I ENLIST AND AM BILLETED
What the psychological processes were that led to my enlisting in “Kitchener’s Army” need not be inquired into. Few men could explain why they enlisted, and if they attempted they might only prove that they had done as a politician said the electorate does, the right thing from the wrong motive. There is a story told of an incident that occurred in Flanders, which shows clearly the view held in certain quarters. The Honourable Artillery Company were relieving some regulars in the trenches when the following dialogue ensued between a typical Tommy Atkins and an H.A.C. private:
T.A.: “Oo are you?”
H.A.C.: “We’re the H.A.C.”
T.A.: “Gentlemen, ain’t yer?”
H.A.C.: “Oh well, in a way I suppose—”
T.A.: “’Ow many are there of yer?”
H.A.C.: “About eight hundred.”
T.A.: “An’ they say yer volunteered!”
H.A.C.: “Yes, we did.”
T.A.: (With conviction as he gathers together his kit). “Blimey, yer must be mad!”
For curiosity’s sake I asked some of my mates to give me their reasons for enlisting. One particular friend of mine, a good-humoured Cockney, grinned sheepishly as he replied confidentially, “Well, matey, I done it to get away from my old gal’s jore—now you’ve got it!” Another recruit, a pale, intelligent youth, who knew Nietzsche by heart, glanced at me coldly as he answered, “I enlisted because I am an Englishman.” Other replies were equally unilluminating and I desisted, remembering that the Germans despise us because we are devoid of military enthusiasm.
The step once taken, however, we all set to work to discover how we might become soldiers with a minimum of exertion and inconvenience to ourselves. During the process I learned many things, among others that I was a unit in the most democratic army in history; where Oxford undergraduate and farm labourer, Cockney and peer’s son lost their identity and their caste in a vast war machine. I learned that Tommy Atkins, no matter from what class he is recruited, is immortal, and that we British are one of the most military nations in the world. I have learned to love my new life, obey my officers, and depend upon my rifle; for I am Rifleman Patrick MacGill of the Irish Rifles, where rumour has it that the Colonel and I are the only two real Irishmen in the battalion. It should be remembered that a unit of a rifle regiment is known as rifleman, not private; we like the term rifleman, and feel justly indignant when a wrong appellation plays skittles with our rank.
The earlier stages of our training took place at Chelsea and the White City, where untiring instructors strove to convince us that we were about the most futile lot of “rookies” that it had ever been their misfortune to encounter. It was not until we were unceremoniously dumped amidst the peaceful inhabitants of a city that slumbers in the shadow of an ancient cathedral that I felt I was in reality a soldier.