Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 3
Volunteers All

 

‘Well, if this is the bally Army, all I can say is thank God we’ve got a Navy.’

Major Edwin Ralph Robert ‘Chunky’ Woodward DSO (Retd.) of the Reserve, attached North Cheshire Regiment, was out of sorts, his eyes yellowed under the disordered, grey-shot brows, his moustache stained with something brown.

Chunky had not expected this. The crowd had been waiting in the street outside the Drill Hall when he arrived – a milling, chattering, joshing press of men, easily a couple of hundred. Like a blasted Saturday afternoon football crowd. All shapes and sizes. Tall men, short men, fat men, stooped men, wide men, narrow men. They wore boaters and bowlers and flat caps, sober office suits, blazers and flannels, corduroy and moleskin and serge, shoes or boots or incongruous plimsolls, the odd pair of clogs. They fidgeted in animated clumps, spilling off the pavement, discussing newspapers and handbills – a bustling, noisy, eager mass in the Monday morning sunshine.

Strollers and shoppers on the other side of Salt Street had broken their stride to stare, making remarks. A knot of mill girls giggled and nudged each other. Twice Chunky had seen men lean down to say a word to their wives, touch their arms and cross to join the others. The women watched them walk away.

Well, they wouldn’t get in. He’d take the single men first.

These were not the usual malnourished street-scrapings, gaolbirds and taproom brawlers the Major was used to in his years in the Army and the old County Volunteers, before all this new-fangled Territorials nonsense. Years of discipline and harsh fighting under foreign skies had turned those men eventually into professionals, into Regulars, hard-faced with rum and cruelties, as rough with each other as scrapping dogs and as gentle with each other as mothers. Tommies, whining endlessly over trifles and then standing up to die as if it were a joke. Whole divisions of those were on their way to Belgium and God speed.

No, these men outside the Drill Hall were civilians, a rag-tag motley from any town, greengrocers and teachers and waiters, factory lads and chemists and farmhands, book keepers and grooms and lamplighters. Patriots to a man, on fire to show Kaiser Bill what was what and have a rip-roaring old spree in the process. The impossible bloody British, itching to fight Germans or anyone else you pointed them at. Volunteers all. Where had they come from? What in blue blazes was he supposed to do with them?

Chunky had them brought into the Drill Hall in batches of twenty. He interviewed them at a table, a borrowed town hall clerk on one side, a thuggish old Regular sergeant who had turned up to re-enlist on the other, the doctor’s murmured litany droning off to one side: ‘Righto…shirt off, trousers down…cough, thank you…on the scales there…hmmm…not very tall…eleven stone…soon get that off you…blasted business…open…wider, thank you…say aaahh…ninety-nine…hmmm…very well, General Service. Next man, corporal.’

‘Nineteen, you say?’ Age had dimmed Chunky’s ability to estimate accurately. At twenty it is easy to gauge the difference between seventeen and nineteen. At sixty-four young is just young.

He had put the same question to Tolly and Harry in turn. Each had attempted a serious, mature frown and replied: ‘Yes, sir,’ in an affectedly deeper voice than usual.

A pause. Pursed lips. Chunky was sure he knew Tolly from somewhere. Not the Bench. Church? And wasn’t the other lad the baker’s boy? He had an idea they were nowhere near as old as they said they were. But they were tall enough, if on the skinny side, and keen enough, and he had an army to raise, damn it, and if Johnny French did his job properly they would never see active service. Aldershot for the duration. Or guarding some blasted ditch outside Harwich, leave the fighting to the real soldiers.

Passed. See the sergeant, take the oath and sign your attestation form – not that way, blast it, the other side, don’t you know a sergeant when…oh, of course, the sergeant’s not in uniform, he only showed up this morning with all these blasted civilians. You will be informed as to where and when you report, once we’ve sorted out this infernal mess. No, we’ve nowhere to put you, all the barracks are stuffed with men. Can’t people use the normal channels, confound them? Thank God we’ve got a Navy. Damn it all, this whole business. Next!

 

 

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