By Gregory Clark, January 31, 1931.
In every regiment there are wheels within wheels. The colonel, the adjutant and the regimental sergeant-major are supposed to be the three paramount powers in whose hands separately and collectively the fate of thousand men lies.
But it is not so. Underneath the polished exterior of a regiment of infantry, shunting and wheeling and sloping arms so magnificently to the barked commands of one lone voice, there revolve wheels within wheels. Cliques, intrigues, parties grow and flourish. Some are founded on social distinctions, whereby men who were clerks and schoolmasters separate themselves from those of rougher hand. Others divided themselves on the substantial basis of county, so that men of Grey and Bruce held themselves in league against the men of Frontenac or the Maritimes.
But the greatest wheel of all, the mainspring of the works, was a sort of shabby Masonic brotherhood that scorned all pride of place or social position, and leaped the bounds of company or even the greater bounds of period of service, and consisted of those in the regiment who were ultra hard-boiled1. This secret society existed in every battalion of a thousand men. It was officered by a few old-timers, some of whom ranked as corporals or even as sergeants. Its membership was recruited from all companies, and even the signallers and scouts and the transport section contributed their little quota. If you were tough, you needed not to be a year or even six months with the battalion to be made welcome within the sanctuary of this old-soldiers’ lodge.
Most of the mysteries in any regiment’s history can be attributed to this ancient brotherhood. They held no meeting, they possessed no lodge room. Any estaminet2, any dugout, where two or three of them gathered together, was the holies of holies. These knights errant, who pitted their wits against highly technical fortifications of modern military organization were the heirs to the soldiers of fortune who, until a hundred years ago, roved the world in search of payment for their swords. It stands to reason that soldiers of fortune, like singers and dancers and horsemen born to a saddle, should still survive in this age.
I knew that my Corporal Jimmie Post was one of the high-ups within this secret sodality. Post was dusky, with mocking eyes and a scornful mouth, who sang courage back into his platoon with unspeakable songs, and who was to be found in time of disaster not with the little cliques of the brave, but lending his arrogant voice to comfort the weakest sister in the sector. He was aware of his gift of courage. He could throw it, a sort of blanket, around those of us who needed warmth in the cold gulf of fear. And he employed that mantle, and gloried in it.
Brotherhood’s Senior Warden
Court martials went astray, punishments were deflected, plans went amiss in that clean cold region where colonels, adjutants and regimental sergeant-majors live. And Corporal Jimmie Post knew all about it in advance. If any of my men got into serious trouble, Post would tell me, it would be all right. And it would be. Hard-looking strangers from other companies used to come into my trench and talk with Post. And he would be absent occasionally visiting abroad in the regiment in the line. Whenever I would be orderly officer, I would sometimes come on an estaminet being emptied at last post, where the gathering would adjourn with all the earmarks of a lodge meeting coming to an end; and Post was always in these companies. Post was senior warden, if not better, in some indefinable brotherhood of warriors.
Contrasted with Post, Sergeant Buster Parker had a saintly look. He was only a boy, but he had and still has, though one of his legs is gone, a mouthful of the most wholesome flashing teeth I ever saw in a human head. And, like many other men who had that flashing smile, he was gifted with power over his fellows. Despite the fact that he was a boy, Buster Parker was a sergeant and a crackerjack. And it was hard for me to believe now that if Corporal Jimmie Post was senior warden of that secret society in our regiment, Sergeant Buster Parker was worshipful master.
Captain Hal Franks, quartermaster, Lieutenant Seth Norton, transport officer and I as assistant or rear adjutant, were the officers of the horse lines who at that time were dwelling in comfort and security amidst the mud of Neuville St. Vaast while our regiment was up in the reaches beyond Vimy Ridge. Around us were uncamped the rear details, the drivers, the wagons, the orderly room and record clerks, the brass band and the pipe band, the provost sergeant and the artificers3 who are the tailors, horseshoers, carpenters and so forth; all of us the commissariat details of a regiment in the line, who take up their feed each night, and to whom the regiment comes back for rest when relieved.
