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By MAJOR ARTHUR GRIFFITHS.
The cradle of a large portion of the British Army, that which is, in fact, provided by the Metropolis, lies in the district of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. This is, so to speak, the military birthplace of the London recruit. The embryo soldier is brought into the world of arms by one or other of the blue or crimson-coated nurses who hang about the National Gallery, or patrol the pavements of the various avenues to St. George’s Barracks.
These recruiters, the Sergeant Kites of to-day, are very affable and obliging people. Mere loafers you might call them, having no object in life but to bask in the sunshine, gossip together, or “pass the time of day” to all comers. Look more closely, and you will see that they prefer to make friends with young men having, like themselves, no very distinct occupation—listless waifs floating idly to and fro on the surface
of the crowded street. Some are out at elbows, obviously short of a job; some are decent and respectable youths, with a set purpose on their faces, yet with no clear notion how to carry it through.
It is amusing to watch the recruiting sergeant at work; to see him carelessly accost the shy lad, improve acquaintance with a quip or a quirk, until it presently becomes fast friendship. In times past there would be a speedy adjournment to the nearest public-house, where after several pints of “four ‘alf” a mysterious shilling would change hands, and the State would be poorer by that amount, but richer in the gain of one more man as food for powder. The “Queen’s,” or, as it would be now styled if it existed, the “King’s shilling,” has no more a part in the business of enlistment; it has disappeared with the beer drinking and drunkenness that once disgraced our voluntary system. No recruit is ‘nowadays beguiled into the King’s service; but the smart recruiter will set forth plausibly the advantages thereof, and point to the notice-boards which advertise them, and so secure the fish, which in most cases is willing enough to be caught.
The first stage is soon reached. Sergeant and “Rookie” stroll comfortably side by side to the barracks hard by, and find only a few yards inside the gate, next door to the guard house, a small room bare of furniture, but decorated with prints picturesquely illustrative of the soldier’s life. In the centre of this, ” the weighing-room,” is the weighing-machine, for to weigh the candidate is an indispensable preliminary, and the minimum weight is 115 Ibs., although the inspecting medical officer has a certain latitude in the case of lads promising rapid development.
The next act is to “serve the Notice,” to formally hand the recruit a printed document, and thus constitute him a soldier of the King. The wording of the Notice varies according to the arm of the service the new-comer proposes to join. It may mean the ordinary short term of seven years with the colours and five in the reserve; or a still shorter one—as, for example, that which was devised for one year or during the continuance of the South African War; or the longer term of twelve years, all passed with the colours, as is the rule for cavalry of the line.
There is much more in the “Notice.” It conveys counsel, information, warning. It tells the recruit how, when, and where he is to be attested, or duly sworn in to complete his engagement, and explains generally the nature of the contract into which he has entered, with the penalties for any breach. Attestation will probably take place at once or within a few hours, and in the barracks; for now Staff Officers have been appointed with powers to administer the oath, and the old practice of appearing before a magistrate, generally at the police-court, no longer obtains. But the recruit has to pass through various ordeals before he takes the final step of swearing the oath.
The tests and trials applied are very close and searching, and all candidates do not get through. According to published statistics quite half the total number of those who receive “Notices” do not come up for attestation. They have been cast for disabilities, or have disappeared of their own accord. The first and most serious difficulty is to pass the doctor. After leaving the weighing – room the recruit crosses the “square,” and enters the unpretending portals of recruiting Head Quarters. At the back, upon the ground-floor, is the waiting-room, beyond that the baths. To take a bath is not imperative except where its necessity is obvious ; yet the luxury of a complete wash attracts most of them ; for the baths are clean and inviting, one of them being more luxuriously ‘fitted up for the use of recruits of superior class, who are by no means rare in these days.
An old tradition prevails that our soldiers come from the dregs of the population, and are mostly ne’er – do – wells who, having failed in everything else, enlist as a last resort from starvation and wretchedness. One glance at the material collected in the waiting-room must dispel this idea. There are those, of course, who have lately seen evil days, but most are decent-looking lads with intelligent faces and respectable appearance. Here and there are young men of undoubtedly good station, and a sprinkling, something more perhaps, of well set-up, sturdy fellows whom the practised eye can place at once in the class of old soldiers, of men who learnt the business long ago, and have come, as Kipling sings, “Back to the Army Again.” For them there will be a special investigation, and perhaps a dramatic finish to their proffer of service.
A step from the waiting-room just across the passage is a door opening into the curtained enclosure, where each man strips before he enters into the presence of the doctor. A heavy responsibility rests with the military medical men who examine recruits, but they are officers of unrivalled experience; and Colonel Don, the chief among them at St. George’s, has been at the work for many years, some hundreds of thousands of candidates having passed through his hands. His chief difficulty is to make hard and fast rules fall in with pretty obvious indications of coming fitness.
Often enough, the youth who stands before him does not exactly fulfil the conditions laid down. An arbitrary standard has been fixed by which men of a certain age (although this is constantly misstated) and with a certain height must show a certain chest measurement, or weigh a certain number of pounds. If the exact correlation, so to speak, of these various physical features cannot be shown, then the doctor must refuse the recruit, or make him a ” special.”
