig a trench around the tent for the water to lay in. The top soil was all clay and when wet it was like walking on an ice rink.. One night a terrific wind got up and to make matters worse it started to rain. The wind got so strong that it blew all the tents down, what with the ground being so slippery and the wind so strong we had a job to keep on our feet. We took cover in the houses in the road at the entrance of the camp, they were only small villa types of houses, with a small porch which about four of us were able to take cover in. The following day the wind and rain still carried on so we were mustered and marched up to some huts near the Castle to take cover until the storm died down. I don't know what the local inhabitants thought of us for we looked like a lot of prisoners. So having had all our kit carried away with the wind during the night we go dressed in whatever kit we could find. We spent a few days in the huts before returning to pitch our tents again. I don't know if the top brass had heard that the Germans were going to raid Dover only instead of pitching the tents in straight lines we dotted them out in a zig zag pattern and camouflaged them.. It was not long before the German planes were over bombing. After bombing Dover for a week they used to carry on to London and for the next three weeks the only bombs they dropped on Dover were what they had over after having tried to get through to London. So they used to drop what they had over on Dover as they sometimes had a job to get past the barrage which the coastal guns used to put up.

While out one Sunday I saw a double deck tram lying on its side, it had got out of control going down a hill and was unable to take the bend at the bottom of the hill and so over it went on to its side. Quite a lot of people got killed and injured in the accident. I saw a boot with just a foot inside it. My own Platoon Officer got killed in the accident. I was now chosen to be one of the firing party at his funeral. On the day of the burial I marched with the rest of the firing party to Dover Castle where the body was brought out and placed on to the Gun Carriage. After presenting arms we went to the reverse arms and followed the Gun Carriage to the cemetery. On going through the town we passed a R.N.A.S. lorry and I knew the driver. It was Mr A Johnstone who later on was my brother-in-law. I had not seen him for some time and it was a long time before I saw him again. I was unable to say anything to him as I was marching at reverse arms so as I passed him I let him see that I had spotted him by giving him a wink as I passed. At the grave side after the coffin had been lowered we fired three blank rounds of ammunition and marched back to camp to the tune of ' Keep the Home fires Burning' and' Tipperary' etc..

On parade one day I was chosen to go in for an NCO's course which I refused.
I had two reasons for this, one was that I did not fancy being in charge of men and the other was the Sergeant said that if I took a stripe I could stay in England with him. This I did not want for now I was wanting to go to France and see what the war was really like.

On 10th July I went home on my first leave, receiving a free railway warrant and 14/- pay which included a weeks ration allowance. I felt quite rich as I had only been receiving 2/- and 3/- a week. While home I used to go round and visit Mrs Wells in Hanworth Road. She had several daughters, I was not after them for as soon as they came into the house I used to hop off home but it appears that one of the girls had her eye on me. I myself did not want anything to do with girls for married life did not appeal to me in those days.

On 17th July returned to my unit having enjoyed my 7 days leave and broke for I had spent all my 14/-. I was not broke for long as on the 20th July I got paid 2/- my usual weeks pay, just enough to buy a bun at the canteen.

Sometime during October I got drafted to the 86th TRB the late Royal Scots Fusiliers who were stationed at Mansfield, Nottingham. Now I had to get used to marching to the bagpipes, every morning the Colonel used to make us do a march pass and if we did not keep in step with the pipe band he would make us do it all again. I suppose some of the men being in kilts and some without we used to look rather strange as we marched pass him.

On 30th November I received 10/- and went home for a weekend leave. Once again I paid a visit to Hanworh Road but as soon as the girls came home I went home too.

I was now a fully trained soldier but too young to send to France so I was taken off square and sent into the cook house for a month.

One Sunday afternoon I was standing on a box mincing some meat to make rissoles for the lads Monday morning breakfast when up came the Sergeant and Corporal Cooks. The Sergeant said 'Come on Nobby, give the boy a break, you get on the box and put the meat in and I will turn the handle'. So off the box I got and on to it went Nobby. No sooner had he put the first lump of meat in the mincer and the Sergeant started turning when Nobby started shouting. The Sergeant stopped turning and when we looked at Nobby' s hand we saw the top of his finger was missing, so the Sergeant took him off to the sick bay. while they were away I turned the mincer back and I found the top of Nobby's finger stuck in a lump of meat. I took it out and put it in a match box hoping to give it to him on his return from hospital. I did not waste the piece of meat, I minced it with the rest of the meat. The next morning the lads could not understand why I did not want any rissoles for breakfast as I was always a big eater so after they had all had their breakfast I showed them Nobby's finger. I told them what had happened.
After that I left Nobby's finger in a match box and placed it under our hut in Mansfield (Clipstone Camp) After a month in the cookhouse, I returned to the square and back to the old routine.