We were a bomb-proof lot. Mostly old soldiers, retired to his ignominious region by reason of long service or weak backs. And we understood one another perfectly and got along like a lot of creatures in a barnyard.
There was an outbreak of impetigo4 in the regiment. Nasty skin disease that broke out all over, on the legs, body, hands and face. A few of the more valuable non-commissioned officers were sent out of the line to get themselves doctored up. But for most of the troops, it just meant salve and bandages.
Amongst those sent down to the horse-lines, I was delighted to find my old platoon corporal, Post, from whom I had been separated when I was promoted to the eminence and absurdity of assistant adjutant at the rear.
And a day or two later came down Sergeant Buster Parker, with sores like pennies all over his legs.
We spent some pleasant afternoons together in the thin March sunlight of Neuville St. Vaast and Aux Rietz Corners, talking of old-timers and how soft the war had been in my time as compared with now.
There would be, in all, counting these sick, lame and lazy and all the drivers and bandsmen, about a hundred and fifteen dwelling in the huts and tents of our rear camp.
A Memorable Saturday Night
It was a Saturday night that trouble came.
Out in the March night the wind howled and a chill rain lashed our hut. Captain Franks, Norton and I sat about our table, reading and writing and chatting in the desultory fashion known to rear headquarters. The batmen5 had retired. Our bedrooms were laid out. Captain Franks undressed and was preparing to insert himself into his blankets when, on the wild night air, there sounded a snatch of song.
Captain Franks, the senior, nodded to the door and I went and opened and listened. Through the storm and rain and across the mud I could see the lights burned in the scattered huts, and from them came the murmur of many voices.
And in a rift of the wind there came to us the loud skirl of bagpipes.
“Take a look around,” said Captain Franks. “It’s going on for eleven o’clock.”
I pulled on my rubber boots and raincoat and sloshed out into the night. The nearest hut was the guard-room where the provost sergeant lived in charge of whatever prisoners might be awaiting judgment. There were two men in confinement at that time.
A lone candle guttered in the guard hut, and it was empty. I called the sergeant. I called the guard. And no answer came, save the increasing murmur of song and bagpipes from the huts across the muddy field.
I circled round past the horse lines, where the horses drooped beneath their canvas shelters. I called for the piquet and got no answer. I walked around past the artificers’ shanties past the stores, rapping and calling, and got no reply.
And then I headed for the big huts, all glowing in the storm.
From a discreet distance I stood and looked in an open door. There was a sound of revelry. Some were playing cards. Some were lying and singing. Bagpipes skirled, and someone of the band was mournfully blowing a constantly interrupted solo on a trombone. Presently a drum came into action, and the laughter and tumult grew.
Without disturbing the scene, I returned and informed my senior officer that it was apparently somebody’s birthday. Beyond our hut lay the senior n.c.o.’s hut, where dwelt the quartermaster sergeant and transport sergeant and other nabobs in an isolation almost as grand as our own. I went to their door, and they dressed in hasty garments and went to investigate.
They returned in a few minutes, greatly disturbed.
“The whole outfit is tight6,” said they, standing across the table in the candle light. “Tight as owls. They must have got an awful lot of liquor.”
“Tight!” we cried.
“Everybody, the batmen, the clerks, the bandsmen, everybody,” said the quartermaster sergeant. “The provost sergeant is sitting in there singing with his two prisoners. The pipe band is putting on a concert. They are all jammed in there, and by the look of them it would be crazy to interfere. That Corporal Post and Sergeant Buster Parker and a bunch of others from up the line are raising hell.”
“Go and order the lights out,” said Captain Franks. “Get those men back in the guard room. Have everybody go to their quarters.”
The senior n.c.o.’s retired into the storm.
“There will hell to pay over this,” said the senior officer.
And we sat in silence waiting for the n.c.o.’s to return.
After a long wait they returned.
“The only thing you can do,” said they, “is send a riot call up to the battalion in the line and have them come back. Nothing else will stop them now. They’ve got rum. And I think they must have about ten gallons of it.”