We have heard much in condemnation of these “specials,” who amount to some twenty or thirty per cent, of the whole; they are supposed to be of inferior quality, let into the Army by the back-door. This is altogether a mistake. They are not even below the standards. It is only that a tall man’s chest, which by the arbitrary rule ought to measure a certain number of inches, does not do so, but almost certainly will when brought under the improving processes of the service—the drills, gymnastics, and so forth. Say he has been a clerk, or a printer at the case, or employed in sedentary work; it is easy to understand that change to outdoor, active employment will speedily strengthen his physique. It is the same with weight, which a more generous diet will soon increase, and so the far-seeing wisdom of the doctor saves many a promising man, who would otherwise be lost to the ranks.
As regards age, he can have no sure guide, and the most extraordinary discrepancies between that given and the physical development shown are constantly to be met with. In one case a lad was passed into the Army as eighteen upon his own statement, borne out by his appearance; but his mother next day brought a birth certificate showing him as barely fourteen. There may, of course, have been fraud in this; a brother’s certificate was perhaps produced, as mothers will often leave no stone unturned to rescue their sons from what they consider a terrible misfortune. To “go for a soldier” is still deemed a misfortune in certain walks of life, and woe-begone mothers constantly haunt St. George’s Barracks, trying all sorts of devices to nullify enlistment.
The doctor is generally the first in whom suspicion is aroused when fraudulent re-enlistment is attempted. His eye is quick to note the old soldier; he knows by many little signs, tricks of speech, his way of standing, and, still more, those indelible tattoo marks by which, soldiers, like sailors, brand themselves of their own free will and accord. A very exact record is made of these; so-called distinctive marks, which are indexed and classified for future reference. A suspected deserter has often enough been identified in the new corps he has joined by his tattoo marks. It has been strongly urged that these means of identification should be carried further by the adoption of A n t h r o p o-m e t r y, the system, that is to say, of M. Bertillon, which takes and records certain un-c hangeable measurements never the same in two individuals, and therefore an unfailing proof of identity.
While the medical examination is proceeding the attestation papers are being filled up, partly by the doctor with his own hands, partly by the staff of clerks. The method is exceedingly cumbrous, and is a curious illustration of the red tape routine that obtains wherever the War Office rules. The recruit’s name has to be entered some sixty-two times, the signatures of superior officers are given twenty-nine times in each particular case, and a bulky parcel of documents has been got ready by the time each man is ripe to take the oath.
A room is specially set apart for this purpose, and the recruits appear in batches before each Staff Officer, who, with the most patient particularity, puts seventeen questions before the recruit, warning him most carefully that false answers to at least seven of them will render him liable to suffer punishment. These questions cover inquiries as to his name, birthplace, nationality, age, trade or calling, and place of residence for the past three years. The penal questions, as they may be called, are: whether or not he has been an apprentice; whether he is married; whether he has been sentenced to imprisonment, or already belongs to any branch of the Army or Navy; and whether he has been already rejected as unfit for the military or naval forces of the Crown.
Finally, he is asked whether he is still willing to serve under the particular conditions for which he has offered himself. If the affirmative be given, then the recruit signs, and “solemnly declares that the above answers made to the above questions are true, and that he is willing to fulfil the engagements made.” Then follows the oath already referred to; and the end comes when magistrate or attesting officer has certified to the attestation in his own hand, declaring that every care has been taken to impress upon the recruit the nature of the questions put, and has witnessed the personal administration of the oath.
The irrevocable step is taken, but the new soldier is still in his “coloured clothes,” as with delightful want of logic anything but the garish uniform of red or blue is always called in the Army. He is still a free agent, too, and need not yield to irksome discipline.
When, at last, the day arrives for taking up his duties, he reports himself independently; he is not marched, that is to say, or conducted to the place of joining. If the depot be at a distance from London — and the Metropolis, it must be understood, supplies recruits to many out districts, as far away even as Dorchester and Exeter—he is only escorted to the railway station, where a ticket is handed to him, to find his own way to the point where he merges into the great Army of the King. Henceforth he will be drilled and disciplined until he is fully qualified to take his place in the ranks and bear the burden of duty and danger inherent in the soldier’s profession.
OATH TO BE TAKEN BY RECRUIT ON ATTESTATION.
I, ___________________ do make Oath, that I will be faithful and
bear true Allegiance to His Majesty, His Heirs, and Successors, and that I will, as in duty bound, honestly and faithfully defend His Majesty, His Heirs, and Successors, in Person, Crown, and Dignity against all enemies, and will observe and obey all orders of His Majesty, His Heirs, and Successors, and of the Generals and Officers set over me. So help me God.
CERTIFICATE OF MAGISTRATE OR ATTESTING OFFICER.
The Recruit above-named was cautioned by me that if he made any false answer to any of the above questions he would be liable to be punished as provided in the Army Act.
The above questions were then read to the recruit in my presence.
I have taken care that he understands each question, and that his answer to each question has been duly entered as replied to, and the said recruit has made and signed the declaration and taken the oath before me
at__________LONDON, on this_____day of________________ 190 .
Signature of the Justice_________________________
Source: Living London Edited by George R. Sims. Cassell and Company, Limited. 1902.