First Under Fire "It has fallen to the lot of the County Battalion to be the first unit of Lord Kitchener’s Army to be under fire. It is an old saying that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The dead heroes of last Wednesday’s defence force will be mourned as is their just due, but Britons would not be Britons if the German raid does not give a fillip to recruiting more than all the speeches ever made.
At the invitation of one of the officers I paid a visit the other day to the training headquarters at Cocken Hall of the 18th (Service) Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry (County). The words quoted, and the parentheses, constitute the full and proper title, but as they are too long to repeat, may I fall back upon a legal phrase and say, hereinafter termed the “County Battalion,” and also known as “Lord Durham’s Battalion,” the “Pals’ Battalion,” etc.
What Lord Durham has done for the battalion it would be difficult to estimate, for besides lending his personal and financial support it is he who has placed Cocken Hall and its grounds, and the fields around, at the disposal of the commanding officer, the estate being the property of the noble earl. The battalion consists of nearly 1,100 men, and is up to strength, but the day I was there 500 of them were at West Hartlepool, where they had been sent a few weeks ago to man the trenches, when a raid such as took place on Wednesday last was first feared. Therefore there were only about 600 of the establishment was increased [sic], and permission given to recruit more men, and reserve companies are now being raised, newcomers being enrolled every day.
When I arrived on the scene most of the men were out of doors. Here let me say that only the officers and the Durham Company, which company was the first to enlist, occupy the house, and that the rest of the men are quartered in wooden huts, each of which holds 40. There are some 28 of these huts, set out in rows. They are uncommonly like streets, and in this work-a-day Durham district almost suggest a new colliery village. The first thing that struck me was that every man, down to the latest recruit, is fully clothed in brand new khaki. Recruits are uniformed and equipped the day they join. There is no going about for weeks in nondescript clothing, as falls to the lot of some units of the new army. While I was at Cocken a likely-looking young man was enrolled. When I left Leamside at night I saw that same young man clad from head to foot in the cloth which distinguishes the British soldier the world over. And he had a great coat too, and a kit bag.
It was interesting to see how the new recruits were at once taken in charge by older members, and made to feel at home in their new surroundings, but next to the main idea of training, the chief point which struck me was the way the men’s comfort and convenience was studied. I need not describe Cocken Hall. It agrees in the main with the descriptions of country houses in novels. The officers and men have made the most of it. It is comfortable, but there are no luxurious adjuncts. But it is outside where the most interest lies. The huts are well built, roomy and high. They are constructed of cladding outside, asbestos inside, and are roofed with felt, while the heating is by coke stoves. At dinner time the forty men accommodated by each can dine with freedom of movement for all. At bedtime down come the palliasses, out come the blankets, and to peaceful sleep goes “Tommy,” his clothing hanging in apple-pie order on the pegs over his head. “Do the men undress?” I innocently asked, having visions of night attacks. “Undress, yes,” replied a cheery sergeant. “Most of them sleep in pyjamas. Many of the men came to enlist in cuffs and collars.”
Which brings me to the class of Britishers who have enrolled in the “Counties.” The battalion, as has often been given out, is recruited from the commercial classes, including artisans. But I was told that every conceivable occupation was represented in the attestation papers – professional, business and commercial. There are in the ranks parsons, hairdressers, medicos, engineers, dentists, solicitors, students, tradesmen, and electricians. The huts are lighted by electricity, the current being generated on the ground, and the whole of the installation was fitted up by recruits. Out of curiosity I asked several men I met what they were in civil life, and these were only a few I dropped upon casually. They were a seagoing engineer, a tobacconist who had a business of his own, a Cartwright, and a clerk, and a well set-up young miner.
The most conspicuous building on the ground is the recreation room, capable of holding the whole battalion. When I was there it was just completed, and it is to be so arranged that whereas it can be divided by curtains into three, with a canteen at one end, it can be quickly thrown into one large hall for concerts and other gatherings. Billiards and all kinds of games will be provided. The recreation room is similar in style to the huts, but is covered externally with corrugated iron.
The Cocken camp also boasts a complete bathing and washing establishment. In the lavatory are long rows of wash basins, with water laid on, and in the bath house there are 40 cubicles, each with a bath and hot and cold water. There are also several clothing drying houses, where the men’s garments are dried on rows of steam pipes. The value of the latter adjunct can easily be imagined when one remembers the miserable weather we have been having of late.
