28th February 1917

Physical, bayonet.
Lecture Lt. Russell.
Tea with Wardale.

Original diary entry

27th February 1917

House orderly, No. 2 House - also mess orderly breakfast, dinner and tea.

Original diary entry

26th February 1917

Bayonet fighting, physical, etc.
Letter from John (brother) - to Egypt in SLI (1).

Original diary entry
(1) Somerset Light Infantry

25th February 1917 (Sunday)

Church Parade.
Motorbike ride.

Original diary entry

24th February 1917

Bayonet drill, Physical - Bath at Reigate & Redhill
Bought knife - Corporal Hinge.

Original diary entry

23rd February 1917

General inspection of the Battalion on the parade ground by Sir Francis Lloyd (1).

Sir Francis Lloyd

Original diary entry

(1) Wikipedia entry for Sir Francis Lloyd here.  Photograph in public domain.

22nd February 1917

Half day in bed.
One died from the inoculation, two died from spotted fever.
B Company isolated for three weeks.

Original diary entry

21st February 1917

Bad cold.
Rifle drill.
Second inoculation - very painful.

Original diary entry

20th February 1917

Eight mile route march through Reigate, again in pouring rain.

Original diary entry

19th February 1917

Rifle issued (number 763).
Physical jerks and squad drill in pouring rain.

Original diary entry

18th February 1917 (Sunday)

For the first week the new recruits were left almost entirely to the tender mercies of the NCOs - we were simply 'squads', but for Church Parade, as units of the entire 3rd Reserve Battalion we were allotted to the various companies.  On parade the officers foregathered to inspect and sum up the new intake bequeathed to them for good or ill.  That was fair enough since the responsibility of producing an effective part of the war machine rested largely on their shoulders.  Every officer appeared to have his own pet dog on parade.  Dogs of all sizes and every known breed, from poodles to dalmatians sat and stared disdainfully at the rookies and one could almost read their thoughts!  Each dog wore a silver collar engraved with the rank of 'rifleman' and his name.  Whatever their breed, and in spite of their lowly rank, that canine motley were utter snobs.  Any member of the battalion not wearing a Sam Browne(1) was eyed with contempt and fraternisation with the rank and file was obviously against orders.  Stupidly perhaps, some of the men regarded their presence as an insult to the dignity of 'Rifleman'.  Nevertheless, those canine soldiers deserved full marks for their obedience and bearing on parade.  However, in the matter of status the RSM's Sam Browne had them foxed.

St Matthews, Redhill held a special morning service for the QWR, and at its conclusion by 9:50am the battalion was dismissed for the day.  So ended the first week of army life.  If training for the battlefield was to be compressed into the short period forecast by Sergeant Kaye one could only conclude that the Staff were unduly complaisant about the potentialities of the new intake or that the demand for cannon fodder in the raw was of paramount importance.  With only five weeks to go we were not optimistic!

Original diary entry

(1) A Sam Browne is a military leather belt - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Browne_belt

17th February 1917

Physical training and squad drill until 4 pm - we no longer wished to die.

Original diary entry

16th February 1917

Pay parade was an essential, but the sickly looking draft were excused all other duties.

Original diary entry

15th February1917

Confined to billets we lay in bed all day - food and drink held no attraction.

Original diary entry

14th February 1917

Mass inoculation left the whole draft mute and spiritless as the several anti-bugs performed their fell work and by mid-afternoon the doses had us stretched on beds.  Night brought delirium.

Original diary entry

13th February 1917

Our first effort at squad drill in the local park was good cheap amusement for the old ladies peering through the iron railings until the sergeant, sensing our embarrassment, interspersed his commands with certain army expressions which, one might have expected, were unintelligible to elderly spinsters.  Nonetheless the old dears departed abruptly and the awkward squad was left in peace.

Original diary entry
Note that all entries in the diary regarding letters sent and received were censored at the time.

12th February 1917

By 1917 the situation on the Western Front was grim.  At home the flag waving had ceased long before and manpower was becoming desperately short.  The London Territorial Regiments were anxious to retain their voluntary status and, in spite of their depleted ranks occasioned by the severe losses sustained on the Somme and subsequent battles, resisted for as long as possible the intake of men transferred from the County Regiments and the Conscripts.