“Are we to sit here and let it go on?” demanded the captain.
“I will crime the whole lot,” said the quarter-master sergeant, “but I think it would only aggravate matters it we tried to interfere now, with no men to back us up.”
We agreed with the n.c.o.’s, and we sat far into the night, listening to the rising and falling hubbub from the huts, in which no man came near us. And sometime in the stilly watches we retired, with maudlin snatches of music and yells faintly in our ears.
“Just a Little Party”
The first batman to rouse us was Bertrand, who supervised me. He wore a grin on his face and he looked much the worse of wear.
“I wouldn’t be in a hurry getting up if I was you,” he said to me, as he started laying out my razor kit.
“The boys,” said Bertrand, “are in kind of bad shape this morning.”
“We thought we heard some noises last night,” said l. “What was up?”
“A little party,” said Bertrand. “Just a little party.”
“Were Post and Parker in it?”
Bertrand laughed, and withdrew apologetically.
We dressed and went forth to look at the wreckage. It was terrible. Many of the men were still sleeping, though buglers sounded the call to rouse and breakfast right into the hut doors. It was Sunday morning, and no parades until eleven o’clock to the church hut down on the Arras-Bethune road a few hundred yards away7.
Everyone ducked as we appeared. A few who still had a little in them brazenly appeared and it became a sort of duel whether we would approach them or they would approach us. Finally, the provost sergeant, looking extremely seedy, could stand the strain no longer, and he marched across the mud, quite unsteadily, and saluting with extreme care, said to us:
“Everything present and correct, shir.”
Saluted again and snapping about unsteadily, marched back to his guard hut.
We retired into our hut for breakfast.
“We can’t crime the whole camp,” said the captain. “We can only seek out the ringleaders. In any event, it is a scandal, and we are going to look very badly, however we handle it.”
The church parade was terrible. It was a travesty. But with a hundred sullen men still bleary from too much rum, it more than useless, it was unfair to attempt to goad them into resistance which would get them and us into deeper trouble.
After the church parade we held an investigation. My share was to sound out Sergeant Parker and Corporal Post, while the others dealt with the transport and quarters personnel.
“We got a little rum,” admitted Sergeant Parker. Post corroborated this statement.
“Where did get it?”
“Nobody knows where it came from,” they said, with deep interest in the subject. “It just appeared, and then everybody was singing.”
And then suddenly I realized I was up against that secret society within the regiment, as far these two were concerned, and I passed it up. At the hut, I found the captain and Norton. They had got nowhere. They had demanded, wheedled, threatened. But it appeared that the rum just came from nowhere, and nobody could remember who had had it first.
But Captain Franks that afternoon ordered Sergeant Parker and Corporal Post to return to the line for duty with their companies.
And he was right.
The Rum Story Spills Over
The story came in the door with Buster Parker the other day, as he tried to sell me a new car. He is a one-legged, two fisted salesman of Fords now, with his flashing smile undimmed.
Something recalled to mind that far-off March night, and in a minute the story was spilling over us with laughter.
“That episode,” said Buster Parker, sitting here fourteen years after in The Star Weekly office, “is remembered by you as one time you really felt the loss of authority. Some day I must write a book about all the times the officers thought they were in command and weren’t. But now I’ll tell you how we got the rum.”
Parker, with his infected legs, arrived out at the horse lines Saturday afternoon and immediately looked up Corporal Jimmie Post re the matter of the most comfortable flop. Post was living with the pipe band, a little group of ten Scotties, some of could not speak English at all; a distinct and isolated little band of superior beings, a sort of Scottish rite within that brotherhood I speak of, who were very particular who so much as sat down in their midst.
So Parker joined Post as a partner in the pipers’ hospitality.
“Now how about a little drink?” asked Parker, after his kit was settled away.
“None to be had,” said Post.
“How about Clarkie?” asked Buster.
“He’s gone mean since he joined the orderly room,” said Post. “I haven’t had a bottle from him for months.”
