War was a certainty. I did not wish to be a spectator of the scenes that would accompany its declaration, so I went home. All the night in my dreams I saw the quiet, perturbed crowds.
War was declared. All those of us who were at Balliol together telephoned to one another so that we might enlist together. Physical coward or no physical coward—it obviously had to be done. Teddy and Alec were going into the London Scottish. Early in the morning I started for London to join them, but on the way up I read the paragraph in which the War Office appealed for motor-cyclists. So I went straight to Scotland Yard. There I was taken up to a large room full of benches crammed with all sorts and conditions of men. The old fellow on my right was a sign-writer. On my left was a racing motor-cyclist. We waited for hours. Frightened-looking men were sworn in and one phenomenally grave small boy. Later I should have said that a really fine stamp of man was enlisting. Then they seemed to me a shabby crew.
At last we were sent downstairs, and told to strip and array ourselves in moderately dirty blue dressing-gowns. Away from the formality of the other room we sang little songs, and made the worst jokes in the world—being continually interrupted by an irritable sergeant, whom we called “dearie.” One or two men were feverishly arguing whether certain physical deficiencies would be passed. Nobody said a word of his reason for enlisting except the sign-writer, whose wages had been low.
The racing motor-cyclist and I were passed one after another, and, receiving warrants, we travelled down to Fulham. Our names, addresses, and qualifications were written down. To my overwhelming joy I was marked as “very suitable.” I went to Great Portland Street, arranged to buy a motor-cycle, and returned home. That evening I received a telegram from Oxford advising me to go down to Chatham.
I started off soon after breakfast, and suffered three punctures. The mending of them put despatch-riding in an unhealthy light. At Rochester I picked up Wallace and Marshall of my college, and together we went to the appointed place. There we found twenty or thirty enlisted or unenlisted. I had come only to make inquiries, but I was carried away. After a series of waits I was medically examined and passed. At 5.45 P.M. I kissed the Book, and in two minutes I became a corporal in the Royal Engineers. During the ceremony my chief sensation was one of thoroughgoing panic.
In the morning four of us, who were linguists, were packed off to the War Office. We spent the journey in picturing all the ways we might be killed, until, by the time we reached Victoria, there was not a single one of us who would not have given anything to un-enlist. The War Office rejected us on the plea that they had as many Intelligence Officers as they wanted. So we returned glumly.
The next few days we were drilled, lectured, and given our kit. We began to know each other, and make friends. Finally, several of us, who wanted to go out together, managed by slight misstatements to be put into one batch. We were chosen to join the 5th Division. The Major in command told us—to our great relief—that the Fifth would not form part of the first Expeditionary Force.