A colleague who hailed from Dumfries was released from the service at the same time, and together, on the 12th February 1917, we made our way to Buckingham Gate where the respective headquarters of two London Territorial Regiments stood side by side.  My companion, understandably, was intent on joining the London Scottish, a regiment of some renown, and as a final gesture of goodwill I accompanied him into the Scottish Drill Hall, where "H" was immediately welcomed as a blood brother by a burly Scottish sergeant.  They chatted interminably until I became restless in the alien atmosphere. At length the formalities were completed and "H" was back with the Clan.  The burly sergeant then turned to me with an invitation to sign on the dotted line.  I politely declined, explaining that I was under the impression that the London Scottish were decidedly choosy on the matter of ancestry and that I personally could boast no blood nearer the border than Harwich - a little Irish, maybe but no Scottish!  He gave an assurance that in 1917 they were not all that particular and, moreover, implied that he would willingly commit perjury on my behalf.  I gathered that his idea was to transfer my grandmother's birthplace from Dublin to Edinburgh!

Against the persuasive powers of the two Scots, and the memory of my cousin who died at Loos whilst serving with the London Scottish I was sorely tempted.  I tried to visualise my skinny person arrayed in swinging kilt and sporran but the picture faded as the findings of the Medical Board registered.  From that moment the pattern of the future, for good or ill, was fixed by one pair of ungainly knock-knees.  Casting sentiment to the winds I crept out and entered the adjoining building.  The formalities were soon over - the Queen's Westminster Rifles were “not all that particular".

Queen's Westminster Rifles headquarters - 58 Buckingham Gate, London
(Peter Daniel Collection)

Having spent the greater part of the day in the Drill Hall, struggling with uniform puttees and equipment, a very ill-assorted and self-conscious bunch of recruits undertook an exhausting and embarrassing march to Victoria Station - all of one half mile - where we entrained for Redhill, Surrey, to join the 3rd Reserve Battalion there in training.  Sergeant Kaye, a veteran in charge of the draft wore the ribbons of the Boer War.  He was a kindly man and during the journey eyed us pityingly - maybe at the sight of youth being prepared for the sacrifice or perhaps in despair at the quality of the material with which his beloved regiment was being adulterated.  Most of the draft were youngsters of 18, but three days previously I had celebrated my 20th birthday, and that brought me within a different category.  Almost apologetically he warned me that after six weeks training I would be "over there".

Marching through the main streets of Redhill was the next ordeal, when to our surprise and delight an order to right wheel took us straight through the doorway of a small Italian cafe especially reserved for the draft.  Within minutes we were consuming plates of sausages and mashed potatoes washed down by pints of hot tea.  This was our first meal provided out of army funds and if our hopes for the future were raised by that satisfying repast, they were soon to be dissipated once the Army cooks had favoured us with their culinary efforts.

Number 2, The Granges was one of several large empty Victorian houses, and here I shared a room with five other new boys.  We made our 'beds'- low trestles, three planks and 'biscuits' filled with straw and one blanket on top.  The fastidious, loath to give up the civilised habits of pre-army life, wore pyjamas.  Having laid out our kit we toured the billet.  The usual home amenities were cut off and boarded up.  The ablutions and other creature comforts, primitive and soon to be snow-bound, were available at the end of the garden.

Left to our own devices by an uncooperative corporal in change of the billet we learned our lessons the hard way.  It was an error, for instance, to purchase an army issue jack-knife from the corporal even though he only charged nine pence, but our greatest mistake was to mark with indelible pencil our privately owned enamel tea mugs.  The strong, sweetened tea was purveyed in large buckets by the cooks and we helped ourselves by dipping in the mugs.  By the time the end of the queue reached the bucket the contents had acquired a brilliant violet hue, but even so the brew compared quite favourably with the active service concoctions of later days.

Original diary entry
Google Maps entry for 58 Buckingham Gate, London here
Google Maps entry for Redhill here

Prologue - (1915 - 1916)

Posted by Ernest Bates (1917)

12th December 1915 - The Recruiting Centre in the local Town Hall was packed to the doors.  Several hundred enthusiastic recruits were milling around - young men, old men and some who were mere boys.  They came from all walks of life and wore either cap or bowler hat according to the status symbol of the times.  There was no attempt at segregation into age groups, and no distinction between the fit and the obviously unfit.  The sole purpose of the day was to ensure that every volunteer present was signed on for the duration – the sorting out would come later.

We took the oath as one conglomerate whole by repeating the words after an army captain standing on a raised dais.  The operation was concluded by Army Sergeants obtaining each recruit's signature and presenting him with one certificate of attestation, one khaki armlet emblazoned with a large red crown, and, of course the Queen's shilling.