Then up spoke Brother Fluellen, who was a bugler by rights, but who had achieved by some devious route a position on the staff of the rear headquarters cook kitchen.
“You know this big ration dump down here below Aux Rietz Corners?” asked Fluellen.
“Yes,” said Sergeant Parker, sharply.
“It’s guarded,” said Cook Fluellen, “by a regular guard of crocks. They march sentry on it, one to each side of the dump. It’s about three hundred yards to a side. Well, the last time I was strolling along I had a look into the dump. It has sort of lanes running all through it. In one the lanes I seen some little six-gallon kegs.”
“Yes,” whispered Sergeant Parker, Corporal Post and all the ten pipers.
“So I says to the sentry, I says, what is in them little kegs back there, brother? And he says you would be surprised. I says, is it vinegar? And he says you would be surprised. And by the way he kept halting on his beat and looking back at me, boys, I know there is rum in them six gallon kegs.”
A great silence fell on the pipers’ hut.
Everybody knew the one-gallon rum jars in which the rum came up to the infantry. But a six-gallon keg!
Sergeant Parker rose to his feet. He looked out the door of the hut. Evening was falling and the March wind and rain made all the world a desolation.
“Corporal Post,” said the sergeant, “and Fluellen, you will parade in proper guard mounting order at eight o’clock to-night. You, corporal, will borrow from somebody a great coat with no stripes on it. Have your buttons shined to the nines, your pouches clean, and wear your tin hats.”
A New Guard for the Dump
Thus, at eight o’clock, after all the world of the horse lines had settled down for the night, there formed up discreetly out of the way of officers, a small parade consisting of a sergeant, corporal and a cook. Post and Fluellen, the pictures of soldiery smartness, stood side by side with rifles at the slope and bayonets fixed. Behind them stood Sergeant Buster Parker, dressed for guard mounting.
Down the deserted La Targette road they marched, in the wind and rain, the sergeant’s voice picking them up, hup, hup, until, half way down the road along the dump they overtook the sentry on duty on that side, who and turned outwards.
“Party, halt,” commanded Sergeant Parker, level with the sentry.
“Right turn,” said the sergeant in the business-like tone of the guard.
“What’s this?” asked the surprised sentry on the dump.
“Relief,” said Parker, surily. “All right, Smith,” to Post, “take post. Fall in, sentry.”
And with alacrity, the honest sentry stepped smartly out and fell in beside Fluellen. What a swell night to get relieved!
And without the slightest hesitation, Parker commanded the party to turn, quick march, and down the road in the rain and the darkness they proceeded.
After marching about hundred yards, and nearing the end of the dump, where another sentry might be standing, Parker halted his party.
He reached over and firmly took the rifle from the sentry.
“Boy,” he said, though the man could have been his father, “you are in bad trouble. You can take your choice, but I think you ought to submit to a beating up, because you will never be to tell your officer that you were relieved.”
“What’s this?” stammered the C3 sentry, suddenly filled with an awful fear that all was not well.
Parker chucked the rifle away in the dark and swung on the sentry. There was a moment’s scuffle while the sergeant and Fluellen mussed and muddied up a figure that struggled frantically on the road.
“There,” said the sergeant, “you look as if you had been assaulted. Now run and call your guard.”
And like rabbits, Parker and Fluellen dashed into the hedges, doubled back and forward, and in a moment were lost in the stormy March night. Meanwhile a bedraggled sentry was on the dead tear to his guard room, desperately trying to make up his mind what to tell the sergeant of the guard as to being relieved or assaulted. And whichever way, it would need a lot of explaining.
Post was like a cat in the dark, anyway. When the sentry party left him standing smartly in the rain, he waited until they got out of earshot and then he quietly walked into the dump, found the kegs exactly where Fluellen had described them, hoisted one to his shoulder, retrieved his rifle and fled by a roundabout overland route back to the horse lines, where the pipers were waiting.