On Sunday 27th December I was hut orderly for the day. After the lads had returned from church parade and settled down in the hut the Company Officer with Sergeant Major entered the hut. The Sergeant Major called the lads to attention then he told everyone to put their tunics on and stand by their beds. Then the Officer came along and here and there he told a man to fall out and get into line in the middle of the hut, I was one of the men to fall out, then he came along again and told some to fall out, he did this until only two of us were left. I began to wonder what was going on, I thought that in my case, being hut orderly and I had not bothered to shave or clean my buttons that he was after someone to do a job and would pick the most dirty man for it. Then he said to the Sergeant Major, that I was the man.
The Sergeant Major said I was not properly dressed as I still had East Surrey numerals on my tunic. I told the officer that I had been to town the night before and I did not like going out without any. Then to my surprise the Officer said that I had the cleanest buttons which was a surprise to me for I had not cleaned them that day. After the Sergeant Major agreed with the Officer, the Officer asked me if I would like to go home on a weekend leave, which I agreed to straight away, so the following Saturday. December 27th, too late to spend Christmas at home. I received 18/- pay and made for home, paying a few visits to Mrs Wells but heading for home wherever her daughters arrived home because I always felt out of place wherever girls were. About this time a couple of chaps in my platoon who were older than I was treated me to a show in Mansfield. On our way to the theatre we met three girls, my pals treated them to the theatre having a girl each for themselves and passing one on to me. I felt a proper fool for I had no idea how to handle girls, my pals seemed to be enjoying themselves. I told my girl that I did not want to get mixed up with girls, she said that it was not for keeps as she had already got a regular boy friend and they only went with soldiers who were away from home so that they would not feel so lonely, After saying a good night my pals promised to meet them again so my pals made me go out with them again. I was not sorry when my pals got drafted so that I could stop meeting the girls. I don't suppose the girl I went with was sorry for she must have thought me very cold.

On 10th January I received 16/- and went home on seven days draft leave.
Once again I paid a visit to Mrs Wells, this time she wanted to know why I always went home whenever the girls came home. I told her that I was not used to girls so she asked me to have tea with them on Sunday. This I did and while at tea something must have come over me, it must have been love at first sight for one of the girls seemed to attract me. When I got home my father wanted to know why I spent so much time at Mrs Wells house seeing that this might be my last leave, he said that I should spend more time at home.
So seeing that I might not be able to visit Mrs Wells any more I said to my father ' If I go out with you all day Monday , could I bring on of the Miss Wells home?'. This he agreed to. So early the next morning I went with my father to Staines where he got his horse and cart and off we went all around the country villages delivering pots and pans etc. I quite enjoyed the days outing and I think that my father did also for it must have been like old times to him having me with him again. On arriving home I made my way round to Mrs Wells' and asked her if I could take her daughter round to my home for a game of cards with my family as my father thought that I should spend more time at home being that I was on draft leave. Mrs Wells said yes and wanted to know which one I wanted. I think that she was a little surprised when I said Lizzie for she had a younger daughter Dolly who was nearer my age but it was Lizzie who I wanted. I think Lizzie was a little surprised although I did learn later that she had her eye on me when I paid a visit to Mrs Wells on one of my previous leaves. We had quite an enjoyable evening at my home and for the rest of my leave I spent every night at home with Lizzie and from then on we kept in touch with one another for on my return from leave, it was 15 months before we met again for Lizzie went to work with her sister Millie in Manchester and I went overseas.

I got transferred to the Machine Gun Corps so I left Clipstone Camp, Mansfield, Nottingham and went to the Machine Gun School at Belton Park Camp, Grantham. Here I spent a very interesting 10 weeks learning all about a 303 in Vickers machine gun including how to load pack mules and limbers. I found loading limbers was much safer than loading pack mules for one day while loading a mule I just missed feeling the full force of one of its hind legs as I lashed out at me. I was kept pretty busy for not only did we learn to use the gun during the daylight, we had to go out on night operations, doing night firing etc.. All this hard training used to have its compensations on Sunday nights for I used to pay a visit to the camp canteen where I used to enjoy the concerts which used to be held there. All the entertainers used to be troops but they used to always put up a very good show. I can picture even today the man from the Motor Machine Gun Corp who always used to sing' Let the Great Big world Keep Turning'. He used to sing like a professional.
I never knew his name so I don't know if he ever sang on the stage professionally. By now with all this training I myself was beginning to feel like a professional soldier. At the end of March I was put on draft for France, but it had to be put off as one of our party got the mumps and we had to go into isolation for a fortnight.

On Saturday April 13th we came out of isolation and got our marching orders.
This meant handing in our spare uniform and underclothing etc. for in France we had only the clothes we stood up in so if ever we got wet through our clothes had to dry on us for we never took our clothes off. the only time we took them off was when we managed to get a bath which was not very often.
Then the bath would be only a tub or a bucket and on one occasion we washed our bodies in a stream which was only ankle deep. Whenever we had a bath we got a change of underclothing, a shirt , pair of pants and socks. All this clothing had been left by someone else which had been washed and fumigated to kill the lice which we all had . Our clothes would be left behind for someone else when the had a bath. Although the clothing had been fumigated eggs were still in the seams and it was not long before we were lousy again, it was quite common to find blood stains also from men who had been wounded.
It was quite easy to put your hand under your tunic and pull out some lice for they were good bosom friends especially when your body got warm. We used to be issued with a candle ration which we were supposed to use to make a tommy cooker with but they were mostly used to burn the lice out of our clothing. When several of us would be doing this at the same time it was like a mini machine gun barrage taking place.

On Sunday 14th April we boarded a train at Grantham Station and as soon as we were all aboard we were locked in and left at 9pm. This was the last train ride in England for most of this draft. We travelled all night and arrived at Folkestone at 4 am Monday. The train went into a siding in front of some large houses on the Marine Parade which were used as a rest camp. Once inside it was not possible to get out for a large wooden fence had been erected outside all the houses. We got our heads down on the bare boards for a couple of hours after which we got a breakfast and at 10 am we marched out of the gates and passed a large hotel where the servant girls stood at the top windows and waved to us as we boarded the ship to France. they must have done this to thousand of men before us knowing well that some would never return. At 11 am we sailed out of Folkestone Harbour on board the 'Princes Victoria' with an escort of destroyers of the Dover patrol.

To view other similar items in the archive click on the hyper-linked words below.