When I first enlisted I felt a similar irritation in regard to buttons. His buttons are a burden to the new recruit. Time takes the edge off his resentment. Time is a soother of sorrows, a healer of rancours, however legitimate. Nevertheless one’s buttons remain for ever a nuisance. I do not complain that I should have to make my bed, polish my boots, keep my clothes neat. These are the obvious decencies of life. But the daily shining-up of metal buttons which need never have been made of metal at all, which tarnish in the damp and indeed lose their lustre in an hour in any weather, which, moreover, look much prettier dull than bright—this is enough to convert the most bloodthirsty recruit into obdurate pacifism.
It is to be presumed that in the pipe-claying days of peace the hours were apt to hang heavy in barracks, and the furbishing of buttons was devised not alone for smartness’ sake, but to occupy idle hands for which otherwise Satan might be finding some more mischievous employment. The theory—though it throws a lurid light on the unprofitableness of a soldier’s profession when there is no war to justify his existence—is not devoid of sense. But why this custom, designed for that excellent mortal, the T. Atkins who walked out with nurse-maids, and was none too busy between-whiles, should be forced upon a totally different (if no less estimable) T. Atkins whose job hardly gives him a moment for meals—let alone for dalliance with the fair—I cannot pretend to fathom. It is arguable that the ornamental soldier is suited by glossy buttons and may properly lavish time and trouble thereupon. It is not arguable that glossy buttons are a valid feature of the garb of a humdrum and harassed hospital orderly.
Many a time, footsore and aching with novel toil, I could have groaned when, instead of lying down to relax, I had to tackle the polishing of that idiotic panoply of buttons. My tunic had (it still has) five large buttons in front, four pocket-flap buttons, two shoulder buttons, and two shoulder numerals, “T.—R.A.M.C.—LONDON.” My great-coat had (it still has) five large front buttons, two shoulder buttons and two shoulder numerals, three back belt buttons, two coat-tail buttons. My cap had (it still has) a badge and two small strap-buttons. All these must be kept brilliant. And, in addition, there was the intricate brasswork of one’s belt.
Are the wounded any better looked after because a tired orderly has spent some of his off-duty rest-hour in rubbing metal buttons which would have been every bit as buttonable had they been made of bone?
Many were the debates, in our hut, over the button problem. The abolition of metal buttons being impracticable—the bold project of a petition to the King and Lord Kitchener was never proceeded with—two questions alone interested us: (1) which was the best polish, and (2) which was the quickest and easiest system of polishing. The shabby peddler-cum-boot-maker who had somehow established,