Some New, Terrible Epidemic
The question was: Did the keg really contain rum. It did. They first of all poured the rum into two of Fluellen’s big cooking dixies8, then burned the barrel and inside of a few minutes, the free invitation party to all ranks at the regimental horse lines was under way.
“I,” said Parker, “as chief steward of the party, decanted off two full waterbottles of rum before the party started, and these I buried in the earth in a secret place. So that when Captain Franks ordered me to return to my company up the line, as I thought might happen, I was quite content. I went up that night with the ration wagon. I dug up my two bottles, and then clinging to the back of D company limber I fortified myself from time to time during the journey up, so that by the time I met the D company ration party, I needed help, which was gladly given, for a consideration.
“Among those to whom I confided a share of my rum were my fellow sergeants of D company. And only one of them took too much. Because he is probably by now an elder in the kirk9, I will not mention his true name. We will call him Tram. Anyway, Tram by morning was in bad shape. Rum cannot be trifled with like whiskey or brandy. And he trifled with it. So we lay Tram out on the firestep in the sunlight to boil out.
“He was still there, breathing heavily and noisily, when word came that Major Victor Sifton was on his way round the trenches, making his morning inspection. He would be in D company lines any minute.
“And there was Tram lying, unconscious on the fire step. We tried to lift him to hide him in a dugout, but he fought us fiercely and started to shout.
“‘Get a stretcher,’ said I to Tram’s boys. We laid Tram softly on a stretcher. Then I opened my first aid bandage, broke the iodine ampoule and poured the iodine all over the bandage.
“With this swab, I delicately painted Tram all over his face, neck, hands and wrists, so that he was the most terrible pale yellow-brown color you ever saw. It was the most awful case of jaundice imaginable.
“And I just had the job neatly finished and the swab pitched over the parapet, when around the traverse walked Major Sifton.
“”What’s this!’ cried Major Sifton. ‘It’s poor Tram.’ He was rather fond of Tram.
“I told him Tram had just been suddenly took this way.
“‘It must be gas,’ cried the major, excitedly. ‘Don’t stand there, sergeant. Get four men at once and rush him back to the dressing station.’
“So very smartly,” says Buster Parker, “I rustled out four men, and away went Sergeant Tram, breathing noisily and turned a terrible color.
“At the dressing station they just took one look at him and rushed him for the ambulance. I suppose there they just took one look and rushed him back to the clearing station. And there, if he had not recovered consciousness, they probably put a red ticket on him and made a special flying trip to the base with him.
“Anyway, it was three months before Tram came back to D company. Nobody ever found out about the run and iodine. Tram woke up and wondered where the dickens he was. He felt awful bad, and he was able to wash off some of the iodine. His pulse was bad, his heart and lungs were bad. The doctors were sorry he had lost his bad color, but they put him under special observation for a few days, for fear of some new and terrible epidemic.
“Then he was returned, but Tram was so good a soldier, all the divisional schools and reinforcement depots held him for a few weeks as instructor. So that it was nearly three months before Tram got back to us and heard the full story of his holiday.
“So that,” says Buster Parker, “is the story of one keg of rum, and I tell it to you just to show there was a lot of going on all around us in the war that we knew nothing about.”
- Some one who is hard-boiled is tough and does not show much emotion ↩︎
- An estaminet is French for a small café, bar, or bistro, especially a shabby one. ↩︎
- An artificer is an appointment held by a member of an armed forces service who is skilled at working on electronic, electrical, electro-mechanical and/or mechanical devices. ↩︎
- Impetigo is a common and highly contagious skin infection. ↩︎
- A batman in the military is a servant to an officer. This was phased out between the wars. ↩︎
- Slang for drunk. ↩︎
- A church parade in the military is a parade by service personnel for the purposes of attending religious services. This was mandatory at the time. ↩︎
- A dixie comes from the Hindi word ‘degchi’ meaning a small pot. It consists of two parts, a large lower pan and a top lid that could be used as a frying pan or a serving platter. ↩︎
- This would be an elder in the Scottish (Presbyterian) Church. ↩︎