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Trenches and Trees - Chapter 1, continued

As instructed I duly reported at Chester Castle, where I saw about thirty or forty other chaps still in civilian clothes lined up and listening to a pep talk from the corporal. Having joined the others we were shown how to stand at ease, stand to attention, right turn, left turn, quick march, etc. I found this initial drill instruction quite simple and no tax on my strength so was much surprised and puzzled that several of the men fainted over after an hour or so of drilling. Later I asked one of the older recruits what was wrong. "The poor devils are half starved, but they'll be alright when they've had a few days regular meals." It was an eye-opener to me to see men, mostly from big cities, so weak from lack of food.

He comforted himself with the fact that he did not know what it was like to be hungry, but he was to find out soon enough when the rations failed to get through. Next day they went to an army camp at Birkenhead that he described as "pretty grim".

Next came the issue of uniforms. We filed past a number of store-men at a long counter who flung at us boots, socks, underclothes, pants, tunics, puttees, judging the size required at a glance, the only 'uniform' thing about the result being that they didn't fit.

Next day came our first parade in uniform and an officer's inspection. I suppose the reason he kept a straight face on being confronted by one hundred 'comedians' was that he had seen so many that the joke had worn thin and he proceeded to find fault with one and all as though the poor devils were personally responsible for being such misfits.

"You. You're in the army now my man. Smarten yourself up. Get that tunic altered before you come on parade again."

"You're not in civvies now."

"You've got no mother here to dress you."

"You. Get your hair cut."

I quite expected to be told to get this, that and the other altered, but when the officer and his sergeant came to me the officer stood still for some minutes, (seconds I suppose), his mouth opened but no words came out, then, apparently recovering from a terrible shock, he shouted "Sergeant, this man has not shaved." At just over eighteen I still had the face of a baby and so I replied in a weak voice "I haven't started to shave yet, Sir." Out of the explosion of words that followed I only just made out that I was to leave the parade in disgrace, being unfit to grace the ranks of such a famous Regiment. Most of the swear words were new to me at the time and I really didn't understand them. I was to shave and report to the officer at the Orderly Room in an hour's time for further inspection.

I went and had my first shave with the cut-throat razor issued to me that morning, having little difficulty as there was nothing to shave and duly proceeded to the Orderly Room and asked for the Orderly Officer. I gave him what I considered to be a smart salute and told him I had shaved and was reporting for inspection as ordered. "Oh! Yes", he said in a quiet voice, "that's much better. Don't forget to shave every day in future."

He soon learned his first lesson in self-preservation. Returning from having a wash one night he found that his stamps and cash had been stolen from his wallet. His fellow recruits were a rough lot and denied any involvement, but one told him he was "bloody fool" to leave his belongings unattended.

Most of the other recruits with whom I was thrown in contact were much older than me and I was very conscious of the fact that I was a 'softie' in their eyes and I was not a little nervous of them. I was quizzed on many occasions by groups of six or seven of them.

"Hey! Soldier, do you smoke?"

"No."

"Do you drink?"

"No."

"Do you play cards?"

"No."

"Have you had a woman yet?"

"No."

"Well, what the hell do you do then?"

"I go for long walks and cycle rides. I like music; my pal is a good pianist. I read a lot and go to the theatre occasionally. I do a bit of photography and painting and so on."

"My Gawd! What a hectic bloody life you've had!" Having nothing in common with those around me I was miserable and lonely and I should say I was the only one in the place who would rather be on parade than off. Then I found a chap about my own age who had a similar background to my own and from then on I began to enjoy myself.

Written by Harry Williams 1965, 2010. All rights are strictly reserved. This publication may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, typescript, recording or otherwise, without prior permission in writing. Scanned from the original typescript and edited by Leigh Graham.

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Chester Castle.

Chester Castle was built in 1069 by William the Conqueror in Chester, Cheshire. In 1871 the 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment established its Depot at the Castle. It remained at the Castle until 1940. The Regimental Headquarters was established in Chester Castle in 1961, where it still is today.

Birkenhead.

Birkenhead is a town on the Wirral Peninsula, on the left bank of the River Mersey, opposite Liverpool. The town was famous as a sea port and as a centre for ship building as it was close to the maritime activity of Liverpool. Prior to 1974 Birkenhead, with the rest of the Wirral Peninsula, was under the administration of the county of Cheshire.

Puttee.

A cloth strip wound round the leg from ankle to knee as a legging.

[Hindi patti]

Orderly Officer.

The officer of the day, or that officer of a corps or regiment whose turn it is to supervise for the day the arrangements for food, cleanliness, etc.