It was the first time that I had been on a train. My travel warrant had secured for me the lowest class of ticket, but I didn't mind in the slightest. I possessed a small amount of clothing in a small battered brown case donated to me by our land lady. I had managed to collect together, just enough clothes for a change.
As I sat in the coach, I noticed one or two of the boys mostly older than me, around eighteen years of age already on the train. Each of us looked at each other, we were all dying to ask the same question, though none of us did. We sat in the quiet of the carriage, the seats were hard but our lack of knowledge on the subject prevented us from complaining. At Newcastle, we all changed for the branch line which would take us to the depot. There were only a few minutes to get to the opposite platform and we all raced across the bridge with the smoke from the trains below billowing past us.
The guard opened the barrier and waved us all through without looking at our tickets, it was obvious where we were off to. He shouted at us as we past.
'Next stop the sausage factory,' he grinned as we went past. We ran at full pelt along the platform, past carriage after carriage, each full, until one of the boys came to a skating halt, with all of us nearly ploughing into the back of him. Grabbing the handle; he swung the door open, we looked in.
'Its second class, we can't go in there... we'll get into trouble!' The cheeky youth, half in and half out of the door, swung round with a sarcastic smile.
'Well, you best make your own mind up, but the whistles gone, you've signed up now, if you don't go they'll probably shoot you!' This may have been an over statement, but most of us boys had no idea that it was not. And in the back of our minds, were the quiet tales told of certain families in each parish. A son, who never returned, shot at dawn. The stigma and shame this had brought to those families.
In a mad dash, our minds made up, we all poured onto the train, some in the fracas being pushed onto the laps of other passengers. There were harsh words from those passengers, we followed the leader of the enterprise down several carriages. In the end we gave up our quest for seating, it was standing room only.
We were a group of six, our leader introduced himself, and asked if we were all going to the depot? We confirmed and before long as most do thrown together with a common bond, began chatting about nothing and everything. Some talked out of nervousness and others remained quiet, but as a group there was not one who was not to a degree apprehensive of what awaited.
We left the train en mass, at the front of the small branch line station there were several old olive drab Morris trucks with plank seating in them. A lance corporal and a driver stood by each. As we emerged, they shouted
'Infantry depot this way.' We went to the tailgate and clambered on several who could not quite manage the technique had to be dragged on by the others. All were loaded, but before the Corporal mounted his position in the front of the truck, he walked into the station. A minute later a youth we had not set eyes on before came out from the station, we dragged him aboard.
'There's always one stuck in the bog and if I don't check I'll be coming back to pick him up.' The tailgate clanged shut, the vehicle erupted into life and we began the short journey to the camp.
The small neat terraced houses and village shops which surrounded the station gave rise to the open wind swept vistas of Northumberland, with its bracken and moorland spread out to the horizon. A drizzle had begun and the wind seemed to drive it at all angles. The vehicles began to brake and as it stopped we could hear the loud corporal at the front of the truck exchanging a few words with the guard at the entrance to the camp.
We proceeded into the camp of yellow grimy Victorian brick: the guard room, some administration buildings, what appeared to be accommodation into a central square where the trucks one after another pulled up next to each other, so that the tail gates all faced the square. The corporal now shouted into the back of the truck for us all to get out. The same procedure was performed in each truck. We hung round the back of the truck, the wind and drizzle whipping into our faces.
Several men now hurried out of the administration offices. They were all dressed similarly, in that they were wearing heavy hob nailed boots, puttees a wool forage cap with a peak on it and concealing their upper bodies with a waterproof poncho to protect them from the rain. Behind them in a much more refined uniform was a tall thin man, in cavalry boots, plus-fours a beige gabardine raincoat and forage cap. He stood behind them as one of the men in the ponchos shouted for quiet. There was still some muffled talking in the ranks, he strode in and stood near the offenders.
'That's the last time you'll do that when I talk, if you know what's good for you.' The talking ceased within our ranks. He turned on his heal and marched back to a position to the front and centre of our squad, coming to attention he turned to face us. His manner was such to draw and keep our attention, his face surveying our group from one end to the other. Total concentration was now fixed on him... He began his introduction. He was the drill sergeant for the depot, each of the men in ponchos had now taken up a position several feet behind him and several feet apart. He introduced them in quick succession, informing us that he would call out a list of names, when we heard our name we were to call out “Sir”, pick up our possessions and stand behind that corporal.