The food is excellent and plentiful. The men are not fed on “stew” every day. At seven o’clock early coffee is served. At eight o’clock breakfast consists of meat or fish and tea or coffee, and butter and jam. For dinner soup, meat, two vegetables, puddings and sweets form the constituents. Five o’clock tea is composed of tea and bread and butter and jam. The officers get the same fare as the men. I had a private interview with the caterer, Mr. G.E. Barton, army contractor, of York, who told me that the 600 odd men eat in a week, of potatoes three tons; peas, 2cwt.; beans, 2cwt.; carrots, 2cwt.; turnips, 3cwt.; beef, 37⅟2 cwt.; rabbits, 16 dozen; sheep, 4; pork, 400 lbs; rice, 2cwt.; tapioca, 1cwt.; bread, 4,000 lbs.; plum cake, 4cwt.; jam, 10 cwt.; butter, 3cwt.; tea, 230 lbs; coffee, 1cwt.; and milk, 280 gallons. In addition there are varying but plentiful quantities consumed of bacon, potted meat, fish, pork pies, polonies, sausage, brawn, apples, prunes, figs, plum pudding, etc. This is enough to show that the commissariat is in capable hands, and that it is substantial. No tinned goods whatever are used.
As is well known, the battalion has been raised and clothed by a committee composed of many of the most influential gentlemen in the County of Durham, including the Lord Lieutenant (Lord Durham) and Col. R. Burdon, who have taken the greatest possible interest in it from the beginning. This committee by their patriotic action has saved the county about £11,000. The battalion, of which Lord Southampton, of the 10th Hussars, kindly assumed the temporary command, was afterwards taken over by Col. Hugh Bowes, late secretary to the Durham County Territorial Force Association, as commanding officer. His unique experience in organisation and administration is of the greatest value to the new unit.
I had also intended to give a resume of a day’s work in the life of the soldier, but again space forbids. Suffice it to say that reveille is at 6.45 and after a very busy day, divided by enjoyable meals, eaten with splendid appetites, the ordinary work finishes at 5 p.m. and lights out is at 10. After 5 o’clock the officers and non-commissioned officers have lectures. Occasionally, after 5, the men are given two hours’ exercise at “companies in the attack,” or “outposts,” in the dark. I might remark here that the athletic side of the training is not lost sight of. Sports are held every Wednesday, and in the ordinary way every day there is running and high jumping, and physical drill.
Every phase of military operation is practised, including that most necessary art of trenching, so that the “Counties” will be able, when at the front, to “dig themselves in” as comfortably as any of General French’s army. The battalion was fortunate in obtaining as instructors a number of very good non-commissioned officers. It goes without saying that a very important part of the training of the battalion is in rifle shooting. An elaborate covered-in range is provided, where the use of the rifle is taught so thoroughly that it will not be the fault of the instructors if the men are not worthy followers of the original British Expeditionary Force, whose shooting so surprised the Germans. Great emphasis is placed on visual training, and in the huts the men are given pictorial targets to study from, and to practise at picking out objects such as a man in khaki, represented in Lilliputian form, at a supposed distance of 300 yards and over. In the rifle range itself, with the miniature rifle, shooting is reduced to an exact science, and the men are practised in long-distance firing. The range is fitted up with the Solano moving and disappearing targets, and with the Hill-Siffken landscape targets.
The men who show themselves most intelligent and smart are quickly promoted and the great bulk of the non-commissioned officers have been advanced in this way. A certain number of commissions have been reserved for promotions from the ranks. A Church of England curate from the immediate district, who joined as a private, is now a sergeant. Talking about parsons, I ought to add that the officers and the men have church parades at different places of worship in the locality on Sundays. A full brass band is being raised, the battalion being rich in instrumentalists. The instruments are being provided by Col. T.C. McKenzie, of Sunderland, and other friends.
The camp has been wonderfully free from sickness. Every provision is made for attending to sick cases, but so far there has been nothing worse experienced than ordinary colds. Of the armoury, the clothing store, the cook-house, and the numerous other adjuncts, I must content myself by saying that they were all on the same well found scale as the features already mentioned.
The men are drawn from the whole of the county of Durham, and there are large contingents from Darlington, Durham City, Sunderland, West Hartlepool, and the other large towns. The general conduct both at Cocken and at West Hartlepool has been excellent. The men at West Hartlepool were complimented – before last Wednesday’s bombardment – on the efficient way in which they performed their duties, and since the bombardment all will have read the splendid tribute which was paid to their bearing under fire.
It was at first intended to send the new recruits to Newton Hall, kindly placed at the disposal of the battalion by Lord Boyne, but it is now probable that more huts will be built at Cocken, which will be much jollier for the men. Recruiting is proceeding rapidly, and no time should be lost in joining on the part of those who are thinking about doing so. Owing to the rapidity with which recruits drawn form business and scholastic circles train, the County Battalion is expected to be ready for the front before most of the new Army. That this hope is justifiable is proved by the remarkable steadiness of the men of the Battalion during the attack upon the trenches at West Hartlepool last Wednesday. Although the height standard is 5ft. 6in., any recruit who is otherwise specially suitable will be taken at 5ft. 4in. and upwards." Northern Daily Mail, 22st of December 1914.
Northern Daily Mail, 22 December 1914