With the formation of the Sportsman's Battalion it will be admitted quite a new type of man was brought into the British Army. Public Schools battalions, the Chums, the Footballers, and other battalions were formed. But to the First Sportsman's belongs the honor of introducing an actually new type.
To begin with, it was cosmopolitan. Practically every grade of life was represented, from the peer to the peasant; class distinctions were swept away, every man turned to and pulled his bit. To illustrate what is meant one hut of thirty men at Hornchurch may be mentioned.
In this hut the first bed was occupied by the brother of a peer. The second was occupied by the man who formerly drove his motor-car. Both had enlisted at the same time at the Hotel Cecil, had passed the doctor at the same time at St. Paul's Churchyard, and had drawn their service money when they signed their papers. Other beds in this hut were occupied by a mechanical engineer, an old Blundell School boy, planters, a mine overseer from Scotland, a man in possession of a
flying pilot's certificate secured in France, a photographer, a poultry farmer, an old sea dog who had rounded Cape Horn on no fewer than nine occasions, a man who had hunted seals, "with more patches on his trousers than he could count," as he described it himself, a bank clerk, and so on.
It must not be thought that this hut was an exceptional one. Every hut was practically the same, and every hut was jealous of its reputation. Scrubbing day was on Saturdays as a rule, and it was then that the "un-char-lady" side of various men came out. They were handling brooms, scrubbing-brushes, and squeegees for the first time in their lives, but they stuck it, and, with practice making perfect, it was surprising to what a pitch of cleanliness things eventually got.
Even church parade has been dodged on a Sunday morning in order that three pals might unite in an effort to get the stoves blacked, the knives and forks polished, and a sheen put on the tea-pails.
One may smile about these things now when in civilian life again, but it was all very real at the time. The First Sportsman's were not coddled; no man thought twice about getting in a terrible mess when domestic duties had to be performed. The only kick came when the hut windows had to be cleaned with old newspapers. The man who had forgotten to wash the old cloths or buy new ones came in for a terrible time.
Rivalry, perfectly friendly in character, was great in the earlier days before chums began to be split up as the result of taking commissions. If we were digging trenches "somewhere in Essex," our particular sector had to be completed quicker and be more finished in character than any other. Jobs were done at the double if it were thought to be necessary; if any man developed a tendency to take a rest at too frequent intervals—well, he was ticked off in the most approved
fashion. It all made for the good of the whole. The N.C.O. in charge had an easy time, he hadn't to drive a man. All he had to do was to see that in over-eagerness his working party did not take risks.
But the time came when the calculations upon securing a commission began to make their appearance. It may be some men were approached on the matter, or that others thought they would get to the Front more quickly as individual officers than as members of the Battalion (as indeed proved the case in many instances), but certain it is that the Colonel began to be inundated with applications to apply for permission.
Whilst freely recommending all suitable applications, the Colonel, in order to keep up the strength of the Battalion, made a rule that an applicant was to supply two other recruits to the Battalion of a certain height and of absolute physical fitness.
Naturally this was conformed with, and the recruiting sergeants round Whitehall were all the richer for it. So, too, were the recruits, and everyone was satisfied. If one man went two others took his place.
First Inspection of Battalion: Hyde Park, October, 1914
Finally, as it was found that men constantly leaving was interfering with the internal organization of the companies, a special company was formed of all those waiting for their commission papers to come through.
This company, "E," proved the friendly butt of all the others, one wag even going so far as to christen it the "Essex Beagles," alleging they did not "parade," but "met"!
So, in order to free the others for harder training this company provided very nearly all the fatigue parties for the camp.
Still, this didn't matter. It just gave the budding officers a chance to show what they were capable of. On several occasions a member of "E" Company proved he was more than a little useful with his hands when it came to a matter of treating things from a physical point of view and cutting the cheap wit out. The fatigues were also done without a murmur, that was another point of honor, and although the available strength of the company was dwindling day by day, "grousing"
about extra work was conspicuous by its absence.
There was a funny side about this dwindling of the strength, too. Men would be on the morning parade, and not on that later in the day. The explanation was a simple one. Their papers had come through. A man would walk out through the gates and be pulled up by the sentry.
"What about your pass?" the latter would ask.
"Got my discharge," would be the reply.
"Got a commission?"
"Good luck, old chap. I'm getting my papers to-morrow."
So, many of the original members of the First Sportsman's Battalion were scattered about on every front in their various regiments. Walking through the Rue Colmar, Suez, one day I met my old company officer, then in the Royal Flying Corps. At Sidi Bishr, on the banks of the Mediterranean, I met another. A fellow-sergeant in the Battalion came up in the Rue Rosetta, Alexandria, and claimed me.
Out beyond the Bitter Lakes, east of the Suez Canal, I met an old Sportsman who had been a fellow-corporal with me. Back of the Somme, a prominent West Country Sportsman shouted a greeting to me from the Artillery. He still remembered rousing the camp at Hornchurch one night by sounding a hunting horn.
In an Artillery Captain in the Hebuterne sector I recognized another member—a Machine-Gun officer rolled up smilingly on the way up the line, and, finest time of all, I had nearly a whole day with what was left of the old crowd when they were resting after Delville Wood.
Friendships made in the First Sportsman's Battalion were not easily broken. We are out of it now, but—once a Sportsman, always a Sportsman. That, at least, has been my experience.
And it must not be forgotten that to Mrs. Cunliffe-Owen is due the credit of conceiving the idea of a battalion formed of men over the then enlistment age, who, by reason of their life as sportsmen, were fit and hard. Approaching the War Office, she obtained permission to raise a special battalion of men up to the age of forty-five. This was how the Sportsman's Battalion was actually brought into being.
The 23 (Service) Battalion Royal Fusiliers, 1920