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