30 Mar 2009

Gunners’ Embarcation For India

, , ,

From Col. C.E. Callwell, C.B.’s Service Yarns and Memories, William Blackwood, 1912:

Ever since a distinguished Crimean veteran one day came down to the Royal Military Academy to hear reports of Examiners and of the Governor and of other people solemnly read out, and I found myself transformed into a commissioned officer, the Service, according to the verdict of unim­peachable authorities, has been going to the dogs —one had not heard of it as a cadet. But even the most determined pessimists allow that occa­sional bright patches display themselves in the overcast and stormy sky; and an example of such a patch is found in the fact that newly-caught subalterns who know nothing whatever, no longer have drafts flung at their heads to take out to the uttermost parts of the earth, as they did in those days. My very first experience of responsibility after appearing in the ‘Army List’ was the taking over of some forty gunners and drivers at Woolwich, and conducting them to Allahabad where somebody else luckily assumed control over them.

It was about 8 A.M. on a wintry January morn­ing that I encountered the draft for the first time on the imposing parade-ground in front of the Artillery Barracks. It was drawn up alongside another, somewhat larger, draft, which was under charge of a subaltern of a few months’ stand­ing. A crowd of officers of various grades were standing about, the R.A. Band was all ready to speed us on our way, and strong bodies of gun­ners, who apparently were not proceeding to the East because they had no bags and other things at their feet, formed a phalanx in rear. I had joined the previous day, and had then been en­trusted with big packets of documents connected with my party, and the major commanding the depôt had at the same time made reference to “credits” and “money due to the men” and “to­morrow morning,” which conveyed no meaning to my mind. “Ah, there you are. That’s right,” said the major, bustling up to me with a non­commissioned officer in tow, who was cherishing a haversack; “I’ll hand you over the money now, and the list of credits.”

The non-commissioned officer produced a por­tentous sheet of paper, with a column of names on it and various sums noted down against each name. “Where are you going to put it?” de­manded the major. One was arrayed in a tunic in those days when in marching order, and anything like a haversack would have been grossly irregular. Where was the document to go? “Try your sabretache,” suggested somebody, and various people assisted me in exploring that out­rageous article of personal impedimenta, and in cramming the list of credits into its penetralia.” Well done! Now for the money, and then you’ll be fitted out all complete,” said the major en­couragingly; whereupon the non-commissioned officer produced two handfuls of gold and silver and copper coins out of the haversack. “Haven’t you anywhere to put it?” The dross was even worse than the document. I had never seen so much money before at one time in my life, and had no idea how much it amounted to, having neglected to investigate the list which was now stuffed away safely in the sabretache.

“There’s always a pocket in overalls, up at the top,” suggested a bystander. But to get at that pocket would have involved taking off a sword-belt, to say nothing of embarking upon other and even more precarious processes.

“Surely you’ve got a pocket in the breast of your tunic; I have in mine,” remarked another friend in need. Now it is no light thing to unbutton the breast of a new tunic when there is a cross-belt in the way, when one’s hands are encased in thick, stiff pipe-clayed gloves, and when one’s fingers are numbed with the cold. The operation was nevertheless successfully accom­plished, and, true enough, the caricature of a pocket disclosed itself in the lining of the garment (where the padding is inserted to give one a chest), one of the sort which will hold next to nothing, which will not retain what is put into them, and which are so contrived that you never know whether what you try to put into them has got in or not. The pocket was a miracle of inconvenience, and by this time my bosom was all over pipe-clay like a 17th Lancer’s, but just then the Assistant-Quartermaster-General shouldered his way into the group. “I say! Time’s getting on,” he interrupted; “what’s all this delay about?”

” Come, get the money into your pocket,” urged the depôt major impatiently.

“Weel ye tak’ off yer-r gloves, ma mannie. Dinna fash yer-rself,” put in a kindly surgeon-major, who was there to see that none of the travellers contracted some fell disease at the last moment.

“D’you mean to say that you aren’t going to see if it’s all right ?” exclaimed the Assistant-Quartermaster-General, absolutely aghast.

But I had wits enough left not to start upon counting goodness only knows how much money, standing out there shivering on the parade-ground, so I shovelled the coins into my bosom, and had the satisfaction of feeling that a good percentage of them had found their way into the pocket. There was an unmistakable lump in one place. On making investigations with the assist­ance of the other subaltern after getting into the train, it transpired that there was a shortage of two or three sovereigns as compared with the list of credits; but after arriving on board H.M.S. Serapis, and carrying investigations further, nearly the whole of the deficient monies turned up in my boots. You may abuse the combination of overalls and Wellingtons as much as you like. You may inveigh against the arrangement as uncomfortable and unserviceable, and all the rest of it. But the system does have this one advantage. If something carries away high up— a collar-stud, say, or a pin—the thing is not gone beyond recall: it turns up at the end of the day in one of your boots.

“Now then! Hurry up and get into your place, will you,” ordered the depôt major in a fuss. ” You don’t want to inspect them, I suppose; anyway there is no time for it now.” I did not want to inspect them in the very least. Even to an inexperienced eye they presented an un-martial and unprepossessing appearance, and I obediently took up my station in their vicinity. ” March off, please,” directed the Assistant-Quar­termaster-General. “‘Tion! Fours right! Quick march.'” bawled the other subaltern, who being-senior was of course in command of the parade. The drafts somehow transformed themselves out of an irregular line into a still more irregular swarm; the RA. Band thundered “The Girl He Left Behind Him,” and away we streamed—one cannot call it marched—down the hill to the Arsenal Station.

The object of the phalanx of gunners and others who had been drawn up in rear of the drafts now made itself apparent. By a deft manoeuvre they disposed themselves along the flanks and the rear of the troops bound for Asia, while a select party of good-conduct-badge-bedecked veterans assumed the role of wreckers in rear-guard, charged with the picking up of stray men who had collapsed, and of kit-bags which had been abandoned in the stress of the progress. The drafts were composed almost entirely of old soldiers, who were in that condition which may be said to include every stage of exhilaration from the paralytic to that commonly described in the orderly-room as “hav­ing had beer.” However, we got to the station somehow, and there the confusion seemed, to one unaccustomed to such scenes, to almost border on a riot. But although in a disorderly mood, the drafts were merely light-hearted, and in any case they were hopelessly outnumbered, they were bundled into compartments by willing hands, as each compartment filled, stalwart gunners forced the door to, and the guard instantly locked it. Almost before one realised the work­ings of an efficient organisation the task was completed and the whistle sounded. The crowd of officers who had assisted in the engagement, a look of relief depicted on their faces, waved their hands to us cheerily in our first-class compart­ment, the band broke out into “Auld Lang Syne,” the drafts responded with a hurricane of inartic­ulate noises, and we were fairly off on our way to Hindustan.


Please Leave a Comment!

Please note: Comments may be moderated. It may take a while for them to show on the page.

Entries (RSS)
Comments (RSS)
Feed Shark