He threw back his cape revealing a board with a list of names. Raising it quickly, to safeguard it against the rain he began barking our names out. Each of us in turn shouted our confirmation back and made our way behind the corporal in question. Once or twice a name had to be called twice, only once a third time. The Drill Sergeant, shouted small insults developed over the years, at the individual concerned, these took the form of being a “cloth eared clown,” he would have had to have a multitude of eyes, not just the regulation two, had he wanted to keep them on as many of the recruits as he had set out to do.
When all the squads were formed and all recruits accounted for, the Drill Sergeant requested from the officer.
'All Recruits present...Permission to carry on Sir Please,' which was granted.
'Please do... Get them out of the rain as soon as possible Drill Sergeant. I’ll see you at nine in the gymnasium.' We were told to pick up our possessions and follow the man in the poncho to what would be our new home. I watched each group depart, until there was only one corporal left. By this time, the drizzle had turned to rain, the drops running off of my nose.
'Come on then, you bunch are with me, pick up your gear and lets go.' We already had obliged and hurried behind him. Following him from the square, we past the cook house, to several yellow and red brick long four storey buildings one of which was to form our accommodation. Each housed the equivalent of one training company; each floor was split into two halves with the stairwell in the middle. Each half of the floor was a dormitory, accommodating one platoon.
My aspirations of staying with the group of men I had arrived with, was short lived. Myself and another boy of the same age, were taken the next morning to the Drum Major's office and handed over to him.
It appeared that our true army training would be delayed until a later time. I had not known when I had joined, that one of the conditions of my joining at that age, was the fact that I should be enlisted into the Corps of Drums. I took it with good heart though especially, being informed of the honour that this was, as a cabbage I believe I was quite radiant green in my naivety!
My second disappointment was the selection of the instrument I was to play. There were really only two choices; a flute or a side drum. However, it appeared that there were no shortage of willing volunteers to play the side drum, as a result they were fully subscribed, I was therefore unceremoniously given a flute, I did at least have a choice.
There were two types which were on offer, a smaller one or “B flat” and a larger one an “F”. I chose the smaller one. My press ganging to the Corps of Drums, was to a certain degree a stroke of luck. The regime was far easier, than the rifle company I had just left. With soldiering activities kept to a minimum, we still performed drill and went to the ranges to shoot, but on the whole, the majority of our day was spent practising with our instruments; Flute and bugle in my case.
It was quite pleasant. The only down side being that we were not allowed to drink in the NAAFI due to our age. Where there is a will though, there is always a way! I began to enjoy myself, taking part in sporting activities, and soon mastered the tools of my trade, up to the point where I was placed on the roster as a Barrack Guard Drummer. This meant, each day a drummer on the roster would blow all the bugle calls that the English army seems to survive on: Reveille to get up, Come to the Cook house door, to be fed, officer's dress for dinner, each event in the day had a bugle call.
On those days, you stayed in the guardroom sleeping with he barrack guard. You were also obliged to clean the sergeant of the guard’s equipment, it was one of the chores you had to perform, it wasn't too onerous. You also had to be available at a moments notice, just in case there might be some general alarm. in which case you would rush round the barracks blowing your bugle at pre-appointed places.
Time moved on, I enjoyed my fifteenth birthday and with my sixteenth in sight. I finally felt as if I belonged somewhere. Each of us boys were equal, we all wore the same uniform and it was as if each of us had been given a blank slate on which to start. The stigma of my past was gradually falling away.
It was at this time, that I found myself the rearguard drummer, over one of the holiday periods. One of the Corporals who I had become very friendly with over my time there, came to my accommodation. I do not wish to dwell on what happened other than to say nothing happened as I used a heavy iron to prevent it. However, this did leave the corporal unconscious and bleeding quite heavily.
I was remanded; from the Company Commanders orders, to the Commanding Officers Memorandum. At each, the charge was read:
“Contrary to good order and military discipline........in that on the ...he did commit a.... by the use of cold iron.....leaving a junior non-commissioned officer unconscious.” These charges led to my detention pending a court martial.
Although it was common knowledge what had been attempted, I would not confirm it. For two reasons; firstly, I was both shocked and embarrassed, secondly it would have been the same as passing a death sentence on the corporal. I did hear later that he was given a medical discharge.
In short, although I was in close arrest at the barracks awaiting the court martial, my time was not made difficult. I had been informed, before the court martial, that the court had been advised discreetly of the circumstances of the incident. Of course, my refusal as they put it not to shame the regiment was to be commended. However, this was a double edged sword for me. In that, they wished to be lenient but a sentence must be given to prevent others from assaulting non-commissioned officers was required.
I was thus informed that I would serve six months in Colchester Military prison, with a recommendation to assign me to a different regiment afterwards. To give me a fresh start, in hindsight, I think it might have been to get rid of a rather indiscreet problem.