The certificate read - "The above named man has been attested and transferred to the Army Reserve until required for service, when he will be sent a Notice Paper informing him as to the date, time and place at which he is to report himself. Fourteen days notice will be given”.

Certificate of Attestation and transfer to the Army Reserve - December 1915

The following day with some trepidation I informed my Departmental Chief that I had enlisted.  The elderly "Fuzzy" with the pointed beard and enormous mop of snow-white hair laughed rudely, and with some truth, but much to my discomfiture said, "You don’t look the belligerent type”.  He went on to say that no harm was done since my Civil employment was classified as a "Reserve Occupation" and I would not be released.  The promised Notice Paper from the Army never came.

In those early days of the war Whitehall was still a hotbed of Recruiting Sergeants with their broad red sashes and cap ribbons of red, white and blue; whilst military bands marched up and down to the everlasting strains of Colonel Bogey.  Misguided females, in an excess of patriotic fervour, served their King by sticking white feathers in the jacket lapels of every member of the male species whether he be 18 or 80!  The centre of this activity was the Horse Guards Parade where the military might of Britain was on show and the Recruiting Sergeants pounced like hawks on the unwary.  The Civil Servants, forbidden to take up arms, became the "Cuthberts" of Whitehall - those little rabbits tucked away safely in their burrows, as depicted by serial cartoons in every issue of the Daily Mail.  Kitchener still pointed his accusing finger at us from every hoarding.

It was not until February 1917 that large numbers of Civil Servants were released for military service and by formal transfer from the Army Reserve were free to join the Regiment of their choice.  Meanwhile in November 1916 I attended the Central Recruiting Depot at Great Scotland Yard for a medical classification and here it was the Army handed out its first indignity.  After a somewhat cursory examination, the principal requirement being an ability to hop the length of the large room on one foot, and then back again on the other, I was pronounced A1 by the medico.

Actually he said, with obvious lack of enthusiasm, "You'll do".  My return through the crowded hall of nature in the flesh was made with all the dignity possible in the circumstances, but before the sanctuary of the cubicle was reached a voice called to me to halt.  For the benefit of the whole assembled company the MO, remarked in an unnecessarily loud voice, "slightly knock-kneed", and that serious blemish to my person was duly recorded in my medical history for all time.

9th February 2017 - Introduction

Posted by Tim Bates (2017)

Today would have been my dad's 120th birthday.

He died in 1966 when I was just 12 years old.  His name was Ernest Alfred Bates - 'Ernie' to his friends and family.

I regret that I didn't have a chance to have grown up conversations with him about his experiences of life in the first half of the 20th century.  I do however remember him as a kind, gentle person with a sometimes wicked sense of humour.

I also remember the terrible scars on his stomach and that the little finger of his right hand was missing.  These were a testament to the wounds he suffered in the trenches in the First World War in 1917 - 100 years ago.

He kept a diary of his experiences during that year.  These start from the day he signed up in London on 12th February 1917 to join the Queen's Westminster Rifles, through his training with the troops in England before embarking for France, the preparations for battle ... and his experience of being wounded by shrapnel in the trenches during the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) in Belgium in August of that same year.

He never spoke to me about his experiences in the war - and other family members confirm that it wasn't a subject that he was particularly open about with any of them.

However he did start to write up the brief notes from his diary as a journal ...  as he recounted later -

"In hospital, as soon as recovery permitted the use of a pen and before memory faded with the passage of time the diary was rewritten into a more comprehensive record."

I was aware several times during my early childhood of him sitting down with a ring binder writing and updating what I later learned was this journal.  I presume that he was aware that he was unlikely to be able to share his memories with me directly and it was therefore a legacy that he wished to leave for me and for the rest of the family.

To provide a more permanent home for this legacy I have decided to publish the daily entries in his journal on his behalf in this blog ... with each post being exactly 100 years after the original events.

The first entry in his journal is for 12th February 1917, three days after his 20th birthday, and so is posted on 12th February 2017.  Some days will not have an entry and some days only a very short comment ... however many entries go into great detail and show something of the human side of those caught up in the horrors of war.

Since my dad had been in a reserved occupation as a junior clerk at the War Office during the early part of the war he could only originally sign up to attest his willingness to go on active service "when required".  He wrote about this in the introduction to his journal and it can be found in the Prologue in the next post on this blog.